2019-05-15 The purpose of art in a RPG product

Recently, Richard G wrote a few words about Silent Titans on Lasagna Social, saying that it looks really good, and also remarking on the “obscurity and circularity of reference” as it refers to Bastion of Electric Bastionland or Into the Odd, as it used to be known.

I left a comment saying that I had had the same thoughts: visuals (superficially), the references to other products, and I added: “Rolled my eyes a bit. 🙄”

Paolo Greco then asked me about the eye rolling and I felt that he deserved a longer answer. The comment turned out to be long enough that I ended feeling it deserved a page on this blog. So there you go. 😃

It wasn’t a strong feeling I had, just a heh and one eye roll, I guess. Somebody writes a game using the rules somebody else has published, go buy those, or the free older edition, and here’s an interview I did with them, and I read it, too, but at the same time I sighed a bit and couldn’t decide whether this was people patting each other on the back for a job well done inside the very product this well done job had produced, or an instance of one hand washing the other, as we say in German, so anyway, I asked myself: what is this? Is this an ad? Is this a cooperation? And I felt that as an editor, I would have cut it.

As for the art, I’ll start with me really liking the map in A Red and Pleasant Land, the squares, the inking, the slight abstraction away from fantasy realism we’ve seen in D&D, away from the retro line art we’ve seen in the OSR, something new, colourful, somehow familiar and yet unknowable. I guess I’m not an art critic and fear I lack the words and the sensitivities but anyway, Maze of the Blue Medusa went a bit further in this direction, more abstract, less something I can just show players and say “you see this!” and more something that conveys a mood, a mental confusion, a state that is perhaps a bit like the altered state of the mystical underworld, I guess the Medusa dungeon in Vornheim was a bit like that, and I didn’t even look too much at Frostbitten & Mutilated, so then I leafed through Silent Titans and felt that it was even more abstract, even less usable, less showable, nothing I could look at and interpret as a map, or an image of a creature, or a location, but a jumble of things that provide an emotional reaction, a jumble of something, a weirdness, and I don’t deny that it fascinates me, but at the same time it’s also a bit in that line of art I like less, that I find less useful for a product that I don’t just buy to be entertained but to aid me at the table, to be useful in a very specific way.

So perhaps then the question is this: what is the purpose of art in an RPG product? It’s about pleasing the buyer, the reader. I have bought something beautiful, they say. And Silent Titans delivers. But I sort of dread the moment at the table. Is this something I can run at the table, as is? And I roll my eyes, a tiny little bit.

I guess this is all also in the context of an early post I had written on Diaspora: as I’m trying to read Silent Titans every now and then, I sigh as I realize that my brain is probably too puny and my imagination too boring for this. Feeling overwhelmed and unsure whether I can make use of this at the table.

What OSR PRG product have you actually used and liked using at the table? Even Stonehell has a lot of text for my taste. I guess Castle of the Mad Arch Mage worked pretty well for more than fifty sessions.

I should write more of my own instead of complaining, hah! 😅

I am reminded of advice I recently gave somebody, regarding adventures for newbies:

“I would write my own, I think.

That’s because I think finding a scenario and preparing a scenario takes time in which you could have written your own. And having written your own, you will never fear getting it wrong.

Even the One Page Dungeon Contest submissions are too much to read through. You’ll get lost wondering whether this or that fits your aesthetics better, whether this or that plays better with the table, whether this or that offers something your players might enjoy. And all this uncertainty about picking an adventure tells me that you already know all the things you need.

Trust me on this: writing up something simple for a night is quicker than finding and reading and prepping anything else and you’ll feel better at the table, too.”



I love the art in RPG books but I hate that it’s only really seen by the DM. I buy more PDFs than physical books so art often gets in the way rather than enhances my experience while playing, but it’s nice for theme while reading away from the table.

Tom 2019-05-15 20:31 UTC

Yeah, I hate it when there are beautiful maps that nobody else ever sees.


  • entertainment for the reader
  • building enthusiasm before running the game (for the reader)
  • sometimes you can lift the book and turn it to the player so they can see it?
  • can work as a substitute to reading (just look for visual inspiration in a Paizo adventure path and ignore the sea of words)


  • Price
  • makes PDFs slow

And then there’s the drawbacks of having the wrong art:

  • confusing maps are confusing
  • watermarks make the text hard to read
  • busy maps make them hard to annotate (for the love of all that is good, bring back marginalia! we need more white space everywhere)

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-16 05:54 UTC

I just read a very interesting post about Silent Titans. A Literary Analysis of Silent Titans by Patrick Stuart on the Sheep and Sorcery blog.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-19 08:35 UTC

Another positive review: Silent Titans Actually Works.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-22 06:44 UTC

100% onboard with the “I’d rather spend an hour half-assedly prepping a dungeon than looking for the right existing one” sentiment.

I guess that’s why I’ve been designing all these procedural tools and worksheets and stuff.

Hey BTW, Alex, did you write about the aforementioned sentiment somewhere else recently or am I imagining it?

Eric Nieudan 2019-05-27 12:56 UTC

Hm, not sure, Eric. On Lasagna Social I posted some thoughts that ended up in blog posts but it was more abstract.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-27 18:09 UTC

Back in my Graphic Design class they pointed out (this is from rough memory) that most art in books serves two purposes (1) To clarify text visually (2) to act as a sort of bookmark to help find bits of information later.

So add those two to the benefits. These apply even if the art is horrifically ugly as long as it is clear (unlike the map mentioned above).

– Ruprecht 2019-06-04 18:59 UTC

Good points!

– Alex Schroeder 2019-06-04 19:04 UTC

I’m also reminded of my thoughts on Fight On! magazine and the old school I miss:

I like the spirit of doing it yourself. Making your own house rules. The sheer uncontrolled mass … makes me happy. … I like the part that is not related to products. I liked the part about Fight On! and the One Page Dungeon Contest that showed me other people doing similar stuff without shiny gloss and fancy art. – 2017-12-22 What I like about the Old School

– Alex Schroeder 2019-08-31 23:18 UTC

Excellent blog posts:

And an interesting Reddit thread.

Or maybe A Lot of RPG Books Are Too Expensive. Not because they are but because we’re optimizing for coffee table books, perhaps?

– Alex Schroeder 2019-08-31 23:53 UTC

Maze of The Blue Medusa Diss Track does what it says, talking about all the things wrong with it:

  • confusing maps where you see lots of other rooms making it hard to describe and at the same time nobody really cares; and fancy doors on the map that don’t appear in the description
  • rooms full of traps and little reward so soon enough players don’t care
  • prose that useless at the table
  • general propensity for neither actionable information nor gameable decision making
  • characters that players don’t want to interact with

– Alex Schroeder 2019-09-17 08:29 UTC

Patrick Stuart asks, What do you think of art in games?

My take: art in a role-playing game is good if it is illustrating things the referee needs to describe but practically useless if just setting the mood. Mood is important but why not both? Monster pictures have been great. Fancy maps with a ton of scenery to show to players have been great. If it cannot be shown to players that is a warning sign.

That’s why Stonehell is good: it needs maps, these maps are for the referee only, nothing needs to be shown to payers and so no other art pieces need to be there.

Conversely, that is why the art booklet for Castle of the Mad Archmage was useless. The pictures served no purpose. The scenery was simple to describe and the picture didn’t help, and the pictures weren’t not interesting enough for players.

Looking back I have been showing pictures from monster manuals to players since forever. The pictures from D&D 3+ and Pathfinder have been great. The maps in the Planescape books have been great.

If art is super simple and simply serves layout purposes, then that is fine, of course. But that is a very different thing. No need to commission a lot of art, though.

If art is used for marketing and product identity then that is also a different thing. This can also be achieved using other means, of course.

If you are the creator and you love artists drawing the stuff you’ve been thinking of, then that is a different thing, too.

I would have liked a few city scenes for Yoon Suin, and better pictures of snail people.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-09-17 09:09 UTC

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