How RPGs are Illustrated

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series How RPGs are Made


I recently hired a new disabled illustrator to join the Survival of the Able team. Like I did when hiring an editor, I gave them a sample design to illustrate for me to see if they were a good fit. Here’s the final result:

Agnus swings a torch at a zombie.

This illustration depicts Agnus, one of the iconic characters from the book, fighting a zombie. It didn’t start out looking like this, though. In fact, we went through a few rounds of sketches and edits before seeing the final product. Before I could do that though, I had to find an artist for the job.

Looking for Illustrator

Representation is important to me, and that’s especially true for Survival of the Able. I wanted to make sure I was hiring other disabled creatives to work on the project, so I asked Twitter for suggestions.

Why Twitter? Well, mostly because there’s an awesome community of disabled gamers there, so I knew someone would point me in the right direction if I asked.

I received a message from @Fantillus who offered to help. They sent me a link to their portfolio, and after reviewing it I reached out to them to work on a sample piece for me.

Artist Brief

How does the artist even know where to begin?

The first step I took was to put together a brief, a short description of the desired illustration.

I’m not a professional art director and, come to think of it, have never really research what goes into a good brief. For what it’s worth, here’s what I told my illustrator:

Size: 3″x4.5″ (half page)

Full color, CMYK, 300dpi


Agnus, a woman from the 14th century, is fighting a zombie with a lit torch. The zombie is wearing tattered 14th century clothing and appears like they had boils and sores on their body before they died of the Black Plague. They only just recently died, so they’re not in a state of advanced decay, but the plague took a hefty toll on their body.

Background can be of a forest, an old building, an open field with a night sky, or whatever suits the period. The majority of the detail should be given to aAgnus and the zombie. For this project, I’m trying for relatively detailed and realistic characters.

For reference, Agnus is the woman in this picture who is speaking in sign language:

From this brief, the illustrator gets an idea of what the setting and tone of the images should be, and also gains some technical specifications. Then they can start working up a sketch or two.

Sketches 1 and 2

In this case, the illustrator returned two sketches. This was going above and beyond my expectation, because oftentimes I’m only shown one sample.

In this case, they did one sketch where Agnus’ back was to the camera…

Sketch 1: Agnus' back to the camera

…and anotSketch 2: Agnus' face to the cameraher where she was facing it.


This was fantastic. When I wrote the original brief, I imagined a scene like Sketch 1, where you saw Agnus’ back and the zombie’s face. Fantilus showed me what I didn’t know I wanted though, and the scene was much better for it.

It made much better sense for Agnus, the star of the show, to be the one the camera is looking at. We want to see the heroine’s face after all, not the zombie. Seeing Agnus’ face gives the viewer a much stronger connection to her as a person.

It was easy to decide on which of these scenes I wanted to have sketched out. You might be asking yourself how a blind game designer decides on sketches, though.

That’s where my awesome wife and underpaid art director comes in. Ever since my first art commission for Psi-punk, she’s been helping me decide on what sketches to accept, what to send back, and what alterations need to be made.  She agreed that, in this case, it’s best to make Agnus the focus of the scene.

I asked to see more of #2.

Sketch 3

After a few days, Fantilus sent back another sketch.

Sketch 3: Like sketch 2, but with more detail.

This was a bit more detailed, and you can see things really starting to shape up.

This is where I’d ask for minor  edits before adding color, but we really didn’t see anything that needed to be addressed.

Final Illustration

After everything was finished, we got the final product you saw at the top of this post. Fantilus asked if there were any changes we’d like to make to the coloring, and in particular asked about eye color. I didn’t really see any reason to change what we received, so we gave the all clear.

Finally, we were sent two high resolution copies of the image in 300 dpi TIFF and PSD formats. I like to have both so I can be flexible with how I use them. The PSD will probably be used in the final layout when Todd drops it into InDesign, but I can easily open the TIFF in IrfanView and crop or resize it to share on social media or the web.

Last, but not least, I promptly sent payment to the illustrator. In the future I’ll order art in bulk and pay half the expected cost up front and half upon completion. For this piece, we agreed that I would simply pay the full amount upon completion.

This piece cost $150 for a half-page, full color illustration. That’s a pretty typical price from what I have seen lately. If it were a full-size piece like the one I ordered from Amy Ashbaugh, it’d be $300.was).

Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that not every illustrator works the same way. In my case though, I’ve found a pretty good method for communicating my needs and ensuring the needs of the artist are also met.

If you’re curious, you can also go back and read my articles “How to Talk to Artists” and “Game Design Occupations Explained: Art Directors”.

Finally, make sure you check out Fantillus’ portfolio for more awesome illustrations.


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