Friday Favourite: How Art Inspires Campaigns

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 1, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From January 24, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: How Art Inspires Campaigns.

As both a DM and a player I draw my inspiration from four different sources: fantasy literature, movies, my daily walk and art. It is amazing how a single phrase, scene, tree or image can inspire a character’s history or indeed an entire campaign. I walk my dog daily and on the path I take through a forest there was a dead tree that was covered in vines. This image inspired the idea for an entire campaign where the natural world was being threatened by rot and corruption. Not the most original idea, I’ll admit, but as the dead tree was surrounded by life I decided to represent this by an antagonist that the party trusted. Over time his duplicitous nature would be revealed. Not bad for an idea inspired by a tree.

I find that simple images and stills can often provide great ideas for campaigns and character concepts. Fantasy art has inspired me in more ways than I can count. The idea of taking an image and providing a history for that image is an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Art clearly is a popular subject and I’m obviously not the only one inspired by it. Two of our most popular articles here at Dungeon’s Master are The Art of D&D (Part 1 | Part 2). My purpose here isn’t to go back as Ameron did and talk about artists who have shaped our thoughts of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead I want to look at some select images and create things from them. Today’s post is a workshop and I’m interested in the stories we will create.

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. While my intention is not to write 1,000 words about each of these images, I do want to use them as a starting point to discuss how each image could inspire a D&D session. For some of these images I know exactly who the artist is and will link to their site, providing appropriate credit. Others are images I found in a random Google search.

Image 1 – Rayna by Eva Widermann

We will start off with a character portrait and create a NPC. Eva Widermann is my go-to artist when I’m looking for a character portrait. This image really jumps out at me for several reasons.

There are several questions we need to ask about the image, who is Rayna? Why is she wearing nothing but a sheet? Is the dagger for defense or a ritual? Finally, what does the pendant on her necklace signify?

Let’s make Rayna is a re-occuring NPC. The party first meets her during the mid-heroic tier. She was kidnapped or offered by her local village as a blood sacrifice to appease the old gods. The party is requested by her distraught family to rescue her and rid the region of the evil that is plaguing it.

The real evil is a crone who is magically extending her life by borrowing on the life force of young villagers. Though the PCs resuce Rayna, the crone has already transfered her life force into Rayna. Over the next couple of levels the party will continue to complete tasks that are designed to ease Rayna’s discomfort as no one is aware of the possession. Of course the party is unwittingly assisting the goals of the crone. It’s up to the DM to decide when the party might become aware of the deception.

Image 2 – Blood Moon Over Sanctuary

This is one of the images where I don’t know the artist, but whoever they are thank you for producing this piece.

The blood red moon in this piece instantly makes me think undead or lycanthrope. I will run with undead in this instance, most likely intelligent undead. The light in the tower indicates one of two things, either an individual in a position of power is expecting a nocturnal visit or they are the undead themselves. The town is secluded, heavily fortified and easily defended from an external threat.

OK, let’s put the whole location together. The town of Sanctuary is located in a remote region of the kingdom. It’s natural fortifications, combined with a robust wall allow its citizens to defend themselves from the lycanthropes who dwell in the forest beyond the town’s borders. The lycanthrope have been attacking for generations and the citizens don’t know why. The battle has become a blood feud with members of the town launching hunting parties every season. The true reason for the attacks is that the lord of the town is an ancient vampire. Once he was an adventuring companion to the leader of they lycanthropes. Both were cursed in their own terrible way. The lord of the town turned his back on his companion eventually settling in Sanctuary. Through corruption, bribery and murder he worked and infiltrated his way to a position of power and now maintains that power with an iron grip.

The PCs now find themselves in this strange town. They are warned not to leave due to a build up of lycanthropes in the forest. But is the true threat outside or inside this town?

Image 3 – Aerial Battle In Sharn by Wayne Reynolds

This image evokes action and perhaps that I what I enjoy most about Wayne Reynolds’work, there is always something going on. His work promotes action.

This piece speaks for itself regarding the type of encounter that could be designed. The PCs are travelling through the city in an airship, when they come under attack. The attackers are travelling on hover discs, Let the mayhem ensue.

The Workshop

For the three images found below I would encourage the community to share their thoughts on a possible encounter that could occur for each. Feel free to be as detailed as you want. Working together we can create an easy pre-made encounter ready for your next game.

Image 4 – Body Snatchers by Wayne Reynolds

Another image by Wayne Reynolds. There are a few things going on in this image and a DM could craft multiple encounters out of it.

Questions to ask:

  • Is the body alive or dead and who is it?
  • The combat at the house appears separate from the ghouls, what’s going on?
  • Where is this house and who lives there?
  • Why is the party there in the first place?

Image 5 – By David Revoy

I am not sure of the name of this piece by David Revoy. I like to think of it as shops by the bridge. The piece seems quaint and very peaceful. In fact the only disturbance is a woman emptying her refuse into the river.

I imagine a very intricate social skill challenge for this image. Of course some multi level combat is also not out of the question. Using roof-tops, the bridge, stairs and river could create a very interesting and dynamic encounter.

Image 6 – Title and artist unknown

Another bridge sequence, this one a little more dramatic with dragons flying all over the place.

What has brought forth the dragons? Are they native to this city or are they attacking?

If they are attacking, why and where do the PCs fit in?

Using art to inspire my campaign idea’s has always been a fun experience. What artists do you draw inspiration from? What encounters would you craft from the images found above?

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1 Joe Lastowski March 1, 2013 at 10:22 am

Static image art isn’t the only art that inspires campaigns. I’ve written massively wandering plotlines just to come up with an excuse to use a particular miniature I’ve found. The artwork of many video games has also inspired worlds and sessions for me, and/or helped me to describe scenarios for my players in terms they’ll immediately understand (Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, the Final Fantasy series, and the Dynasty Warriors games have all been used as direct points of reference in my games). And let’s not forget anime, television, movies, and books, all of which are artforms that contribute to the melting pot of ideas from which we draw our gaming inspiration.

2 Emanuele Galletto March 2, 2013 at 6:47 am

I totally agree with your article. Being myself an illustrator (or at least that’s what I’d love to become), as a DM I’m heavily influenced by the work of several artists, mainly Wayne Reynolds, Kev Walker, Jesper Ejsing, Brom and Rk Post. The whole campaign setting I’m currently developing for my 3.5 games is strongly tied to winter, conveying a Dark Sun-like feeling in an arctic environment. The whole Ice Age block from Magic: the Gathering has been a great source of inspiration, as well as various articles on Inuit life and custom.
I’d say the picture I love the most from the ones you provided is the village bridge by David Revoy. In my adventures I tend to divert from the traditional epic fantasy tropes (you know, when players find themselves full of uber flaming worldsplitting swords by reaching 6th level)… planning a whole adventure in a small town can be really fun, because you get to shape every villager. It’s something more than just “staying at the inn is 4 gp, you rest, get up late, heal your wounds, now you can shop annnnnd you get to the horrible cave filled with monsters”. I can imagine the quiet looks of the village hiding the sad and cruel truth of some old and wicked ceremony, or maybe they have to sacrifice someone every year to an old local spirit to keep the waters clean and full of fishes.
If you want to get Lovecraftian here, the woman could be throwing some food to the vaguely human creatures in the water, and her face, now that you look carefully, resembles that of a pale toad…
Endless possibilities 😀

3 Ameron (Derek Myers) March 3, 2013 at 1:07 pm

@Emanuele Galletto
You mention in your comment that you’re creating a winter-themed campaign. Might I suggest you check out this article: Adventure Hooks: Campaigns in the Cold (Part 1).

4 Emanuele Galletto March 3, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Thanks! I found some of the stuff in the article really interesting 🙂

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