Saturday, July 3, 2010

DCS Art in Holmes

Another thing I really love about the Holmes rulebook is the art, which is mix of Dave Trampier, Dave Sutherland, and Tom Wham. It's little surprise, I guess, that those three, even moreso than the great artists who came later, formed my sense of what D&D looked like. Take these two pieces by Dave Sutherland, for example:

Whatever flaws they may have -- and I am regularly told what a terrible artist Sutherland was -- there's a strange kind of groundedness to these illustrations. Look at the fighting men in these pictures. They're all wearing historical armor rather than some fantastical concoction without any basis in reality. All the fighters you see in Holmes look like this and it made a powerful impression upon me.

I'm sure military historians will be able to point out multiple problems with Sutherland's depictions here, but that's rather to miss the point. It's not about strict realism or accuracy; it's about verisimilitude. Sutherland's artwork conveys a sense that the combatants in them could have existed, even if their opponents make it clear that they didn't. I like fever dream fantasy illustrations as much as the next guy, but there's also something to be said for the kind of "meat and potatoes" pieces that Sutherland produced. They're one of the foundations on which my conception of Dungeons & Dragons is built -- much like the Holmes rulebook in which they appear.


  1. Same here, I've always been a fan of his work and feel Sutherland never got the respect he deserved. Plus, he drew the scariest looking Harpies!

  2. I wouldn't call them "great artists" (though they're better than I, who can't draw a straight line), but I much prefer it to the art that became popular with 3E and later games, with pointed, punkish-looking characters who looked like they were drawn as a fantasy version of "urban cool." And the clothing? I've never understood the fascination with costumes that looked like they were made from multiple (and oddly place) belts.

    Pardon me. My grumpy old man was coming out. :)

    Like I said, I'll take the pseudo-historical, any day.

  3. Oh, I don't know. Considering how many things in D&D try to swallow you whole, slap you around with large paws, or wrap you up in tentacles, a few spikes or sharp edges on the armor seems kind of smart to me. ;)

  4. Note that the fighter in the top illustration is wearing a backpack. I think that is neater than the armor itself, which is neat.

  5. This little musing struck a chord with me, mate, and I kind of agree with you. I find fantasy scenes by, say, Larry Elmore - as awesome as they are - to be tinged with a hint of "this is too perfect". The stuff in the old rulebooks had a dark, sketchy appeal - torchlight visions that drew you into the dungeon.

  6. Those are some sweet Sutherland drawings... the perfect example of what makes him cool. He is sort of the epitome of old-school art for me. Even though I may enjoy Trampier and Otus more, I don't think I could enjoy them as much without the "realistic" and grounded counterpoint of Sutherland's so-called naive style. His demons in the MM really set the tone as well!

  7. These illustrations have a bit of an engraving feel to them too.

    Did you notice the guy under the hydra? :) Screw fantastical punk heroes. Fight a hydra in the dark with a standard issue long sword, you wimp.

  8. I strongly prefer "verisimilitude" in my art as well. About as "mod" as I like is some Elmore art, its a bit Romantic Fantasy meets Models but I can live it that.

    Now some of the new art is very good but it didn't feel like a "place" to me more like a dream or something made to be "cool"

    Thats fine but its not my D&D

  9. My opinion of Sutherland has softened a bit in recent years. Partly it's 'cos I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but also it's 'cos his work is competent enough, and fits nicely with the raw, naive era of gaming before everything got all glossy. Those days of hoary yore when you bought yer D&D books in a hobby store with shelves stacked with models, not in a Waldenbooks. (Although that, truly, was the era I popped up in...)

    Still and all, of the original TSR artists from the early days, Trampier is by far the most talented to my eye. I wouldn't be surprised if his influence pulled Sutherland's development of his skills on a higher trajectory, as time went on.

    @ Anthony
    I hear ya. When 3rd. Edition came out, WotC's art and design dept was flooded with Seattle goths and alterna-kids, so it's no coincidence that dungeon delvers in the pages of the books started sporting piercings, facial tattoos, funky goatees, black lipstick, and more buckles and straps than a tack and harness shop crossed with a Hot Topic...

    Gimme Sutherland or Trampier any day. Am I being a cranky old man?


  10. Great pics! I agree. The Holmes book was my first peek at D&D and it stuck. My favorite is the wizard/web pic from your previous post. That picture speaks to me as an iconic representation of dungeoneering!

  11. Great post, James.

    My favorite D&D Sutherland art is his stuff in B1: In Search of the Unknown. Nothing looks more D&D to me than that. Oddly enough, his humble drawing of the wilderness on the back of the original pastel cover of B1 deeply moves my imagination.

    My favorite Sutherland art of anything he ever did was his work in Legions of the Petal Throne.

  12. I love the's good, yet at the same time it's simple enough that it makes your imagination fill in the blanks; it reflects the simplicity and flexibility of the rules. When I was 11 I had a brilliant imagination, and Holmes was truly evocative to me. It hinted at, and showed glimpses of, this mediaeval fantasy world, which I could envision in my mind. The artwork that came later was too complete; it left nothing to the imagination.

  13. Having been reading James stuff for awhile, I am fascinated by his categorization of D&D into Gold, Silver, Bronze, etc., ages. There's lots there he discusses that I see as being the hallmarks of the versions.

    But I think that on an intuitive level for me, what defines the transition between early 1st edition (and Greyhawk's beginnings) and the full commercialization of 1st/transition to 2nd edition (and the rise of Forgotten Realms) is the artwork.

    Trampier, Sutherland, Willingham, Roslov, Otis, et. al, works were generally a black and white style that had several impacts to me. As he says there was a groundness there - there's a truly medieval quality to these works - simplistically realistic, brutal, and somewhat disturbing at times. I think it captures 1st edition's tendency for the fantasical and the nastiness of the game. Rarely do you see the triumphant heroes just standing about posing. I think that's why Kenzer's Hackmaster books also evoke that 1st edition feel (even if the rules don't) - they've homaged many of the illustrations (and often more brutally) to capture that feel.

    It's when you get to the work of guys like Elmore and Caldwell, you feel something's changed. Their works are often amazing, in color, and they evoke a more heroic fantasy style of D&D. And that's what I most associate with 2nd edition - a change in style and mindset. If 1st edition is the medieval era, then 2nd edition seems more high-medieval/Renaissance type world. Notice that more rarely are the pictures about a struggling adventurer. It's almost always victorius hero or dashing character portrait. There's a great picture of Elmore's in the 2nd edition player's handbook (front page, I think) that shows a party posing with with a small dragon hung up like a fish they caught and a small chest of treasure at their feet. It's a great, detailed image; beautiful but with the static quality that gets Elmore criticism. I could never imagine so blatant a "PCs win!" quality in any 1st edition image.

    So, yea, I can see where James is coming from when he talks about them (Sutherland's work) being the "foundations on which my conception of D&D is built."

  14. Count me in the DCS III appreciation camp.

    Thanks to his work on the 1977 Monster Manual, Sutherland's ideas about what monsters look like have informed our collective visions of those creatures.

    The way he drew dragons, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, bugbears, kobolds, etc, still influence the "look" of these mosnters, even today, even with 4th edition.

    For example, D&D black dragons still have those forward-facing horns...a pure Sutherland touch from 1977.

  15. I don't usually care about historical arms or armor. I find that if I get into that mode, I start expecting the kind of realism that James rightly declares "not the point."

    On the other hand, that first picture is one of my very favorites. To me, it shows the game being played. The action there is something right out of, well, a basic D&D game. That's cool.

  16. @Matthew
    True that, man! Sutherland kobolds are the only kobolds!

  17. Many of my fondest memories from TSR are of the conversations I had with Dave over miniatures painting, arms and armor, ancient and medieval combat, and EPT. He was very knowledgeable and passionate about all four.

    He drew weapons and armor with a historical look not strictly because that's how they were but because that's how they were for a reason. Armor wasn't covered with spikes because spikes would prevent enemy weapons from glancing off, meaning more of the blow's energy would be transmitted into the guy who just got hit--and that's exactly what armor is supposed to prevent. Swords weren't made with all sorts of spikes and notches and serrations because those would create weak points in the steel, making the blade more likely to break. If it didn't break, a notch would catch on your enemy's armor or a spike would get irretrievably stuck in your enemy's body. Either way, you're suddenly without a weapon and in a nasty pickle. Those things were true in the real world and they'd be just as true in a fantasy world, so Dave incorporated that into his illustrations.