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Illustrations vs. Descriptions: And the winner is . . .

Posted By John Arcadian On May 12, 2008 @ 3:33 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

As I’ve started to run more and more published settings and adventures, I find myself doing something new to my GMing style. I’ve been turning the adventure/setting/rule book to my players and just pointing to art that is built into the product.

Using pictures to backup description isn’t a new practice to me, but I usually try to first use a verbal description to hook the players into the story, and then back it up with a picture. I also tend to find my illustrations from web sources, like Flickr) and Deviantart), or by using the awesome Firefox tool Piclens. By doing this the pictures match what is in my head more closely.

This works for me because I’ve been running games in my own world setting and have had to build up the feel and mood of it in my player’s minds. Since I’ve been running in more published and established settings, I’m finding more official art to base my descriptions off of. The two effects of this, that I’ve seen, are:

1. My players have more familiarity with the world because they’ve read some of the same source material, thus they integrate their characters into the story a little easier.

2. My players do a bit of double take when I improvise or do something unexpected with an element of the setting.

I love the look on my player’s faces when they go “Wow, I get to fight one of those! This’ll be awesome!” I also like my GM’s prerogative to change the world setting as I see fit. With much of the “engage the players mind” work done by an incredibly illustrated and well thought out picture, my descriptions feel a little less important.

My solution, thus far, has been to use the picture as a base, then hone in on an element of the picture to really make it stick in the players’ minds with my description. I’m aiming for evocative as opposed to accurate. It has worked decently, but what about you? Do you rely on pictures or descriptions more? If you use illustrations, what fits your style? Do you use canonical setting pictures or find or draw your own?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Illustrations vs. Descriptions: And the winner is . . ."

#1 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On May 12, 2008 @ 4:24 am

first :D kek ^^ always wanted to say it :P

i’ve always tried to describe deeply what i was thinking the object/person/etc. was.. but i found very very immediate to give them a picture after 7-8 seconds of verbal description as an intro :)

it gives a bit of suspence before the “gift” of the image :D

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#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 12, 2008 @ 9:29 am

Pictures also serve to help with the age-old “If I detail the clue too much it’s obvious it’s the clue” issue. While we COULD just describe the entire adventure in detail, that gets tiresome after a while, and even just “spot placement” of detail alerts the players that “There’s something important here…” Thus, the occassional picture becomes a good way to hide clues.

#4 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 12, 2008 @ 10:13 am

I like using pictures whenever possible, but I usually don’t just use what’s in the books — I have no idea why.

Monsters are really the only exception, as I do like showing those, but I’d never considered emphasizing and evoking one aspect of the illustration to more firmly wed the image and the description in my players’ minds. That’s a really good suggestion!

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On May 12, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

I’m with you on that Martin. Till I got back into D&D recently I usually went trolling for pictures of different creatures that were more unique than “dragon”. I always wanted something with a unique element. Something I could focus my descriptions on.

Matthew, you are definitely right. There are times I don’t want to point out that the creatures prominent feature is its large claws. If I show the picture then the players don’t hone in on the claws as being the “BIG THING” about the creature. The claws might be prominent in the picture, but players get to make their first impressions.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 12, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

Props are always awesome, but time can become an issue. I did a bit of this when I had more prep-time, and it worked beautifully. One of the things I like about the “Adventure Path” series was the illustrations, some of which could be downloaded or cut out.

GMing off a laptop lets you flip it wide open and show the players what you’re talking about, but you can’t exactly leave it that way… :-\

#7 Comment By ligedog On May 13, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

I like to draw little vignette sketches of complicated areas as Matthew mentioned above its a great way of giving clues without totally telegraphing it. I’ve also made little sketches of monsters and special items occasionally as well. It seems to work pretty good and I don’t end up confusing the players with the descriptions.


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