D&D Art and Arcana Visual History
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Credit: Teen Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

New book on Dungeons & Dragons visual history unearths scores of scaly facts, from X-Men shout-outs to Tolkien shut-outs

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Mar 12, 2019, 3:00 PM EDT (Updated)

[Rolls multi-sided die] Come on, daddy needs a new pair of Greataxes!

Oh, hey, didn't see you there.

We were just indulging in a quick round of Dungeons & Dragons, but now that you're here, we have something even better in mind. After killing a pack of bloodthirsty goblins in the forest, SYFY WIRE has gotten its hands on an illuminating new tome: Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History.

Written by Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer, Michael Witwer, and Kyle Newman, the upcoming book — published by Ten Speed Press and hitting stores on Oct. 23 — explores the history of the most famous tabletop RPG in the known universe through its art, which has been steadily evolving since the mid-1970s. But it's not just the simple picture book that you're imagining.

D&D Art and Arcana_book cover

Credit: Ten Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

With over 400 pages, Art and Arcana is the most comprehensive D&D history you will find anywhere. Like a treasure-filled cavern, it's packed (and we mean PACKED) with enough facts, quotes, images, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes to choke a fully grown Demogorgon.

"It’s been such an integral part of our pop culture forever that it’s good to call these things out and start telling the history of it to as wide an audience as possible, so people understand how actually important this is and how important the contribution of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson actually is," Sam Witwer previously told SYFY WIRE.

"I’m thrilled to say we got literally everything we were looking for," added Michael.

So join us (won't you?) as we embark on a journey through the eight greatest facts we learned from the book about the fantasy phenomenon created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson...

Raiding the Rings

According to Art and Arcana, before Dungeons & Dragons came to be, tabletop RPGs were known as "wargames," in which wargamers recreated famous campaigns and battles of both history and fantasy. This included the use of minifigures, which would be moved around, almost like the figurines in the popular board game Risk.

By his 30s, Gygax was an avid wargamer, leading clubs, contributing to newsletters, and even founding a convention ("Gen Con") on the subject. When it came to obtaining figures for fantasy battles — particularly those set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings universe — Gygax had to get inventive, turning dinosaur toys into dragons and giant prehistoric sloths into Balrogs.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

$1,000 can make all the difference

When the time came to get TSR (the original company that owned D&D before Wizards of the Coast bought it in the '90s) off the ground, Gygax was in desperate need of capital. For help, he turned to his longtime friend, Don Kaye, who "borrowed $1,000 against a life insurance policy," which served as the seed money for the venture.

However, this was hardly the only effort to raise funds for the fledgling D&D. In the early days (the mid-'70s), TSR released a wargame called Cavaliers and Roundheads, which allowed players to recreate the English Civil War.

Dungeons & Dragons & Doctor Strange?

Some of the first artwork for the game was done by young artists (some of them in high school) for a pittance; smaller commissions got $2, while bigger ones netted $3. Strapped for time and under a multitude of other pressures, these fledgling illustrators were taking inspiration from the culture around them, mainly pulp and comic books, especially those done by a little company called Marvel.

Indeed, one of the early D&D artists, Greg Bell, borrowed looks, poses, and designs from Doctor Strange and Nick Fury, drawn by Jim Steranko. Specifically, the fantastic surrealism of Strange's mystic universe was the perfect fit for the game's aesthetic.

D&D Doctor Strange.JPG

Credit: Teen Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

D&D Nick Fury.JPG

Credit: Teen Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

"You’ll see people online occasionally razzing early D&D for the quality of the illustrations and things like that," Peterson said. "The original Dungeons & Dragons project, when they published the first edition of it, had an art budget of $100... [These] are the things that people hadn’t really understood how to visualize before. A lot of these pieces, they were original monsters that had been conceived for the game, but you find your average kid back in the ‘70s and ask them what a hippogriff is. Well, if you’re not familiar with these things as we are all now, you [ask,] ‘How do you draw a hippogriff?’"

The Mind Flayer is basically an X-Man

Unless you are a devoted D&D player, you were probably introduced to this monster in Season 2 of Stranger Things. Resembling a Lovecraftian entity of pure hatred and evil, Mind Flayers live underground, as they detest sunlight. They view humanity and similar creatures as nothing more than food, and they can also control your mind or drive you insane, furthering the Lovecraft connection.

Mind Flayer D&D Art and Arcana

Credit: Ten Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

In Art and Arcana, artist Tracy Lesch describes the process of originally designing the Mind Flayer:

"Gary gave me very good initial direction on both the Mind Flayer and the Roper... The Mind Flayer struck me as very dangerous, very powerful, an evil figure like a Ming the Merciless [an adversary of Flash Gordon], with the mental powers of Professor X. When I showed Gary the drawings, he told me that I had nailed it, that I had set the look for the two monsters."

D&D goes to college

In 1977, TSR's growth was so rapid that it began to set its sights on expanding its market share with Dungeons & Dragons. However, they were going to have to simplify the game's "complex and esoteric rules" if they were ever going to reach a wider audience.

On this front, they caught a lucky break when Eric Holmes, a neurologist at the University of Southern California, wrote to the company and offered to "condense" all of the rules into one single companion for beginners. This resulted in the Basic Set box, which included things like "a single paperbook rulebook" and "a bagged set of polyhedral dice."

Sadly, their good fortune at finding Holmes was counterbalanced by a cease-and-desist order from the Tolkien estate, which plainly said that TSR could not use hobbits or balrogs in their games. The company complied, replacing these creatures with "halflings, treants, and the balor type of demon."

Dungeons & Dragons Art and Arcana

Credit: Ten Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

Rolling the dice in Hollywood

In 2000, Dungeons & Dragons got a poorly received film adaptation, despite boasting a cast that included Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans. In the early '80s, a movie based on the game had been in the works for a long time but never saw the light of day.

Gygax traveled to Tinseltown to oversee an animated TV show that ran for three seasons and a possible film that never got off the ground. The latter's script was penned by James Goldman, writer of They Might Be Giants. His screenplay involved a group of teenagers being transported to a fantastical dimension, guided by a wise elder, who helps them find their way back home.

D&D Art and Arcana Dungeons and Dragons

Credit: Ten Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

According to Art and Arcana, "Goldman's script suggests that he may have poorly understood the game's concepts as it featured 'heroes' doing nothing heroic. Not one of the main characters wields a weapon, casts a spell, picks a lock, uses a magic item, or indeed does much but flee danger, as a draft of the screenplay shows."

Gygax undertook massive rewrites, which he believed would result in a much better movie, but the project ended up stalling and going nowhere.

Sofia Vergara's nerd appreciation

He may not look it, but actor Joe Manganiello (Justice League, Rampage) is one of the biggest D&D nerds out there. It all began with The Hobbit, which opened him up to the world of fantasy. Then, he graduated to Choose Your Own Adventure and Super Endless Quest. That evolved into a love of tabletop gaming, which is how he ended up writing the foreword to Art and Arcana.

In this page and a half of text, Manganiello talks about how his wife (Modern Family's Sofia Vergara) got him a specially commissioned portrait of his custom D&D character. The painting was done by D&D artist Jeff Easley, who got a job with TSR in the early '80s.

Speaking with SYFY WIRE, author Kyle Newman talked about why it was a no-brainer to get the actor onboard for the publication. "He is front and center with the brand, and he adores the brand, and the brand really has embraced Joe, and he’s happy to put himself out there in any way possible," Newman said. "He’s just been nothing but excited about it, and that’s the thing for all of us. It’s passion."

Art and Arcana

Credit: Ten Speed Press/Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History goes on sale Oct. 23.