Using maps, minis, and terrain

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.

A photo taken low down near the table looking over the shoulder of a miniature of a dragonborn paladin wielding a sword as he prepares to enter an eerily lit stone tomb. In the background can be seen another player getting in low with their camera to take a picture.
(photo by Lance Arthur)

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:

A view down a table with a multi-room tomb laid out with 3D terrain tiles resting on an erasable gridded mat. Beyond the entry hall and first room, through an archway, miniature figures can be seen in a room with an open sepulcher gathered around a closed one. In the background is a stone shrine with a dagger on it which has moved aside to reveal a chamber beyond lit by green and gold lights.
(photo by Terrance Graven)

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.

An erasable 1" grid mat is on  table, sitting atop it in the center are color map cards with a view of above of a cave area. At the top and bottom edge, connecting to the cave map, are pieces of 3D terrain which extend the map. Miniature figures of stalagmites and characters are placed on the map.
(photo by Dinah Sanders)

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.

I recommend your first investment in 3D pieces (whether you buy them or craft them yourself) be these cave pedestals (or something like them): https://shop.dwarvenforge.com/collections/caverns-painted/products/large-pedestal-pack-expertly-hand-painted

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.

A dry-erase mat with a 1" grid has a small room drawn on it and a group of miniatures standing in the space. One edge has two blocks which look like rough cave stone stacked to be about two and a half times the height of the miniatures. One mini is balanced on the shoulders of two others and it is clear that they would not be able to reach the lip of the raised column unless the ones supporting her hoisted her higher, lifting her up from under her feet.
(photo by Fred von Lohmann)

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.

  • Rhogar metal mini is from HeroForge, I think https://www.heroforge.com/
  • 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”)

Grow • Connect • Explore • Unlock • Share

(posted on the Kabalor Patreon July 30, 2020)

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:

Grow

Connect

Explore

Unlock

Share

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!

Thank you for your support!