My series on the various covers of the Players Handbook was well received. More than one reader suggested I extend the series to include the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual as well and I've decided to take up that suggestion today, beginning with the 1e DMG.
The cover is illustrated by David C. Sutherland III and, like the cover of the 1e PHB, is an icon of the early days of the hobby. It's also a cover I don't particularly like. I realize that some would consider such a view heresy, but I'm prepared to stand by my opinion. Before we get to that, though, I'd first like to take some time to examine the cover image itself, if only to lay the groundwork for my critique later in the post.
According to the description on page 2, the cover depicts "an encounter between three adventurers and an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire. The fabled City of Brass can be seen floating over a flame-swept sea of oil." As a kid, I actually found the portion of the wrap-around cover on the back, which depicted the City of Brass itself, much more evocative than the front cover. The gleaming City of Brass, with its spires and minarets, not to mention demon-faced gates, screamed "Adventure!" to me. Looking at that galley floating on a sea of burning oil, I couldn't help but feel the need to include it in my campaign. I wanted to send my friends' characters there and so I did. (As an aside, it's interesting to note that the designers of 4e have often complained that earlier conceptions of the Elemental Planes were inhospitable to adventuring, thus necessitating the changes made in the new edition. I can't help but wonder if they ever looked at the cover of the 1e DMG).
By contrast, the front cover is rather uninspiring to me. You have the figure of the efreet, who looks rather stiff and statue-like, almost robotic. I'll confess that his face unnerved me a bit as a younger person, but otherwise he does not appear very menacing, even to the poor harem girl -- I'm sorry: "adventurer" -- he has in his clutches. The efreet also looks much too substantial for my liking. I'll grant that this is a purely subjective thing, but I've always imagined the efreeti to be creatures of living fire, half-formed into humanoid shape. They crackle and spark and are "fuzzy" around the edges, billowing clouds of black smoke as they interact with their environment. The guy on the cover could just as easily be a demon or devil or some other extraplanar being. Even leaving that aside, there's no question that he doesn't look "alive" enough to be a convincing threat.
Confronting the efreet are three adventurers. I've already mentioned the harem girl and she bugs me. Leaving aside the goofiness of her pose, she just seems too ... ordinary to me. I can't quite explain it. I obviously have no problems with the use of archetypal characters and the Harem Girl is a powerful archetype. I'm also not one to dwell on the portrayal of women in traditional fantasy art, so that's not what's bugging me. I guess I simply expect her to be more interesting, which is to say, more than just a stock character, particularly since she's not doing anything significant in the illustration. I like her companions more, particularly the fighter. Mind you, I'm a sucker for plausible armor and weaponry. The same goes for the magic-user, who seems to have lost his pointy hat in the melee against the efreet. Those two are also stock characters and yet somehow they manage to be more than that. Perhaps it's the little touches, like the missing hat and the shield device, that make them so.
All in all, I just don't like the front cover. Compared to the back portion, it comes across as too static and, worse yet, pro forma. There's not much of a story there, at least for me. Compare it to Trampier's Players Handbook cover and there's a world of difference in my opinion. Even the way Sutherland frames the front, it looks far less inspired than Tramp's. Sutherland's painting puts the archway on the back portion of the wrap-around, which leaves the front in a dark, almost featureless setting, which only serves to make the back portion look even more evocative. My only beef with the back cover is that there's no entrée for your player characters. It's just a landscape -- a marvelous, fantastical one, to be sure -- but it doesn't include even a single person in it. Even the boat on the sea of oil is lacking in occupants.
All of my criticisms to the side, the bigger issue is that I'm not sure the cover suits the content of the Dungeon Masters Guide very well. The DMG was supposed to be the one volume that was the sole purview of the DM. Gary Gygax makes this clear several times throughout the book itself. Thus, the content of the book was supposed to be secret, in the broad sense of the term. A better cover would have reflected this element of its character, making the DMG the gaming equivalent of some forbidden tome of ancient lore. Instead, we get a rather static fight scene whose context is shunted to the back cover rather than at the forefront where it should have been.
It's a pity really, because I like Sutherland's art most of the time and I want to like this piece more than I do. Granted, compared to Trampier's PHB cover, almost anything would look uninspired, but the DMG cover doesn't suffer just by comparison. To my mind, it's a flawed piece and certainly one that doesn't serve its purpose very well. The best I can say of it is that I don't hate it; I even have a certain fondness for it, although it's born mostly of nostalgia. I have nothing against nostalgia, of course. I simply think it's an insufficient basis for judging a piece of art "good," which is why the cover of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide earns a B- at best (more likely a C+).