Tuesday 24 November 2020

The Players Handbook cover, 1978.

Dave Trampier's famous painting.
David Trampier's original

In June 1978, TSR released the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Players Handbook. 128 pages of mind blowing goodness for 16 year olds like me. We got new classes, new spells, new armour and new weapon types, new rules on... well, practically everything, it was great. But even though AD&D is now in its 5th incarnation, it's the cover of the first ever player's guide which has stuck in the public imagination as the iconic image of D&D.
The famous painting featuring a party of adventurers clearing up after battle and gathering loot, under the bejeweled eyes of a grinning demon statue, was by David Trampier, one of the titans of early rpg art. For reasons best known to themselves, publisher TSR replaced this cover in 1983. But that made no difference to the original's kudos and fame.

Cover for 4e Players Handbook

What I'm going to do here is look at this image to see what it tells us about 'the  game' in 1978, and compare it with some later covers of the Players Handbook (or its equivalent) from subsequent editions.

As an image in itself, the Trampier painting doesn't actually hold together well compositionally. But of course it doesn't need to- it's obviously a book cover design. The right hand half of the image (with the famous demon statue and delvers prizing out its huge ruby eyes) is busier, more dramatic and coloured beautifully. The back cover on the left half of the image is more prosaic with a simple square wall opening through which busy adventurers drag corpses and treasure in a businesslike fashion. There are plain sections on both sides for the graphic artists to place their text.

How are they going to sell those?

But it's what the picture depicts, rather than the composition which is important here. So what have we got? It's a 'typical' dungeon scene. Our heroes have triumphed over at least three lizard-like monsters in what appears to be a temple or large shrine. The huge grinning idol, underlit by the fire in large brazier or stone (?)bowl on his crossed legs, is the most striking aspect of the whole painting and is probably the element which has gained the picture it's iconic status. There are eleven adventurers seen in the image, all engaging in various 'typical' dungeoneering activities. These comprise: at least three fighters, a magic-user, two guys trying to loosen the idol's huge ruby eyes who could be thieves, a figure in the foreground discussing plans who is usually considered to be a cleric, plus four others who are carrying looted treasure or dragging corpses about the place. These could be PCs or henchmen/hirelings. We don't know.

Henchmen clear away the evidence.
Hirelings clear away the evidence.

What does this tell us then about how Dungeons & Dragons... in this new 'Advanced' form is to be played? Because that is what Trampier's cover to the Players Handbook is for, to draw us in and make us want to be part of an adventure like this one depicted here. Firstly though, it ought to be noted there are no female characters shown here at all (unless the ex-lizards were lady lizards...which would compound the issue!). OK, D&D was and still is, mainly a boys thing, and this was the 70s so par for the course- but worth noting. My first group of players was actually 50/50 male/female for quite a long time and the girls usually played female characters.
Secondly, this is a party of at least eleven adventurers. Groups that size (and bigger) are expected to be relatively common it seems. I think that's probably not the case nowadays. The covers of later Players Handbooks usually include only one or two heroes battling some enormous monster. Note 'heroes' not 'adventurers'. And there are no obvious races other than humans. I find that surprising even for those times. It's possible that one of the two guys carrying chest is a Dwarf- he's quite short and he is bearded. If he is, he's certainly not the rotund, wide-as-he's-tall pseudo Viking, we are used to nowadays. Maybe one of the guys stealing the eye gems is a Dwarf too. Hard to tell. Does this give any clues as to the ratios of humans to demi humans? A new version of this painting would need to show a much more diverse cast of characters.

So I said, if Orcus is your father, who's your mother...

Next: that Magic-User is about as old school as it gets! Well, he could do with a pointed hat I suppose. If the other character studying the map is indeed a cleric, that gives us two magic using types in the party. I guess that would par for the course in 1978. The game was far less magical back then. No-one had cantrips and it was this book which introduced to many, the beginnings of the plethora of magic using types we have in the modern game. So, are any of these folk examples of the 'new' classes? D&D players who'd shelled out for the supplements will have already seen Theives, Paladins, Monks and Assassins etc, but for a lot of players, these were new and exciting additions to the game. The 'cleric' might be a monk, that plate armoured fighter might be a paladin I suppose, but it's hard to tell.
And then there's: encumbrance. I don't know about other DMs who started in the stone age like me, but I never really bothered too much with encumbrance... 'You find 10,000sp in the dead giant's socks.'
'OK, the dwarf will carry it, what else is there?'
So these guys have found three treasure chests and a barrel of something special. No one has even a backpack let alone the ubiquitous 'sacks, large 16cp'. Of course, there could be a mule just in the corridor...(are there mules in 5e?).
I've put the word 'typical' in quotation marks because what was typical for an adventure in 1978, is not typical nowadays. Although a dungeon crawl was back then, not the only form of adventure, it certainly was the most common. In these more sophisticated times, 'adventures' can be more like delves into the psyche or examinations of what it is to be 'human' rather than explorations of the mythic underworld. 

More about heroes than adventurers.

I suppose in the end, all of this speculation doesn't amount to much. But I do think it highlights the differences in the game as it was then, and how it is now. Neither is better but despite 5e's attempts to simplify itself, the multitude of races, classes and general shift towards glossy High Fantasy, really does make it a different beast.


  1. Actually I have to disagree with you about the composition of the full image. It's actually pretty classically composed and generally follows the Golden Mean for the action it takes.

    You can see this yourself if you add a Fibonacci spiral to the image. It starts in the lower left corner with the foreground action of the figures coming through the door. Then pulls up to the figures removing the eye, then sweeps around to the figures relaxing after the fight then to those planning what is next and finally centres itself on the idol's fire.

    You will note that the character's actions themselves tend to lean into this spiral.

    The problem is the graphics artist centred the idol on the front cover and the left hand of the screen was relegated to the forgotten back cover.

    But yes, the eye tends to naturally follow this spiral with the full painting and the story that is thus told of the aftermath of the encounter (one of the reasons it's a classic method of composing an image).

  2. This is my favorite cover for a game book. Sadly it does not reflect the diversity of my Dad's game at the time. It is a great story picture and a great example of moody lighting. Nice review.

  3. Hey, I found your blog by googling the old players handbook. I just got a great gaming miniature of the idol from this piece... Come to life! It looks pretty angry and it's missing an eye so I think we can guess what its plan is. Anyway I thought you might think that was cool.