It’s not a new thing for any gamer, young or old, veteran or untested. You’ve spent the time and thought into putting together a cool and awesome new character for the new campaign that your buddy is starting soon. You’ve gone over the math, made sure you’ve followed all the rules correctly for building your brand-new hero, conferred with your GM about any fuzzy spots you may have come across; in fact, everything is perfect… until you realize that you’ve only got the fuzziest of ideas as to what your hero looks like.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and when it comes to table-top RPGs, that sentiment is very true. And let’s face it, not everyone is a gifted wordsmith, able to paint a verbal picture of what a character looks like. Maybe you’ve got a real talent for drawing, either digitally or the old fashioned way with pencil and ink, then you can easily whip something up that’s tailor made to your PC. If that’s the case, hooray for you, and you’re not the person this article is addressing.
So, you’ve got no real gift for crafting pictures, either artistically or verbally, what are your options? Surprisingly, more than you might immediately think.
First, there’s the classic standby of modeling your PC’s appearance after a famous figure. We’ve all done it at least a couple of times, and might even have started making your hero with “well, he looks like that dude who played the dude, played by that other dude” or “she’s the spitting image of that really hot brunette actress, only my character has pink hair.” There’s nothing wrong with this, and it quickly conjures an image in the minds of your fellow players of what your character looks like, especially if the person you have in mind is a younger version of a much older famous person, or that person is fairly obscure outside of certain fandoms. But if you really want an image to go into that little box on your character sheet that says “character image,” you might be limited as to what kind of images you have to work from. A simple search using your search engine of choice can turn up a number of results, particularly the more famous the person is. It works, but depending on the actor’s body of work, you may not have a lot of choices for certain genres. As iconic an image as John Wayne is, there’s really not a lot to go on for post-apocalyptic, hard sci-fi, or high fantasy when looking for images of The Duke, and good luck finding a picture of Megan Fox that isn’t at least bordering on sleazy.
Which brings us to the next option, that of using a piece of pre-existing artwork from a talented artist. It used to be that searching through an artist’s website was a lengthy and time-consuming chore, but thanks to sites like DeviantArt and the proliferation of search engines, you can just search based on a particular theme and pick your preferred result from there. Depending on the subject, you can find a lot of images to work from. Try searching using Twi’lek Jedi, and you’re bound to find something other than a bunch of Aayla Secura images.
There are also websites devoted to a specific artistic theme, such as the Star Wars Artist’s Guild, and DeviantArt itself has a plethora of dedicated groups that you could stumble upon while browsing through the site. While this is great, saves you time, and provides a lot of options, there is that tricky little something called copyright. If you’re just using the image for your own personal games and putting any of your character image online, that’s fine. But in today’s world, a lot of games are putting campaign information up on the web courtesy of sites like Obsidian Portal or even creating their own personal wiki. So if you just slap that amazing image you found of a cyborg biker without the permission of the original artist, you are asking for a whole lot of trouble, especially if you didn’t give the artist credit or worse yet altered the image to remove their signature. Generally speaking, if you’re planning on putting your character info on the web and attaching the image, it’s best to contact the artist, explain what you’re doing, and ask for their approval, making sure that you will give them proper credit and provide a link to their gallery and/or home page. Most artists are generally cool with this, so long as they get proper credit, since broader exposure of their material generally means more interest in their work, which is particularly good for those people looking to make a living off of their artistic talent. If you don’t hear anything, assume the answer is no and don’t post that image, no matter how cool it might be.
So far, we’ve gone through using the options of famous people and pre-existing artwork for your character artwork. That’s pretty much it, right? Wrong.
If you have the money, many artists are willing to accept commissions. Check their personal websites or galleries, as most will list if they are currently accepting commissions as well as how much said commission will cost. However, remember that you are paying for their work, and the better the quality, typically the more it’s going to cost you. And often times you’re going to have to at least provide a basic framework of what you want the final image to look like, as leaving things entirely up to the artist’s particular muse could lead to some very unusual results. Also, you may not have the chance to provide a great deal of feedback on the piece, particularly if the price for such commission was on the low end of things; as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for, and this is just as true with commissioned artwork as it is elsewhere.
Occasionally you may find a site with a collection of artists that are willing to take requests and create something for you at no charge. One great example of this is the Star Wars Artist’s Guild, which has its own forum for posting picture requests. But remember that nugget about getting what you paid for? Since the artist in question is working on your request for free, the amount of input and feedback you can provide is going to be a lot less, and if you get too pushy the artist may just drop the whole thing entirely. After all, you’re not paying them, so they’re not obligated to give you a final result. So if you do choose go this route, keep in mind that these people are doing you a favor, and treat them as such.
On a related note, you might be lucky enough to have a friend or two that’s one of those artistically talented people, and better yet they’re willing to create character artwork for you at little to no charge and accept a lot of feedback from you on the final result. I’ve managed to set-up just this sort of relationship with Agent 99, having her do rendered artwork of various characters for a few of my Heroes on Demand entries. But like all other methods, this does have its drawbacks, as you don’t want to run the risk of overusing your friend’s artistic talent, and they have their own pressing concerns to deal with, especially if they make their living off of artistic commissions; friendship goes a long way, but isn’t much help when the bills are due. So if you do opt to tap your artist friend to create your character image, do them a courtesy and try to give them as much time and support as you can, and if they tell you that they feel like you’re pressuring them, do both of yourselves a favor and back off. After all, who wants to end a friendship over something as petty and trivial as an argument over not being able to finish a non-paid piece of artwork?
Now, one thing to keep in mind with having an artist or friend do the artwork is that your vision and their final result may not always be 100% in sync. So you’ll need to allow for some leeway as to what the artist comes up with; they say close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades, but it can also apply here, and you have to settle for “close enough” when it comes to the final product, especially if the artist is doing this for free or as a favor.
One option, while it might be considered a tad unusual, it’s also surprisingly viable. Many MMO’s let you create a customized character, with some (like City of Heroes) being more robust in what you can accomplish than others. While this is handy, there is the issue of needing a computer that can actually run the game (not always easy given the high spec requirements of some newer titles), but quite a few of them have a free-to-play option. So if your computer can handle the system requirements, it might be worth downloading that MMO and using that to create your character image. Once your hero is made, just wander to an area where you can get a good look at them and take a screenshot to be saved to your personal folder. And who knows, you might just find that you enjoy playing that particular MMO, so you’ve got a means to generate character images and a new game to play.
In a similar vein, there is the option of online character image creators, or perhaps more easily referred to as “virtual paper dolls.” If your first thought was “but those are for little girls,” well… you’re not entirely wrong, but you’re not entirely correct either. One stand-out option in this field is the rather versatile application called HeroMachine, particularly Version 2.5. I’ve used this option countless times for a great many games that I’ve played over the past several years, and even used HeroMachine for a few of my Heroes on Demand articles, and I will continue to use HeroMachine for the foreseeable future. Now it isn’t 100% perfect, as the program is geared more towards supers and modern-day heroes, with a few options for Medieval-style fantasy. Once you’ve managed to assemble the desired result, just take a screenshot, throw the image into MS Paint or other image manipulation program of your choice and crop the image to remove the excess data, leaving you with just the character image and your preferred background. You’ll have to decide if you want to save the image as a JPG or a PNG file, which has the trade-off of JPG files taking up less space on your hard drive or storage medium of choice, but PNG having the higher image quality. There used to be an option to legally procure a copy of HeroMachine 2.5 to install on your computer, but that seems to have vanished since I bought my copy years ago.
Now while they may be a bit on the girly side, there are a whole host of virtual paper dolls that can be pressed into service, particularly if you’re making a female character. Granted, you might not have a lot of options outside of “slender Human or Elven female,” but within that range you’ve got a lot of variety. But as with all things web-based, there are a lot of sub-par choices out there, and some of the websites hosting them are littered with advertisements while bombarding you with pop-up ads, which gets very annoying very quickly. Personally, I’ve found the best selections of virtual dolls to be found at Azalea’s Dress-Up Dolls and Doll-Divine, sites that one of the women I routinely game with pointed me towards when I asked where she got some of the rather impressive looking pieces of art she had for her character. Better still, they also have some decent options for male characters, though again you may not have a broad selection in themes. On the upside, they are free and you’ve got the final say in which particular virtual doll provides the best results. Again, once you’re happy with the final result, take a screenshot, crop out the excess web site information (but do be courteous enough to leave the site names in the image if you’re going to be putting them up on your own website), and you’re set to go. Both of the images at the top of this article were created using randomly selected virtual dolls from the afore-mentioned sites.
One final option is to employ one of the scores of random generators to be found over at Seventh Sanctum under the Characters section. As advertised, these are totally random, but you can usually get something that fits your own mental image and isn’t too bizarre by picking and choosing elements that you like out the results these generators provide. And once again, they are totally free with plenty of options to choose from. So if all else fails when coming up with an actual picture, using these might just provide you those thousand words to create the required picture.
So, if you’re like me and have no drawing ability to speak of, then I hope this article has provided you with a wealth of options to choose from when the time comes to answer that oft-dreaded question of “what does my character look like?”
DeviantArt Main Page – http://www.deviantart.com/
Hero Machine’s Main Page – http://www.heromachine.com/heromachine-2-5-character-portrait-creator/
Azalea’s Dress-Up Dolls – http://www.azaleasdolls.com/index.html
Doll Devine – http://www.dolldivine.com/
Seventh Sanctum Main Page – http://www.seventhsanctum.com/
Seventh Sanctum’s Character Generator Section – http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-char.phpAdd to favorites
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