AI generated art has been the hot button topic in the TTRPG space for the last little while. There are, as so often happens, respected voices in the industry coming out on all sides of the, well, let’s call it a “conversation” to be polite, which it mostly hasn’t been. And that’s understandable, especially as more details about AI sites and how they operate become available.
For those who aren’t on top of this newest development in AI: these sites use keyword/keyphrase searches to amalgamate images from across the internet to create “new” art matching the prompts you gave. As you refine your prompts the AI refines its “creations” and you get closer to the image you want. That’s a very simple breakdown of how it works, you can certainly find a more in depth explanation with clever use of your internet search engine of choice.
People who support this new development in the TTRPG space talk about how it opens up opportunities for them, giving them access to art assets they wouldn’t otherwise have. And at first it can be hard to argue with that, especially when quite a few of these creators come from the marginalized areas of our hobby. When they just want to get their game to market, what harm does it do if they use AI to give themselves a snazzy cover they otherwise couldn’t afford?
Opponents to AI art generation will point out the harm is two-fold. First, if TTRPG creators can write some clever prompts and click a few icons and out comes an art, why would they ever go through the bother and expense of hiring an artist to do the work instead? So the income of artists in the TTRPG space is impacted. Secondly, and at the same time, the AI is “creating” its “art” by doing what computers have always done best: performing millions of calculations and grafting together bits and bobs from various existing art on the internet. Not only is the AI blocking future income for artists, but simultaneously it goes back and steals previous art, often from the same artists.
One could argue that, initially at least, there won’t be a noticeable financial dip for freelance artists. The creators most likely to use this technology first are the ones who couldn’t have afforded to buy art in the first place. But that drop will come when, around the time a small or Indie TTRPG publisher would normally “level up” their products by reaching out for their first pieces of art, they instead keep using the AI. One doesn’t have to get hit by a falling rock to know this avalanche is coming.
I’m not an artist so I can’t speak to whether what an AI generates could be considered art. And frankly I don’t think that argument is important, at least in relation to the TTRPG sphere. What I am is someone who helps publish TTRPGs and has plans to publish my own work in the future. And looking this new tech over and weighing up all my options, I can say without doubt that I will never use AI generated art in anything I publish. Likewise, I wouldn’t knowingly buy any TTRPG that relied on AI images for its graphic design.
Why? I could certainly make the points that have already been made by other artists and creators. There are any number of ways for TTRPG makers to get free and inexpensive art for their projects. Searching DriveThruRPG and Itch will get you access to any number of art bundles, most artists I know with a Patreon have a patronage level which gets you stock art you can use, there are stock art sites…the list goes on, right down to just not using any art in your game.
I know, I know, but if I can be honest for a second? Great art has never saved a bad game for me. If I had a bad time playing your game, no amount of pretty imagery and clever layout will make me pick up that game again. Contrariwise, I come back to games with little to no art constantly because I love the game. One of my favourite games is the ashcan of Crossroads Carnival by Kate Bullock. Beautiful, haunting, game, the art is sparse. Which fits the game very well, but if the game wasn’t as excellent as it is I would never give the visual aspects of the game a second thought.
Back to why I won’t use AI art. Like I said, I’m not interested in whether it’s art or not, and I think the argument that it will open up opportunities for small creators is shaky as well. Some have tried to say that this is just the march of progress and artists will have to adapt, likening this moment to the invention of steam-powered looms in the 18th century and the effect that had on cottage artisans. I tweeted my reaction to that analogy already, but in short for those who don’t want to click through: the only way that analogy holds up is if the machines created roved the countryside, stealing and stitching together the textiles of cottage weavers. It is not the same and saying it is shows an ignorance of history, economics, and people.
The reason I won’t use AI art is actually pretty simple. I’m most interested in how this affects people in our space, or dare I use that supposedly dirty word, community. And a large portion of our community, the artists themselves, have told us this will directly and indirectly harm them. That’s it. And if we actually want a community and not just a mob with similar interests, we need to listen to them. We can’t call ourselves any kind of a community if we don’t listen to the folks being harmed and take steps to mitigate or eliminate that harm. Marginalized or not, small creator or not, and especially because there are options available, if you have to hurt someone in order to publish your game, is it worth it?
And when the AI comes for the one aspect of your game you currently control, the words, will you still feel the pain is worth it? Think that day isn’t coming? There’s that ignorance of history again.
One thing I want to note because I’ve seen the use of AI-generated art excused because the creators in question are “hobbyist” or part-time creators. I think that’s part of a larger discussion for another time, because discourse about who is a “One True TTRPG Creator” keeps popping up. But I would make two points really quick. One, if someone steals from me, I don’t care if they only steal in their spare time. And two, likewise, once they’ve stolen from me it hardly matters to me whether they fence the stolen goods or not. They’re still stolen.
So that’s where I am with all this. I’m not sure how this is going to play out in the TTRPG space, but I get the feeling it’s going to be messy and noisy. I think we weather the storm by thinking of people first, especially if you have a hard time thinking of artists/creators as people and not just a Twitter handle.