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The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave: Index of Posts

An index of posts describing the Forgotten Smugglers' Cave, an adventure for Holmes Basic characters levels 2-4.                    ...

Tuesday, May 23, 2023



One of Nicholson's full-page illustrations from the Fiend Folio,
depicting a party facing off against the Githyanki. Image Source.

It was sometime in the spring of 1983 that I came into possession of the fifth AD&D hardcover, the FIEND FOLIO. As I recall, I learned from a friend that Kay Bee Toys in the local mall had them on sale for a single dollar (!), a price low enough that I was able to convince my parents to get me one immediately rather than waiting for the next holiday.

A monster stat block & illustration from the Fiend Folio
See more here

While the format was similar to the MONSTER MANUAL, which I had received as an Xmas present just months before, the striking and strange-to-me interior illustrations made it feel like it had slipped in from an alternate timeline. Which it essentially had, being the product of the UK division of TSR, and compiling monsters submitted by readers of WHITE DWARF magazine. The artwork giving it this feel was heavy with dots, lines and cross-hatching, and largely the work of two of the UK-based artists, Alan Hunter, who we lost in 2012, and Russ Nicholson, who passed away last week, and is the subject of this appreciation post.

Death Knight by RUSS
Image Source

Of the two, Nicholson is much better known these days, having contributed more illustrations to the book, and more of the best-remembered monsters such as the Coffer Corpse, Death Knight, Demon: Lolth, Flind, Githyanki, Grell, Norker, Penanggalan, Retriever, Revenant, Skeleton Warrior, Son of Kyuss, Svirfneblin, and Xill, to name just a few. His prominent "RUSS" signature on his illustrations also helped cement his name in the mind of fans of the Fiend Folio.

Svirfneblin (Deep Gnome) by RUSS
Image Source

Nicholson excelled at both types of interior artwork found in the early monster tomes: the static "monster portrait" accompanying each stat block and the dynamic "action scene" depicting characters encountering monsters, such as the one at the top of this post. Both types were found in the original Monster Manual, and the Fiend Folio takes it up a notch with more of everything (sadly, the MONSTER MANUAL II would almost entirely eliminate the second category, making it much less thrilling to peruse, and starting a trend that has unfortunately continued). In addition to numerous monster portraits, larger fill-ins and the title-page monster, Nicholson also contributed two of the seven full-page pictures, which depict parties facing off against Githyanki and a Grell, respectively. All of these images remain indelibly burned into my mind's eye.

Image Source

His art in the Fiend Folio was an outgrowth of his work for the early years of White Dwarf. As a youth, I was only ever able to locate one of these issues: #29 (Feb/Mar 1982), found secondhand at the Game Workshop store in Baltimore, which was the first one in the US.  It featured one exquisite Nicholson, an illustration for the first Griselda story, "Lucki Eddi", a fiction series set in the Runequest world of Glorantha.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
Image Source.

Unfortunately, I don't recall encountering any other publications with his art as a youth. He is also well-known for illustrating the interiors of the first two Fighting Fantasy books, but those mostly eluded me, and I only ever came across one slightly later entry, at our local library. 

Illustration for the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea RPG
Image Source

Naturally in the internet age I've been able to rectify this and have seen many more of his works from a long and productive career. In the last decade, at least before his health faltered, Nicholson was very active on the internet, both on G+ (where he even joined my Holmes Basic G+ Group), Facebook and on his own personal blog, The Gallery: the Art of Russ Nicholson, where he frequently shared large groups of scans of his art, old and new. And he remained very productive in new RPG art, often for newer publications, such as the DCC RPG rulebook and the Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea RPG (see above). I was always impressed by how consistent in style his newer work was with his classic illustrations.

A few years ago at virtual Gary Con, I had the pleasure of playing in a game where the entire party was a Githyanki, a fantastic AD&D scenario called "Secret of the Githyanki" run by Julian Bernick. I played an anti-paladin with a silver sword. And the entire time I pictured us and the setting looking just like Nicholson's pictures in the Fiend Folio.

Farewell, RUSS.

1 comment:

  1. "the striking and strange-to-me interior illustrations made it feel like it had slipped in from an alternate timeline."

    I agree, and this feeling is strengthened for me by knowing that the Fiend Folio was supposed to be published in late 1979, but red tape kept it from publication until August 1981. Every single monster in the whole book is a 70s beastie, let loose in the 80s.