Aeonite (Michael Fiegel) writes "When I was in fourth grade, my teacher once made the class grade each other's papers. As she read off answers, I stared in horror at the paper I had been given from the girl next to me. Every answer was wrong. Every one. By the time I had ticked off the 30th incorrect answer, I was practically in tears. I felt responsible, somehow, for the problems on the page. It would not be her fault that she failed, but rather my own fault for calling attention to her flaws. I felt ashamed. I felt awful. That was twenty years ago. I've gotten over it. That said, I have purposely not read any other reviews of the new 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons coffee table book, so I have no idea if other 'students' will judge this book in the same way I am about to. Which is to say, with a critical eye and a sad, sad shake of my head." Read on for Fiegel's review.
The inside book jacket explains that "(t)his book is a celebration of that phenomenon (D&D, natch) and a tribute to the millions of players who brought the Dungeons & Dragons experience to life." When I think of tributes, I think of missing-man formations flying over stadiums, of 21-gun salutes, and Taps played on a lone bugle. As a tribute, this book is the equivalent of a handful of cellophane balloons released from the rooftop of a children's hospital just before noon on a Sunday, with Kool and the Gang playing on a cassette deck nearby.
OK, perhaps that's harsh. Or perhaps you really like Kool and the Gang. In either case, I'll do my best to lay out my case clearly, and in the end you can decide for yourself if you think my harshness is justified or not.
I walked by this book at Barnes & Noble five times before I noticed it, even though it was laying flat on a table, its cover clearly visible to me. As covers go, it's really not designed to catch the eye. It's a book designed for rogues, or wraiths, muted gold images wrapped within a translucent sheet of white plastic, making the whole thing look like it's being viewed through a heavy mist, or perhaps a Wall of Fog spell. The title, if you read it off as you notice the elements on the page, is something like "Years A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons Of Adventure 30." The "30" in this case is represented by two 8-sided dice -- clever enough but very difficult to read. And why 8s? Why not 20s? Wouldn't that make more sense if we were trying to be clever? (Ed. It's been pointed out since I wrote this that it's actually a d8 and a d10, though my opinion stands.)
The book boasts on its cover that it features a Foreword by Vin Diesel. I guess this is high praise for the 16-year-old set who likes that movie where he drives around really fast, or maybe that one where he plays that criminal with the spooky eyes. I've got nothing against Vin Diesel, and I know he plays Dungeons & Dragons and all, but come on, folks. 30th Anniversary, and there's no place for Gary or Dave in your book? Throw 'em a bone. Hell, Steve Jackson could write a more appropriate Foreword.
For the young folk, "Gary" and "Dave" refer to Mr. Gygax and Mr. Arneson, respectively, two gentlemen who are peripherally involved in the role-playing industry. And yes, Gary Gygax does have a piece in the book -- but it was written in 1999. Somewhat tellingly, it includes the following statement by Mr. Gygax: "We were in a great hurry to get it done, and I was concerned about editing."
One wonders if the same could be said for this book.
At any rate, after Mr. Diesel's piece is an Introduction by the book's editor, Peter Archer, the brand manager for novels at Wizards of the Coast. His four-page intro is of particular interest for two reasons. First, it lays out the basic history of Dungeons and Dragons, from its roots to the release of Eberron. This history is important, because we're going to hear it retreaded and retold over and over and over again by different authors, and sometimes multiple times by the same author, on the pages that follow.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, his introduction is also some of the only text in the entire book which is grammatically correct, properly and cleanly laid out, and free of typos (at least insofar as I am aware). This book is positively awash in errors. If this were an OGL-released d20 product put on the market by a small publisher, said publisher would be lambasted for their sloppy work. I'm not about to pull any punches here because it's Wizards.
About the Graphic Design
Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.
Listen, I'm not the world's foremost expert on layout and design. Heck, I consider myself a writer by trade, though I do layout at my day job. But it doesn't take an expert to take one look at this book and go "Yeagh."
"Yeagh," here, interpreted as a vomiting sound.
All the basic rules of design are broken for no apparent reason other than to give the book a "hip" or "cool" layout. Instead of being presented with the text at a normal 90 degree angle to the page, every single page has the text skewed to the right or the left, so you have to constantly wiggle the book back and forth, back and forth to read it clearly. And the page numbers are no help. They're little 10-sided dice in the margin on right-hand pages, difficult to read (I didn't even notice they were there until I was halfway through the book) and serving no purpose other than to look cute.
The skewing of the pages left and right, left and right, means that the text is forced to flow in unnatural ways across pages, leading to awkward widows and orphans (when single words or sentences are left abandoned at the top or bottom of columns) and horrible breaks between pages and even within sentences:
"And the best part is that as you defeat more
monsters and gather
more treasure your character's chances to fight
and survive improve."
Flowing text between pages is simple in today's desktop publishing applications. You set up text boxes on each page and then you just paste all your text into the first block. Magically, it flows through the entire document, filling the boxes. Then you just save the document and send it off to the printer. Well, you're not supposed to do that. But that's evidently what happened here. Just a wee tiny little itty bit of nudging could have made this book a billion times more readable. Consider:
"TSR tackled the task of translating the game" (next page) "into the French language."
Why not adjust the leading or spacing a fraction of an inch to bump this back so the entire sentence fits on the first page, avoiding the awkward break? It's easy, really. I do it every day.
"Every staple of fantasy/swords & sorcery fiction could" (next page) "find a comfortable home in the Known World."
This one is even more egregious. At the bottom of that first page, there's a full two inches of space. You could have fit an entire new paragraph there, much less eight words. Come on, guys.
All this comes to a head in the latter pages of the book, when numerous smaller sub-articles by the likes of Ed Stark and Ryan Dancey are interspersed with the main narrative in a confusing jumble, both the sub-article and the main article continuing on across two, three or more pages. This causes the reader to have to flip back and forth numerous times to try and follow the separate threads, with amusing consequences. I think at one point Peter Adkison interrupted himself.
Moving on, there's much to be said of the overall graphic design, and none of it is good. Artwork, lifted from 30 years of Dungeons & Dragons products, is sprinkled willy-nilly with little regard for the subject matter. Some dramatic pieces have their most interesting bits cropped off seemingly at random. Other pieces are just reversed out and pasted on black or dropped behind a red mask, presumably for a "dramatic effect" akin to passing around a bowl of spaghetti when your players discover a pit full of snakes. In a chapter on AD&D 2nd Edition, several 1st Edition AD&D books are pictured. In a chapter on the 2nd Edition Historical Sourcebooks, several cover images are used over and over again on successive pages. And so on.
Color schemes shift from page to page, with any notion of good contrast tossed out the window. Here we have black type on white, then black type on brown, then black type on brown with a gradient from light brown to dark brown, then white on red. Page 189 is one of my favorites. Heck, even the notion of simple reversed text is thrown to the wolves here: compare 208 to 211; same white on purple scheme, different degrees of brightness. No doubt some of the pages even feature black text on a black background, though not having elven blood in me I lack the Darkvision necessary to perceive this strange and cryptic Moon writing.
Even simple things like two-page splashes are handled poorly. Check out pages 196-197 (or rather, try and find them, since they're not numbered) and try and decipher the subtitle mashed into the gutter of the book.
About The Editing (or lack thereof)
I have no way of knowing exactly who's to blame here. As Editor, I could be quick to point a finger at Mr. Archer, but perhaps here "Editor" means that he pulled the material together and strung it out so it made sense, in which case he did a good job. Whoever was responsible for copyediting and layout, however, should have to do this book all over again from scratch, on their own time. Some of the mistakes made here are positively amateurish, others so obvious that it's incredible that they weren't caught before this went to press.
Some examples of typos, poorly-phrased sentences and other gaffes that absolutely should have been fixed by an editor, chosen randomly from about the book:
"My second greatest love however, next to acting was gaming."
"My own campaign world grew out of that original map that I took a half hour to draw. z" (sic)
"...we saw a merchant caravans crossing the desert..."
"I may remembering wrong..."
"1976 was a year of beginnings as the Ral Partha miniatures company appears on the scene."
"using your time in a ways that's entertaining but also enriching."
"Until TSR published that Gary Gygax's home campaign setting back in 1975..."
"We start in town and buy your stuff."
"poured over books" (referring to reading them, not dumping water on them)
"silly to support two separately game lines"
"hen we released the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons..."
and the best, on page 253,
"Advance Dungeons & Dragons"
Lest you think me harsh, let me point out that these were all things I caught on my first read through the book. I'm not a professional copy editor by any stretch of the imagination, and I make mistakes all the time. But for a product which is made out to be this huge 30th Anniversary Celebration, you'd think someone would actually read through the thing one last time before it went out the door to try and fix stupid errors and clean up grammar. Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons is all caps, sometimes not. Sometimes Dungeon Master is capitalized, sometimes not. This is something a spell-checker could fix automatically had anyone taken fifteen seconds to run it.
Part of the problem (and no doubt, one of the arguments used to defend it) is the fact that a number of the typos and grammatical errors appear in one-page "celebrations" written by various people in the entertainment industry, some well known and others of more dubious fame. "We didn't make the errors," this mythical copy editor might say, "those people made the errors." To which I reply, any editor worth his salt knows that it's preferable to correct typos, fix punctuation and even slightly massage quotes to make them sound correct. No one wants to go down in print sounding like a goober, even if they typed the sentence out that way. They'd be happy you fixed it. We all would. Some of these little one-pagers read as if they were copied out of Outlook and pasted into InDesign without a second glance.
And speaking of stupid editing mistakes and one-pagers, take note of Nik Davidson's contribution on page 98. You'll be seeing it all over again on page 194. How this page got replicated, paragraph break error and all, is beyond me. It smacks of sloppiness, however, as does the whole book.
Which I will now discuss.
Chapter 1. The Adventure Begins
By Harold Johnson with Gary Gygax
As first chapters go, this is one of the worst. In fact, as all chapters ever written go, it's one of the worst, on countless levels.
To start with, the predominant color scheme in this chapter is red and black, which makes everything look as if the layout artist slit his wrists over his work in despair. Turning everything blood red does not make it more dramatic, guys. It makes it more muted and hard to see.
Then there are the stupid typographical errors. The introductory "adventure" is written across a two-page spread entirely in italics, for no other reason than to be in italics. Though the fact that it's difficult to read is certainly in its favor, as it's hardly stellar work, featuring numerous examples of the aforementioned bad spelling, run-on sentences, bad grammar and godawful writing:
"Two were warriors as could be seen by their swords, the dwarven one sported a long beard and held a heavy warhammer. The other two were something of an oddity-- the first wore long robes and carried a slender wand of white ash, his eyebrows were animated as he took in the scene. The other wore a loose fitting tunic and held a thin bladed dagger in one hand as his enigmatic grey eyes took in the setting."
Chris Prynoski's one page "celebration" (page 22) features more bad writing, including an obviously (and badly) contrived "example" of gameplay which introduces the words "fucked" and "piss" into the book for no apparent reason other than to be crass.
"What do you mean, 'What are you gonna do'? Don't I have to roll these fucked-up-looking dice or something? What am I supposed to do?"
"You can do anything."
"Okay. My guy pulls down his pants and pisses on the altar."
"I'm rolling to see what happens to you."
"Shouldn't I be rolling to see what happens to me?"
"I'm the Dungeon Master, dude."
Riiiiight. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Prynoski is telling the story sans embellishment, as it actually happened. Even so, it should be up to an Editor to say "You know, this is the one single page in the book where we use profanity, so maybe I should EDIT the page to remove it, for consistency. Since I'm the Editor. And stuff."
Cardell Kerr's one pager, which faces Prynoski's, is fairly coherent, but there are little things that suggest -- like the rest of the book -- that these "celebrations" were all pasted together from emails with little or no editing:
"Wow . . . thinking about it, is almost embarrassing. I mean, kobolds would never ride dragons!"
Other such "celebrations" in this chapter include testaments from Stephen Colbert, Wil Wheaton, Sherman Alexie and Ben Kweller, whose enlightening thoughts include one of the best collections of unrelated sentences in the entire book:
"When I was young, I read a ton of the Dungeons & Dragons Choose Your Own Adventure books. Music's always been my one passion in life. I had piano lessons when I was growing up..."
This first chapter of the book also features sections entitled: "Where Did It Come From?", which reiterates the story of D&D's historical origins; "A Gathering of Gamers," which not only discusses GenCon's beginnings, but also reiterates the story of D&D's historical origins; and "The Birth of D&D," which reiterates the story of D&D's historical origins.
I only wish that they'd included a section that reiterated the story of D&D's historical origins. Alas.
Chapter 2. Worlds of Adventure
By Steve Winter with Peter Archer and Ed Stark
The second chapter of the book is a tour of the main campaign settings that have been featured in Dungeons & Dragons throughout the years. As a whole it's much better written and edited than the first chapter, with more factual and relevant information and less "golly-gee" gushing.
Things begin to turn around when Peter Archer discusses Dragonlance, though he does lead off his retelling of Krynn's development with an interesting bit of time travel, stating that "Tracey Hickman, a Mormon, had returned from his mission abroad in Indonesia in March 1980" and then later that "Laura Curtis had introduced Tracy to D&D in 1997 before he went abroad."
The portions written by Steve Winter are excellently done, this inconsistency leading me to believe that the majority of the book was self-edited by the respective authors, without a final pass-through at the end. Winter's piece on the Forgotten Realms is fascinating, containing anecdotes and information about the creation of the Realms that I was previously unaware of, and his sections on Mystara, Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Dark Sun and Planescape contain similar revelations.
In fact, my only real gripe with the bulk of this chapter are things I've mentioned previously: awful layout (including some truly bad design decisions in the Planescape section, inserting one-page "celebrations" in the middle of the main narrative in a confusing fashion), and the bad editing and inconsistent writing in those same one-pagers. Some of them (Dan Trethaway's, and Feargus Urquart's) are well-written and edited, while others are disjointed (Laurell K. Hamilton's) or somewhat self-serving and seemingly irrelevant (John Frank Rosenblum).
Chapter 3. AD&D 2nd Edition
By Steve Winter
I expected this section to be well-written and informative, as the author, Steve Winter, had demonstrated his ability to do both those things in the previous chapter. I was not disappointed. Here, Winter covers not only the origins of 2nd Edition, but the PHBR Reference Books, the Historical Sourcebooks and the infamous Black Box (aka 1070), which was one of the best-selling items ever (over 500,000 copies worldwide). Winter seems bittersweet writing about these products, recognizing their flaws and respective levels of popularity (or lack thereof). Though not laid out so clearly, this sense of melancholy is a good lead in to the next chapter.
Chapter 4. From TSR to Wizards of the Coast
By Peter Adkison with Ed Stark
This chapter talks about Adkison's view of the merger, from the point of view of Wizards of the Coast, interspersed with Ed Stark's view from TSR. It's an interesting way to present the information, and is informative and interesting. As mentioned earlier, the layout choice to intersperse and interweave these smaller sub-articles through the main narrative makes it somewhat difficult to read, but here it almost seems to benefit the section's two-headed approach.
Sub-sections of the narrative are entitled "How I Became a D&D Fan," "TSR Needed Help," "The Acquisition of TSR," "Wizards of the Coast" and "Building TSR to Last," all self-explanatory as to the sort of content they contain and all interesting. "How I Became" really gets across the wonder of discovery, and "Needed Help" explains in layman's terms how it was that TSR crashed and burned despite record sales. "Acquisition" includes information on Ryan Dancey and the million dollar fax, while "Wizards" and "Building" wrap up the narrative nicely, bringing fact and feeling together quite nicely.
As a whole, this is perhaps the best part of the entire book, though as it starts on page 200 of a 284 page book, it's not really enough to save the whole.
Chapter 5. Third Edition
By Peter Adkison
As one might expect, this chapter covers the origins of 3rd Edition, discussing some of the design decisions that went into its development and covering topics such as the Open Gaming License that modern gamers are probably more familiar with. Though informative, it's bound to be less interesting to most readers since, unlike previous material, it's neither truly historical (it discusses events of the past five years) nor really revelatory. The section also suffers horribly from the poor layout discussed earlier, with numerous sub-articles running alongside and in-between the main narrative. Overall, it's a confused mess, and a slight downturn from the previous chapter.
Chapter 6. Into The Future
By Ed Stark
Really more of an Epilogue than a Chapter in itself, this consists of more graphical content than actual information. Here, computer games, "mature" products like the Book of Vile Darkness and Hasbro's purchase of Wizards of the Coast are discussed in more detail, though not with as much "oomph" as other sections of the book. It all feels tacked on, a feeling exacerbated by the fact that on page 282, halfway through the section, suddenly none of the paragraphs are indented. And then there's this:
"But things remained quiet. There were a few shake-ups, but mostly outside the RPG R&D department. Hasbro didn't interfere with us, and we kept our heads down for them."
And we turn the page and...
That's the end of the book, folks. That's how it ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper. It's as if everyone just got tired of looking at it and stopped working on it. Appalling.
As far as I'm concerned, only three people need to be called out onto the carpet on this one:
First, the Editor, Peter Archer. Sorry Peter, but you get a C. I'll grant you that it's not like there's a typo on the front cover but there is, on average, one typo or other error on every page of this book. For every one perfect page there's one with two or three errors on it. The editing is at best inconsistent. The middle of the book is much better, but it's far from perfect, and the first chapter really ruins the mood early on. Since there's no copyeditor listed in the credits, I have to point the finger Archerwards. Maybe it wasn't your fault. But we gotta blame someone, and your name's listed first. But you're not alone.
Art Direction: Matt Adelsperger
Graphic Design: Matt Adelsperger & Brian Fraley
Typesetting: Matt Adelsperger & Brian Fraley
Together you guys get a D. This is really bad. Really. I can sort of comprehend how this was perceived as a cutting-edge art book with nifty crosswise and crooked layout, lots of colors and a slapdash, thrown-together look. I just think it looks sloppy. As an art book, maybe it's quite the achievement. As a celebration of the greatest RPG ever published, it sucks.
$49.95? Are you kidding me? For this? It's worth half that, and I expect it'll be half that in about two weeks when it winds up in the half-price bin. I'm not about to take my copy back (I can write it off on my taxes since I wrote this review, after all), but I'm not inclined to show it to my gaming friends.
This book does not make me want to celebrate Dungeons & Dragons. It makes me frustrated and sort of angry that this sloppy product was foisted off on us. So much more could have been done, and so much better. Even if no additional content were added, a cleaner layout with better use of graphics and a single pass through by a copyeditor could have caught most of the mistakes I mention above, and helped make it a delightful read. But alas, no. I see nothing stylish about being random and sloppy. If this were anything other than a Celebration of 30 years of D&D I might be more forgiving, but it isn't, and I'm not. We deserve better.
The middle of the book, especially the portions written by Mr. Winter and Mr. Adkison, are really interesting, fun and informative. But these highlights are dimmed by the broad shadow cast by much of the other material, including some of the more awful "gee whiz" one-pagers and the entirety of Chapter 1.
I'd recommend this book if you're a true fan, a completist, or if you have 50 bucks to spend. I would not recommend you buy this as a Christmas gift for someone else, because really they'll probably be disappointed, and you don't want that. Give them a $50 gift certificate for your FLGS instead. It'll be much more appreciated, and chances are the product they buy with that money will get them a much cleaner, much better edited product than this.
Let's hope the "50 Years of Adventure" book is a little better than this. Assuming we're still reading books in twenty years, of course.
You really could purchase 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews. To see your own review here, carefully read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.