Avatars and our need to visualize the imaginary

Board gaming, Role Playing, Storytelling -

Avatars and our need to visualize the imaginary

When we play tabletop games, we often take roles. It’s a necessity with games like Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu. It’s a tool for better immersion in board games. Artwork and graphic design are major contributors to helping players visualize the situations they find themselves in during the course of the game. While our imagination takes care of creating a believable experience, this process is guided by the look and feel of the physical components of the game.

Abstract games in the vein of card games like Skip-Bo or dice games like Yahtzee do not need fancy artwork or a storyline. As a matter of fact, they don’t want them. The focus is on the mathematical concepts that define the mechanics of the game. It’s purely about the numbers and any superfluous dressing up would come as a distraction.

Visuals that draw you in

If you take a card game like 5-Minute Dungeon, the design and illustrations are essential to playing the game. The symbols on the cards have been designed to be instantly recognizable, since this is a game of visual association and speed. The artwork enhances the experience as each player chooses a character that they can relate to: barbarian, valkyrie, wizard, ranger, thief, paladin, etc. The mechanical need for this is that each class gives you a special ability to be used during play. So, while the art is a cute way to help get into the atmosphere, it also has a gameplay related purpose.

5-minute dungeon

Thanks to this, you cannot help but imagine yourself as that character while working frenetically with your adventurer friends to beat the stack of encounter cards before the time runs out.

Role-playing games imagery

D&D's immersive illustrationsIn roleplaying games the need for a minimum of visuals is essential. It gives the players and the game master who runs the adventure clues as to what the game world and its inhabitants look like. Wizards of the Coast and other publishers such as Choasium and Cublicle 7 do an excellent job at creating engaging visuals for their gaming material, rulebooks and adventure modules. It’s about atmosphere and setting the tone.

The characters depicted as the adventuring party facing a sticky situation are often represented as fairly generic, in my opinion. This isn’t a negative thing. By portraying them without too much personality, they fulfil their purpose as place holders. When you see a fighter or a wizard in a D&D illustration, it’s easy enough to imagine your own character in their stead. You have a clear idea of what she or he looks like and rather than relying on a generic visual representation, you look to portray them the best you can or want.

This is first done in writing, by choosing physical traits such as skin, eye and hair colour, weight, height, etc. Their background story might help you with rounding up that look, as well as clothing and equipment.


But what to do if you do not have the artistic inclination to draw a portrait? Well, you can get into painting a miniature. Head on over here to read about how I got back into that hobby as a means of giving my kids a physical avatar of their characters.

Role-playing with LegoYou could resort to using Lego if you have an extensive collection. I still have all the Lego my brothers and I got growing up. Adding to this, my own kids have a fair amount that they have received over the last 7 years or so. This was a no-brainer when we started playing D&D as a family last summer! You might find the article I wrote about it insightful and helpful.

Finally, you can look for an artist whose work you admire to illustrate your character. Maybe you know a friend who would do it (even though they are your friend, make sure you find a way to thank them accordingly). You can also hire a professional artist such as myself to bring your elven ranger or galactic bounty hunter to life.

Portraits of pixels, pencil and ink

As part of my custom art adventures, you can get portraits made, not only of yourself, family, friends or colleagues but also of your tabletop role-playing characters.

Entry level character portraits

Entry level sketches such as the ones shown above can be made for as low as CAD 65.- | USD 50.- | € 45.- . Such a portrait will be yours to keep and use for your games or to have printed on canvas if you so desire.

More elaborate illustrations are available as well, including hand inked or pencil portraits such as these:

Ink or pencil full body portraits

Get in touch with me by using this form and I will be more than happy to send you a quote for what you have in mind!

If you are unsure of where to start but are looking to take your first steps into the world of tabletop role-playing games, read this article I posted a while back, it might point you in the right direction!

Until next time, have fun playing games, telling stories, spending time with people whose company you enjoy or going on an unexpected adventure!

Have a great start to the summer,



Wouter F. Goedkoop is a designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.

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