Design & Development06/23/2006

From Concept to Sketch

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development—or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

A daring admission, and a sketch artist's gallery.

Here’s an admission—although, I also suspect, I’m not the only guilty DM. There have been times when the creatures I chose to pit against my players had nothing to do with what best fits the adventure. Instead, flipping through the various Monster Manuals, I chose creatures with the most compelling visual appearances.

It’s true—at times, I make my choice on looks alone.

But you have to admit, there's a lot of great looking art in these books. And this week we take a look at the art process, specifically watching as creatures go from concept, to sketch, to full finished art piece.

Aside from a preview of some Monster Manual IV critters, this will also highlight the process our You Craft the Creature will go through. First, you nominated your concepts for [Baker], from which you elected the final concept (which we'll reveal the winner at the end of today's article). This concept will go out to our artists, who will develop sketches. And once the winning sketch is chosen, it will be finally transformed into the finished art piece.

From concepts to sketches

So let’s start with a few creatures from Monster Manual IV. First, here are a few creature concepts and the resulting sketches that derived from them (click on the image to see a larger view). Plus, the final art that these sketches turned into.

Artist: Carl Frank
This blue dragon descendant has badger-like proportions. It’s a thickly muscled burrowing creature with broad and thick claws on its forelegs. It has thick dragon scales, especially around its shoulders and forelegs. Its blue dragon horn occupies more of the form of its head, pointing more forward because it uses it to push through the sand as it digs and to stab foes. It’s about as big as black bear (Medium size and about 5 feet long). It weighs about 400 pounds. It lacks wings.

This creature is in a sandy desert environment. It’s bursting up from beneath the sand with electricity crackling all over its body.
Artist: James Zhang
This misshapen monstrosity seems to have been both flayed and burned, its limbs twisted into dreadful parodies. It is eyeless, and shrieks with mad battle-lust.

A XX is the twisted wreckage of a humanoid being, although it is barely recognizable as such. The skin has been burned and torn from its body, and the exposed muscles are also blackened. Its joints are bent in unnatural directions, limbs sometimes truncated or split. The ravaged face no longer has eyes, and few distinguishing features remain. Its only weaponry is a barbed spear made of bone (perhaps its own) and gnarled claws.
Artist: Jim Nelson
This illustration shows XX creatures of various sizes. A XX is an undead creature, swollen to near bursting with blood from sacrifices. It has a bloated body, livid skin, protruding, blackish veins, and vacant eyes. Its extremities swell up to give it a massive slam attack. XXs never wear armor or use weapons, but a few scraps of clothing might still hang from their bodies.

Figure #1: XX human fighter: This might have been a man, once. Now it is a bloated horror, distended veins sprawling across its livid skin. Scraps of rotting cloth are the only thing covering its swollen body. Its empty eyes fix on you, and it lurches forward swinging massive fists.

Figure #2: XX giant: This towering, twisting giant looks as if its skin is about to burst and rip away from its body. Thick veins run across its skin, and here and there its body pulses and shifts with the great quantity of fluid that strains against its skin.

Figure #3: XX crusher: A twisted, swollen humanoid the size of a castle tower looms over you. Its bloated, swollen body is covered with thick, ropy veins that throb with viscous blood. It looks down upon you with hollow, empty eyes.
Artist: Richard Sardinha
This is a four-legged bestial creature derived from a blue dragon. It is low and squat and should look physically powerful. Possessing a head that closely resembles that of a blue dragon and a pair of massive claws, this creature moves through the sand as if it were swimming in the water. Its tail appears to be spiked like the head of a great mace, with electricity visibly coursing up and down its length.
Artist: Mike Schley
Ecology: XX are nomadic hunters. Carnivorous, they hunt to eat and aren’t especially picky about who or what they hunt. As long as it's meat, it matters little: rats, boar, elves. Some taste better than others, but they’re all quite edible.

XX go beyond hunting for mere food, though. They frequently kill for pleasure. Hunting is a joy. The thrill of finding, tracking, and fighting a challenging foe fulfills a primal desire. XX need the stimulation of killing living creatures. After a combat, with a fresh kill, they always ritualistically sample the flesh of their victims and drink a sip of their blood.

XX reproduce through laying eggs. Females become fertile about four times a year. They will fight among themselves for the right to choose male mates to fertilize their eggs. Gestation takes approximately four weeks.

A female will lay two to eight eggs at a time, each of which can be fertilized by a different male. The eggs are relatively durable with thick, leathery shells. Each is fairly small, about six inches in diameter. In order to hatch, they must be kept warm and protected from violent motion, such as shaking. After about four weeks, a Tiny hatchling emerges. Children mature quickly. A hatchling develops into an adult in approximately one year.

Environment: Favoring their black dragon blood, XX are most at home in warm marshes; however, they will live almost anywhere, moving their camps to better hunting grounds. They’ll travel for many miles to follow up a rumor about their favorite prey.

Typical Physical Characteristics: A XX stands 6 feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. Females tend to be a bit physically larger than the males. They’re bigger, badder, and meaner. Males tend to have more striking green and black patterns to their scales and deeper colors. Except for these minor differences, there’s little to differentiate the two genders.

Now, let’s see if you can match the concept and sketch to the creature. Here are the choices:

  • Bloodhulks
  • Blackspawn Raider
  • Bluespawn Ambusher
  • Bluespawn Burrower
  • Wrackspawn


Now, just the concepts…

Given the Spawn of Tiamat associations with the chromatic dragons, the above entries are fairly easy to puzzle out. Yet without the sketch, is the concept alone enough to convey which creature these are?

A four-legged creature built from undead flesh. It looks crudely constructed, and black energy seeps from poorly-sewn seams in its body. Bands of cold-wrought iron ring the body, bolted straigt into its flesh to hold the various pieces together. It should look magical rather than technological, however.

The creature before you is clearly the product of some foul ritual. Its form is nothing more than a horrid amalgam of rotting flesh bound to twisted limbs. It walks on all four of its awkward limbs, and great bands of black iron seem to hold the various pieces of rotting flesh together.
An 11-foot tall creature made of sentient, evil water. It should have a vaguely humanoid shape, but its form should remain indistinct. It should look dangerous. This living creature of water flows through the smallest cracks to ambush its enemies. It engulfs its foes, slowly crushing the life from them. Its liquid form makes it difficult to injure.

The walls around you groan, buckle, and bulge outward as a torrent of water sprays out from a dozen holes within them. The water flows together, forming a vaguely humanoid shape. Here and there, bits of rock, dirt, bones, and the shredded remnants of weapons, armor, and clothing float within it. It flows toward you like a tidal wave as it attacks.
This illustration shows an XX, a bizarre and bestial fey creature that protects the groves of dryads. It spends most of its time asleep just below the soil of the grove and bursts out to attack intruders.

An XX is an enormous, disk-shaped being up to 30 feet across and weighing 5 tons. Six flexible limbs resembling wooden tentacles sprout at roughly equal intervals from its body, and can serve as arms or legs as the situation requires. Its naked body has a woody appearance, something like an exposed root, and large spikes protrude from the top, as long as shortspears. In practice, oaken defenders’ bodies are covered with soil and vegetation, so that they look like the earth itself come to life.

The upper surface of the XX’s central body resembles an enormous, angry face, making it even more intimidating in combat. The immense mouth is used for feeding but not in combat. Its “eyes” are actually light- and heat-sensitive bulges on the upper surface that let it pinpoint enemies as well as a sighted being.

This depicts a XX, a cruel fey creature that is trapped between the Ethereal and Material planes. It is incorporeal but visible, like a ghost, but becomes more solid as it consumes mortal emotions. This XX wears a simple tunic and is barefoot. It reaches toward the viewer with a long-nailed, delicate hand. A rapier is sheathed at its side.

A XX is a delicate being that resembles an extremely pale elf, with long black hair and androgynous features. It is coldly beautiful by most humanoid standards, but its eyes immediately give away its true nature. They resemble gems, pupilless and luminous. They are deep ruby red when the joystealer is hungry but glow golden once it has fed. A XX stands about 5 feet tall and weighs 90 pounds.

Now, see if you can match the concept to the creature. Here are the choices:

  • Joystealer
  • Necrosis Carnix
  • Oaken Defender
  • Watervein Assassin


Now, just the sketch…

Still easy? OK, the concepts and creature names are definitely evocative of one another, so the above shouldn't have been any problem. But are the sketches themselves as evocative as the written concepts? Take a look at the following, and see if you can match these (again, click on the image to see a larger view):

Here are the choices. You'll have to wait for these answers, however. We'll provide them next week—along with finished art for the remaining concepts and sketches described today.

  • Concordant Killer
  • Greenspawn Leaper
  • Howler Wasp
  • Varag
  • Whitespawn Hunter
  • Zern Blade Thrall

You Craft the Concept

And now: the final You Craft the Creature concept! You voted, and the winning concept was submitted by... Slagger the Chuul! Our thanks to everyone who cast their ballot, and everyone who submitted their concept. Once sketches arrive, you'll be able to vote on which one becomes the final art for [Baker]!

Shifting cogs and shining spindles comprise the body of this creature, but as they revolve to grip the surrounding trees they become… unnatural. They ripple like flesh, passing through each other like smoke. And in the middle of it all is a single glaring eye.

When this living mechanism tried to calculate nature, its very reality shattered into contradicted insanity. Its retinue of evil fey is intoxicated by its loathing for instinct and life. The [Baker] draws attention by striking directly and openly, employing powerful defenses that protect it from most attacks. This frees its minions to harass opponents.
--Slagger the Chuul

Slagger the Chuul: 35.7%
eigch: 16.0%
Balthanon: 12.8%
tom_is_a_bum: 7.8%
Darkxarth: 7.0%
Tarkhan: 5.6%
Jerivar: 3.5%
Plantling: 3.3%
starbreeze: 3.2%
toriel: 2.7%
sinfang: 2.2%
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