Adventure Business: Top Low-Cost Art Hacks
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Adventure Business is a series in which we provide guidance, tips, and idea for folks interested in publishing Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TTRPG) content. If you are publishing content for a system in which you don't own the intellectual property - such as Dungeons & Dragons - it's crucial that you make sure that system has an Open Game License, that you read the license thoroughly, understand it, and consult with a lawyer as needed.
*Disclaimer - Pawel Parol, mentioned in this article, is the lead illustrator for Headless Hydra Press, and his DriveThruRPG page linked below is managed by Headless Hydra Press. All of the other products and companies mentioned have no affiliation with HHP and we recommend because we believe in them. There are no affiliate links on this page.
Art is absolutely crucial to any good adventure. It's the first thing people notice. It sets the mood and atmosphere. It tells people what to expect brings your world to life in the mind of players and GMs. And, it is usually hands-down the most expensive aspect of publishing content for TTRPGs. If you are just starting out, this cost can be prohibitively expensive. We're here to help point you in the right direction and save you some money.
Basically there are two types of art that you will use. There is commissioned art and then there is stock art. In our Sandbox Adventures series, we use a healthy mix of both. With commissioned art, you work directly with an artist, describe the illustration you want, and provide feedback through the process as the artist brings it from a sketch to a completed illustration. There are lots of different rights and licenses for this (we defer to the lawyers on this point) but generally, you'll be paying for exclusive commercial use of the art which is MUCH more expensive. Depending on what you are looking to commission, the size, scope and content, you can expect to pay $50-$500 per piece of commissioned artwork. Stock art is art for which you are paying for non-exclusive commercial rights. The stock art you use here is cheaper but it may appear in a hundred other adventures. Another downside is you have to either get lucky and find the exact type of art you want for your adventure, or write your adventure around the art. The upside is price. For a piece of stock art, you're looking at $1-$15 per piece of art and it can sometimes be cheaper in a bundle.
Upside: Artwork is original, made to your specific style and requirements, and depending on the contract, you will probably have the right to use it for any application you want. Using it for the cover art for a book? Awesome! Want to use it for teeshirts too? Go ahead. Posters? Sure. Lunchboxes? Do kids still use lunch boxes? If they do, you can slap your commissioned art on one.
Downside: Get ready to cough up some cash. Like I said, most commercial use art commissions are in the neighborhood of $50-$500 per piece. Commisioned artwork can take weeks or months to finalize depending on the artist's schedule and the number of revision requests you give them.
Where to Find It: There are three great places to find artists. You can search for art on DeviantArt.com and ArtStation.com. See an artist whose style matches what you want? Check to see if they list their commissioned art prices. If you don't see it, you can usually find an email where you can ask. The third option is to join the D&D Fantasy Art group on Facebook. There are many very talented artists who share their artwork on there and many will post when they are open for new commissions.
Upside: The price is right, Baby! For the new publisher operating on a single thread of a shoestring budget, $1-$15 per art piece is just right. You can build up a library of artwork to use for cheap. Our Lead Illustrator, Pawel Parol, sells stock art in this range. Finally, browsing through art is fun!
Downside: The art is non exclusive so the piece of art that you LOVE that you just put on the cover of your adventure could end up on the cover of Broadsword magazine next week. Also, some stock art contracts art limit the number of times you can use the art, your ability to crop or altar the piece for print, and may come with other caveats. Read the fine print before purchasing it.
Where to Find It: The two best places to find stock art are on DriveThruRPG.com and Shutterstock.com. I'm sure there are other great places - let me know your favorite places to look in the comments.
#5: Know Thyself
Before you start gobbling up all of the art you can find like a rabid Pacman, make sure you have a clear idea about who your audience is and what niche your publication fills. Are you making adventure for people who grew up in the age of XBOX or for old-school Grognards? Is your audience looking for a whole bunch of super cheap publications or are they looking for exceptionally high quality? Knowing exactly who your audience is and what they want will help you sell more and it will inform the type of art you're looking for. If you're going old school, you might want an epic full color sword-and-sorcery style cover art and then simple black and white lineart for the interior. If you're going for exceptional quality, you may want to spare no expense and commission most of the art you use.
#4 Christmas in July. Also, Regular Christmas
If you're just starting out, DriveThruRPG is the cheapest place to find individual pieces of art for your project. Many artists will run sales on their artwork in July, the final week of November, and the final week of December. I recommend adding pieces of art you like to your wish list. Then, when you want to check for sales, you can scroll through your wishlist to check for great deals.
#3: Subscribe and Save
If you have a full shoestring budget with which to operate, consider getting a subscription to your favorite service. If you like artwork available on Shutterstock, you can usually get a free month and then an annual subscription for 10 images per month for $29.99 per month. Snagging high quality cover art for $3 a pop is not bad. If you like Dean Spencer's artwork, join his Patreon. For what you will save per month, it is WELL WORTH the monthly cost. For $10 per month, you can basically get full color art at just over $1 per piece, and half that for black and white art. And unlike Shutterstock, you can cancel or change your membership at any point without penalty. And finally, if you like stock art released by Grim Press, you can get an annual subscription for a one-time fee. You can purchase it at its cheapest in January and the price increases a little each month as they add new art to the collection. There is an eclectic mix of fantasy art that is included. Unlike Shutterstock and Dean Spencer, you don't get to pick the artwork you get. But if you got the 2021 subscription in January for $29.99, it works out to about $.15 per piece. Even if you only use 15-30 pieces, that's an amazing deal. And the contract doesn't expire. You can add these pieces to your growing library and publish them whenever they're a fit for your project.
#2: Make Stock Art Your Own
If you use stock art that allows for cropping and modifying the art, you can make changes to it that will make the art at least partially unique to your project. Using the Bazaart app, here is an example of a piece of stock art by Daniel Comerci that I modified (with the artist's written permission) for publication in Secret of the Sunspear.
By cropping away the land masses on either side, I narrow the focus on the two ships, a focal point of the adventure itself. Additionally, the watercolor-style edge makes for a smoother transition and matches our publication's larger aesthetic.
#1: Technology is a Force Multiplier
A foundational tenet of military science philosophy, this is also true for startup TTRPG publishers. In the frame of artwork for your adventure, this final hack is two pronged. I would highly encourage anyone looking to publish TTRPG content to look into both Inkarnate and Portrait Workshop.
If you're looking for NPC artwork for your adventure, commissioned art will be in the $50-$100 range per piece if you're looking for shoulder-up full color art with no background. Alternatively, you can get a lifetime commercial license for Portrait Workshop for $275. That commercial license was one of the first art purchases we made when we were founded in the summer of 2020 and it has paid off tremendously. You can make beautiful character art that is full customizable with thousands of interchangeable art assets in LITERALLY SECONDS. For Mystery in Blackthorn Keep, a murder mystery adventure containing 12 NPCs, it took us about 10 minutes to make all of the character art we needed for the adventure. If we'd commissioned those pieces, that would have been a minimum of $600. And that was just ONE issue of a monthly publication.
This one is an absolute non-brainer. For $25 a year, you can make incredible battlemaps and regional maps in a plethora of styles with almost no skill as a cartographer at all. The software is intuitive and for the more advanced features, there is almost certainly a YouTube video released by the company to answer your questions. Here is a battlemap I put together in less than an hour.
What your favorite place to find fantasy art for publishing? Let me know in the comments!
- Shane Collins