Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

Join in the Adventures!

Art to Inspire 3

Once again we stand upon the field of art-gushing! One should never underestimate the power of visual art in creating effective inspiration for RPG sessions. Without further ado, let’s get into it!

Steampunk! Generally I think the artistic genre is overdone, or so hyper-stylized that it becomes meaningless (gears on hats, goggles everywhere, idolizing Victorian aesthetics without thinking of the cultural implications, etc.). However, this one has some nice touches which make it appealing as an NPC (or better, a world element idea)!

The costume reminds me of imperial Japanese uniforms from the early-mid 20th century, and the implication that there are special wrist-mounted shotgun devices for officers creates a neat implication for the nature of the world of play. How bad can it get when even commanders have to be ready for imminent attack?

This piece resembles some of the art of the snake-people from All Tomorrows, that now-famous piece of speculative science fiction about human evolution. What I like most about this piece is that it just oozes unique world design. Everything in the image implies something about the culture, artistic heritage, and needs of these creatures. I would use this image as a source for detailed room descriptions when meeting these beings.

Adventure! Frank Frazetta! Robots and Warrior-women! This is the stuff of great fun. This could easily serve as a seed for a unique army, fuel for a setting (scanty dress on a mysterious world), or even NPC fuel, if you could manage make the lady’s personality go beyond her stance. Cool she might be, but It would be a nice challenge to try to make her more than just and eye-candy NPC.

I love the color use on this one. The warm, aggressive colors used for the inside of the cockpit contrast nicely with the cold, vicious blue of the outside, were the monster looms. The stance of the pilot is nice too; you can really see his tension.

This would inspire a “moment” for me. Armed with this image in my mind, I would have an easier time building and snapping the tension with a group of characters in a similar situation. Again, it’s all in the subtlety. Which direction are they facing? What details can they make out? How much of the monster is apparent? These are questions that artwork helps me to answer.

“I’ve come to warn you! Don’t invest in-“

It’s a simple enough piece, but there is some real horror conveyed in the hairless, mottled features of the apparition. Who is it? Well, it could be adapted to be anyone.

I would use this primarily as fuel to describe a portal or vision-scene. The rippling of the air and the strange colors paint a vivid image. Ah, how now to articulate that to players easily? I could always just show them the image, I suppose…

Magic Tech and The Overlap

Something which pops up a lot in my games: technology so advanced and powerful that it appears as magic. And yet, the players or the characters (or both) know that it is more than just “magic sparkles and earth energy.”

We’ve all heard the Arthur C. Clarke quote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At this point its a little overused as a concept, but it can still create a feeling of awe and excitement when used properly.

Because here’s the thing; I think that being able to impose a sense of order on the world is very helpful for people! We seem to forget that the reason why the civilizations we base fantasy off of used “magic,” “witchcraft,” and “deities” because they fit inside the frameworks of prior understanding. It is a form of empirical reasoning, though certainly based more on culture, religion and personal belief than objective reasoning.

Therefore, I see no real problem with letting magic “systems” exist, or frameworks of understanding which allow magic to be understood as a form of “science.” Science, and the idea that parts of the world can be explained logically, is part of our world, just as spirituality is part of other cultures’ conception of the world. It makes the magic feel more like something we can understand.

Not to say that there is anything inferior about having magic which makes no sense or cannot be explained. For as much as there are things which can be explained in our world, there are just as many which cannot, or not fully.

But we can still experiment, observe results, and make assumptions based on what we have observed. In Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, the terrifying alien tech, which borders on impossible magic, still can have predicable effects, we just have no idea how it works. We know there are patches of air which crush people to death, just not how the work or what they are. In the end, even the explainable is at least observable.

The worst magic systems are ones which have no logic or meaning at all, no sense of power or effort involved, and which value all effects equally arbitrarily. A world where seemingly anything can be done with magic is one where there is no consistency. It invites open-ended questions of the lore and story (“why don’t they just ‘magic’ themselves a solution?”) which prevent immersion in the narrative, and when you deal a death blow to immersion, the story, no matter its form, falls apart.

So let magic and tech overlap! This argument of “magic vs tech” is based more on old Tolkien-fantasy value systems anyway. Yes, LOTR is great, but it is a very specific setting, and it idealizes returns to simple living rather than using technology to make life better. Magic, like technology, can be used in countless ways to improve live and create diverse aesthetics beyond the dreams of anyone who has come before!

Why I Don’t Over-Plan Sessions

I recall something I heard about Matt Mercer of Critical Role: he once asked his players where they would like to go in a massive city. “The Bank,” they said. Whereupon, Mercer produced a fully detailed map of the bank’s layout. When they asked how he knew they would go there, he said, “I didn’t, so I just planned out the whole city.” Cue awed gasps and praise.

I’m thankfully not alone these days as someone who sees this as setting a bad example for how RPGs and DMing go. Critical role is fine, it’s perfectly ok if you’re into that sort of thing, but it is more performance than actual play, more now than ever.

Planning a session has become a pretty streamlined process for me these days. From the extended campaigns I planned out in late high school, to the rapid-fire middle-school groups I have been running lately, I have felt an increasing need to think on my feet, to plan out only the broad strokes, what the rest of the world is doing while the characters are running around, and that’s enough for me.

And that’s why Mercer sets a bad example. Not that his style isn’t entertaining if you like that sort of thing, but seeing it as a rule of thumb is probably setting oneself up for disappointment.

Players are the best possible storytelling tool. They will come up with amazing new ideas and twists to the narrative, they will question your assumptions and poke holes in your assumed behaviors (only last week I had the party react to a soviet-punk war machine phasing through the wall by giving the crew potatoes), and they will fall in love with characters and ideas you have given almost no thought to.

And you can’t plan for that. Even in my most reliable group, whose behaviors I know very well, I have had to pivot and change where the story is going due to unprecedented behaviors.

Plus, the back-and-forth dynamic of player input and GM output is what keeps the game interesting! If I wanted to run/play a linear story with a set outcome regardless of choice or build, I would play a video game, and at least those will run all the calculations for me!

Using RPGs to Tackle Philosophical Questions

In a world of make-believe, anything can be done, within reason. As such, I’ve used RPGs to provoke meaningful questions. It’s amazing what a bit of context can add; a question or situation is more compelling when it’s someone’s character in that situation.

For example, in a sci-fi game I ended up proposing a question about life, death, and continuity of consciousness. When confronted with an unknowable alien artifact, the party’s psychic realized they could push their way in with the help of another psychic to help them. Except I neglected to mention one thing to the party: the device was created with extreme quarantine measures, and was designed to disintegrate and reconstruct anyone who requested entry.

I told the player privately so they wouldn’t think they were totally dead, and then, well…

“Yea, you instantly disintegrate.”

And the NPC psychic on hand confirmed it: their mental signal was snuffed out in an instant of agony. They died. Cue chaos.

However, as I mentioned already, they were not dead, merely reconstructed. Everything was the same, barring some minor differences in vein and muscular formation as a result of the rapid-produced clone biology. A question we then had to ponder, once it was revealed what had happened:

“Was the character the same person, or were they killed and replaced?”

And yes, the game SOMA asked this same question.

Seeing as how their neurons were perfectly copied, there was certainly no termination of consciousness, merely an interruption. When it resumed, nothing about them had changed. It was an inspired little moment we all shared, and is right up there with the “bag of holding: bellybutton edition.”

The added context made it resonate so much more, which I find helps immensely in philosophical questions. It’s a little too easy to get bogged down with broad ideas like “is a person with no eyes or brain alive???”

Posts may slow down a little as things get busy, but I’ll upload when I can.

Re-Interpreting Familiar Creatures

What with all the discussion surrounding brand and copyright of familiar creatures (yes, the OGL has been restored, but let’s not forget just because one battle has been won; many elements of the hobby are still tied to The Brand, and WoTC won’t back down forever), I thought it would be prudent to cover something which I find greatly important when it comes to creating a satisfying game: surprise when it comes to creatures.

Now obviously we shouldn’t treat RPGs as only a protracted combat simulation (though it’s fine if that’s your bag), but it’s a little hard to escape the fact that combat tends to be an exciting part of most games, even intrigue-based ones like most eldritch horror RPGs. Combat, like good drama, is an easy way to use high risk and physicality to create effective tension. And to create the best tension, you need cool things to fight.

I’m reminded of something Tim Kask said in an interview years ago; that he creates his own unique stat blocks for creatures because he got sick of people walking into rooms, knowing exactly how the creature operates, and removing all challenge as a result. “Ah, you may think you know how a hell-hound works,” he said, “but not at my table.” Usually he would design his creatures around specific weaknesses and strengths which were not so easy to intuit as “vulnerable to fire” or “resistance to poison.” A philosophy I have adopted in the years since.

“Don’t worry guys, he seems scary, but all we have to do is cast lightning bolt a few times.”

Because really, who wants to play a game where everyone knows everything about every creature and danger before they get a chance to interact with it?

So in an effort to encourage breaking from traditional creatures and brand ideas, let’s try reinterpreting some classic creatures.

The Beholder: The face of the modern brand. Dialing down the “eye” theme, why not make it small and agile? Possessed of evil intelligence perhaps, but more unknowable and alien in personality. Perhaps the gaze itself carries no dangerous effects… however what the Beholder sees within you may be of great concern…

I love me my mind-flayers (or Illithids)! One could easily dial them back in such a way that they do not have a complete society, ruled by cruel slavery, but perhaps are more of an open secret. Perhaps they are people, and psychic powers slowly twist their bodies into these new shapes.

There are always new ways to make psychic powers more interesting too, such as limiting their mind control to only certain people, or making it so pervasive that anyone who wishes to confront them must work through a series of complex mental blocks in order to gain control of their own body at all.

Hell Hounds are like certain Pokemon: their appearance easily gives away their strengths and weaknesses. This could be subverted by saying that they are only harmed by water from a certain place, but then you just have people gathering vials of the stuff to use without a second thought, and we’re back where we started.

Instead, what if they behave like fire? The more they are attacked and manage to harm people, the larger and stronger they get, creating situations where whacking away at them is the last thing you should do? Instead they would need to be disarmed and diminished by having to calm them, maybe even risk petting their viscous flaming hides… ouch!

I can just imagine a barbarian, all coiled muscle and scars, having to remain calm as they stroke the searing fur of a hell-hound, trying desperately not to scream in pain.

And finally Kobolds, those angry little buggers who basically end up serving as scaly goblins. I’m all for a redesign (the picture does a good job of making them look more like burrow-dwelling rabbits), but adding a few other details can really open possibilities for unique details and interactions.

Really wyrd it up! Maybe they can remove their limbs in order to escape tight situations or squeeze through inaccessible places. Maybe they are creatures of stone which turn back into rock when they die, creating a need to find space for all their past dead. Don’t even get me started on cleaning up after a large battle with them… it’s much harder when the bodies weigh as much as two people and can’t decompose…

Some of my favorite moments in recent games have been watching as players are forced to come up with new and unique ways to deal with a creature they cannot simply whack until it’s dead or know everything about it because they have committed the “Official Licensed Creature Compendium Volume VIIā„¢” to memory.

Art to Inspire 2

How about some art again? Life may be busy, but there’s always time for inspiration for RPG sessions!

Refer to the first post for my general criteria for how I collect and judge pieces in general. Now on to the specific examples!

Science Fantasy again! And what a piece of exemplify it, with her dynamic pose, combination of advanced and archaic weapons, and the use of sci-fi armor shaped like ancient armor. I also like the touch of anonymity created by the battle-headset allowing the viewer to appreciate the muscular shape of the subject while keeping the heroic knightly calm. The addition of the screen in the foreground could imply this is VR or perhaps some remote viewing situation. Probably the former, since she appears to be in the middle of materializing (missing one of her legs, and the sparkling of light particles on that side).

Gubbins and Goblins! I might use this piece as a scene-setting example for a commune of small subterranean dwellers. And they aren’t just missing around either; none are looking at the viewer, which usually helps in inspirational art. I like the subjects to not be drawing attention to their nature as a drawing, I prefer them to be simply existing for the purposes of artistic immersion.

I’ve read all the original Conan the Barbarian stories, and most of the really excellent Savage Sword of Conan, so I have a soft spot for the wild and crazy adventures of our bronze-hided hero. What I love about this one is that it is a momentary break in the usual action.

Conan, traveling alone, glimpses for an instant in the sky the images of his savage gods. He doesn’t approach or flee, he can only exclaim in his usual fashion, though now the name becomes literal and serves to identify who we are looking at. This is just how I like to have my deities interact with characters: indirectly and vaguely, with a sense of distant uncaring awe.

Warhammer 40k art is not usually my bag. It is often too extreme in its proportions and chaotic action to bring across anything meaningful. However, this piece doubles down on the WWI imagery frequently used by the setting.

Chunky frames aside, it falls into that sub-set of WWI art which is confrontational about the horror (masked combatants, smoke, destruction), while also seeming heroic through the use of military power imagery and the action-movement.

Battles tend to get my imagination going if the art is done well, and this one gives me a few ideas as to what to highlight in a chaotic scene.

No art collection is complete for me without some hokey 80’s art!

“Blargh, I’m a wizard! And I’m zapping the world! You know, wizard things!”

His costume is pretty snazzy if you’re into that sort of thing, so this could maybe serve as a major NPC inspiration. It would be a bit of a stretch for the Palpatine-zapping though.

There are better pieces of art of Roadside Picnic, but the simple line-work of this one is very pleasant to me. Without the excessive detail, we still get a nice clear image of Monkey, Redrick’s daughter with the strange fur all over her body, and Redrick’s father, a corpse come back to “life” due to the influence of the zone. Only inaccuracy is that Monkey is supposed to have all-black eyes.

A great NPC pair, though! I love to have unique NPCs to add color to the world, and these two are a great example of something I would shamelessly mine for ideas… I mean be inspired by…

Tips for Immersion

This is a hard topic, because it is pretty variable (to a point) and is up against a pretty steep challenge. To put it simply, this is hard because:

RPGs are one of the hardest art forms to get immersed in.

It’s not impossible, and it can be great when you get there, but it is more of an uphill battle.

Movies, if properly edited and shot, can grab the attention of a viewer and hold it tightly. Books, though they require more mental effort to progress the story, can get very absorbing very quickly (few can claim to have never found a book which interests them by the first page). Video games are a personal and engaging experience with immediate feedback and a presentation which does everything it can to pull the player in.

RPGs are different. There are few visual aids, and when they are there, they are usually more impressive as a miniature tableau as opposed to tools for immersion.

“Wow, awesome setup! Wait… what was my character doing again?”

Not everyone has access to complex modular tile sets, or complex lighting setups. Most groups are lucky if they have a GM with two dozen miniatures of random creatures and heroes. Most of the immersion of RPGs is taking the raw elements of human interaction (speaking, storytelling, drawing, etc.) and trying to get immersed with little more.

And honestly, it’s not easy.

Having to keep in mind everything, from your character’s personality and abilities, the location of the action, the larger goal (easier to lose track of than we assume), and when to jump in to contribute, is a task which is incredibly difficult

Using Art to Inspire

I’ve got thousands at this point; artwork running the genre gambit from High Fantasy all the way to Hard Sci-Fi, and back again, hitting all the spaces in between. I organize and cultivate them by genre and subject.

And I use them to inspire my games.

Usually, I’ll just pick a genre generally matching the setting of my story, and I’ll just scroll. Like my RPG collection, I only collect art which is in some way unique, even if it is something small like color choice or line work.

Then I ask questions about the art, elaborate on hints in the piece about potential ideas, and let my mind wander.

Examples are best, as always.

Fantasy Realism art is most of what I collect, as it assists in the process of presenting an unreal thing as more convincing.

I love the use of highlighting on the fur in this piece, as well as the use of two white dots for eyes, looking like more intense stars from the background. I would probably use this to inspire a distinct “moment” in a horror game, and I would use the art to give me details to mention which highlight the horror.

But not all is realistic! Occasionally I collect interesting character pieces, like these adorable lizard-folk here.

It’s not the most complex piece, nor the most inspiring, but this one has subtle touches to enhance the image; such as how one is holding a dagger in his tail, the cute perturbed expressions, or the grasshopper motif between them (one on the battle harness, one on the ground).

It’s no secret: I think warrior women are awesome. There are many depictions of female warriors (not all of them very good), but this one is well-done.

The armor, though ornate, is still fairly realistic in its design, with the exception of the codpiece (probably for style reasons, as most codpiece just look comical). The fact that the art is in pencil, with red edge-lighting, also lends the dynamic pose some additional vibrance.

This piece is great inspiration for an NPC, and the style is more exciting than just a flatly-lit character study.

I also make use of sci-fi and abstract art. Abstract tends to show up more in sci-fi for some reason, possibly due to the tendency for sci-fi to be philosophical about its speculation.

This piece inspires me to create an NPC as well, perhaps some sort of powerful and long-lived transhumanist, like the characters in House of Suns (Alastair Reynolds). The stained-glass and creeping roots around her head imply a host of connections and influence, while the vulnerable comatose body speaks of the weak and fragile flesh she has managed to transcend.

Speaking of Sci-Fi, here is a habitat of some sort! Where is it? Is it inside a massive light-hugger ship, or inside a ring-station? Perhaps it is deep in the earth.

The way the buildings rise up along the sides and eventually turn into the wall-mounted rooms implies there is more beneath the surface as well. This could almost be part of a Warhammer 40k Hive World, or a crowded starship. It is also strangely devoid of activity… perhaps another hint as to what this art could inspire.

Exaggerated features (similar to those used in generic fantasy art of recent times), can be inspiring too, when used properly. The use of light and shadow, brought across through varying stroke density, creates the feel of an old woodcut.

NPC material, probably. However, some character concepts have been inspired by things like this too. He has to have a suitably arcane-sounding name, like Marrazzmus or Trephogon.

And pulp art! It’s best to cultivate a collection of fun works from all genres and styles. Though masculine-centric adventure stories have gone out of style (or become laughable at best), a good action scene is still fun.

I love the action poses, the alien (great to see an actual different scale to the humans), and the contrast of light and color: the hall beyond filled with light and allies, the room in the foreground dimly lit and filled with unseen enemies out of frame, which allows our mind to dwell on what foes await the subjects of piece. Could they be alien bugs? A species of reptile pirates? Or are the subjects themselves actually mutineers or villains, springing onto the bridge in a surprise coup?

I have a ton of art like this, so I think I will do another post discussing (or ranting about) my criteria for what artwork I like to keep for inspiration. I’m very visually-minded, so I take a lot of inspiration from good art.

Can’t Say We Didn’t See This Coming…

You know, when I made that post about the future of the hobby, I kind of discounted the role WotC would play in the changing landscape of RPGs.

But then again, all the signs were there, weren’t they? D&D had been getting more and more marketing publicity, and major properties like Critical Role had been getting lots of funding and attention. Then there were the comments about D&D being “under-monetized” as a property, and well… here we are. Tight-fisted grip on intellectual property.

Obviously this is bad for publishers who have made a good living publishing D&D content under the OGL for years. What I’m really quite happy to see is people realizing that, for all the “fun and adventure” aesthetic WotC has cultivated around the brand lately, the company (and Hasbro of course) is run by bottom-line-obsessed marketers with no respect for the people who actually play the game.

And this happens with every brand that gets big; if a trend or property gets big enough, money-hogs can smell it from miles away. We’ve seen it happen with everything which gains a degree of mainstream popularity, and eventually the things which was fun and unique is turned into just another way of parting people from their money.

“That’s Drizzt! And Boo! I saw it and I clapped!!”

I don’t run D&D at all these days (I moved on when I started to see where it was going a few years ago), and I don’t publish D&D content, but this still hurts. D&D, like with most people, was something which played a big role in my life at some point or another. It was the first system I played with my dad and it was the first system I played with friends outside my home.

But that was then, and this is now.

So as an addendum to the question of “where is the hobby headed,” I think we can safely speculate this:

WotC has cut off a lot of good will from fans just getting into the hobby, as well as veterans who have gotten a lot of joy out of it over the years. Hopefully, the vacuum is filled by other games (preferably ones easier to play than D&D). I love this hobby and I love the people who share it with me, and I want to see things other than D&D played.

Because holy crap, I’m so sick of D&D. (Visit r/rpg on Reddit if you want more detail as to why I and many other people feel that way).

Let’s use this as an opportunity to spread the hobby to new people, and show them that maybe there’s more to an RPG than railroad-y Classes and progression, obtuse complexity, Armor Class, and those stupid treasure-chest mimics.

Seriously, are there no other ideas in the universe? Why not something new for once?

GM-Player Trickery

Like all art forms, RPGs have elements which make the experience unique from other art forms. The one I am referring to (taking advantage of the storytelling dynamic that exists between GMs and players), is what allows for some really special moments.

This ability to play with the narrative expectations of the audience is not exactly unique to RPGs, nor is a new, but it does work in a very particular way. The human mind is geared to expect some sort of resolution when it comes to storytelling. If you ever wonder what it feels like to have that sense messed with, just think of how one would feel if one of these happened in a story (movie, book, game, etc.):

  • A sympathetic hero(ine) is established as an idealistic but directionless protagonist. They lose everything when a marauding villain kills their family, and they spend the next five years training and learning maturity from a wise mentor figure. Then, after years of training, they go to the town where the villain lives, intent to defeat them after years of waiting. Then suddenly, a passing cart loses control at the top of a hill and comes crashing down, crushing and killing them without even any dramatic emphasis.
  • A story about a happy village of cartoon bears takes a tone shift mid-way through and becomes a story focused on dealing with one of the bears succumbing to a prolonged illness, while still maintaining a chipper lightness of tone despite having many tearful bedside scenes.
  • Or perhaps an action film which follows all the usual beats, save that it fades out to credits after the final “gearing-up” montage before the final shootout. Try this with any typically-structured film, and something deep in the brain reacts poorly.

Though admittedly there could be strong merit in the above examples if they were non-interactive mediums like books and movies (which are more about “presenting” a story than “creating” one), in gaming one tends to abide by the rules ancient human storytellers followed: we trust the storyteller to weave something, perhaps alongside our input, that will be satisfying.

I would argue that one is more likely to get a negative reaction in “live” storytelling when a story is not resolved in an expected way. There is an element of trust in RPGs where the players assume that the GM, unless they are purposefully being vague, will be at least slightly honest. Not all GMs are totally honest, but even the trickiest GM has to be truthful and consistent or else players will lose their minds. A GM can’t just lie about what the likely consequences of actions will be; such GMs tend to not be GMs for much longer.

And THIS is where we mess with players; that they assume you are telling the truth when you say something in total earnestness. This is a fine line to walk, and can’t be done all the time, but it is a neat trick in certain cases.

The campaign where I tested this was one where the characters were (unbeknownst to them) being subtly mind-controlled by a mummified mind-mage.

The secret lay in a specific type of interaction:

Player: “What about the passage ahead?” (or other possible direction of progress)

GM: “You feel it’s probably the right way to go.”


Player: “This situation feels suspicious… is it supposed to be?”

GM: “You don’t think so.”

The assumption that the GM is an arbiter of universal “truth” in the game, rather than an interpreter of the characters’ perceptions, is where the subtle game can be played. Players can be tricked into assuming that the GM is being totally honest, when they are really expressing the biases of the characters.

And this went on for many sessions, until the players began to catch on that all the actions I was suggesting were putting the characters in danger, despite their characters expressing desires otherwise. Once they noticed, I let them play around with how their characters were noticing that their goals were not coinciding with their feelings, and eventually they broke the control.

So long as the balance is maintained between railroading and allowing the freedom that the medium calls for, then you can get some really great moments out of (light) betrayal. Just drop enough hints that you can claim it was “foreshadowed.”