Ordering Art for Games

Ordering Art for Games

I’ve written many art orders over the last two decades. From a game designer point of view, an art order is a series of text descriptions for art that I want to see accompany the game text I’ve written. Every piece of art in a game product has to be commissioned from an artist. That process begins with the designer figuring out what each of those illustrations should generally look like. While that sounds fun (and it is), sitting down and actually writing the order can be a big job if the product in question is large.

Because I keep fairly meticulous records, I  have a copy of the first art order I wrote for my very first TSR product, Gates of Firestorm Peak, back in 1995. I requested 25 pieces of art for that product (plus a few tactical poster maps and punch-out tokens). As a sample (but mostly as a blast from the past), here’s the twelfth piece I requested:

12. Room 70. “Cavern of Madness”. Half Page. Black & White.

From out of subterranean darkness come half a dozen hunchbacked, naked humanoids who brandish bone shards and bone knives. The humanoids are pale, have pointed canine ears, and black manes which surround their hideous, grinning faces. The suggestion of many, many more similar creatures is apparent, rushing forward behind the vanguard as faces, upraised arms, and feral, glowing eyes.

I’m afraid I can’t actually reproduce the art in this essay because neither I nor MCG owns the rights for it, but if you happen to have Gates of Firestorm Peak, turn to page 52 to see how artist Arnie Swekel rendered the final piece. (Note: The cover shown below is by artist Jeff Easley, also a result of a description I wrote after determining that duergar would be important in the adventure.)


Fast forward 18 years of writing art orders for various D&D and related projects at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, up to the present day, where I’m doing game design with MCG. Nowadays, fractal elves write my art orders while I sit back and eat bon-bons.

Sorry, that’s a lie. I’m still writing and contributing to art orders. The first art order I contributed to at MCG was for the Ninth World Bestiary for Numenera. But the Bestiary has already been published (to great acclaim), so let’s skip past that to focus on the art order process for The Strange, because that’s what I’m currently working on, and the final stages of process is still active as I type this.

For a book this big, Shanna, Monte, and I broke the art order down into three staged sets. Each set included between 30 and 40 individual art requests, including a few spot illustrations, several lone character pieces, and several more half-page illustrations, along the lines of the examples below. (Initial art concepting with lead artist Matt Stawicki was a wholly different process that pretty much boiled down to us saying, “come up with something cool, Matt!”)

Individual art requests are assigned to various artists (a process that includes deciding which artist goes with what piece, contacting said artist, working out payment details, and other work that I’m not personally involved with, so I’m going to leave it at that).

The artist receives an art request for the piece assigned to her. She works on it for a bit, then turns over a sketch. The design team (in this case, myself, Monte, and Shanna), provide feedback on a the sketch. Often, that feedback is “Great, go for it!” but sometimes we provide a little guidance, so that the final piece submitted later by the artist fits with our expectations. The artist takes the feedback, and turns the sketch into her final piece which she submits to us. Voila!

To illustrate the process (see what I did there?), here are a couple of examples.

Sometimes, we want something to bring to life a particular aspect of the game, so we provide particular guidance to the artist. For example, below here’s one of art requests we sent to artist Cathy Wilkins:

 ST24. Path of the Dead in Ardeyn. HALF PAGE. Cathy Wilkins. color.

In the land of Ardyn a wall of crypts wends for miles to the west where the dead of Citadel Hazurrium–from the lowliest beggar to royalty–are interred. The souls of dead, spectral phantoms that they are, follow the path made by the wall and visit with their loved ones in dreams. This wall is about 12 feet high and almost as wide, and has blocked up crypt entrances.

In addition to the wall itself seen by the brilliant moon and the torchlight of a few human Ardeyn natives walking the wall, we’d like to see some incorporeal spirits of humans flowing/walking/ moving like a stream in the sky overhead or to one side, following the wall.

 Cathy turned over the following sketch:


… to which our feedback was along the lines of, “These are both great! But lets go with something closer to composition #2.” Cathy turned around and produced this amazing piece as her final:


Other times, we just want the artist to do his thing, and show us something amazing. Such as this art request we made of Chris Waller:

 ST44. Ruk Monster. CHARACTER. Chris Waller. Color.

We need to design several monsters for Ruk. Please illustrate a monster that you want to see in Ruk, using the Ruk reference text and art as your background, but otherwise following your own enthusiasm and desire. We’ll design the rules and name for that monster.

 Chris turned over the following sketch first:


… to which we replied something like, “The second one, please!” Chris complied, and sent this as his great final:


Isn’t that awesome? You get the idea.

I’d like to leave you with a sketch of a piece delivered by Brenoch Adams for the following art request. Really, I’m not lying: This is just his sketch!

 ST39 Gateway. Half page. Brenoch Adams. Color

An character steps through a swirling vortex. Another has already passed through and stands in the foreground. Confronting them are a pair of venom troopers. In the background, we see the weird landscape of Ruk.


P.S. If you’re an artist and would enjoy working with us on Numenera or The Strange, you can contact us and let us know, because we’re always looking for great artists. (Send inquiries to stan@montecookgames.com.)


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