The Cover Image

Let me start with some positives: I’m very exciting about the potential of ACK, most specifically its promise of formalizing the “campaign” part of “role-playing campaign”. I’ve been a long time reader of The Mule Abides blog, and ACK seems like a logical outgrowth of the kind of play styles and other explorations of “the old school” that have been taking place there.
So when ACK was announced over there, I clicked through to Kickstarter, digital wallet in hand, excited to support a project of this type. And then I saw the “cover image”. And my first reaction was one of profound disappointment.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still pledged. And I’ve downloaded the rules text and been looking through it with interest, and skimming the blog and generally liking what I’ve been seeing. But that one image is still getting me down. And here is where I become that annoying guy that shows up from nowhere and says “hey, you know that thing you guys worked REALLY HARD on? It’s not so good…”
But on the other hand, the Kickstarter invites me to “help us publish this game with illustration, layout, and production values comparable to the classic RPGs that were our inspirations.” So alright. If I let this pass without comment, I’m not doing that. Because I don’t think the current cover image fulfills that mandate in any way.
In the spirit of constructive criticism, let me try to express what’s bothering me about the cover image:

It shouts “generic fantasy gamer art” at me. Just the general style of rather bland painted art that permeates 4e and everybody that wants to look like 4e. I can see attempts to take it another direction sure, hey, that guy is brown. And the woman is scratched up. But at a glance? It just says “another 3e/4e supplement from a second string publisher”.

It comes off as vaguely amateurish. The figure poses are awkward, the woman’s gaze is strangely directed, and the overall composition seems strangely stilted. Forgive me, I know how hard this stuff is to get right. I couldn’t do it. But it still bugs me.

And for me the largest failing: it does not sell me on what ACK is fundamentally about. There are tons of RPGs that will give me scrappy fighting, but ACK (at least from my perspective) is supposed to be giving the grand sweep as well. Sure the title tells me that, but how does the cover sell me “Some day, you could ride at the head of armies?”

In my head there is a vision of a cover that could have the same two protagonists in a triptych, first alone in desperate battle for their lives against steep odds, then riding at the head of an army, and finally ensconced on a throne as their subjects kneel before them. Too literal? I dunno. Just an idea.
The thing that inspired me to put forward this little rant was a thread in my G+ stream where a couple folks were poking at the ACK Kickstarter going “what the heck is this thing?” and somebody posted a link to this discussion from the Mule:
…and a respondent commented: “Yeah. I am amused by the contrast of the art used for the kickstarter and the references in the article.” And I thought yeah, the Kickstarter image brings me none of what I found exciting about the discussion on the Mule, or what I find exciting about the kinds of play that I hope ACK can engender. And that was enough to move me from niggling disappointed to a need to express it.
On a positive note? I think the two Visionary-inspired pieces posted in the blog totally do fit with the vision for ACK otherwise expressed.

Hi Rafial, thanks for taking the time lay out your criticism, and especially thank you for doing so constructively. I am going to let Ryan, our artist, respond to the aesthetic points you raised in point 2, and just respond to point 1 and point 3.

  1. It’s ironic it looks like 3e/4e as our actual inspiration was 2e art (what James Mal calls “fantasy realism”) as well as history. The bladedancer’s hair and garb are based on Byzantine fashion, the warrior on tribal Africa, and the evil sorcerer-king on Persian garb. These were chosen because they respectively represent key regions such as the Auran, Kushtu, and Kemeshi kingdoms in our campaign setting. I don’t personally get a “generic fantasy vibe” from it, because in my mind generic fantasy is Tolkien-inspired, Middle Ages themed, or 4e “Dungeon Punk”, none of which this is. What makes it feel generic to you?
  2. The idea behind the image is that the bladedancer and fighter are about to kill the sorcerer-king and seize the throne. It was inspired by Conan killing the king of Aquilonia on his throne to seize the kingdom. Certainly we could have gone with an image of grand battles and so on, but we thought that would be a better painting for the mass combat rules.
    Anyway, I doubt that will change your opinion, but I hope that at least gives you a sense of what our thinking was when we chose this for our cover image.

Funny fact: I’ve considered that very triptych for my visionary contribution.

Hi folks!
And here is where I become that annoying guy that shows up from nowhere and says “hey, you know that thing you guys worked REALLY HARD on? It’s not so good…”
The above is the baptismal experience of any artist who steps foot into the public world. Appreciation is a matter of taste, and when dealing with something so nostalgically wonderful as RPGS, I understand your strong yearning for just the thing to scratch that itch. Heck, give 100 people an ice cream cone and 17 or so won’t eat it for 17 different reasons, and one person will smear it all over their body to see if it works for tanning lotion. That said, I appreciate constructive criticism, as this is only my second illustrative painting ever, and this is literally maybe the 4th time I’ve attempted to paint people with any realism. The first illustrative painting I made is on my blog; it’s a moment from Lord of the Rings - Eowyn v. the Nazgul, and it’s the project that got me sucked into illustration and this gig in the first place :slight_smile: I’d say the cover of ACKS is miles better - so personally, I can’t be anything but happy about this and I look forward to the next project because I know it too will be a major leap forward in terms of my goals as an artist.
1). I disagree that this looks like 4E, which has a little more of an anime styling and a lot of digital scuffing. It smells more like a throwback to 2E to me, which is in so many words what the designers were asking for.
2) A) I’m glad it’s only vaguely amateurish. Looking around the OGL world, however, isn’t just about everything? I’m glad your interest in the game runs to the high degree that you’d expect better.
B) What’s awkward about the poses (I’m asking because this is useful, and would fulfill the promise of constructive criticism)? I disagree that the woman’s gaze is strangely directed. If anything the tilt of her head is strange, but not her gaze.
C) Also would appreciate any specific comments on the composition being strangely stilted.
D) You are forgiven.
3) We had a long discussion about what should go in the cover image, and this is the result. Alex has a particular interest in fantastic realism - that kind of style falls in line with his vision of how the original Auran Empire campaign should be depicted - the same campaign was half of the lifeblood of ACKS, as I understand it. So while I understand that it doesn’t fulfill your particular vision, it is in line with the unique setting that is presented in the rules and the experience of over 100 sessions that in large part birthed this entire project. This discussion will only ever fall to taste, in any way we twist it, but I for one am happy when something different comes along - others will not be. Let the gods of evolution select their finest, and may the wastrels fall to the wayside. Finally, on that point, it should be a point of celebration that we are playing a game that allows for an incredibly diverse and immersive experience - in each players mind, the scenes presented in-game will take on a unique appearance and timbre. Sure, this may look generic, because I am trying to create something lifelike, which is a hallmark of fantasy illustration, but as Alex described, I think it has enough ‘different’ to distinguish it from a generic fantasy setting. For me it has been a grand experiment, as it is 180 degrees different than what I was doing before with painting.
To finish that thought - Most of our ideas for the general concept revolved around the need to sell it as an RPG that facilitates interaction with world economy and rule of might, but not a game that appeared to be only about mass combat or role playing a king or a merchant or something similar. Since the game iallows all of these play elements at different phases, we started to think in the direction of depicting a throne room upset. Out of about 8 different concepts, this one allowed for all of the things we had on our “to-do” list, which also included highlighting a central character at a scale large enough to draw the viewer into the scene and feel like a possible participant (which rules out the much smaller images which would result when cutting the image into three). From our original discussion, it seemed everyone was excited about the idea that when you play a king, there is more to do than simply sit on your throne whilst being honored by subjects - rather, the fun of the game comes in when your kingdom is challenged, or when you have the opportunity to take a personal role in the deposition of an evil wizard that has plagued the campaign world from the start, etc. So that’s what we went with :slight_smile:
So, sorry to disappoint. And thanks for your support, despite your dislike for the cover. I promise we’re not trying to cause you discomfort. There have been a lot of positive reactions to the book as well, so I’m not crying - just happy to be involved.
On a positive note? I think the two Visionary-inspired pieces posted in the blog totally do fit with the vision for ACK otherwise expressed.
Thanks. With the cover, I had to dive in and do this in a short period of time to get ready for the Kickstarter - there was no time for a redo. There have been several stinker illos for the interior that I’m going to cut, because they show me working out a technique that isn’t quite final. With the small illos this is doable - they represent maybe 4-8 hours of work. The cover was 3 weeks of work.

Having put together that Mule post from emails with Ryan and Tim (editing our video) and Chris (doing our cartography), one of many things we’re talking about there is the process of art direction. There are a couple of inputs into this:

  1. my authorial contribution; how well can I imagine and describe something cool?
  2. the art director’s commercial instincts: how well does this fulfill the imperative of commercial illustration to move product?
  3. the art director’s style; what is the overall vision of the product line?
  4. the artist’s contribution; what are their talents, style, personal take on things?
    From my experience, I can say exactly how that the collaboration to do this cover was similar and different from the art order process for 4E:
    #1 was better in this case because at WotC, each designer writes their own art orders in isolation. Alex, Greg and I shot ideas at Ryan and had him show us, with informed words and sketches, which would work best and why.
    I’m really encouraged that you like the Visionary sketches. My instinct with creating that reward level was not just “doing art orders for WotC was really fun”, but also “crowdsourcing this to outsiders will produce a better vision of what our game should depict, just like the British Invasion, Hong Kong cinema, etc. were able to have a better vision of what rock n’ roll or action movies ought to be like.”
    #2 was just the same. It was really interesting for me to be part of the conversation - to talk with guys who can show data that an attractive woman on the cover results in five times more purchases than are lost to those who think it’s sexist, at least if RPG buyers are like videogames - but I don’t doubt WotC has similar research they just don’t bother to show to freelancers.
    #3 was worlds better. I can respect wanting to sell books, so changes clearly in that direction are fine. But I can’t tell you what it meant to me to say “let’s have a black character in realistic armor, doing something adventurers would do, and showing the scars thereof” and have Ryan and Alex go way beyond what I could envision and work out a depiction inspired by specific African cultures and historical weaponry, instead of getting back “here’s a white elf chick in lingerie, doing something that’s out of a private fantasy (romantic, masturbatory, whatever) rather than a gamed one, and swathed in an orgasmic glow”.
    #4 is a matter of taste. To me, it’s really clear that Ryan is working in physical media (brushes, oils, whatever) and is informed by a lifetime of engagement with RPG play; although the artists WotC uses are all talented, some remarkably so, I know that they’re working digitally and I strongly suspect that most are not currently gamers and maybe never were. I much prefer what I see as Ryan’s virtues, so much so that I don’t think I can do an objective evaluation.
    Ryan’s Eowyn painting really blew me away; from his website and the Doomslangers show I had no idea he could do that. We took a chance on him (this is RPG industry lingo for we were delighted to be the first to come across meat so fresh it could be exploited by the old “this will build your portfolio” and “sure, we’ll make money doing this someday” lines) and it’s been wonderful watching his chops develop. But, just like I unconditionally loved my newborn son even when he was all jaundiced and pimply and squashed-head-goblin-looking, even though I did basically none of the work of producing him, so also do I love the ACKS cover without reservation.
    Rafial, Ryan, & Alex, would you guys be OK if I edited this conversation and posted it to the Mule? Keeping things private here is useful 'cause we can wash dirty laundry, but this topic came up at storygames as well so I know others are interested, and it is as Rafial says part of an ongoing conversation at the Mule Abides.

I like the cover as it captures a pause before the pivotal moment when they try to take the throne. The Bladedancer’s gaze - well I don’t think she’s looking at anything - just steeling herself for action, the weight of destiny upon her. It’s captures the ambition and audacity of the usurper - so IMHO it’s totally fitting for ACKs - it’s all about The Will To Power - rather that just showing the obvious path to the throne.
I also like the colour palette - evocative and eye-catching, it’s pulp swords and sorcery, ancient (non-Western European) empires, a far cry from grimdark or anime.

Tavis: I have no problem with my words being used as fodder for a post at the mule.
So yeah, I’m not going to argue regarding which exact era is being channeled here. But I do spend alot of time digging through clearance bins at my FLGS and this cover seems like it would feel right at home with the rest of the d20 glut stuff that nobody bought. “We’re no cheesier than most of the OGL stuff out their?” That’s a pretty low bar you’ve set yourself :frowning:
Regarding Story Games, there was a brief mention of a stretch goal for an alternate cover. Sign me up as interested :slight_smile:
More specific, hopefully constructive criticism. Note I’m working from the chopped up bits that are being used here and at Kickstarter, along with the small skewed image that on the left side of the banner for this site:

it’s nice that you’ve got a story for the cover, but I, for myself, totally didn’t get it. It doesn’t say palace coup to me, just “these guys are gonna kill a wizard man”.

it’s odd that of the three figures on the cover, you are looking at the back of the head of two of them.

Wizard man’s raised arm blocking most of his head is awkward.

African warrior has a twist in his neck that makes anatomical sense but looks odd and distracting.

His flail is lying on the floor? That just comes off as dull…

Blade woman comes off for me not as a dangerous warrior, but a model uncomfortably wearing period gear.

I really don’t get any sense of athletic musculature from her.

Her skin looks too smooth, and the scratches look painted on.

Her head seems oddly angled, and the face seems more turned toward the viewer than the angle of her neck accounts for.

The eyes still bug me. Her face is turned toward the viewer, but she’s focused off to the side like she’s Michelle Bachmann :slight_smile:

Her rear foot seems twisted toward the viewer in a strange way.

Her forward foot seems too small.

I can’t get a clear look at the hand holding her forward sword, but the angle seems odd.

She’s got this weird expression on her face. It’s not will to power, it’s “something smells bad”.

Okay really, the hair? That’s gonna come apart and be in her face the moment she makes any sudden movement. That’s not “I’m gonna kill me a king” hair, that’s “I want to look my best at the feast” hair…

And as for the cover being sexist, as has been asserted elsewhere? Well I was willing to give it a pass being as her outfit does make sense. But the whole “we will sell $$$ 'cause we haz hawt chick on cover” argument that you’ve been alluding to? Yeah, that kinda is sexist :frowning:

‘it’s “something smells bad”’ - I can see that but it’s also a mix of doubt and determination - victory is not assured. And that pose - awkward and cramped, adds to this. I find that gives it more interest than an aura of confidence.

Here is a somewhat larger and not skewed jpg of the image (with an enlarged left foot and the head moved slightly down :slight_smile: ):
Her pose is not one of flexing or flailing, etc., as the idea was to depict the moment before the attack - the party is positioning themselves for the takedown. I am sensing that most of Rafial’s distaste may come from the fact that the characters aren’t heroic enough? Correct me if I’m wrong there. Much of the difference in tastes here will come down to the disparity between realism and heroic stylization and the possibilities and strengths of either. Heroic stylization is (comic books, anime, etc.) very good at presenting action and extremes which would look silly in a naturalistic setting (which is why cosplayers, no matter how talented they are, will always look a little silly). Realism is good for suggesting ‘things that could perhaps be’, but is has the limitation of a much more sensitive threshold of believability. Perhaps you would prefer a scene in which the characters are more active?
I think you are being a little harsh when you say we’ve set a low bar for ourselves. I’m not saying we aspire to make junk. I’m saying that it’s amazing how high the bar is for such a financially thankless endeavor (not speaking of ACKS in particular, but the tabletop gaming community in general), and isn’t it awesome that it exists nonetheless? Still, I think your criticism will be useful when we sit down to plan new illustrations.
Here are my thoughts on your points, Rafial, where they apply:

  1. Let me know if the larger image makes this any clearer. It was a tricky art order, for sure. I showed it to a group of college students I teach and they got it right away, so hopefully this is just a matter of the small narrative details being lost in minute reproduction.
  2. Artists love to do this kind of thing when you let them. Making everyone face the ‘camera’ feels like you’re posing them and doesn’t allow for a lot of narrative - this goes back to the story being told, again.
  3. I’d never thought of this as awkward, but thanks for raising the point. I’ll ask around to see what others think. The original thinking was that pushing him into the distance and making him less frontal would help separate him from the party.
  4. Fitting him into the corner of the composition was difficult - I guess I get awkward sensations when I think of pulling myself from a trapdoor - it could look cooler if he had just emerged and was lifting his flail ready to pounce, but there’s not room for that here. Not saying you’re wrong, just laying out our reasoning.
  5. the above sums this up, too.
  6. Good criticism.
  7. I don’t mind this, but it’s good to know you do.
  8. I think of a blade dancer as a smooth skinned character. I experimented with larger cuts and more blood/injury, smearing but it was distracting.
    9-10. Odd angle of the head I agree with a little. When her eyes looked straight out, it was weird as hell, so I went with a steely, watching-her-back glance over the shoulder. I moved the head down slightly in the pic posted above - that’s where I think you were right and it was the subtle change that snuck into the painting from the sketch.
  9. This is how the models foot was turned - guess I should get a new model :slight_smile:
  10. Agreed - made it bigger.
  11. Let me know what you think of the larger photo.
  12. Sean has the idea about the “something smells bad” look - doubt and determination. This is a result of trying to convey that there are “good” characters in the foreground, to distinguish them from the “Evilish” wizard. In my mind she has a particular hatred for this guy and is feels as if she’s about to stomp out something vile, like a cockroach. “Let’s kill this scum…”
  13. Really :slight_smile: The hair comes from my interpretation of the blade dancer class, and other historical characters it reminds me of. Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian ( ) was one of the most badass women from pre-renaissance history that I can think of, and the blade dancer class really seems to evoke her character. As an art history student, I loved the depictions of her the Basilica of San Vitale - it was actually one of the wonders that took me down the track of art history in the first place. So I’m not going to pass up the chance to make it fitting in one way despite the logic that dungeon crawlers don’t dress up. It may be that she was disguised as a court dancer, and that’s how the party snuck into the palace, etc. So I actually agree with your criticism, but disagree that it’s a negative.
    Here is a somewhat larger and not skewed jpg of the image:

I will start a post at the Mule this weekend; let’s pause the discussion until then, so that it can be part of that larger conversation.
In the meantime, I’ll start a thread about what the next bonus goal should be - an alternate cover or a quickstart to ACKS.

On the topic of sexism - it’s obviously a sensitive issue that many people will have heated opinions on.
All I’m going to say is that this image easily passed my persona litmus test: My wife. My wife played the first-ever bladedancer in the Auran Empire, so she knows the class intimately. In real life, she was once a competitive horseback jumper and professional dancer so she understands female athleticism. She reviewed the image and applauded it because (a) she thought the woman was striking and confident, (b) she loved the Byzantine fashion, (c) she approved of her very fit dancer’s build, and (d) she liked the fact Ryan gave her realistic-sized breasts and not cartoonish ones. My very simple standard for such matters is “does this image make me wife think well of my product” and the answer was yes.

Just to quickly note: “not Heroic enough” is not at all my discontent. I’ll save any further commentary for the Mule.