How the Art of Dungeons and Dragons Helped Make It a Phenomenon

A new book sheds light on the hardcore hobby that once caused a panic.
​Dungeons and Dragons art of a warrior fighting a dragon.
Reprinted with permission from Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson and Sam Witwer, copyright (c) 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Images copyright © by Wizards of the Coast LLC

Dungeons and Dragons rose to popularity in the late 1970s and early-1980s riding the wave of paranoia that culminated in what’s been called the “Satanic Panic.” This period began with the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in August of 1979, when the young, D&D-playing Michigan State University computer science student mysteriously disappeared. Theories began to circulate that the game had blurred the young man's sense of reality and that he may have psychologically turned into his character, becoming lost in the labyrinthine steam tunnels beneath the university in search of adventure.


A media circus ensued which brought this formerly esoteric, hobby-channel game to the pages of the New York Times and other mainstream media, with sensationalized mentions of fantasy cults and bizarre intellectual games. While Egbert turned up a month later and his disappearance had nothing to do with D&D (he had just run away), the media spotlight did not dim. This incident led to an increased level of scrutiny around the game, especially from parents, who quickly discovered the game books that their children were playing featured rules for casting spells and illustrations of demons and other examples of occult-type imagery.

This in turn led to the game drawing the ire of all manner of religious and censorship groups and culminated in lots of bad mainstream press, including a 1985 60 Minutes segment with Ed Bradley where the game was vilified. But D&D proved the adage “all press is good press.” During this period, kids flocked to the game, no doubt due in part to the mystery and perceived dangers now surrounding it. It became the game your parents didn’t want you to play. And it's had remarkable longevity.

Its staying power is explained in a new coffee-table style book, Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History, out October 23. In it authors Mike Witwer, Sam Witwer, Kyle Newman, and Jon Peterson take a look at the history of the game, how it evolved and went mainstream, and how the merchandising has grown the brand. VICE talked the four over email about key elements that made and make it sticky hit with an ever-there audience, and their own relationships with the game.


Intro to the Game

Mike Witwer: I started playing D&D when I was around six or seven years old. My older brother, Sam, [was] introduced to the game by a neighbor and decided he wanted his own set of D&D books. Fortunately for us, that same neighbor had tired of the game and was selling. I remember going with my father and brother over to inspect the impressive stack of AD&D books. The collection included the original Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, Unearthed Arcana, and several modules including Tomb of Horrors, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater. My father shelled out a princely sum of $80 to secure the books and our D&D lives had begun. Sam became the obvious choice as Dungeon Master. We were too young to understand the mechanics, so Sam took care of those. We were reckless and bloodthirsty and Sam usually made us pay for that. D&D quickly became one of our favorite pastimes and nurtured our passion for storytelling and the dramatic.


Sam Witwer: When D&D came out, it was such a radical new concept and it was damned near impossible to explain to newcomers. Is it a board game? How do you win? The art was hugely instrumental in bringing accessibility to the game. The earliest art was mostly home brew stuff done by local amateur artists and it illustrated simple concepts and ideas, like weapons and monsters. Many of these monsters had rarely or never been illustrated before, so these drawings provided visual uniformity and a thematic baseline for the shared universe. As the game grew in popularity and spread out to wider audiences, the art became instructional in nature, helping players not only conceptualize the landscapes, equipment and inhabitants of the imagined world, but also how they might be used in the context of the game.


Breakthrough Module

Kyle Newman: One reason Keep on the Borderlands was so popular is that it came with the Basic Set around 1980, the time of the game’s meteoric rise. Because the Basic Set was meant for beginners, the module itself was very much meant to be a character-builder and to allow players to work their way into the game. Dungeons and Dragons was a tremendously impactful part of my youth. My older brothers would play it with their friends on weekends and I was allowed to watch, much like Elliot in Steven Spielberg’s seminal E.T. The Extraterrestrial. It was dangerous, disruptive and heavy metal. I pored over the books long before I ever played. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve just hanging around with pals on a weekend rolling dice and “role slaying” as I used to call it.


Art and D&D

Jon Peterson: Todd Lockwood, along with Sam Wood, took D&D art a step back from the high fantasy of the 1980s and tried to show us a more grounded world of fantastic adventure. They thought a lot about what people and weapons would look like in the worlds of D&D games. The iconic characters Todd and Sam created for third edition D&D also illustrated character class and race in a way that made the game easy to pick up and get immersed into. I see it as something so big, [it] changed modern popular culture.

There really weren’t fantastic medieval war games for sale before Gary Gygax put out D&D with Dave Arneson in 1974. The whole game took place in a conversation, not on a board or whatever—you just talked about what you wanted to do and the dungeon master told you what happened. It was all about running a character who gets more awesome as the game goes on, unless you die. There just wasn’t anything like it. It took over people’s lives.


Fan Favorites

Sam Witwer: Dragonlance was the brand’s first deliberate multi-media approach. It featured the pinnacle of D&D high fantasy art and put the dragons back in Dungeons and Dragons. Before Dragonlance there weren’t that many opportunities to actually introduce a dragon into a game without ensuring a total party kill. Dragonlance created many new in-game opportunities. What’s so amazing about those little pre-generated character cards that came with the modules is their size. The information is cleanly laid out and so simple. It’s a reminder that the rules were simple enough in those days that a whole character could be distilled down to just a few stats and lines so much so that you can put eight to a page.


Kyle Newman: I am a massive fan of R.A. Salvatore’s game-changing Icewind Dale Trilogy. That series, along with the success of Dragonlance, [brought] hoards of new fans.


Jon Peterson: Ed [Greenwood] had the most amazing home brew campaign, he was one of those dungeon masters who thinks up a fantasy world that would already be great for a novel, and then parachutes some characters into it. He was that rare obsessive DM who just seemed to have more ideas and energy to pour into his world than even the folks at TSR did. Naturally when TSR was shopping for new campaign worlds as part of their cross-media strategy, they had to get the Forgotten Realms. RA Salvatore took Greenwood’s world and created characters and stories for it that made him a bestselling author and sustained TSR as a major fantasy book publisher.


Dragons and More Dragons

Mike Witwer: Dragons are arguably the most majestic and dangerous of all fantasy creatures. They were among the few monsters that just about anyone could conceptualize and visualize. From ancient religious scriptures to Tolkien, the dragon was a very well-established idea and needed no explanation, so tying the game to dragons was very smart from a strategic perspective. Dragons also looked great on covers and allowed for really dramatic fantasy scenes that could draw would-be players into the game, especially those who loved fantasy fiction.

Ironically, the in-game experience rarely featured dragons as they were so powerful and deadly an encounter often meant the death of one or more players. I think D&D became so popular because it was so immersive. It really set the stage for do-it-yourself world-building and shared imaginary gaming experiences. It was the first role-playing game and developed foundational gaming concepts such as hit points, leveling, and cooperative play in a shared imaginary universe, becoming the basis for the later multi-billion-dollar industry of MMOs and computer/video RPGs.


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