Saturday, February 25, 2023

The One Where Furt Gets Pedantic and Trashes A Beloved Fantasy Illustration

Dragonslayers & Proud Of It
Larry Elmore, 1989

Note, this is no slight against Elmore's style or the people who like his art. His Dragonlance work still shapes how I imagine that world, and I'm also fond of his work for Everquest, even if his stuff isn't as iconic to the franchise as Keith Parkinson's. I just happen to have developed a sudden and inexplicably intense dislike for this picture in particular.

Dragonslayers & Proud Of It is the first piece of art one sees after cracking open a copy of the non-revised edition of the AD&D 2E Player's Handbook, excluding the Jeff Easley knight on the cover. It depicts a party of adventurers--two fighters, a magic-user, a cleric, and some sort of elf archer (perhaps a thief?)-- who have just become the illustration's namesakes. The adventurers display their kill, each one posing around the dead dragon as it hangs from a tree in some scenic wilderness. Some of the adventurers gaze at the trophy while others look at the viewer, almost as if they are staging a portrait or photo for the occasion.

The piece was instantly iconic, partly because of how effectively it communicates a goal for any new players to strive for. These are low- to middling-level adventurers with no obvious magic items or ridiculous plate armor, which makes them only a few steps above what a brand new party begins at. But they are a successful party with bruises and rewards to show for it; models for an eager newbie to aspire to to be like. 'With grit, teamwork, and a lot of dice luck,' the piece seems to boast, 'you too could survive long enough to kill a dragon and take its stuff!'

It just doesn't do it for me, though. And here's why.

I'll be talking about it a lot more down below, but for now I'll say there's something scrawny and pathetic about the dragon that just doesn't inspire a sense of wonder in me. It's tiny, as far as dragons go, and savaged by the party's collective injuries to it.

Similarly puny is the "hoard" that your eye is drawn to see after passing down over the dragon's carcass. And I mean, look at this thing.

I see a corroded old crown with missing jewels, something that might have once been a goblet or maybe an emblem of some sort, and then a bunch of silver and (if I'm being generous with the color) gold coins. It all fits in a box the size of one of those vintage tomato crates you still sometimes find in rural stores, which only serves to highlight how small it is. Unless they were on a quest to find that crown for a wealthy heir, I think this box barely contains enough treasure to buy a set of banded mail for one of the fighters.

And I don't want to seem like I'm deliberately avoiding the alternate interpretation that the contents of this piece are deliberately humble, to contrast with the reactions of the party and make the title ironic. Modest accomplishment met with wide-eyed enthusiasm by novice, green-behind-the-ears heroes is a great subject for an illustration. But I don't think that's what's happening here either.

Because not even the party seems all that impressed by their achievement.

The cleric and one of the fighters are playing things up to be more visually striking than they really are, either holding the head up with a look of grim vindication or gawking at it in faux-surprise, respectively. But they try to sell it a little too hard.

The elf and the magic-user seem incredulous or slightly uncomfortable, like they have an inkling of what this might look like as they pose with their little kill strung up like wild game.

"Are we really doing this...?"     "We're really doing this..."

About the only one who looks sincerely and thoroughly satisfied with the situation is the other fighter who's busy Jeremiah Johnson'ing up there, although even he has a bit of a smug edge to him. I bet it was his idea to do this.

That post-murder afterglow, yo.

I think there's a good reason why the party seems so iffy on the whole thing, and to answer that I'm going to have to get even more pedantic- let's bring up some 2E Monster Manual stats.

I think it's reasonable to assume that this greenish dragon was an actual Green Dragon. They're fond of sub-tropical and temperate forests, much like the backdrop here, so we'll be using that entry.

Dragons of all types in 2E are divided by age category, which determines things like hit dice, breath weapon, magic abilities, etc. And because TSR was as devoted to statistical minutia as Gygax or Arneson ever were, we are provided with exact body and tail lengths for each age category in each species of dragon.

Green dragons of age category 1 are 2-7 feet long with 2-5 foot long tails. Since the specimen above is shorter than the (admittedly rather tall) male human fighter even when stretched to full length, and the tail is about as long again, it definitely looks like an Age 1 or Hatchling dragon to me.

That puts the dragon's age at time of death somewhere in the range of 0-5 years. That looks bad even in the frame of human years, where at best the dragon was little more than a toddler. But for a species that regularly lives for hundreds, if not thousands of years, this is essentially a newborn, and one of the weakest examples of dragonkind presented in the book.

"But Furt," you may say as you spontaneously animate out of a bale of straw to serve my argument, "even young dragons can still be a challenge for low-level parties." And that's true! This hypothetical infant dragon still has an average of 31 HP, AC 3, and a breath weapon for 2d6+1 damage, even if it's completely lacking in the fear, magic, and magic resistance departments. This hatchling could have easily caused a party wipe- except it clearly didn't.

The party is barely injured in the picture. The elf still has a nearly full quiver of arrows, and no one has any serious battle damage on their gear, with the exception of a pair of pants: of the five members, only the two fighters show any sign of injury, and those only take the form of relatively minor claw marks on the legs. Neither of them look worse for wear, though. You can get nastier scrapes on a hike. Heck, I've bled more than both of them combined after eating slightly spicy food and sniffling myself into a nosebleed.

On the topic of blood, the overwhelming majority of stains in this picture seem to be from the dragon's blood. It smears almost everyone's armor and boots, like they had to struggle with the corpse to drag it out of its lair and string it up- at least I hope it was dead before they hanged it. Blood also seeps in drying trails from the dozen or more wounds across all sides of its body. It even wells up from its nostrils and streams down its face, perhaps squeezed out by the pressure of the noose. The battle was one-sided, and its death was not quick. This was less of an epic confrontation, more of an unlucky schoolyard beat-down.

Let's return to the general and green dragon entries one last time:

"During the early part of a dragon's young adult stage it leaves its parents, greed driving it on to start a lair of its own." (Emphasis mine.)

"The majority of green dragons encountered will be alone. However, when a mated pair of dragons and their young are encountered, the female will leap to the attack. The male will take the young to a place of safety before joining the fight. The parents are extremely protective of their young, despite their evil nature, and will sacrifice their own lives to save their offspring."

We've already established that this dragon was way too small to have been young adult (over 80' long from nose to tail for a green dragon), so we can assume that this one was not only a hatchling, but also an orphan. Maybe it got forced out by stresses at the family lair, or maybe some band of higher-level adventurers already merc'd mom and dad in that order; whatever the cause, our heroes killed a dragon that should not have been alone under normal circumstances.

Hell, maybe that tiny crate is all the hatchling had to remember its slaughtered family by.

... Okay, that one's a bit of a stretch, even for me.

All told, a party of professional murderers mildly inconvenienced itself to kill an abandoned child and steal its paltry collection of trinkets, then decided to brag about it. To me they're less like role models to aspire to, and more like those retired cops who drive up here from the Boroughs every hunting season looking to act tough, but all they really do is spend an entire weekend getting drunk in a deer stand before accidentally shooting a fawn and taking a selfie with it anyway.

I'm coming down on this piece so hard partly because Elmore already accomplished this same goal years earlier. He did that with his cover art for the 1983 D&D Basic set, popularly known as the Red Box. (Side note, it takes a lot for me to willingly compliment BECMI. It's by far my least favorite edition/continuum of editions.)

That piece, which depicts a lone fighter battling a very alive red dragon in its far more opulent hoard, feels like a more effective inspiration for new players. The fighter is obviously either a higher level than the AD&D party (or just suicidally brave), but it still hits on all the same points in order to grip and inspire a new player: there's danger to be surmounted, treasure to be claimed, and yes, there is a dragon inside a dungeon.

The way some of the edges bleed out past the frame also just looks quite nice. The dragon reaching out helps to include the observer in the artwork, as if the scene might be from the perspective of one of the fighter's party members, standing behind him for protection. Or perhaps the fighter is stepping into the scene directly out of the observer's imagination?

At this point I've pretty much tapped every last drag of that one art class I half-remember, so I'll just leave it at that.


  1. Although I agree with your take, the irony is actual dragon images from the old days often show dragons as far smaller than D&D dragons.

    1. Thought I published your comment days ago, sorry!

      You are very correct. I didn't consider that might have been an inspiration at all, and that's pretty plausible. Lots of knights and saints and things were depicted as the slayers of dragons that were at most, horse-sized. That was also a time when they were as much allegories for sin or what have you as they were deadly creatures in and of themselves.

      I'm realizing that's another thing Tolkien reshaped popular perception of- Smaug was huge, and you can't get much bigger than Ancalagon.