Monday, July 8, 2024

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Trolls

It's well known that, in populating the bestiary of Dungeons & Dragons, Arneson and Gygax regularly looked beyond mythology and folklore for inspiration. Such is obviously the case with the troll, which borrows heavily from the monster's description in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions right down to its green color and ability to regenerate. Unlike many of the other monsters we've looked at in this series, the troll's appearance is remarkably consistent during the TSR era of D&D. Despite the large number of artists who've drawn this horrid creature, nearly all of them seem to be using its initial appearance in 1977's Monster Manual as a guide.

In point of fact, the troll appears twice in the MM, both times drawn by Dave Sutherland. The first is on the cover:

Perhaps because it's likely the first time I ever saw a D&D troll, I've always been quite fond of this particular illustration of it. The interior of the book gives us this second depiction:
This second piece is unusual in that it depicts the same monster from two angles, like a model sheet. I can't think of any other monsters drawn this way in the Monster Manual. 

During the same year, Minifigs produced a figure of a troll that looks almost identical to that of Sutherland's illustration (unless the inspiration goes in the other direction). In any case, the troll's primary physical characteristics seem to be its tall, lanky body; tooth-filled mouth, long nose, black, deep-set eyes, and bristly black hair atop its elongated head. 
The next year, 1978, sees quite a large number of troll illustrations, starting with this one by Dave Trampier, which appeared in module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King:
Though Tramp's style is quite different from Sutherland's, his trolls nevertheless look identical. Speaking of Sutherland, here's another one by him, this time from module D1, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, about which I've posted before, because it's a favorite of mine.
What a terrific piece! Not only is it a great battle scene, featuring men in historical armor fighting a band of trolls, it also includes possibly the only depiction of the severed body parts of a troll fighting independently. It's such a signature element of the monster that I'm surprised there are no other such depictions (you'll tell me if I'm wrong in the comments).

Tramp returns for this fun illustration from the Players Handbook:
1980 brings us more trolls, starting with a Grenadier Models miniature that looks very much like the Sutherland original:
Then there's this one by Jeff Dee, appearing in the Arthurian Heroes section of Deities & Demigods
1981's Fiend Folio introduces us to several new troll variants. Though they are different sub-species, you can still see a "family resemblance," starting with this giant troll by Russ Nicholson:
Then there's the giant, two-headed troll, another illustration by Dee:
At the dawn of the Second Edition era, Jim Holloway provides this image of a troll for the Monstrous Compendium. Despite its small alterations to the template late down in 1977, this is still very recognizable as the same creature Sutherland originally drew.

Finally, there's Tony DiTerlizzi's take from the Monstrous Manual, which is – again – just a variation on Sutherland's. There's a reason why I continue to argue that Dave Sutherland is perhaps the single most important and influential artist in the game's history
So, what have I missed? Are there any notably different takes on trolls during the TSR era? Or do they all follow in Sutherland's footsteps as these do?

31 comments:

  1. There's a nice Jim Holloway illustration of a troll in Rose Estes' Endless Quest book, "Dungeon of Dread" (1980). It's very much in the Sutherland mold.

    If you choose to rashly fight the troll, you're treated to this scene of horror: "You rush into the room and before the troll knows you are there, you lop its head off its body. You think you have won. But suddenly the hideous arms reach up, grab you around the neck, and squeeze. The head watches from the floor and laughs."

    Pretty intense for the 10 year old target audience! It definitely made a lasting impression on me.

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    1. https://archive.org/details/dungeon-of-dread-estes-rose/page/n71/mode/2up

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  2. Trolls are in my top five D&D monsters, probably because they are linked to folktales (three Billy goats gruff) and the Hobbit.

    Of the representations above, the Russ Nicholson one comes closest to my mental image of the troll, even although that's a Giant-Troll hybrid. The other images are a bit incongruent for me and it's the narrow stomach and waist. Not fit enough for having scoffed mutton and man flesh.

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  3. Growing up with a lot of exposure to the Norwegian side of my family I was always partial to the bridge-dwelling sort of troll.

    Given everything else Gygax lifted wholesale from Tolkien, I'm surprised he didn't stick with the Nordic version — big, dumb, strong, susceptible to sunlight...

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  4. Love these retrospectives. I can only think of the non tsr supplement Dark Folk, which casts the trolls as ogres/hill giants

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  5. Pretty fair argument about Sutherland's impact, to be sure.

    Trolls are the only humanoid monster I've ever managed to sculpt from scratch that I was really satisfied with. I'm not really very good at proper anatomy but that gangly look is very forgiving to amateurs, and even my exaggerated facial features (I went with very large, bulbous eyes, more froglike than the Sutherland work I was mostly trying to emulate) looked good on the thing. Being naked didn't hurt either, doing clothing well is tricky even for some pros.

    Obviously they weren't TSR, but Runequest's trolls were obviously very different takes on the subject and stem from the same general time period. Theirs were people (strange people by human standards, but still people) rather than monsters, and tended to be much more corpulent and well-muscled than TSR trolls. I've often wondered if RQ trolls were partly meant to be a deliberate counterpoint to D&D's, since they're direct opposites in a number of ways.

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    1. I think that Greg Stafford already had ideas about what Gloranthan trolls look like before the MM was published.

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    2. Almost certainly, considering how long he'd been thinking about Glorantha before the first board game arrived. But the final details may not have been locked in, and the MM might still have had some influence.

      Certainly hard to say exactly where inspiration for the cave troll's regeneration came from, but it stands out among the rest of the trolls even though it's very much toned down from D&D's standards. Was it straight from Three hearts and Three Lions? That book filtered through D&D? Much older real-world myths about creatures whose wounds closed as fast as they were dealt to them?

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    3. The RQ cave troll's regeneration probably comes from D&D via Steve Perrin (and thus indirectly from Anderson). Or at least this seems most likely to me.

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  6. When I started running and playing D&D I had no real exposure to Fantasy of the type the game exemplifies. My familiarity was with myth and folklore. As such I couldn't quite reconcile the look of the D&D troll with the Trolls of Scandinavian legend and distested the former.

    Mine never looked like the above illustrations. I would search for images by Bauer and pictures in the book Gnomes. My Trolls regenerate but also turn to stone in sunlight.

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  7. The high level of consistency in various pictures of trolls reflects the iconicity issue again (you've got to know it's a troll and not an ogre, bugbear, or what have you) and also the description in Anderson's novel. Somewhat amusingly, in light of what Dick McGee said earlier about RQ trolls, there's much less consistency in early RQ pictures of trolls. Luise Perrenne drew scaly, almost amphibian-looking trolls; Rick Becker drew much more Scandinavian trolls; and William Church drew the boar-headed trolls that eventually became the standard.

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    1. Yeah, RQ trolls were quite variable in the earlier days - but none of the ones I ever saw looked one bit like the Anderson/D&D ones. That said, I agree with the contention that Stafford probably had a mental vision of what his trolls looked like well before 1977 - but it wasn't necessarily a firm one or if it was, it wasn't communicated to the early artists very well.

      Trollpak is still one of my favorite "nonhuman species deep dives" ever made, and probably always will be.

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    2. As one of the Lunarized trolls in my early gaming group liked to proclaim, "We are all Uz".

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  8. Erol Otus does a Giant Troll at the back of the Fiend Folio that I love. It's in the Sutherland mold, with the addition of kobold-like horns! The Ice Troll by Russ Nicholson in the Fiend Folio starts to drift away from Sutherland. It needs at least some spikey icicle hair. The FF Spirit Troll is lackluster and the only Troll illustration I can recall from early D&D where the artist didn't ref Sutherland at all.

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  9. Another depiction of trolls, this time on a mailing envelope from the Dungeon Hobby Shop, can be found here: https://grognardia.blogspot.com/2010/08/dungeon-hobby-shop-art.html

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    1. Hadn't seen that one before. You can still see the Sutherland design elements in it, but the quality of the art makes it look more divergent than it really is.

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  10. In my initial gaming circles (c. 1980 early-teen kids), it was felt that a monster with long beaky noses, which can't be vanquished until you burned it all up -- with a 'fro on top of it, just in case -- was what one day would be called "problematic".

    One of the reasons D&D was Not. A. Thing. at our school. One guy had the Monster Manual, and we all just looked at it.

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    1. *smacks forehead*
      Good lord…

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    2. Why would it be considered "problematic"?

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    3. It could be considered an anti-Semitic stereotype.

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    4. One really has to squint, strain, and assume quite a bit to see even an inkling of anti-Semitism in the D&D troll. Truly looking to be offended to see that there IMO.

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    5. If we were looking for it, we weren't aware of doing so, I think it's safe to say. A half dozen or so 12-to-16 year olds in 1980, almost all of us Japanese, Chinese, or mixed-race, attending an English-language school in East Asia, are not great candidates for sensitivity (let alone, in your view, over-sensitivity) to European ethnoreligious pathology.

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  11. It was likely our age, and we all largely departed actively playing the game by about 1990, but we all struggled with both playing and fighting trolls and displacer beasts. There was something unwieldy and anti-rhythmic about it (intended by design for Beasts) like lifting a fork with your left hand. Somehow it left me with the eyeroll of another murdered guitar version of Smoke on the Water. But the illustrations were fantastic.

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  12. The D&D troll has at most superficial similarities with Anderson's trolls, and no noticeable ones with the trolls of Germanic folklore. They are more reminiscent of some kind of alien sci-fi monster, which makes me wonder if Gygax lifted it from slmd overlooked sci-fi novel.

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  13. I guess. But for me, in all my years of gaming, it never occurred to me as such. I just don't see the world that way.

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    1. In the Sad-but-True vein, as a young person I participated heartily in every nonsensical stereotype and harmful slur I could find to crack a grin with my buddies. It was sadly natural as part of my environment. But I never commuted any of that into my fantasy gaming. It simply never occurred to me, either.

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  14. They seem more than superficially similar to me; a poster on Dragonsfoot quoted the troll section from the novel, so I swiped the text: here it is:
    THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS. 1962.
    Chapter XXII.

    The troll shambled closer. He was perhaps eight feet tall, perhaps more. His forward stoop, with arms dangling past thick claw-footed legs to the ground, made it hard to tell. The hairless green skin moved upon his body. His head was a gash of a mouth, a yard-long nose, and two eyes which were black pools, without pupil or white, eyes which drank the feeble torchlight and never gave back a gleam.

    (combat stuff)
    Like a huge green spider, the troll's severed hand ran on its fingers. Across the mounded floor, up onto a log with one taloned forefinger to hook it over the bark, down again it scrambled, until it found the cut wrist. And there it grew fast. The troll's smashed head seethed and knit together. He clambered back on his feet and grinned at them. The waning faggot cast red light over his fangs . . .

    (more combat stuff)

    The torso remained. Worst was that task, when Holger and Carahue rolled a thing as heavy as the world toward the furnace heart of the cave, while it fought them with snakes of guts. Afterward he could not remember clearly what had happened. But they burned it.

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    1. "Yard-long nose"? Hyperbole surely as a yard-long nose on an 8ft tall monster is a trunk!

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    2. I take it as hyperbole.

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  15. The Troll Eyes and Githyanki on the Fiend Folio were two of the most horrific things my 5 year old brain saw in the early 80s of my oldest brothers books before getting my own books a couple years later.

    Also, Pg. 60 of the FF was also seared into the mind back then. Just an absolute baller Conan style drawing.

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