How good are you at doing two things at once, both of which require concentration?

That’s what I thought! Few people are. And yet, we GMs often seem to expect our players to be able to do just that, and on a regular basis. We expect them to be able to take a verbal description of a scene or setting, integrate a mental image of the action that is taking place there, and still be able to concentrate on roleplaying elements like characterisation and dialogue – all while keeping an eye on the bigger picture that is composed of the significance of everything.

It’s a big job, and when you phrase it in the way that I have above, it seems remarkable that ANYONE can do it, let alone do it well. And that list of tasks completely ignores the factor of rules and game mechanics!

One of the secrets to being a successful GM is finding ways to make these tasks easier for the players, and there are a lot of techniques that can be employed to do so. This article is going to focus on just one of them, the use of illustrations.

Picture This


In practice, what happens? We describe the scene or setting, painting a picture in prose of the environment in which everything is taking place, with emphasis on both an overall perception and on any particularly important details. We then let most of that fade into the background and describe the participants and their actions – or simply name them and let them be faceless generic entities, if the description is not all that important. And then we let most of that fade into the background as well, and simply focus on the characterisation and dialogue and story elements of whatever is happening, bringing in key elements from the descriptions previously provided only when they become directly relevant.

How much simpler life becomes when we can point to an image that illustrates some or all of these items with no need for additional language. Even if the image isn’t quite right, and we have to verbally adjust it (The place looks like this [hold up picture] except that the light comes from oil lanterns suspended from the ceiling, and there are a lot of cobwebs in the rafters, and….) it spares the player a LOT of the work they would otherwise have to undertake just to keep up.

This not only gives the players a common foundation apon which to craft their mental images, it gives them a touchstone to continually refer back to in order to refresh that mental image.

A perfect sunset behind snow-capped purple mountains gives way to a sunny blue sky overhead, and thence to a star-filled night sky within which the moon shines forth full and bright. Rolling hills lead toward the mountains, lush and green; the more distant hills are covered in deep forest. Leading to the hills are a plain of rich grassland, populated here and there by scattered bushes, fields of flowers, and great trees standing in magnificent isolation. All this is visible between tall marble columns of impossible perfection, arranged in a circle around you; between each fluted column is a throne of magnificence, of varying materials, twelve of them. Seated in these thrones, forming a circle around you, are the twelve Gods.

To Illustrate or Not To Illustrate

There are a number of considerations that I take into account when deciding whether or not to craft an illustration of something for one of my games. The first is the importance of the information to be provided by the illustration; if words alone will do, those are what I’ll use. A good rule of thumb is how clearly I can picture the scene in my own mind. If I can’t see it clearly, at least at first, how on earth can I expect my players to do so?

The second is how much emotional impact I want to convey. It’s one thing to talk about an alternative earth in which the British Empire rules the western world and was the subject of the 9/11 attack; it’s quite another to actually combine a photograph of an attack and one of a British Icon like Big Ben to illustrate the attack in question.

The third is the time that I have available. Some images are quick and easy, taking anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of minutes to construct. Some involve nothing more than a Google search or a visit to Wikipedia. Others combine many elements and much design effort, and could take days or even weeks. That’s obviously a problem if I’m going to need it next saturday!

And, fourthly, I have to confess that part of the decision-making process is how much I want to actually create the illustration. Some appeal to me strongly; others, not so much.

“Early in my search for Asgard, my team and I found themselves on a tiny planetoid, not much more than 10 square miles in surface, which was strangely covered with curved lines and arcs. Where the lines intersected, pyramidal structures one meter high pointed skywards. There was no sun in the sky, but the planet itself glowed with sufficient light for us to see. With one exception, these were the only surface structures; otherwise, the planetoid was as smooth as a cue ball. It also had an intensely refractive atmosphere, bending light so much that the entire planetoid’s surface was visible – we could even see ourselves with a decent pair of field glasses, it was like being at the bottom of a mirrored bowl of infinite height.

It was that one exception that was the most interesting feature of the planetoid. A pentagonal spire of glowing black opal, it seemed to have been carved from a single gem some 600 feet tall. On closer inspection, it became apparrant that the material was actually some dark translucent material, and the coloured “veins”of the opal were actually runes in ancient Greek, and Latin, and Norse runes, and Sanskrit, and Egyptian Heiroglyphs, and a dozen other languages that I didn’t recognise at the time. On each facing of the spire was a steep staircase leading into the heart of the structure through an arched doorway. In the centre of the the single room was a raised golden bowl of water surrounded by trees growing straight out of the “opal” mineral.

I didn’t have time to translate the script because we weren’t alone. Everywhere the eye looked, there were war machines attacking one another. Some looked like tanks, some were vaguely insectoid, others were giant humanoids, some were spheres, or spiked cylanders, or, well, you name it! These were in the process of smashing, shooting, slicing, or crushing each other and using the resulting parts to repair themselves even while coming under attack on another side. There must have been hundreds of them! And, of course, they saw us as just another strange machine. Immediatly we arrived, one of the Tank-like machines began firing some sort of energy artillery at us, while another that looked like a self-powered mobile trebuchet, with a giant axe instead of a basket, charged us, and a giant humanoid with some sort of force blade 30′ long turned it’s attention from slashing at a machine that looked like a giant pile-driver with some sort of antigravity suspension, and began to lope in our direction…”

Choice Of Technique


Because I’m into graphic illustration, I’ve built up a number of techniques. The choice of which one is best is a big factor in the time element. Here’s a list of the techniques that I frequently employ, with a rough time-scale:

  • An existing image from the web: An obvious starting point. I’ve built up a reasonably large library of images that have been posted in various places. Some of them are public domain, many are not. I’m always careful about where and how I use the images that I collect – I would never use one I wasn’t sure of to illustrate a blog post here at Campaign Mastery for example – but using one to enhance a verbal description to friends with the intention that it never be publicly distributed is quite a different kettle of fish. How long this takes depends on how specific my requirements are. I’ve also gathered a lot of links to sites offering free clip art and public-domain/royalty-free photographs.
  • An slightly-edited image from the web: The obvious next step. I’m not the most accomplished digital artist on the web, but I’m not the worst, either. I’ve built up a comprehensive set of image-manipulation tools to facilitate it. Quite often, an image might not be quite right – but can be made close enough with a little cropping or perhaps some colour-shifting.
  • Rough Pencil image: This is the starting point for anything more substantial, and often the end-point as well. I keep a book of art paper and pencil handy and can knock up a rough sketch in anywhere from a couple of minutes through to about half-an-hour. These are usually less than half an A4 page in size – sometimes as small as a couple of inches across.
  • substantially-edited images from the web: sometimes, I find elements of what I want and have to stitch them together. Often, the image is fine but the background doesn’t suit the context. This can take 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
  • Detailed pencil sketch: This is often the best choice, especially if what I’ve found on the web in terms of graphic referance is too far removed from what I need. Sometimes I’ll attempt some other solution, but be forced back to this because time is running out. Again, this rarely takes more than a couple of hours.
  • Simple Original Computer Graphic: There are times when detail is less important than having something to show, but a pencil sketch is too messy. When that’s the case, I’ll often do something fairly quick and easy from scratch. There are also times when I can cheat; some games like Heroes Of Might & Magic II have level editors that can be used to craft an image, or part of an image, quickly and easily, to custom specifications.
  • Massively-edited images from the web: Every additional element that has to be incorporated into the finished image adds about 25% to the overall time required, as a rough rule of thumb. The image of the Flói Af Loft involved more than 25 different elements – martian surfaces and desert scenes and multiple layers of sand and grit, all using a different perspective, all colour-shifted in various ways – and took many hours to craft. But the scene was too evocative and important not to make that effort.
  • Inked image: Something more from my past, but I still drop back to this from time to time. It generally takes about twice as long to ink a pencil sketch as it did to draw the original.
  • Ink & Pencil: This is a technique that I’ve never seen anyone else use, in which grades of black and black-lead pencil are used to create texture and solidity within an inked image. It’s something that I started experimenting with in high school art. Doing this adds about 50% to the time it takes to complete the illustration.
  • Ink & Colour: This is also an original technique that I have developed through the years. I wanted to be able to replicate the look of a full-colour comic book but only had coloured pencils to use – which are not naturally prone to those sort of saturation levels and consistancy. The process that I developed uses a combination of black ink, texta colours, and coloured pencils that can be very effective – but also very time-consuming. The texta is not really visible, but lends depth and texture to the pencilled rendering – most noticeably in the hair. In fact, I developed the technique beyond what was in the comic books of the day to something approaching full-colour computer-based art rendering. A full-colour image like the one used to illustrate this section of the article takes six-to-ten times as long as a straightforward black-and-white image. One-to-three days per A4 page is pretty close.
  • Painting: I don’t often do it these days, but occasionally I’ll get out the watercolours or acrylic paints and produce a painting. This is often a last resort when other methods have failed and colour is important. A painting can take hours or even days. I’d love to do more of it, and especially to get into oil painting, but I simply don’t have the time or money.


So there are lots of techniques available to me. Some emphasise colour, others are monochrome or grayscale. Some are more illustrative, others more realistic. The choice depends on what is important in the image that I’m trying to depict, the time available, and to some extent, whether or not I can find what I need on the web.

Blair: The Copenhagen Hilton is the largest and best Hotel in the City, or so you were informed at the Airport after telling the customs & immigration agents where you were staying. Six stories tall – which makes it one of the tallest buildings you’ve seen in Copenhagen – 86 rooms, and highly luxurious. It perhaps says something about Doc Storm that this is the hotel that Doc has chose without even thinking about it.

Mike: But clearly, ‘luxurious’ means something different here in Copenhagen than it does elsewhere. By New York or London standards, this would rate no better than 3 to 3½ stars out of 5. It’s clean and it’s fairly new, having been built in 1924, about 9 years ago, but there isn’t much in the way of conspicuous extravagance.

Immediatly you enter the hotel, another difference between the Hilton and most luxury hotels becomes clear; the concierge is also the booking clerk. You immediatly sense that something unusual has happened; the concierge, standing behind the desk, has a newspaper opened in front of him and held at arms length, while all the other staff members in sight read it over his shoulder. They all seem to be visibly distressed by whatever it is that they are reading. There are no other guests in sight as you approach the desk.

The Most Valuable Illustrations


The illustrations that almost always end up being the most useful are the ones that I come up with on the day, on the fly, to clarify something that isn’t clear to the players. These are horrendously rough in appearance, produced in the shortest possible time-frame – usually between 5 and 60 seconds. They look absolutely horrible in terms of artistic merit – but they are invaluable as game aids.

Occasionally, when the game-play stalls for whatever reason, I will doodle up a quick representation of some fact or other that I don’t think the players are fully appreciating. There are times when these are worthless, meaningless scribbles that are immediatly ignored; sometimes they completely reorient the character’s perceptions, such as the time I did rough height-and-width boxes for the different PCs, showing their eyelines. Stick figures gave very basic anatomical information. When one of the players suddenly realised that their character’s waist was about as wide as another character’s thighs, and that their eyeline was at a third character’s naval, it changed the way that player thought about the other characters, and made them seem far more tangible.

But the illustrations that are the most valuable are the ones that permit the players to orient themselves within the world, and make it seem more tangible to them. No, your eyes aren’t decieving you: the mountain above really is red, with yellowish suphur-drifts where snow would be expected, and the trees on the lower slopes really are a dark blue in colour. It’s easy enough to describe such a setting, but it is so far outside the normal experience that actually seeing an image permits the characters to assimilate it far more readily.

The more alien the landscape, the more valuable these simple visual aids become, and the more easily the players can picture themselves, clad in the persona and trappings of their characters, in these locations.

Complex diagrams and relationships and maps that would have required long expositions by the GM can be synopsised, and used to explain to players what it is that their characters are seeing, rather than trying to paint a picture in words for them. Consider the image above, which displays corridors of wild magic surrounding dead magic zones – a phenomenon that the players have yet to understand. How many words would it take to describe the complex interplay of energies depicted in this illustration? As it happened, I left the image at home on the day, attempted a verbal description, and ended up having to create one of those rough-and-ready quick illustrations to try and explain it in terms the players could grasp. What should have taken only a few seconds to relate took close to half an hour – during which time, all the impact of what they were seeing was completely dissipated.

Only slightly less valuable are illustrations that permit players to put a face to their friends and enemies. The picture to the right depicts an enemy from my superhero game, a member of a McCarthies law-enforcement body called the SID, whose mandate was to seek out those guilty of Unamerican Activities. It was based on modern military attire, but the facelessness of the masks and the combination of silver and black leather and cloth is immediatly reminiscant of an SS uniform (even though it bears no resemblance to one in any detail) – the psychological impact of the design is intimidating.

Even if you lack the talent or expertise to be able to craft your own images, being able to create a digital collage from ‘found images’ may be within your grasp. To the left is a mashup of seven different images: the part of the cave in the background, the part in the foreground, the dragon, the elf in green, the priestess, the dwarf, and – in the left-hand foreground – a pile of skulls.

When an elf has the luxury, he makes his preperations [for death], bestowing his meagre worldly posessions, and then, in the company of friends, undertakes a pilgrimage to one of the Havens, the seaports from which the elven Andruril or “Holy Vessels” sail forth, carrying a dozen or more Yssidrial jouneying to Ammathamalia. The ships set sail apon the night of the full moon, at the moment when it is at its zenith, and sail toward the image of the setting moon, until, at the very moment it is swallowed by the horizon, they find themselves transported by the Andruril to “The Greatermost Sea”. From there, they follow a path which only the Andruil knows, guided soley by the forces of wind and wave, until the dawn breaks over the Blessed Isle after many days beneath the starry skies. There they join with those who have gone before, living a life of idyllic repose.

When Not To Illustrate


I am hardly the first GM in the world to discover the rich benefits of eye candy for their campaign. The problem is that too many GMs go too far, drowning their article in images – just as I have (quite deliberately) done in this article.

Learning when not to illustrate something might be an even more important lesson than learning how to illustrate one in the first place.

There are several situations, I have learned the hard way, in which it is better not to illustrate something:

  • When the illustration makes the fantastic look mundane: The human imagination has an unlimited special effects budget; no illustration can match it, and sometimes, making the fantastic accessable to your players can also trivialise and ‘mundanicise’ it. When you mix too many colours in paint, you end up with what my art teacher used to call “mud”, a nondescript brown that looks blah on everything. It’s the same with colour in an RPG sense – save the illustrations for when they really matter.
  • When the illustration would be confusing to the players: Almost as bad as ripping the sense of wonder and adventure from your campaign is turning it into an anarchic kalaidescope in which the players can never tell what matters. While there will be times when that is the situation confronting the characters, it should never reach the metagame level or confusion replaces fun for the players. And then empty chairs replace the players in the campaign.
  • When the illustration’s static nature interferes with its purpose: this one doesn’t come up very often, but there are times when it becomes all-important. The more dynamic a scene or setting is, the less successfully it can be easily rendered as a static illustration. There are ways around this; comic-book artists have been struggling with this problem for most of the last century, and traditional illustrators before that. Even so, there are occasions when this doesn’t work very well, for example “morphing” from one image to another. In general, when the action or transformation is more important than the fact of the illustration, trouble lies ahead. At most, show a before-and-after; anything more and it stops being about illustrating the campaign, and becomes an exercise in showing off your latest trick.
  • When the illustration would be distracting to the players: Unless you illustrate almost everything – and there are artists fast enough to do that – your players will interpret the effort as signifying importance, and pay close attention to whatever the subject of the illustration is. That brings with it the constant temptation to illustrate something mundane to get the players distracted, or to fail to illustrate something fantastic when you normally would do so; just so that the players don’t pay close attention to it prematurely. DON’T DO IT. Sure, it will work – but it will undermine the value of every illustration you produce for the campaign from that time forward. And that’s too high a price to pay.

Get the picture?


The ability to illustrate is one worth cultivating. Hopefully, this article has inspired you to start your own collections of eye candy for those moments when a picture can save you a thousand words – and let you invest some of that savings in other areas of description and narrative.

And, of course, there is always the other benefit of collecting eye candy: if all you have are inspiring images, then any random image can be the foundations of an idea when you really need one!

If you make each image worth a thousand words (or so), and only use one when the scene deserves a thousand words (or so), you won’t go far wrong – and will enhance your campaign more than anyone who hasn’t learnt the technique will believe. These days, you don’t even have to print the images – just save them on a memory stick or USB drive and any laptop can display them, zooming in to show finer detail. Every time you can get your players to “ooh” and “ahh” over something they have found, your campaign becomes both richer and more real.

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