I made Defenders of the Dessarin Valley back in the summer of 2016.
It’s filled with suggestions for dungeon masters, a sort of “best practices” approach to running the campaign book for the Elemental Evil storyline, “Princes of the Apocalypse.”
At the time, I thought the prevailing spirit of the DM’s Guild was the handcrafted nature — homebrew, if you will — of the products being posted there. And that included taking a crafter’s approach to illustrations, especially the covers. For me, that meant pulling out a camera.
The photograph I took for the cover trying to incorporate the four elements — fire, earth, air and water — was serviceable, if a bit corny. But I was OK with it.
As the summer wore on, however, you could get a sense that one element of the marketplace was changing: namely a demand from customers for professional-quality products. Do-it-yourself covers were out — illustrations were in.
There was — and still is, actually — a healthy debate about the role of artwork as a selling point for Guild products. An illustration on the cover helps sell a product. That’s indisputable. Stock art seems to be the most affordable options. But only a few creators seem to be able to sell enough copies to justify paying an artist’s rate to commission an original work.
This change has also created a new tier of creator. (There are still homebrew creators, most of their stuff goes for free or “pay-what-you-want.” And I am satisfied being a yeoman publisher — a one-man band except for having an outside editor give a product the once-over — who produces useful material in an attractive and economical fashion.)
But we now have seen emerge collective groups of writers and artists who pool their resources. This latter group has really created some impressive products that have truly expanded the Guild’s audience and helped close that gap between costs of production and return on that investment in terms of sales. They’ve also raised expectations in a good way.
The ‘Look’ of Princes
The errata document for “Princes of the Apocalypse” had interesting news in its introductory paragraph. Basically, it said the errata applied only to the four previous printings of the adventure. From the fifth printing onward the changes would be incorporated into the text.
Wow! Five printings? That’s a successful adventure. It also meant people were still playing it. And not just a little. Five printings? That’s a lot.
For me, that meant Defenders of the Dessarin Valley still had some shelf life in it. It also meant that my cover photograph, taken in my backyard in fading light with whatever props I had in hand (the flame in the photo came from charcoal I lit with lighter fluid), was underwhelming.
The cover for “Princes” is an illustration by Raymond Swanland depicting the winged air prophet Aerisi Kalinoth leading the Howling Hatred in battle. It’s really stunning. If D&D players were supporting a fifth printing of this adventure, the least I could do was put some shine on my cover for Defenders — at least something that could draw a connection between the two.
I really wanted my cover to depict one of the four prophets — the main adversaries in the adventure. If not Aerisi, then maybe the deformed noble Marlos Urnrayle, the tiefling fire dancer Vanifer or the nautically transformed Gar Shatterkeel.
I did some research, looking at available stock art at drivethrurpg and other places. Nothing struck me as being specifically tied to “Princes.” So, off and on, I’ve been browsing Creative Commons sites, hoping to find a photo or photo illustration that would click. Searches for tiefling, winged elf, dancer, medusa, merman and the like all failed to turn up promising candidates.
Making a connection
In the adventure, Aerisi is an elf. She’s not even a winged elf — that’s an illusion she manufactures because she’s deluded herself into thinking she needs wings to fly. As I looked again and again at Aerisi, I had to divest myself of game terminology. Then it dawned on me: Aerisi wasn’t a compelling figure in Swanland’s painting because she was an elf, it was because she looked like an angel.
I hadn’t made that connection before. She looks like an angel. Not in the cute, cherub sort of way; but in the “heaven is at war with hell” sort of way. So I adjusted my image search parameters for “angel” to see what came up.
Boom. An illustration by pixabay Creative Commons creator “The Digital Artist” popped up that was as close to Aerisi as I’d seen in months of looking. There were a few other images that were good, too. But this one really hit home.
Using that illustration as a base, I now had a concept. A few other quick searches turned up the other images I would need. In quick order I assembled my new cover. This was my first effort at doing a collage for a cover. I soon posted it at the DM’s Guild.
A fresh look
I will be interested to see if the new cover drums up additional interest or if sales will continue at the same pace as they have been over the past year. A cover is just that, a cover. The part of the product that has real utility are the 50 pages within. But a cover can generate excitement for a supplement to an adventure someone already owns.
Wouldn’t it be something if the process worked in reverse? What if someone saw my product and was inspired to buy the adventure it was based on? That would be cool.