A New Cover for Defenders of the Dessarin Valley

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.

Changing tastes

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.

Fifth printing?

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.

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Boiling down kitchen-sink settings

Translating a fantasy setting at the table means presenting to the players those digestible bits — encounters, adventures and campaigns — that emphasize the major storytelling themes in the world.

Easy, right?

Of course, different worlds create different “feels” to different people. And to complicate things, companies large and small produce “kitchen-sink” style settings to accommodate many genres and historical analogs with the thought it broadens their appeal and utility.

As a consumer, it’s nice to have choice. As a dungeon master faced with the task of preparing a game, though, it would be nicer to have clearer lines of demarcation.  

Finding the “setting within a setting” is part of the trick.

So, rather than reach into the kitchen sink and select the bit you want, I’m going to recommend you assign a storytelling element to the setting of your choice — and using that perspective as a lens — view the entirety of the campaign through it. And from that, present the setting to the players wholesale but set the main quest or story along the theme you identify.

So, let’s take the big daddy, Forgotten Realms, as an example. This one even tells you up front it’s a collection of subsettings all occupying this broad fantasy landscape. That’s one reason Wizards of the Coast has chosen for its fifth edition rollout to only use the Sword Coast version of the Realms; they’ve made a conscious choice to edit the setting’s scope. The Dales — which is not part of the Sword Coast — probably best represents the heart of the Realms. But it’s the Sword Coast that has Waterdeep, and that city is the setting’s gravitational center.

Recognizing that factor in Waterdeep should be the cue the DM needs to convey its most prevalent theme: the Realms are magic and magic is the Realms (and magic is what makes one rich — the setting is more serious about its underpinning economy than most). Set your course on the Weave and make it the centerpiece.

So, DM’s, pluck at the Weave with evil-doers and a bevy of ambitious casters and set your player characters on that course.

How others settings prominent among d20 fantasy players stack up:

Greyhawk (TSR/Wizards of the Coast): Since the destruction wrought by the Rain of Colorless Fire, the setting has been in a dark ages of post-apocalyptic despair greater than Europe in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire (Cold War-era fears of a post-apocalyptic world are very evident). Lawlessness and evil have been allowed free rein; in fact, the Darkness has persisted so long the absence of Light has been taken for the status quo. Contrary to the aims of the wizard Mordenkainen and his cohorts, who are concerned with maintaining a philosophical “balance” in this landscape of tyranny and ruin, the setting demands of players that they help bring about a Renaissance. The long climb back will be difficult — despots and hereditary kings won’t willingly relent. But no setting needs saviors more than Greyhawk.

Midgard (Kobold Press): Intrusion and invasion are prevalent themes of this setting built on the bones of Dark Ages superstitions (and early 21st century concerns about the free movement of peoples in a security-obsessed world). Concern about “The Other” — in the form of faerie meddling, dwarven parochialism, elvish xenophobia, Viking-like raiders and even unchecked magic (in the form of ley lines that don’t respect recognized political boundaries — the Internet, anyone?) certainly sets it apart. The biggest invasion fear has already been realized — an area the size of France has been devastated by Lovecraftian alien horrors. PCs can be agents of change, embarking on missions of understanding and diplomacy and spreading new ideas from the engine of new technology, the metropolis at the crossroads, the free city of Zobeck.

Golarian (Paizo): The mythology of tyrannical and powerful Runelords, a society of “Pathfinders” devoted to exploration (an amplified and less selfish mashup of Greyhawk’s Seekers of the Arcane and its League of Boot and Trail)  and its blend of modern progressivism are all designed to impel player characters to correct the sins of previous generations. This drawing of a line in the sand against the legacy of the past — old Thassilon fell because of its devotion to envy, sloth, lust, wrath, pride, gluttony and greed — is admirable, but one wonders if the do-gooders of Golarian’s present age will hold to their ideals and prevail. Other sins, arrogance and self-righteousness, always threaten to undo these gains.

Dragon Empire (Pelgrane): The setting is dominated by huge, powerful adversaries — iconic rulers and massive “living” dungeons. The individual — or even a small team — confronts adversaries that are immense in scope. Anyone who identifies with the little guy who feels lost in a world of overwhelming odds, but up who goes against a large corporation, corrupt organization or all-powerful boss will find themselves at home here.