My original intention was to write a length paean to Dave Trampier, who, for me, pretty much sums up everything I think D&D art should be. So, I went around the internet, looking for scans of his art, which I was going to post here, with some commentary on why this or that piece was so remarkable. In the end, though, I realized it was unnecessary, because just about everything I could say about Tramp and his art was summed up in what I hold to be the single best piece of D&D art ever created -- the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook.
I do not exaggerate by calling this the best piece of D&D art ever. I think it probably does a better job illustrating the style, tone, and content of the game than anything else put to canvas or paper before or since. Here's why:
- Context: The illustration clearly takes place within a structure of some sort. You can see the brick archway that frames the demonic idol. The presence of braziers suggests it's underground or at least very dark here. The ceiling is high enough that you can't see it in the illustration. In short, it's a "dungeon," in the broadest sense of the term, which is to say, the scene depicted takes place in a lair of evil. How do I know it's a lair of evil? Take a look at that leering idol's face and tell me he's a nice guy who's just misunderstood. The idol is even holding a large bowl from which flames are emanating. That reminds me of Moloch or Baal or any of a number of Near Eastern deities who demanded human sacrifice, which, by my lights, is evil. D&D is about fighting evil in its very lair.
- Context, Part 2: The adventuring party you see on the cover consists of at least 11 people, if you count the six figures on the front cover and the five on the back. Some of them are almost certainly henchmen or hirelings rather than PCs. We're seeing them after they've just sent a bunch of lizard men or troglodytes to their doom. We know this because we see the bloody, dead bodies of these monsters piled up in front of the blasphemous idol. On the back cover, you see a guy dragging a dead body -- by the tail -- across the ground to get him out of the way of some other guys who are toting crates (of loot, no doubt) and rolling a barrel. Another guy is guarding a partially opened door, on the lookout for more lizard men. You see a fighter wiping the blood from his sword, while two other fellows confer over a map, and an aged wizard offers sage advice. In short, this is a carefully planned expedition into the darkness. D&D is about planning.
- Context, Part 3: These aren't necessarily heroes. They may be heroes, at least some of them, but they don't seem to be motivated solely by altruism. The two thieves prying the gems from the demonic idols eyes are looking down on their companions as if they hope no one notices their theft. And I already mentioned the guys carrying crates and barrels full of stuff. Getting rich is important to these adventurers. Loot motivates them to some degree and not just because they get experience points based on its gold piece value. PCs are as often venal mercenaries as they are selfless paragons. D&D is a game equally about heroes and antiheroes.
- "Realism:" No, of course, the scene depicted by Trampier isn't something that could happen in the real world. No, D&D doesn't even come close to simulate reality on almost any level. Nevertheless, the illustration includes lots of little details and nods to reality that help ground it in a grim and gritty world. The armor depicted looks like it would actually protect its wearers. The hirelings have a rough and tumble look about them, with shaggy hair and beards. They look like guys who'd think heading down into the depths for an extended period of time would be a good way to turn a gold piece. For that matter, none of them look like Hollywood actors or men with access to Nautilus machines. They look like real people, right down to their less than handsome mugs. There's blood on the lizard men corpses and the braziers were left burning because otherwise the chamber would be dark. D&D may be fantasy but it's based on reality.
- A Wider World: The scene elicits questions. Who is depicted by that idol? Are those in fact lizard men? What's beyond that half-open door? Where is this place? And so on. Trampier is showing a part of a wider world. This darkened chamber exists somewhere and not just in the sense that any illustration of a single room implies a large structure. No, we see parts of the wider world -- the room beyond the door, for example. We also see the two adventurers with a map that presumably describes more of the complex. Likewise, the angle at which we see the scene implies that there's more "behind" us, the viewers, that isn't illustrated. D&D is a game about more than dungeons.
- Color: Look at the colors used in this piece. They're all dark or muted, with only a few bright colors to illuminate the darkness. That's a powerful metaphor right there. D&D is not a Technicolor fantasy. Its action takes place in the darkness, the night, the back alleys of thief-ridden cities, in musty tombs, and hidden ruins. D&D is a game about points of color sparkling in the shadows.
This is just the first stage is trying to articulate what I like and don't like about fantasy gaming art. The next stage will be an examination of the covers of all subsequent PHB art and why it either succeeds or fails in achieving the same degree of perfection that Tramp's cover does.