I’ve spent 30+ years looking at RPG artwork and I’ve yet to get tired of doing so. Sure, there are days when I wonder how the fantasy art world went to hell, but those are few and far between, as there are enough great new artists that still manage to inspire me in the mix of things [yeah Cynthia Sheppard I’m talking to you].
Nonetheless, I did begin thinking about well-aged TSR art this past month when James and I started digging in the nostalgia mines of old boxed sets. It prompted me to consider just what a ‘Top 10 list of TSR cover artwork’ would look like.
And to be clear, I wasn’t thinking about D&D in particular, but simply TSR catalogue stuff, which of course puts any artwork post WotC acquisition out of the picture. It does, however, allow for the additional inclusion of other games, although as I comprised this list I found it nearly impossible to include them. D&D, as it should be, dominated the RPG landscape from the mid-1970s, and thus is the bag of holding that any role-player will go back to again and again.
There are so many ‘things’ that could go into the making of this list, but for today I’m going to go with my gut. If I had feelings for it, it gets considered. If I know a lot of people owned it, it gets considered. Other than that, I don’t really have much to lean on other than the fact that this is what I do. I deal in old art. I buy it, I sell it, I broker it, I contract for it, I agent for its creators, and as you can see here, I blog about it. My only regret is that I wish it paid more, but since when does living your dream always to come with luxury?
That said, one name found on most RPG art lists these days won’t appear here because he came too late, and frankly, his greatest recognizable cover was done not for TSR, or WotC, but for Paizo. Yes, this means no Wayne Reynolds, but that is how this list is going to roll, so without further introduction, I give you my personal list of ‘Top 10 TSR Cover Paintings.’
Yes, this HAD to be a tie. Frankly, it would have been impossible for me to not include something from 2nd Edition AD&D, and of all those products I think this is artist Jeff Easley’s finest. Sure, one could argue that Brom’s Dark Sun box cover or Ruppel’s Planescape box might deserve 2nd Edition inclusion, but how can you really go against a Core Book, especially with the movement and color of this one? Then of course there is the penultimate 1E AD&D DMG re-cover by Jeff that absolutely, positively, encapsulates everything a DM should be in a single image [sorry D&D cartoon fans]. This piece should probably have made it into the list on its own, but I found it appropriate to bind both of Jeff’s DMGs together because it just kind of made sense.
Now anyone who has read my work over the years knows I’m an unabashed lover of all things Star Frontiers, AND that if I could own one piece of gaming art, this would be it. So it is of little surprise to find it here as the only non-D&D piece I put on the list. Yes, yes, I apologize to all the Trampier Gamma World fans out there, but simply put, this is a much better piece than Trampier’s cover, and frankly, if I was going to put a Gamma World box cover on this list, it would have been Parkinson’s 3rd Edition one. But back to the subject at hand, Larry Elmore, drawing from the cover image of a long forgotten rock album, found the perfect balance of Buck Rogers [circa 1979] and Star Wars that traded in Traveller’s grit for the glam of TSR’s science fiction space opera. Like Leeloo in The Fifth Element, I dub this painting ‘Perfect.’
Artist Jim Roslof never received the credit I believe he deserved. His home grown talent, especially with ink, was absolutely stunning in the late 1970s, and although this particular piece isn’t his best work [I’d personally go with B5 Horror on the Hill], it finds a place on this list because almost every single role-player of the 1980s owned a copy.
This simple piece depicting what I believe are hobgoblins being killed by adventures in open country, does lend itself well to the theme of the module, even if the bulk of it actually takes place in the Caves of Chaos. The perspectives are a bit askew, the figures comical, and the action without flow, but I still find I’m captivated by it.
There is something absolutely ‘old school’ in this cover, something innocent that speaks to the birth of a company from stapled booklets to actual products found on bookshelves at Kmart, and each time I see this cover I’m always transported back to a simpler time.
Artist Clyde Caldwell did some very strong work for TSR during his tenure with the company, but of all his various contributions as a member of the ‘Big Four’ this is his most famous. Sure, you could suggest that his work on the Dragonlance module series, or even the entire run of Gazetteers, could be run up a flagpole, but I’m still going with I6. He was the first to define Strahd von Zarovich, and the epic balcony sequence. Amazingly, he didn’t even have a thigh-tastic woman in it, which is saying something were Caldwell was concerned.
Oddly enough, this is one of the few modules I don’t own, my only copy having been signed by Clyde and then sent as a gift to Wayne Reynolds a few years ago because it was his favorite D&D image. So, if Wayne says it is the best, then who am I to argue that point?
I sometimes wonder how many words have been written about this particular cover, and also wonder where the original resides. For my own nostalgia, I can still remember seeing it at my DM, Mark’s, house when his older brother Greg brought it to town from ‘the big city.’ It was so new at the time, so different from Greyhawk, and so intriguing in what it both did and did not say.
Parkinson hit the nail on the head with this one, absolutely defining the ‘forgotten’ essence of just what the Forgotten Realms was supposed to be. It was mysterious, grey, and with an oddly dressed rider who might be and enemy or might be a friend. Was a scout for a mighty barbarian horde or a wandering cavalier from parts unknown? And what about the stones? Those still intrigue me to this day, and I always marveled at what a fine rider the dark stranger must have been to avoid them as he scans the area around his misty knoll.
I’ve seen this painting first hand, on the wall overhanging the door at the Noble Knight Games main store in Wisconsin, and it did not disappoint. Truly, it is huge, and the vibrancy of the violets are so palpable I could almost taste grapes as I viewed it. Otus, not known for covers, and especially his color work, really had lightning in a bottle when he did this piece and I think it shows. The full wrap cover, and the titanic battle between deities and priests it depicts, perfectly plays out before our very eyes and gives untold validation to a book that has been described as a ‘monster manual for high level characters.’ To me, it is Otus’s best work in the genre, and I’m very pleased to include it here.
X1 is said to be the most published module in D&D history, and I believe it. Pretty much every gamer in the 1980s played it, and I’d wager many of them did so because they had to be in the same place that Dee represented on the cover. It is a wonderful piece of art, great movement, wonderful color, palpable threat, and solutions to that impending danger. Really, there isn’t a flaw in it when you are talking about how to inspire player’s imagination. As a fan of Dee’s early work, I think his best overall D&D module is T1 The Village of Hommlet, but there is little doubt in my mind that Isle of Dread is his most important contribution to the hobby in general.
Artist Jeff Easley worked for TSR for more than twenty years, and in that time he did so many incredible works it is hard to pick any one as a seminal masterpiece, but if you pressed me, I’d likely choose Monster Manual II.
Why? There are several reasons, actually, as anything ranking this high on the list should have. First, it was Easley’s true introduction to the hobby. Sure, he’d done b/w interiors for some fiction and parts of S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, but it wasn’t until he was put to the task of recovering all the AD&D core books that Jeff’s talent was seen by the hobby as a whole.
Second, MMII wasn’t a ‘recover’ like the PHB, MMI, or DMG, but instead a brand new piece in TSR’s massive re-launch of D&D as a worldwide brand.
Third, the conflict of the cover, the color use, the threat coming from upper left to lower right, everything, and I mean everything, is stellar. This is the Easley piece for AD&D in my mind, and I’m sure there are a lot of fans that would agree.
I’ve devoted more words to the cover of the Red Box than most, and yet again here I am sitting with it like an old friend. Same upper right to lower left threat, conflict focusing inward to the middle of the frame to capture the viewer’s eye, bright colors in crimson and gold, hint of magic in the fighter’s blade, it is all here. I’m not really sure what Larry was thinking when he painted it, but in the end it is a gaming masterpiece. In fact, it was so good that Wizards of the Coast re-released it as a 4th Edition D&D boxed set a full thirty years after it was originally done. That speaks to the timeless quality of the work, and the way it can still inspire gamers all these years later.
What is AD&D? At its core, it’s a kind of pillage and plunder rampage against what the human mind considers to be ‘evil.’ Nowhere is this more readily rendered than in the Trampier version of the original AD&D Player’s Handbook. Here is the party, looting a heretic god’s statue and considering its next course on the map as the bodies of dead lizardmen attest to both the prowess and the callousness of the players themselves.
This is D&D, and Trampier’s vision was so dead on that gamers today still have a hard time tearing their gaze away from what’s happening on the cover of this book. I’m not really sure it Trampier understood just how wonderfully he was encapsulating D&D when he did the image, but nonetheless it is in my mind the greatest of all the works of the TSR art department, even if at the time of its creation that art department didn’t fully exist.
Maybe that is why it is so good, because there were no art directors heavily involved, and no corporate suits to edit what is and is not politically correct/economically viable in it. TSR’s ownership at the time was comprised of hardcore gamers, and thus they saw themselves in the painting and ‘went for it.’ In the end, there is little wonder that when TSR turned corporate, Trampier’s ‘stripped naked’ vision of the hobby was replaced with Easley’s more acceptable wizard and flying mini-demons, but in a way it just makes this cover all the more special.
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