Monday, April 6, 2020

Flatter Me, Mortals

I've noticed a trend in fantasy art in this hobby, especially in "fan art" (i.e. not really something I've ever actually seen printed in an RPG book but still prevalent around the hobby). Sometimes people like drawing themselves and their friends in their D&D world. They want art of their group. But they don't want to leave anyone out, so they try to find a way to include their DM in the picture. And of the many examples of this I have seen over the years, I am at once both intrigued and modestly offended at the approach they consistently employ in this task. Here are some examples:

Artist: Krystof Malik. DM at top
Same artist, I think?

Artist: u/Erace89 on Reddit
Artist: Chris Yarbrough
Artist: Victor Maury
Artist: Joshua R Pinkas
Artist: Lawrence Vdm
"Artist": u/Kristal3615 on Reddit, used The Sims
Artist: Kyla C.
These are just the results I got on a Google search, but I've been seeing things like this for years now. So, uh...

Why are dungeon masters uniformly "people in hooded cloaks, eyes obscured?"

I don't like this. Don't get me wrong, a lot of that art is great, fantastic even. But the core idea? It's boring. And also feels kind of silly. Mostly the facial hair part. Like, I have nothing against nerdy DMs having nerdy facial hairstyles. That's their aesthetic, it's rad. But it sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise fantasy-looking image. It's like a historic period piece featuring women with middle-parted loose bangs that were curled by a stylist. It may fit modern taste but it's painfully obvious that you're looking at a person who shares this same world as you. Obviously, people in history had beards. But, like, these ones are beards that always look closer to your mental image of a nerd than a medieval European, if that makes sense. It sounds dumb but it's somehow... immersion breaking?

So what kind of concepts would be more fitting to depict a DM artistically? The first thing that comes to mind for me is THE GODS THEMSELVES. Literally the gods of Olympus, like in Clash of the Titans. Get it? Because they have miniatures of all their play-thing mortals and make them do stuff on the game board?

Maybe that's a bit vain. We'll scale it back. Sometimes you get to be the villain mastermind of the dungeon, which is cool. The D&D 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide implied as much by showing a dragon on the cover gazing into a crystal ball, nested within which could be seen the characters on the cover of the Player's Handbook (a neat metaphor for what the DM does, of course).
Artist: Wayne Reynolds, of course
Not exactly a picture of a dungeon master but I once saw an image of a Mind Flayer looking over a model of his dungeon and tracking the heroes' movements, basically just using tabletop miniatures and terrain. Kind of a cool way to be drawn, as a DM.
Artist: Ralph Horsley
Those are both of my favorite types of Big Bad Evil Guys in D&D so I like those options a lot, and I don't mind being depicted as a villain. Those are the funnest NPCs to play. Pick your favorite. Maybe you're a beholder, or a lich, or a medusa, or a rakshasa with a cool smoking jacket. Of course, I'm also the main storyteller, right? So wouldn't something more along the lines of a bard be appropriate? A minstrel? My favorite fantasy narrator is Alan-a-Dale from Robin Hood, especially the Disney one. That's the guy I wanna be for my group.
Fucking baller
Unless that isn't the sort of table you run. Maybe you have a bloody, combat-heavy, high-lethality, never-ending murder-fest. In which case you are Fight King.
From Adventure Time, duh
Speaking of kings, is it too arrogant to want to be depicted as royalty? I definitely don't deserve that. But if you're one of those genuine grognard "been playing RPGs since the 70's/80's" kind of DMs then you have permission to be depicted as King Osric, as portrayed by the legendary Max Von Sydow. I think it works especially well because it's implied that he's a former adventurer himself. Plus it's a beloved movie among players who were around when the hobby first started. They even named a retroclone after this character.
From 1982's Conan the Barbarian
Being a witch, hag, or sorceress is a very good role, I think. Especially prophetic ones, like the Fates or the ones from Macbeth. Personally, I think the most fitting one is the Oracle of Delphi.
Artist: John Collier
And wouldja lookit that? That actually aligns quite nicely with the existing stereotype of a hooded DM, eyes obscured in shadow. Or, you could just as easily go with a different oracle...
As portrayed by Gloria Foster, naturally
Of course, something a bit more innocuous could work just fine. Being the bartender/innkeeper makes a lot of sense to me, if your campaign revolves around that sort of thing. I saw this one and liked the mask idea. Reminds me of the Happy Mask Salesman from Majora's Mask.
This could be you, Dungeon Masters.
There's a really cool RPG called Ryuutama, oftentimes pitched as "Hayao Miyazaki's Oregon Trail." It's like a fantasy adventure game where you play as NPCs. Farmers and tailors and merchants and whatnot, exploring the world and doing crazy stuff. It's wholesome and cute. One of its notable features is the "Ryuujin," a required DM-PC (technically an NPC but they're a party member and main character) who has a specific role. See, a lot of this world's lore revolves around dragons, and there are little half-dragon people who go out, find potential adventurers, and use them to collect stories to feed their patron dragon with. Different colored dragons like different genres of stories, which allows the DM to kind of define the tone and genre of your campaign. Green likes exploration, Blue likes friendship and relationships, Red likes battle and competition, and Black likes tragedies and betrayal.

Tell me that isn't the coolest thing ever. I would love to look like this:

Artist: Toyuki Mizusaka

But let's stop kidding around. There's only one right way to depict a Dungeon Master artistically, and the Powers That Be already decided the canon interpretation for us back in the 1980's.

Listen to me. If you have ever been a Dungeon Master, Game Master, tabletop Judge, Referee, Host, or whatever the hell you wanna call it, then you are this man:

And you should feel honored.



  1. I suspect that the idea of the faceless hooded DM owes a lot to the second 1e AD&D Dungeon Masters' Guide cover art by Jeff Easley, with the hooded figure holding open the doors. The eyes aren't covered, but other than that it's quite similar.

    1. That's actually a really good point I hadn't thought about. It never occurred to me that it could be traced back to an original instance with some strong influence.