March 29, 2014

Fallen Heroes

If you played D&D in the 1980s, you knew Dave Trampier. You might not have known his name. You might not have known his story. But his iconic illustration work was the gateway to gaming for millions of players, in the most literal sense.

In the cover of the AD&D Players Handbook, published in 1978, a fire-lit archway in a mysterious temple becomes a portal beyond which a whole world of imagination lies. On the front side of that archway, you’re the observer stepping into the aftermath of battle. You take in what lies around you. You feel the sense of events and history that brought you to this point. You linger and dream of what might lie beyond the looming darkness.

Trampier’s work — including iconic illustrations in the Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and some of the game’s most memorable adventures — did more than just define D&D in its early days. It created a foundation of fantastic authenticity that defined what the game could be. A Trampier illustration captured the essence of what fantasy gaming is all about — using imagination to create a portal beyond which anything is possible. Tramp wasn’t a realist by any stretch. Especially in the black-and-white that the early rulebooks and adventures of D&D demanded, his work was often sedately stylized. But that sense of the sedate was never static. Rather, it captured the essence of a fantasy world driven by the motions of life and conflict, then flash-frozen in a single image.

Tramp extended that gift for drawing the viewer into his world when he began tell his own stories in the comic “Wormy”, which had an occasionally intermittent but eventually breathtaking run in Dragon magazine for more than ten years. “Wormy” was a strip that never bothered to even glance at the mundane in its cast of working-class trolls, sadistic ogres, sarcastic monsters, and an eponymous wisecracking dragon. But within the confines of the strip’s comic fantasy, Trampier created a compelling story and some of the most strikingly beautiful art ever put to paper.

The saddest thing about Dave Trampier’s passing — taken as a whole with his walking away not just from his RPG work but with his apparent retirement from art as a whole — is that his last days should have been filled with the knowledge of how many people his work inspired, and the degree of love that we have for that work, even after forty long years.

Trampier is gone now. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are gone. David Sutherland (whose art stood alongside Trampier’s in defining the look of D&D in its earliest days) and J. Eric Holmes (who edited the D&D “Blue Box” basic set that was the introduction to the game for so many players) are gone.

On some level, it’s an amazing thing to be part of a hobby and an industry still possessed of so many living legends. But the downside of that is the sadness that comes of seeing — even after only forty years — the first and greatest of those heroes slip away.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)