Saturday, April 9, 2011

Quick Thought: Character Portraits

I thought I would mention something that has poked at my curiosity the past few months: character portraits in games, especially in tabletop RPGs (but also other forms of gaming such as video games).

A good character portrait just tends to wrap up character creation (whether you create the character or have a character created for you).  On paper, your character might have +12 to this and a score of 27 in that and might be carrying 8 daggers just in case.  But as soon as you see the picture of a tough guy in cool armor with a sword leaning on his shoulder, the character goes from Mister +12 to the brave warrior known as George the Destroyer.

The problem is finding a good character portrait.  Most people out there don't have the art skills to satisfy their own needs for awesome character portraits.  Myself...I can't draw people.  I can draw the character's sword and get it perfect for my needs but the portrait?  No.

Sometimes a game company will publish some "iconic" portraits for their game (you can find these for 4E D&D and they are even properly sized and shaped for the official character sheet) and that can be useful.  However, that's maybe one or two portraits for any given intersection of class, race, and concept.  There may be more than a few "warrior" portraits in some of the common "warrior" races...but what about when you need a portrait of a female warrior of an obscure race (like a 4E genasi or dragonborn or deva) wielding a flail in one hand and a scimitar in the other?  Or perhaps the member of the giant stony race who happens to be a wizard with a staff decorated with a finial depicting a lizard?

I have found that Google can be your friend when the iconic portraits don't help.  If you type in a phrase like "elven warrior spear" into the image search you'll get a whole lot of pictures of elves, warriors, and spears and even a few elven spear warriors.  Even still, they might not be perfect.  Deviantart is also useful in the same way: search for a phrase and see what comes up.  Searching for images from a favorite show, movie, book, or other media can often find an image or two...if you don't might the image being recognizable such as your fighter looking a lot like Aragorn from LotR.  Another place to find images is to look for artwork found on cards for Magic: The Gathering.  Who knew that a company was compiling thousands of samples of fantasy artwork?  Generally, I have gotten into a habit recently of saving images that look interesting from around the internet.  Even if I am not thinking of a dwarf warpriest, the image of the dwarf warpriest might come in handy later on.

Even so, with these tools...I encounter a few problems.

First, I find that sometimes the portrait will influence the character.  If I cannot find the female halfling warrior with a scimitar and a flail, then maybe the character will now be using two swords...and cease being halfling...and cease being female...all because the picture I found was a male elf warrior with two swords.  Of course, with no ideas on the table, a cool picture can inspire a new character concept.

Second, I find art styles to clash against each other.  I have a wicked habit of tinkering with RPG systems in my free time and making different characters...and maybe find portraits of the characters I create.  But then I get a warrior drawn as a pencil sketch, a wizard immortalized in a painted image, a rogue borrowed from a still-frame of a video game cutscene, and a cleric represented by a photo of a person in costume.  And then I look at the group of characters together and sometimes it is just a jarring experience.  Separately, each of them has an awesome picture though so it's fine.  Getting a bundle of pictures in the same art style might be difficult unless you stick to the iconic portraits I mentioned above or else you're just using characters from a favorite show or game.  Not that having a pile of characters that look suspiciously like the heroes of Final Fantasy IV is a bad thing...

Third, sometimes the size and quality is a problem.  A lot of good pictures end up being very small or very large...and both can look strange when adjusted to the right size.  This especially becomes a problem with multiple portraits.  The fighter with crystal clear quality next to the blurry wizard can be jarring as well.

With creating a group of characters then, I suppose the question then becomes whether you start with the portraits and build the characters to match (and thus having similar art styles and qualities) or whether you build the characters and just find portraits to match.


  1. I've always thought it would be cool if someone would design something like the Sims, but for character generating. Since with the Sims games, at least 2 and 3, you can really, REALLY adjust things, and make thousands of outfits and styles for pretty much unlimited combos.....something like that you could make your character and even have portraits in different settings, such as at a party, in armor, in disguise, etc...

    I use Sims as an example because when I first got Sims 1, and found all the free downloadable outfits, I made a D&D "Real World" type house, making characters of me and my friends. Then I made an "Inn of the Last Home" from Dragonlance, and proceeded to fuel my inner fangirl by making Tanis and Laurana get hitched and have babies. Though, for some reason Flint kept hitting on Tas. That was when I decided to just delete the house, because it was turning against me.

    But that way, even those of us not artistically talented (I can't draw for beans either) can still have an awesome character portrait. There are a LOT of very talented artists that do them, but it gets kinda pricey, so thats really reserved for special characters. But for your average short term campaign, I think a 3d rendering program would be awesome.

  2. If you google "heromachine", you will find a website with a tool called HeroMachine. It is suited more for superheroes than fantasy or science fiction and it has limits on flexibility and options (everyone is in the same pose for example). At least it's better than nothing. But yeah, a "Sims"-style program for character portraits would do pretty well. Because the core software already exists, it should be relatively cheap to produce.