The Goblin

Goblins are weak pathetic creatures that spend most of their short lives throwing themselves onto adventurers’ swords.  It’s hard to argue with that, especially since goblins have always occupied the lowest rung of the monster ladder (just a smidge above kobolds) across all editions of Dungeons and Dragons (and given the influence of D&D, many other rpgs and computer games as well).  Take a look at David Trampier’s goblin from the 1e Monster Manual.  Don’t get me wrong, I like this picture (especially that clean pen and ink style of his), and the goblin seems a little threatening, but his facial expression almost makes him look worried – and he should be, he’s about to be magic missiled to death.  After about third level, goblins become a joke.  So much so, it’s even used to comic effect in Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark (the joke being that you have to be reminded that to your average zero level schmoe, a goblin is still dangerous).
Trampier’s goblin is good art, but it isn’t great art.  For me, great art in an rpg has to either completely inspire you (sometimes suggesting an idea, or a snippet of a narrative that compels you to fill in the blanks), or blow your mind open to a new possibility.  Incredibly enough, there is a picture of a goblin that does just that.  Back during the 2e days, when my friend and I encountered the picture below (click on it to see it in its full glory!), it totally changed what we thought goblins could be in the game.  It wasn’t a picture of a goblin, it quickly became the goblin.
A little history.  I first encountered Sam Rakeland’s painting in 2e’s The Complete Book of Humanoids (although it was first used for basic D&D’s module cover, Assault on Raven’s Ruin).  I have a lot of love for this book.  Back in the day, using its rules, I played a misguided lawful good minotaur, my friend played an alaghi druid, and we even ran an adventure where everyone was a mongrelman living in the sewer.  None of us ever played a goblin, but that picture made us fear them again.

All grown up (relatively), there’s a lot I could say about why I like this painting: the use of oils gives it a nice tactile quality, the dynamic pose directly threatens the viewer, the colors suggest the kind of cold, dark, hard bitten cave life I imagine goblins to have…  but that’s academic.  The savage ferocity of the creature made an immediate and indelible impression on my teenage self.  It reminded me that goblins were monsters, not just 1-1 HD things that could inflict 1-6 hit points of damage.  I mean look at that thing, I think your name level paladin just cowered behind his shield and crapped in his armor… from a goblin!  It made such an impression, that any time we fought goblins afterward; we always wanted to know if we were tackling any old goblin, or the goblin.  We never did fight the goblin, but I can’t say my characters really regretted that.
Looking at the digital paintings that grace the electronic pages of Dragon and Dungeon now, I wonder if there’s any room in D&D for this kind of illustration anymore.  These days, art directors are very concerned with maintaining a certain look for all the creatures, to help maintain visual cohesiveness and develop D&D as a brand.  This approach has some clear advantages to it, the most obvious being that everyone agrees on what a goblin looks like.  It educates the audience to D&D’s visual language so that every picture doesn’t have to set out what a goblin looks like.  The audience knows and you can just throw goblins into an action scene and the viewer still gets it.  I hope that it also ensures we never see another illustration like the one for the salamander in 2e’s Monstrous Compendium (probably my most hated D&D illustration of all time).  On the downside, it also leads to illustrations that have a sameness to them (something I’ve talked about before), and flattens out individual style.  Maybe it’s because I’m old and jaded, or I’m too high on nostalgia, but flipping through Dragon (I guess ‘key-ing’ is more appropriate, but that’s another rant) I haven’t seen the likes of the goblin in a long time.  And that’s too bad, because I think D&D needs great art, not just good, technically adept art that makes you think ‘cool’.  It needs art that’s going to blow the minds of teenagers sitting around the kitchen table and leave them remembering the images until they’re old and jaded and complaining about the pictures in the tenth edition of the game.
Then again, maybe I’m getting too worked up about a painting of some 1-1 HD canon-fodder… just try telling that to the goblin.

Notes on the Artist

Far be it for me to wax hyperbolic about the painting without mentioning the artist, who it turns out is something of a mystery (in that he doesn’t really exist). 
Sam Rakeland is credited in The Complete Book of Humanoids with the painting (and his signature is pretty clear), and according to the Pen and Paper RPG Database, he also did some other covers and interior pieces for TSR in the nineties, but then his work stops.  I was a little disappointed, since I was hoping to see what he had been working on lately.  In my quest to find some kind of gallery or homepage, I stumbled across the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, who list Sam Rakeland as a pseudonym of artist Rick Berry.  I’m not familiar with Rick Berry but it turns out he’s a prolific cover artist and I’ve seen his work on bookstore shelves for the last twenty years.  You can read more about him on his page here.
I can only imagine he used a pseudonym to keep his rpg and book cover work separate… maybe he was a longtime rpg fan and had always wanted to make some material for D&D, who knows?  If anyone does know more, I’d love to hear.
Of course my teenage self couldn’t help pointing out to my adult self that he recognized great art, even when it was hidden behind a false name.

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