Sunday, September 15, 2013

Legends of RPG Art: Dave Trampier

Depending on where your loyaties lie in ranking the early artists of the Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks, the work of Dave 'DAT' Trampier will probably at the least lie in the top two. I've expressed my admiration for the phantasmagoria of Erol Otus' work already, but it's fair to say that if at my age you found Otus' work a little goofy (as I did back then), then the more realist and studied work of Trampier would probably suit you well enough. Working primarily with pen and ink and employing heavy light and shade contrast - frequently in a pseudo-woodcut style, Trampier's illustrative work for the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual afforded all three volumes some real gravitas, particularly when set against the work of his fellow illustrators. Which isn't to say Trampier couldn't deliver with the fantastic monsters - in fact, classical and traditional beasts seemed to be a forte of his; here's the arch-demon Baalzebul, for instance, while his tiger-in-a-smoking-jacket Rakshasa, sinuous Medusa and ragged, wild Wight have become notable versions of those creatures, despite clear or not-so-clear descriptions preceding his work. In fact, like Russ Nicholson's Githyanki and Otus' Drow, it looks as though Trampier's Wight has in fact become the definitive version of this creature.

Of course, an artist as talented as Trampier could also be relied upon to bring life to the more mundane monster as well. here's one of my favourites of his from the Monster Manual, a creatively laid out illustration accompanying the entry for the Giant Wasp:

Note also the traditional garb of the unfortunate warrior - horned helmet aside, this smacks of early D&D aesthetic to me; recalling historical war gear for its heroes rather than Hollywood avant garde. Somehow making the appearance of the human in the piece more rooted in human history (or at least conventional Fantasy of the time) makes the wasp appear more natural as well - and yet, for its size, all the more threatening with it.

Elsewhere, Trampier's work is celebrated as much for its tendency towards vignette as its simple illustration. Mention the captions 'Lost in the Briars', 'Honour Amongst Thieves' and of course 'Emrikol the Chaotic' to a well-seasoned player and they might understandably go all misty-eyed at the instant mental picture each summons; Trampier's skill in composition and execution of often dynamic scenes were simply that effective. This does bring an interesting element out in Trampier's work, however, as down the years eagle-eyed admirers of his work have discovered some real-world bases for his D&D portfolio, such as the street Emrikol races down in his orgy of destruction being the real-world Street of Knights in Rhodes, or his Cloud Giant portrait borrowing heavily from a 19th century etching from H J Ford. It's likely a testament to Trampier's following that such discoveries haven't been framed as attacks on the artist's creativity, but offer instead a knowing wink to the man's obvious talent and broad influences.

Perhaps the most-celebrated of all Dave Trampier's work is, fittingly, the cover for the original AD&D Player's handbook, an enticing scene of dungeon-based plunder that, to my eyes at least, look like they might yet invite more trouble than those giant gemstones are worth...

Legend has it that Trampier himself appears in cameo as one of the adventurers in this piece - possibly the chap in brown, centre left. The picture is another or Trampier's most famous vignettes and has been much reproduced, imitated and treated to homage by fans and admirers alike - Wizards of the Coast even used a reworking of Trampier's cover when relaunching the D&D line a couple of years ago.

Outside of the three manuals Trampier produced work for TSR's other RPG lines, including Gamma World and TSR's own RPG magazine Dragon, for which the artist employed his equally-accomplished cartoon techniques for his long-running and much-missed back page serial Wormy, which really brings me to the final chapter in the story of Dave Trampier as a fantasy artist. In short, for reasons best known to the man himself, Trampier abruptly and seemingly without explanation severed his connection to TSR, the gaming world (in which he was also a developer) and illustration entirely, apparently resurfacing reluctantly some years later in a newspaper feature about cab drivers in Carbondale, Illinois, and shortly after this time it became more widely acknowledged that the man wanted no part in his former career or legacy (more can be read here.)

The man has probably inspired more artists than he may imagine (myself included), and yet  the circumstances of his disappearance and lifestyle change should be respected and rightly left to the man himself. Dave Trampier's work in cartoon and illustration form is rightly revered among older fans for its unique style, consistency and undeniable imagination. Here's to you, Tramp...


  1. Love always to Tramp! Agree with every word.

  2. Cheers, Mr D! I wonder what your favourite Tramp picture would be?