Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Oddity that is Module Art

Cyclopeatron posted an illustration one of his players made for their Gamma World session. What's so cool about it is it looks good enough to be inside a module, but it wasn't pre-peplanned, or drawn solely for coolness or aesthetics, it was emergent, the way I like my oldschool adventure plots. This brings up something I've been pondering for a while now:

What is the purpose of module art?
Not cover art. I understand the importance of it; really, the one chance to convey to a possible customer the genre, tone, and content of your adventure. But usually you don't get to see interior art until you've already purchased the thing.

And not player handout art, which is fascinating in its own right, but much less common than the illustrations I'm talking about.

Also, it's not like you can show players the art, however cool, because it probably contains spoilers of some sort. And after the adventure you might show them something especially noteworthy, but chances are their adventure was more exciting than the illustrations in the book.

So interior module art has DMs as intended audience, right? But not to sell them on the module. Is it meant to help DMs imagine the location? The denizens of the dungeon? To set the tone of the piece?

Has there ever been an illustration in a module that was explanatory somehow? I mean, it would have been more difficult to run the adventure without it? I'm talking about aside from maps and cross-sections, obviously. Maybe a trap illustrated?

If you are an artist, what do you see as your goal for a bit of interior art? If you are a DM how do they affect the way you relate to a module?

As a thought experiment, we could imagine a continuum of Interior Art Quantity on a line. On one end, 0, would be no art (maybe not even maps), on the other end, 100 would be all art (a comic book dungeon!). Where would your preference lie?


  1. Interesting question, because really you could title this "The oddity that is modern editorial illustration, in general." I mean, no one understands an article in a magazine better because of the illustration (not a photo of the subject, not a chart). Modern illustration is sort of like the artist telling the accompanying text a second time, but from their point of view and with imagery in place of words.

    Module art is a little different in that it depicts (possible) scenes from the adventure, so it's a bit closer to classic illustration (the author said "gnomes" - so here is a picture of a gnome!). I'd actually love to see publishers break away from this a little and include some less literal work in all their RPG books.

    But as to the point, I think modern editorial art and module illustration have some things in common. They don't have to be there - in a way they're a decadence. You have to pay the artist, pay the extra print costs... it's little wonder the market for freelance illustrators looks something like the middle of WWI France these days.

    What they do, I think, is help the reader comprehend the text on a deeper level than they would otherwise, because like I said illustration is like having a second person there commenting on things. In the same way you always understand a novel better if you talk to someone else about it as you do, you develop the non-crunchy bits of the module in your own mind a little better for having these other people's visions of it to compare and build on.

    Or, as the National Endowment for the Arts has to constantly argue - things are just boring without it.

    I think a comic book module would be a stretch (I'll leave that one to Scott McCloud), I think things read best when there's something visual on every "spread." That's probably, what, 35% then? Not counting handouts or anything.

    (sorry about length - I get paid to illustrate things, when I can manage it, so I obviously have a strong opinion on the subject)

  2. I have always enjoyed (classic) module art. I agree that it's not really needed but for some people, like myself, it has always helped me plunge myself into the setting.

    It's a game of imagination and what sparks imagination better than an illustration. You can ponder that hermit for hours thinking about his motives, his belongings, what the heck is hidden in that tree? It doesn't / shouldn't have to be written in the text. It's part of the fantasy of the game.

  3. Beautiful interior art makes me buy more modules! Look at these boxes of modules I own that I've never played... Note only are they nice inspirational reading, they are objects of beautiful desire. Erol Otus made me a repeat customer back in the day.

  4. Oddysey and I just finished an interview with Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess that will likely go up this weekend. He talked a lot about using interior art to help convey the mood and style of an adventure to the GM, so he or she can, in turn invest the adventure with it when it's run for the players.

  5. Sorry for delayed response. Work is kicking my ass.

    Chris, no apologies necessary. I'm happy for the detailed thoughts. I think a better analogy for module art than editorial art might be cookbook art, though. I get editorial art and book illustrations. But showing a player a pic from a module seems like showing a dinner party a pic of the scalloped potatoes they just finished eating . . . sorta.

    bliss: That sounds right, makes me think who a module maker chooses to make art would be a very important decision, at least if they have as strong an idea of the tone/genre they want the module to be as I usually do.

    C. That's cool, but there were probably modules I would have enjoyed for that reason, but never saw because they were wrapped in cellophane.

    trollsmyth: Thanks,that makes sense. Sort of "directions for the conductor" . Hah, symphony sheet music should have little pics scattered throughout.

    I still want a comic book dungeon.

  6. Narration Box: "These squares are pit traps!"

    Blackleaf: "No, Help me! I'm going to die!"

    I think my comic-book dungeon would be that, over and over. Blackleaf, dying to demonstrate every threat.

    I guess the thing with cookbook art is, it's usually photography. Which can be helpful in that it shows how things should look, how you could choose to serve it, or at least makes it look like if you follow these recipes, you might come out with something that looks as good as the photos. (Actually, photographing food is its own career that is entirely divorced from reality.)

    I feel like (non-practical) module art is different for the reasons Trollsmyth says Raggi talked about. Its purpose is to show the artist's vision of the scene, helping to convey what the author intended to be the mood.

  7. I'm in the "helps to visualize the scene" camp, I guess, but the other reason I like module art is that it breaks up the long blocks of text, actually making it easier for me to read, or at least easier for me to digest. Also, art in a module gives me visual "bookmarks" for the module (or rule book for that matter) helping me remember what is where. Since you pulled the hermit from the keep I'll use that as an example: I know that the "outdoor encounters" are found around that illustration, the "keep stuff" begins with the picture of the guy riding across the drawbridge, and then I know the "tough rooms" of the caves are after the Minotaur pic. I'd actually prefer a little more art, even generic "this is a kobold" to help me keep track of some of the caves...

    Yes, the Headers for the Sections accomplish the same thing, better actually, but it's easy to flip through the module til I get to the Hermit pic, and I know right where I am...

  8. Chris! the Blackleaf threat demonstration is great! I think I'd pay to see that.

    Daen, the visual bookmarks is a cool point. I love that kind of stuff!; functional design, or whatever.

    Yeah, don't get me wrong people, an artless module would be a sad thing. I was just exploring this odd hobby of ours.

  9. OK, this is a late, late comment...
    What they do, I think, is help the reader comprehend the text on a deeper level than they would otherwise,

    This struck a chord with me because when I was at art school I decided to do a long series on alchemy (like every other bloody artist) and I got hold of Edward Kelley's How To guide to alchemy, The Theatre of Terrestrial Astronomy.
    And it was (of course) deeply perplexing, but I thought one of the most interesting things about it was its use of illustration.

    Each of the 14 stages was presented as:
    1. an emblematic picture in a circle (simple woodcuts, very like rubber stamps)
    2. a text description of the picture (stating colours, so eg "a green dragon is biting the face of the sun, blood trickles down into a golden chalice...")
    3. a description of stuff that sounded more like what I was expecting from an alchemical text, including "Gold is a perfect body of pure, clear, red Mercury and pure, fixed, red, incombustible Sulphur" and stuff like that.

    1. It's great to see an old conversation continue! Are you saying that certain challenging aspects of running a game could be helped by standardized illustrations? I'm thinking every trap has a picture of how it will be triggered/go off. That would be cool and sounds like what Chris was saying in the earlier comments. But that was more about communicating threats to pcs and I'm thinking of communicating functions to a DM.

      How about this, every NPC gets a picture. And players can be shown it. That seems very related to the fluff/crunch binary discussion at Necropraxis. We understand so much visually and a picture could convey loads about cleanliness, attractiveness, demeanor, that might just be abstract with no picture.