Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a celebration like no other. It is a massive slab of a book, some four-hundred-and-forty pages in length, which celebrates the visual look and design of Dungeons & Dragons over the forty—and more—years of its history. Beginning with Original Dungeons & Dragons, it takes the reader through the art of the various editions of the game, plus its offshoots, adverts, and ephemera, supporting it with history and interviews. This is a book written for fans by fans. Notably, Jon Peterson is the author of Playing at the World, the preeminent history of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst Michael Witwer is the author of Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, the biography of the game’s co-creator, E. Gary Gygax. They are joined by Witwer’s brother, the actor, Sam Witwer, and filmmaker, Kyle Newman. Together, they have raided the TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast archives to present the prettiest Dungeons & Dragons ever.
The book is divided into nine chapters, seven dedicated to each of the editions—Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 gets a chapter all of its on—and two exploring two important events in the history of TSR, Inc. and Dungeons & Dragons, these being the Crash of 1983 and the fall of TSR. The chapters are lovingly and very knowingly named after classic Dungeons & Dragons spells. So the first chapter, about Original Dungeons & Dragons is called ‘Detect Magic’, whilst ‘Explosive Runes’ is the title of the chapter devoted to the Crash of 1983 and ‘Bigby’s Interposing Hand’ is the title of the chapter devoted to TSR, Inc.’s demise. It starts with Greg Bell taking inspiration from Marvel comics for many of his illustrations, before looking at the work of Dave Sutherland and then David Trampier—the latter’s iconic cover for the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons being the obvious touchpoint here, Larry Elmore’s cover for the Basic Dungeons & Dragons Box Set, and on and on up to the most recent edition of the venerable roleplaying game.
Throughout various repeated sections cast a spotlight upon aspects of Dungeons & Dragons. ‘Arteology’ examines the stories behind particular pieces of art and go hand-in-hand with an ‘Artist Favourite’, for example, Errol Otus, described here as ‘D&D’s Surrealist’ and examining his iconic cover to the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set from 1981. ‘Deadliest Dungeons’ highlight the roleplaying game’s most iconic dungeons, the very foundation of our playing Dungeons & Dragons, such B2 Keep on the Borderlands and S1 Tomb of Horrors. ‘Evilution’ and ‘Many Faces of…’ do similar things, showing the look of how a monster or personality changes from edition to edition, such as Acererak of Tomb of Horrors fame and the Purple Worm, of the Beholder and Drizzt Do'Urden. Lastly, ‘Sundry Lore’ examines elements of Dungeons & Dragons history that are parallel to the main story of the roleplaying’s art and history. Thus ‘Wired for Adventure’ looks at the development of Dungeons & Dragons online and ‘The Animated Series’ explores the cartoon of the eighties.
Now Art & Arcana is very clearly a visual feast for eyes, whether front covers, monster illustrations, maps, advertising, or ephemera, but none of it would really work if was presented as is. This is where the authors’ text comes to the fore—Jon Peterson’s knowledge as a historian of Dungeons & Dragons and of TSR, Inc. in particular—providing the context for the artwork. So it examines how the look and style of the roleplaying game’s art went from the earliest ghosted from Marvel comics and the works of artists like Frank Frazetta to the development of its own style, through the removal of demons and devils from the art in response to the moral panic against Dungeons & Dragons in the eighties and their return as the panic subsided, and then on through the various editions of the noughties, and beyond… In many ways the history brings the art alive, but the reader also comes back to the art, the turn of every page revealing a surprise or triggering a memory.
Art & Arcana is not wholly uncritical of Dungeons & Dragons. Notably it does touch upon the panics associated with it, the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in 1979 and the moral panic at the perceived Satanism in the game that would hound its reputation throughout the eighties. It is actually surprising to see the inclusion of a newspaper article dedicated to the former in the pages of the book. Of course, Art & Arcana is only a relatively light history and so cannot go into any great depth about these or any other aspects of Dungeons & Dragons' history. So what this means is that its exploration of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and its failings—in a chapter aptly titled ‘Maze’—comes across as somewhat grudging as if no one wanted to write it and perhaps there is less to say also about Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition given that it is so new and given that there have been relatively few books released for it in comparison to previous edition.
Physically, Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a lovely book. That of course, is the point. Everything is crisply presented and every turn of the page a surprise. If there is an omission, it is of index to particular sections, so no index for the entries in the ‘Deadliest Dungeons’ or ‘Evilution’ sections, for example.
If you are a serious student of Dungeons & Dragons’ history, then Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World is the book you are going to want to read. If you are a serious student of the gaming hobby’s history, then Shannon Applecine’s Designers & Dragons is the series you going to want to read. In one sense, Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a visual companion to both, especially Playing at the World, but it is also a history in its own right, although a quite casual one. In another sense, it is much more than that. This is a book of memories, a chance for the Dungeons & Dragons devotee to go back to the great scenarios and settings, to the fearsome monsters he has faced, and remember the amazing adventures he has had with his fellow players. Quite possibly the most impressive Dungeons & Dragons book of the year, Art & Arcana: A Visual History is the book that every Dungeons & Dragons fan will want—whatever their favourite edition.