Fantastical bestiaries have been a staple of role-playing games since Gary Gygax assembled the first Monster Manual in 1977. For the avid gamemaster or writer looking to expand the population of their worlds, though, there are vast literary sources to draw from when looking for new creatures and cultures to encounter. In some cases, you may even come across compendiums devoted entirely to cataloging fictional beings. One of the finest is Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.
In 1978, Wayne Barlowe was only 20 years old, but he was already an established cover artist at many of the major science fiction paperback houses, as well as being published in the art anthology Tomorrow and Beyond. Ian Summers was the executive art director for Ballantine books, and the two came together to create what would be released in 1979 as Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.
The 1970s were a golden age for fantasy and science fiction art. Books like the Terran Trade Authority series and Wil Huygen’s Gnomes were cultural touchstones. Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta were at their peak. Gorgeous paintings were everywhere, from album covers to posters to even Atari game boxes (you didn’t expect them to show the actual graphics, did you?). But when it came to visualizing the art inside of fantastic paperbacks, let’s just say the world needed Wayne Barlowe to come along.
Grand Master of SF, Robert Silverberg, sums up the problem well in his foreword:
“As a boy reading the old pulp magazines, I observed that the pictures that went with the stories rarely bore much resemblance to the things the writers were describing. When I began my own writing career a few years later, the artists still tended to get all the details wrong. If I described an alien with six eyes arranged in a hexagonal pattern on its face, I’d get one with four eyes in a single row.”
To be fair to the illustrators of his day, Silverberg does point out that the gaps between the prose and the pictures was never their fault. Publishers were hurrying magazines and paperbacks out the door as fast as readers could snatch them off the shelves, and they left no time for time-consuming niceties like actually supplying artists with the text of the stories.
Nonetheless, there was a vast universe of science fiction eager to be faithfully illustrated, and Wayne Barlowe stepped in to do just that.
What does this mean today, 37 years later? Of course, as a science fiction fan, it’s still a great way to see some of the creations of Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, Philip José Farmer, and others beautifully and accurately illustrated. But as a gamer, it’s also a rich sourcebook for your worlds.
Each extraterrestrial illustration is accompanied by a description of the species’ physical characteristics, habitat, and culture. Whether you’re populating a science fiction or a fantasy world, or some other genre entirely, each entry contains everything you need except the stats. Madeline L’Engle’s Ixchel might have come from a distant planet, but that’s no reason they can’t make an appearance on Earth, or whatever world your players inhabit. The salamen created by Brian M. Stableford for Wildeblood’s Empire are primitive amphibious humanoids that would, with a few adjustments by a crafty GM, make a welcome surprise for players over-familiar with the old standbys of lizardmen and sahuagin.
Wayne Barlowe didn’t stop with this ambitious accomplishment, of course. The editors who saw his potential as a young upstart were right. Still in his prime at a youthful 58 today, Barlowe has created characters and art for Galaxy Quest, Babylon Five, Titan AE, Harry Potter, Avatar, Pacific Rim, John Carter, and countless more films and TV shows, not to mention his 300+ covers, and his own rich bibliography of original art and even a novel. Extraterrestrials wasn’t his last bestiary, either. A followup, Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy, came in 1996, and is another sourcebook any GM should have in their library.