Thursday, 3 March 2016


As it's World Book Day, I thought it only fitting for this entry to have one of my favourite books that also features an infamously terrible cover! Yes, it's the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual! Of course, you could have read that on the cover reproduced above but I thought I'd mention it as you might have been distracted by the myriad of *ahem* delights swarming on it.. And it IS a very distracting cover with many prospective readers wondering  if that green fella - a troll by the way - was taking a crap.

Now all the early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were somewhat notorious for the variable quality of the art - on one page there might be a genuinely iconic illustration, while over on the next there would be something that at best could be only charitably described as enthusiastically rendered. But as they were the first ever rulebooks for role playing games, we can forgive them their failings as they were, a) at that point only one step above amateur publications b) intended for an audience used to such small press offerings, and c) and most importantly, they were inventing a whole new world of games here. And hence even the sketchiest and crudest drawings evoke not only a fond nostalgia in old gamers, but also bask in a well-deserved aura of historical importance.  

Now an excellent illustration of this fluctuating scale of art quality are the initial three rulebooks for the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The Dungeon Master's Guide and Players Handbook both sported cover art that was immediately striking, and quickly became iconic. The Monster Manual on the other hand... Well, it was perhaps the most accessible of the core books, for after all, this was a tome that was packed full of cool monsters -  but all the same, this wasn't the book cover you'd show a newcomer to introduce them to this new and strange game you'd discovered. "Is that guy taking a shit?" they'd ask, and you'd have to hope to win them back with that much cherished drawing of the Succubus on page.... Guys, c'mon - you KNOW which page! Seriously though, there was some truly fantastic art inside - I mean look at this lovely Rahskasa (a type of tiger demon by the way) from Dave Trampier - 

However it is also interesting to note that the iconic cover for the first edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide was created by the same artist who did the Monster Manual - Mr David Sutherland III. And that's very typical of early role playing art too - often the same artist being responsible for both stunners and shockers! But as I said, these books were created by folks - ordinary gamers like you and me - who were self-publishing their new rules and learning the ropes as they went. And we should note that the Monster Manual was the first book in that series of editions to be both created and published, and if memory serves, it was the first ever big hardback book of rules too - now the standard format for rpgs. Hence by the time work began on last of the three core volumes, Mr Sutherland had a lot more experience under his belt, and consequently the DMG's cover is considered a bona fide classic - even by old grognards who still get the screaming heebie jeebies remembering queries about troll bathroom habits. 

And while, I (and many others) have often poked fun at the less then masterly composition of the cover of the Monster Manual, it still has a charm to it, a kind of magic that's all too often lacking in the glossy air-brushed covers of game books and fantasy novels these days. And its amateur stylings are part of that charm - for while from a technical point of view there is too much going on, it's that very busyness that gives you the sense of a world packed full of monsters and adventure. What's more, this cover connected with its original audience largely because it looked like the drawings they themselves were doing, or at least wanted to do. And that's a hugely important thing - for if the Monster Manual hadn't sold, we wouldn't have got the other books, and the nascent past-time of role playing games might not have ever emerged from the cloistered world of war-gaming to become a world wide phenomena - not only inspiring countless other pen and paper RPGs, but becoming an integral part of the DNA of video games too. 

Of course, over the years D&D and it's brethren have proven to be very powerful gateway drugs - not to devil worship and depravity as has been occasionally alleged by the hard of thinking - but to the world of reading in general. And more than few creative folks - artists, writers, actors and directors - first got their imaginations fired up shaking a handful of funny shaped dice to defeat the various denizens of the Monster Manual... 


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