've been having a lot of very interesting discussions recently about the essence of D&D. What is the essence of D&D? My trusty dictionary defines the word "essence" as:
- The intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, esp. something abstract, that determines its character.
- A property or group of properties of something without which it would not exist or be what it is.
This is a wonderful exercise, or an inquiry to really dig into, or a philosophical discussion to converse about—I don't really care who you approach to talk about the subject, it is darned interesting in my book. As is always the case, I'm talking about the world of Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D brand, and the experience that goes beyond and lives outside the rules that frame the game. Invariably, someone brings up the mechanics of the game. I'd like you to take a step away from them for a few minutes and just live in the world.
For just a moment, think about those times when you are sitting around with your friends, and you are discussing that great moment in the adventure last night—that one moment where everything came down to some split-second timing, a critical decision, or a life or death gamble. Got it firmly in your mind? Hold onto it. You're in the world of D&D now. It's not about the rules. It's not about the mechanics. It isn't about whether you've got a free action, expertise, and so on. It's about the story, the excitement, and the living narrative. Are we all in the same space? That is, the space that is about the feeling of D&D. Turn off your internal rules lawyer for a few minutes. It's okay, that lawyer'll still be there when you get back.
Here we are. Swimming in a sea of D&D. Drinking in D&D through all of our senses, right? This is the space where I want to start digging into the inquiry of "what is the essence of D&D?" We've been playing with this idea around logos, letter forms, colors and textures, and even art styles. When you allow yourself the space to just play in this realm, it can be intoxicating.
Let's start with art styles, since it has been a discussion that we've been enjoying in our daily creative meetings this week. Each member of the creative team was asked to bring in a painting that answered a single question: "If you had no stipulations on costs, time, content, and so on, and you could pick just one piece of art by a given artist (alive or dead), and that piece of art would showcase the essence of what you feel should be the heart and soul of D&D art, what would it be?" The first thing that everyone wanted to do, including me, was to limit the choices by putting filters and limitations on the decisions. "We could never afford. . . !", "Where would we find an artist who . . . ?", "That would never work with the content. . . !", and any of a million other statements or questions. Did you start going there as well? Did you limit the list to artists who have worked on D&D in the past and went whirling off to try and figure out which was your favorite artist or piece? If so, stop! This is the time to cast off the fetters of reality and practicality. This is the time to just have fun and dream big. Look throughout the history of art—ALL art—and choose the artist or piece that really captures the essence of D&D.
I was surprised by the images that started showing up in our meeting. You see, this subject came up as I was writing the nymph article (we are talking about your opinions on the topic in that article as I write this, so keep an eye out for a potential follow-up article) and while I was looking over all the art I had gathered as reference for the article. The truth was simple and sad. As I sat there going over all the artwork of nymphs from the past 30+ years of D&D, and then looking at some of the ways nymphs have been portrayed in art throughout the ages, I started to wonder if we haven't lost something in our art. Had we made decisions through the years to step away from certain aspects of storytelling and visual narrative, and has that had an impact on our art? And hence, the "essence" experiment began.
My own choice actually came from the article I wrote. I pulled in the image called "Hylas and the Nymphs" from John William Waterhouse.
Dan brought in an image from Robin Hood by NC Wyeth.
Nick brought in a piece by Caravaggio showing Christ be Crowned with a crown of thorns.
You start to get the idea, don't you?
Discussions came up about other illustrators and styles, but the most important things were the discussions that came up about why people picked their images. You see, there weren't necessarily a list of reasons why D&D should look just like NC Wyeth's paintings, or any of a dozen other illustrators that were being discussed. Rather the discussion was about the sense of being a viewer that was getting to glimpse some intimate moment; scenes that were rich with story, mood, and emotion; a careful nuance of the human figure and its use in storytelling; a world rich with light (and shadow), and color; a world where truth, reality, and myth were almost indistinguishable from each other—it was only in the telling of the story that you could sometimes discern which was which.
Contrast these types of visual narratives with our contemporary fantasy images, and we see a stark difference. The point of view is often now one that puts the viewer right in the center of the action. Often we feel as if the villains are actually after us—we are playing the role of the hero . . . or victim. All the action and movement is amped up and over the top—fantasy that has had way too many energy drinks! Oversized weapons. Undersized armor. Essentially modern fantasy art showcases all the ills and gripes that I've heard many of you express over the years.
Is this where we want to be?
Or do we want something different?
What is the essence of D&D for you?
No polls this time. Since I'm limited to radio buttons, I could not think of a poll that would be relevant and useful for this subject. Rather, I would like to encourage you to select the image that you feel embodies the essence of D&D and stuff it into the comments below. It's pretty straightforward: Just use the "add photo" button at the bottom of the comment box. It's very standard from there.
You can add URLs as well, but they won't hyperlink.
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.