Tracing the California Gaming Scene, part II: Erol Otus in NorCalErol Otus was one of the "second wave" of TSR artists hired in the mid 70s after the "first wave" of David A. Trampier, Tom Wham, David C. Sutherland and the like. His second wave contemporaries include Jeff Dee, David S. "Diesel" LaForce, Bill Willingham and later, Jim Roslof. Otus' trippy, semi-surreal illustrations brought a macabre yet whimsical, gonzo touch to TSR's publications: D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, Dragon magazine, Boot Hill, Top Secret and more. He became a fan favorite and his distinct style made his illustrations easy to pick out from the rest.
In about 1983, he left TSR and the RPG industry. Nowadays, he creates art for several RPG companies looking for the classic-era look for their products. It is easy to forget that we didn't see any new weird fantasy RPG art come from him for a long, long time after leaving TSR.
1999 San Francisco: Return to the Art on the Borderlands
|Twilight of the Idols (1999)|
"LSD&D" succinctly describes Otus' trippy D&D art style, a term I first saw when I contacted Allan Horrocks of San Francisco's Aquarius Records back in 1998. "LSD&D" doesn't mean that Otus uses mind-altering substances to create his art (he doesn't (1)), just that his art mirrors the unrealities that such substances unveil.
Otus illustrated an album cover for SF band The Lord Weird Slough Feg (above) with an image that could've been pulled from a 1980 D&D module. Fellow Otus fan Horrocks, friend of the lead singer, interviewed Otus for his music 'zine, Hoe (now, unfortunately, lost to time).
|Down Among the Deadmen (2000)|
This was the first time fans like Horrocks and me saw Otus work in his classic fantasy D&D style in over 15 years. Remember, this was long before Erol's covers for the DCC adventures The Mysterious Tower and The Haunted Lighthouse and the Hackmaster module Descent into the NetherDeep. By 1999, some D&D fans had even started asking the quesion, "Whatever happened to Erol Otus?"
|Humna Humna alien graphics for Starflight 2 (1989)|
|Humna Humna alien illustration for Starflight 2 (1989)|
My question is: how did this gonzo gamer from Berkeley become an influential artist at such a pivotal time in TSR's history?
1976 Richmond: We'll always have Arduin
|The Arduin Grimoire (1977) cover illustrated by Erol Otus|
The Chaosium deal fell through, as I explored in a previous post, and Hargrave was forced to self-publish The Arduin Grimoire and its two sequels, Welcome to Skull Tower and The Runes of Doom (all three illustrated by Otus). The change of plans delayed publication of the first book until 1977 and the sequels until 1978.
In the forward to The Arduin Grimoire, Hargrave gives this odd note:
Special Note: the artwork for this supplement is the sole doing of one fine young artist: Errol [sic] Otus. I'm only glad I'll be able to say in ten years from now, "I knew him when..." (3)Did Hargrave have mystical foreknowledge about Otus' future career, even if he couldn't spell his name? Not really. By 1977, Otus was already a published artist with TSR.
1976 Lake Geneva: The Dragon Reaches Westward
|The Remhoraz from The Dragon #2|
One the drawings was of a blue and fuchsia winged worm in an icy landscape, this was published in The Dragon #2 with stats by Gary Gygax as “The Remorhaz.” This was my first published color piece.
|The Anhkheg from The Dragon #5|
Three issues later, TSR Periodicals published Otus' creature write-up and illustration for the Anhkheg, now an iconic D&D creature (and now spelled Ankheg). Gary Gygax gives Otus credit for both the above creations in the 1st ed. Monster Manual(4). Not long after, TSR needed a new staff artist (possibly because Dave Trampier had just quit(5)) and hired Otus. He moved out to Lake Geneva.
There appears to be some trouble for Dave Hargrave's Arduin after this. About the time The Arduin Grimoire was in its second printing, TSR sent him a cease & desist letter to remove any references to D&D from his books. This may include Erol Otus' art as it starts to disappear from later Arduin printings.
1979 Berkeley: The Booty, the Beasts and the Necromican
|Fantasy Art Enterprises logo|
Erol Otus still had an effect on California Gaming. In 1979, he teamed up with his buddy Paul Reiche III (who was also being hired by TSR around this time) and Mathias Genser to create a couple of unlicensed fantasy RPG supplements. They founded their tiny publishing company, Fantasy Art Enterprises, in the "hills north of the UC Berkeley campus."(6)
|Booty and the Beasts (1979) cover art by Erol Otus|
|Booty and the Beasts autographed by Otus to Mike, the lead singer of Slough Feg|
|The Necromican (1979)|
Their books were saddle stapled, softcover, roughly digest-sized (more like trade paperback sized 8 1/2" x 5 1/2") booklets and other supplements were printed on letter-sized (8 1/2" x 11") cardstock. This was the de rigueur RPG supplement publishing style at the time, matching the original D&D booklets (1974) and early TSR supplements Dungeon Geomorphs (1976) and Outdoor Geomorphs (1977). One advantage is that the rulebooks and other supplements (once the cards or geomorphs were cut apart) easily fit inside the original D&D box
|New Magical and Technological Item Cards (1979) art by Erol Otus|
|Geomorphic Mini Dungeon Modules (1979) art by Erol Otus|
And their stuff was weird, like, gonzo, out-there, bizarro weird. It was weirder that the poster child of gonzo gaming, The Arduin Trilogy.(7) Like Arduin, there is a mix of sci-fi and fantasy equipment and creatures, including aliens, robots, pulses rifles, ornithopters, particle beam weapons, whirly chairs (personal mini-helicopters) and more.
|Vacucumber, victim and pile of treasure/excrement, from Booty and the Beasts, art by Erol Otus|
Also, there are plenty of puns, such as the "Vacucumber" seen above, "a gargantuan sea cucumber with one addition: it has 11 huge tentacles... [with which] it combs the ocean around it for bits of food (sailors, scubadivers [sic], large fish, etc.) to suck down into its immense stomach."
|Drillbot, from Booty and the Beasts, art by Erol Otus|
It was weird, but not abstract. Booty and the Beasts includes a 20-location hit location system used for certain weapons/creature attacks (such as the Drillbot, above). The monsters stats tended to be simple (no alignment or treasure) but always include a Dexterity rating (sometimes as high as 25!), probably due to the dexterity-based initiative rules in the Holmes Basic D&D set (1977) or The Arduin Grimoire.
Whatever happened to Fantasy Art Enterprises? Otus and Reiche were hired by TSR, who would frown on employees making their own products to compete with them. Eventually, all three members of the company (Genser included) moved into the video game industry. FAE produced no more products after 1979.
ARDUIN WAS EVERYWHERE. Every time I research a 1970s Californian RPG supplement, publisher or game designer, Dave Hargrave is affiliated somehow. Even my copy of The Spellcaster's Bible by The Playing Board has a notice stamped (not printed) to the inside front cover stating, "Some of the material within this book is inspired by and based upon material from "Adruin Trilogy" and other works by David A. Hargrave©." My planned Arduin post will require further research.
|Left, Termite People from Booty and the Beast (1979). Right, Buggems (a.k.a. "Termite Men") from GW1: Legion of Gold (1981). All art by Erol Otus.|
TSR got a healthy dose of gonzo where it needed it most - Gamma World. Somebody at TSR wisely put both Reiche and Otus together on Gamma World (1978), Jim Ward's new post-apocalypic, science fantasy RPG and pseudo-sequel to Metamorphosis Alpha (1976). Reiche and Otus were able to reuse some old designs, perfect for this game, as seen by the Termite People and Termite Men, above.
The lasting power of friendship? There is something to be said for childhood friends who can work together through the decades. I met both Reiche and Otus in 2011 and they were both warm, receptive guys who were a pleasure to speak with. That will be the subject of another post, dealing with a certain artifact in my possession.
1: "When people ask me if I was on drugs when I created, then I must inform that I never was." Rients, Jeff, "Interview with Erol Otus," Fight On! no. 8 (2010): 78.
2: "We had tried a bit of battling with the Chainmail rules, then a friend bought the boxed set of three pamphlets." Ibid., 77.
3: Hargrave, David, The Arduin Grimoire (Richmond: David Hargrave, 1977), 2.
4: "Erol Otus for doing the preliminary work and illustrations of the anhkheg and remorhaz which appeared in The Dragon." Gygax, Gary, Monster Manual (Lake Geneva: TSR Games, 1977), 4.
5: "My favorite D&D artist is Trampier, though he had just quit before I got there. In fact I believe that was the reason they were looking for an artist at the time." Rients, Jeff, 77.
6: Appelcline, Shannon, Designers & Dragons: The '70s (Silver Spring: Evil Hat Productions, LLC, 2014), 322.
7: "Most consider Fantasy Art's books even more gonzo than Arduin itself." Ibid.