D&D: Art And Arcana: A Visual History

Old School as it gets: the original 1974 D&D box set

The game of Dungeons & Dragons has a long and storied history, one with as many twists and turns and as much drama as any decent campaign a Dungeon Master might dream up. Starting off as a few pamphlets of arcane rules made by wargamers for wargamers, the game leveled up through the years until it became the monolith it is today. At this point, even your grandmother knows what D&D is, although she probably still thinks it’s Satan’s game. (Oh, 1980s Satanic Panic, I do so dearly miss you!)

D&D’s success was far from a given. The fact that it has survived (and thrived) for well over forty years is a miracle in itself. The game’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years, but somehow it always comes back. It’s history is the stuff of legend, and a big part of that history is the evolution of its artwork. Each edition of D&D has its own look and feel,  and every D&D book since the beginning has its share of iconic art. And now, at long last, we have a collection of this art, along with the chronicle of its evolution, in one hefty, beautiful tome.

Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History is an oversized book, solid and well put together, weighing in at just over five pounds. It’s printed on heavy, glossy paper that showcases the artwork in fine detail. The table of contents reveals nine chapters, each cleverly named after a D&D spell and focusing on the different editions of the game and significant events in the game’s history. Flipping past the TOC, we find a vintage advertisement opposite a forward by True Blood and Magic Mike actor Joe Manganiello, a D&D aficionado and YouTuber.  Then, after another introduction, we finally get into the meat of the book.

Cover of the Fiend Folio, a 1st edition monster book published in 1981

Although the focus of the book is art, we get a little insight into the genesis of D&D. It started with a game called Chainmail, created by Gary Gygax, a gamer whose enthusiasm for wargames in general and the medieval period in particular moved him to create his own games.  When he added a fantasy supplement to Chainmail (so that one’s medieval foot soldiers, knights, and lancers could be backed up by wizards, elves, and dragons), fellow wargamer David Arneson adapted those the rules for his Blackmoore campaign. Blackmoore, in addition to staging massive battles, took individual heroes into the dungeons below the titular castle, where they could battle monsters and find treasure to fund their ongoing wars.

It was an ingenious departure from the standard wargame, and it set Gygax’s imagination on fire. The two men worked together on a new set of rules, which soon became the original version of Dungeons & Dragons. 

“Beautiful Witch” by Cookie Corey was included in the original D&D rule books.

As we move through chapter one, we are treated to some primitive, but charming, early D&D artwork.  TSR, the company Gygax formed to publish D&D, didn’t have money to pay artists, so they relied on any friends or family who displayed a modicum of artistic talent. These artists often copied earlier works, even comic book panels.

From there, we move on to the next chapter, which features art from “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” first edition. The game had become more sophisticated, and TSR made the unprecedented step of releasing high-quality, hardcover game manuals.  The art was still primitive, but it was definitely a step up from the amateur sketches on display in the original pamphlets. 

In addition to a chronological journey through the various editions of D&D, we are invited to bear witness to  the evolution of various monsters and characters through recurring features such as “Evilution” and “Many Faces of…,” These two-page spreads contain different versions of creatures spanning each edition. It’s fascinating to see how the characters changed through the years as the art become more and more sophisticated.

The “Evilution” of the classic D&D foe, the Mindflayer.

Another feature throughout the book, “Deadliest Dungeons” highlights some of the classic Dungeons TSR (and later Wizards of the Coast) published over the years. For those that owned or played through iconic adventures like “Tomb of Horrors” or “Keep on the Borderlands,” the nostalgia is palpable.

“The Keep on the Borderlands” was many a young nerd’s first crack-like exposure to D&D.
Iconic cover of the 1981 Basic D&D Boxed Set

For more than four hundred pages, we are walked through every edition of D&D, from the five numbered editions, to the various boxed “Basic” and “Expert” sets that catered to a younger, less sophisticated audience. The artwork tells the story of changing direction of the game: the characters shift from the scruffy mercenaries and treasure hunters of first edition, to the more heroic warriors and wizards of second and third, to the over-the-top action superheroes of fourth, and finally back to the more down-to-earth adventure-seekers of fifth edition.

We are treated to advertising, spin-offs and licensed products, dice and miniatures, maps, video game screenshots, beautiful scenery from classic D&D settings, and more. It’s truly a feast for the eyes and a lightning bolt to the imagination.

I enjoyed this book from cover to cover. I’ve taken it in page by page, reading all the text and gazing lovingly at the artwork. It brings me back to my youth, and my geeky days playing first and second edition D&D in my friends’ parents (and sometimes grandparents’) basements.  And now I’m playing fifth edition with some of the same friends, groups of new friends, and even (sometimes) my college-age daughter and my young nieces. D&D is here to stay, and it’s inspiring the imagination and creativity of a new generation, just as it did for mine. And truly, what could be better than that?

Buy Art & Arcana: A Visual History at Amazon. You’ll thank me later.

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