The Beholder Art (take 2)

(I posted this just before Blogger went down the other day and it vanished into the ether, so now I post it again).
A friend sent me this link to a hidden page at Wizards that was part of a contest of some kind (I don’t know) where they had a picture by Wayne Reynolds of a few adventures throwing down with the gorpy, loveable beholder (see Wayne Reynolds image at right).
The link:
The page includes 10 different artist’s interpretations of the scene. From the page: The original image is a Wayne Reynolds piece. Jon Schindehette used it as a model, sending it out to wide array of artists and asking for their interpretation of the image using their own specific art styles. The results that came back were impressive, to say the least—and a fascinating look at how D&D art can be expressed in a variety of ways.
I’m sure I’ll come off as a malcontent (after all, Wizards didn’t ask ME to participate), but to my jaded eye, all of the artists chosen seem to share a pretty similar sensibility and there isn’t much of an old school vibe to any of the pictures… where the fuck is the Erol Otus version?
I am considering doing my own version after this month is over and I am somewhat caught up on my own work (so maybe mid June at earliest). I’d like to toss out the suggestion that other members of the OSR with an artistic bent try their hand at the picture… anyone care to take me up on that?

The Art of The Game

Yesterday’s post by James over at Grognardia on art in game materials got me thinking about the relationship of art to RPG gaming materials. James begins by stating that he does not like some of the ‘art heavy’ trends he sees in many of the RPG books being produced today… and I have to confess that I wonder if I know what books he is looking at — the last “Art Heavy” rpg book I bought was a copy of the 3.5e players guide several years ago So I perhaps am not buying enough (or the right books) to see what James is talking about. Given thr profusion of full color illustrations that intrude on the text, colored backgrounds and neat-o graphic borders and what-not, I think the 3.5e PHB might fit James’ definition of “art heavy” (and I think it is “overdone”) but the 3.5e PHB was also annoying to me in that WOTC re-used most of the art from the 3e version. My other recent purchases included a copy of Lesserton & Mor from Faster Monkey Games, which I thought was a little too light on the interior illustrations (although I love Peter Mullen’s work on the cover)) .

James writes: …what are your feelings about the increase in the illustrations per page we see in a lot of contemporary gamebooks? Do you like it? Do you view it as essential? And, most importantly from my perspective, has this increase affected your feelings about games and game products that don’t include as much artwork as you might see in, say, a WotC or Paizo offering?

I have mixed feelings on these questions. On the one hand, I draw pictures and hope to earn coin by drawing them, so self interest makes me want to say, “More illustrations, especially by me, please!” On the other hand, I’m getting more and more turned off by the slickness and ‘total marketing package’ represented by books like the WOTC 3.5e books (which , although they are out of print, are pretty much my most “modern” RPG purchase ). Everything from the ‘iconic characters’ like Redgar the Fighter and Lidda the Halfling to the faux parchment backgrounds, spiky armor, piercings and corsets, etc., just reminds me how fucking old and out of touch I am. And, try as I might, I just can’t do the kind of art that Wizards and the other big players seem to be buying. So maybe there are some sour grapes on my part because I am a talentless hack compared to Todd Lockwood and I don’t own a graphic tablet or a copy of Painter software and wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did.

The work being produced by members of the OSR (like the Peter Mullen cover mentioned above, Tony Dowler’s “Year of the Dungeon” blog, work by Three Headed Trolls and other stuff) never fails to bring a smile to my face. And I get a lot out of looking at pictures and ephemera snatched up from the archives of humanity and ‘repurposed’ by Trey over at his blog, “From the Sorcerer’s Skull.”

I don’t know if I think the OSR is going to diverge from ‘mainstream’ RPGs like the current edition of D&D and become a kind of ‘alternative’ aesthetic counterpoint like the weird and perverse underground comics once provided for the more wholesome mainstream comics from Marvel, Dell, Gold Key and DC. But I think that would be a viable alternative vision of what these publications can be for individual members of the OSR to pursue if they choose.

(The picture above right is “Unicorn Dreams” by Pietro Ramirez)

The Mule Abides

I’ve been reading the blog, The Mule Abides, for a while and enjoying it even if I don’t always understand all of the references to critical thought that the author brings to bear on the topic of old school D&D. And the fact that the blog name seems to be a reference to ‘The Big Lebowski’ is another point in favor.

‘Surge of the Wine Dark Sea’ art book now availible from Mythmere Games

Matt Finch, mad genius behind Mythmere Games, emailed me this morning to let me know that ‘Surge of the Wine-Dark Sea’ is now available from Lulu — in either softcover or hardcover editions (or PDF).

This is an art book of art by artists of the OSR… and I have a few bits in it. As noted in the Lulu ad copy:

This full color book is filled fantasy and swords & sorcery illustrations by artists of the D&D “Old School Renaissance.” These artists have created the visual imagery of recent publications focusing on playing D&D by its early rules, including works by publishers Pacesetter Games, Mythmere Games, the First Edition Society, Frog God Games, Usherwood Adventures, and many others!

Pages from the Yaqqothl Grimoire

Nicolo (of The Yaqqothl Grimoire) is putting out a fanzine for Old School Games and I will be doing some illos! Tentative title is “Pages from the Yaqqothl Grimoire.” Look for it in April/May.

From his message to me describing the blasphemous book:

The zine will include:
– three new classes (barbarian, goblin and ghoul) and a revised thief
– rules for laser weapons in A/OD&D
– some new spells
– and a complete, tiny, lovecraftian sandbox, featuring Tower of the Re-Animator (a full adventure), a really weird jungle and an Innsmouth like village (complete flashed out)

I’m not certain how to pronounce “Yaqqothl,” so I am going with “Yah-kaw-thil” till I find out otherwise.

(I did not draw this cool illo; it’s from Nicolo’s blog header and I really like it. Look at that spooky evil fat bastard!)


Rob Conley has been writing about ‘The Commercialization of the OSR’ over on his blog, “Bat in the Attic.” In his posting, Rob references Mythmere’s useful analysis of the history of the OSR (here and here). I’m still digesting both Rob’s and Mythmere’s posting, so I hope this post does not come off as me as attempting to ‘refudiate’ what either of these people have said. One of the issues that strikes me, however, which may be tangential to Rob’s and Mythmere’s posts, is the idea of the ‘virtue’ of free OSR product over ‘for pay’ product in the OSR. A number of pretty vocal people tend to spout the sentiment that ‘all OSR stuff should be free’ whenever OSR product for pay is mentioned.

I’ve given things away for free and sometimes I have sold them. I don’t begrudge anyone the decision to try to make a buck (or at least mollify the loss) represented by charging for their work, whatever it may be, so I am somewhat nonplussed that this becomes such a hot button issue for some people (some of the debates on whether or not anyone should get paid for OSR work have gotten quite heated).
One of the primary arguments advanced by the ‘anti-sales’ contingent is that many of the products offered for sale are not worth the asking price. Of course, this sidesteps the religion of capitalism (the market will decide if products succeed based on people voting witht heir wallets). But “quality” is a relative thing, isn’t it? Back in the day, we had a lot of fun with adventures like “Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor.” As far as the usual markers of quality goes in terms of completeness, adherence to the rules as written, professionalism of layout and art, etc., etc., “Badabaskor” seems pretty “bad” by the standards of most products (even free ones) today. Some of the art is pretty amateurish, the spell casters do not have spells listed, many things are not explained adequately and there are editorial mistakes galore. Despite this, we had a lot of fun with that adventure. In some ways, it’s incompleteness was almost a virtue since the DM seemed to have a lot of fun filling in the details. So was it ‘worth’ what we paid for it? I’d say if the value of such a book is in the fun that you get from it, the answer is “yes.”

I have to confess that I had some pretty frustrating experiences with publishing a ‘free’ OSR-type adventure through Dragonsfoot. I submitted an adventure for ‘free’ publication a number of years ago and waited for about two years for someone to get around to reading/editing it. It was only when I said I wanted to take the adventure elsewhere (since I thought it would never see publication) that it got pushed into publication. Then, when it was in editing, I had a number of editors demanding I make changes that I did not neccessarily want to make or agree on. One editor was quoting rules from one of the rule books in his messages to me in a manner that kind of galled me, especially since I had written the adventure years before and based the adventure on how I had ruled or interpreted rules. Finally, as author I wanted to also illustrate the adventure, but at one point the editor sent the images back to me, saying they looked like ‘crap.’ I had done the illustrations in black and white and then added a ‘zipatone’ texture digitally. The editor demanded I remove the zipatone texture because he didn’t like it. What disturbed me was that the editor seemed to be under the impression that I didn’t give a shit about how it looked when I felt like the whole project was really MY BABY and he was just the midwife who was really supposed to make sure we dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s before we sent it out.

Part of the problem, of course, was a personality conflict. Perhaps I am too sensitivem but I didn’t like the way some of the editors/producers treated me in the course of bringing the project to the point where it was deemed ‘ready’ for publication on Dragonsfoot. And, to be fair, I might have been a bit of a ‘prima-donna.’ The adventure in question was one I had originally written back in high school; I don’t think I was ready to allow strangers to poke and prod it and criticize all of its faults. But I was also unhappy because it took a lot of effort on my part to see the adventure to publication and I had to try to make a lot of concessions along the way in order to make it happen. And, after all of that, I still didn’t get the sense that everyone involved in the process understood how hard it was for me to give up so much creative control on a project in which our respective roles were not clear. Dragonsfoot wasn’t paying me for the writing or the images, so I didn’t feel like they had the right to make too many demands or the right to make more than superficial changes. On the other hand, the Dragonsfoot crew probably felt that since the adventure was being published by them, they had the right to demand that it be brought into compliance with their editorial guidelines. That is quite a conundrum. And this instance wasn’t the first (or last time) I joined a project as a volunteer and ended up regretting it. Perhaps I don’t have the right temperment for such collaborations. But (and this is the most important thing), I learned something about the work involved and being a professional from participating in the process of submitting that adventure to Dragonsfoot. I got some valuable perspective on what it is like to be involved in such a process.

Trying to think honestly about the OSR ‘for profit/not-for-profit’ issue, I long ago discovered that I much preferred to have a clear role as a paid collaborator on any project. Perhaps getting paid (even when one is paid a tiny amount) makes one feel as though one is being given a tangible reward for participation, and, strangely, being paid also seems to help me place a limit on my level of responsibility for the project. One of the problems with the Dragonsfoot experience is that I ended up feeling taken for granted — first when I had to wait for two years to have the process of editing my adventure begin, then when I felt that I had to jump theough a lot of editorial hoops to see it finished. I don’t think Dragonsfoot is to be held to blame for my feelings; I’m just trying to be honest about how I felt (and why I am reluctant to repeat the experience). My relationship to the product (and to the other people involved in the production) seems clearer when I am being paid. Being paid is not as much about the money (although, as someone with bills to pay, the money becomes more important than it was when I had a full time 9 to 5). It can also be about the ‘boundaries’ of the project. The problem with the freebies is that we did not have a clear understanding of where my control ended and the other collaborator’s control began.

Zodiac, ‘We explore Dungeons…" etc.

First, nods to Al over at ‘Beyond the Black Gate’ for his brilliant Aulde Schoole Gamer’s Zodiac. I’ve just discovered that I am a displacer beast… which explains a lot.

I’m glad to see that my earlier thread on “We don’t explore characters, we explore dungeons,” struck a chord with some, but, again, I am not the originator of that phrase. Someone who calls himself ‘Evreaux’ (sp?) originally posted that over at Dragonsfoot (and I’m not certain if I got the quote 100% right or the original context right — but that isn’t bothering me since I am interested in the way the conversation has developed regardless of the author’s original intent). If the original author wants to contact me and set me straight on how I mangled or misrepresented his ideas I am ready to apologize and issue a full retraction.

On a related note, recently there was this post on a similar subject over at DF (it’s not a very good one so I wouldn’t bother). But as I have continued to read some other people’s response to Evreaux’s (sp?) neat aphorism, I’ve been thinking more on it. My basic premise is that when a half-a-dozen people sit around a table and pretend to be ‘Grizzo the Fighter’ or ‘Pablum the Elf,’ I’m less interested in seeing them reach inside of some ‘character concept’ in order to figure out what to do in a given situation and instead have the players decide for themselves what they might want to do in that situation. One of the great things about ‘rpgs’ is that they can offer a pretty complete range of choices without consequences. If I and my fellow players decide to save the village (or rob and murder the villagers!), at the end of the day no real harm is done, but we can have fun exploring the actions and just ‘seeing what happens.’ One of the phrases I hate hearing around a game table is, “My character wouldn’t do that.” Instead of hearing my fellow players tell me what their pre-determined character concept would make them do, I’d like to see more emphasis on players deciding what they (the players) want to do.

Finally, if you want to send me hatemail, go ahead. But if you want to make it seem like the hatemail is coming from multiple people (rather than just you), using multiple email accounts is probably not enough. Using the same basic syntax and flawed spelling in messages from “different people” makes you look like a pathetic douche with an axe to grind (hint: “patriot” has only one ‘a’ in it). It is also probably best that you not send it all from the same IP address.

Gunner versus Flying Worm

I’m still trying different things. The picture at right represents a bit of a departure for me. We see a woman all dressed up for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars pulling out a ray gun to shoot a flying worm with a minimalist landscape.
Its got some possibilities but I need to push it further.

Woolgathering about art direction

Recently, Ckutalik over at the Hill Cantons posted that he was putting together a book and was thinking about art direction. He posted a few very interesting samples of work he liked (Chinese wood cuts of (what I assume are) historical scenes and a lithograph from a Russian book illustrator) along with a request for suggestions.

The post was interesting to me because the art he presented is great looking AND far removed from the usual suspects as far as ‘art for rpg products’ goes. This made me wonder what RPG products might look like if one hired artists who were totally unfamiliar with the genre and its conventions to illustrate an RPG product.

I don’t see a way of putting this plan into effect (other than writing an RPG book, winning the lottery and using the lottery winnings to sucker a bunch of artists who haven’t done RPG art into illustrating it), but it makes for some interesting speculation.

Who else wants to see Henry Darger come back from the grave to illustrate a weird-ass RPG book? Perhaps a campaign guide to “The Realms of the Unreal?”

Different Ideas for Art for the OSR

As an artist who has had work published in the OSR, I find myself interested in different possible aesthetics and how the ‘Old School Rennaisance’ (or, as I prefer to call it, the ‘Old School Revolt!’) might distinguish itself from the competition. I find myself inspired and encouraged by the likes of Peter Mullen, Aeron Alfrey, Sean Aaberg and Skinner — as well as the fairly predictable praise (for OSR tastes, anyway) of Erol Otus and Trampier and other classic TSR artists. There are lots of people whose work I have been admiring and see ing around, like J Bingham, Jason Braun & ATOM Taylor & Glad Thomas, Aos and RavenConspiracy. And there are lots more, although I can’t think of all of them right now. Please list your favorites in comments.

I’d like to see more artists offering an alternative to the more (to my jaded eye) prosaic visual fantasy fare that has come to typify much of the industry. I feel my own work is too derivative of that which came from the classic era of TSR — in addition to pursuing my other art interests at this time (like the mosaics), I’m interested in shaking up my own ideas of what art for the OSR might look like. But it is harder than I expected, and, with my current time crunch, finding time to do new work is hard.

The picture at right is a ‘work in progress’ shot of a painting of the Piasa bird. It’s early yet, but I haven’t really felt like I’ve ‘hit something new’ here yet. I like the face but the feet look weird.