13 September 2011

In Praise of Erol Otus

Ranking my top five favourite fantasy role-playing artists of all time is a difficult endeavour. On any given day, any one of the five artists I’ve selected could be my ‘number one’.

Perhaps I should not have bothered with an attempt to ‘rank’ them at all? It certainly would’ve been simpler to declare them all to be my ‘five favourites’.

Nonetheless, given that I’ve started this ‘countdown’, I may as well continue with it. And so I declare my third favourite FRPG artist of all time to be the truly unique Erol Otus.

Here is the cover to the first issue of Dragon that I ever purchased:

Even after thirty years, I still find Otus’s cover to Tom Moldvay’s version of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set strangely evocative:

Otus’s pictures for the Cthulhu Mythos in the AD&D book Deities and Demigods forever shaped how I view H. P. Lovecraft’s alien, eldritch creations.

Here is Cthulhu himself (looking slightly hung-over, I think):

And a Shoggoth!

Also from Deities and Demigods, from the section on the Michael Moorcock’s world of Melniboné and the Young Kingdoms, is this picture of Elric’s great nemesis, the Pan Tangian sorcerer Theleb K’aarna:

Here is the creepy Mad Hermit from the classic module, “The Keep on the Borderlands” (B2):

(I wonder how many player characters, over the decades, have been ambushed by this unsavoury fellow’s pet cougar?)

No survey of Otus’s work would be complete without a picture of the seductive Queen of the Demonweb Pits, the Drow Goddess Lolth:

Here is one of Otus’s own player characters from the Rogues Gallery:

And finally, here is a very recent tribute to Gary Gygax:

Anyone interested in seeing more of Otus’s work should definitely check out Jeff Rients’ ‘Erol Otus Shrine’!

(FYI: my post on number 5, Russ Nicholson, is here, and my post on number 4, Pete Fenlon, is here.)


  1. Lolth hanging out with her demon buddies: "Yeah, these are ma crew, check it." Really nice overview of Otus' work!

  2. Otus also totally coloured how I see Elric's bunch, which is continually problematic since neither Ka'arna or Moonglum look anything like his illos. Oh well. :)

  3. Those DDG Cthulhu illustrations never cease to amaze me. As a kid I literally tried to flip past that section without touching the pages with my fingers, I was so freaked out.

    Hey Akrasia, could you send me an email? delta at superdan dot net.

  4. @ Matthew: weren't most of the Elric pictures (including Moonglum) by Jeff Dee? I think Otus only did a few. (Although I don't have my 'special' copy of D&DG here, so I can't check right now.)

    @ Delta: e-mail sent.

  5. Hurm, methinks you are right, old bean.

  6. I like how Otus's work is psychedelic - it gets the point across concisely, yet allows the viewer to put forth their own interpretations. It's surreal and has lots of personality. I always liked the old art - despite it's 'technical difficulties'. Personally, I like the new edition art too, but the art direction is over-homogenized and that kind of limits the amount of personal interpretation the reader may experience. I hope that doesn't sound too 'artsy-fartsy'... but that's what I think.

  7. I felt Otus really captured the anything goes nature of pre-Forgotten Realms D&D


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).