Saturday, September 6, 2014

OSR Art Friday: The Magic Mouth

This is the first of a series that will appear every Friday.

By "OSR Art" I mean artwork of the original or classic games--including of course Dungeons & Dragons--as well as that featured in more contemporary efforts such as Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and others.

These games are or were better partly because of their art. A game is not merely defined by the abstract mechanic of the rules. For an entire game to aspire to be art in the more general sense (which, in my view, every game should, even in the smallest or most humble of ways) the physical product must also be attractive. And the art inside the game should be inspiring, evocative, thought-provoking and memorable.

Yes, it should try to more than being a tacky rip-off of a video game screenshot.

As Dungeons & Dragons devolved, beginning with 2e and picking up steam downhill with 3e, 4e and now 5e, the quality of the art devolved with it. I actually think the cause and effect works both ways. If you know that on every other page your text is going to be paired with blaring CGI-like color images of "Tieflings" or "Dragonborn" your design ideas and prose may very well sink to match that.

The illustration above is for me the most iconic interior drawing of any of the classic books. If it doesn't encapsulate the wonder and mystery of the dungeon, what could? Note that like most of the best classic pieces, it's not about combat, and it features relatively "normal" looking figures (if Hobbits and/or Dwarves can be considered normal)--not pumped-up Rambo types.

I like the way the light sources--the torches and magic sword--are emphasized, and the fact that it takes place on a stairway--going down.

The drawing appears on page 108 of the original 1978 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook and is by David Trampier, one of the leading artists of the first years of TSR.

For those of you who haven't seen it (probably not very many), enjoy! For those of you who have seen it, here's a bittersweet reminder of what once was.


  1. Great idea for a series. I did a few "Obscure Art Friday" posts and wish I had time to make it regular.

    Two trivia bits for this picture:
    (1) Don't miss the tiny bright eyes peeping up from the stairway going down. I didn't notice them for years.

    (2) Some printings of the PHB mysteriously have this image printed in reverse, so the dwarf with the torch coming down the stairs is on the opposite side.

  2. Thanks, Zenopus. I'm glad you gave the post a positive comment as I was worried that some would think the middle paragraph was too negative or "edition war-ish". Yes, good call on the eyes. The first time I myself noticed them was in writing this post.

  3. Black and white line art. Nothing says old school more than that. I look forward to these entries. Nothing has become more tiresome to me than the color art of late. Something about color in art removes the mystique and the wonder I felt when approaching the original games. But then again, was it the color or the style of art? There was something more 'organic' about the early illustrations which added to the sense of the unknown, the mystery and even the terror. Eh, maybe I just don't like change. ;)

    1. I basically agree, but I think i will be including some color art, both classic and contemporary, such as covers from The Dragon and some stuff from LOTFP. The LOTFP pieces perhaps don't have the same sort of "organic" (great way of putting it) quality as, say, the Trampier drawings, but they're interesting and successful in a different kind of way that I think is appropriate for what Raggi and his authors were trying to do. I know LOTFP isn't everyone's cup of tea (to say the least) but I want to be as diverse as I can be within appropriate parameters.

  4. This was always one of my favourites, and for all the reasons you suggest. It has a great 'texture', really great piece to start your series with.