Rule # 1: Never underestimate the power of art.
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
I remember the first time I saw the original AD&D Player's Handbook cover featuring Dave Trampier's artwork. The scene really put the hook into me, a party of adventurers cleaning up after killing off a bunch of lizard men - prying the gems from the eye sockets of the nightmare idol, dragging off the carcasses, and consulting their map to calculate their next move. Trampier must have looked at a lot of the old pulp covers like the ones on "Weird Tales." The painting told a story, so much of a story in fact, that we understood what had passed minutes before, and what was coming in the following minutes.
It was genius.
That painting - by itself - sold a lot of copies of the 1st edition PHB.
D&D has always been an exercise in imagination, but imagination needs a little help. That's where the art comes in. When I started playing with my friends in the winter of 1980, the game was just coming into the popular conscience. It had, of course, been around for a few years before we found it, but we happened upon it just as D&D truly exploded in popularity. That explosion was fueled to a great degree by the early TSR artists. It's easy to criticize that early art in light of the more technically proficient work that has emerged in the years since then, but those early works had SOUL. David Trampier, David Sutherland, Darlene, even the weirdly angular work of Erol Otus (all of the original artists in fact) sparked our imaginations. It was one thing to try to imagine what rot grubs looked like, but another thing entirely to see them burrowing into the arm of the unfortunate adventurer in the Monster Manual drawing!
The power of art to fire the imagination remains just as intense today as ever. In fact, it may be even more powerful now. With the advent of the Internet and the rise in popularity of online platforms like D&D Beyond and Roll 20, it is now easier to find and use art in your campaigns, and a good DM will certainly avail himself of this opportunity.
Finding, downloading, and then uploading images into your own campaign is simple, quick, and effective. One needn't find an image for every single item, room, or NPC that appears, but using images for important monsters, items, places, and NPCs can add real energy to your campaign.
I spent the last hour before writing this blog downloading over fifty images of weapons, particularly swords. My players have come across a broken magical sword that was once of immense power. They are in the process of getting it restored to its former glory. This will become an ongoing plotline, so this is the perfect opportunity to inject some art! I started digging around for an image that matched my idea of what the sword looked like, and found several I ended up saving. The image I finally settled on was actually far better than what I had initially imagined, so the artwork is helping my imagination too!
Moments when art can make the difference between being a good DM and a great DM include:
and a dozen others I'm not thinking of just this second.
The key is to use art judiciously. One needn't have a portrait for every old sword pulled from an Orcish cache, but having one for the magic sword that will drive part of your campaign story for a few sessions can make all the difference in the world to players.
There are so many talented artists putting their work on the Internet today that it would be impossible to catalog even a fraction of them. Spend some spare time surfing fantasy art sites. Download images that you like, even if you have no immediate plan for them. Build an ongoing gallery of images to draw from. If you use art you found online, credit the site and/or artist (that's only polite!) If you want to use the art in something you publish, reach out and inquire about licensing the art. This will save you a lot of grief and money. If you're just using the item in your own campaign, then simply sharing the image with your player's should be fine.
Oh, and here is the sword I ended up using:
I scrounged this image from Sketchfab.com. They sell 3D artwork for programming, online gaming, etc.