Interior Art

Interior Art

Isn’t interior art weird? No seriously: other than the cover and maybe character sheets, players of traditionally structured RPGs just have no reason at all to go looking through a rulebook. All that art, all that very expensive art, has an audience of 1.5: the owner who is 99% of the time also the facilitator, and a half-vote for the collector/reader for whom buying and browsing is the entirety of the exercise.

So today’s thesis: 90% of interior art is terrible. Often beautiful and misleading in equal parts. It’s almost worse that it’s often so beautiful.

Gosh I’d love to see a breakdown sometime of budget spends on interior art. I know when I was writing for Target Games, they were spending like 10-15x on art than what they were spending on me. And my stuff was on literally every page. Maybe this is writer damage but the but they’re just wooords resentments have a long and deep history.

So back to the interior art question! It’s not only weird because the audience is everyone except the players, but it’s extra-weird when it becomes the art’s job to convey information to the GM. Like uh… Coriolis, right? It has this Arabian Nights-in-Space type aesthetic but it’s nearly impossible to express that in words. There are some words about it. But seeing a souk filled with space-people is great, just great.

I was never a huge fan of the Tim Bradstreet work in the Vampire and other WoD games. Such beautiful work. So totally shallow. If I looked at nothing but the Bradstreet, I’d assume the game was about goth fashion, striking poses, looking awesome. Those things are all great! But they also directly contradict the words themselves telling us that this is a storytelling game about personal horror. Not once piece comes to mind, in all my years of being a yuuuge WoD fanperson, where my understanding of the game, the world, or its themes were expanded by looking at the art.

The same could definitely be said for the breathtaking, gorgeous work of Paul Bonner in the various Mutant Chronicles books: you can’t help but get pumped looking at the art. Not once will you ever understand that Mutant Chronicles was a moody noir game of hidden evil and caricatured corporate excess. No wonder nobody really ran the game that way.

I guess I don’t really have a favorite. The interior work for Undying is pretty great: very little pose-striking, lots of gross predators being gross. Apocalypse World’s art is mood setting but it also walks right up to the Bradstreet line (although in fairness “being cool” is more explicitly part of AW’s stated brief). Dungeons and Dragons has probably created the biggest collection of interior art, yeah? Mostly it’s aspirational — like the cover of the Red Box — where ain’t no way your level 3 fighter is taking a swing at a red dragon. Mood-setting and quite misleading. Not sure who’d play the game where a housecat takes out a young wizard out on her first adventure.

Attached: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Pollice Verso, one of my all time favorite pieces of art-as-storytelling and I just happened to get to see it in person at the Phoenix Art Museum this weekend.

#rpgaday #rpgaday2017

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0 thoughts on “Interior Art”

  1. I hear you on the relative differences in pay between RPG writers and artists. I wish that RPG writers were paid more (and I support paying more for RPG books to make that happen), but when the right artist and the right image blast one thousand words directly into your visual cortex, that’s hard to beat. The trick is to make sure that they’re the correct words. 😉

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention Space Wurm. I’ve only every seen a short video of the books interior, but it definitely blew my hair back. Very few, if any, mentions of Rifts. Rifts art made a virtue of functionality, but it did a good job of showing you what to aim for. It wouldn’t be my answer for this question (that’s probably Mouse Guard), but it’s worth mentioning.

  2. Also, writers v. Artist time investment. How long did it take you to fill that page? How long did it take the artist?

    Also, as someone who has published games with very, very little art, I would point out that art sells games better than text. It is so much faster and more browsable. And I mean “sells” in both the sense of “gets someone to purchase a copy” and “gets people willing and excited to actually play it.” Games that don’t sell themselves don’t get played.

    Also, about game text presenting one thing and art presenting something else: that’s marketing, too. “Big” games, especially, need to appeal to a lot of different buyers for a lot of different reasons in order to support themselves. Vampire was so successful, in part, because it could appeal to your desire for a game of personal horror, and someone else’s Love of Bradstreet’s posting goths, and someone else’s hunger to be a powerful supernatural force, and so on.

  3. Mark Delsing not that I can remember. But I’ve probably forgotten more gaming than many people have ever had. So maybe! I’ll keep thinking about it.

  4. Just gonna comment here because I don’t care to make my own thread on interior art, but Dylan Meconis’s art for the Narrattiva edition of Dogs in the Vineyard (Cani nella Vigna, that is) completely restructured my understanding of interior art. She shows her comics artist chops, and every piece contains a story, and often action, and shows you not “who you might be” but “what you might do”.

    Here, have some links: flickr.com – Dogs in the Vineyard

  5. This is interesting. A few other thoughts on this:

    1. Maybe it doesn’t matter too much if players see very little interior art if, as I suspect, GMs are overwhelmingly likely to be the ones actually paying for books. Maybe it’s enough to impress and inspire the ones who are the bulk of the paying audience.

    2. Interior art does double duty by improving production values of the product itself and also providing eye catching visuals for traditional and viral marketing (for ads, Kickstarter promotion, store displays, preview images in reviews and on Drivethrurpg, and stuff passed around online—right next to this post in my G+ feed is another post of someone going “check out the interior art from this cool new game”).

    3. You are totally right that really evocative art that mismatches the feel of the rules can overpower how the game is played. I’m pretty sure I ran In Nomine differently when all I had was the colorful, cartoonish rules versus the moodier, black and white books. That’s actually why I like reading people’s responses to the question of which book’s art really feels right.

    4. I feel like the communication value of visuals applies to design and typesetting even more so than to illustration style, mostly because so many games are so terribly laid out and typeset. That is the main thing that leads to be NOT buy many RPGs that otherwise catch my eye. It’s literally the only thing stopping me from buying a certain sci-fi game supplement with an excellent color illustration on the cover. But maybe that says more about me than about visuals.

  6. With settings like Tekumel and Glorantha, the art is pedagogy about both material culture and what might happen in that world. With Everway, the art is part of how you make characters in a very storygamey way. So I think there are a few examples where the art matters a lot for being in the world and story.

    With Coriolis, I agree that the art is good and really helps suggest a setting in a way that the iffy translation can’t quite do, but it also irritates, since everything the art does right is a borrowing from Gerome and the other Orientalists, who did it so much better – and actual Islamic art and culture is so much more interesting than we get in the game.

  7. The only examples I can think of where interior art has given me bone-deep on-theme heebie jeebies is Werewolf, especially Book of the Weaver in Apocalypse.

  8. I have many memories of going back to a roleplaying book just to look at the art. That’s not to say that some of it in some games isn’t terrible and/or incongruous from the rest of the game or art direction. And in that latter case, the art works against the game, and certainly counters the idea of art as inspiration for play (which it normally does for me).

  9. What do you think of fiction in your rulebook Paul Beakley?

    I feel as though it’s offering something similar to art, mood setting and a source of inspiration. And I know there’s a bunch of designers on the plus who despise it.

  10. Timothy Stanbrough the good examples are so rare, but when it’s good fiction then, yeah. But mostly it’s just bad.

    The standout good example that comes to mind is, like, half of The Clay That Woke.

  11. Hmmm I often times make my choice to purchase based on art. If I’m on the fence, artwork pushes me over it.

    Especially if its good artwork that fits the game, I also sometimes purchase just to see other artists work in a product they have been hyping. Then give them gratz online for a job well done.

  12. I haven’t seen it mentioned and I may be opening myself up to lambasting but….it seems to me that visual art works for major empowerment fantasy games more then other styles games. The more thinking games hook me on premise and I don’t need art but seeing the cover art for say feng shui sure makes me want to drop kick someone off a building.

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