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New D&D art book delivers the history of the original role-playing game

Exclusive art from Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

A brand-new book brings together images from throughout the 40-plus year history of Dungeons & Dragons in one volume for the first time. Titled Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, it’s an illustrated guide to the original role-playing game that charts the story of its birth in Geneva, Wisconsin all the way to its modern renaissance.

The collection will be published by Ten Speed Press, in collaboration with Wizards of the Coast, and Polygon was given early access to the book as well as exclusive images to share with our readers.

What makes Art & Arcana so special are the creative minds who came together to write it. They include Michael Witwer, author of Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, and Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World, two of the most well-regarded books on the early history of D&D. Together with filmmaker Kyle Newman and actor Sam Witwer, their depth of knowledge is as substantial as the massive, 440-page coffee table book itself.

Art & Arcana is especially informative for those who’ve come to D&D with its fourth and fifth editions, both of which were launched after the turn of the century. Many new fans simply aren’t aware of just how grassroots the birth of the original RPG was, or how it challenged its creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Illustration was particularly difficult to secure. Neither of the two men were trained artists, but their imaginations were overflowing with wild creature designs. How do you describe a mind flayer or a beholder to a consumer, let alone the poor artist tasked with drawing one for the first time? The communication challenges alone are astonishing, and Art & Arcana does an excellent job explaining them in the context of the evolution of the look and feel of D&D as we know it today.

Marvel, Wizards of the Coast, and Ten Speed Press

Some of the earliest art for Dungeons & Dragons, at that time published by TSR, was created by a teenager from Rockford, Illinois named Greg Bell. His style, remarks the book’s authors, was “a blocky rendering of strong shapes and lines, [which] translated surprisingly well to the crude printing process TSR could afford.”

Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press

It was also heavily inspired by period Marvel comics. Some of D&D’s earliest images were, in fact, conspicuously similar to pages from Strange Tales #167 featuring Dr. Strange and Nick Fury.

But comics weren’t D&D’s only inspiration. A set of toy creatures, common in pharmacies and convenience stores in the 1970s, are a dead ringer for some of D&D’s most iconic monsters. That includes this grey/green critter which would go on to become the bulette, also known as the “landshark.”

Dave Sutherland/Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press

Some of D&D’s most iconic adventures, dating to 1978 and 1979, have a unique pastel cover. Assembled together on a single page, these so-called “monochrome” covers create one of the many collages that make Art & Arcana such a delight to explore.

Illustrations by Dave Sutherland and Dave Trampier.
Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press

The book also includes full-color, text-free renderings of the iconic wraparound covers of D&D’s most important early sourcebooks. That includes the following two-page spread of the githyanki for the Fiend Folio, by the artist Emmanuel.

Emmanuel/Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press

Art & Arcana doesn’t merely focus on official tabletop materials, however. It also explores the wide range of ephemera created to market D&D, as well as early attempts at licensing. Video games and toys feature prominently throughout.

Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press
Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press
Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press
Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press

Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History retails for $50. You can find it on Amazon, or at your local retailer of choice.

Reprinted with permission from Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson and Sam Witwer, copyright (c) 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.

Images copyright © by Wizards of the Coast LLC


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