Art of the Genre

BATTLE SYSTEM: What the heck happened?

I’m not completely sure what I can say about TSR’s 1985 release of Battle System.  For one thing, I don’t own it, although it has been in my possession since 1988.  It officially belongs to my longtime gaming compatriot ‘Murphy’ who often says that it is on permanent loan, like an exhibit at the Smithsonian. 

Whatever the case, I have dragged this boxed set with me from north to south, then east, and finally west.  In all that time I’ve never played it, as there has never seemed to be a reason.  Inherently, I’m not a miniatures player, and as for mass combat scenarios in a fantasy setting, I just kind of make the rules up as I go to facilitate the forward momentum of any campaign I run.

Battle System then becomes a passing fancy, a very eye-catching box that sits on a shelf and collects dust.

Game design of the system was provided by TSR staff writer Douglas Niles, and I’ve yet to be disappointed with anything I’ve ever read that was produced by him, so that would indicate the system has a good chance of standing on its own as usable, although again I can’t confirm this.  Another TSR writer, Steve Winter, also was responsible for the included “The Art of 3-D Gaming” booklet which looks to be well laid out as well and contains some nice shots of painted miniatures from that era.  Diesel LaForce did the interior maps, but there are only a couple and they fall short of what he created for other products of the day.

Artistically, which is the point of this whole exercise, this is perhaps the leanest TSR product of the 1980s.  The cover, done by artist Jeff Easley, is a thing of beauty, and falls in the wheelhouse of his most productive cover years for the franchise.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at this cover with the triceratops riding barbarian and wished my characters could be involved in that battle.  The image was so popular that it was even reused on the cover of the module H3 The Bloodstone Wars.

However, the interior art, if you can really call it that, is nothing more than postage stamp sized images drawn from historic reference TSR must have acquired the rights to in the public domain, or used them at such a small size as no legal action could be taken against them.  This makes for a woefully uninspired set of manuals.  I’m dumbfounded by what I found inside this rather large box, although I’m sure a good deal of the budget went to the creation of the punch armies that comprise the bulk of the supplement.

In all, a final reason I never played this system was because it gave me no inspiration to do so, and the woeful art direction is the primary factor in that.  Sure, Jeff Easley is a genius, but he can’t carry the entire load, even at his esteemed talent level.  My only take-away from this boxed set is that it did help pave the way for the aforementioned Bloodstone series of modules, which happen to be the only 1980s TSR series I don’t own, although I’d love to.

Artistic Rating: 2 [out of 5]

CITYTECH: The game of great covers and crap interiors

For me personally, Battletech was an odd choice of game, since I wasn’t a war-gamer but role-player, and yet I have to say over the course of the late 1980s I did have a great deal of fun with this game.  In fact, to a point, I owned nearly every supplement that FASA brought out for it, and one that stands out to me is Citytech. 

That certainly isn’t to say it revolutionized the Battletech system, but it was a fun piece to take the mech-driven combats from the wastelands of the Successor States to more populated industrial centers.  I had my share of fun driving 80 ton behemoths through the streets of cities as I hunted, or was hunted by, mechs from houses like Kurita or Liao. 

Still, I think for a boxed set, this supplement falls a bit flat, both from a mechanic perspective and also one of an art fan.  So, let me get into what I liked, and what I didn’t, about the artistic experience that is FASA’s Citytech.

Art directed by Dana Knutson, this rather thin 40 page supplement is rendered in black and white interiors with a full color cover by TSR alumni Jim Holloway.

Now if you’ve read my work at Art of the Genre over on Black Gate then you know I have a bit of a man crush on Holloway’s art.  This cover is no different.  In my mind, I see Holloway’s work on the Battletech series as a high water mark.  That isn’t to say that his skills have degraded since the late 1980s, far from it if you look at some of his more recent work for Pied Piper, but I think something about the setting and the subject matter, or perhaps even his place in life during those years, gave a shine to his pieces that has never been surpassed.

His work on the cover’s rampaging Archer battlemech is stupendous all the way down to the traffic light trailing from the things shoulder.  I love the smooth edges of his tanks, I love the action of his fleeing soldiers, which again speaks to his ever-present concept of RPG art reflecting the reality of any situation, no matter how far in the future or mystically fantastic.  If nothing else, this supplement gets a three rating just on this cover alone.

The interior leaves much less to be desired, although another heavily compromised [a book credits table is dropped in over half the piece] Holloway image also makes me shake my head in quiet wonder at his skill on the inside of the urban combat rulebook. 

Everything after that, however, is done by artist Todd F. Marsh, which I must say is not my favorite style.  Marsh did a large portion of the art for Battletech back in those years, and each time I see a piece of his art I cringe.  It just isn’t ‘me’, and although it has some merit, I firmly believe that Knutson could have found someone with a better grasp of both anatomy and characterization to foot the bill.

In all, the book only features a handful of images, and all of them inspire nothing more than to move on and try to make a better scene unfold for the game in your mind rather than attempt to reflect what has been laid out for you in black and white.

Artistic Rating: 3 [out of 5]  


Feeling the 'Call' to bad art

In my day, I’ve played probably two dozen Call of Cthulhu adventures.  Each and every one of them is memorable for some reason, and I think that in itself tells the story of just how good Call of Cthulhu is as an RPG.

When Chaosium took on this license, I really have no idea if the truly understood what they were getting themselves into, but I have to say that they did it right, even if their choice of artwork is lacking. 

Today I’m looking at Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition, written by Sandy Petersen & Lynn Willis from way back in 1992.  The bulk of the book’s text was composed for the 1983 1st edition by Sandy Petersen with evolution changes added in for this ‘latest’ version that give is a smoother around the edges feel and I think the company learned a great deal over the decade between the various writings.

However, as Chaosium often did, they spared no expense when commissioning a cover for their line leaders.  The 5th Edition is no exception as the cover is stunning.  Artist Lee Gibbons paints perhaps a ‘Top 10’ cover for the 1990s with the leering orange eye of the great Cthulhu as it looks through an enormous dimensional portal at the stupefied investigators on the other side.  The tones are sublime, the palate intrinsically creepy, and Gibbons ability to show skin composition in that framing is stupendous.  I have to give it absolutely high marks all around.

However, the inside is a mess of black and white drivel.  Certainly artist Earl Geier gets a moderate thumbs up for his monster section of the book, but other than that I’d love to burn every image.  Nothing about the content, placement, or talent of the images makes me want to play this game in the slightest.  It is completely uninspired, and the weight of this falls to the art director, or lack thereof as one is not listed for this book.  This absence creates a haphazard feel to the flow, and an utter lack of continuity. 

In all, I love the game, but this book is a poor example of how to inspire a player or ‘Keeper’ other than a lovely cover which induces you to buy… which is exactly what Chaosium seemed to want with most of their products as it leaned heavily on the license content and hope that experienced and well-read players would overlook their art ineptitude.

Artistic Rating: 2 [out of 5]

I would pretty much go anywhere with Platt O'keefe

In the mid-90s I was working as a manager of a B. Dalton Bookseller down in Bradenton Florida.  How exactly I got there is really beyond me, save to say it had something to do with the no-mans-land that is post college graduation.

Whatever the case, I did have the opportunity to use my 20% employee discount on several gaming products that came across the shelves of my miserably failing mall store.  One of these was the Star Wars supplement Platt’s Starport Guide by West End Games.

Now I’ve never played the Star Wars RPG in any form, although I did make a character once, so this purchase might seem strange if not for two reasons.  One, I was running and developing a Robotech: After the Apocalypse campaign which needed new content for the ever expanding universe and this book fit that bill perfectly, and Two, I was completely taken by the art.

Art Director Stephen Crane has put together a lovely little book with this piece because he stuck to the premise and delivered more of a traveler’s journal than a static info dump.  Platt, the frosty-haired and fiery smuggler leads the reader on a wild adventure through many intriguing and downtrodden ports inside the Star Wars universe, and Crane had the sense to deliver this in the same romanticized process as a British officer’s campaign journal with unfinished and lightly colored sketches.  The effect is dramatic, captivating, and simply genius as gaming goes.

Interior artist Chris Gossett, who I just gave mediocre marks to for his Ex Machina cover from 2004 [and isn’t it amazing how small the industry once was?  I mean really, pre-2000 you can play three degrees of separation on any given gaming book with ease] has done an inspired job with his work on this book.  Platt comes off both heroic, manly, and yet unmistakably sexual in these pages, and his work on the various Star Wars races is stunning.   

The only setback to the book comes from the rather drab cover, although it does feature a Corellian YT-1300 transport docked sideways with a larger vessel which is cool for the Star Wars buff.  Artists Gabor Szikszai and Zoltan Boros create the piece together, although I’m not sure who was responsible for what inside it.  Still, I have to give the work a +.5 rating just for having and artist named Zoltan doing it…. Zoltan!  How awesome is that name!?

In all, I adore this little supplement, not on for its gaming application content, but also the art that makes me want to take and illegal shipment of pretty much anything and smuggle it right under the noses of a platoon of storm troppers.

Artistic Rating: 3.5 [out of 5]

Cyberpunk as done by Guardians of Order

I often wonder what goes into making a game.  I mean a real game, not some sandbox rules set or home brew Fedex/Kinkos print job, but a real hardcover core book.  As I look at my shelves the myriad of small gaming companies who have produced truly inspired works over the years is astounding, daunting, and in the end sad, as most of them are no more.  

For my posting today I’m going to look at one such core rulebook that found its way to my collection at GenCon a few years back from a discount bin.

Ex Machina: Tri-Stat Cyberpunk Genre was produced in 2004 by Guardians of Order, Inc and is a hefty volume of over 350 pages.  It took seven writers to fully pen the work and is a massive undertaking because there is so little art to be found within.

I have no true idea how the Tri-Stat system works, but I can say that Guardians seemed to be doing right by the RPG world when they produced this book and many other since its founding in 1996.  However, after the creation of The Game of Thrones RPG, the company folded due to overwhelming debt in 2006 and the pretty standard 10 year life cycle of most small RPG companies came to a close.

But enough about the company’s history, lets dig deeper into the art of this hardcover monstrosity!  It was art directed by Jeff Mackintosh and he seemed intent on driving the art of the book with two page black and white spreads.  It is an interesting way to design your book, especially if you are trying to maintain a budget and don’t have the cash flow to fill the book with artwork dedicated to characters, classes, weapons, and other minutia that can be found in most RPG books of that time.

These lovely gatefolds do catch the eye, and most of them have a good feel that fits the setting.  Once again [if you read my Exalted post] we see the same stable of artists brought to this publisher by the UDON art house which is used exclusively on the interior.  Of this particular batch, the work of artist Eric Vedder is my favorite piece.  He brings a Jeff Dee circa 1979 edge to the publication, although he is only featured in it once, and I think this is the failing of using a house like UDON because typically they look to have been assigned a project and then parceled out the work among their artists to finish the job faster.  That works for speed and efficiency, but not necessarily continuity.  For that reason, a book of this size begins to lose artistic focus, and instead of becoming intimate with the setting, the reader is jolted each time they see another two page spread by a different artistic style.

The cover of the book, done by Christian Gossett is a fine piece, although subdued in its color choice which is probably needed when depicting the ghost in the machine aspect of the genre.  Still, there is no hard and fast rule that a splash of color couldn’t be used to keep readers coming back for more [I mean look at the Star Frontiers boxed set!].

In all, I find Ex Machina to be a huge project that never found a market, be it art fans or gaming fans. 

Artistic Rating: 2.5 [out of 5]

Exalted... a game of Japanese manga-style

I’m not really sure what to say about Exalted, other than it seemed an intriguing niche market for White Wolf at the time of its creation and that is has launched a successful licensed Kickstarter recently.  The game itself, at least in the incarnation I played, was certainly the most contrived system since Earthdawn hit gaming store shelves in the early 90s.

Still, the concept of the game drew me to it, as did the anime-style artwork that broke away from standard ‘Big Eyes, Small Mouths’ in that the story was original to the setting and not ripped from various Japanese video imports.

That being said, today I’ll look at another randomly chosen book that came down from my collection, that being Exalted: Caste Book Eclipse.  Eclipse was one of my favorite castes, probably because it defined the type of character my gaming buddy Mark played in almost 50% of the campaigns we ever ran together [and I’d say there were close to 100 of them].  It is the ‘dark’ side of the game, if there were a dark side, and the cover is a rather stunning black with gold symbol set directly behind a sketch-like character done by artist Melissa Uran and colored by Matt Milberger.

It is a very interesting concept from art director Brian Glass, and probably one that would be highly frowned on in today’s marketplace, but back in 2003, at the very top of the D20 wave, it was a choice that could have worked, although I’m not sure it did considering the games run thereafter.

Interior artwork, all in black and white, was handled by Brandon Page, Chris Stevens, and the UDON studio.  UDON is an interesting monster, considering the changing landscape of art.  By 2003 Wizards of the Coast was finally putting the old TSR artist ‘pit’ to pasture and going completely freelance, and here was UDON forming an artist studio that could facilitate gaming company needs by farming out books to their resident stable of artists.  Certainly this might have worked in 2003, when again the ‘wave’ was high, but I have to wonder if such a concept would work today, although I am of the mind to try it.

In all, the art in the book is solid, assuming you enjoy the anime-style, but then again you shouldn’t buy the game unless you do because it is built around a character’s ability to do things best seen with digital ‘ink’ and subtitles than in a more ‘real world’ RPG.

Artistic Rating: 3 [out of 5]

Taking a magic carpet ride to fantastic art

Al-Qadim… Arabian Adventures.  The name alone makes any gamer have to take notice and I have to admit that I’m even more moved by the tag line from the back cover which reads:

Magic carpets, ghoulish vixens, genies rising from the sand in a whirlwind of smoke and fire – such wonders, spun into tales by fabled Scheherazade, enchanted a king for a thousand and one nights.

When looking over this magnificent softcover campaign setting from 1992, two things keep coming to my mind.  The first is that Howard Andrew Jones, author of the middle-eastern setting fantasy novels Bones of the Old Ones and Desert of Souls, told me that he used this book to help him write those works, which is pretty high praise for a gaming supplement.

The second thing that stands out is that I’ve never actually played Al-Qadim.  In fact, although I own nearly a dozen of its sourcebooks, I’ve never even read one of them, let alone the core book.  That changed last night when this book was randomly chosen for me to become part of my ongoing series on RPG art. 

I actually took the book down to peruse it for fine art, and I wasn’t disappointed.  In fact, I was blown away by what I found beneath the cover, and it inspired me to do some reading on the inside as well.  The consensus; Al-Qadim is truly awesome!  I mean it, the next campaign I run will be Al-Qadim inspired, and I intend to use as much of the source material as possible.

Written by gaming alum Jeff Grubb, with additional writing and development by Andria Hayday, the contents sing of everything one could want from the tales of Sinbad, Ali Baba, and even true middle-eastern legends like Saladin.

But no matter what my gaming inspired desires are, I have to get back to the subject at hand and do some art review.

Covered by the final remaining ‘Master of Oil’ from the old TSR ‘pit’ guard, Jeff Easley, this work is an incredible piece of fantasy art.  In fact, I would give almost anything to see it magically placed on one of the AD&D ‘yellow spine’ core books from the 1980s [ala Oriental Adventures] because it would fit in perfectly with those old books.  In this piece, Jeff once again states to all art enthusiasts that the TSR art department might have changed, but he still can carry the weight.

Inside, the art is no less inspiring.  Artists Richard Bober, Fred Fields, Hanry Mayo, Bryn Barnard, and Carol Hoyer provide half a dozen color plates that whisk the viewer away into the shining sands of the setting, and a plethora of hard-lined and well-rendered black and white illustrations fill the book by artist Karl Waller.

I have to say that Wallers work doesn’t get enough credit, perhaps because Al-Qadim doesn’t have the support of other campaign settings of the time period like Dark Sun or Planescape.  Still, he should be held in high regard for the skill in which he created the perfect feel for the game.

Having said that, I can find no true fault with this book, and so I have to highly recommend it to anyone looking for inspiring art as well as a great place to take their players.

Artistic Rating: 4 [out of 5]

Taking on the art of the Juicers from Rifts

In 1996 Palladium’s real bread and butter had stopped being Robotech and its fantasy RPG and turned into Rifts. 

By the mid-90s the company had produced ten Rifts supplements in the line, the tenth being The Juicer Uprising and I have to say I was pretty taken with it.  Not necessarily because of the broken game mechanic that were Juicers, but the fact that the book itself was a very fine piece of artistic creation.

Written by C.J Carella, the Juicer history involved in the supplement is strong, and even with the horrors that are inherent to the Palladium system it can be easily applied to any Rifts campaign.   And when I say ‘horror’ in conjunction with the Palladium gaming platform, remember that I’ve played it since 1987 and with some modification it can still be a very fun game that isn’t as broken as most D&D players would think.

However, this isn’t supposed to be about game mods, so let’s talk art.

Beautifully covered by freelance artist John Zeleznik, who I enjoyed many times on various FASA works, the dark future aspect really comes forward.  Zeleznik has a great style for this kind of subject matter, and seeing his work on Juicers had to bring in more players to the system.

No matter how well Zeleznik did on the cover, however, the artistic trio of Vince Martin, R.K. Post, and Wayne Breaux Jr really killed the interior content. 

Martin is a genius in this book, and during the mid-90s his work appeared in various Palladium supplements with the same impact.  His polished black and white is some of my favorite art from this period of time, and yet he seeming disappeared with the turning of the millennia.  Perhaps it was the advent of digital artwork, perhaps the change from black and white illustration to full color, but for whatever the reason Martin’s comic book, and some would argue Jeff Dee inspired art, has been lost to us now. 

This is also an intriguing work because it features some very early RPG pieces from R.K. Post.  Post would go on to be hired in the final incarnation of the TSR ‘pit’ of artists, but during 1996 he was still working freelance and provides half a dozen very nice pieces that show aspects of what we’d learn to love from him during the 2000s.

Breaux is the old standby of Palladium.  By this point his work had become the most prevalent for the system since Kevin Long did so much art on Robotech between the late 80s and early 90s.  In my mind, Breaux’s art is very blue collar, and although it doesn’t stand out, it provides the needed artistic muscle a book like this requires.

In all, The Juicer Uprising is a very sharp book, and as an art lover, I can pick more than a dozen pieces I’d love to have in my personal collection.

Artistic Rating: 4 [out of 5]

Written by Scott Taylor — May 22, 2013

Entering the Honorable Art of L5R

‘Say not that honor is the child of boldness, Nor believe that death alone can pay its price: It is not to a single action that honor is due, But to the life that enfolds it.  – Lady Doji

Ah… what isn’t to like about the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, especially the 1st Edition circa 1998-99?  The above quote comes from The Way of the Crane, one of a half dozen spectacular supplements that dedicate themselves to the great clans of the L5R setting. 

This particular one, written by Ree Soesbee, is a wonderful piece of gaming fiction that I’d highly recommend to anyone searching for a truly inspired game setting in which players will have just as much fun surviving a winter court as the wilds of the Shadowlands.

Still, these posts always boil down to artwork and I can honestly say I can find nothing wrong with this book.  Beginning with the cover piece by Brian Snoddy [of later Privateer Press fame] it captures the unabashed spirit of not only the Crane Clan, but also the power of the deeply honorable samurai that rule over the setting.

Inside the cover, there is no mistaking that the book was produced before the full bloom of ‘the color RPG generation’, but to me that often speaks to a time when art was pure and had to work on its own accord instead of being overly art directed in the digital form.  And speaking of art directed, the book doesn’t even list an Art Director among the credits, although Cris Dornaus and Steve Hough do get listed as ‘artwork prepress’ which may indicate they had some say over the direction.

No matter the case, the book is simply stunning with eleven unique talents adding images ranging from comic inspired to e-maki style screen pieces.  I’d call for standouts here, but really all artists deserve credit so I’ll list them first, Audrey Corman, Liz Danforth, Cris Dornaus, Jason Felix, Carl Frank, Scott James, Scott Johnson, KC Lancaster, Bradley K McDevitt, Ramon Perez, and Brian Snoddy. 

Of those, I have to say Cris Dornaus always struck a chord with her full-lipped heroines and her dour heroes.  She absolutely represents everything the setting means in my mind as she worked on every one of these ‘Way’ books, and for that she has captured my loyalty.

In all, Aldrec Entertainment hit a home run with The Way of the Crane.

Artistic Rating: 4.5 [out of 5]

Looking through Dangerous Journeys is indeed dangerous!

I have to wonder what the minds of Frank Chadwick, Marc Miller, and Rich Banner thought when Gary Gygax agreed to put out a new RPG under the Game Designer’s Workshop banner?  I’m sure that was a great deal of ecstasy there, a feeling that after doing this job since 1973 that they ‘gold ticket’ had finally been found.

Yet as any old school gamer knows, the release of Gygax’s Dangerous Journeys in 1992 was the incendiary fuel for the folding of the GDW just four years later, with the epitaph ‘Everybody was just really happy to move on’ being uttered by Miller years later.

Was Dangerous Journeys the direct cause of the collapse?  Perhaps not completely, as Magic the Gathering and the contraction of the market as a whole had a part to play, but certainly Dangerous Journeys became a loadstone no mid-range company could keep afloat.

With TSR all over the games creation in legal wars that eventually halted production after seven books, the cost of which will never be fully known.  To make matters worse, the game itself was a rules heavy monster that was the antithesis of Gygax’s style with Dungeons & Dragons, a seeming odd choice considering his adherence to that streamlined rules set, but perhaps it was needed to fully differentiate between systems [although it obviously didn’t matter to TSR].

Whatever the case, the core rulebook, Mythus, was something that found its way into my gaming collection in 1992 as I worked my way through university.  It was during this period that I found out the older brother of my friend Mark, who was the catalyst for getting us both into role-playing, was taking classes to finish a degree as well.  Greg, the older brother, and diehard Gygax loyalist, was sure to play the new system, and so I was able to take part in one ill-fated campaign before Dangerous Journeys became a permanent piece of my past.

Today, as always, I’m going to revisit the artwork from this 413 page book.  Like most large core books of this time period, artist Larry Elmore did the cover.  The now freelance Elmore was a sure bet to ‘sell copy’ by having him do the cover, although unlike his Shadowrun treatment for FASA, this one seemingly failed.  In the case of Mythus, he still brought some of his TSR talent with him, however there is a divergence from his usual standard.  The two key factors in this are the ‘Dungeon Master, Manipulating Wizard, or Sky Druid’ that overpowers the upper part of the frame.  It takes a page from Jeff Easley’s redux of the classic 1E AD&D DM’s Guide, although unlike that it simply fails to inspire anything in the viewer other than a sense of ‘huh…’.  I can only attribute this to poor art direction from co-ADs, Steve Bryant and Amy Doubet.

The second infraction is Elmore’s choice of female cover model.  Now it is clear that during Elmore’s TSR run of dominance he established a very standard heroine that was uniquely Elmore.  By 1992, he’d moved away from this all-encompassing female muse to a living model driven style and for that I think this cover suffers.  His female fighter might be different, but sometimes different does not translate to better.

Still, we find the usual Elmore suspects, mailed fighter, strong horse, and dramatic landscape, but the absence of a dragon is puzzling here, especially since Dangerous Journeys was initially coined Dangerous Dimensions [to be another D&D] before legal action killed that, so maybe GDW was also forbade from putting a dragon on the cover.

Inside, the artwork is perhaps even less inspired.  A rag-tag team of artists have put together hundreds of black and white images and even a few color plates for the book, but on the whole the art is sub-par.  There are standouts, certainly, with a handful of pieces by TSR alum Tony Szczudlo, a two page spread of oriental theme by Janet Aulisio that is to die for, and some color plates that carry a hint of what Lee Moyer would become, even if the bulk of the work was shared by Moyer with Darrell Midgette.  These pieces, no matter how they might shine, cannot hold the others above water and therefor are more an oddity that makes one wonder what could have been instead of inspiring a player to take part in a deep and dynamic setting.

In all, this product is unexciting, non-innovative, and haphazardly directed.  

Artistic Rating: 2 [out of 5]