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Three Reasons Art in RPG Books Matters to GMs

As a GM, I care about having good art in my RPG books for three reasons.

1. Good art tells me about the setting, and about the tone of the game. White Wolf books are a classic example of this kind of art: moody, atmospheric, almost universally excellent. One flip-through, and I know roughly what kind of game the designers had in mind.

2. Quality art gets my players into the setting. Similarly, evocative art that’s matched well to the game gives my players lots of cues about what to expect, and helps get them in the mood to play.

3. I can show things to my players. This is crucial for monster books — I can describe a beastie, then show it to my players to cement that image, ensuring that we’re all on the same page. Ditto with locations, NPC portraits and the like.

(There’s a fourth reason, too, of course: good art is more fun to look at. That’s not GM-specific in any way, though, so I left it off the list.)

For these three reasons, bad artwork can keep me from buying a gaming book. With monster books (which I love), poor or limited artwork will keep me from buying them, period. In setting books or other sourcebooks, bad or limited (low quantity) art won’t necessarily keep me from snagging a book, but it’s definitely a factor.

Where do you stand on this one? And are there other reasons why art in gaming books matters to GMs?

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#1 Comment By Mark On May 22, 2007 @ 8:55 am

I began gaming with the 1st Edition PH and DMG. No MM. The only monsters we had were in the DMG index. No art.

I loved it.

Personally, I think art can limit the imagination. No doubt there is some great art out there, and it makes for some enjoyable browsing. However, when it came to game time, I never found artwork to be additive. If anything, art gave the players preconceived notions about what a creature should look like.

I’ve never been much into commercial campaign settings. -That might be part of why I don’t feel art is that important.

I think a good description of a Wyvern goes a lot farther in the players mind than any artists rendition.

#2 Comment By Telas On May 22, 2007 @ 8:56 am

I’m kind of torn on this one…

I like good gaming art, mainly for the first reason you give: “A picture paints a thousand words.”

But as someone who’s looked into publishing, finding really good art, that says what I want it to, for a reasonable amount, is really difficult. So I don’t want to say that “good art is necessary to make a good product”.

But… damn, it sure does help. 😉

#3 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On May 22, 2007 @ 8:58 am

I bought the Earthdawn game specifically because of the awesome full-color artwork in the middle. It’s a shame that as a whole, the artwork in the rest of the book didn’t come close to matching that art.

I don’t mind a book NOT having art. I’ll buy it anyway, but what I really can’t stand is bad art. There are some books that have obviously been illustrated by the author, or the author’s cousin, or by whoever worked cheapest and it really turns me off.

It says a lot about the effort and production values that went into the work and the decision making process of the people who worked on the product. If you can’t afford to shell out the cash for good art, I understand. A lot of projects have small budgets. But don’t half-ass the art any more than you’d half-ass any other aspect of the project. And that’s the basic impression bad art gives me. If you’d settle for bad art, have you settled for bad writing? Bad QC? Bad Playtesting? I’d usually rather not be unpleasantly suprised. I’ve made that mistake enough in the past.

#4 Comment By Mark On May 22, 2007 @ 9:32 am

Telas, I empathize. I am working on a system right now, and I am dealing with that issue.

Rick, you also bring up some interesting points. What are your thoughts about a book with ONLY good cover art and little to no art elsewhere?

As I grew up on 1st Ed AD&D, I was used to a big variability in art quality. I love that old stuff. However, it might just be nostalgia…

#5 Comment By longcoat000 On May 22, 2007 @ 11:01 am

I too grew up on 1E AD&D, but I’m also of the mind that good art makes for an interesting presentation. Art, with a few strokes of the brush, is able to clearly illustrate rules and situations, as well as keep the reader’s mind occupied.

Anyone ever try to grind their way through the 1E DMG and fall asleep after ten or so pages? The book was virtually straight text, with a few pieces of artwork, graphs, and the occasional font size change thrown in. Without artwork, an RPG is just an exercise in mathematical probabilities.

Consistant art is also key. Since artwork sets the tone for the book, it’s vitally important that the style “fits” with the game. For me, Brom was the one artist that “got” the world of Dark Sun, with it’s harsh rules of survival and weird alien wilderness. The black-and-white pen-and-ink artwork in the old 2nd edition V:tM (or whichever edition you could pick up back in ’96 [oh God I feel OLD now]) conveyed the emptiness prevalent in the world of vampires (too bad the art in W:tA and M:tA didn’t hit the game world so spot-on). Even Eberron does it, using a deliberate comic-book action style that suits the playstyle of the game and what the designer was trying to convey in that first one page draft that likened it to “Indiana Jones meets the Maltese Falcon”.

Anyway, my point is that gaming artwork has a tremendous effect on how the game is percieved. It draws the reader in, gets them interested in the words behind the drawings, and helps gamers get interested in playing.

#6 Comment By thebrownshow On May 22, 2007 @ 11:25 am

Quality art makes it easier to have the book lying around the house when your in-laws come over. Mostly because books filled with scantily clad, large-breasted women are a little hard to play off as “a game my friends and I play” 😉

#7 Comment By robustyoungsoul On May 22, 2007 @ 11:26 am

I agree with Mark. Sometimes it can limit the imagination.

However, I like longcoat’s example of the Eberron books, where the art definitely helps set the tone for the game.

#8 Comment By VV_GM On May 22, 2007 @ 1:01 pm

For me great artwork is obviously a plus, but I want great artwork and great text. I’ve picked up some books with wonderful art that didn’t make up for the crap content.

I’d rather that there was no art than bad art. I really don’t mind having to use just my imagination to envision the setting or entity, but a crappy pic will distract me from even great text.

I also agree that if you are going to put artwork into your product then you should pay for it and pay well. By paying for the artwork you can also set the expectations of what kind of quality the final product should have. I’ve paid artists for their work before, and I plan on buying artwork for my current project. You better believe that if the artwork sucks you won’t see it because the artist will either redo it or refund me/forfeit the rest of the payment.

#9 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On May 22, 2007 @ 1:07 pm

In response to your question, Mark:

I think books with nice cover art and otherwise sparse or no art are a bit dry, but I don’t hold it against them unless I know it should be there (I would be suprised if Wizards or White Wolf or another big name I knew have the money and talent to get great art used no art for example). In my mind, bad art is far worse than no art at all. One is saying “I couldn’t afford quality so I just went with crap.” The other is saying “I wish I could afford quality but I won’t give you crap.” and there’s a big difference.

#10 Comment By Martin On May 22, 2007 @ 1:32 pm

I’d much rather have no art than bad art. Here’s my personal hierarchy of RPG book artwork:

Good art by a few artists with thematic similarities > Good art > Very little art at all, but it’s good > No art > Bad art in any quantity.

The only time I feel limited by gaming art is when I think “I can’t possibly run a game that will live up to that art.” This has actually happened — Wraith: The Oblivion comes to mind, although that wasn’t that only factor in why I didn’t think I’d be able to run it well.

#11 Comment By Mark On May 22, 2007 @ 2:39 pm

Thanks for the response, Rick. And thanks for the topic, Martin. This discussion will definitely impact my decision making for my own project.

There seems to be a consensus that people prefer a little ‘high-quality art’ to more ‘lower quality art’. That wasn’t obvious to me. -Even though I agree with the sentiment.

I recall our Shadowrun game being heavily influenced by the art. -The art was good. However, I now wonder how our campaigns might have been different sans book art.

On the subject of imagery, here’s something fun to try: Have your players describe what they think each others characters look like. -We always get very funny results.

#12 Comment By Jerm On May 22, 2007 @ 5:46 pm

Good art in a book does make a great deal of difference. I agree that it easily conveys mood, theme, setting, etc. Equally, bad art just turns me off to the entire book. Sorry to carry this in another direction, but I’ve recently been turned off to a few books by White-Wolf, simply because the art in them seemed so juvenile, and just.. bad.

Much of the art from the D&D Darksun world, as well as Planescape come to mind as being some good art, as well as some of the White-Wolf stuff.

#13 Comment By Brent On May 22, 2007 @ 7:13 pm

Good art is nice for the reasons that others have mentioned. But it has other uses. It helps me if I can flip through the book, and find what I’m looking for, because I can use the art as landmarks. (This is helpful for those of us who find our way around by visuals, rather than street names.)

Sure, bad art can be a drag. But even bad art can help you find your way around a book, and occasionally, crappy art helps the feel of a product (generally those that are trying to be funny, like Hackmaster.)

#14 Comment By Calybos On May 23, 2007 @ 5:20 am

Good art is a bonus, but it’s not a deciding factor. The system and setting are what matter, and pretty pictures can’t make up for them if they’re absent.

And White Wolf art was always a nuisance to me, given how often it obscured the actual TEXT you were trying to read. It can also be a warning sign when more money was obviously spent on top-notch artwork instead of basics like good layout, editing, and content organization.

Artwork is a “nice to have.” But just as there’s more to a game session than looking at pictures, so the game book needs to offer a LOT more than just good art.

#15 Comment By Ramza On May 23, 2007 @ 6:02 am

In all honesty…

Cover art might make me pick up a book and glance at it. Therefore, cover art is important for increasing the chance of the random purchase.

No art, cover or otherwise, influences my decision to buy once I am holding the book in my hands and reading the contents. Whether I buy or not is based on the contents, not the art.

I believe that I go through the exact same ‘process’ when looking for a novel to read. The cover might get me to pick it up, but I would never buy a novel because of the art on the cover. (Never judge a book by its cover!)

Based on the earlier comments, I seem to be fairly far to one side of the spectrum.

#16 Comment By Johnn On May 23, 2007 @ 9:23 am

I’m not a huge fan of art. I do like illustration or graphics that provide utility and help me GM better though. Trap diagrams, unlabeled treasure items I can use as handouts, and depictions that help me understand or describe an encounter better. If I had the choice of paying much less for a version of a product without art, I’d do so.

#17 Comment By longcoat000 On May 23, 2007 @ 10:06 am


I definitely agree that the quality of text should match the quality of the artwork. My case in point / horror story:

In Nomine

The only game that sold me (indeed, had me counting down the days until it came out) based on the two marketing posters that I’d seen and the gaming concept. When I actually got my grubby little hands on it, I was very disappointed in the actual content, which was a steaming pile of CRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAP-

Sorry, got off on a tangent there. Anyway, my point is what I said in the beginning. If you’re going to pour money into a book, put it into the rules and layout first, artwork second.

#18 Comment By Steve On July 31, 2007 @ 12:16 pm

I have the curse of being both a fantasy illustrator and a GM, so feel free to discard what I’m about to say. Sometimes I *wish* I cared less about art, but after having gone to art school and investing so much time in *giving a crap* about art, sometimes I find myself getting turned off by products simply on the basis of sub-par art. Wizards of the Coast is guilty of this too, so I don’t think it’s something that is limited purely by the (almost always) expensive endeavor of finding quality artists. More than one WotC book has been filled exclusively with spot illustrations are actually muddling the concepts they’re supposed to be illustrating. Or with monster books, monsters that look much less intimidating than they read… As for the post about juvenile White Wolf illustrations – meet Ron Spenser. I don’t wanna trash the guy, I’m sure he’s a great person, but.. bleh.

Especially when trying to sell new concepts. I probably wouldn’t have ever picked up the Eberron books if it wasn’t for the Wayne Reynolds illo on the cover. My previous knowledge of the product was just that it was the setting that won WotC’s Campaign Setting Contest and that it had flying ships and robots in it. I thought, “Ew… quit getting your Final Fantasy in my D&D.” (Not that I don’t have a certain affection for FF… sometimes.) Anyways, when the book was actually published and I saw the warforged on the cover, I thought, “Ohhhhhh. Flying ships and robots…” So it definitely made me take the second look, and not to labor the testimonial, but I actually prefer Eberron to FR now.

So take it with a grain of salt considering that it’s coming from someone whose livelihood depends on it, but honestly, as a GM (and not just as an artist), art definitely draws me to the game. I’d say cover art is a must, even if it’s something simple (although a grabbing and well designed cover definitely is best.) As for interior art, I’d say either get good art or none at all. (How’s that for shooting myself in the foot? 😉 )

#19 Comment By Steve On July 31, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

Oops, should have paid more attention while previewing my post.

^insert brilliant segue between first and second paragraphs about how cover art is important.