Friday, July 16, 2021

Modular Art

So I did make it down to my favorite local game shop yesterday, where I sipped a delicious IPA in the middle of the day while paging through copies of the 5E PHB and DMG. My time was rather limited, so it's possible in my haste that I missed an image or three. However, with regard to illustrations depicting actual peril, I found the count in both books combined to be zero.

Sure, there's a picture of a dwarf comforting a fallen companion (page 256 of the 5E the "siege equipment" section?) who one might interpret as mortally wounded or something (and the dwarf doesn't look like a cleric)...but her eyes are open and she doesn't have any visible injury. Maybe she's supposed to have a disease (the next section) but there's no indication it's a fatal one...she could just have really bad stomach cramps or fever.

And, yes, there's a picture in the 5E PHB of a character facing a medusa and seeing his arm is turning to stone, but I have a hard time interpreting what this image is supposed to represent. Partial petrifaction? Is the character succeeding at their saving throw (and thus withstanding a "full body stoning")? Or have they failed their saving throw and the magical curse is taking its sweet time creeping up from his fingers? Or is it just his arm that met the medusa's gaze? Or does medusa petrifaction work differently in 5E?  I don't know...but he looks more startled (perhaps by a "near miss") than actually "zapped" and incapacitated.

Whatever. 5E is its own animal. I see the book still has the spell regenerate; is there a 5E condition called "maimed?" I kind of want to write 5E adventures that feature limb-chopping traps and monsters. Wonder how that'd fly.

*AHEM* Which is a fine segue to my last post on this subject of art (I hope). 

I often get the urge to write adventure in, write them for publication. Part of this comes from reading other bloggers' (often negative) reviews of recently published adventures and thinking, hey, even I could write something that doesn't suck. I mean, it might be mediocre, but at least it wouldn't be a terrible travesty...and it might put a buck or two in my pocket.  But, as with all my gaming ambitions, the main thing that holds me back from my enterprise (aside from a lack of time) is the need for artwork in a published gaming product. And that, my friends, was before I started doing this research/analysis of the last few days.

Because the truth is, before this work (yes, it's "work"...I've spent hours on this thing!) I didn't see much value in adventure art other than 'well, it's kind of expected from the consumer.'  I mean, who is the art for? A cover entices a buyer, sure. But the interior of an adventure module is supposed to be For The DM's Eyes Only...are we just putting illustrations in the book to entertain the DM? I will say I even considered writing and publishing a new line of publication called "Artless Adventures," describing both their lack of illustration and my own ham-handedness in a single phrase.

Now I'm thinking differently.

I've long held that adventure modules...especially the old TSR ones I grew up with...provided a very distinct value to the game. Specifically: they provided a model for how to design adventures AND (in some cases) provided additional advice on how to run the game and handle certain aspects of it. Without adventures like B2, X1, the S-series, etc. what would my dungeons have ended up looking like? How would I have structured my adventures and campaigns? These old adventure modules provide examples and context for the instructions found in the rule books...instructions which, to be fair, are pretty "bare-bones" especially if you consider the reader to have been someone with NO experience creating fantasy adventure scenarios (as I was, once upon a time).

But more than that, I now see the importance of these early adventure modules from the standpoint of the artwork they provide. These images of giants and Drow and robots and volcanoes aren't only providing seeds for the imagination...they are helping to describe difficult concepts and illustrate aspects of game play that might be unclear. Sure, they offer excellent pictures of "peril" (see Delta's post for some great examples), but they also offer images that might be tough to conceptualize from a reading of text alone. The inverted ziggurat or suspended disk cavern of White Plume Mountain; the open-floor pit chamber of Slave Pits of the Undercity; the shadow of the vampire tomb in Shrine of Tamoachan; Lolth's spidership (and the demonweb itself) in Queen of the Demonweb Pits. The artwork does more than entertain: it helps elucidate and cement ideas so that the participants (DM and players) have a firm understanding of the play occurring at the table.

Limited by imagination, remember? Feed the imagination.

I have an extensive collection of old TSR adventure modules, but relatively few from the post-Gygax days. The few I do have are extremely hit-or-miss (and generally more "miss" than hit). The 2E Return to White Plume Mountain has some good pieces that help illustrate the certain unusual monsters that might otherwise be hard to conceptualize. But 2E's Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is extremely poor in this regard, providing almost nothing (save a good external view of the Keep) and even screwing up the illo of the minotaur lair (showing a chamber of three doors where no such place exists on the map). But the earlier 1E stuff, whether American or done in the UK, all do a good job of communicating concepts pertinent to the adventure scenario they present. Some of the UK stuff (UK1-3 and B10) is especially good at depicting tricky locations, events, and NPC characters with their art, illustrating fortresses and half-orcs and medieval towns in a way that really helps strengthen the imagination. 

There just my be a lot LESS of this in current adventure publications. And that is, I think, to be expected when so many of the adventures being published these days are being put together by poor independent shmucks (like me) scrambling to find any clipart to fill white space, rather than big companies with staff artists (like TSR, back in the day). 

Perhaps the big 5E campaign books WotC regularly publishes are better in this regard (I haven't purchased/read any of them, so I can't say), as they clearly have the resources to staff or outsource artwork of a higher quality and have actual real art direction. Then again, I do have a copy of Dragon of Icespire Peak (for 5E) and there are no images that spring to mind when I try to recollect. 

[hold on a moment...]

Okay, With the exception of an illo of a couple adventurers looking over a hill at Phandelvin, there's really no art portraying adventurers doing adventuring stuff in the book. There are full color illustrations of the monsters and major NPCs that will be encountered (good stuff that)...but I'm not sure DoIP expects much more than "PCs go to location/PCs kill monsters/PCs return to town." Yay? Is that a "win" for WotC's art department?

I mean, even the Dragonlance art showed PCs getting killed sometimes.

Yes, the "boobplate" is terrible. But
look! Dead adventurer!
It's like D&D or something!

The point of all this being: this stuff, this artwork (high quality or not) matters for how we conceptualize the game...and being a fantasy game, the ability to conceptualize is a key component to playing the thing. Just what that artwork illustrates serves to build our imaginations and inform our expectations of play.

Yes...we all have lots and lots of media to help give us an idea of what "fantasy adventure" means. We've seen Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and tons of other media: comics and cartoons and instagram extravaganzas. But those images alone don't inform what the (D&D) game is. The D&D game is its own thing. Its rules provide for a certain type of play. And while I may be snarky about what 5E does or does not do, the fact is I have no interest or concern for "5E game play." I play AD&D (and, before that, B/X). And, hey, there are other people who are still playing these old editions.  And people writing adventure modules for these old editions. And people buying and reading and running these adventure modules for old editions.

And so it matters whether or not the artwork ("a picture being worth a thousand words") helps describe the game play of these old editions. Because they're not really "old" if they're currently being played. Hell, they're not even out-of-print anymore (pick up your POD copies of AD&D core from DriveThru right now!). So the discussion is actually pertinent to games currently being played.

And THAT, I suppose, is my final takeaway from this week's "adventure" down beautifully rendered byways of art and illustration. Art is something that I need to attend to (in my own design and publication)...something helpful and important for showing players how the game is meant to unfold, not simply an expected bit of decoration. 

Man, am I glad I commissioned a lot of mutating PC illos for my Comes Chaos book!
: )


  1. After reading your original post, I did flip through the 5e books. I agree that the PHB has zero images of "PC peril", unless you count the humorous pencil sketches illustrating the various conditions like paralyzed, charmed, grappled, etc. In general, 5e prefers to show players images of "adventure", either visuals of exciting locations, or of heroic battles where the PCs are either clearly winning or at making a heroic stand.

    The DMG is slightly edgier, I thought. There are a few illustrations of PCs "in a pickle" and a few showing impending doom, like the medusa one you mention. (In 5e, if you fail your saving throw by 5 or more, you turn to stone instantly, but if you only fail by 4 or less you get one extra turn where you are turning to stone and can't move, and then you get one more chance at the saving throw.)

    The MM doesn't have too many images of monsters and PCs interacting, but there are a few, and the PCs are always majorly screwed in those pictures (I would classify them as either "helpless" or "kill shot").

    Interestingly, the later 5e monster books Volo's Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes are quite a bit more free with images of dead or helpless PC types. There are quite a few images of humanoids about to be sacrificed or engulfed, or dead on the ground. I think it validates the idea that WotC doesn't want to "scare away" prospective players with unpleasant imagery in the PHB, while the DM-facing material gets a fair bit grittier.

    1. @ Jesse:

      I agree that IS interesting stuff, especially regarding the 5E MM. I did not bother to look through it, assuming that (as with 2E and 3E) it’s illustrations would be used simply as portraiture of creatures.

      Are Volo and MToF considered “core” books of 5E?

    2. Yes, the MM is mostly just portraits of monsters, but there are a few that include victims. The shambling mound has a halfling engulfed within it, and the shadow has someone in a chokehold.

      Well, I suspect only the 3 main books are officially "core" for organized play events, but I don't know too much about that. These two books are sort of like a MM2. Half the book is a bestiary and the other half is deep dives into lore for a handful of creature types (e.g., beholders, hags, mind flayers, elves/drow, dwarves/duergar, gith, etc.).

  2. Clearly, the D&D nannies are hard at work ensuring that little children who buy the game (and especially their parents) don't see anything that might be upsetting. Mustn't upset the little ones.

    I feel compelled to point out that my logo for those youtube podcasts and the present wiki I have features a dead man with a sword in his back. Glad I'm maintaining a certain standard (without realizing it WAS a standard).

    Good research, JB, on these recent posts.

    1. @ Alexis:

      Thanks. The whole topic opened quite a can of worms for me as I delved into the whole "what-makes-the-imagination-work" thing. I'd like to do more reading on the subject...fascinating stuff. And, you know, pertinent.

    2. Well then ... one of the leading experts in the world on imagination is Tania Zittoun, fellow at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. Most of her books relate to learning and imagination; here's one online:

      The Handbook of Imagination and Culture. Not a light read; cutting edge psychology on how imagination drives us as people. I've dug through it; fantastic stuff.

    3. I’ll check it out. Thanks for the link!
      : )

  3. That's very interesting, considering my reaction to 5e art of late has been that it's very much like concept art images for movies and video games. Especially the stuff in the modules. Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the most recent one I have (from '19) and its full of little vignettes of stormy seas, creepy dead trees, and little hamlets with every window lit up from within, or Cuesteau-esque underwater scenes. There's a two-page footer of a sahuagin attack that's done in a very sketchy digital style.

    There is a picture of a PC falling into a pit-trap, and a few where PCs have "oh fuck" looks on their faces, inviting the DM to ambush the PCs, but nothing that shows any real peril by your definition. Very interesting.

    1. Just to be clear: I would like more EVIDENCE to show the peril is REAL. That, for me, is what the latter day art is failing to communicate.

    2. Yeah, that's not here. Even the pit-trap thing doesn't imply death or anything terribly bad, which is why it wouldn't count on your definition: no actual dead PCs, or PC types getting owned by monsters. But WAR's heroic and comic-bookish wall-o'-action is gone as well. It's much more setting-the-scene mood pieces than anything else.

  4. I hadn't thought of fantasy illustrations with humanoids in peril, but you're right... they're a dying breed.

    Also, boobplate is awesome!

    1. Unless you’re the one wearing it.

    2. Speaking personally, I'd prefer not to wear any armor. But if that was my only protection, I'd wear whatever fit my chest... and looked good.

  5. The 5e DMG has a permanent wounds table, so you can easily roll up blindness, severed limbs, etc. It does not specify under what circumstances the table should be rolled on, but it mentions both zero HP and critical hits as a possibility.

    I used it for a small campaign where we rolled once on the table if a character went to zero HP, and rolled twice (taking the less brutal result) if a character took a critical hit. It worked very well, and I would use it for any 5e game in the future. (Though I'm disillusioned with the system for other reasons)

    Sorry for being off topic but I couldn't resist white-knighting for WotC!

    1. Who am I to fault white knights?

      Honestly, that sounds pretty good (I've only read 5E once-ish). It would have been helpful in the original AD&D DMG to have such a table, but the permanent damage rule for dropping below -5 hit points is an "optional" rule.