On the Importance of Art in RPGs

Disclaimer: I have projects currently in development and in the pipeline for Chaosium. Even before I started doing work for them, I was an inveterate Chaosium fanboy. I'm also the son of a fine artist and my childhood was basically one long education in art history and appreciation. Take everything I say here with the appropriate grains of salt.

Apart from the affiliate links in this post, I won't make any money directly from any of the products I'm discussing here. I've got my "fan/theorist" hat on for this one.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 2.02.10 PM.png

At times it's easy to forget that our own aesthetic prejudices and interests don't apply across the board. But even when trying to keep a relatively objective mind about other peoples' outlooks, I'm continually gobsmacked when I'm reminded that there's a camp of gamers out there who think art in RPGs is a waste of space, or simply "not that important."

I got into gaming circa 1990, which was a fallow period in the development and promotion of Runequest and the world of Glorantha—the game's "Golden Age" was a memory, and the Ken Rolston-led "Runequest Renaissance" was about ready to get going but wasn't quite there.

As such, I missed the boat on Glorantha for a long time. I knew about it, heard about it in legends, but didn't really know how to get into it. HeroQuest kinda passed me by (though I did purchase and enjoy Mythic Russia!), and when I started investigating Glorantha and Classic Runequest in a serious way a few years ago, I found a lot of impenetrable lore and deep discussions by 30-year vets of the setting. The Guide to Glorantha was certainly a beautiful set of books, but it definitely seemed like something meant as a reference for folks who already had a basic foundation in the world. For all the gorgeous maps and full-color illustrations, there was an awful lot of text to get through...

I ran a fun little Griffin Mountain campaign back in 2015/16, and got a hint of what makes the world so special and interesting, but it still felt like work to really plug into the world and create a shared imaginary space that was authentic to Glorantha.

Enter the new line of Runequest books that Chaosium is rolling out this year: (so far) 13th Age Glorantha, The Glorantha Sourcebook, and the brand-new Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha corebook (the first of a three-volume set in the grand old D&D tradition—more on that in a moment).

Every one of these titles are beautifully laid out by Chris Huth (13th Age), Simeón Cogswell (RQG), and Malcolm Wolter (Sourcebook and RQG). The layout perfectly complements the gorgeous art that comes courtesy of a Murderer's Row of amazing talent organized by Chaosium's Creative VP, Jeff Richard.

And here (at last!) we get to the core of this post: thanks to the art in these books, I get Glorantha now. The art is a portal into the world that makes the text come alive. I can say this with authority, as I was one of the lucky 100 folks to get a pre-publication manuscript of the RQG core book at Gen Con last year, and although the writing was crisp, lively, and did everything it needed to do, it's the addition of the art to the final product that really makes the various sections of the book pop and brings Glorantha to life in a way I've been wishing and waiting for.

Now, dear reader, you probably won't be surprised if I told you that there are, even as I type this, people on the Internet right now arguing that they would have preferred less art if it meant condensing everything into a single book, rather than the (frankly) standard model of a core rulebook, monster bestiary, and GM's sourcebook/scenario pack. It's true!

I...

It baffles me. That's all I can say.

I'll gladly pay for three books (and help support some awesome artists to boot!) if it means that I have before me a feast for my imagination, a magical portal to a mythic world I had only heard tell of in whispers but had never known how to get to before now. (And, of course, I'm also pretty sure that even without art, it would've been pretty much impossible to pack everything into a single book, which again is fine by me—gimme lots of content, please!)

Over on Facebook, Jeff Richard asked folks to share their favorite illustration from RQG. Ha! As if, Jeff! As others pointed out, that's like asking to (a) name a favorite child, and then (b) post pictures of that child.

Below are some—some—of my top picks. If you're also new to Glorantha, I hope these images will inspire you to give it a closer look.

And thanks to Jeff, the Chaosium team, and all the fantastic artists who contributed work (new and old) to these books: Dan Barker, Rick Becker, Bernard Bittler, Simon Bray, William Church, Miguel Coronado, Antonia Doncheva, Jed Dougherty, Gene Day, Andrey Fetisov, Rich Fleider, Piotr Foksowicz, Lisa Free, Merle Insigna, Tomasz Jedruszek, Kalin Kadiev, Roman Kisyov, Rachel Kahn, Jennifer Lange, Rhonda Libbey, Michelle Lockamy, Juha Makkonen, Mike Mignola, Christine Mitzuk, Luise Perrene, Jan Pospíšil, Kevin Ramos, Roger Raupp, Jakob Rebulka, Alex Ries, Naomi Robinson, Simon Roy, Olivier Sanfilippo, Luoto Sari, John Snyder, Tom Sullivan, Tobias Tranell, Cory Trego-Erdner, and Eric Vanel.

(Phew!)

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 1.59.08 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 1.59.40 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 2.00.54 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 2.01.46 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 2.02.18 PM.png
 A comment on DTRPG reads: "There is an unpleasant pig sacrifice image on p. 268. Personally, I would now like to have the option of a no art version." No.

A comment on DTRPG reads: "There is an unpleasant pig sacrifice image on p. 268. Personally, I would now like to have the option of a no art version." No.

 I'm a sucker for illustrations of fantasy architecture. I wish we had more like this!

I'm a sucker for illustrations of fantasy architecture. I wish we had more like this!

 This artist, Michelle Lockamy, is the subject of today's Women in Tabletop Gaming interview over on the Chaosium site: https://www.chaosium.com/blogwomen-in-tabletop-gaming-month-2-chaosium-interviews-michelle-lockamy/

This artist, Michelle Lockamy, is the subject of today's Women in Tabletop Gaming interview over on the Chaosium site: https://www.chaosium.com/blogwomen-in-tabletop-gaming-month-2-chaosium-interviews-michelle-lockamy/

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 2.21.33 PM.png

ETA: After posting this, I ran across what is perhaps the very first review of D&D ever published. In the 1974 review, Arnold Hendrick writes: "Graphics, considering the format, are decent, with some excellent illustrations, but some space could have been saved without compromising appearance."

Leaving aside how poorly Hendrick's praise of the artwork has aged, I find it fascinating that this debate has been going on since quite literally the beginning of the hobby. Wild!