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Behind The ‘Monstrous Manual’: PART 7

June 22, 2024

Lizard Men, Fish Folk and a Mantis Warrior

Welcome back to a deep dive of my experience working for TSR on the 1993 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual. We’ve covered quite a bit leading up to this point–from my humble beginnings as an aspiring art school graduate to rendering some of D&D’s classic creatures.

Like many Gen X kids, I was obsessed with D&D since its rise to popularity in the 1980s. When I wasn’t playing, reading rulebooks or penning my own adventures, I was drawing, as can be seen in my rendition of David A. Trampier‘s illustration of a Lizard Man from the 1977 edition of the  Monster Manual.

Tramp’s image is burned into the memory of so many of us who played back then. Even the miniatures, by Grenadier, were based on his iconic design.

When it came to illustrating the Lizard Man for the Monstrous Manual, I had to nail it. So, no pressure 1993-Tony…no pressure at all.

ILLUSTRATION #183: Lizard Man

Lizard Men populated D&D right from the start and were first described in the Greyhawk supplement back in 1975. This booklet also featured a large illustration by Greg Bell, which would go on to become the logo for TSR during the 1970s.

My ’92 sketchbook had a few drawings which Project Coordinator and Reptilian Humanoid Handler, Tim Beach, liked: “Good Lizard Man on page 49; perhaps square up the back of the head a bit, for a more dinosaur-like look, rather than having such a curved neck… refer to the first edition art as ‘the’ source.

In an unusual step from all other images in the book, (save for the Medusa) I inked the Lizard Man on a large sheet of 11 x 17″ paper. I wanted to be able capture all the scaly details.

You can see the influence of David Trampier’s bold image, even in my linear design. This ink drawing was laser printed horizontally onto an 8.5 x 11″ sheet of paper, where I added his poleaxe and tail before finishing.

His coloration was taken from that handy Audubon Society Pocket Guide that I mentioned earlier (for the naga), specifically this image of Collared Lizards.

Now, this bad boy wasn’t the only lizard I’d referenced from my Pocket Guide. There was one more reptilian humanoid that I’d already completed just before I started the Lizard Man. In fact, it was the very first image I rendered for the Monstrous Manual.

ILLUSTRATION #281: Troglodyte

There were sketches in my ’92 scrapbook of troglodytes:

Tim responded, “The head nearest the ‘troglodyte’ label is best; don’t let ‘scrappy’ become weaselly; keep them menacing.” My fin-headed version was based on David Sutherland’s illustrations from the Monster Manual and 1978 module, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth.

It is interesting that Gary Gygax changed the creature from the traditional depiction of prehistoric caveman to bipedal reptile, not unlike the Sleestaks from Land of the Lost.

I set out to draw a new sketches in February 1993, going for a more naturalistic approach.

Like the Lizard Man, This lifelike drawing was accomplished using real-world inspiration. I referred to a photograph of a Western Whiptail from my Audubon Pocket Guide for scale placement and pattern.

Tim approved the new sketch and I was off. The troglodyte entry may appear in the latter half of the book but it was the first finished illustration I completed.

Though it is not “menacing” as Tim had requested, there was something magical about this piece. It felt alive. This not only marked the start of my work on the Monstrous Manual but the beginning of my methodology for rendering realistic, yet fantastical, creatures that seemed more at home in a naturalist’s field guide than a fantasy setting. Although twenty-three-year-old me could not keep up that level of realism under the deadline I’d been given at the time, I would eventually have my opportunity to fully realize this vision in Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You.

ILLUSTRATION #184 : Locathah

As I mentioned at the start, I was obsessed with D&D and dreaming of working for TSR throughout 1992. I even sketched on napkins at restaurants and bars.

Although these doodles were of Sahuagin, Tim felt the topmost sketches were perfect for the Locathah–a “fairly civilized” race of aquatic nomads who first appeared in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor supplement in 1975. Continuing with the same approach I’d used for the troglodyte, I found inspiring head reference of a Sandpaper fish in my Animals book from Dover Publications.

A detailed pencil drawing was completed, which I then had laser copied onto bond paper to color.

I still did not possess the skills to fully synthesize all reference into a cohesive creature design (like his legs and feet) but, like the troglodyte, I was excited with this level of natural realism in portions of this piece and eager to draw more fish-men.

*It has been pointed out (by Tim and others) that the shafts on my spears were ridiculously thin in diameter. I erroneously thought that these hafts were cast in an iron forge, similar in weight and thickness to a tire iron. Anyways, as I learned more the weapons became…well, not more accurate…but perhaps more plausible, at least in size.

ILLUSTRATION #173: Kuo-Toa

A freshwater fish, a Mooneye, served as my inspiration for the Kuo-Toa, a classic D&D monster that made its debut in the appropriately named adventure module, The Shrine of the Kuo-Toa.

Honestly, I prefer David Sutherland’s design on this cover over mine; although, coincidentally, my rendition of the Sahuagin (up next) bears quite a resemblance to his art here.

In all my years of playing, my adventuring party never encountered these evil fish guys.  My guess is they are the D&D version of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones” from his 1931 Cthulhu novella, The Shadow Over Innsmouth; however, Gygax later clarified that this was not the case.

Tim had minor adjustments to the sketch, adding: “Kuo-Toa never had tails, but we like it.” As I’d done with Medusa, the ink drawing was laser copied, then the top half of the critter was cut out and mounted onto a new sheet of paper. From there, the bottom half was redrawn then it was laser copied once more and colored.

I don’t recall how I hit upon the idea of the spearhead being made from the the serrated snout of a sawfish, but it was that type of detail (just like the gnoll) that supported my philosophy of making the monsters as interesting as player characters. Note the string of conical shells on his strap…these represent each foe he’s struck down.

ILLUSTRATION #246: Sahuagin

The “Devil Men of the Deep” were created by game designer, Steve Marsh (perfect name), and made their (quite detailed) debut in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor supplement back in 1975.

My first question to Tim was how to pronounce their name. He said there were two pronunciations accepted amongst the staff at TSR: sah-HWAH-gin and suh-HOO-uh-gin…or, more simply, Sea Devil.

These devils, which bring to mind the “Gill-Man” from the 1954 film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon remained much the same design-wise throughout the 1970s-80s. But Daniel R. Horne’s ink drawing for the ’89 Monstrous Compendium was less human and more creature-like, which got my creative gears turning.

As mentioned earlier, I had sketches for the Sahuagin but Tim felt they were better suited for the Locathah, so it was back to my Animals book for ideas. An engraving of a deep-sea Lightfish and Dragonfish(?) fired those creative gears into high speed.

I came up with this design, which Tim thought was, “Pretty good. Half out of water is good. Maybe try the head a little more shark-like (they hand with sharks, after all). I think the beady eyes might be better than the bulging type. If you really don’t like the shark look, though, go with what you’ve got.

I didn’t want these Sea Devils looking like Jabberjaw, so I went with what I had, adding webbed feet, a tail, and a diving knife. Tim thought it came out “good“.

Good enough for this redesign to remain the basis for the Sahuagin for the next 15 years, up to fourth edition. I suppose I hooked a big one with this illustration! Sorry, I had to do it.

ILLUSTRATION #276: Thri-Kreen

Our last entry is among Tim Beach’s favorite critters in the Monstrous Manual, the 11-foot long mantis warriors known as the Thri-Kreen. By the way, if you ever watched videos of what an actual praying mantis will capture and eat (seriously, do not Google it), you’ll know that a gigantic one doesn’t really need weapons. It’s terrifying just by its mere existence. But sure, why not give it razor boomerangs and a spear?

This menace had an unusual debut in the 1982 Monster Cards, where it was first described and listed as “New” (instead of referencing what book or adventure module it came from). The Thri-Kreen would later return the following year in the Monster Manual II.  They remind me somewhat of the tharks from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 sci-fi classic, A Princess of Mars.

Despite a deep love of insects–especially mantids–I did not have any drawings in my ’92 sketchbook because this was one of the few monsters I was not familiar with. (Our gaming group had not yet ventured into the Dark Sun setting, which featured mantis warriors decimating thirsty, sunburnt heroes.) But Tim gave me the lowdown and I was off sketching.

Of all the feedback I received from Tim during the entire run of the Monstrous Manual, the Thri-Kreen received the most notes:  “No pupils! I know real mantids have eye spots, but Thri-Kreen don’t. And don’t give him a nose. The face on the current MC [he’s referring to the 1991 Forgotten Realms Monstrous Compendium, seen below] is really good. Make sure they have side-to-side mandibles that will do damage. Make his torso thicker.

The hands have three opposed thumbs, essentially, and these should be somewhat pointed at the end to give him claw damage (or, if they actually show in the final, it would be cool to give them interior serration like a preying mantis’ claws). Or, we can assume their claw damage comes from the spikes on their arms.

Also, modern Thri-Kreen have four arms and two legs. They are insects, not insect like, so all limbs should attach at the thorax, though they can attack high, middle, and low. For the legs, see the attached pictures; [I no longer have the reference pictures of mantids that he’s referring to] either style is fine… With only two legs, and 450 pounds of body, these seem more structurally sound ….[He goes on to give additional notes on a page of sketches that I cannot locate, then onto the ones on the legal paper shown above]… Second page, upper left, the face looks goofy; top right, okay, but the mandibles look weak (plus the human nose is out); middle right, [obscured by my dumb “td” stamp] the pose is okay, but I like the other one better.

In case it isn’t apparent, I really like Thri-Kreen.

No, Tim. I didn’t get that at all from the novel you sent back. Anyways, somehow I miraculously was able to synthesize pretty much everything he asked for using multiple mantis images for reference and even mantidfly reference, which is a different insect species entirely.

Tim responded: “Excellent–but lose the wings. The torso could still be a little thicker, but it’s okay. You may also want to shorten the polearm a bit (optional). Finally, it would be nice to see a throwing wedge somewhere, hanging on the harness, maybe; it’s a very traditional Thri-Kreen weapon.

I tried to incorporate every change he requested before coloring it up for the final.

This one really relies on the drawing more than the color. This scan (supplied by Tim) offers detail not seen in the final published book. (Yup, I am happy to report that this was another piece of art Tim purchased from me and still treasures to this day.) At the end of February of 1993, with the deadline for the Monstrous Manual just thirty days out, Tim sent this note:

Some day, we are supposed to a do a Thri-Kreen handbook for Dark Sun. I’ve asked to write it, and I’ve been told I’ll have first shot at it, but I wouldn’t start writing it for at least a year. Assuming everything works out, though, I’d like to keep you in mind for the art on it.”

…little did either of us know that within a year I’d be the exclusive illustrator for a new line from TSR called Planescape as well as contributing to White Wolf Games’ new line, Changeling. However, my old classmate from art school, John Dollar, would go on to illustrate Tim’s The Thri-Kreen of Athas in 1995. He did a bang up job, too. (I wonder how many notes he got from Tim?)

Well, I’m just about finished with my behind-the-scenes stories but I do have a mess of sketches to share, along with a few more memories. We’ll get to those next!

Next: Part 8: creepy-crawlies
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Never Abandon Imagination Tony DiTerlizzi: Never abandon imagination.

Imagination is a world of possibility that exists within each of us. It is what makes us uniquely human. It is our creative fingerprint that touches and influences the world around us. Imagination is essential to art and science; to innovation and prosperity. It gives us hope, calls us to action and leads to change.

Whether it’s fairies, dragons, robots or aliens, all of my children’s book characters are siblings born of my imagination – an imagination strengthened through years of encouragement from family, teachers and friends. While so many others abandoned it during their transition from childhood to adulthood, I fiercely held onto mine, hoping for a day when I could share it to inspire the next generation of dreamers. Innovators. World changers.

Imagination empowers us to envision and create a reality of what could be. We must hold it dear, foster it and never abandon it.