04 April 2014

Do we *really* need art in gamebooks?

When we buy a gaming product, we make an investment. They cost a fair bit of money now (especially with core rules, which can run into the hundreds of dollars), and playing a game system means choices that can last decades, involve hundreds of hours of work, attract or drive away fellow gamers and affect the product lines upon which you spend money. Anyone who makes this decision based on the Überkewlness of the cover art is a complete moron. This is like deciding what kind of TV to buy based on how awesomely the manufacturer's carton is painted.

Quite aside from that I've seen more published products – my own included – marred by lousy interior art than enhanced by it, the incredibly busy interior graphics of a lot of products are just plain visually jarring ... between pseudo-medieval fonts, pictorial watermarking, sepia-toned inks.  I'm 54 years old, and visual razzle-dazzle akin to Myspace page layouts just puts me off.

And the ultimate insult is they make me pay a premium for all this crap.

I would seriously respect a major publisher that went back to softbound books, two-color plain covers, no interior art ... and that they would thereby sell their stuff for three-quarters the industry standard.

Sorry, these are books. With words. 95% of the information in these game products are verbal. Using words. This isn't World of Warcraft, and it isn't a console game, where visuals are integral to gameplay and can't be divorced from it. These are printed rules which would convey pretty much the same information if they were 100% graphics- and illustration-free.

But, after all, the "non-verbal" gamers (which in terms of tabletop seems quite an oxymoron to me, but whatever) have had things all their way for quite a few years now. Gamebooks are jammed cover to cover with pretty graphics, full color interior art, lavish borders and all manner of glitz. Just on a lark, I used a converter to strip a couple PDFs down to plain text ... and got as much as a forty percent reduction in page length.

Possibly you're comfortable with paying for a hundred pages of padding in a corebook. I sure as hell am not, and in the industry these days, only one of us is getting what he wants.

Let's take one of my pet peeves, the Serenity RPG.  It uses eight pages, a 20th of its page count, on full-color production stills of the principals of the Firefly crew.  What you learn is that (for instance) the actress Gina Torres (and by inference, the character she plays) is black, the actress Summer Glau isn't (ditto) and the actress Morena Baccarin is dusky skinned and of some other racial stock (more of the same).  Its applicability to gameplay I leave to you to imagine.

Hm, I have a copy of the Star Wars RPG here.  Now each and every page has inch-plus-wide margin graphics which mimic a wristcomp or something of the sort, and represents about a seventh of the available space for text. Want to know how much space that ate up? Fifty-four pages, about.

Now I’ve been told that, for vague and poorly articulated reasons, RPG gamers “need” there to be tons of art in gamebooks.  But strangely enough, the vast number of non-RPG publications in our culture – the ones marketed to grownups, anyway – are devoid of both.  Let's look at the first five books on my bookshelf:

Shanteys of the Seven Seas, by Stan Hugill. No interior illos. The only graphics are the first bars of many of the shanteys, done up in musical notation.

The Koran - Heck, illos are downright impious as far as a Muslim goes.

Collected Verse by Rudyard Kipling. Nope, no artwork here.

The Civil War, by Shelby Foote. There are, occasionally, maps of key Civil War battles.

The Nine Nations of North America, by Joel Garreau. A center section of maps.

Shall I keep going? More of the same, and the illustration rate drops dramatically when you get to fiction books. So could someone tell me: why is it that poets, devout religious practitioners, folk musicians, Civil War historians and social scientists can manage perfectly well without a quarter of their books being taken up by pretty pictures ... and it's believed that RPG gamers no longer can?


  1. Total agreement here.
    The original Traveller books are some of my all-time favorites rulebooks for how clean and clear they were of distracting nonsense.

  2. "This is like deciding what kind of TV to buy based on how awesomely the manufacturer's carton is painted."

    More like, deciding what kind of TV to buy based on how awesome the TV itself looks. Artwork matters just as much as the layout, theme, grammar, spelling, and each little part of a book. Without art, RPG books would suffer.

    1. I disagree; they wouldn't be affected in the least degree. No one has yet given me a single good reason for interior illos (beyond maps and diagrams useful in scenarios). That they "set a mood?" They do no such thing -- the GM does that with his WORDS. That they depict key characters? Stipulating that they actually do a good job of it -- I really hated how the artist screwed up key character art in my Scarlet Pimpernel book -- so what? How does it materially affect gameplay to know that a certain character is brunette rather than blond, something that in any event could be described in a single word?

  3. Art in a book can serve a purpose. Such as what the monsters look like, or how the designer envisions something to appear. Also useful for exotic things. Helps some people get a handle on what they are encountering. Or it can help set the tone of the setting. Unfortunately more often the art may fail one way or another if the art director is slacking off.
    Art as filler is just glitze.

    1. The number of GMs I have seen open up a book, point to an illo, and say "This is what the weird monster you're facing looks like" I could count on the fingers of one hand, with several to spare.