Saturday, 8 January 2022

The weird art of Erol Otus


I make no bones about my love for the Moldvay/Cooke BX rules. For me these are the concentrated essence of D&D - deadly dungeons and hexcrawling wilderness. Beautiful.

I wanted to take a look at the cover of Basic today, created by the incredible Erol Otus. Otus is one of my favourite D&D artists. I love the weirdness he brings to his pieces and the colour, almost monochrome in some cases, that seeps off the page. 

With Otus you don't get a character study. There are no adventurers sat around being introspective. No, Otus is about the moment of action and we can see this in the cover for the magenta BX box. It's an image laced with potential kinetic energy - the fighter ready to thrust his spear into the creature's flank while the magic-user calls forth a ball of green flame, no doubt cooking up a magic missile bound for the creature's weak points. And the monster, perhaps a dragon or some water-dwelling cousin (it has gills and webbing, after all), is emerging, its claw on the rock. Its mouth is gaping, about to bite or make a breath attack, all the while rendered in a brilliant acid green. 

And there are the finer details. The shape of the torch is almost alien. The look on the magic-user's face - she's clearly been taken by surprise, an ambush from below. The little round gems found on the wizard's belt, cloak and the fighter's pommel suggest hard-won treasures. All of this pushed to the foreground by the dark purple of the cave.


Let's contrast this with Otus' Hackmaster Basic piece, a self-homage that gives us a similar set up, but now the action has moved on a fraction of a second later. The creature is obviously different, some multi-necked, colourful monstrosity, but the situation remains the same. Now the fighter has landed his blow and the magic-user has unleashed her spell, blasting a head. But much like the dragon-thing was primed to pounce in BX, now it has struck twice! A toothy hand (or mouth) draws blood from the fighter's leg and the wizard's staff has been blasted from her hand by a breath weapon.

Otus is the master of the weird, drawing from pulp fantasy much more than from Middle-earth. His domains are vast and his creatures unknowable - cosmic horrors doing battle with heroes. For me, the BX covers are the more D&D of any, including the 1e PHB.