This is a guest post by John Arcadian, of Silvervine Games. John wrote Wikis for GMs: Part 1 and Part 2 here on TT, and this post originally appeared on his blog, Slow boat to China. John was kind enough to let me cross-post it here (thanks, John!) — enjoy!
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So I’ve had this in my head for a while, and I wanted to let it spill forth. I was just on an image gathering spree for the latest pirate playtest. I was finding lots of pictures of pirates, ships, video game backgrounds, landscapes, etc.

It got me thinking about something that I’d taken for granted, but never really wondered if other people do or not. I use images in my games a lot, and I use them two ways.

To Set Tone, and Build Off of a Picture

I tend to be a descriptive game master, but I find the adage of “A picture is worth a thousand words” to be entirely true, and effective. Whenever I have just a picture or two to show my players, they get more into the game, they suddenly go “there” in their minds.

While 5 different players might have been envisioning the dungeon, dragon, npc, landscape, etc. in 5 different ways, once I show one single picture, and start weaving my words from there, they all go to the exact same place. They’re thinking of that black feyr dragon as a single entity now. When they plan their attack, they’re envisioning the claws and the scales.

The descriptive words I use after the picture build onto the picture, so I’m kind of locked into whatever picture I use. That means it has to be adequate to the situation I’m trying to create. I can’t use a so-so picture like this. I can, but it has to meet at least 60% of what I’ve got in my head.

Some elements of the picture are easy to ignore (modern people standing there), if I point out they aren’t relevant. “You see a small ship coming in the distance, it is stark white and has large sails. Ignore the people standing on the ship, you’re not being targeted by pirate Japanese tourists.” Which prompts a joke or two, but gets the job done. Usually this isn’t a problem for me though, because of the second thing I use images for.

Getting Inspiration

As a GM, I tend to go prep-heavy on elements, and light on story or plot. I lay out some basics, and let the story build itself from there. In our current playtest, I have no idea what will happen with the story. I’m trying to let the players have more of a hand in that. Let them choose where they will go, what they will do. I’ve prepped a lot with a list of “generic brand enemies,” and lots of NPCS that are filled out, or half filled out (so I can make them on the fly later). Maps of areas, and pictures. Lots of pictures.

If I’m at a loss for an idea, I peruse through a folder on my hard drive with pictures, and find something. Looking at the picture I try to think of what this could be, other than what it already is. Like this picture of a chain of islands from an Unreal Tournament map (found here).

It’s a little futuristic, but I can make it work. Maybe I’ll throw the players’ goal (which I’m trying to get them to set as much as possible) on the main island at the end of the chain of bridges. Their enemies, we’re gonna go with something big and tough, minor earth elementals, or some kind of golems, are interspersed on the bridges. The water might be swimming with sharks, or sanguine, or some other sea creature that they really wouldn’t stand a chance against in their natural watery home.

So their fight becomes a series of bridge battles, trying to press through hard odds. Lord help them if they destroy one of the bridges. Hey, good idea. Let’s have the elementals’ masters drop one of the bridges. Insta-puzzle!

With a little extra work I can drop this smack dab into any point that it would fit with their adventure. If they never get to a point, and I want to set them up, maybe it’s a jailbreak. They’ve got to get someone out of a maximum security Rikers Island-style pirate prison. This is one of the defense mechanisms. To remove the fantasy element, I change golems or elementals to human soldiers.

This is how I get a lot of ideas for what I want to do. I grab a start point, and I go free flowing to what other possibilities exist. From a minute’s worth of speculation, and a pre-made image, I’ve got a pirate-style siege adventure, through fantasy or human opposition which requires some tactical thinking, and a surprise the group must overcome. A little more prep and it’ll be ready for our next adventure.

Where to Get Pictures

Gotta love Google, Flickr, PD Photo, and all the other image sites. deviantART is pretty good too, but even though I’m using them for personal use, I still feel kind of odd ripping them from deviantART. If I do I usually say thanks to the person, and tell them I’m using it as reference material in a game I’m running.

The best thing I’ve found for my personal use, though, is video games and screen shots. Specifically Unreal, Unreal Tournament, etc. Things like WoW, EverQuest, Guild Wars would all work too. If I can get first person, or as a spectator on a map I like, I can position and take a screenshot of what I want. Grassy plains, castles, etc. It gives a kind of unreal feel to the game, goes a bit more epic, gives me huge swords, or completely impossible things, and fits most moods that I’m looking for.

For a final adventure I generated a huge amount of screen shots for various tunnels from one small room and taking shots of different angles. The feedback from that game was great, they said they felt more like they were there, and had reference images to go with the map they were making.

This may not work for everyone, but it’s a key way to inspire the players to see the same thing your describing, and to get ideas that you may not always think of.

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action. — Frank Tibolt
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Thanks, John! I love the idea of using video game screenshots for this (I can think of plenty of locations in WoW that would be perfect for a fantasy game), and John’s 60% rule for choosing images is excellent.

For more suggestions on where to find images (and what to do with them), check out these other TT posts: Using Flickr to Find RPG Images, Free Stock Photos for GMs, A Trove of Sci-Fi Images and Photos of Abandoned Urban Sites.

What do you think of John’s technique? Do you take a similar approach in your own games — and if so, what tricks are up your sleeve?