Our campaigns tend to have three names: an real one, a colloquial one, and a snarky one. I’ve talked about how The Eight Arms and the Memento Mori quickly became The Monster-Hunting Campaign and soon after became The Monster-Friending Campaign. Less frequently used are the transition from The Eight Arms and the Shadow Invasion to The First Eight Arms campaign to Victorian Greyhawk (especially interesting because the campaign is set in neither the Victorian era nor Greyhawk), or from Fortune and Glory, Kid to The Mystara Campaign to The Terrible, Terrible Mystara Campaign. Our current campaign is no exception. Ostensibly its name is The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl, but before it even started it became The Plane-Hopping Campaign. It doesn’t have an official snark name yet, but I’d like to propose The Art Campaign.
Visual art is a double-edged sword in deliberately non-visual media like tabletop gaming. When done well, it can put everybody on the same page about something or provide seeds for exploration and investigation or give the players that sense of wonder they can’t get from a simple description of “a big city on an island”. I’ve had whole adventures happen because I found a piece of art for an area, saw something in it, and adopted it into the session, or because I found a picture of a character and decide he or she was too awesome to not use. When done poorly, it disrupts the players’ mental picture or changes the style of the game to something you don’t want or provides a source of endless frustration as you search and search for the perfect piece of art that you know exists but can’t find. Nothing throws me out of whack like seeing five characters in five different art styles and being told they all exist next to each other in the same space.
Contract of Barl, weirdly is doing both. I knew it was going to be an art-heavy campaign from the start because of the plane-hopping. Places like Bytopia are inherently weird and we need a visual frame of reference to understand why it’s different from what we expect and how it works. I also decided it was high time to populate the campaign wiki with pictures, after I spent something like days getting the wiki to accept file uploads in the first place. Everything kind of came together here and now to make this the campaign about visuals.
The good news is that we’re in the process of getting character portraits for key Eight Arms personnel and it’s going absolutely swimmingly. Before too long we should have all the characters in this campaign, and then it’s on to the founders from the original campaign. They seem to keep popping up in stories even if their players don’t, so it strikes me as a good investment, and a bit of a present to the players for putting up with me. It you’re as thrilled with the portraits as I am, that picture is a link.
The bad news is just about everything else. Art of the planes is a great idea, but a lot of the planes and the sites on them are really specific. Bytopia is a plane of communities and civilization, except the sky is another parallel continent of untamed wilderness, and you will be hard-pressed to find a picture of that without very definitely finding a picture specifically intended as Bytopia. The more generic the plane, the easier it is to find art of it, but the more boring the plane itself is. A true plane-hopping campaign needs to go to the weird places, and I’m finding myself making do with whatever I can cobble together with all the Photoshop skills of a sleepy koala.
The monsters are no better. Past campaigns have had enemies like orcs (incredibly common as long as you like the World of Warcraft style, and I do), weird nightmare creatures (also easy, especially if you look for art and build the monster around it), animals (DeviantArt loves weird animals so much I’m not even kidding) or simple, actual human beings. The most relevant creatures in this campaign are efreet, which are not illustrated all that commonly. I can’t really do a search for “like a genie, except with red skin and horns and legs instead of trailing off into wispiness.” The closest I can find are devils, but even that’s a generic term and I end up searching through hundreds of pictures to find one or two I can use. Then consider the most common PC race in the campaign, ifrits, who are normal people but their skin is orange and their hair is on fire. They’re pretty much Pathfinder-exclusive, and finding art of them that isn’t from a Paizo book is rough. Then come fire giants, which you’d think would be fairly common, but no. I managed to come away from my search with maybe two good fire giant pictures, which is significantly lower than the number I need.
Sometimes when I hit walls like this I can take a step back, reconsider what I’m doing, and come up with an alternative that fits my resources. Here that’s not as possible. This is a planar campaign, and we need pictures of planes. It’s a campaign about an ifrit, and we need pictures of ifrits. The Zelda campaign had exacting standards for what worked and didn’t work for enemy portraits because the players already had an expectation for every monster, and I still spent less time for better results than I am on this campaign. I’m mostly finding whatever art I can, then building NPCs and locations around it, which means the art is defining the campaign even more than normal. It’s working out okay so far, but it’s not great and I worry it’s unsustainable.
So for better or worse, this campaign is as much about art as it is anything else. I’m not happy about it, but I’m happier struggling through pictures than I am changing the campaign concept. It does make me long a bit for the days before DMing software, where I described things to players instead. There were misconceptions and misinterpretations, and we regularly forgot ongoing status effects or hit point changes, and I had to print or write monster stats to bring them to a session, and the more I reminisce about them the worse those dark ages actually sounds. But at least I spent less time on Google Image Search.