The Seminar Files 01: Publishing ttRPG Material With Little or Not Art Budget
The Seminar Files is a new branding of an old idea: to provide the kind of information, thoughts, and answers I would once have given during a gaming convention seminar in a more accessible format. Not every creator or potential creator can afford to go to conventions and industry events to attend seminars, and that can create a barrier to entry that disproportionately impacts lower-income creators, creators with disabilities, creators that don’t feel safe in traditional game industry spaces, and creators in physical or social spaces that don’t even hear about game industry events.
Obviously those are serious issues that won’t be solved just by putting up blog posts–which themselves have some issues with limited accessibility–but every tiny step helps, and my hope is that not only will my own Seminar Files help get information to people who wouldn’t ever have a chance to hear me give it in a live seminar, but that it may encourage other veterans of a range of creative endeavors to also strive to make this kind of advice available in alternative formats.
Publishing ttRPG Material With Little or Not Art Budget
One of the hardest parts of being a one-person shop or small press publisher is what to do about art for a project. Many independent creatives have the skills to write and edit themselves, and can either learn to do layout or find someone who will do layout for a few dollars per page. Often elbow grease or a tiny budget can handle all the text and graphic design elements of a small project, keeping the barrier to entry lower the the bottom position of a limbo competition.
But art? Art is tougher. Good art is (quite reasonably) expensive. Few writer/developer/publishers can do their own art (though there absolutely are a few who can). Several low-to-no budget projects in recent months have turned to AI-generated images, but between the US Copyright Office declaring AI-Generated images not being eligible for copyright in a recent case and a number of companies (Chaosium and Paizo, in particular )declaring their community content programs do not allow the use of AI-generated images or text, that solution is less appealing to many of them.
Way before AI generated images or text were realistic options, publishing on a budget and having decent art was a challenge. But the very fact that challenge goes back decades means there are other potential solutions than AI, and I have enough experience with several of them to speak to their pros and cons. Obviously a lot of this advice can apply to projects outside the game industry, but that is where my own expertise lies, and thus is how I have framed this article.
Let’s look at some specific art-on-a-budget strategies.
1. Stock Art
One extremely cost-effective option is to use stock art for your project. There is a ton of very reasonably-priced stock art available at DriveThruRPG, and there are also professional stock art sites such as Adobe Stock Photos, Shutterstock, and Getty Images. Now, some provisos.
First, read the license before you pay for or use any stock art image. That’s simple for the specialty stock art sites, their licensing is normally easy to find well before you sign up (and they usually have better search engines, though they often have less game/speculative fiction-specific images). For DriveThruRPG the licensing is determined by each artist individually, and sometimes you have to search around a bit to find it prior to paying for a piece. If you can’t find the license, contact the publisher and ask for it.
Second, while many sites have policies stating that AI-Generated images must be marked as such, they don’t all have such rules, and even those that do lack a perfect method of detection and enforcement. In many cases a practices eye can pick put AI-generated images, but it isn’t always as easy as looking for characters with a weirdly large number of fingers. If you need to avoid AI-generated art (either for your own ethical guidelines or licensing requirements of the project you’re working on), you may need to seek out stock images from artists with a recognizable name and track records.
Third, really good, cheap stock art is likely to be used by a lot of projects, which can reduce the impact it has when you use it. There’s no perfect solution for tis, but older stock art is less likely to get used for a similar product around the time you release something with it than brand-new art everyone is excited by for the first couple of months its out. Also, some stock art allows you to modify it, which can increase customization. I personally am a big fan of art patreons that produce stock at and take feedback from backers (such as Dean Spencer’s Art Patreon), produce material anyone can use for free (such as Fantasy RPG Cartography by Dyson Logos), or have tiers that let you order specific images which become stock art for everyone after a certain period (such as Jacob Blackmon Illustration). Those require spending some monthly money, of course, but you still get a lot of visual impact per dollar spent.
Fourth, the more unusual the concepts of your project, the harder it is to find stock art that fits it. If you’re writing a cyberpunk setting, or a list of options for fantasy wizards, it’s not hard to find appropriate stock illustrations to match those concepts. But if you specifically need art of cybernetical-augmented anthropomorphic sharks with stun-gun-equipped mancatcher polearms… chances are you won’t find stock art to meet your needs.
There are a few ways you can handle that issue. First, you can just leave the unique elements of your product unillustrated. That’s not ideal, but a good cover combined with a title and description that spells out what’s interesting about your project is often better than no art at all. Secondly, you can find the coolest stock art that interests you, and write a product that is inspired by that art. Yes, this means writing something based on someone else’s ideas rather than your own, but if you do one such project, you can take the money it makes to pay for more custom art for your next, more you-centric product.
2. Public Domain Art
Want an even cheaper than stock art? Well, then it’s time to look at the Public Domain.
(Art by Gustav Doré, now in the public domain)
Public Domain art is available for anyone to use in any way they want. Of course, you need to understand what is and isn’t Public Domain,
For finding Stock Art, I’m a big fan of OldBookIllustrations. It’s a big collection, has a search engine, and provides info about artist and publication for each art piece (if known). The British Library has also released a huge Public Domain collection on Flickr, which for my purposes is less well-organized, but has stuff hard to find elsewhere (including maps).
Public domain art has all the subject-matter and style issues of stock art, but as long as you are sure it’s actually public domain, none of the licensing problems. And while a ton of public domain art is woodblock prints from centuries ago, there is other content out there if you look hard enough. Learning some image editor skills can be a huge help in turning what is available into something you can use, and there are good free image editors out there (I often use Pixlr when I just need to crop or touch up something for a blog post and don’t want to take up the time of my professional graphic designers and their greater skills and more powerful tools).
3. Other Licensed Art
In addition to commercial art and public domain art, there are other ways art gets licensed that makes it viable for commercial use. One big example of this is art released under the Creative Commons License, especially the CC-BY license. Most of the notes about stock art and some about public domain art apply here, but the most important one is to make sure you know which Creative commons license you are dealing with, and that you understand it.
4. Skip the Art
Yes, it’s a well-accepted truism that ttRG products must have art, especially cover art. And I believe an attractive cover is crucial to sales, and good interior art helps break up “walls of text” that can otherwise be daunting and unattractive to many readers.
But you don’t have to use illustrations to accomplish these things.
Raging Swan Press is a great example of a successful company that has attractive, informative, and even eye-catching overs with no illustrations beyond their logo. Obviously you shouldn’t duplicate their trade dress, but being inspired by it to create your own illustration-free cover design is a huge budget-saver, especially when you consider the impact of not paying for cover art over the life of entire product lines.
Similarly, there are things that can break up pages of pure text in the same way art does, without actually being illustrations. Chapter and section headers, charts, tables, sidebars, bullet points, scholar’s margins, and similar treatments of text that’s in any way different than the main prose can help break up the visual monotony of page after page of pure text.
5. Partner With An Artist
I’m going to open this section with a quick anecdote.
In 2014 Adam Daigle and I were guests at Comicpalooza, and we spoke about breaking into the games industry in a panel with easily 1,000 attendees. Most folks were interested in videogames, but there was still some basic stuff we could discuss that was relevant for them. At one point, a person wanting to be a writer for video games mentioned they were having trouble making a good impression because writing for a video game fell flat without art, level design, and programming, and they couldn’t afford to pay people to do those jobs just to make a working example of their writing.
Adam asked if there were any artists who wanted to have a sample video game they could use as part of their resume, and dozens of hands went up. then he asked about level designers, and then programmers, and in every case there were dozens of hands. So, Adam suggested, maybe those people should all get together and form groups, each looking to create a small playable example of their work. When the seminar ended, there were circles of people from different disciplines gathering, talking, exchanging business cards, and picking places to go and talk more right there at the con.
The moral of that story is that there are other people who want to break into the games industry, and some of them have exactly the skills you need to shore up your own weaknesses. They may not have the level of polish you’d prefer, and partnering with people means figuring out (and writing down!) how ownership of the end product works, how everyone gets paid, and how creative input is shared, but those are all solvable issues. Again, compromises are going to be called for, but if you work with other folks at your experience and success level it can both serve as a stepping stone to having the budget you need to hire professionals to match your specific vision, and help make contacts (and friend) that may well be a huge part of your process and success in later years.
6. Decide What You Are Trying To Do
One of the pieces of advice that I don’t think is discussed enough is “Decide what your goal is with your work.” Do you want to be a publisher, one-person or otherwise? Great, then work on finding ways to publish material even if it’s not your magnum opus. In that case, for early projects you may have to find stock or public domain art first, and build products around it.
Do you want to be a professional writer, developer, or editor? Okay, then maybe you don’t need to self-publish at all, or should do so specifically for the goal of proving you can do the work, so you can point at that work when asking publishers to give you a shot. In that case you may not need art at all, since you aren’t trying to get work as an artist or art director. Just make sure your text is as clean as possible, and understand that being a professional paid ttRPG writer working for other publishers is mostly about writing the projects someone else wants to make happen, not getting paid to do the projects you want to make happen.
(And if you DO want to get work as a ttRG artist, by all means see if you can find a writer and publisher who is looking for an art solution and partner up with them for a few projects. Just make sure your ownership and cut of the profits is covered in writing when you do.)
Do you just want to publish the one thing you are dying to show the world, make sure it’s true to your vision, and don’t want to turn this into a career or even side-hustle? Well, most likely that means you are a hobbyist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want custom art, high-quality layout, and someone else to do the boring parts of developing and editing your text, and aren’t willing to compromise or build a line of other projects to slowly build to a bigger budget, you likely are going to have to pay for it. Like most hobbies, publishing at a professional level primarily for fun and bragging rights takes money.
Even if you aren’t sure what your end-goal is, deciding how you want to proceed initially can help you figure out what low-to-no-budget art strategy to begin with. As your experience grows and your goals shift, you can pivot to projects and plans that better match your evolving needs.
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