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God School: Lesson 8 (Sprite Design)

Posted: Sat Aug 03, 2013 2:46 am
by thinkslogically
Lesson Eight: Creating Sprites


YouÔÇÖve all spent the last few weeks getting the hang of how to use some of the tools GIMP has available to you and while there are MANY more fancy things it can do for you, what you know now is probably 99% of everything youÔÇÖll need for running a forum game.

This week, weÔÇÖre going to look at designing your own stuff, covering the overall style you want to achieve and making a start on creating sprites for your PCs, NPCs and monsters. Next week weÔÇÖll look at designing dungeon rooms and items. Since all of these things are fundamentally linked together though, I want to start out by considering some of the overall design options you have available to you. The choices are pretty much limitless though, so please feel free to add your own comments and suggestions and hopefully weÔÇÖll also hear from some of the other GMs too, particularly those running some of the top-down games.

Choose your Style

Before you start drawing loads of stuff, itÔÇÖs a good idea to think about the style of game you want to build. Are you running a board game which will require all your sprites to be exactly the same size so they can fit on a board? Will you be looking at the world from a side-view or a top-down perspective? Some of these aspects might affect the mechanics of your game more than others, for example top-down views are good for games requiring calculated movements since you can make use of gridded maps more easily while others might just look cooler! ThereÔÇÖs also the size of your adventure to consider as well. Do you want your players to be able to run around an entire world or do you just want them to deal with a single dungeon? The scale of your world will define how you show it to your players ÔÇô after all you wouldnÔÇÖt use google streetview to show someone how to travel from one side of Canada to the other, but you might use it to show them how to get from your house to the corner shop.

Anyway, letÔÇÖs have a look at some of the popular game formats:

2D Side view
This is the style that the first forum games appeared in and they are still popular. In this view, you're looking at the room from the side, and the four directions of travel possible are up, down, left, and right, as well as through doorways etc. These designs can be as simple or complex as you like, and work really well for dungeon-dive adventures which typically take place in an enclosed and relatively well-defined area. For bigger-scale adventures though this style involves a LOT of work and too much detail to really be practical.

Last Ditch Dungeon, by LoneStarNorth. The game that sparked a forum.

Destiny of the Stonetear Clan, by EvilCoatRack

The Fugitives, by Arles

The Pit of Danger, by Warlock

The Island, by me!

3D Side-view
If you prefer, you can try a more 3D approach. This has been used far more rarely on the forums largely because of the workload involved in building them, but we have a couple of examples from the (now ancient) CarrebÔÇÖs Catacombs and WarlockÔÇÖs last adventure:

Pit of Death, by Warlock

CarrebÔÇÖs Catacombs by AdjectiveNoun

With a 3D layout, you give yourself a load more work to get the rooms drawn correctly, but you can more intuitively use ÔÇÿbackwardsÔÇÖ and ÔÇÿforwardsÔÇÖ as directions as well. However, since much of the lesson on 2D sprites relates to the 3D scenario equally well I will not discuss this style further, except to say that if you like this style but arenÔÇÖt already familiar with drawing perspectives, you might want to look into that.

Top-down view

If youÔÇÖre running a boardgame or something in the tower-defence or strategy genre then you might prefer a top-down view like those shown below. These allow you and your players to explore wider areas with less drawing effort so lend themselves well to strategy-oriented combat or civilisation-building games. Your sprites will probably by highly stylised to make them easily identifiable to your players but they can be simple. The use of maps as a base for the game also allow your players to do more exploration if thatÔÇÖs what youÔÇÖre looking for.

Goblin Minesweepers, by LooksandSmiles

The Dungeon of Horror, by LooksAtYouFunny

The Splitleaf Clan, by Crimson Char

ThereÔÇÖs no reason you need to confine yourself to this level of detail either though. If you want your world to be fully explorable, then zoom your map out further and show your players the lay of the land and where their neighbours are! This is not used a great deal at the moment, though LooksAtYouFunny is producing some awesome maps for the forum all the time and weÔÇÖll hopefully see some more world-building in future (image-based) games!

Finally, donÔÇÖt feel like you have to stick to only one art style for your game. For example, a game where you have to build a Goblin Warcamp could include a world map to show the clanÔÇÖs place in the world and where their neighbours and resources are and a zoomed-in, top-down battle grid to show the camp itself with ÔÇÿtokensÔÇÖ indicating players positions and threats. Exploring the surrounding country may lead to the discovery of dungeons, just waiting to be adventured through in a 2D side view.


A multi-scale campaign length game would be a pretty epic addition to the games forum.

Designing your Sprites: The Basics
Now this is the fun part!

2D side-view
IÔÇÖm going to focus mostly on the side-view sprites because thatÔÇÖs what I know best, but most of the stuff here can relate to any type of game really. At the end of this section IÔÇÖll have a look at some of the option which you might prefer to make use of if youÔÇÖre running a top-down game. To begin with, weÔÇÖll start by looking at the playerÔÇÖs sprites.

These are the sprites your players are going to control through your game and youÔÇÖre going to be seeing a LOT of them. TheyÔÇÖre also the most important sprites in your game because theyÔÇÖre the extension of your players, and that means itÔÇÖs your job to make them look cool. From my point of view, I think there are a few ways you can do that:
  • Posing: Allowing your players to do stupid cool things and then drawing their sprites DOING those stupid cool things makes the game way more dynamic and brings the players into the game when they can see their suggestions being enacted on the screen. ItÔÇÖs more work for you as a GM, but itÔÇÖs totally worth it! ECR did this really well in his battle scenes for example:

  • Expressions: Facial expressions are fun and also help set the tone for the characters each turn, by giving the players hints about whatÔÇÖs going on in the game-world. If your PCs walk into a room and the sprites look terrified of something, then thereÔÇÖs probably something there for the players to worry about! These are REALLY simple to do once you get the hang of them and also help bring the players into the game. ECR was really good at these too:

  • Customisation: YouÔÇÖll do this in-game to a point anyway as the players equip different gear, and chances are youÔÇÖll probably be using different colours for each of the PCs as well. But allowing a bit of pre-game customisation through use of different body types or the addition of cosmetic details like scars or tattoos is also something you might want to offer and can be done pretty easily. My starting line-up for The Island looks like this:

Making PC Sprites
So if weÔÇÖre going to focus on those aspects, where do we start? LetÔÇÖs begin by looking at some of the player sprites that have appeared in games so far:


As you can see theyÔÇÖre a pretty diverse crowd! But one of the important things to notice is that theyÔÇÖre basically all stick figures with large heads. ThereÔÇÖs a good reason for this too ÔÇô if youÔÇÖre going to be drawing lots of different poses (and if you run a sprite-based game, you will end up with a LOT of poses) then you want to make your life as simple as possible. Make arms and legs simple black lines and youÔÇÖll not only find them easier to draw, but youÔÇÖll also feel more inclined to TRY and draw some of the crazy unusual suggestions your players might come up with. Giving your sprites large heads basically gives you room to show their expressions.

So thatÔÇÖs all well and good, but how do you go about designing your own?

For starters, you need to figure what style you like. Bear in mind how big you want them to be (and what size of dungeon theyÔÇÖll be running around in) and just try out a few things. The only thing I would recommend is that you use the pencil tool to make your drawings so you donÔÇÖt end up with the graded edges that come with the paintbrush or when stroking selections.

One really important point here: KEEP ALL YOUR SPRITES! All the poses you draw will be useful eventually, so make sure you keep them all somewhere thatÔÇÖs easy to access. For all my games, I have a massive document which contains all the PC sprites, monsters and items IÔÇÖve drawn so when IÔÇÖm making an update itÔÇÖs just a case of copy-pasting the one I want and colouring it in. You donÔÇÖt need to do this all at once, but just keep adding to it as you go along.

For the first sprite, I would start simple. Just start with a head-on view of a sprite standing around minding its own business like this one:


YouÔÇÖll notice that the arms and legs are slightly distinct from the body, and IÔÇÖve included a long neck. This allows me to easily cut & paste limbs and heads from one sprite onto another one without having to redraw everything. ItÔÇÖs just like lego really!

When IÔÇÖm drawing sprites, I leave them all transparent until I actually add them to a game, because then I can have loads of different poses and expressions stored which can be used for any of my players. Colouring for me is usually a simple bucket-fill job, but you might prefer to make separate sheets for each of your players if they have lots of distinctive markings that would be a pain in the ass to draw every round.

Next, draw another sprite facing to the side so you have the profile view, and another of it facing away (if you want):


Finally, we can add some variants where the head or body is rotated. To do these, select your sprite and copy-paste a version of it onto your canvas. Then, rotate it 45 degrees. When you apply transformations that arenÔÇÖt 90-degrees, youÔÇÖll potentially find that they end up looking ÔÇÿfuzzyÔÇÖ, so you may have to go over the outline again with the pencil to tidy it up a bit. Once youÔÇÖve got those done, youÔÇÖve got the basic sprites that you can modify into all your poses.


To make them a bit more dynamic, you can chop the standing arms and legs off and draw sets that are walking, running, skipping, prancing, leaping... You get the idea. Here are a few of mine to get you started:


... They look pretty bored though donÔÇÖt they? This is where facial expressions become really important! So letÔÇÖs move on to those.

Facial expressions
Fortunately, theyÔÇÖre easy to do! For humanoids, itÔÇÖs all in the eyebrows and the mouth. For goblinoids, you can also take advantage of the ears (if you have a dog, youÔÇÖll be at an advantage for figuring those out!).

Eyes & Eyebrows
Eyebrows can tell you a lot about someoneÔÇÖs mood. Take a look at this guy:


All I need to do is vary the eyebrows a bit and you get a whole range of expressions from him.

ItÔÇÖs the same deal for the mouth:


And for ears (which can also be used to indicate in-game status changes):


Combine them all together and you can say a lot with one look.

That should do for PCs, now letÔÇÖs have a look at Monsters!

Monsters & NPCs

HereÔÇÖs where you can really let your creative side out to play! The beauty of fantasy and sci-fi monsters is that there is no set template for what anything is ÔÇÿsupposedÔÇÖ to look like so youÔÇÖve basically got free rein to make whatever the hell you want and set it free on your players.


Some of the same ÔÇÿrulesÔÇÖ for making PCs apply to monsters as well ÔÇô if you have a particular monster type that you want to use a lot, then itÔÇÖs worth making them ÔÇÿstickman styleÔÇÖ so theyÔÇÖre easy to modify into different poses so encounters are a bit more interesting. Ultimately though, monsters ONLY exist to be killed by your players, so I wouldnÔÇÖt worry so much about drawing them in loads of different poses. Instead, I would focus initially on building a decent bestiary so youÔÇÖve got lots of different types of things you can throw at your players to keep them busy and challenged.

Handy rule-of thumb: The less youÔÇÖre going to make a sprite move, the fancier you can draw it!


If you like to make up your own monsters then have at it! ItÔÇÖs your game, so you get to make the rules! Even if some of those monsters are just paintbrush splodges with eyes itÔÇÖs still totally valid!

I am a masterpiece of creativity! Hear me roar!

If youÔÇÖre not feeling that creative, at least you have plenty of places you can go to find inspiration, and then copy what has been done before (in your own way of course!). Here are a few options:
  • The natural world: Honestly, itÔÇÖs got some creepy stuff in it! But whether youÔÇÖre after run-of ÔÇôthe-mill bears and squirrels, killer plants, or f*cked up sea monstery things, the Real World can provide!


    And if thatÔÇÖs not weird enough for you, you can always follow in the time-honoured tradition of centuries-old mythology and legend and create combination animals like minotaurs, centaurs, owlbears or... well, thereÔÇÖs always Sharktopus.

  • Books & Comics: IÔÇÖm not going to suggest you start making your vampires twinkle, but there are a lot of good ideas out there in books and comics that you can make your own, or create loving rip-offs tributes of.


    I donÔÇÖt know what this is, but the man has a zombie-dinosaur steed. I am officially interested.
  • D&D (and other games): Rather than reinvent the wheel, why not take concepts and monsters that have already been created and make a representation of those? If nothing else, some of these are stupidly fun to draw (and others are just plain stupid).


    Because everybody loves a gelatinous cube.

    Oh! And before we leave off on monsters, donÔÇÖt forget that it is a TOTALLY valid artistic technique to just recolour the same sprite and call it an elemental. :P
So I think thatÔÇÖs just about everything I can think of for side-view sprites. IÔÇÖll finish up with a few thoughts on top-down game design and then we can head over to the assignment.

Top-down view
This is a format that IÔÇÖve played a lot of games in, but havenÔÇÖt ever designed for myself so once again, IÔÇÖll be turning to google for some assistance here. IÔÇÖve got a lot less experience designing games in this style, but a lot of what IÔÇÖve already described will be applicable to both formats.

Of course, top-down views are a bit more tricky because thereÔÇÖs not really that much you can distinguish about a person from just the top of their head. In these sorts of games, use of colour to distinguish between sprites is virtually essential for pure top-down displays. Alternatively, you could follow the pokemon-style which uses an oblique display to show more of each characterÔÇÖs body and helps to separate similar-looking people. Alternatively, you could use stylised tokens like those used for D&D battles.



Hopefully those will give you some ideas of what can be done! Next time weÔÇÖll look at dungeon building so youÔÇÖve got somewhere to put your new recruits and hide that treasure.

For now, you can head over to the assignment thread for this weekÔÇÖs task.

Re: God School: Lesson 8 (Sprite Design)

Posted: Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:27 am
by Arles
This is a great lesson.
Excellent job!

Re: God School: Lesson 8 (Sprite Design)

Posted: Tue Dec 03, 2013 7:00 pm
by thinkslogically
Thanks Arles :) It was actually a lot of fun to write!