Tony DiTerlizzi is one of those rare figures who crosses over the usually high walls that separates various gaming fandoms from each other. To fans of AD&D, he is known as the artist who helped to define the Planescape setting. To White Wolf fans he did much of the art for Changeling: The Dreaming. Magic: The Gathering fans know him for his art across a number of expansions. Some outside of gaming know him as an author and a co-creator on a number of different books.
This past Gen Con, I was able to spend some time with him and talk with him for a bit about his past and his present, as both an artist and a gamer.
In 1992, DiTerlizzi graduated from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and after his portfolio submissions received no responses he found a job as a graphic illustrator for a real estate company in South Florida. His gaming group, lead by “Mike R.,” the “most powerful dungeon master in Palm Beach County,” encouraged him to submit to TSR. DiTerlizzi worked up sketches of monsters and submitted them to TSR Xeroxing them into pages from published adventures. The eventual response from the TSR art director was that his art had a “unique and interesting drawing style,” but it wasn’t quite ready for them to hire him. After working up the courage to call the art director herself, she told DiTerlizzi that he needed to not be able to just draw monsters, but characters and people. He said that he would work up more samples.
In his art book Realms: The Roleplaying Game Art of Tony DiTerlizzi from Kitchen Sink Books/Dark Horse Comics, DiTerlizzi recounted what Mike R. told him. “It’s easy: all you have to do is draw the player characters as cool as the monsters. Really, that’s what D&D is all about – the players, the people.” DiTerlizzi worked up samples of people, adventurers, and they were rejected again. However he learned more, and most importantly didn’t give up.
On his third try DiTerlizzi finally succeeded and was offered his first professional freelance job, illustrating a boxed set adventure called Dragon Mountain for AD&D 2nd edition. The difference, he said was that he “created scenarios that were both narrative and entertaining,” rather than people standing around posing.
One thing that DiTerlizzi openly acknowledges is the influence of old school TSR artist Dave Trampier as an influence and an inspiration on his art. Many of the creatures that he redesigned for TSR’s AD&D 2nd edition, and for the Planescape setting, had been originally designed and drawn by Trampier and had not been touched by other artists until DiTerlizzi worked on them. His greatest regret of that period was not looking up Trampier and “reaching out to talk with him.” Part of this regret was fueled by the question on DiTerlizzi’s part of “Am I going to end up like him?”
But his approach to the AD&D art developed from Trampier’s work was always “thinking of where you want to go, and wonder what it would have looked like had Trampier stayed with it.”
DiTerlizzi was a gamer (and still is), and like many gamers, the thought of working for TSR (or Wizards of the Coast) was a dream job, but it was one that he was never certain that he was good enough to get. His friends, the people that he gamed with, always encouraged his art and told him that he could be as good as the artists in their AD&D books. His earliest fantasy art, again like many gamers, was to copy the illustrations from the AD&D Monster Manual, or draw the characters of his friends. Of this process DiTerlizzi said to “copy their art and then see what you can do with their tools.” You need to “see what they do” and then figure out how to make those tools your own.
Over the course of spring of 1993, DiTerlizzi would provide illustrations for about a third of the AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual. Since working on games, like AD&D or D&D, is being part of a larger process of refining and redefining what other writers and artists have done, and making them fresh again, it is important for artists to remember that they are “entering a conversation that is happening, and you need to know what has been said leading up to the point where you jump in.”
One thing that was obvious from talking with DiTerlizzi was his enthusiasm, both for art and for gaming. His eyes would come alive, and he would start gesturing, when talking about his friends in school when he first started playing D&D with them. Part of him wanted to return to work in gaming. For him, game creation was a “philosophical manner” because he felt that everything should be a part of the process of creating games. “Art should inspire the writing, and both should inspire rule design.” He felt that everything should be “designed with an aesthetic” in mind.
It made him sad that for a number of game lines that art was reduced to little more than “window dressing,” and that the “visuals should be in the front, rather than after the fact.”
Eventually, his work lead to being offered to work on Planescape. The approach for art in Planescape was unique for TSR at the time. While much of the architecture and design was created by TSR staff artist Dana Knutson, based on the concepts of developer David “Zeb” Cook and some of the first edition art, there were only two artists involved in the final products for Planescape. DiTerlizzi did the interior art, and Robh Ruppel did the covers. TSR had experimented with this approach on Dark Sun, with all of the art done by then staff artist Gerald Brom.
Cook faxed pages from the AD&D 1st edition Monster Manual II and ask him to reinterpret the images. These pages featured the Modrons, which DiTerlizzi had never encountered in gaming, so they were something new to him. The look of the Modrons reminded him of art from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, so he based his interpretation of the Modrons on Tik-Tok from Baum’s book Ozma of Oz.
He did say that at the time he was working on the art for the line that he also played in the Planescape setting “all the time.” But, like a lot of players and GMs, he found that the scale of the setting could be daunting and that he could be “overwhelmed by its sheer size.” But in his art that made him want to make the setting clearer, and to bring it to life for others.
At a Gen Con after the release of Planescape, DiTerlizzi would meet with Richard Thomas, the creative director for White Wolf Game Studio. In the fall of 1994, Thomas would offer the chance to be part of the team on a new game that White Wolf was developing. That game would be Changeling: The Dreaming. World of Darkness creator Mark Rein-Hagen was working on a game set within their world that was inspired by fairy tales. Like with Planescape before, Rein-Hagen was working with a designer who would create a cohesive look for Changeling. DiTerlizzi was brought in to interpret those designs for the game’s books.
DiTerlizzi would enjoy the respite that working for White Wolf would give him, because their art orders were less specific and precise than those made by TSR for the Planescape line.
After his work in gaming, DiTerlizzi would go on to write and illustrate the WondLa books, and illustrate and co-write, with author Holly Black, the Spiderwick Chronicles.
His advice to artists looking to go into the field of gaming? “Everyone is on a different path. The truth is that what worked for Tony isn’t going to work for the next artist.”