Art & Arcana by Newman, Peterson, Witwer, and Witwer is a book that came out recently about the art of Dungeons and Dragons over the course of its history. It is lavishly produced in both a standard edition and a collector’s edition. The Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons is a new independent documentary about the same subject, which is available on the various streaming services. Let me say up front that I highly recommend both to anyone interested in role-playing games or even just fantasy art. That being said, they should both be viewed critically with an understanding that the creators of these two takes on the history of the game are definitely long-time fans of the game. This needs to be factored in when analyzing them.
I started playing Dungeons and Dragons right after 5th edition came out to find yet another mentally stimulating activity to do with my own children. Role-playing tabletop games are a bonanza of high order thinking practice for their players. The way they jog creative impulses in their players is unparalleled in gaming today. And so, I highly recommend their use to parents and teachers. As a nerd who was born in the 70s and came of age in the 80s, I had grown up alongside Dungeons and Dragons, although I never played it in its real form. I had played computer games based on the ruleset of the game, however, and enjoyed them. So, I came into the role-playing tabletop hobby knowing tertiarily about the game, but not fully understanding what exactly it was all about (to say the least). I certainly didn’t have a solid grasp of its history. However, I also did not have decades of cognitive dissonance, protecting the game, built up within me from trying to defend the game against its critics. But I do love learning the history of things and it wasn’t long before I started researching the topic.
Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons is a model of professional production with wonderful artwork and design sensibilities. Its artwork is also very inclusive in terms of the characters it portrays. Fifth edition shows cool-looking male and female adventurers from many human racial backgrounds wearing smart, functional adventuring clothes, armor, and weapons. The character portrayals in the art would not offend anybody that I know of. The behemoth toymaking company Hasbro owns the game currently and it is to be expected that they would ensure its presentation did not raise any eyebrows in terms of artwork. However, this was not the case in previous editions of the game.
What many people don’t know, who weren’t part of the game’s earlier history (as I wasn’t), is that D&D is largely responsible for fantasy art as it exists today. The game basically invented the modern version of that art genre over the course of its history. That’s what makes this book and documentary pair interesting for newcomers. They trace the history of that evolution over the decades in a comprehensive way. The book is far more comprehensive than the documentary in the art it shows and discusses. However, the documentary has extensive recorded interviews with the artists themselves. So, taken together they give you as full a history of the game’s art as you could wish for.
Where I disagree somewhat with both histories is in how they balance the need to take a critical approach to dealing with the game art’s past portrayal of females and the virtual nonexistence of non-white characters, with the need to respect and appreciate the people involved. It feels to me that both the book and the documentary are too far on the cheerleading side when they should be politely critiquing a bit more. I say “politely”, because I personally don’t like the often-vitriolic aspects of gaming culture today, as it battles over its identity.
Regardless of that issue, however, the book and movie are well worth the time of all modern gamers. Parents of older child gamers should find the pair great for discussing the history of gaming (its triumphs and failings) with their children. The content maturity level in the book and documentary is probably in the PG-13 or T range.