remember, in my early days of Dungeons & Dragons fun, spending hours flipping through the books and drinking in the art work. Am I alone in this? I don't think so.
Then it's no great surprise that I love the fact that I get to work on the visually creative side of the D&D game. I, again, can spend hours every day flipping through the art. I also have the opportunity to talk to artists, mentor students and aspiring artists who want to work on D&D projects, and work with the rest of the creative team to come up with cool new ideas . . . even if they never do see the light of day!
I often reflect on the reasons and purpose of the art in D&D projects. Doing so is part of my job, right? More often, I find myself in conversations with folks about the art of the D&D game—whether it is about something they love, something they hate, the history of the art, their favorite artist, their favorite piece, the art style, how they use the art . . . the list goes on and on.
Those discussions often come around to a common question: What is the role of art in the D&D game?
I find that the role of art falls into a few broad categories:
- Provides a resource for show-and-tell in our games and inspires our imagination
- Engages us with the storyline and characters through visual narrative
- Establishes mood, emotion, and setting
Now, this is NOT an all-inclusive list, but it covers a lot of ground. Although show-and-tell devices are vitally important for game play (maps, diagrams, Monster Manual art, and so on), I'd like to touch on a topic that has been coming up a lot in various posts and blogs that I've been reading. No, not "appropriate armor." That'll be coming soon enough.
Instead, I'd like to talk about story or narrative in illustration. One such article, "Romancing the D20" written by Storn Cook, talks about the grandeur and love of the epic in D&D art. I can buy into the idea that story and narrative are core to the Dungeons & Dragons world. Whether it was being brought into the raiding party seen on the cover of the AD&D Player's Handbook, or witnessing the heroic battle of the Paladin in Hell, D&D has always been a place where story is a very important part of the illustration.
To me, story is everything! If there isn't storytelling in the image then it's just a technical illustration. In other words, it is just a depiction of a concept in the text that needs to be shown in a visual medium. Personally, I did a lot of technical illustrations during my career. While they can be cool and useful, they usually don't inspire, engage, or capture cherished moments. They are perfect when you want to show what a chest looks like, but if you want to talk about what you experience when you interact with the chest, then storytelling needs to come into play. I want more than just a depiction—I want that experience.
The question is, is that too esoteric? Too grandiose for the D&D game?
Although it is apparent that story is important, it is also worth noting that D&D artists have played a huge part in the visualization of the brand. Think about it. When I say Dragonlance, do you think of Larry Elmore or Matt Stawicki? If I mention Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, or Dark Sun, do you think of Caldwell, DiTerlizzi, or Brom? In many ways, the branding of the D&D game has become linked to the illustrators who have depicted it. This is an interesting phenomenon in the world of identity development. Normally it is the logo that builds the brand identity. Believe me, our D&D game loves to bend/break the rules!
Recently, I asked "ArtOrder" (a community I started four years ago to grow and nurture the sci-fi and fantasy artist community) to share their list of Top 20 D&D Illustrators (from any edition). Take a look at the collection of names that have been submitted so far. Needless to say, many talented people didn't make the list. Not that they didn't deserve to—it's just the nature of being limited to twenty picks. This also shows the breadth of talent that works on the D&D game when we have a hard time narrowing a list to just our top twenty, huh?
In the same article, I asked folks to pass me their list of their Top 20 D&D Images. I'm still collecting those lists. It has been great fun seeing everyone's list and hearing the stories that grow out of the art. In fact, I'd love to hear about your top 20 lists! Why? Not only out of curiosity, but also because my ultimate dream would be to pull together a collection of the greatest pieces of D&D art, from the greatest D&D artists, put it into a traveling show, and let the rest of the world see this amazing and powerful work up close and personal . . . like I have the opportunity to do.
Right now, I'm just scratching the surface of this subject. In future articles I'd like to talk about the importance of art to the brand and to the game, whether an artist defines the brand or the brand defines the artist, what art styles are appropriate to the D&D game, and so much more. I hope you join in on the conversation. In the meantime, where do you stand on the issue of art in the D&D game? Do you want to see more action, more storytelling, more evocative images, more images of daily life, more images of items? What is the most important aspect of D&D art for you? What do you look for in the art? How do you use the art, or do you use the art?
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.