This is how the cover art of Dungeon Master (1987) was made

Without any insight into the creation of game covers, it’s hard to really understand how much work they actually required back in the ’80s and ’90s. In my previous article about Defender of the Crown, I wrote about how Cinemaware rented models from an agency and clothes from Hollywood.

When Dungeon Master was created, FTL Games commissioned the artist David R. Darrow for its cover. Would I be able to get him to talk about it?

This is an English translation of an original post in Swedish.

In January I presented a list of the eight best fantasy game covers over at Eurogamer Sweden. The winner was Dungeon Master from 1987, which of course gave me the idea to find out the story of how its cover was created.

DM-Amiga-Box_FrontThe fact that David R. Darrow illustrated the original is no secret. It’s not always easy to find out who has created original covers like these, but Darrow has been mentioned quite repeatedly. You can even see his signature in the final box art.

And Dungeon Master Encyclopaedia also mentions briefly how the cover was created. It’s quite humorous that the three people in the image aren’t professional models, but rather Darrow’s aquaintances and a guy that he randomly picked out at a gym.

The following statement by David Darrow is taken from the article Mastering Chaos by Richard Hewison, in the tenth issue of Retro Gamer:

In the foreground is my now ex-wife, who had to hold a very heavy candelabra for the photos I shot for reference. The guy grabbing the torch was programmer Andy Jaros, and the muscle-dude in the background was some guy I found at a gym.

I walked into a fitness centre and asked the receptionist if there was a really huge guy there who she thought might like to pose for pictures for a ’hero video game cover’ and she went and got him. I paid him to come to my home and pose for the pictures with a fluorescent bulb in his hands as a sword. The woman’s costume was really a modified night gown, the muscle man’s stuff was invented, and Andy Jaros brought his own costume. Yeah, he owned all that stuff!

David R Darrow 2013-1Even though these facts were well-known, they weren’t enough to satisfy me. David R. Darrow may have revealed parts of his story, but I still had many more questions that needed answering. And besides, I also wanted to see and publish more images from the creation process. So I decided to find and contact him.

His first e-mail reply was quite short and a bit standoffish:

Not sure I have any more cool facts [to tell], except that the word ”Master” was hand lettered separately and ”stripped in” with old-school printing techniques. I actually regret not making it part of the original art. I don’t remember why I didn’t.

And he’s right. The original painting was displayed at the London Science Museum, and was a part of the exhibition Game On that ran from October 2006 until February 2007.

dungeon_master_original_darrow_whiteThe painting itself (on the right) is 25 to 30 inches high and doesn’t contain the word Master.

Darrow’s painting portrays a scene from the prologue in the manual for Dungeon Master, which perhaps wasn’t read by all its players.

This story was written by Nancy Holder, who’s a renowned and award-winning horror and science-fiction author nowadays. She also used to be married to Wayne Holder, who was the founder of FTL. I assumed that Darrow was asked to recreate this story for the cover of Dungeon Master, but the truth wasn’t that simple.

The illustration itself shows the three (or four) main characters’ last few minutes alive, and is a portrayal of the player’s challenge to defeat the antagonist Lord Chaos.

The heroes are called Halk the Barbarian, Syra Child of Nature, Alex Ander – and Nabi the Prophet who’s strangely enough been reduced to a bunch of skulls.

dungeon_master_charactersFrom the Dungeon Master manual: ”[Syra] was as lovely as Veyla, with light brown hair and a warrior’s strong features, a gown of white falling off her shoulders[…]The muscular youth was obviously a Barbarian. The other man was, perhaps, a thief—some of the pouches on his leather belt had burst, and a handful of gems and trinkets spilled across the dirt and stone.”

I decided to ask him if he had any materials from when the painting was created. Darrow, who was busy with his son’s marriage, hadn’t really realised that I was writing an article. He promised to let me know when he’d had a look through his stuff.

Now that I’d established first contact, my next step was to meet with David R. Darrow in person for a late-night Skype conversation. How did he even start working with FTL Games in the first place?

The first artwork I ever did for FTL Games was the cover for the game Sundog, and that was just a fluke. I went down to meet them and we all liked each other right away, and I sketched up some ideas and they liked it. So I was the one they definitely wanted to call when it came to Dungeon Master artwork.

I was not in the video game industry exclusively, in fact not at all; I did anything I could get my hands on to support my family. This project looked fun, because it was a videogame and I was in my 20’s. So I met with Wayne Holder and Bruce Webster, and I’d already known Wayne Holder’s name from when I got my first computer in 1984, which was a CP/M-based system. It came with a pretty impressive spell checker, for its day, and it was written by Wayne Holder. That is how he got the money to produce the game, which is something that he actually wanted to do in the first place.

Wayne Holder – President and founder of FTL Games.

You still know Wayne Holder?

Yes, I do. I’m not exactly sure where he lives, he’s since become much more private since he closed FTL Games. I’ve been in contact with him probably three times in the last five years by e-mail. I have not been in touch with him in the last two years or so.

SundogboxSunDog: Frozen Legacy from 1984 was FTL Games’ first title, which was a space trading simulator that resembled Elite. The game was originally released for Apple II, but was ported to Atari ST a year later. The Atari ST then became FTL Games’ primary platform.

And since Darrow created the cover for Sundog, it made sense for Wayne Holder and Bruce Webster to ask him to work with Dungeon Master as well.

This all led to a long discussion between Darrow and me, where I asked if he had complete artistic freedom or if FTL had any suggestions for how the cover should look. That’s when Darrow mentioned Andy Jaros for the first time. Jaros was the graphics artist who worked on Dungeon Master and its sequel.

I looked at the graphics they came up with in the game – it was probably mostly Andy Jaros’ work – they were very iconish, low resolution sprites.

dungeon_master_1_spelpappanThey were kind of introducing 3D into a game, but not in a moving way; you could look down a tunnel and see that you could take a step forward, and there would perhaps be some items on the floor.

It was all very simple graphics, so I looked at what they had and realized – as they did – that just showing these simple graphics on the screen would probably not sell the game as much as the whole story, the whole involvement; the fantasy and the imagination.

So from their icons, that’s where I came up with what I fleshed out for the game. Like, the grid on the floor was based on the stuff in the game, the doors opening, the secret ways of opening doors – all this stuff was based on the little, tiny graphics they showed me when I came in.

So you did not paint from the story that Nancy Holder wrote?

Drew-Struzan-Indiana-Jones-And-The-Temple-Of-DoomI honestly don’t remember if I had that story to begin from. I’m not laying claim to inventing those characters, I don’t remember where I came up with the pile of skulls. It seems to me that I saw skulls in it, or I stole it from something Drew Struzan did in his creations for the Indiana Jones-series of movie posters and comps, because he had some pretty cool skulls in his work – and I was trying to give it a movie poster feel.

I’ve never been much of a reader and I don’t read fantasy stories, so I wasn’t interested in that as much as creating the artwork that would help sell the game – and that is one of the reasons that the cover is fairly simplistic other than the detail in the speckles and the chunks of ground. The room is fairly sparse and that was because I didn’t want to oversell it, I just wanted to contribute to a person’s imagination.

I didn’t even know what a role-playing game was, or any of this dungeon stuff, before I got into it; I was kind of the outsider of the whole community.

And they just bought your first suggestion right away?

Hands holding a torch

No, I did a lot of little sketches for them, I don’t remember how many – five or ten at the most – of different perspectives. But this was the one that I thought communicated kind of a combination of bringing a movie look to it and also involving the very simple graphics that were actually in the game.

Since they had the artwork some nine months before the game came out, the artwork may have influenced the story. It would make a whole lot of sense that, if she had not written the synopsis yet, to just go ahead and use the artwork and make it look like it was a well though-out game.

Why did you use local amateur models and not professionals?

The staff

It was mostly a budget consideration, but not altogether; I didn’t have much of a budget – or they didn’t have much of a budget – for the artwork

I was just trying to set a price for my time and effort and it was something they couldn’t afford at the time, so we agreed on a royalty thing and I cut my price in half and said:

“You know, I think this will probably do alright and I think I can help sell it with my art – so cut me in for a little piece of what you sell later”, which turned out to be a very good decision.

Dungeon Master sold 40,000 copies during its first year alone, and is the highest selling piece of software ever for the Atari ST, with a market penetration of over 40 percent of all Atari ST units sold. The game was ported to the Amiga 500, Apple II, PC, and SNES, amongst others.

However, the contract between Darrow and FTL was a bit more unorthodox.

It was a verbal contract, we just agreed to it. It ended up being quite a bit more than I asked for originally – which they were very happy to do, I might add. I called them after a couple of years, I hadn’t heard from them because I moved out of town, and I said “Hey, I don’t know how the game is doing – but we agreed that I was going to get so much from part of the sales, remember?” and Russ was the guy handling the finances, and he said “Oh my gosh, you’re right. We never wrote you a check!”

And several days later I got a very large check in my mail – they completely forgot about the whole thing, but completely remembered when I reminded them and sent me a check right away.

Russ Boelhauf, Marketing Director at FTL Games.

So instead of hiring models you asked your wife and the programmers?

STAction-Issue#26-20Jun-90-Page34Well, I didn’t have the luxury of hiring from a modelling agency. At that time, models probably would have cost between 75 and 125 dollars an hour – and you don’t know what you’re gonna get as far as an actor or anything else. Basically, the model agencies in San Diego are all about pretty people; so you can get a guy with muscles or a guy with good looking hair, but they’re only good if you can just get them to do what you want – most of them were used to glamour posing, not acting.

I thought it would be fun to use one of the programmers in the game; Andy Jaros was involved in some of the programming and at least design, and worked for the company full-time – he was very enthusiastic about being part of that.

– Can I get you to pose? I heard someone told me that you have a costume.
– Yeah, really – can I!?


Where did he get that costume?

He was into some kind of roleplaying thing. My recollection is that there was some community of people that he hung out with that would do some live roleplaying from time to time. I didn’t fully understand it, but he shows up with all this stuff and I said “This is great! I don’t even have to go get a costume for you”. That saved me a bunch of money, right there.

If I had hired people for modelling prices, they would probably have cost me about half of my painting budget. And then asking my wife to help out, that was just a matter of expedience – she had a good figure and a nice long hair, and a night gown I could turn into something. So I just asked her if she could do it; she agreed – although she was almost six months pregnant with our second child at the time.

Those pictures were shot in August of 1986, and my son was born in January. He just got married last Sunday, by the way, and he’s 26 and a half years old. It’s a long time ago…


And the muscular guy from the gym, you don’t know his name?

No, sadly; I did my due diligence and I got contracts and releases from everyone, so somewhere in my paperwork that I’ve been carrying around for 30 years I got his name and his signature saying I could use it. But even then it wasn’t that critical, because his face wasn’t used in it.

I don’t remember what I paid him, probably around 50 bucks to drive over to my house and pose in my garage. The hard part was approaching him at the gym; telling him what I wanted to do – and I would like him to pose in his underwear, because I pretty much needed to see his body. And then I explained; I am married and I’ve got kids, this is for a game – honest. *laughs*

He understood, but it was interesting – he was a real quiet guy. When I was telling him what I wanted he just kind of nodded quietly like he was taking it in and thought it was cool. He was obviously working with his physique for his outer appearance, so I’m sure it was appealing to him that somebody wanted to use that. I think it was the next day he showed up, and we shot photographs for about an hour and that was it.


He’s the model you changed the most, all the others are close to the original.

Yes, and that was partly because my wife didn’t want to be shown in a bikini; I was in the beginning thinking Boris Vallejo and [Frank] Frazetta – that’s what I had in mind first. I think I went Frazetta-ish with that guy, not in style – but just the idea of a leather loin cloth and a little bit of long hair; kind of Fabio mixed in.

You only worked with games for a brief period, but later you also worked with movies?

I did some work for a studio in Los Angeles that was called Cimarron/Bacon/O’Brien and they were handling all the movies for Arnold Schwarzenegger back when he was doing T2. I got to do a bunch of the advertising work; they would hire me to do sketch ideas. And these were things that were only going to be shown to the Hollywood executives, the people at the studio – and Arnold among them. They would talk about different approaches and used my sketches as reference.

terminator_2_us-posterSo I had my father posing for Arnold and he was wearing a leather jacket that I had, and he was holding my young son under his arm – all I knew was that in T2 there was going to be a little boy in it and Sarah Connor was back; we could not reveal that they were now allies. There were all these tricks to play visually, where it looked like maybe she was following him to get her little boy back – you didn’t really know at that point. The boy was unknown, nobody knew who the actor (Edward Furlong) was, so I did not have any pictures of him to work with.

All in all, they were fun sketches to do. But one of the ideas sold the poster, which was the close-up with Arnold with the little sawed-off shotgun on his shoulder and the sunglasses. That was fun stuff, and working my parents into it – of all things.

T2_sketch_David_DarrowThe leather jacket I used was a typical 80’s-jacket with the big shoulders and way too high waistline – I still have it, by the way; it’s a good, warm jacket and one of those things you don’t throw away – and I put it on my dad and it just made him look beefy. I shot him from down low on the floor; leather has a certain way of pulling and stretching when you reach an arm out, so I used that to give him a little bit of Arnold-size. And then I added Arnold’s head.

All these pictures were shot in my living room, and my parents just happened to be visiting that week when I had that job. When I would get these jobs they would ask me “How many of these can you do by tomorrow?” – Hollywood was some 30 minutes away by car, so I told them that I could do about three by the afternoon. And then I knew I was going to be up all night.

And all this was back in the days with film too – so I had to take these pictures and try to run them down to a one hour photo place, before they closed around 8.30 at night, to get my pictures developed. I had to develop friendship with people all over the place with businesses, just to get things done quickly. Polaroids were never good enough for me, the really good ones with high resolution images weren’t manufactured anymore at that time.

David and I spent a lot of time talking that night. We spoke about the US economy, his portrait paintings and life in general. And when we finally finished our call and I went to bed, he stayed up thinking … and in the morning I found an e-mail in my inbox.

A portrait of yours truly, by David R. Darrow

If you get a chance, Let me skype with you for a few minutes. I have an idea…

I’m still half-asleep and quite confused when I log into Skype, where I find Darrow waiting for me. He then offers to draw my portrait, and takes a few quick pictures of my pillowface from various angles.

He has also found an original poster from the painting, which he offers to sign and send to me. He’s already given me so much, so I insist on paying for it. It’s the least I can do.

A week or so goes by, and I’m busy writing this article. That’s when Darrow asks me if I want to talk to Wayne Holder, who he hasn’t spoken with for over two years.

I emailed him the same day I was interviewed by you to tell him about it. He emailed back and I asked about you contacting him.

So, it looks like I got everything I asked for. This is the rough story of the cover for Dungeon Master was created. The signed sketch of me, signed by David R. Darrow, is now hanging on my wall next to the original Dungeon Master painting.

And now I’ve been introduced to Wayne Holder, which will result in an article about the man behind Dungeon Master – the game that kickstarted an entire genre that’s still thriving (Legend of Grimrockis my 2012 game of the year).

And you have to admit that it still looks like it did in Darrow’s mind, 26 years ago.

Translated by Toby Lee


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