This morning as I puttered about getting ready for the day, my mind somehow fell to the topic of graphic arts in game books and the impact they have on reader perception of the game or setting itself. My mind particularly dwelt on the way in which a setting or game gets defined in my mind by the work of one or two artists in particular, though a largeish stable is often involved in the work in question.
There are exceptions of course, but it tends to hold true for me at least. This might be because I'm an artist and a writer myself, but I doubt it. Anyhow, it seems to me that a large part of the 'voice' of a particular work comes from the images that adorn its pages. The authors' style and the book layout are of course also essential to forming this more-or-less coherent voice, but for the moment I'm focussing on the art. So sue me, it's the discipline from which I derive particular satisfaction.
As I pondered on this, a large number of examples came to mind. I'll list a few of what I feel to be artists and settings, games or the like that seem to have been heavily defined by the work of one or a few artists each. This is by no means exhaustive of the works I came up with off the top of my head, but it's a representative sample. Not everyone will likely agree with who I label as the dominant voices, but these are the ones that define the settings in my mind. I'll talk about how that can change over time and editions, focussing on a pair of settings and games I love for that part.
One of the premier examples that came to mind initially was Jim Holloway's inextricable relationship with that classic, groundbreaking and influential West End game, Paranoia. It is virtually impossible to picture old-school Paranoia in any other way than through the lens of Holloway's deadpan humor and expressive-faced yet vacant-brained Troubleshooters. One pair of images in particular, his smoking boot and watching computer monitor, defined Paranoia for many years and even through to its current incarnation. His work, harmonious with West End's writers' refreshingly new (at the time) focus on mood and GM advice on how to actually present and run the game, made Paranoia something distinct from every other game then on the market. It had its own voice and could be confused with nothing else.
Here is a list of a few other games, books or settings and the artists that I feel defined (or re-defined) them in my mind. It is interesting to note that the artists that seem to have done this for me weren't necessarily the cover artists - at least as many were primarily interior illustrators. Most of these are older works, as my game-book collecting has narrowed over the years while my money has had to focus more on actual life. Where they are D&D books and settings, assume I speak about the setting during TSR's reign, not WotC. I haven't bought a single D&D book since some years before WotC bought TSR and ushered in the days of D20. For games by Palladium, assume I refer to the period before Rifts: Africa (the last book of theirs I ever bought) was released in the mid nineties. Yeah I'm a paleogamer. I'll save myself by not getting into discussion of The Fantasy Trip or Ogre... today. :P
Spelljammer- Jim Holloway again. (Slightly campy, very swashbuckling and a touch light)
Dark Sun - Brom & Baxa
Tunnel & Trolls - Liz Danforth (the artist that led me to fall in love with fantasy art)
Earthdawn - Jeff Laubenstein & Liz Danforth
Ad&D 1st edition earlier books - Donald C. Sutherland III & D.A. Trampier
Dragonlance - Larry Elmore
Ravenloft - Steven Fabian (brilliant, brilliant man)
Forgotten Realms - Clyde Caldwell
Planescape - Tony DiTerlizzi
The Palladium RPG - Michael Kucharski & Kevin Siembieda (if Siembieda didn't, that'd be scary since it was his company. He also complely defined the Judges Guild DnD setting of Verbosh for me)
The Robotech RPG - Kevin Long
Rifts - Kevin Long, Keith Parkinson, Larry McDougal.
Heroes Unlimited - Mike Gustovich (unfortunately)
TMNT - Who else could do it but Kevin Eastman?
For me the White Wolf books are a tad harder to nail down, but here goes.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse Ron Spencer, Brian LeBlanc (the exception to the statement above)
Kindred of the East & Exalted - Melissa Uran
Mage: The Ascension - Christopher Shy, Alex Sheikman and of course Josh Timbrook with his tarot cards.
Vampire: the Masquerade is the toughest one for me to nail down over its editions and years, but the ones that come to mind most prominently are Josh Timbrook, Guy Davis and of course Tim Bradstreet. Others that vie here are Larry McDougal, Christopher Shy and William o' Connor.
The Games Workshop games have gone through drastic changes over editions, stylistically and mechanically. Most aren't true RPGs, but I'll cover them for this reason. Of special note here are John Blanche and Jes Goodwin, who have functioned as something like their lead visual concept men for two decades, and have been involved in the shifting emphasis.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - No questions asked, Tony Ackland's ordinary people defined WFRP. Other artists that helped clarify that game's mood were Wil Rees, Russ Nicholson and the ubiquitous John Blanche.
Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader era - Wil Rees (even though his images were only in the core and about one or two other books, they MADE early 40K for me), Jes Goodwin, Ian Miller.
Warhammer Fantasy Battle (the several pre-box editions) - John Blanche, Russ Nicholson, Ian Miller, Jes Goodwin (Jess mostly because of the Skaven)
Realm of Chaos - Adrian Smith & Tony Ackland. Period.
Warhammer Fantasy Battle & 40K (plastic-fig-and-box editions, 4th & 2nd I think) - Mark Gibbons, Wayne England. These were the days of bright and shiney, unambiguous and heroic kiddy-friendly Warhammer, and my least favorite period of the games' development for that very reason even though I like the artists in question. This period's saving grace mood-wise was Necromunda, where John Blanche's doom-ridden, somewhat sadistic voice was a bit more evident.
WFB/40K Current editions & Inquisitor - Karl Kopinski, John Blanche, Adrian Smith (back to emphasis of cruelty, oppression and gloom, away with shiney tidiness and merrily-lopping-off-heads cheer).
If you have any thoughts on the subject, if any others come to mind for you, if you wish to support or state that different artists made these games for you, feel free to add your tuppence.