Dungeons & Dragons, not just as a game but as an entity, has had a long and prosperous history that is half told by the people who make it and half by those who play it. The series is one that has several tales that can be told over the course of the past 44 years. Ranging from the early beginnings to the rise of AD&D to the “Satanic Panic” to the WotC purchase to the decline and the meteoric rise of the popularity of where it is today. But like a lot of games out there, the visuals tell their own story. Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer went on one hell of a journey to put together the most comprehensive guide of the artwork behind the series in Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, which we got the fine pleasure of reviewing today.
So, let’s start off with the basics. Is this a complete history of Dungeons & Dragons? Yes and no. While the book itself serves as a great history lesson and teacher of where the game came from and where it’s gone over the better part of four decades, it is not what I would call “complete”. The book doesn’t contain any in-depth interviews or major perspectives beyond that of what the writers have compiled for you along with the visuals. A complete history of the game would require a second book altogether, and that’s being generous to the idea that it would be a shorter told story. The reality of this book is that you’re going on a visual journey, not a biographical one, so keep that in mind as we chart our way through. (You also get a forward from Joe Manganiello, which is quite lovely.)
Art & Arcana is, at its core, a visual history of everything D&D. And we mean everything. Starting in the first chapter of the book, you’re given a quick lesson of the work that went into making a game that uses your imagination to stand out on paper. One of the things I found fascinating is that early artistic concepts for the first edition came from various panels in Marvel Comics. A comparison is made showing a swordsman with his sword held high being modeled off an older Nick Fury comic. There’s a lot of content in here that came directly from the Gygax Estate that Gary Gygax rarely showed anyone and has just been sitting in secured storage.
The book does an amazing job of showing off the evolution of monsters and how they’ve been depicted over the years, as you can see from the Mindflayer example below as it moves from the original 1974 illustration to the current version you see in 5th Edition. You get a great taste of how people who came into the series were inspired and tried to take the vision of what these creatures were in different directions.
There’s a great deal of material examined before it went into production. Test drawings made of book covers for adventures, experimentations with dungeons and how they were constructed and laid out on paper, composite sketches that were scrapped or transformed at later dates and more. You can see there was a lot of time and care that went into the presentation of how every guide and adventure were presented so that the players and the Dungeon Master had enough to go on to get a feel for what the adventure was supposed to be, but also left a lot open to interpretation so that the ideas weren’t so rigid. That takes a hell of a lot of work to accomplish, which is shown off here in great detail. It’s also cool to see a lot of artwork that you know some creative mind was working on at 3 AM while listening to Rush and Led Zeppelin albums.
But the imagery doesn’t stop there, as Art & Arcana looks over promotional items as well. Over the years they created a ton of content to help promote the game in hobby shops and game stores and bookstores so that people would take an interest in what they were selling. This book gives you material from Dragon Magazine, it shows you layouts of ads put into books and boxes to promote future gear, even full fold-out posters you could hang on your wall. There is a complete scanned poster of the first level of The Ruins of Undermountain from Forgotten Realms that would be a DM’s dream to own.
As you can see from the images below, they had vinyl records of adventures, coloring books, View-Master slides, choose your own adventure books, calendars, shrinky dinks, stickers, the works. They had an animated series and figurines long before any deals with companies like WizKids. There were video games created for PC and several consoles over the years that ranged in the genre and took on Dungeons & Dragons in various ways. And it’s all here for you to look at. It’s incredible that while parents were freaking out about the game in the ’80s, TSR at the time managed to crank out more merchandise than most Saturday morning cartoon shows or even comic books at the time. And getting to go back and look over all this stuff is incredible.
Watching the artwork progress over the decades is an amazing thing to view as you flip from page to page. As time progressed you can see how people who got hooked on the game slowly started gravitating toward being the ones in charge of what direction it took. The styles morphed and took it to more graphic and darker places that people had never imagined before. You can see the way TSR pretty much incorporated whatever they felt like, but when WotC took over, you can see the art becomes more streamlined and have a focus moving into 3rd Edition. The rise of D&D in comic books and playable figurines. I especially enjoyed seeing the ads poking fun at modern MMORPGs as being a solo venture in a dark room, where D&D brought people together. There’s so much ground to cover on a visual level that this book will literally give you hours of enjoyment going back and seeing how it all came together.
Beyond the primary book, as part of our review, we were fortunate enough to secure a Special Edition. This is a sleek black model with gold trim on the outside that looks completely different from the main book on the outside. Inside it still has all the features you would expect from the primary, but it comes with some fine additions for hardcore D&D fans.
Inside the Special Edition, you get a small Tomb Of Horrors book from the special 1975 Tournament Module to check out, which is a fascinating look at how they used to make adventures into competitions almost immediately out of the gate. There are also several pieces of artwork ranging from simple 8×10 photos to big fold-out posters containing some of the most iconic work of the game. This kind of stuff is basically a collector’s dream and it’s content that WotC has never released before in this style. Just thumbing through that ToH module was an amazing read that until now, I’d never seen.
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a must-own for longtime D&D fans or hardcore players who want to learn more of its past. Hands down. This is one of the quintessential geek coffee table books of our generation. This is the kind of thing that years from now if you have kids and they find this on the shelf, they will be brimming with wonder and want to know what the hell this is and why they haven’t been playing it. Amazingly, this is a pretty cheap book considering what’s in here as the regular edition is only $50, while the special edition is $125. All things considered from the world of D&D, that’s a pretty good bargain for everything you’re getting. If you truly love this game, this needs to be on your shelf next to your essential guides.