Monday, 13 February 2012

Fighting Fantasy has so much to answer for

Back when the world was young, I wrote this entry, which, to summarise, tried to contrast British and American approaches to fantasy by comparing Warhammer with D&D:

I believe that in many ways Warhammer and D&D can be taken as representative of the cultures which created them. On the one hand you have a cynical, nasty, bleak and darkly humurous setting whose dominant idea is decay. And on the other you have a game basically founded on the principles of rugged individualism and self-betterment - in which a set of characters fight to success all on their own, without much in the way of a helping hand, or else die trying. In a strange sort of way, you don't get anything more representative of British values than Warhammer, nor anything more representative of American values than D&D.

You can see this in Fighting Fantasy too. And the tone is set by the artists who worked on it. By coincidence, Zak, here, and -C, here happened to put up posts with two of the most prominent of those guys over the last 24 hours or so. They are, respectively, John Blanche:

And Russ Nicholson:

I'm sure you can see the connection here and the kind of tone that I'm talking about.

This vein in Fighting Fantasy art was a huge influence on me as a kid, and I think it's influenced me ever since. To this day images like these have always struck a chord with me, and I think when I imagine stuff that appears in a fantasy RPG - goblins, dragons, trolls, whatever - the visions that appear in my mind always manifest as Blanche- or Nicholson-esque in tone: a little bit dark, a little bit grimy, a little bit weird, a little bit twisted.

I strongly believe that art has a big but not well-acknowledged influence on gaming style. The sort of work that Nicholson and Blanche deal in just lends itself to my type of game, being more interested in strange concepts and grim vignettes than heroics and grand themes. The sort of person who really responds to Nicholson's art, I think, is precisely the sort of person who is comfortable with save-or-die; the kind of person who appreciates the picture of the halfling being abducted by goblins probably also has an appreciation for the abstract, detached and uncaring universe envisaged by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or OD&D. If you like one you'll probably like the other.

Maybe this could be a test I could use if thinking about introducing somebody to one of my games. Instead of an extensive interview process, I could just hold up a picture like this:

If you like it you'll fit in. If not, move along, there's nothing for you here.


  1. Blanche's art influenced much of the look and feel of older editions of Warhammer 40K, ensuring that players understood it was a dark, vile, dystopian future where good and evil were barely distinguishable shades of grey.

    These days, the art is far more "Epic", and the "good guys", although hardasses, are definitely "heroes" while the badguys are the "villains". Plenty of people still like to play villainous races, but the distinction is far more clear-cut. I think the artwork has a lot to do with that feel, and I also think it has much to do with the "Americanizing" of Games Workshop's marketing strategy (as I see it).

  2. The line of descent from the spindly grotesques of Beardsley and Rackham is unmistakeable. Whereas the most distinctive and skilled early TSR artists - Tramp and Otus - have a more straightforward style that owes something to the goggle-eyed deliria of Ub Iwerks cartoons.

    All these artists, though, are *cartoonish* in a way that mainstream D&D hasn't dared to espouse since about 1985.

  3. The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks unfortunately never had much of a presence on the bookshelves of the rural American used book stores of my childhood. Luckily Lone Wolf arrived in time to permanently warp my mind. What is an eleven year old in search of heroic imaginary adventure supposed to make of this?

    My love for this kind of artwork, which I now hunt down wherever I see it, began with Gary Chalk.

  4. I like a lot of that art, but I'm not a fan of stuff like save or die.

    Honestly as a GM I've thought about it, but it just seems rather unfair.

    Maybe if it was telegraphed ahead of time...

  5. I may be mistaken here, but wasn't the Old World originally an OD&D setting? It certainly appears to be the case.

    As a commentary on the TSR era, let's not forget the emergence of a current heavy-hitter in American illustration; Tony DiTerlizzi. Tony's work is HEAVILY influenced by both Rackham and Brian Froud and is about as far removed from the Wayne Reynolds look that seems to dominate the current aesthetic.

  6. "... you don't get anything more representative of British values than Warhammer, nor anything more representative of American values than D&D."

    I think it's far less about values than situation.

    I agree on the overall point though, and it's also likely the game worlds and art feed on each other down the years of products, deepening the connection. But then again, Blanche has been high-up in art at GW for a good while now so it may not be a process that acts consciously or directly.

  7. My reaction to that FF pic is to sneak past the poor sod. Sure, kill him if he's a problem, but guy looks worn out and I can sympathise.

  8. This articulates why the Field Folio resonated with me more than anything else associated with Type One D&D and that was 100% due to the art.

    Nicholson's art in particular evokes a far more Hobbesian fantasy world, something nastier and creepier than what you got in the other books.

    I need to get another copy of WFRPG -- mine came from a smoking household and I can't stand to have it near me for more than 5 minutes before wanting an extremely hot shower.

  9. Comparing BECMI D&D's Known World (which I love in all it's cartoony glory) and the Old World or WFRP (which I also love), I wrote:

    "In two imaginary worlds, and their associated game systems, we have neat encapsulations of the gulf between American and British pop-culture. One the one hand you have the Justice League of America, on the other the Justice Department of Megacity One. The Known World of D&D is bright, clean, and [super-]heroic. The PCs survive (mostly), save the world, defeat the evil, and grow powerful and rich. The Old World of WFRP is dark, dirty, and a grim struggle. If the PCs survive (and there’s a good chance they won’t), they merely forestall the spread of chaos, before they are permanently disabled fighting a pickpocket in a filthy alley, grow sick, and die in poverty."

  10. Know exactly what you mean.

    New York's always been an interesting place for me because of the way it used to blur those; the home of superhero comics, but also with a big chunk of that british attitude there too, maybe because the city is old or crowded, or whatever. Punk did well in both too.

  11. @Syrus W
    "Maybe if it was telegraphed ahead of time..."

    Well, yes. It's pretty well telegraphed by the word "adventure", along with words like "trolls", "dragons", and even "dungeons".

    When Mugo Park got ambushed in Africa, stripped and beaten and saw the rest of his party killed or flee he didn't think "oh, how odd. I went into a wilderness full of the unknown whence many have failed to return and it was quite nasty".

    I don't understand the mentality that going into danger is unfair if it turns out to actually be dangerous in, you know, REALLY dangerous ways.

    Back on topic-I never liked the mentioned British artists (as a Brit myself) because they seemed inherently less realistic than even Otis' stuff. I couldn't take them seriously enough to even derive comedy value from them (and we generally played for laughs in those days).

    Stiff, posed, and stupidly self-indulgent and "ironic" to the point of pointlessness was how I felt about them, and still do by and large. Ian Miller is another British fantasy artist who bores the arse of me in a way that Philippe Druillet, for example, does not to pick a non-American artist for contrast.

  12. Nagora: You really think Blanche and Nicholson's stuff feels stiff, posed and self-indulgent? Each to their own and everything, but I'd never describe them that way.