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a futuristic-looking creature that looks somewhat like a jellyfish moves over empty land by the ocean
For this piece, illustrator Yanni Panagiotopoulos used AI art as concept art for their own work, rather than using AI art on its own
Image: Yanni Panagiotopoulos

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Can AI art democratize tabletop game publishing?

We look at the advancements — and ethical questions — behind using AI art in tabletop games

The latent space has been compared to the Wild West in its lawlessness, but that metaphor disguises the true weirdness of its uncanny valleys. Faceless men struggle to be rendered out of fog, textured spires extend to the horizon, night markets fade in and out of existence as Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings transform into Pizza Huts. As art is necromanced in the style of dead and living artists, one of the latent space’s valleys fills with the commands of a million sculptors and users. Though this may sound like a great setting for a tabletop role-playing campaign (with genre-mashing, surrealness, and questions about life and humanity), the latent space is becoming a questionable tool in a TTRPG designer or artist’s belt for commercial releases, fan creations, and more. The latent space, put simply, is a metaphorical location full of all of the possible images AI could create, each altered by a different factor or prompt. In this growing world of AI art generation, as the generative tools improve each month, so do the ethical questions about the future of TTRPG art.

AI art generation systems like DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Disco Diffusion have exploded in popularity in recent months, with the biggest push coming this spring with easy-to-access systems like Craiyon (formerly DALL-E mini) and accounts like Weird Dall-E Mini Generations, showing people just how far AI art has come. Vox’s primer video offers a great explainer, but the main art-generation mechanism is word prompts. You write what you want to see and it spits out art at a freakishly fast rate. Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and AI art can really get that message across. When game designer Raph D’Amico tells Polygon how he gathers AI art to potentially use in his mutational horror TTRPG The Zone, he uses the metaphor of a photowalk. “The latent space, to me, is almost this place you go and do photography in.”

The techno-magic can be a minefield in terms of copyright usage, corporate power, intellectual property, Web3 hubbub, artist economies, and overall respectful behavior, though. Nearly all 10 TTRPG designers, artists, and actual-play actors interviewed for this piece mentioned tiptoeing around discussing the topic. They’ve been asking questions like “How close can I get to another artist’s work before it’s considered theft?”; “Will AI systems depress the value of original TTRPG art?”; and “Will I get laughed out of the room if I use AI art?” After Web3 projects like Gripnr’s NFT system and Kickstarter’s wishy-washy blockchain announcement were scolded and laughed out of the indie TTRPG space, a mostly corporate-owned shiny new technology is drawing eyes.

A glowing die floats above what looks like a stone cave
Above is the result in Midjourney’s Discord for the prompt “the future of tabletop roleplaying games for Polygon, hyperealistic, full of light, crisp, 8x16”
Image: Pearse Anderson via Midjourney

But all interviewed also say that they don’t see AI art replacing original art, and many point to the tech working to assist in art production. Although some projects do use AI art for covers, characters, and spreads, AI can also jump start certain parts of the process. “I would never claim an unedited raw AI work as my own art,” says fantasy artist Merilliza Chan. “I’d still prefer to do my own thing, and only think of the AI as a preproduction assistant.” Both Chan and Nala J. Wu, a TTRPG illustrator and concept artist, point to AI generation as helping produce quick thumbnails to expand on, while TTRPG artist Leafie and actual play actor KP mention AI art’s ability to quickly create reference photos or moodboards to guide commissioned artists. Others have discussed generating AI art during campaign sessions to give players real-time images of new NPCs, enemies, and locations as they are improvised.

To designers willing to take the plunge into TTRPG rulebook art despite the muddy ethics, leaning into what AI does best can be quite useful. “Midjourney has been underutilized for its graphic design capabilities: maps, things like that,” Tuesday Knight Games co-owner Sean McCoy says. He adds that patterns, textures, and background noise usually layered into art or book design can be rendered via AI and help new publishers take the plunge into TTRPGs by lowering the cost of producing high-quality rulebooks. In his view, graphic designers already have a host of generative tools like Photoshop’s Content-Aware Fill tool or cloud generators that AI can expand on. “This feels much more ethical than, say, generating a character using ‘Nick Tofani’s style.’”

Another feature of AI art that generators excel at is producing surreal, computerized images. Several indie TTRPG projects releasing or crowdfunding this autumn are embracing this aesthetic: designer Paweł Kicman’s P!LLS FVLL of GODS is a CY_BORG zine designed with Rytr (an AI writing system) and Midjourney (an AI art system), and it is currently undergoing soundtrack experiments with Jukebox (an AI music system), each building on silly computer glitches and inhumanness that both AI and the cyberpunk theme explore. D’Amico’s The Zone is about journeying into an alien land akin to Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X or Roadside Picnic’s Zone, so he took to Disco Diffusion to “visualize the incomprehensible surrealism of the alien Zone” for much of the art, alongside commissioning seven artists. D’Amico saw positive community feedback to his Zone images for weeks this summer, but recently has received mixed feedback as the novelty factor has worn off and AI art’s bad actors have gotten more of the limelight. “As more AI art has flooded social media, people are no longer seeing ‘This is a weird surreal location.’ They’re really just seeing ‘This is AI art.’ So it’s been kinda undermining the artistic purpose, and the wonderful work all the human artists I’ve commissioned have done for the game.” Now, D’Amico is considering removing all AI art from the finalized game and using his already generated AI art as concept art or base art for future commissions. “I’ve been brutally conflicted about this,” he tells Polygon, frustrated about the legality and sourcing of current AI art.

While today’s AI art excels at abstraction, it struggles with faces, and often even more with nonwhite faces. When Wu plugged their own face into an AI Renaissance art tool, it spat back a version that replaced their monolid eyes with deep-set eyes. Their Indian TTRPG character was also whitewashed, though they tried the same system a year later and got improved results. “It was definitely better quality. She still looks white,” Wu says. “Spicy white… Italian.” Wu says that both the tech world and the art world are biased toward white people, from the automatic dispensers that don’t recognize darker skin to the abundance of Renaissance paintings of white people that the AI pulled from when it removed their eyes. “But the fact that AI learns, I would hope that the AI can learn to read POC facial features and skin tones,” they told Polygon this summer. But as the summer led into autumn, they saw more legal and economic problems abound. “I’m definitely mad that what I thought and considered a tool for artists is quickly becoming hostile towards us instead and is being used for corporate and capitalistic greed.”

KP recognizes a lack of South Asian representation in cyberpunk games, and is experimenting with Midjourney to create reference images of South Asian cyberpunk player characters and environments to inspire others, and showcase how expansive the genre and subcontinent can be. “It spits out so many different iterations, sometimes things that I didn’t even even consider,” he says. “Now I’m excited because then I can re-feed that back into it and continue to refine it.”

Another concern of AI generators is that their features are available to all, including those who’d want to fetishize already marginalized identities. Polygon scrolled through recent Stable Diffusion images this month, only taking 22 seconds before finding a nude fantasy AI illustration, this time of Zendaya as a mermaid. Thanks to the pseudonymous and diffused nature of AI generators across various Discord servers and websites, it’s near impossible to determine what is being produced with the best of intentions or how many bad actors exist.

A world where the indie TTRPG industry grows from AI art, correcting algorithmic biases, creating expansive, diverse games, lowering the bar for production, and assisting artists in their work is possible. But it’s far from the only possible endpoint. When Joe DeSimone, lead design instructor at The Academy of Games, thinks of the natural endpoints of AI tools in TTRPGs, he sees two options: utopian and realistic. “There is no difference between the dystopian and the realistic. It’s just: Do you understand the social factors at play or not? And if you do, it’s dystopian.”

In his vision of a realistic future, large studios or companies could have the business acumen to, for example, fire 50 concept artists in favor of two skilled AI art prompters to create the same quantity of work. He also sees AI art systems becoming more paywalled and paired with wait times. “As the art gets more complicated, as the AI gets more complicated, it’s going to be more process intensive, which means that fewer people are going to be able to use it to the fullest,” he says. That would slow indie use and strengthen already established game studios with the capital to bypass paywalls.

Haunting all AI discussions is the specter of original art: the images scraped to teach the system how dwarves look and how camera lenses flare in space. Who has the power, or the right, to tell a designer that their AI-generated art infringes on copyright? “If Disney feels like you’re ripping off Marvel characters or their art by jumbling three or four frames from their film into a thing and spitting out a new superhero, that’s when we’ll start to see DMCA-type notices coming out the woodwork that will go through the courts. But at the indie RPG level, it’s just going to be people calling each other out,” McCoy says. “Legislation just follows so, so far behind technology. I don’t know if it will ever catch up to this, or by the time that it does, the damage will be done.”

Midjourney recently said it was “thinking about potential processes for requesting a name block” after speculative artist Karla Ortiz questioned the implications of an AI system using Ortiz’s work or learning how to replicate it. Polygon reached out to Midjourney to discuss AI art but did not hear back in time for publication. Without any central authority’s ruling, individual designers are having to draw their own lines in the sand for what they will ethically generate and use; art in the style of an artist in the public domain might be OK, while art in the style of a living artist they could commission might not be.

The lack of clear or easy answers is contributing to the tiptoeing and the callouts McCoy references. McCoy, DeSimone, and others feel that this energy is misplaced. “We fight each other instead of organizing and fighting better battles. We do that again and again and again. The role-playing game community [has] some of the worst examples of that [infighting] I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” DeSimone said. “The only thing that brings us together is fighting against something. If anything, I think AI art, AI writing, NFTs might provide us an opportunity to band together.”

When indie designers rallied against Kickstarter’s move toward blockchain technology, the company backtracked and created an advisory council with indie TTRPG advisors. Could a similar campaign be rallied for clearer image rights, transparency about image collection, energy intensiveness, and biases in AI systems? As artistic questions are becoming thornier, designers and artists’ proposed solutions have become more systemic: universal basic income to help artists whose work might become devalued, universal health care to make the time between commissions less stressful, and better working conditions overall. Tabletop gaming is about collaborating and improvising with the trusty few around you — maybe tabletop design should be more of the same. “Even with growing new tech, I think indie devs will have an advantage because they’ll be able to find artists and resources that bigger companies overlook,” Leafie says. “Indie TTRPGs always have new, fresh ideas at their table.”

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