Once it’s safe to poke about in builder’s supply stores again, you’re in for a gamemaster’s treat.
Bring along a small magnetic piece of set dressing, one of your standard floor+wall bits if you use dungeon/city tiles like that, and a typical miniature figure representing the people that populate your table. If you’ve got a pair of work gloves, bring those too.
Pop into your friendly local builder’s supply shop (support independent businesses when you can!) and make a beeline for painting supplies. Look for a little roll of drab green or brown or gray protective paper at least 12″ wide. Get that and a roll of masking tape.
Now stroll about a bit—keeping your budget and storage space in mind—just to see if anything leaps out at you as the perfect foundation for your next DIY build after this one. (This is why you brought a mini and the floor+wall piece for scale.) Keep an eye out for little toys around the checkout area just in case there’s an excellent unusual monster.
If you don’t own anything that lets you file the rough edges off metal, get yourself a little metal smoothing file while you’re here. If you don’t own a good box knife, get one. Olfa is an excellent brand. (Remember, real building supplies that work for terrain building are often much better than cruddy, overpriced, prepackaged “hobby tools”.)
Last, visit all the ventilation and ducting supplies. They should have pre-cut metal pieces a foot square and about one foot by two foot (or presumably the equivalent if you live in the land of metric) which are hefty enough to bear a load of terrain without bending. Using your work gloves to protect your hands from the usually quite sharp edges, select the pieces you need and confirm they’re magnetic using one of the pieces of terrain or set dressing you brought with you.
Now that you’re carrying something heavy, it’s time to pay and go home.
Wearing a mask and your work gloves, go outside and use your file to lightly smooth any particularly sharp edges on your metal pieces. You’re going to wrap the edges, so they don’t have to be baby safe, but should be distracted gamemaster safe.
Cut pieces of the paper to twice the length of your metal pieces and the same width.
Carefully place a metal piece on top of its paper piece, lining up the end and sides. Fold over the top and crease the edge so it lays flat. Wrap the edges with masking tape.
Voila! Terrain tray! Is it as good as one from Dwarven Forge. Hell no! Are you still going to use it all the time? Yes, yes you are.
The 1′ x 2′ ones are great for combining a long approach and an unknown destination (in this case a secret tavern hidden under the city).
You can pack a lot of character into a little 1′ square build—and you don’t even have to make it on the day of the game!
Here’s a nice little workshop or similar small building tucked into a courtyard in a city.
The 1′ square blocks are also great for keeping the status of the end of a game or the starting point of the next game stashed in a cupboard for a week. Here’s a tavern after the mayhem where the characters, spotting the bodies in the street, will arrive to a scene of carnage. (Or was it that they’d caused the carnage both in and out, and when we had to stop playing for the night they were halfway through dragging the bodies inside to hide all the evidence from patrolling constables?)
You can also use one of these trays for builds like this with lots of individual little pieces or complex configuration that would be hard to build quickly on the table.
Here I built up to create a hollow area for the basement which has collapsed under the influence of an air elemental. By the time the characters arrive, the furniture has been blown into the corners and one wall has been breached.
I used small Dwarven Forge terrain trays to create an area of sidewalk around the front and sides to give the house more context and just in case the battle took us out there.
Let’s end on a picture that ties back to my last post.
Here’s the big rectangular tray with the build I showed above, only now the party is in conflict with some snakey lizardy people. From the department of silly GM tricks, I’m using soda bottle rings as status markers on one character and I’m using a thread spool to elevate a bird familiar which is flying around the room.
In the picture I showed of the first draft of this build—before I’d decided not to have the barricade of benches and instead surprise attack the party—the build is sitting on its tray on my worktable. In the picture here it’s on the dining table where I carried it out and set it down when the action of the game reached this point.
As a GM I love using trays to have cool scenes at the ready. Keeping the size a little bit smaller allows you to let the players move at their own pace; if they don’t reach this scene tonight, you can keep it for next week. And if you’re not sure if they’ll turn left or right, well, build ’em both and bring out the one you need.
I hope these sturdy, magnet-friendly trays prove as useful to you as they have to me!
For a lot of roleplaying games, it’s the idea that counts. How much space does something take up? What can I see from here? As a gamemaster you can paint a great picture with your words, and let a much simpler version on the table serve as a reminder. Here are a few things I’ve done in recent years to help tell the story.
The wizard cast their tiny hut at the end of the gaming session and I needed to pick things up next game with a clear indication of where the party was safely camping. I knew it’d be gone from the table in the first five minutes and it needed to be 2″ in diameter representing their 10′ hut. The sideboard with dishes is right next to the gaming table and well, here we are:
As the party rapidly explored a map, I needed a quick way to indicate what they’d seen and what they didn’t yet know about. However, I had no way of knowing in advance which sequence they’d explore in. Sticky notes to the rescue!
Blue construction paper works incredibly well—especially over video—for indicating water areas under a build with 2D or 3D terrain.
For spell effects, it can be handy to make something a little sturdier you can use again and again. This black circle of a darkness spell—made out of a plastic report cover—works great and takes up basically no space in my cupboard of GM tools.
The same technique would work for creating covers for 3D rooms the characters haven’t reached yet (an alternative to the sticky notes a few pictures back), though for flexibility and speed—and not having something that will fly off the table with a sneeze—I tend to use black cloth napkins.
Many ‘proper’ tabletop terrain items are intended for a grid and it can be hard to manage large circular spaces, particularly when you want to “fly them in” when the party reaches that point. I used a big metal tray to very good effect for the roof of a circular building, dropping some transparent grid overlays and a 2D terrain card on it to keep the minis placed well enough for combat calculations.
This tray actually came onto my gamemaster radar while I was coming up with a puzzle room for an earlier adventure. The party’s foe was electricity-friendly and I wanted them to have to deal with it in a highly conductive space. Great; a metal floor! But what to build the scene on for the table? What I had to work with was this round serving tray and I actually love the way the room turned out.
When the map I want to use is complex, full of curved walls or odd angles, but we’ll be touching it enough that dry erase marker isn’t ideal, I’ve found it easiest to mark it out on a plain Paizo flip mat using masking tape. Still pretty dang fiddly though and taped-together printed pages would probably have worked as well and been easier still.
Really anything will do, but color helps convey information.
Notice that the picture above is the end of the session. Next game, I rebuilt this scene separately so that I could use the map on the other side of that flip mat. Below is the same body drifting in the water and the same chunk of alchemist’s fire on the top walkway which is completing its destruction of someone’s crossbow (if I recall rightly). Be bold and mix it up!
The more you pull in different improvised solutions the more creative your settings will get. I got a sample of brilliant yellow gold formica. Didn’t use it on the remodeling project, but it made a great fancy marble floor for an arcane lair, complete with sinister runic circles made out of plastic soda bottle rings.
What are your go-to solutions in a pinch at your gaming table? What’s the silliest thing you’ve seen that actually worked great?
This shot is from the end of our game last Thursday night. The Urdesh bard, Shashi, has just finished off an errant water elemental on the island in the center. Their companions, the Kamion sorcerer/motivational speaker Paklehm and the Shafor warlock Asteh with her mastiff mount Ludo, are visible further to the right back of the island. The party had successfully rid the area of the other two elementals by polymorphing them into clams and having Paklehm and Asteh’s bird familiars fly them far away to be dropped from a great height into the sea.
In the foreground you can see three electric candles, used to remind spellcasters and me as GM that there are concentration spells going on: the two Polymorph spells and Shashi’s illusion of the fire, keeping the water elementals away from the tree shrine in the center. (Those candles were a great idea I got from Lance, one of the players in my former Monday night campaign, in which we tested the Kabalor world with rapid leveling up. His super-chilled-out Duan monk, Shay, reached 20th level and became an emissary of the eminence The Dreamlands.)
So, how did I create this build? And what’s involved here?
In the previous session, a tsunami had struck the coast and the party rescued people in a village at the point where a good size river comes to the inland sea. That great wave pushed up the river and then up the stream leading to a very small community of the diminutive Lissami folk in a swampy area. This is a sacred place, home to a shrine to the eminence The River, and—as with many areas where the veil between this world and the planes of the eminences is thinner—prone to outbreaks of wild magic. The wave (itself having arisen from great magic) disrupted one of those strong spots of wild magic and combined it with nascent water elementals to create much larger water elementals that are a threat to people and structures. The couple dozen Lissami of this secluded spot fled in every boat they have, leaving behind their possessions in order to carry with them their beloved capybara mounts, and arrived at the damaged village at the river mouth seeking help. Everyone looked immediately at our heroes and, well, ya gotta answer the call, right?
For this build, therefore, I needed: the stream the party comes up, the boat loaned by the Lissami, the shrine to protect, some village structures, a base swampy region, and the suggestion of more flooding than normal, with difficult terrain pretty clearly identifiable onscreen by my players.
The Ikea Linnmon table where I create my builds is narrow—23.75″ wide—but about 4′ long. In general, I work with low terrain in the foreground and higher in the background and that fits well with this scenario of the players coming upstream. It also works well for broadcast to my players over Zoom. A screenshot from the end of our game gave me this picture which I only cropped and blacked out the corners of for this post. I use my iPhone as camera, this Haitent stand to hold it, and this older Jackery Bolt battery pack to keep it going through the game. (Those Amazon links help support this site through the commission I earn. For everything else I link to, I try to support the maker or my friendly local game store. ❤️)
With the core plan confirmed as viable, I pulled out my Paizo Marsh Trails Map Pack and filled in the foreground, borrowing a little bit of water from under a bridge from another of their map pack card sets to indicate the stream itself at its transition into the wave-damaged swamp.
As in any terrain setup I’ll be sharing in a long-shot like this, the next step was to establish the horizon. Fortunately, I was able to grow my collection of Dwarven Forge escarpment pieces with a big investment in last December’s restock. The Escarpment Pack, Escarpment Corners Builder, and the Cave Mouth Pack all got involved in building a nice rocky hillside in the back.
To bring the terrain down to the map surface, I used the Dwarven Forge Forest Transition Banks Builder set (also bought in that excellent restock). These represent fairly undamaged land, while my stone banks in cavern paint pieces (1, 2, look like closest listing in the store now) came into use as water-washed or elemental ravaged areas. You can see a triangular piece sitting between Shashi and the pond and at the corner by the larger (for Lissami) building with the brown roof where a water elemental had threatened it before being turned into a clam.
Other Dwarven Forge pieces in play here are a couple large forest floors (Heavy Forest Pack), some forest scatter terrain, my long-sought and much beloved trees (finally back in stock in a shining moment last December after a long wait), and the rowboat. With a waterfall added (from the old Wicked Cavern Pack) in the distance, the visual line of the normal stream is established along the left side of the scene.
Non-Dwarven Forge items filling out the scene include a few styrofoam wargamer hills (mostly for vague horizon greenery plus definition of the creek edge in the foreground) and a resin pond I bought at a gamestore’s flea market day, haystacks from the WizKids Medieval Farm to represent the domes of Lissami reed houses, the roof from the WizKids Jungle Shrine resting on tree stumps from a forest floor section to be their community hall, and some actual dry branch pieces from the yard for flood flotsam. The mushroom ring from the Jungle Shrine set was also in use on the island for marshy ambiance until a water elemental moved through it and destroyed that spot.
On the near center corner of the island is an almost unnoticeable bush which is there to cover up one of the trails in that terrain piece. That Pathfinder Kingmaker Bush, if I recall correctly, I got out of the bits & bobs minis box at Gamescape (my FLGS). Holy cow do I use that thing constantly. All that ranting about “bring me a shrubbery!” makes so much more sense now. Looking forward to additional hedge action coming in Wildlands this year.
During the session the only new thing that came onto the table besides the character, familiar, and elemental minis was fire. First a Major Illusion filling the whole shrine, making it look extremely unappealing to water elementals, played by the Dwarven Forge Wall of Fire Pack. Then a smaller illusion represented by a piece from the WizKids Wall of Fire and Ice set. My completed Monday night campaign featured a Shafor wizard, Nyba of Pvaku, who was a serious fire hazard and my spell effects collection still bears the burn marks.
I hope this visit to a scene in play has been fun for you too!
While the anvils at Dwarven Forge are busy making lovely terrain for Caverns Deep, Hellscape and the Wildlands, those with adventures set in urban environments have been craving a few more options. The clamoring voices have definitely been heard—survey questions about potential future campaigns suggest fun in the settled regions is coming next—but it’ll be a couple years before that stuff hits gaming tables. Today I’ll show you how to scratch that itch while you wait by making your own shop fronts. You can also use the same materials to make the longer building floors and walls necessary to create jettied upper stories of your buildings.
Here’s what I’ve made. Let’s have a profusely-illustrated stroll through the history which led me to that design and then I’ll walk you through how you can make your own Dwarven Forge options like these using $20 worth of supplies, a metal ruler, a nice sharp hobby knife, toothpicks, a wire brush (or you can use a toothpick), the craft or mini paints you probably already have, and—if you decide to go for any bigger than 10″ pieces—either contact cement (like Barge or DAP Weldwood) or Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue (e.g. Loctite Super Glue).
Shop fronts! Let’s go!
The most prevalent historical examples to draw on are from the late Medieval period in Europe. I’m still hoping to find pre-modern examples from other parts of the world. The Chinese images I looked at suggested a complete open side to the shop—requiring no modified pieces for our terrain—but that may just be an artistic visual device. This one Japanese scene from Japan in 1855 does support the complete open side idea, but again, may not fully reflect the real appearance. Given the context of this and its companion post-earthquake image, though, I think it’s fairly likely it’s realistic.
Note how the kimono shop uses an awning with side panels to display inventory in the street. Goods also are placed in front in the street at the shop in the upper right. It appears that the shop openings may have fittings for panels to be inserted to close the front when not open. Note also the shape of the shop, with a two-story section in the rear. That portion may be workshop, residence, or a combination of the two.
We can somewhat suggest this shop style without matching it exactly using existing Dwarven Forge pieces and a bit of creativity.
The European examples have some common elements to the Japanese—use of the street space and integrated workshops and/or residences—but also some distinct differences, most notably a shop counter separating the seller from the buyer. The European examples generally incorporate a wide arched window and a simple countertop. Often items are hung around the top of the opening and—taking advantage of the light—the area directly inside is usually a workspace as well as a spot to sell to customers. The wide arched window shape itself seems to signify a shop rather than a residence (see for example this mention onpage 313 of The Oxford Handbook of Later Medieval Archaeology in Britain).
Shutters were widely used to close up the shop front when not in use. These might be removable, or be in a vertical configuration as we’re used to seeing in the present day (shown in the illustration below), or horizontal, where a shutter would fold down to create the counter when supported on trestle legs or fold up to provide an awning over the counter. (This is described extensively with many photographs of surviving English buildings in this page on the Architectural Traces of Shops by Stephen Alsford.)
The counter might extend outside as seen above. Or it might only be on the inside, as seen in the tailor’s shop below. We also see in the picture below a barbershop with cabinets which protrude.
The protruding cabinet model appears a lot in Italian market scenes of the 15th century. It is unclear if these are spaces which would be sealed up with shutters or other closures (such as would be used for a tent) when not in use or if the goods would just be taken away. By comparing many images of the same types of scenes we have a better chance of identifying details that have been omitted for artistic clarity in other pictures.
Many of the historic illustrations of craftspeople also show them working in rooms at tables under large windows (possibly upstairs, based on the lack of customers or street level activity outside the windows, and on architectural traditions in later centuries as seen in buildings like the 18th century stocking knitters’ cottages in St. Mary’s Lane, Tewkesbury).
A key example I’m drawing from are surviving English buildings, especially one which I was able to visit personally, the medieval shop from Horsham at the Weald and Downland Living Museum near Chichester in the south of England. The building is presumed to date from the late 15th century. This is a fairly wide building with room for two shop fronts.
“The shop on the left on the ground floor does not connect to the room on the right and might have been rented separately, perhaps with the building owner residing above and only using the small shop front on the right (which connects to the upstairs with a staircase).Each of the two units had a shop at the front and a small hall or ‘smoke bay’ open to the roof at the back [My understanding is that this is inclusive in the white ground floor part of the building in my photo]. When the building was dismantled the timbers were heavily sooted, indicating that open fires had been burning over a long period. The fires would have been used for warmth, and possibly also for producing goods for sale — for example, smoked meat, pies or bread. … The building had been dramatically altered during its life and many of the original timbers had been removed. The surviving timbers provided sufficient evidence for the reconstruction, but many of them were not in good enough condition to re-use and have had to be replaced with new oak. On the front elevation none of the ground-floor timbers survived, so we have no evidence for the original shop front. The reconstruction is a copy of a surviving shop front of similar date at Lingfield, near Horsham.” – Weald and Downland Living Museum
In narrower buildings than this Horsham two-shop example, a hallway off the street might have a door opening into the shop as well as to living areas and to the outside behind the building. As the Tewkesbury example is described, “The front door opened onto a corridor which ran past the shop, but gave immediate access, from the side, to the shop; it also gave access further in to the living quarters, and at the far end to the service rooms and garden. The hall lay behind the shop; part of the hall was open through the upper storey to create a void for smoke from the hearth to drift upwards rather than disperse into living areas. Behind the hall were the service rooms (kitchen and buttery [which is where you keep the butts of liquor, often a small room or closet which can be locked]). A steep, almost ladder-like, staircase on one side of the hall led to the upper storey where were two bedrooms: one above the hall and shop, the other above the service rooms. A latrine would likely have been located in the garden at rear of the house.”
To return to our Horsham example, here’s a lovely photo showing museum staff or volunteers demonstrating the shop in use:
With confidence about the appearance, now it’s time to make our shop. First, we make a pattern for a piece which will fit in the front of a Dwarven Forge 4″ building front. Start by creating a piece of cardstock the size of the piece for which you are substituting.
For our shop front we’re going to use the proportions of the door piece, but make the door opening be the shop arch and the wall be the narrow door. We want to capture to our template the size of the timbers so that the piece feels consistent with the others.
Make note also of the top timbers.
Now you can draw in your shop arch and narrow doorway. Draw the whole archway to the ground, even if your finished version will have a wall below the arched opening. It’s easier to cut this way and no problem to adjust back afterwards.
Now it’s time to meet your new best friend: EVA foam. EVA, or Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate.
This magnificent substance is heavily used by cosplayers so there’s lots of good info out there for working with it. It cuts with a craft knife, can be gently sanded to created curved surfaces, and takes paint well (especially after you give it a little heat with a hot air gun or hair dryer). For our purposes you want small panels, of high density, in 10mm thickness so that it matches Dwarven Forge walls. You can buy a stack of eight such 9.6″x 9.6″ panels from Amazon for under $20 (and that link helps support this site through the commission I earn).
Our next step in building our shop front is to cut out a piece of 10mm thick high density EVA foam the same size as the wall piece we’ll be replacing.
Use your paper pattern, out of which you’ve cut the openings, as a template and mark with pencil where you’ll cut the EVA foam.
Before you cut the openings, while the piece is still at its sturdiest, trim the ends to fit in Dwarven Forge corner posts. Set a wall on top and trace the point onto the EVA foam on both sides, top and bottom.
To keep from going too far off the cut line, just go halfway down for each cut, flip the piece over, and then finish from the top. When cutting, go slowly and carefully to keep your lines more straight and to avoid cutting yourself. EVA foam is dense, but still springy. Be careful. 🙂
Try to keep your craft knife blade perpendicular to the surface of the foam panel, use a metal straight edge as a guide, and cut in smooth, steady strokes. (EVA foam is dense and hard on blades; don’t work with a dull blade. Keep fresh blades on hand.)
Before we go on to gluing and painting, here’s a quick example of making a simple outside counter as seen in many of the sources above. I’ve cut a counter out of my archway cutout piece and pierced it with two toothpicks. Once I got the height settled to a pleasing position, I cut the toothpicks off with a plastic frame cutter.
If you want your shop front to have a solid door, take your doorway cutout and split it vertically to be half as thick, as shown below.
EVA foam also is available in large, inexpensive batches as floor matting. This comes in many colors, for example, 24″ square brown pieces (approx. $1/sq foot in a six pack). These floor mats are not quite as dense as the black non-floor-mat type and have a pattern on one side, but are still serviceable. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.)
To build a multi-level shop-front building with overhanging fronts, I’ve cut each floor 1/2″ longer than the one below, representing an overall 5′ overhang at scale. They’re 4″ wide to match standard Dwarven Forge Cottage walls, so I’ve only needed to cut special side walls for the top and middle levels.
Before heat sealing, I’ve textured all the surfaces since cuts in EVA foam will separate slightly when heated. This helps retain the detail.
Before painting, you’ll want to heat seal the surface. This is super easy with a heat gun, but doable with a hair dryer on high (or so the cosplay folks say; I’m the kinda gal who owns a heat gun but not a hair dryer and haven’t tested the latter myself). Let the heat gun come to temperature, then pass it over your cut foam pieces, watching the surface become less porous and less matte. It is a very quick change—don’t go nuts and melt your foam—and will leave you with a nice smooth surface for painting, no priming necessary. Note: you’re heating plastic; do this in a well-ventilated area. A silicone place mat is handy to prevent heat damage to the surface you’re working on (and if you get a smooth one in dirt brown or dungeon gray it can do double duty in your builds hiding random items you’re using for elevation like board game boxes).
I made the holes for the Dwarven Forge corner posts using a hand-powered hobby drill after heat sealing the pieces so that the fit stays tight. If you don’t have a hobby drill (like you’d use for putting pins into the bottom of a mini), just use a drill bit about half the diameter of the corner post pins. You don’t need to remove much foam in the hole to create room.
For a roof of the new longer length, I got a brown yoga block made of EVA foam and cut it down to size. These blocks happen to have a black stripe, which makes a nice decorative effect. Each block is enough for two roofs for a 5″ x 4″ building, with big extra bits left over. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.) For cutting something like this, I used an Olfa Utility Knife (as recommended by Jeremy of Black Magic Craft.)
It’s not perfect, but I am very pleased with the results of this first experiment with EVA foam. I’m looking forward to the day I can replace these with real pieces of Dwarvenite, but until then I’ve got a lot more building options available to me.
Whatever shop style we choose, it’s worth remembering that it almost certainly exists in the wider context of temporary market stalls, herded groups of animals, wandering mongers with trays, and all manner of people trading from wagons, baskets, and goods they carry on their backs. Have fun filling in lots of less formal commerce activity!
Dwarven Forge makes great, super-sturdy terrain. It’s the best combination of aesthetics and durability out there. It will last, so it’s a good investment as a gamemaster who wants to liven up their play table (whether in person or when playing remotely), but it isn’t cheap.
If you are a person with good self-control who is willing to wait a long time for the goods to arrive, backing their Kickstarters is a great way to get pieces at a better price. Backers pay less than they would later in the store.
Their current Kickstarter, Wildlands, closes on September 2, 2020. I will use it to illustrate some general things that you may want to consider when deciding where to invest your gaming money. Dwarven Forge is fortunately so experienced at this that the big question to ask before backing any Kickstarter project—”Will they deliver on their promises?”—is a firm Yes. (There’s a good overview of their history in the campaign video.) What else should you be considering?
Quick and dirty tips time. Tons going on at our house (minor bathroom remodel, yay!) so, though this would be better as a video walkthrough à la Nate, since I do not have a video setup or time to quickly fake one, we’ll be one half step better than the Theater of the Mind: a Medium post with some snaps from my phone. Dwarven Forge and other 3D terrain lovers, get yourselves the little paper organizer set from Ikea known as TJENA. It’s just the right size to work with Dwarven Forge terrain!
Piece 1: The Tray
Piece 2: Low Square
Piece 3: Medium Square
Piece 4: High Square
Piece 5: The Big Tjena
Okay, dungeonmasters, hie thee hence to ye olde Ikea and start blowing your players minds with more multi-level builds!
p.s. I bet the GRÅSIDAN set from Ikea would work even better, all being 2″ tall, but I haven’t gotten one to play with yet. — — — As of late August 2019 I have gotten to try the GRÅSIDAN pieces and they’re great!
“But, Dinah,” I hear you cry, “where will I store all these pieces?”
😉 That’s the life changing magic of tidying up… Flip them over and Konmari your drawers!
Now doesn’t a stealth roll like that spark joy?
(The original version of this post was published on Medium in July 2019 as part of “D DMs D&D”)
I’m not pure theater-of-the-mind; I still do like to use miniatures and grid maps to help understand lines of sight, spell effects, etc. I find these help me create more complex situations in which the players can get immersed.
I worried at first using 3D terrain would reduce their engagement, but photos by my players like this let me know they’re being transported.
Now that I’ve made the investment, I’m often using elaborate miniature setups like that pictured above, and in a less character-centric perspective here:
However, I don’t always use the 3D terrain. In the photo below you can see how I’m combining 2D and 3D pieces to amplify the feeling of a cave environment.
I want the organic intricacy of the cave space to come through, so I’m using a great set of paper map tiles from Paizo. But I also want the players to feel the closed-in solidity, so I’ve built the entrance and exit with Dwarvenforge terrain.
Notice above how I’ve placed a couple 3D stalagmites on top of those drawn on the 2D map. This really helps to give the immediate sense of the ratman peeking out at them from partial cover.
Though this was intended as a non-combat encounter, I was ready for it to become a fight. That’s part of why I built out the exit from the room to show where reinforcing ratfolk would enter and take cover in corners.
I hope that picture also illustrates how investing in even a few 3D terrain pieces can make a big difference.
You can use them in combo with your 2D maps or even without a map to help clarify a complex combat or visibility situation. “I don’t understand. Why can’t I peek around the corner, across the hall, and into that other doorway?”
The pedestal blocks shown below are also super helpful to illustrate vertical situations.
Here is the party in a small room (which I drew on a dungeon tile grid just before the players got to my house and set aside until we got to this puzzle).
I told them, “The room has a 20′ ceiling, but on one wall the top 5′ are open.” Their challenge was how to get somebody up those 15′ to get into a treasure room once hidden behind a long-gone tapestry.
3D terrain is all from Dwarven Forge https://dwarvenforge.com/ (as is the ratman mini). Be sure you’re buying painted; they do a fantastic job.
The paper map tiles are from Paizo (who also make really great big maps with tons of detail, which I’ve used a lot in the past and will be using again): https://paizo.com/
The dry erase dungeon tiles are made by Role 4 Initiative and I think I bought them at our lovely local game store, Gamescape. You should buy local whenever possible to help keep gaming alive; local shops are where many people first play. When I visit a shop and don’t find anything else I want, I try to buy a set of dice or something small and useful like that to help keep the business going.
The other minis are from various sources. I am always visiting game shops in cities I travel to and checking for painted plastic minis. Alas, so many are sold in random packs now that for monsters I often buy used to be sure I’m getting exactly what I need. Cool Stuff, Inc. is a good source: https://www.coolstuffinc.com
The big vinyl mat under all this I probably also bought at a game shop. It has 1″ grid on one side and hex map on the other (tho’ I never use that side). I wish someone would make a vinyl mat that was greenish-tan on one side and stone gray on the other, to be a better place setting for wilderness and city/dungeon adventuring.
The nice wooden dice tower, dice tray, and storage box you can see in the background is from Wyrmwood, who make absolutely beautiful stuff. https://wyrmwoodgaming.com/
In the background of the last shot you can see the top of my little wheeled cabinet of drawers. This fits in our back room most of the time, but on D&D night I roll it out next to my chair. It’s a huge boon for a DM as you can keep everything you’ll need handy in it and it provides a space for you to put your drink out of the danger zone of your dice rolling and gesticulating. The top drawer has stuff I use almost every game like our initiative order tracker, condition markers, some of the players minis, my pencil and eraser, small paper cards for passing notes to players, etc. The drawers below that I keep empty and set up before each game with the NPC/monster minis and terrain I expect to need. The bottom drawers have my miniatures sorted into broad categories like “NPC/hero/villager types”, undead, goblinoids, beasts, etc. [You can buy the same cabinet here: https://amzn.to/2LpbFFK but as of August 2020 I no longer recommend it. If you put anything at all heavy in it, including a drawer full of papers and softcover rulebooks, the sides bow outward eventually and then the drawers start falling out of their tracks. Cheap turned out to be too cheap. It’d be fine for underwear or lightweight crafts or something though. I recommend also getting some lining for the drawers so minis don’t get chipped as you roll the cabinet https://amzn.to/2Ezuvtw (I didn’t stick it down, just cut it into pieces to drape across the inside of each drawer) The caster wheels that come with the cabinet are cheap plastic and will break within six months if my experience rolling over carpet is typical. Assemble it with sturdy ones instead. I got my ball caster wheels at the local hardware store (shop local when you can!) and they look a little like these: https://amzn.to/2Br5KM4 ]
(The original version of this post was published on Medium in December 2018 as part of “D DMs D&D”)
Thank you to all my playtesters and others who have given feedback so far! It’s been hugely valuable and is helping me to make the game’s rules match the stories that the Kabalor world is built to tell.
What has become clear through play—particularly in my non-combat Thursday night campaign, but also in my storytelling-heavy Monday night campaign which does have combat—is that the core action themes underlying the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules are deeply rooted in conflict and conquest. D&D’s big character action areas are Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard.
Those patterns are woven throughout D&D, even in places where they shouldn’t matter. The example which tipped the scales for me was the Identify spell. I hadn’t noticed, when I was thinking of it as something that many Bakani folk would learn in their Arcana training, that the spell’s components require the caster to own a pearl worth at least 100 gps. 1 gold piece = 10 silver pieces = 100 copper pieces. A chicken costs 2 copper pieces. So you need something that costs the same as 5,000 chickens.
In Medieval England around 1300, according to this site, a chicken (hen) cost 1.5-2 pennies. An agricultural laborer might earn about 4 pennies per day, according to Table I here reflecting records from the estates of the bishops of Winchester. (That same source describes artisans in industrial centers—such as carpenters, masons or thatchers—earning a bit less, more like 3 pennies per day.) Extrapolating, we could say that an agricultural laborer in the world of D&D would earn 4 copper pieces a day, thus a character of poor means would need their entire wages for nearly 7 years to afford that spell component. But no worker can live and devote their whole income to savings. Let’s say our character of poor means is very lucky and very determined and saves 10% of their income. They would probably not be able to afford this in a lifetime’s work.
One “solution” is to say that none of the characters are poor, but that denies a huge number of people from seeing someone like them represented in the game, as well as blocking off a whole section of exciting stories. If you’ve got local folk heroes as potential character backgrounds, you need to represent low-income characters in the game.
4 copper pieces per day is only 20% of the 2 sp per day paid to an Untrained Hireling as listed in Chapter 5 of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, but even if we decide that chickens cost the same as our example historical agricultural economies but wages are somehow five times higher in our D&D worlds, it’s still well over a decade’s savings for one spell component for one first level spell. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.
The only thing that makes it work is if there is a method outside the normal economy by which the characters are achieving exceptional wealth. In D&D that method is killing “others” and taking their stuff. If you want a game, though, where “otherness” doesn’t make it OK for someone to kill you and loot your home, D&D’s infrastructure begins to unravel.
Thus comes the question, “OK, so if D&D doesn’t let you get away from the ‘Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard’ paradigm, what are Kabalor’s main character action areas?”
The answer is:
Supporting those core themes means that Kabalor needs to be an independent RPG, not a supplement to D&D. It doesn’t have to be as mechanically complex as D&D; it doesn’t have to have conflict assumed from the ground up; and it doesn’t have to do things the same way. Kabalor can be a lot easier to learn and players can have a lot more involvement in the story arc of their characters.
So that’s what I’ve been up to: creating a completely independent, original game driven by those core themes. I’ve also been incorporating player feedback and making the world easier to engage with by merging down the number of peoples from 15 to 9 and the number of Eminences from 51 to 27. As you can imagine, this is going to change most of the content I’ve already shared in the Kabalor Patreon, but definitely for the better.
Since I’ll be updating all the Kabalor content, it’s a good time to solve the limitations of Patreon’s interface for sharing information. My goal is a Kabalor website with all the rules and essential supporting information, and for the Kabalor Patreon to provide a means for people to support that work, to receive early access to new information, and for GMs to get access to special content such as detailed non-player characters, locations, and adventures.
Lots to come as I prepare a new set of playtest rules for the independent game of Kabalor! For the moment, I’ll leave you with this overview of how the gameplay supports the core themes.
Kabalor is a tabletop roleplaying game focused on collaborative storytelling of characters who grow into their unique selves, connect and become a team, explore and expand their horizons, unlock new skills and possibilities, and share to make the world a better place for themselves and others.
This is a world born of creativity and the players unfold their character’s story within that expansive space. The game encourages positive connections not only between the players, but between the characters and the world.
Play in Kabalor enables players to:
grow as creative and unique storytellers
connect emotionally to themselves and others
explore fantasies beyond the ones which have been packaged for them in media and other games in the past
unlock new ways of being
give and receive support from those with whom they share their game
Your character in Kabalor will also grow, connect, explore, unlock, and share. Characters:
grow into their unique selves, gaining and improving skills
become a team and connect with other people in the game world
learn about the world and expand their horizons
increase the options and possibilities for themselves and others
make the world a better place for others beyond the character and their team
All this takes place in an expansive, original fantasy world ready to support your best fun!