Fantasy art influences my fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons games to an extraordinary degree. One of the themes running strongly in the great documentary Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons is how playing D&D gives us an opportunity to discover what would our characters do in these fantastic settings. The fantasy art inspiring our D&D games also provides a tool to help us vividly describe the creatures, places and things adventurers see. For players and Dungeon Masters alike, the fantasy art that speaks to us leaves an indelible mark on our gaming. And for my money, there’s no better place for unending discovery of amazing fantasy art than Pinterest. It’ll improve your D&D games as a player and DM, I guarantee. So let’s get into it.
Fantasy art for worldbuilding D&DThe world of D&D might use the terrestrial Earth we know as a template, but as weird as the natural world can be here at home it doesn’t hold a candle to a D&D campaign setting. If you’re starting a new campaign, or looking for creative juice to invigorate an existing one, you’re in for a treat. Create a Pinterest board and start pinning.
Here’s an example. One of the D&D settings I enjoy worldbuilding is a frozen world called Rime. I started searching for things like “fantasy art tundra” and the like. When I see an image that I imagine could exist in the setting, or simply have a strong reaction to, onto the board it goes. A picture is worth a thousand words, and very quickly you’ll find many thousands of words worth of D&D adventures waiting to happen.
You’ll want to know — how will the party react when they see the bones of a titan frozen to the mountain side? What will they do when a stag made of starlight crosses their path on the tundra? Will they be in awe when they finally reach the city built on a gargantuan spire of rock overlooking the turbulent sea?
Artists who create fantasy art include the small details that help your broad stroke ideas come alive. A cloaked and hooded figure with a small, heavily armed humanoid might sound ominous or suspicious. A humanoid wearing a cone-shaped headdress topped with a carved face, their face concealed behind a pattern of eyes on the fabric, with a round, etched brass plate on their belt and carrying a staff topped with living branches approaches. With them is a small humanoid creature with thin arms and legs and a huge round head with a single eye, armored and carrying a sword and shield. Which sounds more likely to elicit engagement from the players? Side note — that little sprout fella looks like a perfect reskin target for the alliumite out of the Creature Codex.
And your D&D magic items will for sure come across way more magical and special to the characters when you have a reference to describe their magical cloaks, staves, swords and other magical accoutrement. That goes for you too, players. If you don’t think there’s an image out there perfectly illustrating how you imagine your D&D character, you are wrong. There’s over 70 million Pinterest users, trust me. I’ve found more than one bearded female duergar. There’s art out there for you.
Oh, I love a good fantasy art map. Give me a map with a dozen or so rooms and some notable features, and a Monster Manual, and we’re set for at least two sessions. A boundless atlas of maps awaits you on Pinterest. Maps with grids, maps with hexes, isometic maps, hand-drawn maps, hand-painted maps — you name it. Pressed for time (usually due to procrastination) I’ve found a map 15 minutes before a D&D session, came up with one or two ideas to fall back on, and improvised the rest.
When you find a map you like, and take your time to describe what you see vividly including all five senses to the players, they’ll want to know more about their surroundings. They’ll ask questions, investigate and explore. They’ll roll some dice and before you know it, the session is wrapping up and the players can’t wait to come back next week and find out more.
The real treasure map is the only you want the characters to be as excited to explore as you are to guide their way. A monster here and a trap there when it feels appropriate provides tension for the adventurers, and more than likely the players will concoct their own ideas about what’s going on in this dungeon. Listen up, because this info, along with the extra time you give yourself to think while describing things the characters explore, can go a long way toward constructing a narrative from your 15 minutes of prep time. Let those players do some of the work!
To this day one of the most memorable — and impactful to the party — adventures took place in a map I found called The Trickle. It’s a very vertical, isometic map of a cavern system built into the stone behind a massive waterfall. I imagined this cliff face was many thousands of feet above the ocean below, so the waterfall surges off the edge and cascades down. There are little balconies here and there along the outside leading into different levels within the cavern system. The party adventured in there for days! Meaning several sessions of D&D!
The Pinterest DM Experiment
I was talking with a player in my group the other night and said I wanted to try running a D&D session using nothing but Pinterest. So, the next day when we got together to continue the adventures of the Adventurers of Adventure, I did just that.
Three of the images I pulled are down below. There is a fourth, but it’s a map and the party hasn’t gotten to that part at the time of this writing. And the players read this stuff. Sorry, Adventurers of Adventure — no spoilers for you.
There’s no real powerful reason I chose these particular pieces of fantasy art other than they captured my interst (my Pinterest?) at the time. Paired with the map, I had the skeleton of a story for the party to explore. During the session, the cloaked figures became reskinned harpies. I changed their claw damage type to necrotic and otherwise they’re straight out of the Monster Manual. The players were curious, and very wary of these creatures that seemed to be billowing cloaks being blown in a strong wind.
The owl-themed figure is a reskinned siren, and the map is the siren’s lair. Along with the “harpies” there’s a strong avian theme, and a fey quality of whimsy. The siren’s lair really ties this theme together.
Lastly, there’s a weird black potion with what looks like a blue dragon eye floating inside. But the black liquid can take the form of a sword blade, with the vial as the handle! Things like this can be as simple as a +1 longsword functionally, but visually quite different. Or if could have no bonus to hit or damage but do necrotic damage instead of slashing. It could be like a Rod of Lordly Might and form sword, axes and all sorts of things.
There is a neverending trove of creatures, characters, magic items, magic spells, amazing vista and locations and anything you can dream of when you explore the fantasy art through Pinterest. Just yesterday, a player showed me the map he’d be drawing of the unexplored region they adventure in, and it looked exactly like the map from Pinterest I use as a reference. He made the comment I describe things really well, and maybe that’s true…but it helps when I’m looking at the unbelievable fantasy art and just telling them what I see.
If you’d like to check out one of the Pinterest boards I use to find inspiring fantasy art for my D&D games, check it out here.
Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, world building, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy or his own blog The Long Shot, he’s a newspaper designer, copy editor and journalist. He loves advocating the RPG hobby and connecting with other nerds and gamers on social media and his site thelongshotist.com.