Tobold's Blog
Monday, August 26, 2013
Graphics in pen & paper roleplaying

Computer games now have such a long history that you can find projects today where people are taking old classic games and remake them with better graphics. That shows that graphics are important to immersion in games. On the other side I have vivid images of places like Middle-Earth in my head that come from reading books without illustrations, before video games and films first tried to show the place. Ultimately everything plays in the theater of the mind, whether a story or game has graphics or not.

If you have played pen & paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons with different dungeon masters, you will probably have noticed that some are more skilled at vivid descriptions, at creating memorable scenes in the game. Me, personally, I was always just medium skilled in that. I have a very rational mind and scientific language, which is great for describing a scene completely with all necessary details, but not necessarily artistic enough to really create great images in the theater of the mind. And if my lack of skill at that wasn't bad enough, I now have to deal with the additional handicap of playing in French, which is my third language. The level of French I have that is sufficient for work and daily life isn't exactly the suitable vocabulary to describe a fantasy town or dungeon.

So in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign I am making up for any lack in verbal description by proving an ample amount of graphical support. "A picture is worth a thousand words", they say, so if I have a good picture of let's say a landscape, I need a thousand words less to describe it. :) It is also worth keeping in mind that the memory of different people works in different ways, and people with a visual memory will remember a picture of an NPC better than a spoken description. Mix both and you have a better chance that everybody at the table remembers.

Besides handouts, my main graphical aid is graphical battle maps and tokens with images of the enemies. A map created with software like Campaign Cartographer / Dungeon Designer doesn't just look better than the same shape of room hand-drawn on a blank piece of paper with a square grid. It also makes it a lot easier to have more details, like furniture and decoration, which can then have an impact on the action. If you want your players to have the option to swing from the chandelier, you better have a chandelier in the room in the first place. And a detailed battle map avoids you having to describe every piece of furniture, as the players just see what is there.

I tried in the past to use figurines for monsters, but the D&D universe has so many different monsters, you'd need a rather huge collection of figurines to cover them all. So now I prefer flat tokens with a color printed image on top. I can make those myself, using self-adhesive felt pads for added thickness. And by doing so I can also add numbers to the tokens, which makes it easier to keep track of which monster of a group already got wounded or is under some effect.

There are two downsides to this use of graphical elements in my game: The first is the amount of preparation it takes. I am currently preparing Madness at Gardmore Abbey as my next adventure, and there are 33 encounters in that adventure, with maps and tokens only provided for a few of them. So I needed to create and print a lot of battle maps, plus a few tokens where the tokens from the Monster Vault didn't suffice. The second downside is related to that: What if in the course of the adventure the players do something unexpected and start a fight where they weren't supposed to? Then it is back to a hastily hand-drawn map and blank tokens, which creates a very visible visual clue to the players that this would be an unscripted encounter.

But overall I like my method. It works especially well with 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, where the combat rules are more elaborate and tactical, and encounters tend to be more epic. It wouldn't work so well for systems in which fights only last 5 minutes.

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