Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History
by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer
Ten Speed Press, 2018
Back in 1974, Gary Gygax and his friends and family first began hand-packing the first 1000 sets of rule books for Dungeons & Dragons, described at the time as “fantastic medieval wargames campaigns playable with paper and pencil and miniature figures.” The subsequent history of those wargames is the subject of an opulent new book from Ten Speed Press celebrating the Art & Arcana of what has gone on to become an enormous multi-media success, with millions of fans around the world, with millions of active players carefully sequestered away from direct sunlight and well-stocked with salted snacks and caffeinated beverages, rolling multi-sided dice, doing tabulated calculations, and all the while consulting any of the hundreds upon hundreds of illustrated manuals and guide books that have followed in the wake of those 1000 initial samizdat boxes sent through the mail.
Dungeons and Dragons has become a massive hit, a cultural phenomenon, an international common visual language. Fully-grown and socially-integrated adults not only eagerly set aside time each week for “campaigns” with their friends but openly talk about it all on social media. High school nerds and math geeks, who would once upon a time have been the rightful prey of their social betters, hunted for sport by their extroverted, exercising schoolmates, now proudly assemble in recreation rooms and wood-paneled basements to craft their characters (“cleric,” “ranger,” “thief,” and “magic-user” are all options; “asthmatic,” “butterball,” and “guys, without my glasses I’m basically blind” are, oddly, not), construct their adventures, and multiply and subdivide their way to a four-star evening’s entertainment. Companies and lucrative conglomerates have been founded out of the sprawling commercial empire that Dungeons & Dragons has become, and the erstwhile tormentors are now gratefully employed by their former victims.
In other words, Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana is one long and heavily-illustrated victory dance. The meek have inherited Middle Earth.
The book’s four authors, Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer, all have extensive and appallingly nerdy credentials (Michael Witwer: regular contributor to GeekDad; Kyle Newman: director of Fanboys; Jon Peterson: author of Playing at the World, widely regarded as the most authoritative history of gaming ever yet written; Sam Witwer: the Emmy-nominated video game voice of Darth Maul, may the Lords of Kobol preserve us). In their author photo, they’re posing with a dragon. They wear the facial expressions of vindicated men.
With the aid of a slew of beautiful illustrations - playing manual covers, Dragonlance covers, hilarious period-piece magazine-ads for D&D, gorgeous commissioned artwork, and even, grimly inevitably, floorplans - these four authors create an exhaustive, eye-catching, and downright joyful celebration of the long history of Dungeons & Dragons, from its incredibly dorky beginnings to its more-successful-than-ever present-day incarnations. “Since 1974,” our authors write, “many games have come and gone, but D&D is here to stay.”
They begin their book with a Foreword by actor Joe Manganiello (who in 2017 starred in Celebrity D&D), and they end it with a quote from Vin Diesel, calling D&D “the training ground for imagination. And of course everything in between, every page of this glorious, oversized treasure-trove of a volume, is a flat necessity for every gamer to own. Through sheer demented nearsighted slope-shouldered optimism, those gamers have earned a volume this sumptuous. And all the non-gamers who watched with baffled incomprehension while Dungeons & Dragons steadily refused to die? They can all sit down and shut up, for once - or Hell, maybe even try the damn thing.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.