Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: A Coffee Table Art Book You can Use For D&D

While Christmas shopping in  a bookstore  yesterday I happened upon a very remarkable book in the young reader's section, a book entitled simply, "Fantasy; An Artist's Realm"  written and illustrated by Ben Boos in 2010 and published by Candlewick Press. You can see the very striking image it has on the 9 x 12 embossed  hardcover; that caused me to pick it up and flip through it, then read through it with interest. I managed to put it back on the shelf but when by chance my son and I returned to the same store in the evening I couldn't pass on it as it seemed a tool for any DM or the go-to book for any group  with younger players or for introducing new players.

According the credits inside, the author did art for best selling video games whose titles are not specified. I am assuming it was conceptual art since every single one of  the book's 83 pages are covered with beautiful, top quality fantasy painting illustrations by a highly skilled and trained artist.  Monsters, arms and armor, magic items, and character types are all beautifully rendered and explained textually in such a way that if a new player at your game was unfamiliar with, say, the difference between chainmail and scale mail,  or, what a hobgoblin looks like, you could just hand them the book.

 The jewel of the illustrative collection of the book are the opening pages, which look like  two ornate  banded wooden doors; when you fold each side outward you are looking at a six-panel map of the world of Perigord. It is not to scale but is instead painted in an illustrative manner, like a mural. The Map conforms perfectly to all the central features of any good D&D campaign map: small world setting, wilderness and ruins areas, several fortresses and villages, and a teeming metropolis called the City of Galliene, complete with a Thieves Quarter, a bay gated by two shining pillars, and an army of Paladins.

Perigord provides a perfect ready start campaign setting, though you would need to flesh it out considerably. Younger players would probably be satisfied with it as is for an adventure environ. The text of the book reads almost like a Marco Polo style account furnished to people who might visit the realms, giving plenty of seed ideas to any DM or players for a campaign, and the beauty of is it that every different campaign would probably grow totally differently, because there's just enough information for a common starting place but enough empty spaces to fill with homebrew material.

It becomes quickly  obvious  to an old school games reader that the author has played Dungeons and Dragons; the character types depicted and explained in the book are the basic prototype classes from OD&D/AD&D; paladins, fighters, clerics, magic users, druids, and thieves. Think of the old "Gnomes" art books (if you're familiar with them) but about character classes and other fantastic creatures besides gnomes.

Elves and faeries, as well as Dwarves, are mentioned...but no Halflings. There are some beautiful paintings of Dwarven weapon and jewelry craft, as well as of the named magical Relic Swords of the Paladin Orders.  There is a Minotaur race that shows the author's video game parentage, as does as a City of the Dead in Perigord named...what else..the Necropolis...and populated by intelligent and semi-civilized Undead. 

There are dozens of locales on the Map which could be adventure sites that would entertain a gaming group for months…ruins and labyrinths and such. Hobgoblins are to Perigord what Orcs are to Middle earth and there is some very interesting material detailing Hobgoblin culture, society, arms and armor, and racial variations. Giants feature as a very common dilemma for the realms, either as impetuous and troublesome  neighbors to keep pacified by any means possible or else as nearly unbeatable foes to try and defend against when they become angry. There is an entire bestiary of faery and fell races to furnish any curious mind with the basics of such beings and their relationship to the game. The Thieves Guild includes an order of female rogues known as the Shadowmaidens who serve the kings of Galliene as spies and burglars of enemies. There is a city on a hill accessible only by a secret mountain entrance…a city  known as Skellig where nearly all magic users go to learn their art or gather lore. There are many such potential campaign nuggets scattered all throughout the text. One neat gem is the depiction of a dark tower outisde the Necropolis called mysteriously the Tower of Seryu....throughout the book there are a few cryptic allusions to the Tower and a growing dark power emanating from it but no hard data--meaning you, the DM can fit the Tower and the name Seryu into your game in a wholly original manner. 

In fact, the entire book feels and reads like a role playing game…but without any rules. The setting, with its maps, grimoires, and bestiaries, can be plugged right into any D&D system old or new in about 20 minutes. And I intend to do just that. I know players who enjoy high fantasy will be thrilled... picture sitting in a tavern with a Minotaur on one side of you and an dwarf on the other, nonchalantly drinking together. In Perigord, a Minotaur in a tavern will stand out--he will be noticed and probably inspire some uneasiness in most--but he will not be an entirely strange sight in the cities of men. That  fact gives you an idea of the flavor of the setting. The tree palace shown on the cover is of course an Elven architecture.

I just wanted to let D&D players know about this treasure--even with no relation to the game it would be a very great read to give as a gift to a younger reader who likes art and has an imagination. If nothing else, you will pull ideas from it and enjoy the art. One of my favorite illustrations inside is a two page panel of a Paladin dueling a demon armed with a wicked vorpal sword. Some of the art looks like very realistic acrylic or water color painting and other parts look like colored medieval woodcuts, like the demon vs. the Paladin. There is a two panel realistic painting of a sylvan healing woman playing her guitar by a pond or stream that is very reminiscent of the work of John William Waterhouse.  . And the detailed border work the artist comes up with looks like the metal works adorning old illuminated manuscripts or carvings bedecking the treasure items of an ancient king. They are painted in a manner that almost looks 3-D, real illusions.

There is even a two panel map with text of a maga-dungeon in the form of an example of the Minotaur subterranean cities!

I scoured the Internet for images of the book's interior and couldn't find any but I did find an old blog apparently published by the author/illustrator. It's here:

Hopefully you can find this tome and add it to your gaming shelf--it's a real keepsake.

Thanks for reading!


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