Slowly but surely, we’re losing the men and women who brought us Dungeons & Dragons. The game’s co-founders, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, passed away in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Now comes more sad news: Artist David Trampier died on the morning of March 24 at Helia Healthcare in Carbondale, Illinois. He was 59 years-old, and allegedly in poor health.
Trampier, a native Missourian, first came to work for Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR in 1977. Along with fellow artists David C. Sutherland (d. 2005), and Erol Otus, he was instrumental in defining the visual style that came to define Dungeons & Dragons in its early years. Where fellow artist Otus brought a surreal and even psychedelic tone to his work, and Sutherland a hard-lined, high contrast comic book style, Trampier’s contributions were memorable for their grimy pseudo-realism and dramatic use of chiaroscuro. Trampier’s drawings and paintings often portrayed the game’s fighters, magic-users, thieves, and clerics as the scoundrels as they were most often played by the game’s fans. Trampier’s subjects were disreputable sell-swords, sorcerers, cutthroats, and tomb breakers: opportunistic rogues on the make rather than knights in shining armor.
Of Trampier’s many works, perhaps the most iconic was the painting that graced the cover of the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. The scene it depicted of a group of adventurers arguing over a map while two of their compatriots work to pry a jewel loose from a massive demonic idol stands as a perfect example of Trampier’s rogueish aesthetic. The fiery reds and golds of the idol drew the eye and provoked endless speculation from those sitting at the gaming table: What happened to those adventurers? Was the idol trapped? Did the map signal that they were lost, or were they just selecting the next target to plunder?
Like his Players Handbook cover, many of Trampier’s other large pieces told stories – or at least encouraged other people to do so. One of the most provocative was “Emirikol the Chaotic”, a full-page pen and ink illustration from the Dungeon Masters Guide that portrayed a black-clad warlock on horseback blasting medieval townsfolk with eldritch bolts of energy. Who was Emirikol, and why had he come to the city? Can we find him?
The Players Handbook cover was only one among many contributions from Trampier. His spot illustrations for the game’s Monster Manual are among the finest in the book. It is unlikely that he knew it then, but Trampier’s drawings of Displacer Beasts, Wererats, and Basilisks were to become canonical entries in the literature of Dungeons & Dragons. Trampier was the first to take the text descriptions of these beasts and render them into drawings. In doing so, Trampier didn’t draw a Displacer Beast; he drew the Displacer Beast, and set standards from which future artists would take their lead.
In addition to his work on Dungeons & Dragons and other TSR games, Trampier also wrote and illustrated Wormy: a light-hearted comic strip about the life and times of a cigar-smoking, billiards-playing dragon. Wormy began to appear in TSR’s fledgling gaming magazine The Dragon in 1977. The comic was a perfect outlet for the artist’s sense of humor, shadows of which was evident in many of his “straight” illustrations. (Among other things, he was fond of inserting himself into his drawings. Look carefully and you’ll see his bearded face in several of them.) Wormy won Trampier legions of fans, and after about a decade of publication TSR began to discuss putting together a collection of the comic strips. Sadly, this was not to be: In 1988, Trampier vanished. New Wormy strips stopped coming in, and checks sent to his last known address were returned to the publisher. TSR was left with no choice but to announce that Wormy would not continue in future issues.
Trampier’s disappearance was utter and complete, and included not only the gaming industry but also his friends, colleagues, and family. Attempts to locate him were unsuccessful, and after many such attempts, rumors began to spread that he had died. Trampier’s brother-in-law, fellow game designer and illustrator Tom Wham, put these rumors to rest in the nineties, stating that the artist was alive and living somewhere in Illinois. He also added that he had not had contact with him since 1982. Stories began to circulate that Trampier may have been suffering from mental health issues at the time of his disappearance, and that he had ended his relationship with TSR over an argument about property rights associated with the Wormy comic strip. Regardless of the reasons, Trampier was gone.
Although he was missed, the gaming world moved on in Trampier’s absence. Several editions of Dungeons & Dragons came and went, and so did the game’s players. Many of the players who remembered Trampier’s work had grown up, gotten jobs, and started families of their own, and in the process many became too busy to play the game. Younger gamers learned to play the new editions of D&D, or skipped it altogether in favor of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, or video games like World of Warcraft. Trampier might have lived the rest of his life in anonymity, were it not for a tiny article published in The Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale
The article “Coffee, Cigarettes and Speed Bumps: A Night With a Carbondale Cabby” was a straight-forward feature piece describing a night in the life of David Trampier, a local cab driver who had recently moved back to the area from Chicago, where he had also driven a cab. This Trampier didn’t talk about gaming, or art, or much of anything else besides his late night adventures as an independently-employed, coffee-swilling, chain-smoking cabby. He only worked the night shift, he told Daily Egyptian reporter Arin Thompson, and the job suited him. The story, along with a photo of Trampier and his cab, ran in the February 22, 2002 issue of the paper. There’s no way of knowing if Trampier had any idea that the little ride-along with the college student might end his anonymity, but end it, it did.
News of the article spread among Trampier’s old fans and colleagues, and once they knew he was in Carbondale, some of them tried to make touch. Those who succeeded probably went on to wish that they had not. Trampier wanted nothing to do with art or gaming, and it would seem that included his fans and industry professionals alike. He wanted his privacy, and was not at all shy about making that understood to anyone who intruded upon it. Trampier still harbored a lot of anger toward his old employer TSR, and even Wizards of the Coast, the company that had bought out nearly bankrupt TSR in 1997. He wouldn’t accept new commissions or sell his old work, and refused offers from publishers interested in publishing a Wormy anthology.
The world had discovered David Trampier was alive, but David Trampier wanted nothing to do with the world. The old rumors about mental illness surfaced again, and those curious enough about Trampier to attempt to contact him were emphatically warned against doing so. Anecdotes about phone calls that had ended with Trampier shouting and abruptly hanging up were common. Others reported that he was polite but firm in his requests that he not be called again. There were those who took offense at the reclusive artist’s reputed belligerence, but given no choice, they respected his privacy.
The gaming world was changing again in the late 2000′s. A new movement in gaming had risen in response to the controversial fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons: The “Old-School Renaissance”. The OSR , as it was commonly known, looked to the early days of fantasy role-playing as inspiration, and that included the work of early artists like Trampier. OSR gamers resumed – or never stopped – playing older games like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and even creating new supplements and rule books for them. Some of these OSR enthusiasts became successful publishers, or at least successful enough to commission new artwork from classic artists like Erol Otus. Suddenly retrospectives, fan pages and appreciation sites devoted to these early artists of the hobby started popping up everywhere online, and that included ones devoted to Trampier. New artists began to work in styles clearly influenced by his and others’ work, and artistic homages to famous Trampier pieces like “Emirikol the Chaotic” appeared in old school-inspired new games like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Hackmaster. It seemed like Trampier’s work was everywhere again, even if he was not.
If Trampier knew about his new legions of online admirers, it wasn’t enough to make him reconsider his self-imposed exile. However, that might have been about to change, according to the owners of Carbondale, IL game store Castle Perilous. In a March 28 entry to the store’s blog, “The Castle’s Ramparts”, blogger “Sthorne” wrote that Trampier’s rising medical expenses had prompted him to revisit publishing a collected Wormy volume, and that he had come into the store a couple of months ago to ask for assistance in finding a publisher. He had also agreed to be a guest at Egypt Wars, a local gaming convention. Trampier had suffered a stroke, and was recently been diagnosed with cancer, but had believed that his health was improving. Sadly, that would not be the case.
It is sad to think that Trampier might have found the financial assistance he needed if only he would have reached out to his fans. Surely he must have been in dire straits to reconsider selling Wormy, a proposition that had allegedly been part of the reason he cut off ties with the gaming world in the first place. Had he given it another chance, he would have discovered that the gaming industry had changed in a lot of ways that might have suited him. Advances in self-publishing, crowdsourcing, and social media have all made the world a friendlier place for independent game publishing, and many of the men and women working in that world have been, and continue to be, inspired by Trampier’s artwork.
Trampier is gone now, and beyond the reach of whatever demons may troubled him in life. Before we judge him too harshly for those demons, perhaps we should consider whether Trampier’s artistic legacy would exist today without them.
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