Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Old-School Monsters: Catoblepas


This Dave Trampier illustration appears in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, circa 1978.

It is the Catoblepas, which makes it's first appearance in the 1977 AD&D Monster Manual. The Catoblepas is not an original creation of Gygax and Arneson, as it is referenced by such people as Pliny the Elder and Leonardo da Vinci. Both Pliny and da Vinci report that the Catoblepas is a shaggy beast with a head so heavy that the creature can barely lift it. A good thing too: it's glare turns you to stone, or it's breath poisons you, depending on which ancient or medieval source you believe.

I find this illustration of the Catoblepas notable for a couple of reasons. First, the picture it is illustrated from the viewpoint of the Catoblepas, not the characters who are battling (or fleeing) it. I think you will be hard-pressed to find many modern fantasy rpg illustrations that are framed from this perspective. Most modern fantasy illustrating focuses on the characters, not the monsters they are battling. The alternative perspective employed here diminishes the importance of the party, and puts the Catoblepas in the foreground of the picture frame, elevating it's stature and importance.

The other notable thing about this illustration is the characters look like run-of-the-mill types, not Paladins in gleaming armour, Amazons in scale-mail bikinis, and Wizards bursting with magical energies. No, these are farmers-turned-adventurers, and they are clearly outmatched by the Catoblepas. In modern heroic rpg art, the super-characters would instead be closing in for the kill, not hesitating, fleeing, or screaming non-sensically.

Perhaps i'm simply worshipping at the Altar of Tramp, but to my way of thinking, there is something far more interesting about an illustration where the outcome of a battle is in doubt, where the Mountie doesn't get his man, where the adventurers turn and run away so they can fight another day. Tramp and the other old-school artists got it right, whether it was portraying the adventurers involved in absurd and humorous situations, losing battles, or partaking in mundane adventuring activities.

18 comments:

1d30 said...

I agree with your feelings about Trampier's work. I'd add that his work does so much with black and white, slight daubs of ink that end up looking like a scraggly beard or shadows on a fieldstone wall. And also, the things in his art are so shapely, so well-defined and proportioned and placed. The illustration of a rat on a shelf in the original Temple of Elemental Evil is this bulbous, verminous thing that I to this day envision when I think of Giant Rats.

Trey said...

It is a really cool illustration. The adventurers are a sort a grubby lookinf lot--as they probably should be.

Padre said...

Thanks for sharing, I remember that illustration fondly. I get tired of the heroes and the inevitable outcome illustrations that are so common. "We came, we killed, we collected our EXP."

Porky said...

Interesting observations. For me too the approach the picture takes is far more attractive than yet another cliche of heroism.

Jon Hendry said...

I like how, rather than portraying the beastie as a rampaging threat, as per usual, it looks more like the adventurers are intruding upon the catoblepas' peaceful wallow in the muck.

James C. said...

Appropriately enough the illustration depicts precisely what happened the one time I had a party actually face a Catoblepas. I was using the breath as death ray variety.

BigFella said...

Damn, could that guy work a pen. Brilliant.

Sean Robson said...

Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you. Man, I love Trampier.

Christian said...

I used a catoblepas in a D&D 3.5 session. It was freaking rad. The rogue would pop up from cover, sling a stone and it, then drop. Angered, the beast would fire his death ray eyes into melee. There were howls of anger from the other players as massive holes were burned into their chests.

Good times...

Carter Soles said...

I love the catoblepas and this illustration of it in particular. Not to over-worship Tramp either, but -- credit where credit's due. Thanks for sharing your insights on this.

1-Hit Wizard said...

I would also put forth that the artist perhaps wanted to draw attention to the crown of the creature - it's deadly gaze - by facing it away from the observer and toward the lickspittle adventurnauts.

1-Hit Wizard said...

(...unless, of course, the observer is the 3rd level thief sneaking up for a sneak-hit...)

Scallop Skulled Skald said...

Tramp was the 20th Century's answer to Albrecht Dürer.

There's a great, beautifully illustrated online bestiary, a good supplement to T.H. White's Book of Beasts. The "beaver" entry never fails to crack me up.

Greg Christopher said...

great post.

I wish we had more concern for these kind of issues in our current crop of art.

ArmChairGeneral said...

Thanks for the post. I agree that going for the image of the common hero really brings this illustration to light. Sadly, I feel for the beastie in this picture. He is going to have such bad indigestion after swallowing that boy and his unicorn.

@Christian - Haha. "It was rad" and then followed by "Blasted holes in the party". Good times indeed!

Akrasia said...

"the characters look like run-of-the-mill types"

Yeah, that's what made DAT's work so brilliant, and why I too "worship at the Altar of Tramp."

Derobane-bane said...

Certainly rare in today's fantasy art. Show me some tragic heroes once in a while.

SpecialAgentButler said...

Greetings Paladin! I enjoy your blog immensely and I'm also a D.A.T. fan! I love WORMY and ALL those Monster Manual illustrations that he did. It's a shame that he stopped drawing and supposedly became a cab driver.:( I started a webcomic that is kinda my love letter to RPG's and all that fantastic artwork: http://hitpts.blogspot.com/ Let me know what ya think.:)