Sunday, March 8, 2020

East of Caldwellia, West of Elmoreon

In recent discussions of vanilla fantasy, my friend Paul (owner of the long-hiatused blog, Dungeonskull Mountain) and I have bandied about the idea of an "80s fantasy" world. While we perhaps don't share exactly the same vision for that, both of us agree that famous D&D artists of mid-1e to 2e eras--particularly Clyde Caldwell, Larry Elmore, and Keith Parkinson--play a big part in that.

The visuals are clear and distinct, but is there a setting in the work of these artists distinct from just generic D&D?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think we can say make guesses as to what elements it may have and what elements it does not.

Glamorous Not Grotty
Glamorous might be a little strong, but hey, alliteration! Anyway, we are certainly not in the Dung Ages, or any version of gritty pseudo-Medieval verisimilitude.

Complicated Costumes and Culture
Compared to work of Frazetta, Kelly, or Vallejo, the clothing of the characters has a lot going on: fur trim, feathers, scales, etc. This tends to be true even when female characters are scantily clad. It's all more renfair that Conan. This suggests (to me) more of a high fantasy world than a sword & sorcery one, and an interest in visually defining cultures that doesn't get into the heavy worldbuilding of a Glorantha or Tekumel, but is definitely of the "needs a glossary at the end of the book" level.

Dragons & Drama
There are an awful lot of dragons. I mean,  they're showing up all the time. And often characters are confronting them in a way that suggest they are big, powerful heroes, not the type to die pointless in holes in the ground. The another name for high fantasy is epic fantasy, and that's what these images often convey.

A Touch of Humor
Despite the epicness and high drama, things are seldom if ever grim. In fact, from adventures posing with the tiny dragon they slew, to a muscular female fighter manhandling an ogre, a bit of humor is pretty common.


Dariel said...

Love the blog post title ha ha! I can imagine using the names as real places in a campaign.

One thing I remember about Elmore's art is how there's often this barbarian character who's somehow the butt of the joke. Makes me wonder if it was some in-joke betwween Elmore and the model.

MisterPike said...

I'm really digging these posts. After decades of the genre undergoing relentless deconstruction, it's refreshing to see someone pick up the pieces for a little "reconstruction".

Another thing about culture I would like to point out; I think that this setting (like Elmore’s illustrations) ought to have only light historical inspiration, used to highlight traits of a character’s class rather than to create direct fantasy analogues to real world cultures. For example, there probably shouldn’t be a solitary kingdom of Fantasy Vikings, since probably half the characters in 80's artwork sport horned helmets and fur trim.

Trey said...

@MisterPike - Good point. This a not a Conan's Hyborian Age setting with thinly disguised historical analogs. While there would be borrowing from history, they would be a melange.

Tanner Maze said...

The was a great post. Those listed traits will help a lot with developing my own Vanilla world - though the Touch of Humor and Glamorous Not Grotty was already in there, heh heh.

I would also like to throw in one other trait that I think is over looked in High Fantasy art of this time; Influence from Indigenous, Eastern and Non-Euro cultures. You see this mostly in Larry Elmore's Dragon Lance art, with a lot of Native American undertones, but you also see it in the sadly unused Moebius concept art (I still love you, Willow!) which had Noh masks and a very Ronin looking Madmartigan. While medieval was the flavor, they where not afraid to celebrate other cultures however subtly.

Would you be willing to share Paul's list Vanilla Fantasy trappings? I'd love to know his thoughts on the matter.

Trey said...

@Tanner - Good points regarding those influences. I'll see if I can get Paul to comment here.

blizack said...

@Tanner - I didn't have a list, and my take on this was considerably less fleshed-out than Trey's post is. I was thinking more in terms of aesthetic choices, mostly Caldwellian: big hair, bare legs, shiny gems. One thing I'd add to the other comments would be fairly unambiguous moral stances: the protagonists (or PCs) are heroes, though probably with some flaws, rather than morally grey ne'er-do-wells (or murderhobos, if you prefer).

Trey said...

@blizrack - Yeah, I think that last point pretty much goes across most "vanilla fantasy," if we don't include vanilla Sword & Sorcery in that group.

Tanner Maze said...

@blizrack and @Trey - Thanks for the info, fellas. Fantasy of the Glam Rock era.