Illustrating an RPG campaign

Warning to any who might want to partake in the Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign as a player, there are minor spoilers below.

Other than a very brief foray into game mastering for first just my wife and then, a year later for her and various in-laws, my only experience of running an RPG adventure has been online. (Indeed, after a few sessions in which we were first introduced to the world of structured make-believe, my whole history of playing RPGs has been through the medium of a computer, either on a virtual tabletop or through play-by-post.)

I splashed out on the Lost Mine of Phandelver module pack on Roll20 in the hope that it would reduce the amount of up front work needed to have the sessions run smoothly on the virtual tabletop. This did indeed work for the first few sessions, before I realised that a) five party members were just romping through this four-player adventure and b) it didn’t give enough maps to cover all the scenarios (which, in fairness, is also the case with the physical starter set) so I needed to start finding images from elsewhere to fill out the gaps.

I also had the players provide me with an image each for their character sheet so that I could provide some tokens for the map-based encounters,and they sent me the following:

An elf, a gnome, a half-elf, another elf and a dwarf. Darkness held no mystery.

As you can see, there was something of a discrepancy in style, tone and portrait size. It was sufficient for an indication of which character was where doing what.

But the motley look rankled, and I wanted to do something to unify the game’s appearance.

At this point, I was still participating in an online D&D game as a player, and the GM was experimenting with an isometric map. Coming into the world of RPGs from a world of miniature tabletop gaming, this visual effect struck a strong chord and I determined that I wanted to bring that style to my online game of Phandelver.

 I do not have a great deal of experience with digital art, nor do I have any particularly high-end devices. Never mind, thought I, this is the opportunity to break into the digital age. So, a few weeks into the campaign and armed with a Kindle Fire and a stylus I’d received as a freebie, I set about converting all the images the D&D module needed from top-down counters and floorplans to isometric maps and full-body figure portraits.


The maps were converted freehand with a virtual isometric grid to guide me, and they took flippin’ ages. By the time I started on the big, final map, I’d realised that I could get away with ignoring the floor – Roll20 could provide that and the playing grid. Even so, this was a laborious process, and by the end I felt the effect was satisfactory rather than brilliant – the Kindle app I was using couldn’t handle larger dimensions, so the map lost much of its quality when blown up to a size big enough for the counters I’d prepared. (In fairness, the image above is a much reduced version. The original is a sizeable image.)

For the majority of the monster and NPC tokens I digitally traced over various bits of official D&D art with some minor artistic modifications, and I spent so much time on some of them that I might as well have used the actual images themselves, were it not for the nagging need for visual uniformity.

A small selection of the many, many creatures to trace.

Copying existing artwork proved to be a double-edged sword – on the one hand I didn’t need to worry about working out poses and colouring, on the other hand these images are incredibly detailed for someone not confident enough to omit all but the necessary aspects of an image.

The player character tokens were original pieces, guided only by the original portraits and the descriptions the players noted down:

This is the party before I killed the gnome off with the BBEG at the conclusion of the written adventure.

I’m ambivalent about the quality of these five figures – the first two poses are very dubious from a technical point of view – but again I labeled them as satisfactory. They were my first attempts at drawing vaguely human forms straight onto a tablet, and there is still much of a learning curve before me.

Ultimately, I wasn’t blown away by the visuals of going fully isometric. It looked reasonable and was usable on Roll20 but, as I started drawing a wider range of creatures and NPCs for a possible homebrew campaign, it did not warrant the time commitment to drawing everything. I was developing something of an industry line to be as efficient as possible with them, but it was still taking several days’ worth of lunch breaks and quiet moments to produce a batch of counters.

So, with the same degree of focus decisiveness as I have demonstrated with my physical miniatures hobby, I started doodling some characters by hand close to the standard Roll20 token. A bit of research later and I found that I could sketch a creature, scan it, render it colour-able with the click of a single button, colour it and crop it into a round token, all in a fraction of the time it took to make an isometric version, particularly after deciding to stop shading. Suddenly I could do several weeks’ worth of free time in a weekend or two.

Not having to draw legs makes such a difference.

This quicker turnaround was emphasised last week when, having lost a player, I invited two more to join the campaign as it entered it’s post-module stage. They gave me their character descriptions and I was able to deploy Roll20 counters for them in the course of an afternoon.

The latest line up of characters. They’ve an orc invasion to fight off, so they need the extra numbers.

I’m now playing around with drawing maps in your everyday squared excercise book. If I can make that work, then I will be able to fairly comfortably produce enough artwork on an easy enough basis for future campaigns and not have to worry too much if players nearly stumble upon the shortcut through the massive final dungeon*.

I have a suspicion that all that time and energy that went into isometricking it up will be for nothing barring the lessons learned in making digital art. I have a fairly large catalogue of isometric images lying around on my hard drive with little prospect of using them – the top-down Roll20 game is just so much simpler to work with.

So much for not overpreparing…

* Seriously, if you want to get through Wave Echo Cave in a jiffy, just keep heading left.

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