I use images pulled from the Internet for handouts, slide shows, and videos to enhance my games. It’s not hard to pull useful images from the internet–and to avoid the worthless ones–if you know a few tricks about Google Image Search.

Here are a few tricks I’ve learned from a couple of art history minors, a few years of teaching, and a bunch of GMing:

General Search Tips

  • If you want to find something for a fantasy game, use appropriate historical tags. The three best words you can add to any search are “medieval,” “Renaissance,” or “Anglo Saxon.” Medieval will often return a lot of modernized pseudo-historical stuff or very fancy late medieval French stuff, because those pictures are more colorful and gets more clicks than earlier medieval pictures. Renaissance will often get you that half-timbered architecture that you tend to see in fantasy villages, although it’ll also get you Ren Faires. If you want gritty and simple, go with Anglo Saxon.
  • If you want specific, be specific. “Castle” will get you a host of pretty pictures, but “battlements” may be what you’re really looking for. Wikipedia the article about the appropriate architecture or item if you’re not sure what to call a particular part of what you’re seeking.
  • Don’t forget to -. If you look, say, for Warhammer Orcs, you’ll find many images from WAR Online. If you’re looking for GW concept art and miniatures instead, just throw -online into your search term, and Google will filter out images with the Online tag. It won’t get rid of everything, but it will help.
  • Teach Google. When you look at your search results, go ahead and click on results you like, even if you’re not going to use them right now. This helps Google find more images like the one you clicked in future searches.
  • Use your own computer whenever possible. If your kid is searching for Disney Princess castles, (God help you,) her clicks will throw off your future search results and will filter in a bunch of animated junk you probably don’t want. Same goes for a spouse who thinks “giants” are some sort of sports team. The computer I’ve used to research and pull only historical images at work for years can practically read my mind–largely because I seldom do other types of searches on it. If you’re lucky enough to have multiple computers for your family, keeping yours to yourself will do wonders.
  • Go with the flow. Often, I’ll find an image so awesomely bizarre that I just have to work it into my game. Recently, I was searching for medieval village festivals, and found this great picture of a guy with a yellow cap and a purple face who was leering crazily at the camera. Nothing modern was in the shot, really, so in he went as an NPC. (Of course, my PCs slaughtered him instead of talking to him, but what can you do?)

Making Friends with Google

Most of us know how to type search terms into Google and then click on the Images tab at the top to bring up just images, but Google actually gives you quite a bit more control than that over your image searching.

Here I’ve used Google to search for an Anglo Saxon farm; it has already given me a pretty promising image on the right, there, that would be perfect for a poor village.

Check out the left side of the screen and you’ll find a whole set of tools that will help you refine your search. If your search has returned a set of infuriatingly useless little thumbnails, you can click on Image Size Large on the left to return only big images. If you want only purple-hued pictures, you can click on the purple box and it will filter out images with dominant colors that aren’t purple. Below, I’ve clicked on line drawing to refine my search. Naturally, this filters out a whole bunch of potentially viable pictures. In this case, it actually returned a bunch of crap–but now that I look at it, that bull in the top row is pretty nice. Maybe I could use him on a coat of arms or in a puzzle.

Finally, don’t forget Google’s Advanced Search Options. You’ll find them right underneath the little blue magnifying glass in the top of your screen. When you click the link, you get the following screen:

I sometimes find it useful to limit my searches to certain websites (the Victorian Web, the BBC, or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, DeviantArt,) because those sites will return predictable results of a certain flavor. Here’s the search for “Anglo Saxon shield” limited to BBC sites:

I’ve generally found that I can find almost anything I can imagine somewhere on the internet if I’m willing to spend the time seeking it out.

Useful Image Collections

Morguefile will give you royalty-free images of general interest. You won’t necessarily find fantasy-themed stuff here, but if you’re looking for a particular thing, (a manuscript, a cow, a mountain,) you can probably find an aesthetically pleasing and free picture here.

Olga’s Gallery is an online collection of famous paintings. If you’re lucky enough to be a part of an educational institution that pays for academic databases, check ArtStor, too.

A Feast for the Eyes has some awesome images of medieval food and beverage. The same site also hosts a gallery of medieval woodcuts.

Although I’m not the hugest fan of the style, Wizards of the Coast put their archives of PC portraits from Dragon magazine online here.

If you’re running a Steampunk or Victoriana game, The Victorian Web‘s art galleries may have what you need.