art & arcana
art & arcana
Just getting started

Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a huge, gorgeous compendium of what helps make Dungeons &Dragons so wonderful. Leafing through it brings up so many memories that I can’t gush adequately about it. The art is all so familiar, evoking the glorious campaigns our DM ran, the several editions I played, and the characters I created. I recognized the covers of the paperbacks my friends and I read, and the box art for the coveted miniature sets which I still have, and still use.

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“It all started with one thousand curious boxes marked with unfamiliar symbols and verbiage.”

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This is not merely a coffee-table art book.  Art & Arcana fully lives up to its subtitle as a rich and thorough history of Dungeons & Dragons. Interspersed with and guided by the lavish artwork is the narrative of the rise and fall of Gary Gygax and TSR and the game’s renewal under Wizards of the Coast.

art & arcana
All you need to know

Art & Arcana incorporates the several attempts to portray D&D as some sort of Satanic cult into its history, and the changes made to the game’s art and advertising in order to counter those smears. This leads into the many attempts TSR made to branch out into the mainstream.

D&D was adapted into handheld electronics in the early 1980s, with all the wonders of that era’s graphics. Somewhat more sophisticated computer versions followed in the late 80’s. Along the way, Dungeons & Dragons ventured into records, candy, coloring books, Viewmaster slides, Colorforms, a Saturday morning cartoon that spawned a board game, and even a pinball machine.

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Of course Art & Arcana is thick with profiles of the artists, from the early, often teen-aged illustrators to the professional artists TSR and later companies eventually hired as D&D grew. Some examples of my favorites include Erol Otus and his classic cover of the original Dieties & Demigods; Clyde Caldwell’s iconic original art for 1983’s Ravenloft; and Darlene’s epic map of Greyhawk. In addition to the instantly-recognized classic art, the beautifully realized D&D variations found in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and Spelljammer are all included here as well.

art & arcana
Tiamat through the years

The development of the classic sets and modules, and how the maps and character sheets became refined over time, are explained as well. Two-page spreads detail the changes in how orcs, dragons, beholders, mindflayers, and other terrible beasts were drawn over the years, from the amateurish early versions to the vivid, polished monsters of today.

Even the influence of the indispensable miniature is covered, from the first cheap plastic monsters to the original MiniFigs and Grenadier figures, and on to TSR’s own official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures. There is nothing about how hard it is to paint the eyes, though.

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“This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”

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art & arcana
Behold! The Beholder

Authors Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer have done a spectacular job of showing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in all its colorful glory. Anyone who has played any of the editions or variations will find something in Art & Arcana to reminisce over. It is a beautiful book that I will be going back to, over and over again.

 

JourneyQuest--our heroes
JourneyQuest–our heroes

JourneyQuest is a light, silly, dead-on-target web series about a group of differently-competent adventurers who may be on an epic quest. Or not. Anything’s possible, really. There have been quite a few surprising turns already in the available seasons, and there will be more coming soon.

JourneyQuest is the brainchild of  Dead Gentlemen Productions  of Seattle, Tacoma, and Los Angeles, and Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. The first season came out in 2010, and the second in 2012. Collectively, both seasons only take about two hours to watch (including the bloopers and outtakes after each episode), and in JourneyQuest time everything happens over the course of a couple of days. It hardly even counts as binge-watching.

As far as the initial plot goes, the party is in search of the legendary Sword of Fighting hidden in the fearsome Temple of Some Dooms, and there is some disagreement over who is actually supposed to be the Chosen One.

Oh, Perf.
Oh, Perf.

Played with believable goofiness, the characters are a typical adventuring party, reasonably balanced if not entirely in their right minds. Christian Doyle is, oddly enough, the romantic lead as the awkward and semi-inept wizard Perf–his memorized spells are Mending, Vague, and Conjure Milk, which he uses defensively. His love interest is the elf ranger, Nara, played with disdain and occasional drugged wonder by Anne Kennedy Brady. Brian Lewis plays Carrow, a sincere and unfortunately undead cleric, while the not-too-bright but painfully enthusiastic fighter Glorion is played by Kevin Pitman.

There is even a framing story. As the documentarian human bard, Wren, Emilie Rommel Shimkus is almost unbearably perky—yet she becomes the love interest of Rilk, the most level-headed and handsome of the orcs, played by Jesse Lee Keeter.

Other personalities romping about include the Assassin, the legendary bard Silver Tom, the multilingual orc scholar Strong Like Bull, the socialist barbarian king Karn and his queen, Starling, Death personified, and an assortment of orcs, zombies, nobles, peasants, and functionaries who round out the story.

JourneyQuest, when things happen.
JourneyQuest, when things happen.

There is plenty of action going on besides the main adventure. There are self-help meetings for evil-holics, Orcs mocking humans: “Don’t kill me! I live in an indefensible village and have no martial training!”, and other pop-culture tropes played as in-world tropes. At one point, Perf gets into a classic internet grammar argument with a group of attacking orcs, because he apparently speaks orcish better than they do. And the orcish, while not a truly created language, sounds good because it is spoken with convincing intonation and feeling (and subtitles. Always subtitles.).

On that note, the dialogue is hilarious. With lines like “Vast waves of murderness”, “Why does he smell like crying?”, and “Being undead? It kind of itches”, there are plenty of catchphrases to choose from. One liners abound.

go around. But there are no sly asides here. I am glad they don’t break the fourth wall. That would actually take away some of the fun, because these characters are all fully a part of their world.

Because besides being funny, the writing is also good. Real feelings develop in and between these characters, and we can honestly care about them and be invested in their outcomes. JourneyQuest plays out the way a really good D & D campaign should—with well-loved characters and enough chaos and danger to keep it interesting.  The last few episodes in the second season have a more serious tone to them–lives are threatened, and feelings get hurt–because by this point the story has become complicated and some darkish things have happened.

On the technical side, I think the special effects are restrained and therefore well-done–nothing looks half-baked or amateurish, and no effects are bigger than the actual story. Sets and locations are evocative and far above the cheesiness of many other shoestring productions (and having cut my teeth on Star Trek TOS, I have a high tolerance for Styrofoam props). The costumes are simple, color coded, and stereotypical–what they wear is what they do. The Dead Gentlemen seem to have borrowed a few gags from other sources—Men In Black, Shaun of the Dead, Blackadder, Dune—but they work well in the general disarray of the party’s evolving adventure.

In addition to JourneyQuest, Dead Gentlemen Productions is also responsible for the Demon Hunters and The Gamers movie series, as well as assorted other shorts and web series. They do keep busy. Right now, principal photography for a third season of JourneyQuest has finished and they are working on post-production polishing. I am more than ready for it.

Onward!

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Elric by Michael Whelan
Elric by Michael Whelan

Elric of Melniboné and his terrible sword Stormbringer made their first appearance in  Michael Moorcock’s  elaborate and fluid multiverse in 1961. Elric is rather a popular figure in popular culture, with the legendary albino prince showing up in comics and RPGs, songs, TV episodes, and tribute stories. Michael Moorcock’s own Elric tales are still being written, and are still being collected in various configurations with his older works. The character has always had a quality that seizes and inspires the imagination, and makes him a keystone of fantasy literature.

With so much Elric material to work with, I will only concern this overview with the original six novels of The Elric Saga as they were presented in 1984’s The Elric Saga Omnibus Part One (Elric of Melniboné, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf) and Part Two  (The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword, Stormbringer). The omnibus editions are based on the canonical DAW editions of 1977, which gathered the existing stories into six volumes in roughly internal chronological order. The first book of the saga, 1972’s Elric of Melniboné, is a full novel in itself, while the last book, Stormbringer, actually collects several novellas first serialized in 1965.

Although Elric of Melniboné first began adventuring in novellas over a decade earlier, in the first novel of the series Moorcock introduces Elric anew, and with much drama: “It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone” (7, I). His melancholy and discontent are quickly established, as well as his initial main adversary. Within a few pages the stage is set for adventure, although we are made to wait for the appearance of Elric’s fabled sword: “’Stormbringer,’ he said. And then he felt afraid. It was suddenly as if he had been born again and that this runesword had been born with him. It was as if they had never been separate” (120, I).

Elric by Robert Gould
Elric by Robert Gould

Elric of Melniboné stands as one of the great antiheroes of epic fantasy, a cursed emperor who destroys his own kingdom and wanders the world on a fate-driven quest even he is unable to clearly define. From the first, Moorcock placed Elric in the midst of the unending struggle for Cosmic Balance between the Lords of Law and the Lords of Chaos, burdening him with the particular doom of being something more than mortal. Elric is also probably the most widely-known incarnation of the multidimensional Eternal Champion, whose mythology provides Moorcock a unifying theme for most of his work. But Elric is also in many ways the ultimate murder hobo, leaping from adventure to adventure as the opportunities present themselves, with his uneven allegiance to Chaos and his battle cry of, “Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!”

That devil-may-care, full-steam-ahead quality to the stories may explain why The Elric Saga has been an inspiration to uncounted other authors, including Gary Gygax as he developed Dungeons and Dragons. The settings and set-ups from the Elric novels all seem terribly familiar to anyone who has ever played D&D. For example, there is the classic location for parties to form–“Elric was looking for news and he knew that if he found it anywhere it would be in the taverns” (29, II), and the equally classic call to adventure, spoken by a magical damsel in distress–“Theleb K’aarna has joined forces with Prince Umbda, Lord of the Kelmain Hosts. Their plan is to conquer Lormyr and, ultimately, the entire Southern world!” (32, II). And with their clearly defined alignments of Law and Chaos, Moorcock’s gods were even incorporated into the early Dungeons and Dragons pantheon in the first edition of Dieties and Demigods.

Elric and Stormbringer, by Robert Gould
Elric and Stormbringer, by Robert Gould

Since Moorcock famously despises all things Tolkien, it is no shock that Elric is the antithesis of any of Tolkien’s most noble heroes. At heart, Elric is still a self-absorbed Melnibonéan, although he is slightly less selfish than the rest of his kind. Elric is motivated first and foremost by his own desires, despite his brooding over the damage they cause: “’My own instincts war against the traditions of my race.’ Elric drew a deep, melancholy breath. ‘I go where danger is because I think that an answer might lie there—some reason for all this tragedy and paradox. Yet I know I shall never find it’” (229, I). Although his fated role in keeping a cosmic balance is referenced often by his patron god, Lord Arioch, that purpose runs in the background of Elric’s own amorphous quest for meaning for the earlier part of the saga: ‘The Lords of Law and Chaos now govern our lives. But is there some being greater than them?” (315, I). However, the purpose fate has for Elric slowly overtakes his self-absorption and forces him slowly into a tragic, tainted heroism.

With Moorcock one of the founders of New Wave science fiction, The Elric Saga has the movement’s unmistakable flavour. The language is studiedly formal, a little stilted, and with much of the same style of descriptive repetition Lord Dunsanay used with great success. Moorcock creates a sly, dreamy effect that hints at humor without actually crossing the line. He is also wildly inventive, the imagery almost psychedelic with clouds and swirling colors and multidimensional awarenesses that anchor the stories in their swinging-sixties origins. But while the prose is often purple and melodramatic, it is never parody:

            “Elric had been for skirting Old Hrolmar and riding on towards Tanelorn, where they had decided to go, but Moonglum had argued reasonably that they would need better horses  and more food and equipment for the long ride across the Vilmirian and Ilmiorian plains to the edge of the Sighing Desert, where mysterious Tanelorn was situated. So Elric had at last agreed, though, after his encounter with Myshella and his witnessing the destruction of the Noose of Flesh, he had become weary and craved for the peace which Tanelorn offered.” (60, II)

While the writing is often playful and always clever, it is never smug. For all the fantastic characters and unlikely, whirlwind action, Moorcock takes his work seriously and crafts an artful and compelling epic that lures the reader into a world far deeper than first seems. Moorcock used his famous method for writing a book in three days for his Elric novels, and the fingerprints of it are all over it. Moorcock keeps the action constantly moving forward with a new event occurring every few pages. He drops references and mysteries in the novels that may or may not be answered but keep things rolling on.  And he always has extraordinary images and outrageously named characters, objects, and places to throw into the action as the occasion arises–the Marsh of Mists, Orunlu the Keeper, the City of Screaming Statues, Rackhir the Red Archer, Dyvim Tvar, and other similar creations are littered throughout, building up a strange, vivid world to adventure in. But somehow the reliance on structure and plot devices results in something much greater than the sum of its many moving parts.

So, gaudy and action-driven with its own peculiar grandeur, The Elric Saga fits together in a surprisingly smooth clockwork of a tale. Moorcock may work with deep themes, but he doesn’t go for the studied gravitas of his nemesis, Tolkien, or the ponderous self-importance found in any number of fantasy sagas. Elric is serious, Elric is cursed, but Elric is also very, very interesting. It draws you in. It makes you care. If you haven’t read it from the source, yet, you need to go on that adventure.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!