Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here. This week it’s all about using art in D&D to help you run a better game. Whether it’s your game or just at the gaming table.
There are two different ways of using art in D&D games. You will use in-game or you will use it outside of the game.
Using art in D&D outside of the game — what does this mean? You could be using art objects, images, or even jewelry as props and visual aids. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Professional artists illustrate the books we play these games from. Chances are they may have created art that is far easier for us to just show our players something from the scene.
Another aspect of using art from outside the game is letting it inspire the type of adventures and stories you tell. For instance, you find the image of a map, scene, or monster that you just have to have in your game. I know many people look for inspiration from sites like Deviant Art and Pinterest. That is from the Dungeon Master’s perspective out of game.
Players can often be inspired by art outside of the game. So often a player will find a piece of art from the internet they feel represents their character. Other times they’ll find the art and want to build the character that piece inspires. Lastly many a player will commission an artist to draw their beloved character for them.
Using art in D&D inside of the game is covered by both Nerdarchist Ted and Nerditor Doug pretty extensively below. But I’ll throw some ideas out there.
Art Driven Adventure Seeds
The adventurers have a patron as a go-to quest giver for this group, constantly sending players into tombs and dungeons after expensive pieces of art.
Murders are happening at a local art gallery. Who done it and why? Has a new piece of art recently arrived? Is it to die for?
An NPC we created was a medusa loan shark. Her price? You must spend 10 years as a statue in her collection, after which she reverts the individuals back to their fleshy forms. She also leases these pieces of art to wealthy clients If a statue’s contract is due to be up and the piece hasn’t been returned yet, she hires adventurers to return the statue to her intact. Our medusa has never failed to complete a contract. This would be a great embarrassment to her.
Pieces of art are coming to life and going on murder sprees or even just destroying other pieces of art. Maybe the only way to stop it is to discover the artist who has made a dark pact with a being of evil.
Empusia, Curator of Souls is a digital book on the Nerdarchy the Store about a fiendish art museum of the macabre. You can download it for free here.
From Ted’s Head
There are many ways of using art in D&D but most of the time it will fall flat, like a picture, unless you decide to make it special. No matter what game you are running treasure has the potential to be a big part of it. If you make the treasure sound special the characters might do more with it.
Treasure has the potential to start quests of its own. When you are deciding on treasure take a few extra moments and make the selection something fitting to the owner of said treasure. If the item or items have a particular theme the players will automatically have more interest in the item. It might cause them to seek its creator, to see if the item is magical, or if it is magic or special in some way. Here are some examples that you can use in your game.
Deep in the beholder’s lair, its treasure is kept in two piles. In one section is all the cast off stuff that has value but is not a prized possession. On the other side of the room is a shrine to objects round and spherical. In the collection are an assortment of gems all polished and smooth to be perfectly round. There are a collection of portraits of bizarre magic in round frames. Lastly on a round pedestal is an orb of metal that shimmers all the colors of the rainbow in the light. This object is a book of sorts. When one capable of magic comes in contact with it, they can figure out how to see inside and read it. This particular book is a rich history on the creatures called beholders.
After months of research and many fights you have finally defeated the vampire and all of its minions. The vampire lies staked in its coffin awaiting the morning light to at last burn its body to ashes once and for all. As you look around the creatur’s bedroom you find a strange assortment of items. A necklace of rubies all carved into the shapes of blood drops hangs around a statue of deep red marble. A basin made or pure silver sits on the desk meticulously clean next to a dagger made of red steel that is impossibly sharp.
Your Descent into Avernus is a brutal hardship, step after step. The demon lord defeated, its vast treasures lie at your feet. Items of power and macabre lie around. Most notably, there is the statue in the center of the room. Three people, or what were once people, have been bonded together, barely able to move. The statues faces show no sign of recognition of other people but moan, wail or cry out in pain, agony or grief.
So a few things to hopefully help inspire you to up the art in your game.
From the Nerditor’s Desk
In the weekly Nerdarchy live chat, I joined Nerdarchist Ted to talk about using art in D&D and the impact it has on roleplaying games. Despite whatever technical fumble caused the stream to crash (probably something I did or didn’t do my first night running the stream — yay!) we still discussed the idea of using art in D&D from several angles.
Any time players in a roleplaying game really soak in the setting helps create verisimilitude, and art can play an important role. In fantasy settings, certainly, there’s lots of wildly different cultures in a melange of regional and species civilizations.
Think about how different art styles emerge in our own world. Now imagine that level of variety as the starting point. Wholly different species — elves, dwarves, halflings and so on — develop their own cultures, and among them there’s no reason to think they’re all alike any more than earthly humans.
So in any sort of setting — science fiction, westerns, modern day high school drama — there’s a huge diversity of perspectives, cultures and societies with art that represents their points of view, values and expression.
The same way a filmmaker or author shows rather than tells, the art within a location can show player characters information about a situation without an NPC or tome dispensing lore. In Ted’s campaign, a beholder’s treasure hoard contained all sorts of magical items and weapons, coins and jewels…and these were piled unceremoniously in an alcove. The beholder’s real interest was in spherical things. To this creature a child’s ball might evoke more emotional response than a staff of power. This telegraphs a lot about the beholder, and I imagined players concocting outrageous plans to capitalize on this bit of intel.
A gruff and grumpy dwarf, retired from adventuring and living in a cozy mountain dwelling might keep a delicate glass sculpture of high elven design on the mantle in their otherwise very dwarvish home. Unexpected art like this could hint at the dwarf’s unusual life. Does she have a special relationship with elves? It might be some sort of award, or a gift from a lost love and with enough Persuasion the dwarf will stroke her beard wistfully and recall the elf she thought was “the one.” Or it could be a copper piece store sale item. Who knows?
The point is, art objects in a location can become adventure hooks, plot devices or story drivers in lots of ways, and for players it’s no different. If you’re playing a character with the urchin background, think about their life growing up poor on the streets. Now they’re an adventurer! They’re carrying around real gold in their pouches.
Is there something they never thought they’d be able to have, and now they can? Your character could collect jewelry, vintage cloaks or a popular series of hand-painted wooden figurines. I bet if you make a point to poke around for any of these things in particular in your RPGs sessions, it’ll pay off eventually.
Since we talked about D&D art from so many different angles in the live chat, it is tough to not retread the same points. Instead I’ll leave you with one of my favorite resources in D&D — a random table. Here’s 10 pieces of D&D art you can drop in your game the next time characters are looking at what’s around them whether its a dungeon, noble’s manor or a gnoll chieftain’s raid lodge. If you roll and it seems out of place, all the better. Unexpected art might have more of an impact on a campaign than something that fits in closer with the surroundings.
A famous work of art, known the world over. Surprise! Your campaign just became about characters who essentially stumbled on the Mona Lisa. Commoners have heard of this thing. You’re instantly a celebrity…and a target…
An arrangement of twigs, feathers and small polished stones held together with thin leather straps.The shape is reminiscent of the Shadow Star, a planar body occultists believe will return to darken the prime material plane for a year and a day. To a creature trained in Arcana, if you were casting augury you’d get a result of “Whoa!”
A porcelain amphora vase with celadon glaze and handles depicting dragons. It is in perfect condition despite its age. The vase dates back to an empire that crumbled centuries ago, yet here is this flawless artifact from the period.
A series of nested crystalline orbs. Each one moves along a grooved track crafted on the inside surface of the progressively smaller spheres. If they are lined up in a particular way, an image of the Far Realm emerges from within.
A large, convex piece of glass with two iron frameworks bolted to opposite sides. Looking through the glass distorts vision. On one side a long, slightly curved iron bar is attached to the framework on a hinge. A similar component is missing from the other side. Even with missing parts, this cyclopean reading lens is a rare find.
A giant-sized ritual mask made of wood with intricate tale carvings covering the outside and inside surface. To a creature trained in giant lore, the outer carvings depict a story of maug, while inside a story of maat.
Framed art under glass, a mounted scroll with arcane writing centuries old depicts symbols and formulae for the astral projection spell. An incredible find! Except this “spell scroll” is a fake, the spell information copied by an amateur forger who did not replicate the magical writing impeccably.
A programmed illusion that depicts a slice of life scene from a forgotten civilization. For 5 minutes, a 30-foot cube of space is filled with an illusory marketplace scene. The scene is rather mundane, but a ruler from the time period carried on a litter does make a walkthrough.
A worn, leather bound sketch book. Inside are charcoal drawings, diagrams, figure studies and more along with notes scrawled here and there throughout. Several sketches depict more famous works of art. It might take some work to confirm but this could be the sketchbook of the famous artist themselves.
A small diorama of a home in the elven style. Inside, a family of tiny elven figures move around the house. Everything is crafted in extremely detailed precision. If you look very closely at the figures, they have pained expressions on their faces. Is that a tear running down one of their cheeks?
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