I was 12 years old when I started 7th grade in Lincoln, Nebraska, and one of the first things I did was join the after school, fantasy book club: The Council of Elrond. It was through that group that I met Joel Stollar, my first dungeon master, and got into my first D&D group. I’d had the original boxed set of Dungeons and Dragons for a few years, but my sister and I couldn’t figure out how to play it: there was no board, and though there were dice, I had no frame of reference to understand the basic paradigm – that the action took place in the imagination of the players, and that the rules were about providing structure and focus to what was essentially shared, creative play.
Once I understood (in my first play session I shot a magic missile and we defeated an ogre!) I was hooked. As a somewhat anxious, awkward kid who lived (and still lives) largely in his own head, I was hardwired to enjoy role-playing games, and by that Christmas I was already hinting at what I wanted (at my house being direct was the kiss of death – you had to make subtle comments and hope that the message got through). There was something flat and rectangular under the tree, that year, and when no one was around I ran my fingers along the spine… yes, it was a book… I pressed the wrapping paper tightly against the cover and held it to the light, trying to see the illustrations… yes! It was the Monster Manual!
How much time did I spend over the following months, poring over the information in that book (to the great irritation of Joel, who threatened to penalize anyone who read it)? Reading and rereading the Monster Manual and the books that followed was a way of keeping the adventure going in between weekend marathons. How much of what I imagined – and my own storytelling ambition – was shaped by the illustrations that brought the words to life, and how many of those seminal images were the work of David Trampier or David Sutherland?
Time passed. I played all through high school and into college, but at some point I started to be filled with ambivalence about gaming – and by proxy, science fiction and fantasy (if I’d been thinking about it consciously, I would have said that I was having second thoughts about my place in geek culture). What had it gotten me? A head full of dreams and zero dates. I wanted to be a writer (speaking of a head full of dreams), but my writing classes in college were focused on “literary” fiction – mostly short stories. There wasn’t any room for monsters or wizards or robots – not in serious art. More than anything else I wanted to be taken seriously… so I let it go. I would write about what moved me: troubled, ambivalent characters who struggled. As for role-playing games? Never again.
After years spent creating a host of illustrations and comics, Trampier walked away, too – disappeared – leaving checks uncashed, comics in mid-story and questions unanswered. Many people thought he was dead, and why he walked away remains a mystery, though hearing about it, it’s hard not to wonder if he was struggling with mental illness as well as disillusionment. I never knew him, so I can only address the way his story impacted me, rather than the truth of his life, but it’s sad to imagine him, cut off from the things that once brought him joy.
Over the last 20 years I’ve written four novels. The last two are pretty good, I think, and I’m not always sure that I’ve done enough to sell them. In the current publishing environment, their fate is unclear. One of them is an urban fantasy – the first speculative fiction I’d written since high school – and as I wrote it, for the first time in as long as I could remember, writing felt like more than just a calling that at times seemed pointless: it felt like play. It was fun.
I suspect that, after walking away in 1988, David Trampier never got to have that feeling, again. He turned his back on the work he used to love for reasons nobody seems to know, and though at the end of his life he was pondering a return to a community that surely would have embraced him, he died before he had the chance.
I didn’t know his name until I read about his passing (March 24, 2014) at age 59. At the time when his work was intimately familiar to me, I wasn’t aware of visual artists in the way I am, now, when there are tools like Pinterest that I can use to save images that I like, and even put them (credited) on my site. After Trampier’s death I found myself skimming through his work, and the feelings that it used to engender came rushing back.
I’m not comparing myself to David Trampier. As I said before, I didn’t know him, and from the outside it seems as if he led a complex, troubled life, with an inner aspect to it that he alone knew. I’m sorry that he never got the chance to return to what he loved. These days, I write about troubled, ambivalent characters who struggle… and monsters, and wizards, and robots. And I feel pretty good, about that.