Dungeons & Dragons: How a Table-Top Game Inspires Creatives Worldwide


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In a conversation with Jack Kirby Crosby, a professional illustrator and avid D&D player, we talked about the benefits in playing this wondrous table-top game and all its endless possibilities. However, before we get to the benefits, an introduction is in order, no? My name is Miguel Guerreiro Lourenço, and I’ll be your adventuring companion for the remainder of this article. I know, I sound dorky as a stereotypical TV nerd, but hear me out.

With the Satanic scare of the 80’s and the “geeky” labels giving way to the loving embrace of people from all backgrounds and ages, Dungeons & Dragons has become an endless source of inspiration for creatives all over the world. A table-top role-playing game is still a mouthful that can intimidate any beginners, especially when you consider the size of the fittingly named Player’s Handbook. With a wide array of races and classes to choose from, you begin your D&D experience by creating your character—an avatar that you will use to interact with the world your Dungeon Master will narrate for you. Be it with a group of friends at home, like-minded strangers at a pub or a loved-one in the comfort of your own living room, D&D is a powerful storytelling platform that lets you interact with worlds and its peoples like no other game allows you to.

It’s no wonder artists of various forms are drawn to the potentially epic adventures to be had in dungeons or even fighting dragons (there are tons of them, and they’re colour-coded!) Inspiration, fun, curiosity and quite often, a way to tackle creative blocks are only some of the reasons that might lure some of us in, but it’s the stories that keep us from ever going back. It could all start in designing your character, by drawing their otherworldly Elven face or the muscles-on-muscles physique of an Orc! Some even fall for the trap of writing down extensive backstory and personality traits, or even running a game as the Dungeon Master—which isn’t as hard as people think it is, but it’s far more complicated than you give it credit. It’s loving relationship, I swear.

There are official D&D adventure modules one can use, designed by the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, and they range from humble beginnings to epic fantasy settings. Escorting a wagon filled with provisions and you get ambushed by goblins? Yup. Running through a cursed jungle riding a dinosaur while trying to vanquish a plague stopping resurrected folk from staying alive? Uh, oddly specific, but yeah, there’s that too! You could even tell tales set in a world you create yourself and you merely use the D&D rules and core kit to guide you and your players into shaping those worlds! Regardless of your starting point, fun and inspiration awaits you at every corner, along with traps and ill-intentioned creatures.

Joining a game with fellow creatives can lead to something more, to something bigger. Jack Kirby Crosby, an Australian-born now UK-living artist, a year-long game campaign with friends, creators of all sorts, opened the gates to a new project: A D&D Podcast called Dice, Paper, Role.

As an illustrator and player, Jack began creating the official art for every episode; beautiful, Anglo-Saxon inspired pieces evoking the themes and events of every single one of their sessions. And even though he is now a committed D&D player, his relationship with the game wasn’t necessarily positive to begin with.

He was always curious about Dungeons & Dragons and the mysticism behind it, but the connotations still attached to the table-top game turned him off from pursuing it further. Jack found the game too geeky, too layered with tropes to be that interesting, but if that was the case, how could it still be around and becoming more popular with time? Eventually, a friend of his wowed him with ridiculous stories that happened at his friend’s table. Jack was fascinated, the immersive, collaborative environment could not only be fun, but inspiring for him as an artist. Not long after, he met Ben Clements, a fellow player at the Dice, Paper, Role table, for the first time. Jack told him about his work in Armello by League of Geeks, a videogame in which he worked on. Jack did the art for several of the in-game cards, as well as creating a vast game guide filled with lore. Ben told him that D&D was very similar to the experience in Armello, a game known for its table-top influences. They hit it off and Jack was invited to his first ever D&D game—a year-long campaign ensued, in which Jack played Vestelle, a Wood Elf Rogue.

Sure, Jack was somewhat infatuated by ideas of power fantasies, but it was the notion of capitalising on failure and its design, that made Jack truly fall in love with D&D; a vessel to tell stories that are often made impossible by most game mechanics. Where in a videogame the player would be met with a reset of a scene, or a Game Over screen, in Dungeons & Dragons, the narrative simply does not stop. With that concept came the promise of recording their adventures into podcast form—Jack would do the art for the episodes, Emil Freund would do the music and Ben Clements would produce and edit it. Jack’s process involved picking the strongest images from the episodes, which then depended on Ben to give him a “Previously on Dice, Paper, Role” kind of scenario. This would make the art created by Jack for the episode, much more evocative.

Jack’s experience working in Armello influenced his style when approaching the art of Dice, Paper, Role. When he imagined Armellian drawings, he visualised turning off the colour theory and expected perspectives found in most contemporary pieces, which Jack believed would add to the level of entertainment DPR was at. He had to adapt and adopt a different approach as his pieces grew more complex with each episode; but his experience at the table is not just that of an artist, above all, he’s there to have fun.

Before anything else, D&D is about having fun, about approaching those worlds with fearlessness and the desire to tell a memorable story. Jack’s characters don’t care about the concept of death, something that mirrors his own personal views as the fear of dying struck a chord with him later. Jack used these feelings along with technical aspects of D&D to strengthen his art; with significant differences between their first campaign and Dice, Paper, Role, especially the absence of battle-maps where the Dungeon Master would depict battle scenes. Now, if this sounds overly-complicated, it often is, considering that a Dungeon Master would literally draw a map of the town, borough, dungeon or forest clearing for their players to follow the narrative. A useful tool to avoid this is the theatre of the mind, where the players use their vivid imagination to know what’s going on; if the DM describes accurately. Remember, we’re all prone to confusion. This theathre of the mind business however, would train Jack’s previsualisation techniques to tackle an art piece in a specific way.

During Inktober2018, a prompt-led art movement involving a different sketch each day of October, Jack’s art blossomed with incredible world-building pieces, all traditionally made. He was always enthralled about worlds rather than characters, even if Dice, Paper, Role involved a lot of character work, mainly distilling a person to their bare bones and primary descriptions by the DM. Jack enjoyed how he could set the canon through his artwork, which also scared him, the idea of all that power; but fans of the podcast loved that about Dice, Paper, Role. This fanbased flocked to his own work, adding to the thousands that have fallen in love with his beautiful Inktober works, myself included. I became a fan of his work before I met him, but our love for D&D bridged a gap often found between artists on the internet. It was clear to me that the Inktober movement allowed Jack to focus on his own personal work for once, which he found refreshing to explore new worlds he himself could create. While he developed this world through his pieces, he found himself thinking from a perspective of level-design and game design, the system inside of the city or place depicted in the piece. What politic or systematic issues could have arisen there, and how wonderful it could be to explore this in a world of roleplaying.

Dungeons & Dragons has honed his previsualisation skill significantly, similar to how one would imagine a book coming to life. It’s a muscle that needs exercising, and in D&D he found a perfect way to approach this important aspect of being an artist, along with role-playing. It helped him gain confidence and a sense of self-worth. He talked about how his anxiety was somewhat suppressed by playing D&D, comparing role-playing his character in Dice, Paper, Role, Oriki’s Song, a Tiefling Bard, to playing a role in society so to speak. By living in someone else’s body, it made him more aware of what made him, him, and to this day he finds a lot of value in that experience. The seizing the day philosophy that his character adopts reflects the personal growth that has led Jack to view death as the end of a journey, but it’s in the stories and friends one makes in that journey that makes it all worth living.