My visual journey through the looking glass of TSR's Red Box [Part One]
Where were you when the Red Box was released? I was in junior high, unable to read past a second grade level, and struggling with a newly formed weight problem. It was a tough time for many things in my life, but never my imagination. Nope, that always worked just fine, and by the time I could read at a level with my peers, had lost all the weight, and was in high school, the Red Box was a relic of the past, and yet it still remained entrenched in my mind even after I’d moved on to ‘Advanced’ D&D.
I got the Red Box for Christmas, chosen from the Sears catalogue, and was absolutely unable to play it. I couldn’t understand the game, as I couldn’t functionally read it, but by God I could imagine that I could. Why? Well because Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore allowed me to. They painted a perfect picture of exactly what I wanted to be, a hero, and that is all it took for me to fall in love with a game that continues today.
So, I thought I’d go back to the Red Box, like so many have before me, but instead of talking about Frank and the mechanics and the game itself, I will of course talk about the art.
First and foremost, we have to speak about the iconic cover by Larry. Now people can argue with me until they are blue in the face what image best represents D&D, be it the Trampier Players Handbook, the Easley DMG, the Parkinson Forgotten Realms Boxed Set, or the Sutherland DMG, but hands down there is no image in the industry greater than the cover of the Red Box. This was done during Larry’s absolute peek, when he was in his early 30s, when he was thrilled to be working at TSR, and when everything he did was fresh, new, and inspired from a place of joy and not arduous industry labor.
The cover is overwhelming, against the odds, and yet the promise of success still lingers in the slight glow to the warrior’s blade even when facing such an impossible foe. This is the moment before the action, and that open question mark is what captures a gamer’s imagination because it begs an answer that only the gamer can give, that being ‘tell me the end of the story’. THAT, is role-playing, and Elmore masters it in one perfect image, period.
As one opens the first book included within, the ‘Players Manual’, we are taught how to play D&D. I, however, was taught how to envision D&D, first with the warrior’s entry into the first dungeon, then to the snake among coins [the first ‘gift’ of treasure], and finally to the beautiful cleric Aleena whose tragic end still sticks with me to this day.
We also get our first glimpse of an Easley undead, and then the dastardly villain Bargle and his basic version Magic Missile. Upon our exit we run from the dead once more, Aleena over a shoulder, and then finally have a parting moment of sadness and regret at her loss, even as we hold an impossibly large bag of treasure.
It is this imagery that galvanized my love of the game. I didn’t need to read that first adventure to understand what had happened, I lived it, right along with the illustrations. That is the power of storytelling through art, and the beginning of the beauty that is the Red Box.
Tune in again as we continue the adventure as told by Elmore & Easley, because I’ve only just begun this extended tribute!
Artistic Rating: 6 [out of 5]