Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New fantasy Art Sucks (the MOST image heavy)

Alright. Sucks isn't the word. Much of the art is quite good, in terms of technique and visually interesting, but it's just never done anything for me.

Third edition / 3.5e's art was interesting, but as a whole it actively turned me off.

That's not bad. I actually like that quite a bit, really. It's what you'd expect from a book about delving dungeons. Good on you.

Alright. Stylized, sure. A little cartoony, but it's okay. I'll roll with it. He's a snazzy dresser, though he's carrying an awful lot of crap with him. Doesn't that get in his way? I hope that barrel doesn't come along with him.

Huh. Okay. Well. its obviously some amalgam of scale and leather. It's not terrible, but a little road warrior for my tastes. Maybe he couldn't afford to get the full suit? Poor guy. 

She seems to be going to the same armorer as the guy above. It's okay though, after the first couple dungeons I'm sure she'll be able to buy the rest of the set.

I'm not sure what to say about this ensemble. Some kind of chaps and a biker jacket? With what looks like a discount katana. Honestly, he seems more like a biker in Shadowrun.

Oh god. That armorer. Nevermind. No matter how much gold you loot, the armor will never improve. Are there people out there who actually find the above representation more attractive than, say this?

Well. Lets look at Pathfinder.

Well. It's certainly interesting to look at. Let's pick some pieces out.

The sword is confusing, but whatever. They are magical types, so I guess we'll give them the benefit of the doubt? I'm already noticing a trend though. I'll hold my tongue.

 That boat oar sword. That aside, I won't lie. It's a cool image. She looks like a badass, even if she appears to be completely floating in that armor.

Better, in terms of "what is armor" - she scores far higher than most of the 3.5 people - but I think I'm realizing what's happening here.

These are all extremely cool images. Hyper-stylized, angular, visually intricate, it's a kind of interesting post-anime sort of style. They are instantly identifiable with the pathfinder brand.

And all at once I realized, that's exactly what bothers me. 

A while back, I made a post sharing some AD&D cards that I picked up ages ago. The more that I look at the artwork, the more I find contemporary fantasy art wanting. And I finally know why.

Yeah. A lot of AD&D era art was ..bad. I won't deny that. But even the art that wasn't great had a certain charm to it that goes beyond nostalgia.

There is a certain quality to it, in it's attempts at realism. You can tell the above was done with models standing in at some point. Their outfits even look like costumes (realism is at times a double-edged sword). But there is a kind of life that creeps into the art. A verisimilitude. I can on some level believe that this is real. And that's exactly the point.


With each edition of D&D there seems to be a strong push to define a visual style for the game, in the same way you hire concept artists to establish the visuals for a video game. Games like Pathfinder have been extremely successful in creating a visual brand. I can look at a piece of art and know automatically that it's Pathfinder related. This seems to be the growing trend. The problem with this is that role-playing games aren't video games. It's not a visual medium. We aren't interacting with the world through its stylized artwork. Instead, we're tasked with imagining ourselves as though we were there.

In its attempts towards near photo-realism, early fantasy art is an invitation to imagine yourself there. To pretend that the world is real and breathing around you. It's asking you to picture the scene unfolding around you. Much of it seems to be built around building complete scenes, where the camera is literally you taking it all in, staring at the members of your party. The best example I could ever offer of this was in the Den of Thieves book.

The costumes? Fairly terrible. But it invites you to be there, to take part in the awe and wonder of it. It's an emotion that I find sorely missing in much of modern fantasy art. Pathfinder art is visually interesting, and would make for great concept art for a video game... but that's not what I'm looking for in my role-playing. By rendering the world as a comic book, or a stylized video game, I feel one step more removed from the subject matter. It feels less real and that much harder to identify with. Maybe it's a generational thing, but I have an extremely hard time looking at any of the above and going "yeah, that's me."

This has been a bit of a ramble, and I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with me entirely, but I'm at least glad to have worked this out for myself. If nothing else, it will come in handy when I have to start purchasing art for Band of Bastards later.

Until next time,


  1. Y'know, I kind've agree with you. I like cool art as much as the next person but none of that newer stuff feels real. The one that stands out most to me is the man and woman standing at the mouth of an alley with the wolf man off to the right. I can think of them as actual people who are about to be attacked. I don't get that from the newer art. They're just characters. Empty shells of stylized coolness. At least, that's how I feel at a first glance. That's despite how honestly terrible the old art actually looks to me. Then again, I don't really care for the character designs in Pathfinder either really. I prefer the art of Magic The Gathering artists like Steven Belledin or the incredible work of Dave Kendall.

    1. In the space between when I wrote this and this reply, it occurred to me that what makes it most seem out of place is that contemporary fantasy art has an element of fashion to it. It's all got this kind of modern runway sensibility that makes Dungeonpunk look like a fashion statement. If you look at the old work? Most of the time, they were just wearing clothes - some approximation of what the artist thought was being worn in the rough period being portrayed.

  2. I give Wayne Reynolds some leeway because you can see elements of realism in the costuming he creates, but most of the 3rd edition/pathfinder stuff just looks awful. I'm not saying characters need to look exactly like people did in the middle ages, but for goodness sakes, at least study HOW they made armor and swords. Those jagged anime/LARP blades make me cry white hot tears

  3. Hello, first time commenting here. I tend to agree with you overall. The Pathfinder art is visually distinct, colorful, highly stylized, kinetic and... boring. It really is. Pathfinder has traded away immersiveness in favor of recognizability. Old school art tends to be more simplistic in style but way more interesting because it is always telling a story, whether you realize it or not. There are subtle details that allow your imagination to take hold and run wild. Take for example the black and white drawing from the AD&D 2E Complete Fighter's Handbook of the thief that has had his sleve pinned to the wall by a throwing dagger. There's a story there. There's only one character visible but you know that there are at least two characters interacting. One has obviously stolen something from the other. The unseen other is clearly AWESOME with a throwing knife, able to expertly pin the thief by his own clothing. Additionally, you can infer that this unseen knife thrower is reluctant to kill, possibly meaning he or she is of good alignment, as he or she could have simply chosen to kill the thief outright, given their skill with thrown weapons, but chose not to. Perhaps they're in the same party and do not trust each other (with good reason perhaps) but are forced to work together for now. Perhaps this will be settled once and for all at the conclusion of their quest. All of that from one simple black and white image. Pathfinder has no equivalent to this. Pathfinder art comes in two varieties: (1) character portraits drawn at a completely flat angle depicting highly decorated adventurers that have all the charm and life of an action figure, and (2) context free combat scenes that imply nothing of the stakes involved or what the circumstances were that created the conflict. They've literally made images of elves and wizards locked in combat with dragons and giants that are visually boring despite their subject matter.

  4. When you were going through the 3.5 and Pathfinder art, I was fully ready to agree with you. However, you started with Elmore, which is when I first saw the rot set into the creativity of D&D art.

    The problem is that these are pictures of people posing to get their pictures taken. They are basically selfies. There is no story in these pictures. Look at Elmore's Dragonlance covers. Even when given a whole novel worth of story to work with, each cover is just the characters standing around to get their picture taken.

    When I first began collecting D&D books and Dragon Magazine, I would stare at the illustrations and sink into the implied stories they told.

    Fantasy art can be photorealistic and good, but it seemed like D&D went down a road of going with artists who could do photorealism, even if they weren't all that inspired at evoking the fantastic. I'll take Erol Otus's crude picture of the three malformed wizards arguing over a staff from the D&D Basic rules over a bunch of bland Elmore models posing in a generic landscape and looking at the camera.

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  6. The art in D&D 5e and Pathfinder is pathetic cartoonish trash. The aesthetics and gothic feel of AD&D is significantly better. It's like the transition from Diablo 1 and 2 to the poop they call Diablo 3 and Heroes of the Storm. Stay far away, play MYFAROG, AD&D or any other thing that is not a SJW rainbow.

  7. The art in D&D 5e and Pathfinder is pathetic cartoonish trash. The aesthetics and gothic feel of AD&D is significantly better. It's like the transition from Diablo 1 and 2 to the poop they call Diablo 3 and Heroes of the Storm. Stay far away, play MYFAROG, AD&D or any other thing that is not a SJW rainbow.

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