Thursday, November 29, 2012

On the Value of Visuals

I'm a visually-oriented guy. Some of my earliest inspirations in the realms of fantasy and fantasy gaming came courtesy of eye candy. The works of Alan Lee, Gary Chalk, and Larry Elmore are every bit as responsible for my love of gaming - if not moreso - than the contributions of any fiction or rules author.

I'm a firm believer that RPGs, particularly those of the fantastic variety that exist only in our collective imaginations, can benefit immeasurably from even minor artistic touches to an extent much greater than the sum of those touches' individual contributions. Likewise, an otherwise fantastic concept can be seriously harmed by poorly- or lazily-executed visuals.

Kelvin Green seems to share my sentiments. He posted today on Google Plus that his contribution to the LotFP IndieGoGo adventure project has been delayed by his insistance on drawing up a visual random loot table. The art is an absolute knockout, and in the comments Kelvin specifically cites the old Lone Wolf books as inspiration for his idea:

Art by Gary Chalk
Stuart Robinson responds with this observation: "The style of the items does a lot to give you the feel for the game world that just 'Sword d8' doesn't." I really couldn't have said it better. I remember that Lone Wolf chart making such a huge impression on my young mind for that very reason - it made the abstract real. Not only are these sorts of pictures worth their usual 1,000 words, but they help create a shared imaginative space for players to dwell in, and convey an almost real sense of place in a way that mere verbal descriptions can't.

I was already thinking about all this recently as, after reading Grognardia's ongoing retrospective of Imagine magazine, I found a PDF collection of that magazine's articles covering their "house setting" of Pelinore. The setting is your typical Silver Age D&D fare with one exception: the floor plans. Every single floor plan includes an elevation. Check out some examples:

Tons more floor plans of this style appeared throughout the Pelinore articles. Basically, any building got an accompanying illustration. Why isn't this standard practice for fantasy RPGs? The little individual details allowed by those elevations turn a run-of-the-mill fantasy world into a living, breathing creation. As a GM, I would gladly pay for a supplement that included this style of mapping, happily trading text for the extra space the illustrations take up. Why? Because with that sort of visual inspiration, I hardly need text. Indeed, the Pelinore articles featuring these floor plans have very sparse additional text, mostly focused around presenting abbreviated stat blocks and descriptions of special items or areas in the buildings. It's an ideal model on how to present a fantasy settlement and, like I said, I really wish it was an industry standard. Along with visual random loot tables.
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