I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sidney Sime, the original Old School Artist

Fans of the Old School Renaissance are usually familiar with public domain fantasy art. Lots of retro-clones (and indie RPGs in general) have used this; of particular notice is Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, by Oakes Spalding, that uses John D. Batten's art for amazing effects. You can find it here, for free. Other games (and blogs, including this one...) use art by Henry Justice Ford, Willy Pogany, Gustave Dore, and Albrecht Dürer, among others.

As amazing as this artists are, I think no artist (in the public domain) is more quintessentially OD&D than Sidney Sime. Although some people have drawn attention to Sime in D&D blogs, he seems to find little representation in OS games as far as I can tell.

Which is a pity, because his art portrays old school D&D like no other.

Just take a look at this stuff (click the image for greater detail):

How many "this is so D&D!" things can you count in this picture? We have the sphinx (far from Egypt...) in the first plane, the fallen explorer next her, the ominous ruins with partially collapsed stairs, the giant monster trying to escape from the door, the mysterious book under the candlelight, the treasure chest over the door (why is it in such an awkward place? Is it hidden? Is it some kind of trap?)... But the most amazing thing is the sense of danger. Even though they dress like knights and warriors, this adventurers are no heroes: one is already down, while the others prefer to avoid the monster instead of fighting it directly!

It is no coincidence that Sime is so close to D&D. He is most famous for working with Lord Dusany, one of the authors listed in the Appendix N without mention of a particular book (an one that I am particularly fond of).

Among other things, Lord Dunsany created the "gnoles" and influenced lots of other authors in the appendix N - including Tolkien, Vance, Lovecraft, Howard, etc. You can basically pick any of his short stories and borrow some ideas for your D&D games (and this stuff is public domain, too).

See this excerpt from Wikipedia, the opening paragraph of "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" (The Book of Wonder - 1912):

The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man. Their evil tower is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge. Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it; they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires; they have filled a hole with gold and dig it up when they need it. And the only use that is known for their ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food. In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Man, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again.

Does a monster that hoards treasures to entice greedy adventures sound D&D enough for you?

Go read this story, by the way - it reads like an old school D&D adventure might turn out to be, much more than anything that more popular authors in the Appendix N might have written.

Now, take a look at Sime's rendition of this tale:

Again, look at the details: the blood flowing from the corpse at the door, the hanging skeletons, the tower within a dark forest that is lighted from the inside, the would-be hero sneaking with a bow while his dragon-mount and armor stay on the outside... Once more, the adventurer looks like  a sad figure against great sinister forces.

Another piece in the same vein:

All these mushrooms, spider-webs, mysterious lights and caves remind me of the Underdark... But the frail hero in the center of the picture, maybe protecting his treasure, is what really screams "low level D&D" to me.

There is a 3d version here.

According to Wikipedia, Sime was not only an illustrator for Lord Dunsany either: "For one volume, at least some of the stories were inspired by Sime works (The Book of Wonder), and for three, in special limited editions, each plate of illustration was signed by both author and artist."

He also collaborated with William Hope Hodgson ("The House on the Borderland"). Hodgson is not the appendix N, but could certainly be - he influenced Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, among others.

Not all of his art is about hopeless adventures, of course. Strange gods, bizarre monsters, mythic figures, epic struggles, fantastic maps, and gem-eyed idols are all pictured in his work. It would be easy to find a piece for each little white booklet in OD&D, although his art is more reminiscent of AD&D.

See more of Sidney Sime's in Monster Brains, where I got the pictures in this post.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm looking through your blog (mesmerized by sirens) right now. Cool stuff!