Tabletop role-playing isn’t a visual medium at all. Rather it relies on the description by the referee, the artwork provided in gaming books, pictorial references to similar periods in actual history, and a hodge-podge of imagery from a variety of other sources. Obviously visualization is important, since it grounds the narrative, and provides a frame of reference for the gaming group. So how does one go about creating the visual backdrop for a campaign?
There are numerous methods. What I usually do is swipe images (art or photos) off the internet, and hope the images push the right buttons in the players’ minds, or I use real-life examples when describing scenes, and hope the real thing doesn’t encroach too much on the fantasy world. This time I’m doing a bit of both. The art on the Jarnheim-related blog posts is mostly off Black Metal album covers, and depict mostly dark forests and snow. I want to convey a Nordic type of wintery darkness, and perhaps some of the imagery evoked by some of the fantasy-slash-norsemyth -inspired Black Metal bands. I’m steering clear of definite viking imagery however, as the setting is not going to be viking period, and that particular imagery is just way too strong, and thus using pictures of axe-wielding raiders and longships would put the players in the wrong frame of mind. So, what DOES Jarnheim look like, exactly? I mean, besides the dark forests and the snow.
The closest real world analogue for Jarnheim at the period when the game is set would probably be late medieval or early renaissance northern Europe, or the northernmost parts of continental Europe. The smaller settlements are much the same as they were back in the Middle Ages, but the larger settlements have a bourgeoise class of merchants and craftsmen. There is a class of clergy, who’re also quite influential and wealthy on a secular level, and among other things have a militant order of knights templars, who’s duties include the safeguarding of man’s soul against heresy, and the purging of witches. There’s still a hereditary nobility, but it is in the process of getting supplanted by the merchantile elite, and the powerful leaders of craftsmen’s guilds and the clergy.
The City of Gjallarborg has narrow, cobbled streets. The houses are two to four stories high, and made either out of stone, clay and thatch, or wood. The city and most towns have walls made of either stone, or high ramparts made of earth and topped by wood. The traditional longhouses have long since given way to smaller, one family houses, but the longhouse style is still evident in public buildings such as indoor markets and guildhalls. Every town has a church, and many, such as Gjallarborg, have several. The Grand Cathedral of Gjallarborg is a marvel of architecture located on a high cliff overlooking the marina. The palace of the Sea Kings is adjacent to it, and build on several levels of wide plateaus carved into the sheer cliff face.
The further down, and deeper inland one goes in the city, the smaller the streets get, the older the buildings, and the poorer the residents. This is where one of Gjallarborg’s less reputable neighbourhoods, the halfling ghetto known as Stuntytown lies. It is a lawless place, where no reputable man or woman dares set foot after nightfall, lest he was looking for action of a more unsavory variety, and even then he had better look after his purse.
Can you picture any of those places yet? If yes, good. If no, I obviously have a lot more work to do.