Finding HQ

Designing RPG Tiles

A little background history... I've always admired the graphic components of the many RPG and wargames I have bought over the years. In fact, I'm usually sold on the graphic presentation of a game rather than the game system itself. I find the visual display of painted miniatures on colorful mapsheets and game boards the coolest part of the gaming experience. When I bought a copy of the Milton Bradley game HeroQuest, and later Space Crusade, in 1998, I would not play either of them until I had all the miniatures painted! In September of the that same year I came across Dewayne Agin's HeroQuest website. On his site was a page devoted to downloadable game tiles for HeroQuest. Seeing this page sparked the desire to try my hand at making game board tiles. My first several tiles were terrible, and thankfully have been forever digitally deleted. In the next two and a half years, I would master the art of making tiles and eventually contribute over 100 full color game tiles to Dewayne's site. Dewayne was very supportative in zipping the files and making new pages for the thumbnails for me to be posted. Many times I would send him a second or third version of a tile to replace the previous one that had minor errors. He would cheerfully upload it to keep my sensitive artist ego happy. In 1999, at the suggestion of a visiting gamer, I decided to try to market my tiles by offering a printing service for my tiles. Encouraged by the response, I created my own business, Working Stiff Productions. Feeling confined with theI the standard 8" x 10" size format, I began making custom-sized 11" x 17" game tiles. My next big break came when in October of 2000, The Art Director of Dragon Magazine, Peter Whitley, reviewed a porfolio I had sent and contracted me to do a series of five full color tile posters for five issues in the Dragon. Four of the posters tiles have been published in the issues 280-283. The last poster was to my knowledge never published. Perhaps it may yet appear in some future issue of the Dragon. Working for Dragon magazine helped me set higher standards for my tiles. Peter Whitley was very kind and helpful getting my work to fir a published format.

In the 2003 August issue of PC Gamer Richard Caravan and I received high marks (88%) for our artwork on Mark H. Walker's Lock 'N Load Vietnam Board game. Richard designed the suberb counters, and I design the five full color maps. It was a great honor to hear the National Vietnam Veteran's Art museum had inducted the game into it's art collection.

What program do you use? Adobe Photoshop 6.0 is my program of choice. I can’t speak on the merits of other image paint programs like Corel Draw or Canvas, but Photoshop has everything a 2D digital artist could ask for. Layers, special effects filters, dozens of art tools, and color adjusting features. I also use a plug in program called Alien Skin to create extra texture effects such as bevels, glows, wood textures, glass, fire, and many others. Photoshop is a ravenous pig for tapping the computer's resources. It can take all the RAM, hard drive space, and CPU speed you can give it, and still ask for more! Not that it freezes or crashes-- it is a very stable program. But when you are working on an 11” x 17” tile at 250 DPI,it will slow to crawl when applying a filter effect or performing a simple cut and paste. Graphic images that physically large, at such high resolution, really tax a computer. When I first designed tiles for Dewayne's site, I set them in 72 dpi resolution for easy file downloading. I slowly increased the resolution up to 100, to 125, to presently 250 dpi. The higher dpi gives beautifully detailed images, but at the cost of humogously large file sizes. You may want to set your DPI resolution down to 100 to 150 DPI to keep the file size down and make the tile file less demanding for the computer to work with. Your printed piece will not be as sharp as compared to a 250 DPI one, but still look prety good for gaming. I guess that’s why some computer magazines use Photoshop as a benchmark when testing new computers for performance. Recently I've been experimenting with 3D rendering. The results have been very exciting! I can create many objects for tiles quickly and accurately and import them as 2D images in Photoshop. More of my tiles in the future will be using items designed in 3D.

How long does it take? Depending on the complexity of the tile, whether it’s just a dungeon floor or a very decorated room, anywhere from 1-5 hours for an 8”x 10” size tile. High-tech tiles take more time as they required lots of nuts, bolts, buttons, etc. Larger (11” x 17”) tiles are ten times longer to make.It took 40 plus hours to create the Space Freighter tile set, “Brandy’s Lament”. I was pretty burned out after making that one. It was several weeks before I would even consider making another tile!

How do you achieve such realistic effects? Using a combination of design techniques and clip art photos I can achieve a near photo-realistic effect with many of my tiles. Clip art saves me considerable time from having to design sub-components for many tiles. But using clip art effectively is more than just cut and paste---much of the clip art I use has to be resized, cropped, trimmed, flipped, rotated, distorted, and otherwise modified to fit the scale and colors of a tile. I spend a lot of time researching hundreds of clip art files to find one to suit my purpose. But while I make use of stock photo clip art, the majority of my tiles are created ex nilio in Photoshop. The real key in making realistic tiles is the use of lighting. Highlights and shadows give depth and drama to artwork. Using Photoshop’s layers, blur filters, dodge and burn tools I can create lighting effects to make the tile more dramatic. Adding texture overlays also enhances the finished product. These texture overlays can be imported and blended in at different levels of transparency to really set off a stone floor and other tile elements. Keeping the tiles to 25mm scale can be tricky--I keep a 25mm miniature next to my computer compare against the tile on the monitor to help keep the tiles in reasonably close to scale. Even so, I often fudge with the scale to make items on the tiles bigger than life for dramatic effect--- I used the excuse of artistic license more than once to justify my errors in keeping scale!

Where do you get your ideas for tiles? Mostly movies & comics. Among my favorite artists are N.C. Wyeth, M.C. Escher, The Brothers Hilderbrandt, and Jack "King" Kirby. A lot of the old adventure movies from the 1960's give me inspiration for themes to make tiles. The idea for the "Crocodile pit" tile was from an old Tarzan movie I saw as a kid. Nowadays when I watch a movie I spend more time watching the scenery and the sets than the actors! Sometimes I get ideas from studying photos of historical buildings and structures from the past.The tricky part is making the idea translate into a top-down perspective on a tile. I often approach the design of a tile as if I am building a stage for the action to take place. I often add obstacles, pathways, different elevations, and other features to make a tile unique, and to give challedges for a party of adventurers to overcome. My goal is always to make a tile evoke mystery or drama. I like to think that my tiles often tell a story by themselves, giving the GM ideas for running an adventure.

A final bit of advice: Don't be too discourage if your first attempts don't come out very well the first time. (Then again, you may be a natural born artist and whip out masterpieces on the first try--I've seen it happen!) If you saw my first tiles I did three years ago, you would have thought they were pretty pathetic. It wasn't till my second year I started to turn out some decent ones, and by the third year I was finally good enough to get Dragon Magazine's attention to publish my work. Even then, it wasn't until my last two tiles in the poster series that I begin to hit my stride. You must decide if you are going for masterpieces, or just some nice, useful tiles for gaming-- It can be a toss up to decide which would you rather do ----gaming or making tiles! Live with your choice and don't compare your work with others unless you are going for masterpieces. I make tiles because I enjoy it, (or getting decent bucks to do it!) The minute making a tile seems like work is when I wrap it up and call it a night. It's gotta be fun to be worth doing.

Best Regards,

Ron Shirtz

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