1978 PH COVER ART EXPLAINED AND EXPLORED
Trampier’s iconic painting takes center stage.
Written by R. R. Calbick
I have been writing brief “artist of the day” posts for a couple of Facebook AD&D groups since the end of last year. When asked to write for the TSR Games blog about classic D&D artwork, I was both excited and hesitant at the prospect. On one hand, how could I pass up the opportunity to voice my opinions about the art and artists that have been such a fundamental part of my life from a young age? On the other hand, art is very subjective and I was a bit concerned about creating any sort of discordance with those who happen to frequent the blog. Timothy (Connolly) quickly put my fears to rest and I look forward to sharing my views on various iconic pieces of D&D artwork; I hope you’ll share your own thoughts too (in the Comments section below.)
In June of 1978 TSR, Inc. released the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook featuring a piece of artwork by David A. Trampier, spanning both front and back covers. The painting features a group of successful adventurers and hirelings collecting treasure they’ve earned after defeating of a group of lizardmen, all beneath the watchful gaze of a malevolent idol with two enormous gems for eyes.
This artwork is probably the most iconic piece of artwork for AD&D and perhaps for the entire RPG industry as a whole.
What is it that makes this particular painting such a standout from all of the other game-related pieces of artwork of the period? What has enabled it to maintain its lofty status after all these years, even in the face of phenomenal artwork produced since then?
Dislodged from the context of AD&D however, the painting is not a particularly well-executed composition. The leering idol and its bowl of fire immediately catch your attention, but the scaling of elements in the foreground compared with those in the background seems disproportionate. For example, the height of those fellows attempting to purloin the eye gem seems slightly off, in relation to adventurers in the foreground reviewing what appears to be a map. The level of detail is also lacking compared to Trampier’s other works; I venture to say it almost resembles the style of a comic book, similar in some respects to his WORMY strip that ran in Dragon magazine for ten years. If you spend a little time looking even more closely at various elements you might even begin to wonder how it was ever chosen to grace the cover of a hardcover book in the first place.
And yet, one cannot fully appreciate Trampier’s painting when entirely extracted from the context of AD&D. The Players Handbook painting was never intended for the eyes of art critics or to be hung in a gallery. The painting wasn’t meant to pondered upon by those seeking a deeper meaning behind it, or for those in search of insight into the artist himself. The painting’s purpose was to capture the essence of AD&D: a group of adventurers braving the depths and dangers of mysterious dungeons in search of treasures both mundane and magical.
Trampier accomplished his mission. In this case the danger has been overcome, with slain lizardmen lying beneath the idol and another being hauled away. The encounter was hardly an overwhelming success for the adventuring party, however. The bandaged head of the far left foreground figure is a telltale sign of that. One sees no bodies of adventurers or hirelings evident at all. Perhaps the bandaged adventurer sustained the party’s only injury.
As for treasure, there are two large eye gems; one of which two members of the party are already trying to pry loose. Those two gems alone would seem to make the encounter well worth the trouble, but look closer. Other adventurers are collecting myriad crates and chests, sure to hold even more valuables.
We now begin to appreciate Trampier’s masterpiece, as created. This painting not only captures the essence of fantasy gaming, but also raises questions that could arise during a tabletop session. How did low-level lizardmen come into possession of such treasure? Was it all perhaps collected as offerings to the menacing idol dominating the scene? Who (or what) built that idol? Who (or what) was it built to serve? Why is it here? Where does that doorway in the background on the left lead to? What other hidden dangers lie nearby? What other treasures have yet to be found?
What Trampier’s cover for the Player’s Handbook accomplishes is ensnare you in its tractor beam and make you want to be a part of the scene, to be a daring adventurer overcoming terrifying monsters, to seek fortune and glory, accumulating enough treasure to one day becoming a hero (or heroine!) of the lands all about.
Countless thousands have seen this art and wondered how they might glean more about this innovative new hobby and create their own fantastic tales of adventure (what AD&D enabled hobbyists around the globe to enjoy more than four decades.)
And in 1978, it all began with rolling up a character from the Players Handbook.
~ R.R. Calbick