Sit in on a game session here at Intwischa, and you'll notice something about Chase: He's always drawing. If he's not rolling dice, his pencil is almost always in motion. After a few meetings, if you got real nosy, you could see that a pretty complete character sketch has emerged bit by bit through the course of the campaign. In our recent Cabin Trip game this same phenomenon occurred, but I was surprised (when I got nosy) that the character I saw sketched on Chase's character sheet didn't look at all how I had pictured him.
Maybe it's just the former art student in me, but that got me think about how powerful and useful pictures can be in role playing games.
Character sketches and actual photographs (original or altered) are dynamic ways to introduce your character to the rest of the group, and maintain that character's presence in their minds. I'm a pretty traditional 'draw your PC on the back of your character sheet' kind of guy; obviously, Chase is as well. I've also seen photoshopped versions of characters, built from the digital remnants of several images. It's even possible to add cool digital effects to a regular photo to give it a recognizable RPG twist; glowing eyes, small horns, metallic skin, or colored energy auras can be easily added with simple computer programs.
Previous contributor and ardent gamer Brad made great use of celebrity photos during his group's World of Darkness campaigns. Each player character, recurring antagonist, and significant NPC had a famous face as their in-game avatar. That way, if anyone had trouble remembering which of Brad's many characters was found in that city or that game, he could reference it simply by saying "You know, my Ben Affleck character?". This type of pictoral device gives each character instant recognition for most groups, for new and existing players alike.
One of the most unique 'character portraits' I've used was a vintage tintype that I found at a roadside flea market. I had no idea who the well-dressed man was in the photo, but I used him as the avatar for my PC in my very first game of 'Vampire: The Masquerade.' The historic look of the photo created an eerie vibe for my modern character, very similar to those moments in a horror movie where the protagonists realize that the young man in the ancient family photos isn't their host's grandfather; it's actually their immortal host. And like the options above, it really personalized the PC for both myself and the group. We all felt like we knew the characters better when we could see them face to face.
In other words, maps. I've written about their significance to campaigns before, and I can't stress it enough. How do you know where the hell you are without some type of graphic representation?
This doesn't have to take the form of maps, although that seems the easiest route. It could be hand-drawn or computer-drafted. It could be an actual satellite photo of a particular city or region, perhaps cropped or reversed to make it a little fresher or more unique. It could be an old set of blue prints, for a claustrophobic horror game. It could even be a section of an old road map or atlas, with the names changed to create an entirely new setting.
Recently, our group seems to be prone to incorporate actual real estate in our campaigns. Charlie's recent 'Dresden Files' game featured scenic photos of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. I've been using my iPhone to snap and upload photos of interesting sites and architecture for in-game reference, including clock towers, historic homes, and moody grave markers. Some of these pictures have been displayed on hand-held devices, while others have simply been printed before hand. In either case, they certainly make clearer the location the party finds themselves in.
Those particular photos also serve another important purpose: setting the mood. As a game master, I could certainly give a vivid oral description of the starless night,whose dark shroud is broken only by the glowing face of the imposing clock tower, staring down at the inky black river that slowly crawls through the ancient city. At that point, however, each member of the group is picturing things individually. If I can produce an actual photo of the setting, and draw the party into that specific place with it, how much more lush and effective that setting will seem!
A picture used to evoke setting can also keep the mood or tone of the party (and thereby the game) keenly focused. It can take a lot of group effort to maintain a diligent focus on a world or setting that they haven't experienced before, or that is different from their own. Sometimes a game that depends heavily on a certain atmosphere can suffer if the party (or the game master) starts to feel themselves slipping back into 'the real world.' Pictures have a way of making us feel things, just by glancing at them, that fleeting words or even a block of text cannot replicate. Keeping such a picture close at hand may be a good way to constantly direct the game's focus toward that appropriate mood.
One of the main functions that pictures serve is education. That is, the transfer of specific or unique knowledge without having to experience the thing itself. Without pictures, those of us in Michigan would never know what an elephant looks like- unless we hit the zoo. Without pictures, those of you in Florida would never know what snow looks like- unless you took a trip to Michigan. Likewise, it's hard for some to conceive of certain costumes, weapons, creatures, devices or vehicles without having some form of photo reference.
My 'Pathinder' character is a Gunslinger, with access to a number of historical firearms. As a player, however, I'm not that familiar with such weaponry. So I hit the web. How big is a flintlock pistol? What the hell's a 'pepperbox'? How many firearms could I realistically carry without being totally encumbered by metal? Seeing a visual representation of these items helps give me some perspective, and pictures do that for me every time. That's why they're included in the rule books, after all. Most citizens today couldn't tell a halberd from a glaive without some form of photo reference.
Pictures, especially photographs, are also especially helpful in providing clear information about items significant to the game's plot. Matthew used some great photos recently to display the bas relief our party was sent to find. Charlie produced a picture of some mystic runes when we had to decipher an ancient language. When our group undertook a nautical adventure some years back, I used photos of old ships to both choose and introduce the craft that the adventurers would travel on. We could have just as easily drawn those things up, but having real live pictures gave the thing an air of accuracy and believability that increases immersion in the campaign.
Do you have a favorite method for generating your character's portrait? Have you literally charted out a campaign using existing maps as a guide? How can you just leave me standing alone in a world that's so cold? This is what it sounds like- when you leave us thoughts in the Comments!