For International Women's Month I wanted to introduce you to one of the earliest female influences on Role-playing games. Darlene the Artist.
I started playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons regularly in 1982. Having heard some real horror stories about men gatekeeping the hobby and refusing to allow a female human at the table, I count myself extremely lucky that I played with men who wanted to have fun, and didn't restrict who could play. I seemed to be a bit of a novelty at my FLGS, the guys there would trip over each other to show me the latest female minis, and the pink and purple dice (I do have other colors, but at the time any other colors tended to end up in someone else's bag, I didn't have to keep an eye on the pink or purple ones).
I did notice that it seemed that all of the authors and artists seemed to be men. The cover of Eldritch Wizardry was done by Deborah Larson, but there is no credit in the book, and she didn't do any more work for TSR.
The name I did notice back then was Darlene.Originally Darlene Pekul. In 1984, she legally changed her name to just Darlene, dropping her surname Pekul as well as legally changing the typography of her name to a capital and small capitals.
She did a lot of the great art for the Monster Manual, Dungeon Masters Guide, the color cover of B1 In Search of the Unknown, and more. I loved that her art depicted "real" female bodies. Take a look at this lovely succubus, and the mermaid above, they don't exactly have the big bosoms and tiny waists that you see in a lot of fantasy art. As an aside, Clyde Caldwell shared an observation in the documentary, “Eye of the Beholder”, that the suits at TSR didn't think that their target audience of 14–16-year-old males would like the scantily clad, big bosomed women he was drawing. I guess they forgot what 14-year-old boys are like.
She was fresh out of Beloit College when she started doing freelance work for TSR. In her own words "With a background in medieval-studies, a familiarity with strange mythological beasts, a calligrapher’s knowledge of manuscripts, and a deep appreciation for fantasy and surrealism, no one could be more uniquely qualified. I could do anything TSR called upon me to do."
In 1980 she got a contract to do “The Story of Jasmine” An illustrated Fantasy Adventure that was published in Dragon magazine. This feature only ran for a year, it was cancelled because it didn't appeal to the largely male readers. Darlene circulated a petition to bring it back at Origins '81 but gathered very few signatures. She never gave up on Jasmine though, and is still telling her story.
You can read her continuing story by joining her Patreon:
Also in 1980 Gary Gygax entrusted her with drawing the map for the Greyhawk Folio. He had originally planned to publish his entire world, but TSR's printing house could do sheets no larger than 34" x 22". The scale that he had in mind only allowed the northeast corner of the continent on two sheets.He placed the city and castle of Greyhawk in the center and drew a rough sketch of the rest.These are widely considered to be some of the best RPG maps of all-time. Gary himself said that they were the “best gaming maps ever created for this genre.” If you are interested in reading about her process when she created these maps, check out this great interview at Grognardia:
She continued to take assignments from TSR until 1984, when she left fantasy artwork to study Graphic design. She graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Indiana University.
I still see echoes of her work in later editions, the first image is hers from the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide printed in 1979 and the second is from the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons Dungeon Master's Guide, Revised (black cover) 1st printing from April of 1995.
In 2003 she briefly returned to the fantasy art world when Gary Gygax asked her to draw the maps for Volume I, Castle Zagyg: Yggsburgh for Troll Lord Games. This was after he parted ways with TSR.
In 2015 she was approached by Joe Aragon to do some illustrations for Mythos Arcanum. Once she began on the illustrations she realized that the book itself needed an expert designer, so she offered to handle that as well. You can read the entire story in her interview with Tim Kask:
In 2022 she was approached by Justin LaNasa who wanted permission to use her Wizard-head logo in his projects. I'll let her tell you about the "Power of No" in her own words. Truly powerful.
So what is Darlene doing now? She has some lovely empowering coloring books, including one featuring Jasmine! She's also renovating her Queen Anne Victorian home, If you'd like to help:http://darlenetheartist.com/