Though hardcore enthusiasts of old-school RPG art consider the tags “DAT” and “TRAMP” to be the familiar mark of an Old Master, many folks who grew up worshipping the Holy Trinity of 1st edition AD&D—Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide—have never heard the name David A. Trampier. But such folks would certainly recognize Trampier’s work. Trampier’s style was an essentially unique blend of cartoonishness and realism. If the legendary Errol Otus, with his rough-hewn, dynamic line drawing, was D&D’s Jack Kirby, Trampier was its Neal Adams. His art bridged the kineticism of earlier, more “primitive” artists with the hyper-slick realism of later artists like Larry Elmore and his generations of imitators.
Here are a few of my personal favorites among Trampier’s pieces…
The cover of the 1st edition Player’s Handbook
A motley crew of adventurers, the bloodied bodies of lizard men, the hint of arcane malevolence surrounding the idol, the daring thieves prying the jewels from the statue. This is arguably the most iconic piece of art in all of RPGdom.
This image sums up that sweet, sweet, payoff moment when the monsters have been vanquished and the gold is there for the taking. Like the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction, we don’t need to know what’s in the chest—we only need to know that it’s almost impossibly awesome. And yet—the sword-skewered skeleton in the foreground, the graspy hands and greedy eyes of the adventurers—there is a clear hint here that there is more danger in store.
Whether he was drawing the veins on an intellect devourer or the barbed tail of a pseudo-dragon, Trampier’s illustrations were always tactile in a way that most old-school RPG art wasn’t. Here the lizardman’s slithering black tongue and the gleaming plates of his shield look real enough to touch, but not so slick that the illustration loses its vitality.
“Put down your flagons, boys! Emirikol The Chaotic’s coming this way!”
A whole generation of gamers wondered about this anti-hero’s story. The lovingly depicted brickwork here is great, but I really dig the western movie pastiche. It’s as if the baddest outlaw of ’em all just rode into town and the lawmen at the Green Griffon saloon rush out to give him what for, only to get casually zapped by a Finger of Death.
When I was a kid, this picture annoyed me, but I couldn’t stop looking at it. Rakshasas were ultimate badass monsters. So why was this guy just SITTING THERE, SMOKING!? Why wasn’t he eviscerating some 3rd-level fighter, or at least brandishing his claws or arcane energy in a fiendishly threatening manner? Only as a grown man did I read the great Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who said, “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude. He pounces.” And, Trampier reminds us, a rakshasa doesn’t gnash his teeth—he sits there in his sharp as hell smoking jacket until it’s time for him to feast upon your still-living flesh.
The above images all come from the 1st edition’s Big Three books. But Trampier’s art also appeared in modules and ads. And he was the creator of the beloved Dragon Magazine comic strip Wormy, which starred a cranky, pool-playing, cigar-smoking dragon perpetually annoyed by adventurers. The strip ran for over a decade, form 1977 to 1988.
And then things got weird.
In 1988, in the middle of a storyline, Wormy suddenly stopped appearing in Dragon. Uncashed checks for the strip were returned to TSR, and Trampier moved without leaving a forwarding address. To this day, no one seems to know what exactly caused this sudden departure from the industry, though a number of folks with inside knowledge have indicated that Trampier was deeply dissatisfied with his treatment by TSR.
Fast forward fifteen years, when an article about a wizened cab driver named David Trampier appear in Carbondale, Illinois’s Daily Egyptian accompanied by the above photo.
The pic bore enough resemblance to DAT’s often-bearded heroes that some people wondered. And investigated. And sure enough, it was him.
Apparently, after the article appeared, Trampier was approached by a number of fans, and even folks looking to hire him. They were all met with polite but firm refusal and requests to be left alone. It seems unlikely, then, that the world will ever see new art by this titan of the gaming industry. [Update: as noted in the comments, Mr. Trampier passed away in 2014, several years after this article was originally published.]
Sad as that is, the man’s left an impressive legacy. If you played 1st edition AD&D, chances are that you remember Trampier’s work, even if you didn’t know his name until now. So which of his iconic images perform a deadly strike to your nostalgia’s pressure points?
This article was originally published in September 2011.
Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. He has been a finalist for the Nebula and Campbell awards, and his short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and podcasts. His debut fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2013.