A Quiet Day in Toad Town

Today, I learned that the iconic early Dungeons & Dragons artist, David A. Trampier, has died. Some fellow gamers linked to obituary notices of a 59-year-old David A Trampier who died in Carbondale, Illinois, and though that was all the information out at the moment, it certainly seemed like the guy. Sadly, additional information came out that pretty much confirmed what a lot of old skool gamers would rather not admit: Trampy, as many referred to him, was gone. (Tor has a nice obituary article on him here.)

Trampier, for those who don’t know, was one of the artists hired to illustrate some of TSR’s earliest role-playing games, but he was best known for his work on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. He did the iconic cover of the original Player’s Handbook – you know the one with the guys prying the demon statue’s ruby-eyes out of their sockets? He illustrated a ton of the monsters in the Monster Manual. He did the legendary full-pager in the D.M.’s Guide of Emirkol the Chaotic raising hell in some D&D town. He illustrated a ton of adventure modules. He even did this awesome picture of gun-toting rabbits for the first edition of Gamma World. In those early days of role-playing, Trampier’s artwork was everywhere. And it had that weird sense of strangeness that pervaded a lot of that early work, at a time when the game and the hobby was so new that it had no strictures of genre to limit it. Call me a grognard, but when I feel like I am missing something in contemporary role-playing games – even the ones I wrote myself when I worked for Palladium, I think that what I’m missing is that. That sense that there were no rules. Just flights of fancy and dreams of adventure.

There are, and surely will be, numerous galleries of his work over the net in the coming days. I could post a whole slew of my favorite images of his, as he was far and away my favorite fantasy artist. Forget, Frazetta. Forget Boris. Forget all those guys. They are all wonderful, and they all stoked the fires of my imagination. But none did it for me like Trampier did. There was a certain moodiness to his work that was on the exact same frequency of my imagination, and I just loved it.

My favorite piece of work from David A. Trampier.
My favorite piece of work from David A. Trampier.

The above image is a mural that was on the back of the original AD&D Dungeon Master’s shield. It is also, in my mind, my favorite greatest piece of RPG-themed art ever. I have spent countless hours staring at this thing, and every little piece of it seems to tell a part of a story at once more mysterious and more compelling than any RPG game I ever ran or played in. Hell, I used to write RPGs for a living, and really, all I was doing most of the time was chasing the flights of fancy that formed when I imagined a world based entirely around Trampier’s artwork. (I should also note that I mean no disrespect to the many fine artists whose work graced my humble books for Palladium, including Brom, Larry Elmore, Timothy Truman, John Zeleznik, Scott Johnson, Ramon Perez, Tyler Walpole, Freddie Williams II, Mike Wilson and others. All of their work was, and is, exceptional. But I never had a chance to be formed by it as a child, as I was by Trampier, and that is no criticism upon others.)

Most people who followed Trampier’s work know the story of how, in the 1980s, he just vanished. Stopped working, returned his last few paychecks to Dragon Magazine, the works. I got interested, and began poking around. I called TSR’s office (this was before they were bought out by Wizards of the Coast), and inquired about Trampier, and was told by the folks there that they had no clue where he went. I asked if they ever intended to reprint all of his work, and they said they were interested, but it just never came together. (This was the same conversation where I learned that part of the problem was that all of the contracts they had with writers and artists for everything that appeared in Dragon Magazine up to Issue 100 was stored on a legacy computer that failed, and when it did, all of that contract info was lost forever.)

Around 2000, a newspaper article came out that profiled a cabbie named David A. Trampier in Illinois, and before long, fans like me caught wind of it and tried to track Trampier down. Apparently, a number of them succeeded. I am one of them.

Finding Trampier was not hard, really. I just did a national search for everybody named David A. Trampier. There were not many of them. One was in Elgin, Illinois, which I figured was our guy. Back in the day, I imagined all of TSR’s artists had to be relatively local, and this was within easy driving distance to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where D&D was born. If Trampy really just burned out or had a religious conversion or something, I figured he didn’t go very far away, geographically. So I got Elgin Trampier’s number and called him.

Everybody who played AD&D, and I do mean everybody, wanted to be Emirkol at some point. Admit it.
Everybody who played AD&D, and I do mean everybody, wanted to be Emirkol at some point. Admit it.

Long story short, it was Trampier. When I asked if I could buy any of his original artwork, he sort of sighed and said, “Let’s just say he’s dead, okay?” Direct quote. I said alright and hung up. The next day, at my father’s advice, I called one more time and asked to speak with whoever was handling Trampier’s estate (wink, wink) so I could buy some artwork from it. At that point, Trampier lost a little patience with me and said earnestly that he really just wanted to be left alone. I apologized for bothering him, and I said I would not try to contact him again, nor would I tell anyone how I found him. He thanked me, we hung up, and that was that.

I wished I could have told him how much his work meant to me. How it was something special that pushed me to become a writer. That I was able to feed my family from the work that his work inspired. I could understand if for some reason he wanted to disavow that body of work he did. I just wish he could have known how many people he actually helped with it, though. He certainly helped me, and for that I’m forever grateful. Thanks, Trampy.

One of the things he did that I absolutely loved was a comic strip called Wormy. It ran in the back of Dragon Magazine and it was this weird story that kind of felt like it might have been in an AD&D world, but it involved so much other weirdness that it was clearly Trampier’s own thing. It’s about a dragon who wargames with real, live little people, an imp named Irving, a badass flying panther with a third eye, a troublesome wizard, three of the most awesome giant bounty hunters ever, a guy who tries to break the biggest bill in the history of bartending, a magical little place called Toad Town, and much, much more. You can read the entire thing here. When TSR released their Dragon Magazine CD-ROM archive, the very first thing I did was bust those PDFs open and make the Wormy omnibus I always wanted to buy, but knew I would never get. Well, here it is, my friends. I hope you enjoy it. Just hit the linked image below; the file is nearly 38 MB, so it might take a few moments to download. It’s worth the wait.

Wormy

(Incidentally, if you would rather not go through all of this in a PDF, you can view every installment of Wormy on a separate website, over here. It is not my site, though, so I have no clue if it’ll ever go down. Having the strips in this format might be helpful if you want to compile them into a .cbr format or something.)

Tonight is a quiet night in Toad Town. Emirkol the Chaotic will not ride. The Lizard Man of the Monster Manual will menace no adventurers. The heroes of the D.M.’s Guide will close their glowing chest of treasure in a moment of silence. And the magic mouth at the dungeon’s bend will whisper an elegy in alien tongue to the wizard who granted it life.

There is an illustration near the end of the Player’s Handbook (first edition, naturally) that features a trio of adventurers leaving the dungeon, laden with loot. Bringing up the rear is a rogue who looks suspiciously like Trampy himself, his face cocked with a sly grin as if he knows something his buddies don’t, and that he wont tell you, the reader. He’ll just let on that he’s got a secret. I don’t know what kind of life Trampier lived. I don’t what were his struggles, his hopes or dreams. I just know the work he left behind. And whatever it was that inspired his wonderful artwork, it is something that inspired me. When I see Trampier smirking at me from across the page, I always smirk back.

As the heroes leave the dungeon, so does Trampier himself. Spend that loot well.
As the heroes leave the dungeon, so does Trampier himself. Spend that loot well.

Update: Since I posted this entry, I have received two comments criticizing my decision to post a PDF archive of Dave Trampier’s Wormy cartoon strip. I’d like to make something clear: I have only posted this Wormy archive for three reasons. One, because Trampier himself personally disavowed his work completely to me, and did abandon it. Two, because I claim no ownership over this work which because of its creator’s abandonment has since become otherwise impossible to buy copies of in the marketplace. Three, because it is my hope that the more attention this work gets, the more likely somebody from the Trampier estate will pursue commercial development of this content. I do not know if Tampier has any friends, family or associates to whom he ceded legal ownership of Wormy. I have reached out to someone I know who used to be connected to Mr. Trampier in the hopes of learning of anyone from whom I can ask permission to post this material. I have likewise contacted Trampier’s funeral home in search of anyone who is handling his estate. I seriously do not think any such person exists, but I hope I am proven wrong. I would rather one of Mr. Trampier’s friends can profit from this work, even if Trampier himself chose not to. We’ll see. I have also reached out to Wizards of the Coast, to see if they still enforce rights over this work. If they do, I’ll take this down.

8 thoughts on “A Quiet Day in Toad Town

  1. Bill, this is a good post, but I am concerned with the idea of distributing an unauthorized archive of his work — one you don’t have the right to distribute. I don’t think this is the best way to honor the man.

    1. Thanks for raising the point, Caoimhe. Trampier himself never wished to distribute his work, but he is gone now, and the ownership of the material is questionable, at best. I claim no ownership over this material, and I have had this PDF for more than 10 years. I decided that I’d never distribute it while Trampier was alive, but now that he is gone, I don’t see the harm, since it was not being monetized. If his family asks me to take it down, I will.

      Trampier clearly disavowed himself from his work, and that he told me he wished his fans would consider him dead – and this a full 15 years before he actually died – I do not believe that he would have ever have cared if Wormy was distributed either when he was alive or now, after his death.

  2. This is the best obituary of Trampier I’ve read. You have perfectly encapsulated the experience of Tramp’s artwork on my formative years as well. I’m only sad that we will never know the ending to his final wonderful story in the Wormy strip; it was building up to be a fantastic piece!

  3. I feel the same way about Trampier’s work. Elmore, Beauvais, Parkinson, et al were all great D&D artists, but nothing brings me back like Trampier’s art. To me, Trampier’s illustrations were the artistic face of AD&D. I hope he had some inkling of the contribution he made to the imaginations of thousands of young men and women growing up in the 80’s.

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