Who Needs Iconics Anyway?

One of the challenges posed in introducing role-playing to newcomers is in relating the near-limitless possibilities of the player's persona -- the player character -- and what that might look like. Enter iconics, which existed long before the Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons branded them.

What's an Iconic?

Broadly, iconics are recurring characters that are used in examples of play. There's a comprehensive list of iconics introduced in Third Edition here, with a wide spread of characters covering many possible race and class combinations.

Iconics later served other purposes, as envisioned by Third Edition's marketing team, who wanted to make the characters easier to relate to. Iconics also created a stable of characters to draw from for fiction in a variety of media -- initially, just short stories and novels, but later in comics and films.

The Anti-Iconics

Long before Third Edition came up with iconics, there were characters who became legendary in D&D because their names were associated with spells and magic items -- Melf's Acid Arrow, Tenser's Floating Disc, and Otto's Irresistible Dance to name just a few. Perhaps the most iconic characters are the ones who played with Gary in the early playtest games: Ernie (Tenser of Tenser's Floating Disc spell), Elise (Ehlissa, a Queen who created the Marvelous Nightingale artifact in the First Edition Dungeon Master's Guide), Don Kaye (Murlynd, a pistol-wielding quasi-deity), and Rob and Terry Kuntz (Robilar and Terik, who appeared in the World of Greyhawk folio and the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure Isle of the Ape, respectively).

These characters didn't quite serve the same marketing purpose as later iconics. They were more archetypes and examples, but did not necessarily represent the full spread of D&D possibilities -- in fact, they often broke the rules (Murlynd's pistols come to mind). They were less iconic but more memorable as a result.

For iconics a little closer to the types of characters we’re accustomed to today, the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide provides some clues.

The Pre-Iconics

Scattered throughout the DMG are illustrations on the borders of five adventurers created by David C. Sutherland (see picture above). The adventuring party includes a human female magic-user, a sword-and-dagger-wielding Halfling, a human “sword-and-board” fighter, an axe-and-shield-wielding dwarf, and a bow-wielding elf. The Halfling stabs a stone giant in the gut in one illustration and a fire salamander in another (also in the gut). The PCs also take on kobolds and trolls. The fighter has a winged dragon on his shield – and judging by that pattern on his shield, the same fighter was also facing off against a red dragon on the cover of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set.

There were other characters expressed visually like Sutherland’s PCs, but they had a specific marketing purpose – to sell D&D. TSR wasn’t too keen on comics at the time, as relayed by one of the artists who worked on the comic ads, Bill Willingham:

Myself and a fellow named Jeff Dee were the two artists in the art department that were very into comics. We’d even gotten to the point of getting a meeting with Gary Gygax to try and convince him to start a line of comics, TSR-published comics. He gave that idea to the Dragon magazine person, who just hated comics and everything about them and who said he looked into it and it’s not viable. So we were kind of disappointed that we’re both frustrated comic artists working at TSR. And TSR’s ad department, which is completely separate from the art department, did a deal with Marvel Comics to run ads in the comics and they did this little comic-strip ad. They hired some outside person to do the first one, who knew nothing, turned in this wretched first episode or whatever you call it.

In that regard, Indel the elf, Valerius the Fighter, and Grimslade the magic-user were the first true iconics to appear in comics. Saren, a female cleric, was added in the second comic. The heroes face off against a shambling mound, green slime, goblins, and even a red dragon. They survive, only to go on another quest to rescue Grimslade’s mentor, Grindal. They never made it, as the series stopped abruptly and was eventually replaced by new adventurers: Auric the fighter, Tirra the elf, and Khellek the wizard. This trio’s adventures also trailed off without resolution. Willignham explained why the comics failed in an interview:

Steve Sullivan was writing those things, I was drawing them… and they kept us both on on a freelance basis to continue doing them, but at some point, we’d finished up one little storyline and were just starting another, and someone in some other department or whatever had decided, “You know, maybe running comic-strip ads in a comic book is not the way to go.” Which I agree with, by the way. You want your ad to stand out. It’s like, if you run comic-strip ads in a magazine that isn’t comics, it’ll grab your attention, but why see a commercial that’s just more of what you’re reading anyway?

D&D would later create iconic characters thanks to established fiction like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, where characters like Sturm and Elminister and Drizzt became household names. But all of those characters appeared in fiction first, role-playing games later. Iconics would properly debut in Third Edition.

Iconics, Finally

Jon Schindette, Wizard of the Coast’s website art director at the time, explained the iconic dilemma:

Iconics or the use of iconics as a major marketing and product push are a double-edged sword. On one side of the fence, it has been shown that folks relate well to products and brands that have a familiar or known quality to them. This is one of the reasons that many brands use mascots to serve as a face of the brand. That familiarity seems to make the brand more approachable. The flip side to this scenario is that the voice of the brand can start to get stale. When you have a limited release schedule, it isn't too onerous seeing the same folks over and over, but when you have an active release schedule, it can get old seeing the same characters all the time. Familiarity turns to apathy or flat-out hatred.

WOTC ended up relying on iconics as a marketing tool, with the likes of Mialee, Regdar, Lidda, etc. This was not without controversy, because the Third Edition developers worked hard to avoid a white male iconic at the forefront. Monte Cook explained what happened next:

Regdar intruded his way into 3E, empowered by marketing and sales people. At the last minute, in a matter of just those few short weeks, the old TSR standard reared its ugly head. Not only was Regdar on the scene, he was in the spotlight. This was the character that would be on the cardboard standees and other promotional items, and would usually take center stage in the covers. I was caught entirely off-guard and was far too late to even comment on him. Now, to his credit, the initial Regdar artist, Todd Lockwood, made Regdar's ethnicity kind of vague. (Regdar had shown up in Todd's earlier sketches when he designed the look of 3E armor.) It's only in later artwork that Regdar seems to be pretty clearly the white male fighter we tried to avoid. And to the credit of a number of people--artists, art directors, designers and editors alike--our disdain for Regdar made its way into a lot of art. If you look closely, Regdar is getting thrashed on most of the early pieces he shows up in. (Look for his ignominious fate on the original DM's Screen, for example.)

As a result, Regdar dies in pretty much everything:

Beyond the 4e PHB, he was petrified by a Medusa in the 4e Monster Manual, though a friend says this illustration is from a 3.5 book. His armor is also hanging from trees and covered in blood, in Heroes of Horror's cover. And he was eaten alive in Athas. And killed by Cthulhu in Cthulhu D20...There is also the Ochre Jelly miniature from Archfiends, eating a Redgar-look alike.

Pathfinder picked up the iconic mantle and has expanded it (emblematic of Pathfinder’s massive variety, there are a lot of iconics), as explained by editor-in-chief, James Jacobs:

Keeping a balance between genders and ethnicities in our characters has actually been a goal for us from the start. In fact, making sure that three of the first four iconics were women was a very conscious decision on my part to turn the standard "Three guys and a gal" makeup of most classic groups on its ear. And including various ethnicities was also a goal from the start as well; even in the adventures themselves we try to mix it up as often as possible so that not every NPC is a white guy. The world we live in isn't so bland and boring, after all, so why should the worlds we create be bland and boring?

Pathfinder brought iconics full circle, from narrative constructs and play examples to fully-fledged personalities in comic format. Erik Mona explains that this is where iconics truly flourish in "The Secret Origin of the Pathfinder Iconics":

Unlike the Dungeon iconics, who had been created simply as a way to help artists understand what a “ranger” looked like without having to explain every aspect of their armor, gear, and abilities, these new Pathfinder iconics were designed with future expansion firmly in mind. Once again, we teamed up with Wayne Reynolds to design 11 iconic characters based on the races and classes inhabiting the world of Pathfinder. But this time, we had more ambitious plans for our iconics than making life a little easier on artists. This time, we knew we wanted to tell their stories. Inspired by Wayne’s illustrations, our in-house creative staff sketched out short bios for each character, tying their backgrounds into elements of our official Pathfinder world of Golarion. But RPGs are about your heroes, not ours. In the context of a Pathfinder RPG adventure, a picture of Valeros and Seoni slaying their way through a group of foes is really meant to be a stand-in for characters created by you and your friends. RPGs are about creating the framework for stories cooperatively developed by the players. It simply isn’t the right medium. The right medium is comics.

It's Not Easy Being an Iconic

Gender diversity gradually increased in adventuring parties, but racial diversity was even rarer – Regdar is a stark reminder of how long it took the D&D brand to fully embrace diversity. We finally got there with Fifth Edition, which references fictional iconics like Bruenor Battlehammer, Tika Waylan, and Artemis Entreri. The artwork changed to reflect the diversity Cook was striving for in Third Edition:

This edition of D&D goes out of its way to be inclusive. For instance, character creation emphasizes that gender choice doesn't "come with any special benefits or hindrances," and that characters can explore ways in which they defy stereotypes. There's an entire paragraph describing ways to reject binary ideas about gender, and specifically says, "your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide." That vibe is carried through in the art. A pretty wide range of races, skin tones, and body shapes are depicted, including some of the iconic images that accompany the core classes. The women tend to wear reasonable, practical armor and cloaks, and there's certainly no gender division in terms of class or ability. There are badass warriors and wild-eyed spellcasters of all kinds.

As the controversy over iconics illustrates, having characters represent your game says as much about the game's audience as it does about the gameplay itself.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
Just wanted to say how much I appreciate Talien's articles due to his superior writing ability and uncanny knack for coming with interesting and thorough topics. Some of the articles from the other writers here have been... shall we say "subpar" by comparison? Really, head and shoulders above the others, Mr. Tresca. A real asset to this website. Thank you for consistently raising the bar.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Just wanted to say how much I appreciate Talien's articles due to his superior writing ability and uncanny knack for coming with interesting and thorough topics. Some of the articles from the other writers here have been... shall we say "subpar" by comparison? Really, head and shoulders above the others, Mr. Tresca. A real asset to this website. Thank you for consistently raising the bar.
Thank you sir, I appreciate the feedback!
 

Dualazi

Visitor
Pretty good article, I always enjoy reading about the names and characters that shaped early D&D, since it was before my time. I also really liked how the early fore-runners became existing facets of the D&D lore, it would get old fast if it was overdone, but in its current capacity I find Melf's Acid Arrow to be a lot more evocative knowing it was designed by a famous mage of yore. I'd never even heard of the comics Iconics, guess they suffered a more ignoble fate in the hobby's memory.

That said, the second half of the article is pretty enraging. That that many professionals would waste time and energy disparaging a character for their gender and skin color makes me quite pleased that iconics seem to be gone, or at least greatly downplayed in the current edition. Maybe they can be revisited when WOTC character designers and artists have the maturity to see past the qualities of race and orientation and instead focus on making characters actually have, you know, character.
 

kenmarable

Explorer
Great article!

Although probably the driving reason for the iconics is only very briefly mentioned in Eric Mona's quote - and that is to help artists.

To have a consistent look and feel to the game's art, it is really handy to have an example wizard you can show to an artist and say "Use him." Paizo has said that's their original motivation behind their iconics, and that the stories behind them were a really cool bonus. Since they were having these characters appear in all their books, they might as well make cool backgrounds and personalities for them.
 
D&D 5E art is so much better now thanks to the elimination of the iconics, and I also really appreciate the fact that the range and style of characters in current art is fantastic and extremely evocative. I was one of those who grew very tired of the same handful of characters in the art over and over.....anyway, good article!
 
Thanks for this article. Could also add LJN Action Figure iconics, which were featured in a few Classic D&D sourcebooks set in Mystara: Shady Dragon Inn, Quest for the Heartstone, and Ierendi Gazetteer. Some of which also appear the Realm of the D&D Cartoon Show (Warduke) and then later in 3e Greyhawk.

Theres also the BECMI iconics, such as Aleena the Cleric from the Red Box.
 
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Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
Warduke, hell yeah.

One thing that strikes me about the LJN toys is just how colorful they are. The designs really pop. Even Kelek, clad in a black robe, has accents of red and neon green, not to mention his white beard.

I certainly dig iconics as a way to promote inclusivity. The hobby doesn’t always change quickly, but it is changing, at the least.

Thanks for this article. Could also add LJN Action Figure iconics...
 
Now, who could forget the D&D iconics Morgan Ironwolf, Sister Rebecca, Frederick the Dwarf, Silverleaf the Elf, and Black Dougal?

Or the AD&D iconics: Blastum, Barjin, and Gutboy Barrelhouse?
 

sgt-d

Visitor
Forgotten here are the examples/iconics from the 2nd Edition PHB: Rath, Delsenora, and Rupert.
 

flametitan

Explorer
D&D 5E art is so much better now thanks to the elimination of the iconics, and I also really appreciate the fact that the range and style of characters in current art is fantastic and extremely evocative. I was one of those who grew very tired of the same handful of characters in the art over and over.....anyway, good article!
5e art has its iconics. You can see the Fighter picture used appears several times. He's been in at least one picture in PotA and the SCAG. The characters depicted in the Class chapter of the SCAG also have their designs used in the picture that introduces the chapter, the one where they're fighting a dracolich.

They're just not named, is all.
 
5e art has its iconics. You can see the Fighter picture used appears several times. He's been in at least one picture in PotA and the SCAG. The characters depicted in the Class chapter of the SCAG also have their designs used in the picture that introduces the chapter, the one where they're fighting a dracolich.

They're just not named, is all.
Same handful of characters in art =/= certain character is showcased in four or five pieces

The issue is not whether a character repeats in certain art or even if they have a name (example: Morgan Ironwolf). Rather, I think the definition most people use is "when all iconics become "this guy." Or to use the article example: Redgar becomes The Fighter, over and over, with no variation on theme. 5E is loaded with different characters, rather than just one depiction of each class.
 

Lylandra

Explorer
Same handful of characters in art =/= certain character is showcased in four or five pieces

The issue is not whether a character repeats in certain art or even if they have a name (example: Morgan Ironwolf). Rather, I think the definition most people use is "when all iconics become "this guy." Or to use the article example: Redgar becomes The Fighter, over and over, with no variation on theme. 5E is loaded with different characters, rather than just one depiction of each class.
I agree. I'm not exactly a friend of the iconics, but I like seeing an exampe character of a class/race combo (plus points if they show off a broad spectrum instead of Redgar the fighter, cleric, wizard, barbarian and ranger). These characters can easily be used to show off a sample party in standard adventuring situations.

My problem with iconics starts when they define their class and every example of a wizard is suddenly Mialee. Or Elminster. When they take so much space that it becomes hard to find or define a wizard character in the books or other official material who isn't them. Because to me, a TTRPG lives from creativity, new ideas (or good remixes of old stuff) and giving players and GMs examples or inspiration for something new is harder when you use the same character over and over.

Plus: maybe you just happen to dislike one or more of the iconics. This could even lead to some people not wanting to play the corresponding class or race if it is too strongly linked to said icon. Our psyche can be strange from tme to time.
 

Legatus_Legionis

< BLAH HA Ha ha >
Before I got into D&D, the ICONICs I read about included but was not limited to:

"SKELOS", and the famous "Book of Skelos" from Conan the barbarian fame.

I just think D&D took it to a new level.
 

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