Erol Otus created the cover art on the 1981 D&D Basic Set, and also contributed eight of the more than thirty interior illustrations to the included rulebook. The other illustrators are Jeff Dee, Dave S. LaForce, James Roslof, and Bill Willingham.
By the way, I go into more detail concerning my experiences with the 1981 D&D Basic Set, my first official introduction to D&D, on the first day of my 13th year, and I was enthralled with the artwork both within and without… but that cover… I don’t know how long I stared in wonder at the bright beauty of it all… wondering what lie beyond that stone passageway… wondering, was it the way the adventurers came in, or, if they survived the dragon (But of course they would! Wouldn’t they?), would it be their way out. My question was basically answered when I read that dungeons are descended into from above, which I figured, but as a general rule with the creatures encountered therein to be more dangerous the deeper you go! Anticipation activated.
I have listed the illustrations in chronological order as they appear in the Basic Set rulebook.
#1… Weapon Rack
This drawing really pulls the new player in because so much of the game is combat based and nothing beats a visual representation of weapons sitting around waiting to be picked up and wielded by eager blood-sprayers, heart-piercers, and skull-smashers!
#2… Encumbered Fighter
Accompanying the optional encumbrance rules is this image. I recall at the age of 13 jealously staring at the stalworthiness of this fighter. Assuming those are gold coins he is carrying over one shoulder, each 10 coins weighs 1 pound! He even has studded leather. Every first level fighter can’t wait to get that. What a stud!
#3… White Ape
This ferocious looking beast… “will threaten” YOU!
One of the many iconic hors d’oeuvres races of D&D… the kobold! The kobold has evolved, in game design terms, over the years so much. I prefer this older more capable and indignant version that sets them apart… especially en masse… making for a potentially very formidable encounter. I would have described these “small, evil dog-like men” as ‘small, evil dog-resembling reptilian humanoids’. Later versions of D&D have them appearing much weaker and cleverer than this illustration, and much more reptilian as well, Draconic even, relying more on numbers and traps and trickery. When I first saw this illustration, I was delightfully puzzled as to whether the females of this race of “dog-like” men lay eggs or what… ? And also, I thought it wouldn’t take much more to make the fact the butt end of the spear seems seamless with the cave tunnel ceiling… still with me?… a shamanic spell of some kind. Seamless spear and seamless feet. Neat. In D&D, notice everything and let your creative mind go crazy with it, and by crazy I mean “a danger to self or others”, yes I do! At least some of the time.
#5… Giant Lizards
This. Six feet long! “… known to attack humans.” From the perspective of a 1st to 3rd level character… terrifying. You’ve got to understand, back then, in 1982, at least in my town, there was a lot of parental and societal resistance to D&D, so most adventures I played in, I played as a solo player. It was a very much different scene back then for 13 year olds. There just weren’t that many people who were allowed to play.
#6… Wizards Dividing Loot
I love how these wizards deal with the distribution of magic items… it is hilarious to imagine, considering that any one of these items could be cursed or “too powerful”… what the motivations of each are: I think the tallest is either selfish or he knows how to use the wand best (or is it a staff? I also recall asking myself that question the first time I saw this drawing and then searching for a rule to help answer it.), that both those two holding the wand are arrogant, and wondering whether the guy pointing his finger is choosing wisely with everyone’s best interest in mind, owes a debt to the fat guy, or knows the item is cursed and doesn’t like fat people. Hahaha! You know… I think maybe the fat guy is Gary Gygax and the skinny guy is Dave Arneson.
#7… Wandering Monster Giant Snake
Accompanying the wandering monsters rules entry, this drawing is simply nothing more than terrifying. Whether its wandering brings it rapidly slithering around the corner to meet the unsuspecting party, or it is waiting for their descent down the stairs… envenomation! That giant snake is a spitting cobra, by the way. Let’s hope there is only the one of the possible 1-6!
#8… Dungeon Sideview
Who wants to explore these ruins…
Purchase the long out-of-print D&D Basic Set, 1981 while you still can… or don’t because you can find pdf’s of the book… but there is nothing like seeing the real thing on your book and game shelf. And always remember that… reading by backlight is overrated.
What TSR illustrator brings back much nostalgia for you?