Art of the Genre

Top Secret: It's no secret that this game is packed with old TSR artistic talent!

In 1980 TSR had already started to expand its role-playing brand with the addition of Gamma World, but they didn’t stop at the post-apocalyptic market.

Enter the espionage role-playing game Top Secret.  Written by Merle M. Rasmussn [probably a fictitious character] and edited by Allen Hammack, this boxed set featured a full game book and adventure that would become the standard arms for most TSR boxed games until the mid-1980s.

I played the game only once, but would have loved to give it a nice campaign shot if the DM was right for it [someone who could run a Bond-like style].  I can’t speak to the mechanics, but I can attest to the art, which is what drives this post.

The cover never truly captured me as I’m a fan of ink and painting, not photography, but I have to say the random ‘leg’ of the woman in the shot has intrigued me for nearly 30 years.  The composition for this piece was put together by photographer Stu Ferguson, and it serves its purpose to introduce you to a spy dossier.

Inside, however, we see the full force of the 1980 TSR pit.  Artists Jeff Dee, Greg Fleming, David Laforce [before his was Diesel], Erol Otus, Darlene Pekul, Jim Roslof, David C. Sutherland III, and Bill Willingham all take part in bringing this game to life.

Dee’s work is the most prolific and inspiring, his style here perfectly ready to capture the fashion of the late 1970s and translate it to spy chic.  His inside cover piece has to be one of my favorite from any supplement he ever did, and certainly isn’t as widely known as his standard D&D work.

Willingham falls a bit flat with this game, and I have to wonder if he was phoning it in or just refining his craft.  He does, however, give you one of his ‘women in jeopardy’ shots that I got so accustomed to in his D&D portfolio.

Otus is hit and miss, one of his pieces perhaps the worst I’ve seen on any work for TSR, but he brings respect back with a nice ACME raid piece that I’ve provided here in this article.

Otherwise the last standout piece is probably from Darlene who brings us a ‘ripped’ shot of Diana Rigg from her Avengers days.  The piece only fits because of the reference, but I have to say it is as good as anything Tim Bradstreet would crank out a decade later for his early FASA work.

In all, Top Secret hits the spot, and I don’t have too much to complain about artistically, especially with all the names involved.

Artistic Rating: 3 [our of 5]

Written by Scott Taylor — June 19, 2013

Robotech: The art of Macross and Kevin Long

There is no shame in my admission that I have an unabashed love of Robotech.  I love the animation, I love the RPG, I love the fiction, and heck, I even love the toys!  Still, the Robotech RPG has to be one of the most impactful pieces of gaming literature I’ve ever used in my years as both a player and a DM.

Released as a licensed product by Palladium in 1986, Book One: Macross was something that jumped off the gaming store shelves as an opportunity for something completely different; that being a quickly resolved mecha combat rules set.

Still, no matter what folks might think of the game itself, I’m here as always to discuss the art from this particular product. 

Covered in color by artist Kevin Long, this remains one of the few gaming core books ever covered and almost exclusively rendered by the same artist.

Long is at his best here, depicting the veritechs and other resource material provided by the Japanese animation.  He also finds his own personal style as well, beefing up the products of robotechnology and showing them with more of a solid-state chassis and weapon system than depicted on screen.  I always kind of took this as the American version of the story, and although some additional artwork is provided by artist Aubrey Bradford, I give Long full credit for this feel.

All interiors, and even the back cover, are done in standard era black and white illustration, and give us a solid understanding of each piece of the Robotech Universe puzzle for the Macross Saga as well as some tidbits we only got to glimpse in the TV show.

In all, I can’t complain here, as Long does an admirable job and even adds a bit of flare that helps sell the universe.

Artistic Rating: 3 [out of 5] 

Written by Scott Taylor — June 18, 2013

Gazetteers: A bit of old italy with the Republic of Darokin

In the mid to late 1980s TSR tried to build on the success of their Basic D&D boxed set series by adapting a world dedicated to these supplements.  The result, Gazetteers, an impressive series of campaign setting books detailing the Known World as broken up into various countries.

There were really no huge surprises or inspirations here as the design staff simply took real world empires throughout time and placed them haphazardly into the setting while sprinkling in nations dedicated to Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and Orcs.  Still, the art from these books are excellent.

Today, I look at GAZ 11 The Republic of Darokin written by Scott Haring in 1989.

Covered by artist Clyde Caldwell, he does another fantastic job of taking on each nation with a series of larger and smaller character shots set to the backdrop of a country map and some random pieces of architecture.  Since the entire series is done by Caldwell in this fashion, the effect is one of perfect unity that plays extremely well and is addictively collectable.

Inside, however, the true genius of the TSR bank accounts from that time period comes into play as the company hired the freelance talents of artist Stephen Fabian to do a multitude of incredible black and white illustrations in each booklet.  Fabian, a veteran of 1970s mass market fantasy paperbacks, absolutely owns the project if you enjoy his style.  If not, this isn’t the supplement for you, but I’ve yet to find anyone who didn’t see the impressive talent Fabian brings to the table.

In all, the supplement features two books and a piece of punch-out board that can be used to make a bit of the setting if you use miniatures.  A very, very, impressive piece of gaming supplementation.

Artistic Rating: 4.5 [out of 5]

Written by Scott Taylor — June 17, 2013

Dragon #103: Art goodness from November 1985

I have to admit that doing an art review on any Dragon Magazine is a tough proposition because the bulk of the pages are filled with rather stunning gaming advertisements.  Still, there are three features that you can be assured are always reviewable with the magazine, the cover, the articles, and the comics.

Today, I’ll be looking over Dragon Magazine #103. 

Obviously, the first thing that is going to catch your eye about this particular issue is the stunning cover by artist Robert Pritchard back in 1984 [the issue itself is from November 1985].  I don’t know much about Pritchard, but his rendition of a blue dragon mother with crystal eggs really hits a creative sweet spot with me.   I’m not really sure about the party of adventurers involved here, but the lightning works, as does the color choice of the artist.  The people are stiff, and the composition makes almost no sense, but overall the art for art’s grandeur works.

Inside, I’m happy to report two of my favorite artists appear predominantly in the black and white illustrations for articles on the Gnomes of Krynn and Centaurs. 

Artist Larry Elmore does a fine job providing his gold standard pen work for both the Krynn piece and of course his Snarfquest comic that appears in the back pages.

Aside from Larry I got the pleasure of some  of Roger Raupp’s  work on both Centaurs as well as some Star Frontiers Saurian art featured in the Ares section of the magazine.  Truly, anything that features a lethal combat with some Sathar gets an ‘A’ in my book.  Just stupendous, and I have to say Roger is one of my absolute favorite TSR freelancers during the mid-1980s.  Simply a solid performer wherever I see his stunning work in black and white.

Overall, this issues doesn’t overwhelm, but it holds its own, and that is sometimes good enough.

 Artistic Rating: 2.5 [out of 5]

Written by Scott Taylor — June 14, 2013

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide: Delve Away!

Back in the mid-1980s my DM, Mark, and I had a kind of gaming arms race going on.  Unfortunately for me, our remote location in rural northern Indiana didn’t give me access to a gaming store that wasn’t more than an hour away, and his older brother Greg, already in college, always managed to get him info and product well before I could lay hands on it.  This was the case with most everything pertaining to AD&D until at last, in 1986, I managed to get my first hardcover TSR book before him.   That book, Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide.

Unfortunately for me, this book very quickly became a hollow victory as it was rarely employed other than added weight to my backpack on trips to and from his house.  That isn’t to say, however, that it is a bad gaming supplement, it just didn’t have a place in the minds of 15 year old boys who were gaming on the fly or utilizing fully-formed modules.

Today, as I sit here nearly three decades have passed since this book found its way into my collection, and I have to say that I’d give some good coin to utilize its contents in a delving campaign. 

Written by Douglas Niles, this book contains a plethora of information on the Underdark, and everything a good spelunker needs to survive in a subterranean adventure.  Truly, it is an inspired work, and I’m saddened I never got to employ it to its full extent.

But enough of the nostalgia, let’s get into the meat of the artwork from this venerable volume.

Covered, as in ALL cases with AD&D hardcovers from 1982-1992, by artist Jeff Easley, the image is inspiring.  I’ve often sat and wondered about this image, exactly what the little creatures were on the attack, and what the little man with a dagger on the fighter’s leg was as well [he’s too small for a Halfling, right?].  When I finally had Jeff cornered in his home back in 2010, I asked him about the cover and his response was very Easley.  “I have no idea, and I think I painted that cover before I was hired at TSR and they bought it from me to use on this book.”

Well folks, there you have it.  Mystery solved.  The underground adventure portrayed on Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide is non-other than an Easley fantasy spelunk into his own imaginings, and as he didn’t play D&D, then there is no true link between it and the game mechanic.

Like all TSR books of this era, the interiors are done in black and white, and this particular book hits in the Jim Roslof art director era which I personally love.  Roslof also adds his own art to the interiors with several inspired pieces, and even Easley makes an appearance with one of my all-time favorite gratuitous T&A images ever placed in an AD&D product. 

You also have a few less inspired images by Doug Chaffee, and Greg Harper, but they don’t detract too much from what Roslof and Easley are putting together, and in essence this is one of the few products that TSR ever put out that mixes artist generations between the 1970s team [Dee, Willingham, Otus, and Roslof] with the 1980s team [Easley, Holloway, Elmore, Parkinson, and Caldwell].  Having Easley next to Roslof here warms my heart, and the practice gives both the older old school player and the newer old school player a common ground of enjoyment.

Maps and 3D cartography also make a huge appearance in this book, and they are all handled incredibly by Dave Sutherland.  His work here is simply an inspiration, and I’ve spent many an hour trying to figure out just how his mind worked to make them.

On the whole, Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide is a gem among many old school classics.

Artistic Rating: 4.5 [out of 5]

Marvel Super Hereos RPG: When comics were still innocent

In 1984 the growing popularity of TSR’s product line finally managed to gain a license for the Marvel Comics Universe with the release of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG. 

It was in interesting endeavor and featured the new table mechanics that were sweeping TSR at the time as well as a heavy reliance on battle maps.  Years later, the success of Wizkids Heroclix showed full well that even in a flagging comic market such a miniatures-driven model could work, but back in 1984 the game never fully achieved orbit.  Still, it did have a massive number of supplements, and I truly enjoyed the several campaigns I played in the universe, both with pre-established heroes and ones that I’d made up on my own.

But one thing the game could never be accused of was not having intrinsically good art.  Smartly, TSR simply put the Marvel Bullpen to work on creating art for the game and so it has that very early 1980s standardized comic feel.  There is nothing unique about it, as it would be another five years before comic art started to take on a completely different style that bent more toward the talents of particular artists instead of making everything look alike.

Anyway, the yellow box cover was done by none other than John Romita Sr. and he gives everyone a great showcase of the standard ‘heroes exploding onto the scene’ image. 

Inside the box, in both the Campaign Book and the Battle Book, artists from the Marvel Bullpen like John Byrne, John Romita Jr, Walt Simonson, Art Adams, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Jack Kirby add their support.  I mean really, can it get much better than that, even if the entire book is done in black and white?

Here we see the old-school essence of comics when things were funny, there were clear-cut villains and heroes, and the last vestiges of an honest America still clung to the rising tide of 1980s corporate capitalism.  I miss those days, and although seemingly bland, I miss the artwork with a heartfelt nostalgia.

Artistic Rating: 3 [out of 5]

Written by Scott Taylor — June 12, 2013

D20 Modern, a game of anime art and strong mechanics

There was a point in time when there were so many D20 games being released I had no idea what was in the marketplace.  It was during those days that I completely missed D20 modern by WotC.  Several years after its initial release, and certainly after it had already gone out of print, someone on some long forgotten forum suggested I use D20 modern if I didn’t want to try to readjust my gaming world’s current D&D 3.5 model to Shadowrun for a one-shot distant future adventure.

I ended up taking their advice and my gaming experience has been better ever since with the yearly running of my High Sanctum campaign set against the backdrop of the Nameless Realms 10th Age of Man.

However, I’m not here today to talk about my gaming experience in D20 modern [which I hope is a bonus] but instead talk about the art involved in the books creation.

As I said earlier, it was produced by Wizards of the Coast in 2002 and Art Directed by Robert Raper.  The content is one of the first to reflect what my friend Mike said yesterday in a random Facebook post, and I quote, ‘Why is it that for the past decade all RPGs have looked more like Exalted than Exalted?’  Translation, in 2002 the industry started going anime. 

Now perhaps this was a conscious choice by Raper considering the premise of the book, and from that standpoint it works well to further  its content, but still I have to wonder what was changing in the minds of the art directors around the marketplace. 

Covered by artist Dave Johnson, the work is a nice hybrid of anime and contemporary fantasy with strong lines and color choices although the book’s cover features more design work than true splash art.  This makes it simply a character piece, which I don’t have an issue with, but still it fails to fully capture the setting.

Inside, a small army of artists break bread together as they draft a much more animated style in rendering full color images that are well-placed and capture the essence of each item described by the writers in this 384 page book. 

In all, it works, and that is the best test for any RPG, so although it isn’t my all-time favorite style of artwork, it still manages to please the eye and compel the story forward.

Artistic Rating: 3.5 [out of 5]

Nothing revolting about Revolt on Antares

Back in 1981, just before the TSR art department turned on itself when it began to ‘grow up’ and terminated the contracts of Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham, moved Jim Roslof to art director, and relegated Erol Otus to the role of random freelancer, the company created a number of very fun pocket games.

One of these, Revolt on Antares, came to my attention when my friend Mark laid hands on a box from his older brother’s gaming collection.  Inside, the pocket game awaited, and on four occasions during my late high school days we had a chance to play it before his brother caught wind and took it back.

Thus my love of this game was born, certainly helped along by the fact that each game I randomly drew ‘the devastator’ chit and happened to win it all. 

The game itself is a fun little thing, but my amazement at its creation runs more to the art that went into making it. 

You see, for this tiny little plastic shelf-box, it contains more original art that the later TSR release of Battle System!  And YES, that includes art on the games counters!  Jeff Dee and Erol Otus are responsible for most of the game counter designs and even at such a minimal size the art is fantastic.  I often lament the fact that the original works from this game have certainly been destroyed because I would have loved to see them at the size they were created.

Artist Bill Willingham also contributes a piece to the back cover, and the only color piece, the cover, is a wonderful comic science-fiction piece by Dee at the height of his youthful artistic genius.    

I have to say that I was greatly pleased when I found this game, in original shrink, back in 2004 on eBay.  Now, although I’ve yet to find someone to play it with, I can peruse the rule book, enjoy the counters I punched myself, and think back to the days I once ruled the planet Antares!

Artistic Rating: 4.75 [out of 5]

Written by Scott Taylor — June 07, 2013

Earthdawn's Mists of Betrayal makes me feel anything but betrayed.

I was one of those semi-crazed FASA fans, and certainly a devoted player of Shadowrun, so when the company announced it would be taking the plunge into the fantasy market with Earthdawn, I was right there with money in hand.

Now, I’ll not address the Earthdawn gaming mechanics here, as that is never what these posts are about, but instead focus on the subject at hand which is the Earthdawn Adventure: Mists of Betrayal.

Art Directed by my very close friend Jeff Laubenstein back in 1993, it was also project managed by Joel Biske.  Together, these two guys really, truly, put together a ‘Top 10’ gaming supplement for a game that never achieved up to its potential.

A cadre of incredibly talented artists take part in this heavily illustrated book, but before I get there let me first talk about the cover.

At no other time in gaming history has Spanish artist Luis Royo done a cover, and why, of all places you’d find his work on the cover of a mere fantasy adventure for a third tier line is beyond me.  When I once asked Laubenstein about how they got Royo to do the cover, he simply replied, ‘We asked’. 

Well, there is that I guess, although I’ve spent three years just trying to reach the guy about perhaps acquiring an original sketch and even his agent won’t return my emails, so go figure.

Nonetheless, Royo bangs out a stupendous cover replete with Obsidiman, T’Skrang, Dwarves, and is really only lacking a Windling for full race portrayals that are unique to the Earthdawn setting.  He also has his standard ‘Royo lady’ which intrinsically makes the cover a masterpiece.

Inside, we find the talents of both Biske and Laubenstein, as well as Liz Danforth who bangs out some inspired pieces here.  Beside them come the likes of Tom Baxa, who manages to do some work I don’t hate, and Earl Geier, who keeps his work tight enough to stop me from complaining about it. 

Other talents include some inspired work by Robert Nelson who is channeling his best Russ Nicholson, and Mike Nelson how complements Laubenstein’s style so nicely it always makes me smile.  Artist Tony Szczudlo does pieces that remind me classic 1970s inkwash, and even Tom Dow adds in content that appeals to my eye.

In all, it really makes for a perfect mix of talent, with the art direction for the project making me wonder if this module was more a labor of love than the standard production stuff you saw rolling out of most companies in the 1990s where adventures were concerned.

A truly compelling piece, and if you ever want to run any edition of Earthdawn, this module would be a perfect place to take your characters.

Artistic Rating: 4 [out of 5]

Written by Scott Taylor — June 06, 2013

Space: 1889 Science-Fiction Artwork from a More Civilized Time...

In 1988 I was a junior in high school and if I could lay hands on a Dragon Magazine I was pretty happy about it.  In those days, well before the Internet, you had to get all you advertising info from a magazine, and in the gaming industry that primarily meant Dragon.  It was there that I first saw the cover of Game Designers Workshop’s Space: 1889. 

I remember thinking, OMFG, that is one of the coolest things I’d ever seen.  I mean, just the tag line of ‘Science-Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time’ was enough to sell me, but the cover art by artist David Dietrick hammered home how incredible the potential of this game was.

Little did I know at the time that I was witnessing the rise of Steampunk in the RPG world, and that Frank Chadwick had gone out of his way to make something truly inspired in the genre. 

Still, without a gaming store in close proximity, and limited funding, Space: 1889 didn’t find its way into my archives until twenty years later, in 2008 when I got a reprint copy from Heliograph Incorporated at GenCon.  This reprint, however, gives me some pause in that the credits on the inside don’t align with the art I find between the covers.

Let me explain.  My Heliograph copy is all black and white images, but on the interior credits it lists ‘Interior Color Illustrations’ of which there are none.  Now I’m at a loss, because although I can review the product, the addition of color interiors in 1988 is something almost unheard of in the industry [as only FASA was doing so with some very early Battletech House books].

Whatever the case, I can’t speak to the merits of the gaming system as I’ve never played the game myself, although I’m telling you now, each time I look at this game I’m compelled to somehow, some way, find the time to navigate the ether and those incredible canals of Mars.

As for the art in this book, there is plenty, and I applaud Frank Chadwick for two reasons, One, that he committed himself to art, and Two, that he did some himself! 

But first, let’s take a look at David Dietrick’s cover.  A known touchy subject for the artist himself, I still feel it is one of the better non-TSR cover pieces to come out of the 1980s.  Although heavily art directed, the piece still comes off as a cohesive unit, and inspires the proper Victorian setting while giving us a dramatic sense of movement from the rocketing ships to the attacking Martians.  Even the circular earthen porthole that surrounds the image somehow gives us the palpable feel of Martian soil. 

The book itself was art directed by Lauretta Oblinger and she’s done what I would consider a strange, but not inherently bad, job of using what she seems to have been given for the project.  What I mean to say is that to me, it looks like the book itself was parceled out, as though a group of pages were given to individual freelance artists [and there are an astounding twenty of them!], each artist taking on perhaps ten pages of text until the book reads in such a way as having artistic ‘chapters’.  This fracturing is brought into some cohesion with Chadwick’s person full-page artwork that seemingly tells the story of a man and woman and their adventures on the red planet.  These two characters somehow bring the book back into focus, and because of that I give Lauretta a pass.

And of those interior artists, there are some rather famous ones involved including Janet Aulisio, Jeff Dee, Rick Harris, Tim Bradstreet, and you guessed it, Jim Holloway! 

In all, Space: 1889 comes off as a science-fiction tour de force, even if a bit scattered.

Artistic Rating: 4 [out of 5]

*NOTE: Remember that I currently have a Kickstarter that revisits the shared world anthology ala Thieves World, and includes incredible art by some of the artists I feature here on this blog.  You can find the project here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/563681582/a-knight-in-the-silk-purse-tales-of-the-emerald-se