Friday, May 1, 2020

The Transformative Power of RPG Manual Art

After spending a fair amount of time discussing art in two contexts, the value that Art adds to Death is the New Pink and in discussing the Art of Ross McConnell on 2-Minute Tabletop,  it occurs to me that there is a dialectic to be made about the artwork in role-playing game manuals and I think the people of the OSR and DIY role-playing communities are in a particularly good position to explore.

More Than Just Pictures

The Artwork in role playing game manuals is - or at least ought to be - significantly more than pictures to fill in blank spaces or maps. It serves a broad range of functions, some of the easiest of these to identify include:
  • Positioning the game within an aesthetic space. (I.e.: anime-inspired, visdo-gameish, DIY, Punk, Old-school, pulpy, dark.)
  • Displaying attention to detail and production quality.
  • Convey information about setting or chatacters.
  • Provide visual aids to assist gameplay.
  • Drawing fans of a particular artist to creations.
  • Creating a shorthand for recommended play style.

These are just surface-level functions of the Art. On deeper analysis, we can see even more complex functions and cultural impulses at play.

RPG Manual as Artifact

It helps to consider a role-playing manual as more than a book of rules for a game. The Player's Handbook attempts to convey exponentially more than the rules for Monopoly or Risk.

The function of a role-playing game manual is to provide a framework for structured play in which what Luka Rejec terms role play time is possible. Role play time is an altered state and culturally liminal space where people are free to become other characters in order to explore themselves, humanity, and morality. Where they can escape, become someone else, experience transformation, explore new perspectives, or find Catharsis. Game's don't create role play time, most don't even give useful suggestions on how to role play or make people comfortable doing so. RPGs only help to create a frame that makes it easier to attain.

Praying Knight image by
Marco Santiago.
Downloaded from Pixabay
The manual, and through it, the game has to convey moral and emotional parameters for role play time. It does this by suggesting a mood, scenarios, tapping into clusters of ideas and values ("meme-plexi") with its words, scenarios, language choice, and art.

If I choose, for example, to make Chivalry, Honour, and Piety major themes of a role playing game or scenario, those are words I want to emphasize, and they bring with them further ideas, like Medieval Feudalism, Battle, Heroism, Christianity (or a reasonable analogue, etc.)  And while I can convey them in words, it can be costly in terms of space and created attention. The same meme-plexi can be engaged with a picture of a Pious Knight much more easily, and effectively.

A role-playing manual is not just a medium for conveying rules, it is a tool for conveying ideas and values to create a frame for play. It is an Artifact: it's layout, design, and art all deliver a massive amount of information  and ideas about the culture of gaming the system wishes to put forward. Art tends to be one of the most high-bandwidth methods of delivering this data.

The process of reading a manual and absorbing its artwork is similar to the process of exploring and learning a new culture and trying on its ideas through a museum or public celebration.

The Culture of Role Playing Game (Visual) Art

Role playing games have a complex relationship to both drawn and painted pulp art and and the art of miniatures, modelling, and papercraft. As the hobby has expanded, a push for the quality in design and complexity in both arts has been constant.

Older editions of D&D featured simple comic-book inspired art, designed to evoke action. Because of the limitations of budget, printing techniques, etc., black and white line drawings were the core medium of the visual art of RPGs manuals. Covers often were bright, simple artwork inspired by the pulp novel cover art of the 1950s.

As glossy colour pages and highly refined printing became available, the style moved towards a mix of Fantasy Realism and intricate designs that owe more to manga than Western comics. Much less of this art depicts action, favouring portraiture or diagrams.

Consider the comparative designs of the Mind Flayer in an early Erol Otus image and the latest Monster Manual image by "Conceptopolis" (click to enlarge).

"Druid Casts Insect Swarm on Illithid"
From The Rogues Gallery
By Erol Otus ©1980 TSR

"Mind Flayer" by Conceptopolis
From The Monster Manual (5e)
©2015 Wizards of the Coast

Both of these works represent the same monster, but come from very diffetent eras with different design aesthetics driving them. The work by Otus is action oriented, suggesting a style of play that is likewise aimed at action. The figures are not highly detailed, leaving the players to fill in the crest with their own imagination.  Neither character is particularly exaggerated, in fact most art of the time made adventurers and monsters look average, or even frail, to accentuate danger. This reflected well the highly fast and lethal way combat worked in game at that time. The negative-space heavy design and black-and-white art is as much informed by printing constraints as style.

The later art by Conceptopolis depicts the Mind Flayer alone and posed. It is more interested in offering a figure that evokes a mood of foreboding that can be mentally lifted up and inserted into a backdrop. Narrative and to be are accentuated. The figure wears stylized (impractical) body armour that suggests readiness for combat - a for rough and ready adventurers are meant to fight. As in manga, a cool, stylized look, rather than a realistic design to the armour subtly puts style and narrative ahead of practicality. Combat here, as in the manga that informs the design, is meant to be complex and cinematic, not deadly to the players. The rich colour palette is only possible because of modern print techniques.

To a degree, the latter is also as colourful and detailed as it is because the players are prosperous enough, and dedicated to the hobby enough to be able to afford and willing to pay for a $180 set of ornately printed glossy colour manuals, and $60 sourcebooks. The budget for- and engagement in- the hobby would not have allowed D&D manuals to go to more elaborate printing methods that were available in 1980. Players of D&D generally were not willing  or able to pay more than $24 for a core book or $18 for a sourcebook.

(The shift in size of player bad and demographics is also a major factor.)

Tthe complexity of the Artwork in mainstream published role-playing manuals has advanced significantly,  and has created, with it, it's own complex culture with sets of preferences, preferred artists, etc., which are part of what differentiates many modern role-playing subcultures and aesthetics such as Punk RPGs, OSR, The Storygame Movement, etc. RPG Art has become a language with its own semiotic values understood by the gaming community.

In the early days of the RPG hobby the evolution of the art as budgets increased and technology became more affordable, there tended to be a conflation between the complexity of technique and quality of Art. The Art in later editions of D&D was considered better, because the techniques became more realistic, and printing techniques allowed for finer detail and more colour. This has dropped off as small press and digital markets have made art direction and choice towards more stylized work that is selected for congruence with the game's aesthetic and structural or narrative choices.

As an example, consider this seminal piece from the Core Rulebook to Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG:

"Wrong Weapon" by Jeff Easley (?),  ©2012 Goodman Games 

This piece is deliberately designed to imitate the action-heavy line art of older editions of D&D, but with a much more detailed technique and some greyscale shading.  It deliberately announces by its style that the game it was designed for (DCC RPG) is built to recreate  play elements and styles of the BD&D era. The fightened, physically average, under-equipped characters, like the characters from the art of Erol Otus, feel fragile, and make the action seem dangerous.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, like other OSR games deliberately tries to tap into older editions of D&D by imitating their style and semiotics. Something players literate in RPG-Art-as-laguage will instantly and unconsciously decode.

"Narrate Your Acton"
by Hankerin Furnale,
©2017 RUNEHAMMER Games
By contrast, this work from Index Card RPG Core 2e, uses a modern cartoon style that takes no advantage at all of either the digital medium or modern printing conveniences. It favours simple, high-energy art that proudly advertises it as a product of the online DIY Role-Playing Game community. It expresses that the Art and text were created together, by a single creator on a shoestring budget to allow maximum creative freedom to him... and, by extension, the players and Game Master using the product.

Comics, Pulp Art, Video Games, Toys... The Geek Art Cycle

Role Playing Game Art is a part of a larger ecosystem of what I would term Geek Art.

The original Artwork of D&D was inspired by (and anecdotally, in some cases traced from and then edited,) comic book art, while its covers derived from the pulp novel covers of the 1950s through 1970s.

"Glitter Boy" by Kevin Long from RIFTS
 ©1990 Palladium Games
As RPGs evolved, other art styles also heavily influenced the Art direction of RPGs. For example, the first wave of fan-subbed anime to hit the underground media scene in the mid-80s had a huge effect on RPG art, especially through the East-West hybrid work of Kevin Long in Palladium Games' Robotech and RIFTS lines.

As games cross-pollinated, and certain artists, like Kevin Long and Larry Elmore became in-hobby celebrities in their own right, RPG game Art became a very unique sub-genre of pulp art. By the 1990s RPG Art became a breeding ground for new styles, designs, and conventions, that inspired many if the budding artists of Generation X in other fields of the Visual Ats (As RPGs did authors and musicians in other ways.)

It helped that some RPGs, like the work of Palladium, directly tied into popular media of the time, while other RPGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade were expanding into television and video games.

Role playing game design has had an  undeniable effect on the design of Western fantasy art, anime, video games, comics, book covers, etc. Any place where visual design intersects with "geek" culture, visual design has come to resemble RPG Art.

As RPGs have changed the way other, media have been visually presented, those other forms and milieu have had a chance to cross-pollinate and bring in New influences as well. The tropes that have evolved in these other media have then returned to RPGs. Role-Playing Game Art is part of an evolutionary cycle. It often serves as a crucible for the fusion and development of new Art Tropes.

Below is a demonstration of a style of character dress that has been repeated frequently in RPG Art comics, and video games shown across several iterations as Geek Art took in New influences.
"Nebin, Illusionist"
by Scott Fischer  ©2000 Wizards of the Coast

From The Advanced Player's Guide By Wayne A. Reynolds ©2007 Paizo

From the video game Torchlight
 ©2009 Runic Games

Creating a Cohesive Experience

As I said in my recent review of Death is the New Pink, Art can help in creating a broader experience. When the aesthetics of the art, the style of the writing, the presentation of the manual, and the engine are all in alignment, the game becomes both more inspiring to read, and more immersive to play.

Death is the New Pink is a post-apocalyptic adventure RPG that takes its inspiration from material like Tank Girl, Borderlands, and Mad Max. The manual is written in a rough, slang-heavy style, the Art feels like graffiti, the images are heavy on action, and the manual's overall feel is reminiscent of a 90s punk culture Zine. Together with a fast, ultra-light, and very lethal engine, the game creates an experience that fits together extremely well. Everything works together to make a singular experience.

Dual Wield" by Jeremy Duncan from Death is the New Pink, © 2017 DIY RPG Productions

The right choice of engine, Art, layout, and language together can make a far more enjoyable game. When one of these doesn't fit, it makes the game overall less enjoyable to learn and to play.

Enabling Absorption

Art has a mind-altering effect that is easily missed or ignored when talking about game design.  When we take time to appreciate art congruent to our current goals or thought processes clears our mind. It gives us a prompt that engages different cognitive processes.

Consider all of the times you have tried to understand a game mechanic, and processed it by looking at an accompanying art to try to visualize an encounter in process. At the end, you likely had a better jntuitive feel for the mechanic. The art had no actual way of fully illustrating the interaction of dice, narrative, etc. What it did do is allow you to process your thoughts differently.

It is my contention that Art serves a study aid for learning a given game. The more apropos the art, the easier it is to learn, use, and to develop content for. I believe that this is where, however, we need to put more effort into investigating.

OSR and The Science of Organization Layout

Role playing games can be difficult to learn, especially when presented in a disorganized fashion. When RPGs first emerged as a hobby, they were often presented piecemeal in war gaming magazines, then cobbled together later.  Ideas such as creating unified game mechanics, indexing them, etc., only came in as the hobby evolved.

(As a prime example, Dungeons and Dragons originally had no overland travel mechanics. The DMG recommended the group buy and play third-party game, Wilderness Exploration, to simulate outdoor adventuring.)

In the past ten years, a totally new has happened mostly in the DIY RPG community, and in particular the OSR community: ease of readbility, concise presentation, careful organization of information, and scientifically designed book layouts have become a major focus.

With the explosion of retroclones that all derive their basic framework off of pre-existing rules, there has been a race to see who can present these rules in the most useful and enjoyable format possible. Many modern OSR retroclonrs are a genuine pleasure to read.

A prime example is B/X Essentials, or its newer iteration Old-School Essentials by Gavin Norman over at Necrotic Gnome Games. These books are mechanically identical to the Moldvay Basic and Expert, but they present the rules in a fraction of the space, are easy to navigate, and far better indexed than D&D ever was.

This refined layout and organization occasionally comes at a cost, however. OSR products, especially low-budget DIY projects, often sacrifice the Art, preferring to cram as much data as they can into their pages. Art is dismissed as a frippery or wasted space... or unobtainable for a creator who does not feel their own artistic talents are insufficient.

In the process, I suspect these OSR games miss a great deal of potential for creating an immersive experience,  making their games easier to absorb, and building more context for role play time with their game.

This is conjecture, of course, but I have a thought experiment to put forward on how we might get a clear picture of what Art really does for a game. I call it "The Knave Experiment," after Ben Milton's excellent OSR game, Knave.

The Knave Experiment

This experiment could be carried out with almost any OSR GAME, but Knave seems uniquely suited for several reasons:

  • It is lightweight. Anyone participating in the experiment is not going to be required to absorb a Pathfinder-sized game.
  • The game is based on familiar D&D mechanics.
  • The existing manual is seven pages long.
  • The game is extremely efficiently organized and easy to read. 
  • It is an Open Culture project.
  • It has no established setting, but includes the same mix of 14th century technology and earlier European anachronisms as D&D.

In its current format, Knave is seven pages. Converted to a digest sized book and arranged to use fewer columns, a larger font, but keeping discrete information on facing pages, a book of about 24 pages could easily be created with minimal changes to content.

I would (if I had either the budget or the volunteer artists,) create three additional versions of Knave.

Scurvy Knave

Would include OSR style line Art. Preferably commissioned and selected by a single Art and Layout Director. This ideally might be Ben Milton himself. Art would ideally be along a general theme and genre with some variation in style and tone. The Art would support the page's topic. For example, characters struggling with over loaded packs or deciding what to pack in their inventory  for the rules on item slots, a would-be mage covered in spellbook for the magic section, etc.

Wicked Knave

This version of Knave Would create a setting and metaplot that works well with the structure of Knave, such as a setting built around fantasy thieves, pirates, or tricksters. Likely with a light, humorous tone. I would make a few thematic mods, like a few changes to the spell and gear lists, and include an introductory adventure. Art congruent to the theme and unified in tone would be added. Usually, again, thematically tied to the rules on the page.

The Laughing Knave

This version would include art from a variety of styles from multiple genres. None of the art would in any way illustrate the rules in question except peripherally.

No major changes to Ben Milton's text would be made except where variations help support the theme in Wicked Knave.

I would then distribute the original Knave and its three variants, to gamers who are not familiar with OSR material. The gae would come with a questionnaire asking recipients to learn and play the game, then fill in a questionnaire in which theyvrated:

  • How easy it was to learn.
  • How easy it is to design content for Knave.
  • How easily players seemed to pick it up.
  • Interest in playing more Knave.
  • Feeling of engagement with the game.
  • Feeling of immersion when playing.

I believe that a significant positive effect would appear when art was included in the game to how players rate its accessibility and immersiveness, with "Wicked Knave" having the highest engagement.

The Character Portrait Trap

As I have become more interested in the OSR and DIY RPGs, I have noticed a trend in both some indie and quite a few of the larger mainstream games. That is to allow still portraiture, stills of items, and empty landscapes to replace most other art.

With indie publications, I have seen a several games that include nothing but still, context-free portraits and empty landscapes.

This is a lost opportunity.  Art that has no tension, action, or sense of hazard fails to give fodder for encounter design or inspire imagination. Characters, even in exotic costumes don't create a sense of culture the way a simple picture of them visiting a court or marketplace does. A planscape offers no sense of doom or wonder if we don't get a sense of scale or purpose.

An illustration of a heroically-posed warrior tells us much less about the combat mechanics than a picture of a warrior sundering his enemy's shield. I would rather a picture showing me what a monster does vs. What it looks like.

"Black Pudding" by Michael Jaecks
From the Pathfinder Bestiary © 2009 Paizo

"Black Pudding" (uncredited),
from the 5e Monster Manual
© 2015 Wizards of the Coast 

Art and Politics

In the past decade, RPG Manual Art has become politically charged as theories of inclusion and gender have penetrated the role-playing community. Certainly, there is no doubt that a lot of art in mainstream games are selected to either reach out to more potential players, or signal virtue - depending on your perspective (and the company's attitude.)

For good or for ill, art in RPGs has become a means for companies to signal their political affiliations, or abstention therefrom.

As someone deeply interested in Art, I would rather see designers focus on the integrity of their vision, and for inclusiveness to be a byproduct of a particular game or settings design than a checkmark to acquire, even when it must be forced. The Market has room for visions that are both diverse and specific, and rewards Virtue. Art is not possible when an Artist fears reprisal for their creative choices.

Special thanks to One Square Inch for their painstaking work in "Cataloguing the Art in the Monster Manual" for making sure I could properly credit the Monster Manual's art.

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