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Inspiring An Entire Culture With The Art Of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

The art of D&D has been a source of inspiration for gamers like Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins for years, but that art is also a cornerstone to inspiring the writers of D&D as well. I was able to sit down with concept illustrator Shawn Wood and senior art director Richard Whitters in a surprisingly thin-walled soundproof room to talk about what are clearly their dream jobs on one of the most aggressively rainy days in Seattle.

Richard: For me personally, I’ve just been a D&D fan since I was a kid. That’s probably the same story as a lot of people working on D&D.

Shawn : I mean, all the games I grew up, like video games and stuff, were based off of D&D. All the RPGs, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, all these things kind of based themselves off Dungeons and Dragons. Then, being able to go from video games to work on Dungeons and Dragons is just kind of a dream, because it’s where it all came from. Being able to steward that brand is just amazing. Just being able to draw monsters all day is a pretty good gig.

Richard: It’s really tricky, like, the first one I had to do when I came over to D&D was we had the demon lords, like, Out of the Abyss. I had meetings with people, and asked opinions, and basically was like, "What can I change without ruining your childhood?"

Concept Art, D&D

Shawn : That’s the thing. You tend to abandon your work before you finish it for a deadline sometimes. With concept art, it’s a little different, because we’re just showing ideas. We’re just doing stuff to inspire somebody, so it doesn’t have to be necessarily perfectly rendered every time, right? It’s got to be enough story and enough personality in the monster or the character there so that the writers go, "Oh yeah, that’s my character I wrote come to life." Then, that empowers them to write more. That’s the beauty of concept art is like, is that it just has to inspire, and it has to be able to tell a story. The downside is, people don’t see like 90% of it, because it’s just for the writers.

Jerry: What it does is it provides a context for the rest of the imagination to occur. It sort of provides some boundaries. Not boundaries like walls, but it sort of demarcates the this from the not-this parts of the fantasy. It gives you a starting place. You can jump off from there. This visual language is life-changing stuff. Huge parts of my life are the way they are as a direct result of the base camp that TSR established in my mind as a kid.

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Richard: We do, I think, probably three or four a year, concept pushes, where we bring in two to four artists. For a three week period, we basically just jam on whatever the thing is that we’re currently working on. We just try to visually explore all the different ideas, and like I said, we’re trying to push it, push the boundaries of it, and say, "Does this work here? Does this not work here?"

Shawn : The only difference between me and somebody that is just now trying to draw it is I have failed years, and years, and years more than you have. When you’ve failed as much as I have, you will be as good as I am. That’s really the trick is you just got to practice, and draw lots, and lots, and lots.

Richard: We happen to have the talent of drawing, but in general, our team, when you get Matt, who does our canon, and Chris and Adam, who does our writing, and Shawn and I, who are working out the artwork, and the other artists we bring in, all of it’s world-building. That, to me, is what you do when you’re a kid. You’re daydreaming about, "Oh yeah, this is me riding my horse up to the floating castle, and I’m going to fight the dragon." D&D is one of those few games where you actually expand and create your own experience. We’re giving you the tools to write your own novel, to some extent. That’s what I really like about our game, in particular.