Wednesday 11 May 2016

The lost colours of D&D

So I looked up ogres in the 1st edition Monster Manual recently, and I came across this text:

The hide of ogres varies from dull blackish-brown to dead yellow. Rare specimens are a sickly violet in color. Their warty bumps are often of different color - or at least darker than their hides. Hair is blackish-blue to dull dark green. Eyes are purple with white pupils. Teeth are black or orange, as are talons. Ogres wear any sort of skins or furs. 
And I thought: ...wait, what?

Ogres come in three colours: blackish-brown, yellow, and violet. They are covered in 'warty bumps' of 'a different color': so presumably you could have a yellow ogre with violet warts, or some even weirder combination. Their hair is either blue or dark green. Their eyes are purple with white pupils. Their teeth and claws are either black or orange. In short, I have been imagining D&D ogres wrong for my entire life.

All your ogres were supposed to look kinda like this.

Imagine, for a moment: a nine-foot tall brute of a monster with violet skin covered in yellow warts, orange teeth and claws, dark green hair, and purple eyes with white pupils. That, apparently, is what D&D ogres are actually supposed to look like. Did anyone ever describe them like that? Did anyone draw them like that? All the illustrations I can find just depict them as great big grey-brown thugs...

A little more reading soon demonstrated that the ogres were not an isolated case. There were yellow bugbears with brick-red fur, green eyes, and red pupils:

The skin of bugbears is light yellow to yellow brown - typically dull yellow. Their hair ranges in color from lusterless tannish brown to brick red. Their eyes are greenish white with red pupils.

There were silver-haired, amber-eyed elves wearing yellow clothes and purple cloaks, and nicknames based on their eye colour:

Grey elves have either silver hair and amber eyes or pale golden hair and violet eyes. The latter sort are generally called faeries. They favor white, yellow, silver, or gold garments. Their cloaks are often deep blue or purple.
There were gnolls with green-grey skins, reddish manes, amber nails, and armour made of horn:

Gnolls have greenish gray skins, darker near the muzzle, with reddish gray to dull yellow mane. Eyes are dull black and nails are amber colored. Their armor is of horn, metal plates, and leather; like their fur capes and vests, it is shabby, and the latter are moth-eaten and dingy, being brown, black or grayish pelts.

Gnomes were the colour of wood:

Most gnomes are wood brown, a few range to gray brown, of skin.

Goblins can be red, yellow, or orange (no green ones yet), with red or 'lemon yellow' eyes:

Goblins range from yellow through dull orange to brick red in skin color. Their eyes are reddish to lemon yellow.

Or maybe their eyes are actual lemons!

Red hobgoblins with orange faces and blue-red noses:

The hairy hides of hobgoblins range from dark reddish-brown to gray black. Their faces are bright red-orange to red. Large males will have blue-red noses. Eyes are either yellowish or dark brown.

The brown skin of orcs has a 'bluish sheen' and their ears and snouts are pink. (This is back when orcs were still pig-men, of course.)

Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration - brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen - highlights their pinkish snouts and ears.

Red, orange, yellow, purple, blue... all those colours bled out of the game as time went on. Modern orcs are green. Goblins are green. Gnolls are brown. Hobgoblins are sometimes orange but usually brown. Ogres are brown. Bugbears are greenish-brown. Gnomes have human skin-tones, rather than being wood-coloured. Even elves have become far less glam-tastic than they used to be.

Now, there are probably a whole lot of reasons for this. One would be the move away from stories inspired by 1930s weird fiction, which drew its colour palette from the Decadent and Surrealist art of the previous generation, and towards those based on 'map fantasy' novels, which made use of a more chastened colour palette derived ultimately from the Pre-Raphaelite art of the 1840s. Another would be the enormous popularity of the goblinoids from Warhammer, which firmly fixed orcs, goblins, and their kin as 'greenskins' in the popular gamer imagination. A third would be changing fashions in fantasy art, away from the space-rock psychedelia of the 1970s towards the much more grounded grey-green-and-brown aesthetics of most modern fantasy illustrations.  (Erol Otus loved using neon-bright colours. We shall not see his like again.) The move towards more naturalistic colouration certainly makes the monsters feel a bit more 'realistic'; a green goblin and a brown ogre feel like variations on real creatures, things that might conceivably evolve in a natural environment full of mud and trees, whereas a yellow goblin and a purple ogre feel like escapees from a children's cartoon.

Still, though.... orange goblins. Blue-green pig-orcs. Yellow bugbears with red fur. There's something to be said for them. Their 'unnaturalness' could be a strength as well as a weakness: these sound like things which broke out of a wizard's lab, or crawled out of a crashed spaceship, or stumbled through a portal from a world very different from our own. They have an obvious out-of-place oddness about them. Why do bugbears have red pupils? What kind of fucked-up world do they see through their green-and-red eyes?

The bugbears walk amongst us!

In my games, I've always described humanoids as grey, or green, or brown; but the next time I run something with more of an old-school, science-fantasy vibe, I think I'm going to mix it up a bit. Bring back the blue orcs and the yellow goblins and the green gnolls and the purple ogres. If nothing else, they should act as big, brightly-coloured signs that we're not in Tolkien any more. 


  1. Wow - a great bit of frpg history lost
    asiatic goblins and ogres perhaps were a influence too
    yeah i remember late 70s miniatures being louder now
    adnd monster card art a bit more like this

    i always avoided the greenskin thing for basic humanoids
    my ogres will benefit from this

    1. I was wondering about miniatures as a source, actually... after all, AD&D 1st edition was written by wargamers. Bright colours are handy for miniatures for the same reason they're useful on pre-modern battlefields: they make it easy to spot, at a glance, which guys are on your side! So maybe this partly just reflects how Gygax et al liked to paint their goblins!

      And you're right that Asian goblins, ogres, etc, are a very colourful bunch. Tellingly, the Asian-themed Ogre Magi have always stayed blue, long after the generic Ogre subsided into boring old brown...

  2. I have an ogre miniature I painted over 30 years ago heks yellow with blotches of grey, black, and purple, I recently wondered why I went with that color scheme, methins I know why now.

  3. I have an ogre miniature I painted over 30 years ago heks yellow with blotches of grey, black, and purple, I recently wondered why I went with that color scheme, methins I know why now.

  4. Great stuff! PCs in my old Adryon setting come in many colors, specially lizard people:

    1. Nice. Real-world lizards come in so many colours that it seems a waste for D&D to always default to alligator green!

  5. It's worth noting that the later, more "realistic" colors can also function as more direct allegories for non-white races of humans. Had we kept the original colors it might have been harder to peg D&D as a thinly-veiled game of white western imperialism, as many have done.

    1. I dunno... maybe. I think if someone wants to use orcs as stand-ins for, say, Africans, then I'm not sure that making them blue is going to stop them. (After all, real Africans aren't green, either!) But I agree that the older sense of these as creatures from Somewhere Else might have made people less prone to fall into lazy depictions of these races as 'savage tribesmen' or 'noble barbarians', with all the regrettable cultural baggage that often entailed...

  6. I wonder if the culprit was colour printing. IIRC, earlier editions of D&D were in black and white; perhaps it was suddenly having people draw what they'd been describing that made the writers go for less outre colour schemes?

    1. That was probably also a major factor, yes. The Monster Manual illustrations which accompany all these descriptions are just black-and-white line drawings, whereas the AD&D 2nd edition Monster Manual was full-colour throughout.

  7. Yellow goblins and orange hobgoblins are still common enough in D&D art, I think. The blue-nosed orange hobgoblins showed up in color on the back of Keep on the Borderlands back in the day, though I don't think the nose thing has carried on since then.

  8. I asked this same question many years ago. My humanoids have always come in colors, because that's the way the 1e MM told me to paint them and because i like them that way.

  9. Minatures wargamers obsess about painting their figures "correctly" - there are extensive guides available to paint historical figures, and I'm sure the color guides listed in the MM are an extension of that. I'd guess fewer large battles with minis and pre-painted miniatures also have something to do with the loss of the color lists.

    I'm also sure there's plenty of hidden detail as far as colors and why they were chosen, apart from visibility; disgusting monsters have disgusting colors, colors of mud, vomit, rot and decay. Heroic figures have bright primary colors and shiny appealing metallics.

  10. Here is a "classic" orc by Jeff Dee from the back cover of Slave Pits of the Undecity:

  11. Replying to an old post because why not: One reason I suspect is 'naturalism', which is something which has crept quite a bit into D&D over the years and bled into fantasy all over. Creatures like orcs, goblins and trolls began more as demon or fey-like bogeymen, almost people but not...quite. They weren't meant to be individuals or 'races' with a culture and history and more like a man-shaped force of nature and aggression.

    However as these things became less monsters and just differently-shaped people they also gained a more naturalistic and scientific aspect which made them more like variations of humans or hominid like Neanderthal. In becoming people they generally tended toward more and more realistic appearance. Hence orcs moving from snout-faced ugly pigmen to bigger and more feral humans with tusks.

  12. I think that's true, and the shift towards everything being a player character race is a big part of it. They go from being embodiments of total Otherness to something closer to a collection of Star Trek forehead-aliens, basically the same as humans except taller, or shorter, or angrier, or whatever. That tendency was already there to some extent in D&D from the beginning, and even in Tolkien, whose elves and dwarves are much more human-like than those in a lot of his mythological sources. But I agree that it's only accelerated since then!