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Title: Disciples of Gygax

Source: Chicago Reader, April 20, 2007

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Disciples of Gygax

Todd Bailey and Nate Murphy pay loving tribute to Dungeons & Dragons for Version>07.

By Noah Berlatsky
April 20, 2007

IN THE NERD hierarchy, role-playing gamers are way down at the bottom, sharing a rung with cos-players and furries. Comics geeks, video-game addicts, and even online fan-fiction writers can all look down on the Dungeons & Dragons dweeb, who combines the clumsy effeminacy of a second-rate fantasy novel with the repellent maleness of a pointless obsession with statistics. As far as most of the world is concerned, D & D as a cultural phenomenon issued its final Frito-flavored belch sometime in the mid-80s--after a media-induced moral panic about the game's supposed links to satanism and suicide--and crawled back into the cave where it was spawned.

But in fact Dungeons & Dragons is doing just fine, thank you, despite (or perhaps because of) the enormous popularity of similar online games like World of Warcraft. It's currently owned by Wizards of the Coast, which made a pile of money with Magic: the Gathering and in 1997 bought original publisher TSR. A Hasbro subsidiary since '99, Wizards of the Coast has released two updates to the game's rules and continues to crank out supplements and adventures at a respectable clip. Moreover, as all things 80s have become new again, D & D has received a life-giving infusion of hipster cred. The flagship exhibit of this year's Version multimedia festival, "We're Rollin', They're Hatin'" (click here more on the fest), not only has a role-playing theme but features actual gamers in the back room rolling up characters and a D & D library provided by Wizards of the Coast. If the gods are kind, a full-size functional catapult will make an appearance at the opening party.

Art dudes being what they are, the show will undoubtedly include plenty of self-aware distance and easy irony. But at least one team of exhibitors is determined to bring some honest-to-God D & D geekery out of the back room and into the exhibit hall: Todd Bailey and Nate Murphy, who are making dozens of copies of a playable D & D adventure by hand.

That's not to say they're necessarily representative of the gaming population. Bailey, who now lives in an art-student-infested warehouse in Garfield Park, cofounded the defunct Humboldt Park party space Camp Gay, and both men lived there till it was shut down. Murphy works as Glenn Kotche's drum tech and is contributing several maniacally detailed illustrations to the liner notes of the forthcoming Wilco album. Neither has played Dungeons & Dragons in years. Still, they retain a love for the material from their gaming days. Murphy is a fan of the art in early D & D rule books, and liches, giant toads, and other Monster Manual beasties have made their way onto his rock posters. "The figure drawing in those first-edition books is weak," he says, "but they make up for it with a willingness to draw lots of tiny lines. It's charming."

Of the two, Bailey has kept the closer eye on gaming developments. He dressed in chain mail for our interview--borrowed, he assures me, from a coworker who'd gotten married in it. ("Do you know how much an actual suit of armor costs?") He's a bottomless source of useless information on all things D & D, from its roots in naval wargaming to the hot-tub exploits of its creator, Chicago native Gary Gygax.

When Logan Bay, part of the Gutter Butter DJ crew and one of Version's organizers, invited Murphy to contribute artwork, he quickly decided that a drawing of a barbarian battling a dragon wasn't going to cut it. He wanted, he says, "to do something really sincere, beyond referencing Dungeons & Dragons as a casual cultural phenomenon."

He got in touch with Bailey, who felt the same way--though he's a bit blunter about it. "It's about not wanting to do a shitty art project," he says. Though he's excited by the lineup at the opening--east-coast comic-art collective Paper Rad will screen videos and mount an installation, and Dungeon Majesty, a group of four women from LA who make short fantasy films for public-access TV, will unveil a new episode--he has reservations about the festival as a whole. "A lot of stuff at Version fest can be kitschy and thrown together," he says. "We're part of that same group of people, but we felt more sincerely connected [to D & D] and we wanted to put in a lot of effort--even if it will never be in a real gallery, but just at this great party." He and Murphy started to kick around ideas in January, and before you could say "make a saving throw against obsessive-compulsive behavior," they'd embarked on a project so insanely labor intensive it'd make an outsider artist blush.

For the narrative part of their adventure, Bailey reworked a scenario he'd written years before for an ex who'd been immobilized by a motorcycle accident. Quest of the Sun Key is a romping hodgepodge of classic fantasy and gaming tropes, complete with pseudo-Egyptian iconography, epic themes of light and dark, rumor-laden taverns, gibbering priests, carefully calculated experience-point bonuses, and gratuitous pop-culture references (mostly to hip-hop--there's a witch called Spinderella and an orc shaman named Koopsta Knicca, after a former MC for the Three 6 Mafia). Murphy's art hews similarly close to ye olde tradition. At the bottom of one piece, he proudly points out, is a goblet half-buried in a heap of treasure--an image that's probably appeared at least once in every D & D product ever published.

Producing a role-playing scenario like this takes a lot of time--on top of researching the mythology, drawing maps, and compiling tables to randomize the occurrence of rumors and wandering monsters, Bailey has basically written a 24,000-word short story. And Murphy's illustrations are impressively meticulous too--I doubt I've ever personally met anybody who's drawn so many snake scales. But effort alone doesn't make a D & D adventure occupy the same cultural space as an art project.

So Bailey and Murphy decided to add some frills. Instead of using a printer or Xerox machine, they're silk-screening every one of the 25 pages for every copy. Many of the dozen or so illustrations will be in two or three colors--doubling or tripling the work it takes to print them--and include glow-in-the-dark elements. In keeping with the adventure's sun-god motif, each module will be cut into an 18-inch-wide circle. Bailey's planning to hand-sew the bindings, though thankfully that'll only take a few stitches--more would make it too hard to open a circular book, and he figures people will want to disassemble the thing when they play it anyway, if just to pull out the map.

Each copy will also come with a small burlap bag containing one 20-sided die--players will have to buy the rest of the game's usual assortment themselves. Julianna Luther, Bailey's girlfriend, is embroidering each bag with an image of the sun god. The dice are handmade too: Bailey, who works as a designer and electronics engineer at Big Monster Toys, used a large store-bought die to make a mold out of silicon-based platinum rubber, then filled it with a clear UV-sensitive urethane he formulated himself. The dice glow brilliant orange under black light, and the fluorescent orange paint he's using to fill in the numbers turns yellow.

Murphy and Bailey don't like to think about how much time and money they've sunk into this project, but when pressed they acknowledge they've spent more than $1,300 and hundreds of hours. That's a lot of resources to throw at something that's, in a lot of ways, kind of silly. But they care about D & D, and while caring is in some sense a colossal failure of cool, it's also, not coincidentally, the basis of any good art. Besides, says Bailey, "Once you're already a hipster, you're a lot less self-conscious about saying 'More mead, wench!'"

Copies of Quest of the Sun Key will be available for $40 at the opening of "We're Rollin', They're Hatin'," tonight at a former Bridgeport department store that Version organizers have christened the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Bailey says he might drop some more off at Quimby's afterward, and if any are left he'll bring them to the exhibit's closing on May 20. If you miss them, you're out of luck: there will be no second printing.

We're Rollin', They're Hatin' at Version>07
When Opens with a reception Fri 4/20, 6 PM
Where Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan
Price $10 donation requested after 8 PM
Info 773-837-0145

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