very now and then I get to play as part of my position. No, I'm not talking about my weekly lunchtime D&D Next playtest game, or my alpha and beta romps through some of our video games—though those are both pretty cool reasons to come to work as well! In this case I'm talking about playing with visual concepts. Recently, I had the opportunity to take a look at a possible visual direction for a certain faction of bad guys: the Red Wizards of Thay.
The Red Wizards have a long and varied history in D&D, and although their story is pretty rich and interesting, I've always been underwhelmed by their physical appearance. I mean, they are bald guys in red robes. Sure, they've got some tats and a boatload of magical ability, but what makes them interesting? If we dyed their robes, would we suddenly have the evil Yellow Wizards of Chuul (yes, I made that up)?
Now, I'm not dissing what Anne Stokes or any of the fine D&D artists have created—they have depicted exactly what we've asked them to create. And the truth is simple: If you ask for a red wizard, well, you get a wizard dressed in red. If you've chatted with me at all, you know I like to think in the terms of cultures and I have a bigger world vision. So it probably wouldn't come as a big surprise to you if I said I got pretty excited when a few folks in R&D said, "Okay, show us what you are thinking!"
Just to make sure we are on the same page here: This content is simply an exercise at this point. Nothing has been pitched or approved. This doesn't mean that we're implementing my vision, but I thought it would be fun to show you. If you don't buy into my vision, awesome—just say so. But if you like it, I certainly want to hear about that, too!
I'm not going to worry about edition depictions or timelines at the moment. This exploration focused on the following question: "What would happen if I could do anything I wanted with the Red Wizards?" So that is the realm I played in. First, I dig on having all eight schools of magic in the Red Wizards faction. I like the idea that they live in this sort of Shangri-la that they created within the badlands created by the Spellplague. I like the idea that they believe they are the absolute rulers in their lands and will ultimately rule the world due to their mastery of magic.
Coming from that idea gave me some concepts to play with. I pulled together a bunch of talented folks, along with references from places such as feudal Japan, ancient Egypt, and ancient Persia, plus I added a hint of Cambodia, India, and a few other cultures that had some common visual beats. I even pulled together a few pieces from some earlier explorations and some historical D&D references. Off we went for a short while, digging into some ideas of what the Red Wizards might look like.
When I was doing some concepting with the guys at Conceptopolis for the early Forgotten Realms visualizations, I had been asked to take a pass at the Red Wizards. While we came to something, the final resting place didn't really resonate with me. So when given another chance to look at the faction, I pushed the design even further. In the early concept, you can see there was just too much Egyptian influence.
My personal preference is to be influenced by cultures that we are familiar with, rather than just lifting them directly. So I decided to use the Red Wizard that we landed upon and take him up a notch.
At first, I thought maybe we could just give them a bit of a makeover, and I asked Jesper Ejsing to give them a visual pass.
I really liked this pass, but when I asked myself if that was where I would let them sit if I could do anything I wanted, I decided to wipe the board clean and start from a fresh position.
I liked the outline and attitude that the previous concepts had, but it just didn't feel rich enough. I kept going back to the idea of Shangri-la—the concept of an oasis of perfection within the desert. I wanted something that was visually rich, and felt fresh and new—not just a riff on a known cultural look. I went through a bunch of iterations before Von Caberte hit on something that really resonated with me.
I loved the richness of the outfit. I loved the fact that there was nothing practical about it. This was a look that said, "I've got a whole slew of folks dedicated to making sure I never have to work for anything. They get me what I want, they carry me when I need to go somewhere, and they basically live for my every need." This was starting to look like a guy who was set to rule the world and who would wield his magical power to bend reality to meet his whims.
So just to add some icing to the cake, I asked John-Paul Balmet to do a quick action pose and hit it with some rough color—just so I'd have something cool to hang in my cube, and wait for the day when "I get to do whatever I want."
Like I said, this was just an exploration, but I'd love to hear what you think about my little sandbox creation. Does it speak to you in any way? Does it have a greater visual impact and create a larger sense of a culture in the world? Let me know your thoughts!
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.