Tomb of Horrors from 1978 stands as the first adventure to include a set of illustrations keyed to the various locations. TSR dabbled with keyed illustrations in two more early adventures, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1979) and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980).
I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.
Both Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks originated as tournament adventures, and the Tomb of Horrors was designed to present a similar challenge. Of all the adventures to appear in the first three years of published modules, I suspect these three included keyed illustrations for the same reason the Hidden Shrine introduce boxed text. The illustrations gave tournament players a clear, consistent picture of each location, complete with all those tantalizing clues.
Keyed illustrations offer the biggest payoff when they show complicated architecture and decorative details—elements better shown than described. Think of the intricate decorations along the passage into the Tomb of Horrors or the terraced room in White Plume Mountain. I can’t match the skill of a professional artist, but as a DM, I often clarify some architectural detail by sketching a quick illustration.
Apparently, the expense of devoting so many pages to illustrations drove TSR to virtually abandon them. Return to the Tomb of Horrors and the fourth edition, hardcover Tomb of Horrors do continue the tradition. Aside from the Tomb series, only the 1984 oddity, XL-1 Quest for the Heartstone and the fourth edition throwback Thunderspire Labyrinth include keyed illustrations.
Current published adventures typically include a few illustrations, but the layout drops them into the text, making them difficult to share with the players. Often, the page layout flows text around the contours of the picture, further limiting them to the DMs eyes only. What a waste. If the adventure includes art, present it so the DM can easily share it.
D&D adventures dropped keyed illustrations and started including battle maps in a way that mirrors an evolution in play style. In the early D&D game, you played by describing exactly what actions your character performed to overcome an adventure’s challenges. In those early tournament adventures, if you entered combat, it meant that you had probably made a mistake. The adventure’s illustrations provided more than flavor, they provided the information you needed to make decisions. The fourth edition game centers around the action on the battle map, and the details of the traps and obstacles do not matter so much; the player just needs to know what skill to use. I like the richer tactical combat enabled by battle maps and figures, but I miss the days when an illustration invited so many possibilities.
In an adventure, do you like keyed illustrations, or would you rather see pages devoted to additional text?
Next: Picturing the dungeon – Other publishers revive keyed illustrations
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Joe Dever famously experimented with similar strategies in his book White Warlord, Emerald Enchanter, Black Baron, and Scarlet Sorcerer. An interesting take on the old school to be sure.
I ran Tomb of Annihilation’s Nagalore adventure location and the whole time, I was wishing I had some art to go with it. Maybe not for individual rooms, but if I had had an aerial shot to give the players an idea of the height changes and the architecture, it would have been much simpler to run
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