Sunday, June 29, 2008

Best Cover Ever

I want to start talking about the art of D&D: what I like and don't like and why. I'll preface this entry by saying that everything you'll read here and in subsequent entries on the topic is purely subjective. That's not the same thing as saying it's arbitrary or irrational -- quite the contrary! What I hope to do in these entries is explain at some length what works for me art-wise and what doesn't and my reasons for feeling this way. I don't expect that I'll convince anyone, either die-hard fans of certain types of old school art or lovers of new-fangled illustrations. However, I do hope I'll be able to explain where I'm coming from and why certain kinds of art, both old and new, leave me cold and strike me as inappropriate for D&D.

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.
I could go on, but I hope I've started to make myself clear. Dave Trampier's art encapsulates all that I expect out of D&D and does as good a job as any to show off its most important characteristics. For me, the game will always be a quasi-gritty sword & sorcery one, based on reality but not bounded by it. Adventurers aren't heroes by profession, though they may become such over time. Or not. They are brave or at least foolhardy enough to think that mounting an expedition into an evil and monster-infested darkened hole in the ground is preferable to staying on the farm or in the shop. Trampier's Players Handbook covers illustrates all this and more.

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.


  1. Excellent stuff. Just seeing that cover brings to mind all kind of memories.

    I remember how much of the time spent around table playing the AD&D was spent planning - where to go next, what to bring, what to do when we go there. Then planning how to divide the treasure, what magic items to take, what door to open next.

    The ratio of talking about what to do, to actually doing it, was definitely in favor of the talking.

    I compare it to the last session of 4e I played... and there is no comparison.

    I look forward to you analysis of the subsequent books - all of which seem unable to match the evocative work of that first AD&D PHB.

  2. I love Tramp's work, and yeah, that cover is great.

    Reading this it struck me how--once AD&D was out--(classic) D&D no longer had very much "dark" artwork.

    Don't get me wrong. I love a lot of the D&D artwork. I think Bill Willingham might be my favorite of all the artists who did business with TSR.

    But there seems to have been a definite effort to keep the D&D art lighter than the AD&D art.

  3. This may be a bit simplistic, but to my artistically untutored mind, the defining trait of old school RPG art has always been that it triggers my sense of wonder and mystery. In other words, whatever situation is depicted poses more questions than it answers. The original PH cover is a prime example, as you indicate.

    This heuristic device serves me pretty well for explaining to myself the common appeal of most Dee, Otus, Holloway, Trampier, Sutherland, etc. pieces, as opposed to those of Elmore, to name my least favorite D&D artist. Almost none of Elmore's artwork fits the bill. The only question I ask myself when looking at one of his scantily clad elf princesses is why the heck they all have feathers in their hair like Cherokee braves :).

    Same sort of thing goes for Easley, Caldwell, WAR, et al. IMO. Nothing is really left to the imagination, even when the style itself is not objectionable (like Easley's stuff in S4, which is quite good but not thought-provoking). "Old schoolness" almost seems to be inversely proportional to stylistic refinement, as if the latter artists are spending more time worrying about polished execution than the composing the subject itself.

    After the PH cover, my personal favorite is Erol Otus's cover for Dragon #55. What the heck is that betentacled thing? why is it just sitting there drooling? why is the little creepy dude showing it so proudly to the fighter-type? did he create it? is it his maiden aunt? is it friendly? is the fighter going to take a swing at it? or is it thing going to eat them?

  4. I'm going to have to disagree. Otus's cover for the 1981 Basic D&D rulebook had all the elements: A mysterious dungeon, a fierce dragon, a brave warrior, a beautiful sorceress, glittering treasure. Plus, it was a lot more dynamic and eye-catching, IMHO.

    1. Have to agree. Otus' 1981 D&D box art fired my imagination about what D&D could be. There's the action, the dragon, and the dungeon! The combat between a green dragon and two archetypal characters, a fighter and a magician. The treasure, those gems!!! And the stairs and the archdoorway. What's beyond those? This is what Dungeons and Dragons is all about.

      When Trampiers's cover, what does it evoke? Record-keeping and accounting, after combat in D&D. Also, when my dad saw me reading the PHB, I got a stinging rebuke "That's the demonic game, get rid of it". Couldn't play it anymore.

  5. Re: Otus cover

    I love Erol Otus. I think he's an under-appreciated genius of mood. However, his work has a phantasmagoric feel that works best as a counterpoint to more "traditional" illustrations. As a kid, I used to find Otus' work "scary" or at least unsettling. I think that's a good thing. Fantasy should be scary. However, scary isn't the default feel for pulp fantasy, nor should it be. The Moldvay Basic cover isn't scary, but it is weird. It has iconic elements, but they're all rendered slightly off-kilter from expectations. That's good but, again, it shouldn't be the default.

    All of this is to say that, while I do indeed love the Moldvay Basic cover, I don't think it's as exemplary of D&D as Tramp's work.

  6. I swear that demon has gone to work at Dilbert's company...

  7. For me, it's Trampier's DM Screen cover:

    It captures all that is best in D&D.

  8. It's a tough choice between the cover of the Moldvay Basic book by Erol Otus and the Tramp PHB cover, but I have to go with the PHB. When I think back upon my first "discovery" of the game, I remember stumbling upon the books in a glass case at a toy store. They were inaccessible like a precious gem and all I could see was their covers and some strange dice sprinkled about... What is that? What does it mean? What a mystery! Tramp all the way!

  9. There was one cover with a party standing outside at the entrance to a cave, with a burly-looking fighter dude reading a map with one hand and preventing a gnome wizard from walking away by grabbing his collar with his other hand.

    Can't remember where that came from but it was definitely one of my faves.