Mearls on RPG Art

WotC's Mike Mearls took to Twitter yesterday to offer some thoughts on art in tabletop RPGs, specifically aimed at small creators and publishers.

dnd_art.jpg

Cover art by Larry Elmore from D&D Red Box


"If you’re looking to get into self-publishing RPG material in 2019, here’s my advice - your art is the most important part of your product. A lot of designers have a writer’s skill set, and see art as the last thing they consider. Don’t fall into that trap.

Art is the entry point into your work. In the best case, work with an artist as co-creator. Talk about the emotion, impact, and resonance you’re aiming for. Work as equals. Draft off of each other’s strengths and ideas.

If you can’t co-create, then keep track of that emotional level and hold on to it when comissioning art. Let the artist paint the picture, rather than dictate it to them. Find artists with new takes on things. Find someone with a distinct style that complements your own.

If you don’t have a vision for the look of your work, you don’t have a vision for it period. Even a short adventure needs tone and atmosphere.

FINALLY! My biggest pet peeve in game art is bad interaction. If a piece has two things that should interact, make sure the action is framed correctly and the relationship actually functional. Easy test. Let’s say you have a warrior jumping off a cliff to plunge down on a dragon.

Cover up the dragon. Looking only at the warrior, where does it look like they’ll land? What’s their state of mind? Where is the target of their attack? Picture that and then uncover the dragon. Do they match? Now do the reverse.

You’ll be surprised at how many very expensive cover art pieces fail this basic test. You’ll find warriors belly-flopping 2 meters in front of their foe. Two enemies locked in mortal combat... with opponents seemingly out of the image’s frame.

My favorite is the arrow/bolt of arcane energy/random projectile that is firing from our hero at a 45 degree angle to barrel its way from the foreground, where our hero shown in profile, to the background that is literally behind them.

Seriously, this drives me nuts. Please stop doing it. Use my test or invent a better one. Once I noticed this issue, it’s now a reflex and a lot of cover art just drives me batty.

It typically comes up because you want to show a character’s face, but also want a scene where logic and physics dictate you should show our hero’s back. IME it’s a good sign that a writer isn’t giving the artist enough creative space to make the image work.

Another piece of art advice because for whatever reason it’s on my mind - the purpose of game art is to communicate a game’s emotion and tone, rather than factual presentations of the game’s world. That’s what words are for.

And since RPGs are a spoken medium, if you can’t easily describe something in words neither can the DM. Don’t do that to them."



And in response to a few questions:

Any advice on balancing an art budget? How do you decide between art for everything and not enough art? (@wildrosemage)

From my POV, if your budget is tight better to go with fewer pieces that have a better chance of setting the tone you want. For DMs Guild, though, I wouldn’t make art a priority since you’re using D&D. My advice is aimed at working on IP/games you own.

Paying an artist what they are worth (which people should) means a lot of art is out of reach for a self-publisher on a budget. (@technoir)

Yeah, it’s not easy on a budget and a partnership with an artist is not always practical. I would say that if you do have a strong vision, that might help get that one piece that really delivers what you’re looking for.

For both artists and those commissioning art, I'd recommend my own article, What's An Artist Worth? It gives an idea of how much art costs, where you can get affordable art, and discusses some of the ethics of underpaying artists.
 
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Russ Morrissey

Comments

Rhineglade

Explorer
I would have to definitely agree. I always consider books with better artwork over ones with poor or no artwork. It is the art that draws me to the product in the first place and fosters my imagination. It is also art that grabs hold of my memory and evokes emotions of days gone by whenever I see it again.

Of course, conversely, you can also have material with superb art but crap writing. ;)
 

Koloth

Villager
Fast test. Which cover art suggests action and adventure vs a boring reference tome. The cover of Pathfinder V1 Core Rulebook or the cover of D&D V3.5 Players Handbook?

And who can forget the iconic cover of the first AD&D players handbook?
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
that original 1e PH art still screams D&D louder to me than anything else. Most later art could be any generic fantasy novel cover. But that one is a pure example of a scene from 100's of game sessions I've played in.
 

Mike Myler

Explorer
"My advice is aimed at working on IP/games you own |not the D&D publishing venue we have made and drive the market towards|."

Great job. Advice much needed. A+.
 

Stefan Pokorny

Villager
The Artwork has always been so important in the success of D&D...the images of fantasy, from Frazetta to Terrier were real drivers that unlocked our imaginations
 

Shasarak

Villager
Fast test. Which cover art suggests action and adventure vs a boring reference tome. The cover of Pathfinder V1 Core Rulebook or the cover of D&D V3.5 Players Handbook?
Which one suggests opening an exciting arcane tome of knowledge?

A locked book bound in monster hide and covered with jewels, who knows what secrets it holds.
 

MechaPilot

Explorer
Of course art is important.

It's often said "don't judge a book by its cover," and this can be very good advice. However, the cover is (if nothing else) the eye-catcher; the cover is what entices you to actually stop, pick up the book and look inside. The cover should also reflect the contents, or you might have readers who feel the cover is the literary form of a clickbait thumbnail.

Likewise, internal art plays a support role in accentuating things presented in text, or providing a tone that supports the text. Internal art can be used for explanatory purposes (like art showing the differences in the various polearms), but this should be the exception and not the rule.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
My friend that is helping me build my game strongly undervalues art in an RPG book, to the point of wishing for no art and more pages full of words, and it absolutely drives me insane.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
A great example of how important art is, is the decline of people making new Halflings in my dnd 5e games. Transports from 4e games abound, but nearly 0 new characters. Because no one in my group doesn’t hate the 5e Halfling art.

OTOH, we love poring over the The One Ring RPG books, even though we rarely play them, and I’ve seen many new players flip through a Star Wars Saga Edition book and say “Oh! I want to play that!” Because of some evocative piece of art.
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
In the long run, mechanics are more important than art. But you have to get your readers in the door first, and art is the welcome mat.
 

TheCosmicKid

Adventurer
Fast test. Which cover art suggests action and adventure vs a boring reference tome. The cover of Pathfinder V1 Core Rulebook or the cover of D&D V3.5 Players Handbook?
Mearls' "bad interaction" rant might well be addressed directly to Wayne Reynolds.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Which one suggests opening an exciting arcane tome of knowledge?

A locked book bound in monster hide and covered with jewels, who knows what secrets it holds.
If that PH art had been it - no common theme binding the three core books together - and on a brand new game, I doubt it would have worked in that fashion and brought in large numbers of players. It tells the potential player virtually nothing about the game to hook them with the play and action. The fact that it was on the D&D brand told people everything.
 
Fast test. Which cover art suggests action and adventure vs a boring reference tome. The cover of Pathfinder V1 Core Rulebook or the cover of D&D V3.5 Players Handbook?
(This isn't to deride the Pathfinder cover, just to defend the 3rd edition cover).

Third edition still suggests action and adventure, but in a different, subtle way. Familiarity with 3rd edition has bred contempt for it as a "boring reference," but imagine what it was like to see it for the first time in 2000, a time of uncertainty for D&D after the transition to Wizards of the Coast. WotC went for something different than the usual "here's artwork of adventurers," it went with something that looked like an in-game artifact of a fantastic but grounded quasi-medieval world. Those tomes promised of a world of adventure to find such artifacts, a world of epic adventure, intrigue, and combat. And what's more, it had a level of production value and detail that wasn't possible before. The tomes, with their detail, was a microcosm of the worlds to which they belonged and to which they promised to transport players.

The 3rd edition cover art was perfect for its time, and probably wouldn't have worked with a game of lesser pedigree, or without the level of polish and detail it had, or if it were repeated (which, let's face it, it was repeated throughout the whole 3rd edition run, which probably wore out its welcome). Nevertheless, it's still my favorite (even if the AD&D 1e PHB was arguable better), just because of the impact it had on me when seeing it for the first time.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
I like that he's essentially suggesting using the Marvel Method for RPG design.

I also believe there are places for both evocative and illustrative art. For example, unless you also have verbal descriptions of monsters, monster art should be more illustrative than evocative - though it doesn't hurt to have a few evocative art pieces as well in there. The same goes for things like symbols - they should be established through illustrative art first, but after that it's awesome to show various embellishments of it. For example, in Princes of the Apocalypse, each of the Elemental Evil cults has a very sparse symbol. The water cult's symbol is an X with a line connecting the bottom parts of it. While it doesn't show up on art in the adventure itself, there are a number of scenes that could have been illustrated where the symbol is described, such as an altar where it has been built out of driftwood. Or as a real-world example: the symbol of Christianity is a cross. If you were to describe Christianity in a sourcebook, the first picture of its symbol should be a plain cross. After that, you might show a knight with a Maltese cross on their shield, a church with a crucifix in a prominent place, a gravestone in the shape of a Celtic cross, a flag where the cross is part of the heraldry, or even a church built in the shape of a cross - but each of these refers back to the basic shape. You don't start by showing the knight with a Maltese cross on their shield, because then it's harder for the reader to figure out what is the actual symbol and what is embellishment.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
I respect artists. And only in the last 5 years have I been going back and learning who the great D&d artists are. But it is sad to me that art is even a relevant factor in the success of an rpg. But it is a reality a publisher must deal with. I would much rather a game be judged by it’s written content and my mind left to create the pictures. But I realize I am an oddity on that. I even rarely listen to music for that matter. And people seem obsessed with music these days.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
I respect artists. And only in the last 5 years have I been going back and learning who the great D&d artists are. But it is sad to me that art is even a relevant factor in the success of an rpg. But it is a reality a publisher must deal with. I would much rather a game be judged by it’s written content and my mind left to create the pictures. But I realize I am an oddity on that. I even rarely listen to music for that matter. And people seem obsessed with music these days.
It's axiomatic in everything we do, however. A good picture is worth a proverbial thousand words, as good art can evoke several paragraphs worth of "imagine a world where..." text. One look at something like https://paizo.com/image/content/LegacyOfFire/PZO9019-GnollAmbush.jpg for the Legacy of Fire AP tells me that you're going to be fighting gnolls in an Arabian desert-type setting, definitely involving exploring old ruins, but it also evokes feelings of isolation, of struggling not just against foes but the elements themselves, and about the only thing missing from this picture is a caravan of camels being attacked as well. :)

I can't think of better ones than from Shadowrun, though:
https://i.pinimg.com/originals/78/d2/92/78d292755d5b0b1c2f396e95b5ecd5bb.jpg
https://i.pinimg.com/originals/6d/77/52/6d7752553dcfdf4fa0b6c420c0f72d22.jpg
The first one is so iconic now that many gamers who have never even played Shadowrun probably could tell you what game it's from. The second cover has practically every non-standard element from the game represented to the extent that you could probably reverse-engineer your own Shadowrun clone including every story element from the setting in it. :)

But even beyond that, everything from prepackaged food, to tools, to clothing in stores usually depend on art to sell it, even if it's attractive fonts and trade dress.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
It does that well. And believe me I don’t want good artists losing income, but sometimes feel the art is pushing what the settling is like when I imagine or envision something very different. I love planescape art. But not really how I want to picture the planes. I would have preferred a different surreal experience.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
Mearls' "bad interaction" rant might well be addressed directly to Wayne Reynolds.
I find Waynes art to be very hard to like- I like the 3.5 PHB better than the PFRPG core book.

A few of the clones folow Mearls advice and blow their art budget on the cover with B/W interiors. I like this one a lot.

https://www.rpgnow.com/product/108830/ACKS-Players-Companion

Not even an action scene.

The main book is not to shabby either.

https://www.rpgnow.com/product/99123/Adventurer-Conqueror-King-System

If small clones can have nice covers why cant some of the bigger RPG publishers.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
I like that he's essentially suggesting using the Marvel Method for RPG design.

I also believe there are places for both evocative and illustrative art. For example, unless you also have verbal descriptions of monsters, monster art should be more illustrative than evocative - though it doesn't hurt to have a few evocative art pieces as well in there. The same goes for things like symbols - they should be established through illustrative art first, but after that it's awesome to show various embellishments of it. For example, in Princes of the Apocalypse, each of the Elemental Evil cults has a very sparse symbol. The water cult's symbol is an X with a line connecting the bottom parts of it. While it doesn't show up on art in the adventure itself, there are a number of scenes that could have been illustrated where the symbol is described, such as an altar where it has been built out of driftwood. Or as a real-world example: the symbol of Christianity is a cross. If you were to describe Christianity in a sourcebook, the first picture of its symbol should be a plain cross. After that, you might show a knight with a Maltese cross on their shield, a church with a crucifix in a prominent place, a gravestone in the shape of a Celtic cross, a flag where the cross is part of the heraldry, or even a church built in the shape of a cross - but each of these refers back to the basic shape. You don't start by showing the knight with a Maltese cross on their shield, because then it's harder for the reader to figure out what is the actual symbol and what is embellishment.
Depends on what you are trying to achieve. For example if you ran a game involving Christianity in the early days a fish or the Greek symbol which looks like a P with an X through it could be used.

The old Lone Wolf game books for example had an order of mystics in a few books which used a fish. I never go the Christian tie in until later.
 

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