Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Retrospective: Jim Roslof's TSR Covers

In keeping with this week's remembrance of the recently deceased artist Jim Roslof, I've decided to do a different kind of retrospective today: a look at the covers illustrations Roslof did during his time at TSR. In preparing this post, what I immediately noticed was how few covers he actually did. On the other hand, the covers he did do include some of the ones I most vividly remember, even excluding those for modules B2 and D1-2, both of which I've already highlighted.

Take, for example, this cover, from 1980, Queen of the Demonweb Pits.
A reminder that spider-queens aren't always sexy.
I've noted before that Dave Sutherland's sole example of game design isn't one of my favorite modules, but it does sport one of my favorite covers. This piece sports all the usual Roslof hallmarks, such as a largely (or entirely) human cast of adventurers wearing "realistic" gear, but what has always stuck with me is his portrayal of Lolth in her spider form. Like the drow who serve her, all too often Lolth is presented as an ebon-skinned seductress rather than as a hideous demon, which is what she actually is. Granted, I suffer from a powerful arachnophobia, but, even so, there ought to be something creepy about any being one of whose physical forms is that of a spider with a humanoid head. Roslof perfectly captured that creepiness in this cover illustration, which is never far from my mind when I think of the drow.
Another cover from 1980 is The Ghost Tower of Inverness. Though I remember playing this module back in the day (several times, in fact), it's not a favorite of mine, since its structure is clearly geared more toward tournament rather than campaign play. The cover, though, is burned into my memory. It doesn't depict anything that actually occurs in the module so far as I can recall (someone will no doubt correct me if I'm mistaken), but it nicely encapsulates the idea of a "ghost tower" in a single image.
Nothing says "super spy" like firearms and SCUBA gear.
Roslof illustrated more than D&D module covers, such as 1980's Operation: Rapidstrike! for Top Secret. I remember nothing at all about this module (which is sadly the case for almost all the Top Secret adventures), but I do remember its cover. Being a fan of the movie Thunderball, there's always been a strong association in my mind between armed frogmen and spies, so this cover really spoke to my imagination. The cover's also noteworthy in depicting a team of agents rather than a single one, which better matched what the actual play of Top Secret was like.
Is that Gollum?
1981's Secret of the Slavers Stockade is another module I don't think much of, but, like all the Slave Lords adventures, it played an important part in my Greyhawk campaign of old. Of all those modules' covers, this is the one that sticks most in my mind, for two reasons. First, there's the purple boggle on a leash. Like the module itself, the boggle is not a particularly memorable D&D monster, even when compared to other creatures introduced in the A-series, like the aspis or myconids. Yet, I remember it very strongly, perhaps because there's something mildly unnerving about humanoid being used as a bloodhound by other humanoids, I don't know. The second feature I like is the stance of the adventurers. Like a lot of the best old school art, we're seeing the moments before something exciting is about to happen. This cover doesn't tell a story of its own; it invites us to imagine for ourselves what that story will be.
Where it all began for me.
Though the 1981 edition of Dungeon! was not the one I first played, it is the one I eventually owned, whose cover image was this rather funky piece by Roslof. Unlike a lot of Roslof's work, this one isn't as "realistic," instead being fanciful and "sketchy" in appearance. If I wasn't already given to calling Erol Otus's work "dreamlike," I might use that adjective here as well. Even so, the illustration is classic Roslof, depicting adventurers on the verge of engaging an enemy, in this case a strange gargoyle-like creature whose exact nature occupied my thoughts as a younger man.
Conquistadors vs. Cave Men
I have a lot of personal fondness for 1983's Horror on the Hill, even though, by most measures, it's just another variation on the theme indelibly established by The Keep on the Borderlands. But my friends and I had a lot of fun with this adventure, so it's hard for my to be completely objective about its virtues and flaws, including its cover, which I really like. Again, we get human adventurers wearing historical armor -- including, this time, some very late medieval, early modern gear -- as they're about to do something. That they're opponents are Neanderthals only adds to its charm in my opinion, as their presence lends a pulp fantasy vibe to the whole thing that I find charming.
Yo Ho!
1984's Lathan's Gold is a module I don't remember very well. It's a solo adventure in which the player character must travel across many locales (mostly islands) to find enough gold to buy the freedom of your fiancée, who's been kidnapped by an evil nobleman. The illustration is something of a departure from Roslof's other pieces, in that it shows a number of non-humans in more fantastical attire. On the other hand, his eye for foliage is in evidence here, just as it was on the cover for The Keep on the Borderlands.

And there you have it -- all the TSR covers by Roslof that I could recall (and that I haven't already discussed). If I've forgotten any, please let me know in the comments, so I can expand and correct this entry.


  1. In reference to the "Horror on the Hill" cover, I always thought those were ogres in the distance, not cavemen. I assumed the trees that the monsters are standing next to were normal sized, with the fact that ogres are about 10' tall making them look much smaller.

  2. It's certainly possible. As it turns out, there are both ogres and Neanderthals in the module and both maintain lairs on the hill, so either interpretation is possible.

  3. Another notable feature of the Secret of the Slavers Stockade cover is the fact that the female adventurer (despite not wearing a helmet) is modestly attired.

    While not having a similar style, Jim Roslof's illustrations have an "adventurers as working stiffs" vibe, much like Sutherland's and Trampier's illustrations.

  4. I'm surprised at how many of these images my memory falsely attributed to (artists) such as Dee, Otus, and Willingham.

  5. Thanks for posting these. I had no idea Mr. Roslof had such a large part in shaping how I visualized D&D and AD&D before Elmore, Parkinson and the rest of the Silver Age crew came along.

  6. I actually -do- remember Rapidstrike, as Top Secret (before the idiotic SI version) was and remains an old favorite of mine. Interestingly enough, it was basically a commando raid on an 'enemy' fortress to recover a kidnapped genius, so it doesn't square completely as 'espionage'. (This was actually part of the game's genius--it was a modern RPG of fair flexibility, masquerading as an espionage game!)

    Ah, good times...

  7. I was reading through A4 - In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords -- the other day and noticed that Roslof did almost all of the interior art for it. I was surprised because I had thought it was a few different artists in places that I found Roslof's signature. Definitely a huge loss to the gaming world. Thanks for these retrospectives, James!

  8. Weird. Did you people notice that in the Dungeon! boardgame image, the guy in the left it's the same F-M that appears in the cover of Supplement I? (In the original he's wielding a sword, and there a spear though, but its the same warrior!)

  9. One thing I noticed is the perspective of the images. We the viewer seem to be the eyes of one of the adventurers. This makes complete sense as RPGs place us in the role of one of the adventurers. But it made me curious about such art generally. Are there notable examples from odd points of view in old-school RPGs? For example, observing a battle from overhead, or from the monster's perspective?

  10. I'd just like to say thank you for paying tribute to someone whom i've heard so many good things about, yet never got the oppurtunity to meet. So much of this artwork is tied to my earliest memories of finding D&D and playing it with my friends. It also kickstarted my love of drawing, and of art...i've copied many of these onto schoolbook covers, lunchbags, and-in the case of the Ghost Tower of Inverness-onto my bedroom wall..much to my Aunt's chagrin.

    I'm sorry it's taken me so long to thank you for this blog. I haven't had the chance to get into any real tabletop gaming since 2001, but it's nice to see that some folks at least remember the good old days. My one greatest joy however, is seeing just how far roleplaying games have come, and seeing just how MANY people have fallen in love with roleplaying in general.

    Kudos to you! And thank you. May you blessed be!

  11. They were a few other Roslof covers. One I like a lot is the colorful cover of the 1980 PC Record Sheets, which I refer to as "Revenge of the Rainbow PCs":

    He also did the cover of one other non-D&D product: the Boot Hill Referee's Screen. Also, the back cover of X2 Castle Amber, which was used for the front of the French version:

    And the dragon background of 1981 Dragon Dice:

  12. "Dave Sutherland's sole example of game design"

    Don't forget that Dave Sutherland wrote Legions of the Petal Throne, a miniatures wargame for the world of Tekumel, published by TSR in 1977. :)

  13. The Queen cover is one I remember the most, and one I still own.

  14. Nice retrospective. I wasn't aware of Jim Roslof until I read about his illness on your blog, but it was quite interesting to learn more about his work.

  15. @Valandil: Yes, I did notice that the leftmost guy on the Dungeon cover was the guy from Supplement 1, although I'd never noticed that before. It's a nice example of a gamer in-joke.

  16. thank for posting this - I'd forgotten how good his color stuff was.

  17. Can we talk about his illustrations of the new classes in Unearthed Arcana yet? The classes sucked, but his b&w renderings of the cavalier, barbarian, and especially the thief-acrobat are iconic, moody, and evocative in a way no other "class illustration" artwork from TSR or WotC ever achieved.

    On the subject of color art, I strongly suspect he did some of the Monster Cards art, too.

  18. @ Michael - Yeah, though I never played them I stared at those 3 illos again and again - hadn't realized that was Roslof work too.

  19. "Are there notable examples from odd points of view in old-school RPGs? For example, observing a battle from overhead, or from the monster's perspective?"

    I don't have a copy at hand, but I think on the inside of the Expert Rules, there was a dandy illustration of two clawed hands aiming at a group of adventurers on the opposite side of a large archway. The Adventurers are facing you, so you are in the POV of the monster. One of the more evocative pictures if I remember correctly. Can't remember the artist.


    The artist is Bill Willingham