Somewhere back in the past, I got subscribed to an email newsletter called Story Games Weekly. I probably signed up for it 'cause they do free promotion of one's gaming products and I thought "hey, easy marketing!" Of course, I've never bothered to email them a news item or publication announcement (have I not explained before how terrible I am at self-promotion?). Anyway, I still continue to read through it every week, because there's (usually) at least three or four items that strike my interest.
This week, one blurb led me to this post by Patrick Stuart, author of Deep Carbon Observatory, in which he discusses an ideal ("utopian") framework for designing adventures (or any other gaming product). His Step One is to have a powerful idea that fires the imagination (I'm paraphrasing his thing about generating "psychic energy"). His second step? Artwork.
[*head in hands*]
I understand that Mr. Stuart is a big believer in the inspiring power of art within games. I read his essay on Art In Games, and I can grok his hypothesis. BUT...
Oh, God. How to start without seeming like a completely hopeless, obsolete luddite grognard.
[sigh...I really can't, can I?]
Back in the days of MY youth (when we had to walk ten miles to school, barefoot, in the snow...and uphill both ways, don't forget)...back then we used to have these here "adventure module" thingies that may or may not have had much in the way of great or inspiring art, but what art they had certainly had FUCKALL little to do with the adventures in which they appeared.
How many illustrations are there in The Keep on the Borderlands? Five? Not counting the cover? Again I wish I had the module with me in Paraguay so I could check. I love the Dee illo of the minotaur in the chain shirt with the spear because its badass, sure. You know what else is badass? The whole Chaotic temple complex which doesn't have (or require) a single illustration to influence your imagination. Same with the ogre encounter. Or the hobgoblin torturers. Or the kobolds with their traps and rats and spears. There's plenty of "psychic energy" to be found within the adventure...energy that has made B2 an adventure staple with plenty of "replay" value over the years. I can't even count the number of expeditions I've sent out to the Caves.
The artwork in these early adventures...the ones us old timers consider "classics"...was scant, and often damn misleading. I'm not just talking about the cover leaf to Keep on the Borderlands (in which a halfling wields a pole arm and the owlbear appears in a worked stone dungeon rather than its cave lair). The cover itself shows some sort of showdown with orcs in the hills...there's no such encounter. Tomb of Horrors has some sort of crowned lich on the cover...WTF? Shrine of Tamoachan's cover leaf has the party engaged with a giant bat thing...no such encounter exists. The cover for Queen of the Demonwebs depicts the party battling Lolth in a forest with a bunch of arachnid helpers...no, no, this never occurs in the adventure.
Is there a single image of a fire giant in Hall of the Fire Giants? I can't recall any...but I can certainly recall several memorable NPCs from that module: the king, his decapitating queen, the torturer, a certain dwarf by the name of Obmi, and Eclavdra (of course). Oh, yeah...maybe there's one throwaway picture of a mustachioed giant with his hellhounds...but that image isn't what's firing my imagination. I'm getting enthused by my mental picture of characters trying to coax mules into harnesses to winch their beasts and spelunking gear across a subterranean river of glowing lava. The Drow with male-pattern baldness isn't nearly as inspiring as Gygax's description of the dark elves' tentacled temple.
Those illustration inserts they included with a couple of those old modules? Sure we used them, but they were gimmicky props and more often detracted from play, rather than enhancing it. Not because the art was bad or uninspiring, but because they SLOWED play (especially for adventures where the ills were keyed differently from the map key) for little real gain. Again, it wasn't a drawing of a four armed gargoyle that made Tomb of Horrors memorable to the players.
Here's how I see it, folks: artwork in gaming products is overrated.
Not unimportant, mind you: please put down your pitchforks, all my illustrator friends! Art does have importance, especially in the basic gaming manual for any setting-specific game where the author/designer is attempting to convey the mood and ambience (and express his or her own visual imaginings) to the reader. Artwork is important for understanding what a game is all about.
But I do not lend it the same importance that Stuart and others...like the general game consuming public...lends to it. That's right, I'm not just trying to pick on one man (well, not this time anyway). I'm talking about a commercial trend that Stuart is simply providing with a high-minded justification.
I mean, who the hell is supposed to be reading the "adventure product" anyway? Who is supposed to be getting the benefit generated from the artwork therein? Last time I checked, adventures were supposed to be studied by game masters and off-limit to the players (who wanted to "explore" the adventure's mysteries). So you're going to commission a bunch of artwork for the benefit of one guy, huh?
Well sorry to waste your time, man, but I'm kind of on the same page with Jeff Rients when it comes to illustrations. Give me LESS to work with...don't fill in all the blanks for me! If you do that, how am I supposed to fire the pistons in this old and feeble mind of mine? What's more, don't give me a picture that I just show to the players and say, "here, it looks like this, you dolts!" Let me just give them a brief verbal description and allow the players' imaginations to fill in the blank spots...that way the magic and monsters and traps and perils and whatnot become more personal and more affecting to the people at the table.
What is this constant handholding? What is this coddling? Why do we not trust that players can do this imaginary heavy lifting all by themselves? Why must every single monster have an illustration...I can guess what a "giant slug" looks like! No, you do not need to paint me a picture of it!
I know, I know: I am hopelessly old and decrepit in my thought. People have "grown to expect" a certain degree of "professional polish" in their gaming product, including high quality artwork and a glossy finish. And, yes, these types of products sell better, and these types of products are more likely to find more shelf space in nicer stores, while the "amateur hour" productions are relegated to print-on-demand or ebook status.
[and, yes, Mr. Stuart, it would be nice if all the art was soulful enough to transcend the reader]
I'm not completely stupid and ignorant. I'm just a curmudgeon who can't draw.
Also, I am a curmudgeon who was very sad to learn that Greg Irons died way back in 1984, after I was considering trying to track him down for a project of mine (no not an adventure). What a talent lost!
|This is great, but the D&D Coloring Book was psycoholic!|
Okay, okay...I am now resuming my hiatus. You may feel free to comment, but I can't guarantee swift response. No, I'm not going to change my mind on this: any artwork in a published "adventure" should be far down on Ye Old List of Design Priorities.
[hope everyone is doing well!]