Oops, I forgot this #RPGaDay! The reason I’m having to play catch-up halfway through the month is that I’ve just run the very final session of a two-and-a-half-year theatre-style Vampire live game, which took up a lot of my time and brainspace. Day 5 of #RPGaDay asks: which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?
This is likely to be a gallery of covers, as I would find it hard to choose one, and they all do different things, but I’ll try and talk about why that cover is so effective in each case.
My first instinct was Curse of Strahd, a campaign book for Dungeons & Dragons 5e’s Ravenloft setting, which is horror fantasy and centres on Basically-Dracula, Count Strahd, who rules the area the campaign takes place in. The cover is just…it’s so…Gothic. I love it. It reminds me a lot of the cover to The Cursed Chateau, a Gothic horror adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess which is also a contender here, and of the cover art from the melodramatic point and click adventure game Dracula: Origin, which is never far from being my current desktop wallpaper. This cover sums up everything I love about OTT Gothic horror: the charming and handsome vampire count louchely welcoming the viewer to his castle, the luxurious trappings, the air of ennui and monstrousness, and getting into way more than you can handle. Sign me up for a Ravenloft adventure!
See also: The Cursed Chateau, the Ordo Dracul covenant book for Vampire: The Requiem 1st Edition.
Blue Rose has always had beautiful artwork. It was nominated for ENnies this year on that very basis, and really either edition’s cover pretty much expresses the entire tone of the game. Stephanie Pui-Mun Law is the iconic artist for Blue Rose (and has also done work on other RPGs like Changeling: The Lost), and her delicate watercolour stained-glass style perfectly captures the wistful romantic fantasy of Blue Rose. I associate Law’s art so much with Blue Rose that I find it near impossible to recognise her style elsewhere and not think of it.
Apart from the art style and the beautiful colours, the covers of both editions of Blue Rose have featured female-presenting figures who manage to look graceful and tough and are clearly the absolute focus of the picture. They stare straight at the viewer in relaxed but strong stances, not sexualised or objectified, and even though neither of them look like typical warriors, you know that it would be a very bad idea to annoy them. Not only are they gorgeous covers, but you understand the tone of the game immediately. While I feel this look wouldn’t work as well for most games, it shows how well an artist’s distinctive style can really engage with the content of a game.
Witch Hunter: The Invisible World‘s first edition had artwork that instantly drew me in. I have the second edition that is designed to look like a grimoire as well (which is obviously *awesome*), but the first edition’s cover sums up everything I want from that game. Witch Hunter also has an iconic artist (among a number of others) Pat Loboyko, whose weird monsters, creepy demons and sturdy witch hunters are very distinctive and I think of as the ‘feel’ for Witch Hunter. This image manages to convey a lot in a simple scene: straight up, a monster’s attacking a Puritan-looking guy in a forest, and the guy looks prepared to wreck that monster right back. It’s simple, dynamic and hells to the yes, I want to do that right now please. A good example of how a self-explanatory image can sometimes nail it (plus, as I’ll discuss later, it manages to provide a dynamic image without over-cluttering a potentially small space or confusing the eye).
In Nomine is the simplest of these covers. It’s a game I’d love to see rebooted, but it was also hella complicated. However, the cover of this particular edition is stark, with just a burning feather drifting downwards against a dark blue background, a perfect summary of the game in a simple image (in which characters are angels, demons or divinely/infernally-touched humans). The game plays with concepts of obedience and purpose, rebellion and hubris, purity, temptation and freedom. When I first saw it, it intrigued me, and I’m a sucker for anything involving angels and demons anyway, but where a lot of RPGs go obvious or lurid or minimalist (which is far from a bad thing, as my previous examples show), this went for impact. Bravo!
Changeling: The Lost 1st Edition has some wonderful artwork across the whole line (and the relative qualities of the Chronicles of Darkness core book covers is potentially an area for intense discussion) but the ones I really love are the covers for the seasonal supplements Winter Masques and Autumn Nightmares. Changeling: The Lost’s supplements are themed around the seasons and Dawn and Dusk, to reflect the Lost societal organsation, but the books are more like a grab bag of cool stuff loosely arranged around that season’s theme (political organisations and alternative kiths in Winter Masques, antagonists, magic and the Hedge in Autumn Nightmares). The cover art for Winter Masques depicts the Winter Court’s tradition of a Winter Ball (or maybe a wintry Arcadian ball), complete with masks and intrigue. Particularly notable is that the Changelings involved wear masks that clearly depict something, like wolves or creepy long-nosed monsters – since they likely know people who look like those things for real, it’s a delightfully anarchic picture, and the slightly unnerving vibe of desperate Carnivàle makes it more than just a party scene. And in the middle of the chaos, the central masked figure seems still and purposeful, with an icy stare that is utterly perfect for a calculating Winter courtier.
In contrast, the cover for Autumn Nightmares is all action, capturing the moment when the Wild Hunt, one of Changeling’s most fearful antagonist groups, catches up with some hapless Changelings (one of whom is a badger in a waistcoat BY THE WAY). The terrifying environs of an autumnal Hedge and the inhuman hunting party remind us that Changeling is a horror game. Also, I was looking at a lot of D&D books to see if any of them could qualify and I kind of feel like a lot of them (especially 4E but I’m also looking at you, 3.5 and 5E) overburden their cover art. Don’t get me wrong – I love their bold adventurers and badass action scenes. They probably do sum up what the games are about really well. But they’re too much for my eyes to take in from a book cover. I just see a blur of action and armour. Autumn Nightmares navigates this beautifully, creating a clear focal point to the picture with the Huntsman and mount, and then drawing the eye down to the slavering dogs, the desperate Lost and the clawing branches of the Hedge above them. It’s an excellent piece. I once saw someone who had a poster of the Autumn Nightmares cover on their wall, and I was so jealous I can’t even tell you.
These covers depict two very different sides to Changeling: The Lost, but do so with immense depth for those who know the game, while also using intense visuals to intrigue.
Honourable mention goes to the internal frontispiece for Lux Aeternum in the True 20 rulebook from Green Ronin: I have rarely seen a picture that compels me to learn more that much, as a lightsabre-wielding musketeer in sunglasses is an offer I can’t pass up. Sadly I don’t have a digital version of that, and the front cover to Black Wyrm Games’ Expanded Setting Guide doesn’t strike me in quite the same way.