Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Friday, September 3, 2010

When is a Dwarf not a Dwarf?

When he's friggin' huge!
There has been a 'growing' trend in dwarf illustration over the last 20 years or so to depict them not as the small fey creatures of mythology but as slightly shorter-than-normal humans of bizarre proportions who are as wide as they are tall.

When did this:

Become this?:

 Iconography has great influence on human psychology; what we perceive, visually, becomes reality.  The phrase 'a picture is worth a thousand words' might be better expressed as 'a picture trumps a thousand words.'  The Oxford dictionary defines 'dwarf' as a person of abnormally small stature but the image of the dwarf as a hypersteroidal mutant, such as is pictured above has become indelibly stamped on the psyches of an entire generation of gamers.  The dichotomous split in iconographic perception became clear to me during my last game session when I described a cavern with small tunnel in the ceiling that was only wide enough for a small-sized creature to fit through, and  I mentioned that of the PCs, only the dwarf was small enough to fit into the tunnel.  One of the players told me that there was no way a dwarf would be able to fit in a small sized hole because they were so broad and that a human would be better able to get through than the dwarf.  What a profoundly different viewpoint from my own.

Here's how the dwarf compared to other races in the AD&D Player's Handbook circa 1978:


Compared to the dwarf of 3E, circa 2000:


Between these two editions the dwarf has gotten taller and considerably broader, and when I imagine a dwarf it is the former I picture, not the latter.  There can be a real disconnect when the players are envisioning one version of the dwarf and the game master is thinking of the other.

Of course, it isn't just dwarfs that have been subjected to distortion of their anatomical proportions; this has been an artistic fad for quite some time now, and I point my finger of accusation squarely at comic book artists of the nineties, particularly guys like Todd McFarlane, who couldn't draw a properly proportioned person to save his life, but somehow spawned an entire generation of imitators that came to dominate the entire comic industry and, by consequence, the field of fantasy illustration as well.

Now we adventure through lands where women have enormous, gravity-defying bewbs that cannot be constrained by mere fabric, and men with ridiculously large pectoral muscles that couldn't possibly attach to a human skeleton, and biceps that are bigger than their heads.  It's like looking at people in a fun-house mirror - everything is exaggerated to bizarre proportions.

One of the worst current offenders of iconographic naturalism is one of the iconic characters from Paizo's Pathfinder RPG.

That's not a sword...THIS is a sword.

The artist has obviously never handled a real sword - there's no counter-balance in the hilt and it couldn't possibly be wielded.  But who needs realism when you've got crap-loads of kewl!

I guess I'm just not hip to current trends.  I know that the fantasy genre deals with the impossible, but illustrations like these rip my suspension of disbelief into little itsy bitsy pieces, chews them up and spits them out in a gooey wad of masticated dreams.  RPG illustrations should be evocative and reflective of the genre being emulated; they should stir the imagination not elicit gales of laughter at their utter stupidity.  But that's just my opinion and I know I'm in the minority.  So give me dwarfs that are midgets, swords that are balanced, and women with breasts instead of bewbs.



54 comments:

Jeff Rients said...

Personally, I think the dwarf problem predates the anatomical abominations of 90's comics. Citadel miniatures are where I first saw dwaves get taller and wider.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

The half-orc is another case in point.

I love what Chevski has done with his re-imagining of the dwarf, he has thrown a little bit of weird into the mix.

Naraoia said...

Couldn't agree more, on all points.

The "bewb" thing drives away female gamers, but that's a well-flogged horse. The swords are just obviously inspired by Japanese animation/manga (the first one I saw was in Final Fantasy VII).

The dwarf thing, though... even Tolkien made them sound about the same dimensions as his hobbits (especially Bilbo). Now they're muscle-bound and slightly short. Maybe I'm just that old, but I still think of dwarves as the guys who made the Ring (um, the Norse, Wagnerian ring, that is) and all those cursed magic swords. Not good fighters on their own, but incredible craftsmen. Oh, but of course now that's the gnomes, who live in some kind of bizarre steampunk world right next door to our Feudal European human empire, but never bother to take over with their (steam powered) Gatling guns. Um, seriously?

Sean Robson said...

@Jeff: I should have mentioned the Citadel dwarfs especially given that I have a large collection of them, including a pre-Warhammer dwarf from about 1982 or so.

@Paladin: Yeah, the AD&D Half-orc looks like an orcy human; the 3E Half-orc looks like an orc. A really big orc.

@Naraoia: I tend to prefer the dwarf of mythology - capricious fey craftsmen, and this is how I originally intended them to be portrayed in my world, which is heavily influenced by Celtic mythology. Over the years, though, my vision has been overwritten by the assumptions of various groups of players who only know them as kick-ass axe-wielding beach balls who get stuck going through door frames.

nykster said...

As I have actually very little D&D experience, the great majority of my knowledge of dwarves come from J.R.R Tolkien. The scene in "The Two Towers" where they are getting their armour on in Helm's Deep sees Gimli attempting to put on some chain mail designed for a human. As it drops around him, the bottom touching the ground, he comments, "It's a bit tight in the chest."
That is where I got the thought that a dwarf would have just as hard a time fitting into a narrow crevice as a human.
I figured all the mining and hard labour, not to mention the excess of beer drinking, would make a person rather rotund or burly.

Sean Robson said...

I don't mean to single you out, Jordan, just use your comments to illustrate how iconography determines perception.

With respect to the Two Towers scene you cite - this isn't Tolkien, it's Peter Jackson. Tolkien's dwarfs were traditional mythic little folk. Peter Jackson's interpretation was based on contemporary iconography. Another great example of how popular icons affect perception, and how pictures trump words; thanks for mentioning it.

Anonymous said...

I was saddened by how Gimli is made a comic relief character in the movies, as opposed to his largely solemn awesomeness in the books.

I don't think Dwarves are as tiny as that 1E PH illustration in Tolkein. In the prologue to Fellowship the professor says Hobbits range from 2-4 feet, and Dwarves are bigger; substantially stockier and stouter, even when not much taller. (That's not a direct quote, but close).

I think that 1E illustration is similarly bad to that Pathfinder picture with the huge sword. Neither makes any sense from a real-world physics perspective. The Dwarf would be capped at something like Strength 5. He's just too tiny to realistically fight a human-sized creature. Perhaps I'm overstating that a bit; I can wrap my head around a supernaturally strong little guy easier than that anime-inspired sword. Of course "it's magic" equally well explains either.

In 3E and 4E Dwarves are still 4-4.5 feet tall, which matches up with Tolkein and I think with 1E, though the 1E PH & DMG don't seem to actually give numbers for height. WotC does categorize them as Medium-sized, stockier and broader than humans, but that might actually go back to 2E. I think it originated as a way to rationalize them being equally physically poweful to humans.

nykster said...

Sean: While what I quoted was from the movie, the depiction of a dozen dwarves in "the Hobbit"(which hasn't been made into a movie yet) is rather rotund for the most part, all of them being taller and having more girth than Bilbo.
Bombur, I believe, is so fat he needs to be carried by 4 other dwarves.
Not that I disagree at all with what you are saying.
However, mental images work against you in the same manner. I read a book one time, forgive me for fogetting the title and author, where my first preceived image of a character was completly different when I re-read the book. Yet after the inital incounter with that character, I went back to imagining him as I did the first time I read the book. Even though I imagined it completly wrong the first time.

ze bulette said...

Couldn't agree with you more, and it's all a little disappointing. The Pathfinder icon example really illustrates the influence of computer games on the hobby, IMHO.

Anthony Emmel said...

Chello!

Excellent points about the dwarf and the "up-sizing" of many things in gaming, such as races, weapons, and other. One movie series that I think got it right is the current Narnia one.

http://a330.g.akamai.net/7/330/23382/20080720212850/www.variety.com/graphics/photos/_storypics/narnia_dwarf.jpg

BTW, was just directed to your blog from another one on thr Net and am now following! :thumbs up:

Sean Robson said...

Thanks Anthony! I've found many wonderful blogs through other people's blog rolls; I just wish I had time to follow all of them.

Cheers,
Sean

Anonymous said...

The story of the ridicilous sword:
"What the warband themselves didn't anticipate was that Amiri would find a frost giant. After wandering the mountains, she came to an immense body at the foot of a cliff—the giant had fallen to his death weeks before, and at his side lay his immense bastard sword. Although Amiri knew that she had not killed the giant, she also knew that all she needed was his sword as proof—certainly her kin wouldn't think to dispute her claim with such a grand trophy."

Source: Pathfinder wiki

Anonymous said...

I have the same art preferences as you, however, I believe things like the Pathfinder art actually are "evocative and reflective of the genre being emulated"... the genre of "D&D" style games today is not what it was when Gary Gygax was writing them. There is a much stronger emphasis on stylized art (not that art from folks like Erol Otus or Jeff Dee was not stylized!) because there's a lot of inspiration from modern fiction like anime and video games in today's RPGs. It's what younger people have been exposed to and like, and want.

I've always felt art was important to RPGs, and that includes art made for home games, perhaps especially art made for home games. We always would make character illustrations, and the DM had art for important NPCs as well. I think this goes a long way to making sure everyone is on the same page as far as expectations and understanding of the individual GM's campaign world, so odd situations where imaginations clash are reduced.

And for the record, I always thought the proportions in the AD&D player's handbook illustration of the races were a bit off, and especially off in the dwarf's case. It seemed that was the only image where one was portrayed as being that tiny.

Jon H said...

shimrod wrote: " The Dwarf would be capped at something like Strength 5. He's just too tiny to realistically fight a human-sized creature. Perhaps I'm overstating that a bit; I can wrap my head around a supernaturally strong little guy easier than that anime-inspired sword. "

Chimpanzees are smaller than humans, but considered to be much stronger. It's often said that they're 7 times stronger, but that might just be a myth. Still, they're strong.

I wouldn't even want to get in a fight with a rhesus macaque, who are even smaller than chimps.

A dwarf might have denser muscle than a human, or different kinds of muscle fibers, or the muscle might be arranged differently and be anchored differently and thus more efficient at producing force.

Jon H said...

Aha: From an article by anthropologist John Hawks at slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2212232/

"Repeated tests in the 1960s confirmed this basic picture. A chimpanzee had, pound for pound, as much as twice the strength of a human when it came to pulling weights. The apes beat us in leg strength, too, despite our reliance on our legs for locomotion. A 2006 study found that bonobos can jump one-third higher than top-level human athletes, and bonobo legs generate as much force as humans nearly two times heavier."

"Even though chimpanzees weigh less than humans, more of their mass is concentrated in their powerful arms. But a more important factor seems to be the structure of the muscles themselves. A chimpanzee's skeletal muscle has longer fibers than the human equivalent and can generate twice the work output over a wider range of motion."

So clearly there's real-world evidence of a non-human primate being significantly stronger than a human.

Kiltedyaksman said...

Pretty darn interesting. Thanks for pointing to your post. Interesting that we were thinking similar things!

Trey said...

I think it comes down to preference. The dwarves in my current campaign are descendants of Neanderthals, so they are broader than humans, and proportional more massive. This wouldn't be a distortion of proportion but a more realistic one. Dwarven strength and fortitude gotta come from somewhere.

Now, if you want dwarves proportioned like humans suffering from dwarfism, that's find with me, but those proportions wouldn't "naturalistically" give dwarves the physical characteristics they have in game.

Sean Robson said...

Certainly, if you are putting your own spin on a race you can depict them in whatever way suits their origin. Thus, of course, it would make sense to depict Neanderthal dwarfs as massive and stocky.

I was referring to traditional dwarfs of mythology, though, and how their depiction has changed over time. With respect to physical characteristics in the game - that depends on the game you're playing. I play S&W and Dwarfs don't receive any bonuses for physical characteristics.

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Daniel said...

Gosh. A lot of words have been contributed to this discussion. I'm gonna contribute an image however.

Recently I did a portfolio of illustration for my fantasy game and my hope was to produce realistic images (within the limits of my skill) that were also somewhat inspired by the old black-and-white drawings of older editions of AD&D.

One purpose was to overcome the issue of differences between what the GM and PCs imagine - I can flash these pictures at them to inform them of my vision.

So here is my (male) dwarf sketch (even if its stated purpose is to depict ravens): https://www.flickr.com/photos/72515521@N00/13231328394/in/album-72157640485106063/

He is rather bulky but still very much more vertical than horizontal (as you would expect something akin to a human to be). His basic look was ripped off of a medieval Magyar warrior.

You may like other images in the same album. I have striven for realism particularly in the case of characters lacking clothing.

Sean Robson said...

Cool, stuff. Thanks for sharing your drawings, Daniel!