Has the Bizarre Beholder Appeared in Your Nightmares Yet? D&D 5e Cover Art Roundup

Everybody’s been talking about Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, and while I have to admit I was skeptical at first, most of the people I trust and follow have been saying mostly positive things. The free PDF ruleset is great marketing, the Starter Set is solid, and the Player’s Handbook is beautiful and readable. But what I haven’t seen (and correct me if I’m wrong) is much praise for the cover art. For instance, here’s the cover to the Starter Set box:

Starter Set

To me, it’s rather uninspired. Yes, that dragon sure is big, but is there anything really special about it? I understand it’s an update of a classic D&D illustration. However, the original had a sense of depth and composition that this one just lacks. That’s the trouble with remakes: they’re always going to be judged against the original, and nine times out of ten, people are disappointed.

The hidden upshot is that everything in fifth edition looks much, much better as a physical product than it does as an image on a computer screen. When I first saw the online previews, they seemed too slick and magazine-y. My thought was, “This looks alright now, but I bet it’ll be horribly dated in just a few years.” But after holding a physical copy of the Player’s Handbook, I’m happy to say I’ve changed my mind.

The Good, The Odd, and the How Dare You

Player's Handbook

Of the Big Four (Starter Set, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide*, and Monster Manual*), the PHB has to be my favorite cover. There’s a real sense of motion, and hey, we’ve got a woman on the cover! She’s beautiful (as we like to see in both male and female heroes) without being objectified. What’s more, the publishers really took care with the quality of the binding and the sleeve, and once you actually see the image on a real book, you realize it all goes together.

*At the time of this posting, only the Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook are available in stores–my thoughts on the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual are based strictly on preview images.

Dungeon Master's Guide

I’ll spare a moment to talk about the DM guide. It’s a little weird, but then again, but DMs are weird people. (Just ask mine.) Here we have a skeleton mage (ETA: it’s a Lich) possessing a warrior, who has (presumably) turned about in order to attack his former comrades. I think this is an apt metaphor for the DM’s maniacal desire to manipulate us all like puppets–I mean, earnest use of skill in portraying various monsters and NPCs.

And as for the Monster Manual cover… I mean, well, it’s…

Monster Manual 5e: One of These Covers is Not Like the Others

In order to have you fully appreciate the tragic comedy that is the Monster Manual cover, I give you the enlarged version:

DnD 5e Monster Manual cover

I ask you, was this a rush job? Did Wizards of the Coast assign this to an intern? This cover image is so crowded, like it’s trying too hard, and there are just so many little oddities and obvious cover-ups. First, let’s take a look at this guy in the front. Why is his sword so long and banana-shaped, and is he dancing, or… oh. That’s a woman. Oh-kay.

I’m all for gender diversity, but this just screams, “At the last minute, the publishers decided there needed to be more female characters on the cover, so we stuck some breasts on this guy.” Pro tip: if you are designing a cover for a game that has historically had problems with female underrepresentation, you might want to make your female characters actually be recognizably female. Just sayin’.

Moreover, what is she even doing? Why is she offering us a tango when there’s a Beholder behind her back? She doesn’t have any emotion on her face, she’s not angry or surprised or scared or determined, but her mouth’s in this O shape because O-shaped mouths apparently convey the height of epic battle.

But the frontal character’s Thundercats, ho! face and unwieldy long bendy sword are nothing compared to this monster. For anyone who’s never played D&D before, it’s supposed to be a Beholder, a one-eyed floating monster. However, because one of its secondary eyes is so close to its face, our brain interprets it as a two-eyed monster with a wildly asymmetrical mouth. It’s not exactly nightmare fuel, but it’s definitely unsettling, just not in the way the creators probably intended.

Actually, that wide mouth and bug-eyed stare, it reminds of something I’ve seen before…


There! They must be cousins.

There are numerous other little problems, too. Stairs leading into nowhere that magically disappear behind the monster. A discarded weapon acting as a too-convenient light source. A stray Beholder eye doing censorship duty on that nude statue. In fact, I’ve almost grown fond of this cover, simply because it’s like a little puzzle in itself. Like Escher’s impossible architectures, the harder and longer you look, the more nonsensicalities you discover.

All Beholders aside, I think gamers had a right to be skeptical of 5e before its arrival. Based on some of the things I was hearing, I was getting some heavy vibes of dad-with-a-combover-trying-to-look-cool. But now that it’s out and reviews are generally enthusiastic, I’m excited to play this soon. (Admittedly less excited for release of the Monster Manual… unless it includes stats for Jacked Up Floating Totoro.)

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  1. Weird DM’s huh? I liked the cover of the Starter set and I like the PhB too. I had not really paid much attention to the other two but I see your concerns about the Monster Manual. The DM’s guide is a lich (heap big nasty) but I think that it looks way too much like the whispering tyrant from Pathfinder.

    I’l run you a game or two if you want to try it.


    1. By “weird DMs” I of course mean “geniuses who grace the world with their presence.”

      Would love to have a game run! Although given your recent posts about how fun and easy it is to kill PCs in 5e, I don’t know if it’s wise of me to be so enthusiastic…


  2. You remind me that anyone can post their own opinions no matter how stupidly knit picky they are, here’s a “pro tip” stop being extremely arrogant and don’t give pro tips in subjects you didn’t go to school for.


    1. Each person does have the right to their own comments, and in response to yours I will reply to say that perhaps you should look up the dictionary for professional. It has nothing to do with going to school for subjects that you are making comments about.


  3. Any idea who that illustrator, or team of illustrators, is? I’d be really curious to see what else they did.


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