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A Thousand Words: Character Portraits

Character Sketch or Symbol [1]

Since I was 10, there has been one part of the character sheet that has always eluded me…the Character Sketch.  I have never been able to draw, and so on all my character sheets, this box was left empty; mocking me with every character.  During my teenage years, I use to flirt with the idea of paying for a professional character portrait, from one of those ads in the back of Dragon Magazine.  I never did either, and just learned to live with the blank box.

In high school, I met a fellow gamer, named Wally, who was also a budding artist.  His work was rough (then), but he had a real talent for drawing.  I had just started a Teenage Mutant Turtles campaign, and Wally joined up. The players all made their characters, and Wally drew portraits for each of them. It was awesome. For the first time, the group I was in was able to share the same images of their characters.

I played a few more games with Wally, during our high school years, and at his pinnacle, he drew a complete set of Trumps for an Amber campaign we were starting. The Trumps, not only had the Elder Amberites, but also included trumps of all the player characters. When the players received their own decks (laminated color copies) at the start of the campaign, we were all amazed. Each of us shuffled through the decks; the players looking for their own characters. Again, the ability for everyone to share the same mental picture of all the characters and the major NPC’s really added to the campaign.

After the Amber campaign, Wally and I wound up parting ways.  We both moved to different parts of the country, and while we still talk, we have not had the chance to play in years.

So other than nice story about Wally, what is the importance of the character portrait?  The phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, is dead on.  The ability to share an image of a character or NPC among the group, is a powerful tool to help create a shared imaginative experienced.  It helps to draw the group deeper into the game, giving everyone a common image, as foundation to build upon.  It is also a great GM shortcut.  An NPC that could take a paragraph to describe, can be shown in one picture, conveying identical of information to each player, faster than could be done with words.

Since Wally and I parted company, I am back in the same boat.  I have learned to live without my own personal artist.  Through the years,  the character portrait box just keeps mocking me.  Without access to an actual artist, I have tried a few things over the past few years with mixed success:


There are some software packages that make character portraits.  NBOS Software makes a program called Character Sketcher [2], ProFantasy Software has Character Artist Pro [3], and there is the free, web-based HeroMachine [4].   All of these use templates to allow the artistically challenged to cobble together a portrait by picking this and that.

Of the three, the only one I have used was HeroMachine, which I used extensively for a Mutants & Masterminds campaign.  It was easy to use, and the output was great for a superhero game.  As a GM, it was nice to be able to show my players a picture of each supervillain.  It was also good for me, as the GM. The process of creating the images for each NPC really helped to solidify their character, as it would help me focus on their personalities and powers, as I created each costume.

Published Artwork

There are a lot of talented artists out on the Internet. Thanks to the Internet you can do a Google Image Search [5] searching for artwork across the Internet, you can check out an artistic site like Deviant Art [6], or you can find some PDF’s of character images on DriveThruRPG.com [7].  The PDF products come with permission to use the images, but there may be some issue about copying someone else’s artwork, off the Internet, but if you are not publishing your characters, and are just using the image for personal use, I am sure the art police will not be coming for you.

As a player, I have recently done this for both the Star Wars game, and D&D game that I am playing in.  For Star Wars, I found a image of a drawing of a young Zabrak using Google Image search, and for my D&D portrait, I took the image of the Dragonborn right out of the Players Handbook. As a GM, I have used a few Google Image searches for major NPC’s, but have not done it that much; something I plan to change with my upcoming Corporation campaign.


In Law Enforcement, they say that when you try to describe a suspect to the police,  you should try to tell them what famous person they look like. That famous people form a kind of image shorthand, that you can base a description upon.  For instance:  “she looks like a redheaded Catherine Zeta Jones”. No problem picturing that…did ya?   Once again, Google Image search is your friend, you can do searches for famous people by name, or by a movie they were in.  You can also do image searches for ethnic groups, or by occupation.  You will have no problem finding images of famous people, or not so famous people.

As a GM I had a pet peeve about the use of famous people for character portraits.  I thought it was some kind of cop-out. As if it was better not to have a portrait, then to have a picture to focus on. I have come to understand that if the picture of a famous person, can form some kind of mental anchor for picturing a character, then it has value in the game, and that I should relax about it.  There is a lot more value in creating that shared image, than for some kind of striving for originality.

Your Turn

The image of a powerful knight, or a 4-color hero, can draw someone deeper into the game, be it on the Players character sheet, or am image that a GM holds up of an NPC.  So, how are you using character portraits in your games?  Are you fortunate to know or to be an artist?  Or are you using some of the techniques above?

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "A Thousand Words: Character Portraits"

#1 Comment By Sektor On June 12, 2009 @ 4:54 am

I guess you could call me one of the lucky few who managed to get a job in the Video Game industry (as a gameplay programmer). That means I’m surrounded by a number of talented artists doing almost nothing but character design all day long; asking them to squeeze in a custom job here and there has given me some nice character portraits in the past. All for the price of a soft-drink.

So, yeah, I’m surrounded by my own private army of Wallies 🙂

#2 Comment By Electrocuted On June 12, 2009 @ 7:09 am

In our old regular group, we did the “cast as” method, where you thumbed through photos on IMDB. Typically, instead of being a red-headed something, you turned out to be like someone in something.

Christian Bale in American Psycho is fundamentally different from him in Batman, from him in The Machinist. Especially the last one.

Tends to help us a bit with characterization as well, if we pick someone that’s been typecast into those roles in the past.

#3 Comment By greywulf On June 12, 2009 @ 7:12 am

I use [8] almost exclusively these days.

Note to self: write a “how to make headshot character portraits in DAZ Studio” tutorial.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On June 12, 2009 @ 7:23 am

I’ve always been artistically mis-inclined as well. I’m learning ways around it, and increasing my general skill, but there is no substitute for natural talent. I’ve always thought it would be awesome it someone took the character creator out of any MMO with decent graphics (Guild Wars, DDO, etc.) and made it a standalone character creator. Throw in the ability to do a couple of poses and a save image feature and you’re good. Easy enough for anyone to use and you get lots of options for your character portraits.

#5 Comment By Hawksmoor On June 12, 2009 @ 7:46 am

For SuperHero games my group does not use HeroMachine, we use City of Heroes. The costume creator in that thing is far more detailed and gets much better looking images. If noone in your group has the game, there is a copy of just the costume creator that Cryptic release in Korea a few years ago and if you scour the interwebs you might be able to find a copy of that.

#6 Comment By Ashy On June 12, 2009 @ 8:35 am

This is precisely one of the issues that we’re solving with our new card based RPG, Untold. Now EVERY character you play will have a character portrait – you simply pick the picture that resonates with you and presto – you play that card! 😀

For more info, check us out here: [9]

Brannon “Ashy” Hollingsworth
Wandering Man and Co-creator of the world’s coolest CBRPG, Untold!

#7 Comment By Sewicked On June 12, 2009 @ 10:22 am

I often demo the Ironclaw & Jadeclaw games at conventions. I am lucky enough to be in contact with one of the game artists, who is willing to occasionally do NPC portraits for me. It’s really hard to find furry ‘portraits’ otherwise.

For other games, it’s amazing how many artists at conventions are willing to do B&W sketches for about $15-25. You shop around Artists’ Alley for an art style that you like & a price that you can afford. Or, as for our Mutants & Masterminds game, one player got a group portrait done and gave everyone a copy.

#8 Comment By darrell On June 12, 2009 @ 11:17 am

One I use, especially for D&D and similar;

if I’m using a specific miniature for the character, I hunt down a picture of the mini’ and use that. Works really well if you’re using Wizards’ D&D Miniatures.

#9 Comment By Leonides On June 12, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

I actually use police sketch software which works VERY well in making faces. You can find a simplified version here:


#10 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 12, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

You can also take a look at Champions Online when it becomes open beta/release. Go to their website and look at the “Rate my Champion” feature. Their character creator has a lot of versitility and options, surpassing even CoX.

#11 Comment By Alan De Smet On June 12, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

[12] showed me that you could convey a lot with a relatively simple design. And while it can be slow going, even a clueless computer programmer like myself with zero art skill can do some satisfying work. Examples: [13], [14], [15]. I’m using [16]. It wasn’t too much work to create a few templates matching Burlew’s style. (On that note, I really should release my template for others to use…)

#12 Comment By Alan De Smet On June 12, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

[17] It’s similar to the technique I used [13]. (I just noticed my own art page with most of the party in one shot contains old versions of several characters, so if you’re curious click individual character names in the list at the bottom for the newest version.)

#13 Comment By Alan De Smet On June 12, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

Hrm, looks like my previous post disappeared into the void. While I’d prefer more “realistic” portraits, I don’t really want to spend the time to learn how to do so. I’ve found that Order of the Stick style art captures 90% of what I want, while being within the reach of a computer programmer monkey like myself. Thus, the above.

#14 Comment By Noumenon On June 13, 2009 @ 3:32 am

I like to cut up Magic cards for NPC character portraits.

For your own personal PC, [18] will draw you a sketch of your character for $25. I got the [19] for my favorite one.

#15 Comment By Bloodwin On June 13, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

Luckily I am able to draw but I was always annoyed at the tiny boxes on character sheets one of the drawbacks to being trained as an illustrator is that A4 is the smallest size of paper I can give good results on, I prefer A3 or A2 but then they have to be photographed or scanned in :/

I prefer to find a miniature that looks like my character and paint that however I have problems photographing miniatures, any tips on that would be greatly appreciated.

#16 Comment By DocRyder On June 14, 2009 @ 1:31 am

For pictures of actors, you can always try


The Internet Movie DataBase. Most actors have a picture there, and many others from behind the camera do as well…

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On June 16, 2009 @ 10:42 am

Thanks [21] and [22]— I had a link to a character actor page that’s since gone dead. With your hints, I was able to find [23], which looks like a great replacement.

I’m terrible about pictures and photos ordinarily, but I’ll be starting up a 1920s game soon. Hopefully I’ll find some good characters to match the villains and mooks the heroes will encounter.

#18 Comment By ronin3338 On September 11, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

For superheroes, I like this:

Other than that, I scour deviantart.com or rpg home sites for most of the artwork I use. Occasionally I’ll search conceptart.org. A lot of game sites (P&P and video) also have art previews or concept art.

I can’t draw, so I’ll print out a character portrait, and use a glue stick to attach it to my character sheet.

#19 Comment By Qi Chin On February 5, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

In our upcoming campaign, we are lucky enough that both me and a player are ongoing artists. I’ve recently drawn a whole-page image of my dwarf cleric in a different campaign, though I never got around to finish coloring it.

That being said, it can be good enough to learn how to draw faces only. Specialize on that first, so to speak. Creating a portrait that is what you had in mind all along is, in my opinion, better than picking out an image from the web. Especially when it’s well known. A player once used Altair from Assassin’s Creed as his character image. It was highly distracting, really.

#20 Comment By chigdon On November 9, 2010 @ 12:50 am

If you’re having trouble finding an illustration online that fits your character perfectly, my site might be able to help:


#21 Comment By Kmany D On April 9, 2016 @ 3:39 am

I thought someone might be interested in this Software I am working on..
Portrait wizard
You can easily make pretty good looking portraits with it.
If you like it please give a thumbs up, so that I can get it on Steam and keep evolving it!