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Why did David A. Trampier disappear from the gaming industry?

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David A. Trampier (DAT), the artist who created many iconic illustrations for 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, passed away recently, but he had left the game industry and a popular comic long before that. His history is filled with rumors of a legal dispute with TSR, a new life as a cab driver, and a return to gaming cut short.

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Saladin Ahmed explained the appeal of Trampier's artwork at Tor:

Trampier’s style was an essentially unique blend of cartoonishness and realism. If the legendary Errol Otus, with his rough-hewn, dynamic line drawing, was D&D’s Jack Kirby, Trampier was its Neal Adams. His art bridged the kineticism of earlier, more “primitive” artists with the hyper-slick realism of later artists like Larry Elmore and his generations of imitators.

Trampier's most well-known artwork was the 1st Edition Player's Handbook:

A motley crew of adventurers, the bloodied bodies of lizard men, the hint of arcane malevolence surrounding the idol, the daring thieves prying the jewels from the statue. This is arguably the most iconic piece of art in all of RPGdom.

But perhaps his most iconic was Emirikol the Chaotic (whose stats appeared as a character in the adventure, A Paladin in Hell):

A whole generation of gamers wondered about this anti-hero’s story. The lovingly depicted brickwork here is great, but I really dig the western movie pastiche. It’s as if the baddest outlaw of ‘em all just rode into town and the lawmen at the Green Griffon saloon rush out to give him what form only to get causally zapped by a Finger of Death.

The art was from an actual street, the Street of Knights in Rhodes. Rob Conley even retraced Emirikol's route.

Trampier was also the creator of the Dragon Magazine cartoon strip, Wormy, which ran from 1977 to 1988. It ended abruptly in mid-storyline. Some thought he died:

...[Phil] had noticed when Wormy stopped running, and called Kim Mohan to ask what happened. Kim, then editor, told Phil that payments for the strip were returned unopened. "When an artist's checks are returned uncashed, he is presumed dead," Phil drily stated...

This archived article from Wizards of the Coast explains that he was still alive:

Wormy, by Dave Trampier, ran concurrently with What's New? and SnarfQuest. Its run ended suddenly in the middle of a story, and this has been the center of no small amount of confusion and consternation on the part of its fans. However, Dave Trampier is still alive and well. He does not currently work in gaming or comics, however.

There seems to have been some bad blood between TSR (the company who owned the rights to Dungeons & Dragons at the time) and Trampier:

One day in the mid-90s, we called a ranking TSR employee, a gentleman well respected and known for his calm and friendly approach to everyone, and asked whatever happened to Dave Trampier. "I will never work with him again," was the terse and uncharacteristically angry reply. We didn't press the issue, but shortly thereafter we had cause to call Fantagraphics, and casually added in the question, "Have you ever considered a collection of Dave Trampier's work?" The guy on the other end (who sure sounded like Gary Groth) simply said, "Never heard of him."

Trampier resurfaced in a Daily Egyptian article about Carbondale cabbies:

When the key is in the ignition, he's not just David Trampier. He's cabby No. 4, and he knows Carbondale better than people who have lived here their entire lives...Trampier has been driving in Carbondale for about eight months. The former Southern Illinois resident used to drive a cab in the northwest suburbs of Chicago but moved back to the area last year.

There was no mention of his work as an artist, but the picture gave him away. Fans resumed the hunt, and it wasn't long before Paizo forum member Baj tracked him down:

Here's what I can tell you. I managed to track Trampier down and got in contact with him. At the time I was collecting original fantasy art and I really wanted to buy some original Wormy pages from him. The good news is that he wasn't selling any because he still is attached to them and still has the dream of publishing them all someday. So if any publishers are reading this, I know Trampier has a rocky past history with TSR, but in all likelihood a publishing deal could be worked out to reprint Wormy and he still has all the originals to print from (save 3, see below). At least as of five years ago he still held out that dream. While I don't know if he truly finished the second story arc (there were two - the first ended with the Wizard Gremorly and Solomoriah the winged panther's failed attack), he does have finished pages that were never published (which I never saw but he told me about). Even an incomplete trade edition would be a classic.

So what happened, exactly, to make Trampier disappear from the game industry? DungeonDelver at Acaeum explains:

Part of the falling out Trampier had (and this is fairly common info so I'm not trying to lord anything over) came from the fact that he wanted to self-publish Wormy compilations. TSR said no, that they belonged to them; he essentially sold each strip to TSR/Dragon Magazine. So his last effort regarding Wormy involved selling "shares" of profits of a future Wormy compilation to fans and then using that money to hire a lawyer and take TSR to court. He lost, case closed. IIRC he repaid most if not all "investors" over a short period of time, tho.

Baj picks up where DungeonDelver leaves off:

Trampier confirmed to me that he had had a falling out with Mohan and company at TSR, and was surprised to learn the company had been purchased by Wizards of the Coast. He was entirely unaware of the interest expressed in his work on the internet, as he didn't have a computer or an internet connection at the time. He was happy to hear that the interest was there. Incidentally, at the time someone was posting Wormy pages and had stirred up controversy for doing so since they are Trampier's intellectual property and this person (not me, no relation, etc.) had not obtained permission. By the time I called Tramp they had capitulated and taken the images down. Trampier's words to me were that "I WANT people to see Wormy" and that this internet posting sounded fine. For the record.

But things changed when Trampier suffered from a stroke and was diagnosed with cancer. Steve Thorne at Castle Rampart's blog explained what happened next:

He wanted to sell some artwork in order to cover some expenses, so I bought several pieces from him and discussed the possibility of publishing the Wormy collection. He was quite interested in doing so, asking about Kickstarter or companies that might be interested in working with him to bring the book into print. I suggested Troll Lord Games, who had tried contacting him several years ago about re-publishing Wormy and he was interested, though he still harbored hard feelings towards TSR and WOTC, as he wanted to make certain that Troll Lord Games had no connection to either company. He never moved forward any further on that front though, understandable as his doctors detected cancer and his health deteriorated. He thought he was getting better though, as about three weeks ago, he agreed to appear as a guest at Egypt Wars, a gaming convention in Carbondale, and display the Wormy collection mock-up he still had from 1988. Since Troll Lord Games will appear at the same show, I hoped the two might talk and move the publication of Wormy forward. Unfortunately, that won't happen now.

Trampier, 59, died at 10:58 a.m. on Monday, March 24, 2014 in Helia Healthcare. Fans are welcome to sign his guest book. Matt Staggs sums up the tragedy of his loss to the gaming industry:

Had he given it another chance, he would have discovered that the gaming industry had changed in a lot of ways that might have suited him. Advances in self-publishing, crowdsourcing, and social media have all made the world a friendlier place for independent game publishing, and many of the men and women working in that world have been, and continue to be, inspired by Trampier’s artwork.

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