Five ways to get better art for your indie RPG titles
Roleplaying game art an incredibly powerful way to communicate what the world of a roleplaying game is like, including the kinds of people and monsters and stories that inhabit it. It gives players and GMs ideas of the possibilities in your system, supplement, or adventure.
But indie creators often have very little or no budget for art. If you’re a hobbyist, just publishing your stuff to publish, you may not care about art at all. And that’s fine—but if you want to reach the widest possible audience, and if you want to build a side business or full-time job out of your indie publishing, art is important.
Let’s look at an example of what I think is a good cover.
This cover features a $4 piece of lovely, licensed stock art by Jack Holliday—and also a custom title treatment that I made myself. The title treatment actually cost more than the cover, because the font cost $11 (KVC Midgard on Creative Market). Plus an hour or two of my time finding the art and laying this out, plus the cost of college and grad school…
Here’s why I think this cover is better than the vast majority of indie RPG supplement covers in these stores:
- The title treatment has reasonable line spacing and stands out from the cover art.
- The DMs Guild logo is legible and unobtrusive, and the secondary text doesn’t assault your eyes.
- And, of course, the cover art is pretty awesome.
I’m not saying this cover is a masterpiece, but, if I do say so myself, it’s a solid, eye-catching cover design. I look at the other visual elements and how they’re integrated together in “Book cover design tips for indie RPG creators,” but lets take a look at the art first. As in how to get it in the first place.
The most common and cheapest way, of course, is stock art.
There’s nothing wrong with stock art. Some of it looks absolutely fantastic, and you can get it instantly. I’m an illustrator, and I use it myself on projects all the time; it’s an incredibly valuable way to stretch an art budget and save time. (In a future/separate post, I’ll share some excellent resources for finding great stock art.)
But stock art has its shortcomings: you’re not going to be able to find ideal stock art with a flexible license for every single NPC, creature, magic item, new class, scenario, and with the right tone for your title—especially if you’re trying to depict a fantasy world with anything near the diversity of its actual players. (Fantasy art is so, so white.) And sifting through stock art libraries for hours and hours, too often settling for “good enough,” and when you think about your own hourly rate that can add up very quickly. And even if you can find that one perfect piece, chances are it’s in a dozen other books already.
That’s where the freelancer illustrators come in. Instead of spending hours to find art that may not be the right subject matter or size for what you need, you can have an artist make something that fits your title perfectly and is unique. I already know what many of you are saying: I can’t afford that! I’m lucky to sell 25 copies of my DMs Guild stuff!
But art doesn’t necessarily need to cost you a penny up front (though it helps). Good art and design are a valuable investment: it doesn’t matter how brilliant the text inside it is, because a lot of customers won’t even look at it, because through your design, you’re telling people that your work is unprofessional. Good art and design sell books.
Of course, you need realistic expectations. Larry Elmore is one of the all-time great fantasy artists, and you’re not going to get a fully-painted piece that utterly redefines what Dungeons & Dragons means to people for $25. But there are thousands of artists out there who love D&D every bit as much as indie RPG writers, and many, if not most, of these artists will be willing to be flexible with you and your budget in order to help make cool shit come to life.
Here are five ways you can make your indie RPG titles more beautiful without huge up-front costs:
1. Commission simpler artwork.
By “simpler,” I mean “faster to draw well.” If you can afford full-color paintings or find a stock piece that is a perfect fit for your book, awesome. If you can afford a custom title treatment to make your book stand out from the rest, awesome. But those things are not necessary. For that matter, a lot of interior art isn’t really necessary, strictly speaking, especially in digital-only publishing like most of the DMs Guild. The people who see it have mostly already bought your title!
If you can’t afford a lot of art, and you can’t find great free or cheap stock art pieces, just don’t use art. Bad art looks worse than no art. If you can figure out a budget or find an artist to work with (more on that later), but you can only afford one new piece, make it your cover. Unique cover art will do the most to differentiate your title and attract potential buyers.
Full-page, full-color commissions are very expensive. If you can’t afford that, consider a half-page drawing with colored line art.
And you know what costs even less than that? A small black and white piece! An excellent line art drawing looks better than a so-so digital painting, anyway. A cover like this can look really good—if it has a good drawing paired with a decent type layout. (More on cover design here, including one way to make line art not look like “just” line art.)
Using black and white line art throughout your publication has an added benefit, too: line art is inherently printer-friendly!
2. Ask for non-exclusive rights.
Most indie RPG publishers use at least some stock art. There are a lot of free and cheap images between DMs Guild or DriveThruRPG, and a lot of them are good! Yet when they hire illustrators, they often take full ownership of the artwork as a given.
But do you really need total ownership? By allowing the artist to license “your” art to other publishers, it should cost you less—albeit more than generic stock art, but you’re specifying the size and subject of the piece. “Spot” art is named that because it meant to fill empty spots in page layouts. Look at your official D&D manuals. There is barely any empty space on those pages!
Remember, though, with any especially good art, you’ll want to make sure you can use in advertising (or at the very least promotional images on social media). And if you’ve spent a particularly large sum on a brand new cover, you might request a period of exclusivity, so that it doesn’t find its way onto anyone else’s cover for a few months.
For artists, retaining ownership of their work can create a passive income stream. Getting an additional $5 every few months for a piece they made two years ago adds up and establishes a relationship with a creator who will hopefully want (and be able to afford) something custom eventually. If they’re lucky, this passive income (combine with the reduced up-front payment, if any) could add up to far more than they would have charged initially.
3. Commission art in bulk.
If you can cover it, commissioning several small pieces should get you a (modest) discount. The start/stop of freelance is a massive time-suck, so you’re saving the artist from the scramble of chasing down five other freelance jobs.
For me, every project involves a bit of research, a little exploration (character and creature design, for instance). A project consisting of five illustrations only has a little more research and exploration than one illustration. These illustrations don’t all need to be in one book—so if you follow a single party of adventurers through your four-book campaign in the illustrations, that not only creates a cool visual story of sorts (sequential art, baby!), it saves the artist from designing fifty different looking fighters. (Just make sure that party has a bit of diversity in it.)
4. Go with crowdfunding.
The DMs Guild’s license adds some complexities by ruling out “selling” finished DMs Guild products through a crowdfunding tier but that’s not the only way to approach crowdfunding—and, of course the DMs Guild isn’t the only indie RPG publishing outfit.
If that restriction doesn’t affect you (say, you’re making a 5e OGL title), and you’ve got a thousand social media followers, you can easily raise a few hundred bucks to commission art and pay a professional designer through crowdfunding. Not every crowding campaign needs to be a huge event project!
A lot of indie RPG writers use Patreon to subsidize the creation of their work, but having funded three books, an animated short, and a web series through various crowdfunding campaigns and having a Patreon for several years now, I think Kickstarter is more appropriate for most indie RPG efforts. Patreon is meant for ongoing efforts, which Kickstarter is better suited for finite projects, like a book or series of ebooks. And from my own experience promoting both kinds of crowdfunding campaigns, it seems to me (somewhat oddly) that asking for a $20 one-time payment is less of a hurdle to most supporters than even a $1/month subscription.
5. Pay them with back-end.
Many anthologies like Uncaged pay artists with a cut of the revenue generated from sales after release. Artists who can afford to defer immediate payment might work for a smaller (or zero) up-front cost and a percentage of the royalties (after DMs Guild’s cut)—if you have a proven sales record.
Be transparent and share your sales data: “If this book sells as well as my last four did (on average), then paying you 25% of the royalties will earn you [this amount] in the first three months.”
I know of one DMs Guild creator who shared revenue with their artist at 30%/20% (the other 50% going to OneBookShelf) until they recouped their up-front costs and then shifted to 25%/25%. I think that’s a generous approach; more aggressive terms—50%/0% until costs are recouped, treating the up-front payment as an advance on royalties—are perfectly reasonable.
The smaller your up-front payment, the bigger a gamble it is for the artist, but if you have sales data that shows they have a decent chance of making even a little money, it’s a smaller gamble, and some artists will take it.
Many, if not most, indie RPG writers are in it to share their work, not to make a ton of money or kickstart a role-playing game publishing empire. But what a lot of them forget is that a lot of artists and designers want the same thing. Seek out talented artists who are at the same level in their career as you are, and if you treat them as partners, not art monkeys, you will find someone happy to work with you.
Of course, not all of these options are suitable for every creator. A mix of these methods may be ideal for you: simpler art to minimize up-front costs, commissioning work for multiple title at once, and a revenue split, for instance. It may take a little time to find what works best for you and your collaborators.
Good art isn’t the be-all, end-all. A title won’t necessarily sell just because it has good art; if the idea isn’t great, it’s probably not going to sell no matter what. But all other things being equal, you will sell more—and make more money—with good art and design than without.
Give it time, give it a little marketing elbow grease—by you and your artists and designers—and your investment in good art and design will pay for itself and then some.
I didn’t write this solely to shill for my own work, but… since I am a freelance illustrator and designer with experience in publishing (children’s books and educational materials), if you’re looking for good artwork or design for your role-playing game and like my illustration and design style, let’s talk!
Check out my portfolio at gordonmcalpin.com and e-mail me with details and your budget. Whether or not you end up hiring me to draw pictures or design your books, I would love to help you figure out how to cost-effectively make them look as good as they can.