Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History by Michael Witwer et al.

For a certain kind of person, this book is a source of great joy. Fortunately, I am that kind of person, and I have kept coming back to it since I bought it in February. I first became aware of Art & Arcana when I flipped through an electronic version that came as part of the Hugo voters’ packet in 2019. Even through a laptop screen, I could see that the physical book would be something special, and so it has proved.

D&D Art & Arcana

Art & Arcana is a visual history of Dungeons & Dragons, beginning before the beginning with the game’s immediate (Chainmail) and more distant (H.G. Wells) antecedents, and continuing through D&D’s fifth edition, its current incarnation that began publishing in 2014. The book itself is a serious object: just over 400 pages, oversized, hardbound, printed in full color on every page. I’ve been out of the printing business for too long to spec paper by hand anymore, but it’s quality stock that will stand up to years of reading and referencing, and the colors fairly leap off the page, especially in the many full-page illustrations.

I learned the game from friends and their various older brothers just as the original version of D&D was transforming into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons; the three little tan booklets and the several supplements were giving way to hardback books, although at that time only two of the three books necessary for AD&D had been published, so we mixed and matched as required. The wait for the Dungeon Master’s Guide seemed an eternity, though Art & Arcana tells me it was about a year. I played with great regularity through the mid-1980s, tapering off and essentially coming to a stop in the early 1990s. My D&D books did not come with me to Budapest, and they still have not caught up with me. About half of Art & Arcana is familiar from when I was either playing or still reading and buying bits of D&D things here and there. The rest is just as gorgeous, if not as familiar. Of course for people whose formative experiences came from newer editions of D&D, the ones that feel like home to me will be history, maybe even primitive ancestors.

The book’s modest amount of text recounts the story of the game’s development, beginning with how Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, along with other members of their gaming clubs, worked out how to add medieval and fantasy elements to the games they were already playing with miniature soldiers. In the early 1970s, the game changed from rules about what to do with miniatures — which by then included monsters — to open-ended role-playing for which miniatures were useful but not necessary. In 1974, Dungeons & Dragons proper made its debut.

The art of the early publications was not great, but it sparked the imagination. The game as first published had huge gaps — four supplements rapidly followed the boxed set of three booklets that comprised the first version of D&D — and it really only made sense if you had someone to teach you. But D&D had more than just a touch of genius, and the incompleteness that would have sunk a more conventional kind of game unleashed vast amounts of creativity among the people who found the game fun. The art from the first publications reflects this amateur spirit. The very earliest drawings were by the authors themselves, and they were so clearly derivative that Art & Arcana shows exactly where they came from. Budgets for these publications were nearly zero; the authors of Art & Arcana have been in touch with the game designers’ cousins, family and friends who were the first illustrators.

One of the things that the early books got right was weaving in some humorous illustrations along with the suggestions of epic adventure. It wasn’t all serious, no matter what the rules lawyers said, and the art reflected the range of situations that the game could accommodate. Art & Arcana has a recurring feature, sometimes labeled “Evilution” sometimes “Many faces of…”, that shows how particular monsters have been shown through the game’s various versions. The first is usually a black and white drawing that’s better at suggestion than depiction. Color iterations follow, with high standards of detail and believability by the editions published in the 2000s.

Another recurring feature in the book is “Arteology,” in which the authors trace an individual artist’s involvement with D&D (e.g., Erol Otus on pages 93–97) or the artistic development of a particular theme or setting (e.g., Dark Sun on pages 238–44). It would have been nice if the table of contents had broken out these features, but Art & Arcana is designed for browsing rather than systematic seeking.

The book also recounts the business development of D&D, with all of its ups and downs. There have been times when the game caught the zeitgeist and grew explosively. There were also periods of over-extension and mismanagement. Tabletop role-playing games are coming up on half a century as a hobby, and they will probably have a following for a long time to come, but that is no guarantee that any single company, even the one that publishes the best-known role-playing game, will stay in business.

A recurring theme on the business side of D&D is attempting to expand into areas that are or seem to be adjacent. There have been D&D board games, computer games, books, comic books, and more. There was a D&D pinball machine. For a time, Gary Gygax set himself up in Hollywood in an attempt to make a D&D movie or television series or something. If things had gone differently, there might be a Greyhawk Cinematic Universe sprawling across screens in the twenty-first century. TSR, D&D’s publishers, were blindsided by the success of Magic: The Gathering. They soon brought out the second fantasy collectible card game, but who now remembers Spellfire: Master the Magic? Some years later, when TSR was in business trouble Magic: The Gathering’s publishers reversed the roles and bought TSR. (They have been a part of Hasbro since 1999. So it goes.) People have been trying to make a hit D&D computer game for about as long as there have been personal computers. Maybe a nearby timeline has D&D instead of WoW, but none of D&D’s digital incarnations has made much of a mark. Art & Arcana tells many of these stories, briefly, and shows the obscure products that these ventures brought into the world.

Mostly, though, Art & Arcana showcases the artwork of the evolving tabletop version of D&D. Characters and settings familiar to players are reproduced in gorgeous, large-format color. Adventure and humor, tension and triumph, occasional bits of horror, thrilling glimpses of narrow escapes, all of these and more make picking up the book an invitation into many different worlds. Turn the page, let imagination take flight!

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/11/06/dungeons-dragons-art-arcana-a-visual-history-by-michael-witwer-et-al/


  1. I love this review! Tangentially, it makes me want to go try out D&D Online, but I already spend enough time in LOTRO as it is. Fortunately, my next D&D session is Monday night, so at least I won’t pine too long for my next game!

    1. It all made me want to try 5e, and also finally figure out a way to get all of my old books and modules and personal campaign notes (poster-sized maps!) from Texas to Berlin without having to pay heaps in import taxes. If there is such a way.

    2. And I skipped the most important part: Thank you!

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