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D&D Art Philosophy
Dragon's-Eye View
Jon Schindehette

Illustrations by Drew Sheneman


H ow many of you have struggled through the act of creating a mission statement for a project or corporation? It's a challenge. While I'm not actually defining a corporate mission statement, I am working with my fellow business partners to define the goals for the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. More accurately, I'm trying to define the overall Dungeons & Dragons art philosophy that we will be using to define the look and feel of the art, and I'm attempting to come up with visual touchstones for the brand. It's a grueling and complex issue, but I'm having a lot of fun discussions as we go.

So what is my D&D art philosophy?

Great question. Thanks for asking! The following is a work in progress—it's not a definitive statement at this time.

D&D is defined by its great art. Seems like a no-brainer, huh? D&D is the granddad of the RPG industry and it has influenced several generations of gamers and artists alike. How do I know? They tell me! I get emails, letters, and little "gifts" in the mail from artists, actors, game studios, authors, and many more folks telling me about the ways that D&D, and specifically the art of D&D, has affected and inspired them. So I take the art of D&D very seriously, and I take the idea of creating great art for D&D even more seriously. There are a few key ideas that define great art to me:

  • Storytelling is king. I know a ton of artists who can create beautiful images, but I want D&D to have more than just beautiful images—I want art that tells amazing stories. I want to go back to the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Impact and drama required. I'm not talking about the latest trend in hypersaturated colors and oversized weapons/armor. That might be useful in a video game environment, but I don't want it at the core of my art principles. Instead I want to utilize lighting, composition, and depth to create meaningful and dramatic images that draw the viewer into the world.
  • Great characters. I want to get away from throwaway characters who look like they were lifted from a cast of "usual suspects" in a bad fantasy flick. I want the characters to have flavor, backstory, and visually identifiable personas. Let's go beyond a generic fighter with cool armor and weapons, and instead delve into the space and role that the character holds in the universe. I want to give the DM something to build upon when they introduce an NPC into a campaign.
  • Realism. Although every medium (as in visual medium—film, print, video game, comic, and so on) will have its own specific requirements, I want the core of D&D to be built around realism. To be straight, when I say realism, I'm not talking about an art movement, photorealism, or some philosophical argument. Instead, I'm talking about taking a stand regarding where each creation fits within the D&D universe. I don't want weapons twice the size of the character. I don't want armor that looks impossible to move in. I want to have a world that makes sense.
  • Fantasy. Now I'm going to turn everything I just said on its ear. The settings of Dungeons & Dragons are full of magic. Magic breaks the rules of reality. It makes everything that it touches "unrealistic." Floating cities, magic weapons, and ancient magic artifacts the size of an elephant shouldn't be realistic. They should live in a world of "unreasonableness." Magic is what separates D&D from the mundane world. So although we might want the world grounded in realistic interpretations, wonder should spring forth everywhere that magic touches the world.
  • Cultural clarity. I want to dig into the history and lore of the worlds within D&D and create cultures that live and breathe. I want you to have the ability to walk down a street and tell instantly whether a person you see is a local or a visitor. I want to give you fodder for creating your backstory visually and provide you with the visual tools to align yourself to a culture, a guild, a region in the realm, or a race—or a combination of those visual cues.
  • Differentiated monsters. What are the differences between a ghost, a shade, a wraith, and a host of other incorporeal undead that run around as transparent wisps? I want that defined and I want it to be clear when you see them in a line-up. Even if you don't know the names of the monsters, I want to make sure that you can tell that the creatures are different from each other—not just the same creature with a color shift and a new name.
  • Look to the past to create the future. I don't want to do change for change's sake. I want to change things only when it makes sense to meet the philosophies mentioned above. When we do make changes, we will always start with our historical source. "What would Gary do?" is something that Mike Mearls is fond of saying.

What do you think of that list of guiding principles? This is just a list of my wants. It isn't set in stone, and it isn't "my way or the highway." Is there something that you think breaks your idea of D&D? Is there something that you'd add to the list? If so, let me know in the comments and provide me with a clear and lucid reason why I should look at a different option. I'm open-minded.

You might notice that I've danced around talking about art style. I haven't said anything about "high fantasy," "dark gothic fantasy," "stylized cell animated fantasy art styling," or anything else in that line. Why? 'Cause I haven't made a decision yet. I've received a number of submissions for the Art Test, and they have been really useful for starting discussions about art style. I'm hopeful that even more folks will throw their "styles" into the arena and play along with us as we try to decide where we want to take D&D in the future.

While I'm on the subject of the Art Test, I'm working with the folks here to try to find a good venue to share the art I've been receiving and give everyone else a chance to see the great ideas that are showing up. If you want to see a few samples and get some tips for improving your submissions, wander over to ArtOrder and see my post about the Art Test.


Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.
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