A Brief, Rant-like Post on Art in Roleplaying Games

In gaming society, role-playing games on February 3rd, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I own half a dozen books on improving your chess skills, and I’ve read (thanks to libraries) a couple dozen more. Among them, I doubt there has been a single illustration except chess positions and, possibly, photos of great chess players whose games are being referenced. In particular, I cannot think of a single picture of a “chess babe” in any of them (although chess magazines have indulged in the genre; paging Alexandra Kosteniuk).

I’ve also read a couple dozen books on the history of espionage, ranging from the Cambridge Five to the history of National Security Administration. Most of these books have a section of glossy pages in the middle that feature photos of prominent figures within the book, and possibly a couple of key locations. Those that discussed cryptography also had pictures of some related equipment; say, the the Nazis used to encode and decode messages using the “Enigma” cipher during World War II. I’ve never seen a gratuitous photo or illustration of a large-breasted woman stroking a gun barrel lovingly or sneaking along a corridor, though.

Even coffee table books, which are largely about collecting large numbers of attractive photos and illustrations, normally manage to be written around topics that justify all the eye-candy.

If you page through most roleplaying books from major publishers, though, you will see plenty mood pieces, and cheesecake is not that uncommon. Worse, when a game book does not have these kinds of illustrations, it is subject to comments like this one, which finally prodded me to write this post:

There’s also limited illustration within the PDF. Jonathan Walton has done well with the revised layout to try and break up the flow of text but it’s a challenge without any illustrations. There are illustrations depicting how to move tokens around, which seem unnecessary but are a welcome break for the eyes.

Mortal Coil Revised review from

Why does the roleplaying market tolerate, nay demand, art that is not part of the content? There is certainly a place for illustrations of typical characters in an RPG, especially in speculative fiction games that stray well outside normal human experience, and equipment illustrations also serve a useful purpose, even when they are over the top. Illustrations of fictional locales and fantasy architecture like nothing on Earth are probably mandatory. I’ll even give you chapter lead-ins, since they act as visual bookmarks when flipping through a book quickly. Hopefully they are used to demonstrate typical activities in the game, however. Bad-ass, bare-chested vampires looking emo, but otherwise inert, do not cut it. You can be just as moody while also serving an educational purpose.

By comparison, gamers howl in blogs and forums about books that use a functional amount of white-space in their layouts, or a readable typeface size. “What a waste of space! Why are you making me pay for this?” is a common complaint. Competent art is far more expensive than text that would fit in the same amount of space, though, especially at the rates that the RPG industry pays writers and editors. Yet a lot of gamers get upset when space is not wasted in this way.

I’m tired of filler art, buxom or otherwise. It doesn’t appear in other adult non-fiction, let alone technical manuals (which rulebooks, strictly speaking, are). Why does the RPG market accept, even require, it? I hate to paint one of my hobbies with a broad, negative brush, but the obvious explanations are not very complimentary.

  1. I agree that the buxom wench art is annoying and stupid, and surely part of the reason that not many women play the hobby, too boot. Not just because the women who would play it may object to pictures of buxom wenches (I suspect many wouldn’t, per se), but because it signifies gaming as a male domain.

    But, I do think that the filler art is a necessary part of the genre, and (contra some of the criticisms you mention) part of the joy of a good role-playing book for me is the artwork. It’s an imaginative genre and the tools of that genre are different to those of, say, chess or espionage history.

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