A postcard from Kabalor: visiting a port city of the north

I absolutely love this plein air sketch from Nala Wu of the Urdesh city of Tama’al by the Northern River, upstream of the Inland Sea.

A well-dressed, dark honey skinned person with upswept orange hair and a very very long soft tail pauses on a pleasant dock area to admire a ship with triple fan-like sails and a wooden balustrade around its deck. In the distance are multi-story terra cotta colored buildings with archways and decorative top edges. One has wide stairs leading to a massive set of tin-plated doors. Nearer to the figure is a street lit by lanterns suspended from many ropes between the buildings. The colors are mostly warm browns and golds except for the figure's fuschia doublet (split for their tail) and blue breeches.
Ready for a city adventure and dressed to impress, a crewmember walks along the docks toward central Tama’al, admiring the other ships in the harbor (Artwork by Nala Wu)

The Urdeshi culture builds the tallest buildings, but work mainly in mud brick and plaster over poorer quality wood and stone than most peoples use. They save the good wood for their ships. This with the triple fin sails is a particularly fine one, with the added flashy touch of lots of carved balustrades around the deck. A head-turner even for a well-traveled sailor.

In the distance are the great doors of the Shipwright’s Guild, but I think our well-dressed Urdesh, Longtail the Navigator, is actually on their way to the restaurants and other entertainments down that many-lantern-lit street. They’ve got some fine stories to tell from their latest voyage and a few old friends to look for in this city of chance meetings.

Organizing My Terrain Collection

Two labeled, white plastic trays pulled forward from a cabinet to reveal their contents—tiny braziers and pillars, shop goods and boats—with a shelf between holding bins of modular pieces of tiny trees.
A place for everything and everything in its place makes setup easy, even with a big collection of lots of tiny items.

I love being a GM. Helping create a world that my players can escape to and adventure in is one of the most fulfilling things I do. So I invest in it pretty hard, and that’s given me a fantastic collection of terrain and minis. I don’t own a car, but if you need a miniature landscape on the table, I’ve got the goods.

I collect the pieces that will help me create wonderful locations for vibrant stories. My world of Kabalor has been years in development and the places in it that I have traveled in my head are vivid to me. I want to evoke them on the table to share that magical mental transport to a whole new world.

So, here’s the thing. I have a lot of terrain. And I just got two more big boxes of it, thanks to the arrival of the main part of my pledge in the Dwarven Forge Wildlands Kickstarter.

It was time to integrate this big chunk of new stuff into my existing collection. As I’ve known was coming since I made the Kickstarter pledge, that meant taking it all out of my cabinets and rearranging it.

But how to organize it? Thus far I have grouped things by biome, so to speak—dungeon, town, cave—but Dwarven Forge is doing a better and better job of making pieces that fit with multiple biomes. Usually now I mix together mountain, forest, and swamp items in a single build, so that categorization no longer makes sense for me. Time for a new system!

Here are the principles I’m following:

  1. Review my to-paint queue and leave space for items soon to be stored. This is especially important for large pieces or sets purchased unpainted.
  2. Support my building process and group things that get used at the same stage of the build. When I build, while I might pull out a couple key pieces that I know I’ll want in the scene, I leave those set to the side until I get the layers below them in place. With this new storage approach I’ll be able to have fewer containers pulled out at the same time since I can put them away as soon as I’m done with that layer.
  • Base Layers: terrain trays, mats, hidden elevation supports.
  • Area Definition: ground surfaces, hills, banks, water areas, escarpments, floors, walls, roads, balconies, bridges, stairs and dais pieces, doors. Also because they are an alternative to stairs: ladders.
  • Buildings and Roofs: structures where the whole building or an entire floor of a building is one piece, roofs.
  • Enticements: treasure, magical objects, altars, macguffins, special effects (e.g. fogger).
  • Obstacles: pillars, statues, braziers, fountains, wells, stalagmites, trees, shrubs, haystacks, boulders, traps, sand dunes/mud flows, hummocks.
  • Scatter: flowers, small plants, logs, small rocks, furniture, shop goods, transport (wagons, boats, etc.), ossuary walls and other bone-based decor, signage, chimneys, window inserts, roof perches, decorative accessories (including pole inserts).
  • Denizens: creatures, people.
A gleaming white cabinet with 5 of the six doors open and revealing densely arranged shelves of labeled white trays. Four shelves have items in bins or a small number of things sitting loose on the shelf.
The main part of my storage solution. Efficiently packed, but kind to the pieces and to myself when I’m trying to find something.
  1. Store the sturdiest, biggest, most irregular pieces in bins for storage efficiency. I’m looking at you, trees.
  2. If a piece type is an “overflow” for another piece type—that is, one I’ll use if I run out of the first type and need more for the build—store them together.
A tray of miniature terrain pieces which are stone floor with attached stone walls, some have pillars along the wall and some don't.
If I run out of one of these, I could fill in with the other.
  1. Store the most delicate, most distinctive pieces in trays so it’s easy to find that one specific item. I love love love the Ikea Kuggis 8 compartment insert and its perfect fit in my Besta cabinets. This is the primary container unit of my storage system.
  2. Store lightweight, thin, flat things in a zippered artist’s portfolio to reduce dust and damage. It’s compact and it’s easy to pull up and out just the one I need. Over time I’ve learned there isn’t a lot of reason to try to file them in a particular order, since no other filing system adapts better to “oh not that one; I used it too recently” than always putting things away at the back of the portfolio. Last on the table goes to the back of the line. I got this one from Amazon back in 2018 and am quite happy with it. (Affiliate link, thank you for your support!) No picture of this as it is tucked between the wall and the legs of my craft table. Handy but out of the way.
  3. Store large, flat, stackable things in stacks, but don’t bury the stack under other stored items. Keep it quick to grab when building.
A white cabinet section with four shelves, two of which have trays and the others have short stacks of flat pieces like ground surfaces and terrain trays.
My additional low-to-the-floor storage for heavy things and some flat items.
  1. Store larger, awkwardly-shaped things in groupings by height to maximize shelf height efficiency and, if that shelf includes more than 7 items, in a tray or on top of a terrain tray to allow the whole group to be drawn out at once and the piece needed extracted from a densely packed assortment.
  2. If it’s a large base layer that might warp over time if not stored flat, store it flat.
  3. If it’s fairly flat, in a tray or bin, and it safely can go on edge, put it on edge to make more space.
A white plastic tray holding pieces on edge which vary in design but are used together. They are about twice the height of the tray, but stored at a slant so that their details can be seen.
Since these sidewalk/road tiles have multiple configurations—alleys, turns, etc.—it’s helpful to be able to flip through them to find the needed piece.
  1. Within groupings, put similar things together—tables together, barrels together, etc.—and if things can’t be put together by kind of object, put them together by function, e.g. LED things that glow, market and shop stuff, wizard’s tower stuff, etc.
  2. Put the heaviest stuff on the bottom shelves. Also, reinforce your Dwarven Forge terrain storage cabinets especially if you’ve got resin items; this stuff weighs a LOT when you pack it in efficiently. I have a row of four Ikea Besta wardrobe cabinets. They are secured to the wall and only the middle two are allowed to hold Dwarven Forge, so that the outer ones can keep those inner verticals from bowing and dropping shelves. (We pause a moment for a deep breath at that horrible horrible thought.)

    In general, this means you can start at the bottom shelf with Base Layers and Area Definition and proceed upward through Obstacles, then Scatter, etc. This has the advantage of having the lightest weight things on the top shelf where it’s easiest to reach up to lift them down.

My process in switching to this system worked well, but did require taking over my living and dining room during the sorting. I pulled everything out of storage and grouped it following the above principles, using temporary containers. (If you happen to have a Gotham Greens salad company serving your area, their lettuce is great and—at least until they change their packaging to something more sustainable—the straight sided plastic containers it comes in are fantastic for all kinds of DIY and craft activities, including terrain sorting. You can see them in the first picture, holding modular tree pieces.)

Once I had my groups, I cleaned the shelves and permanent containers—since they’ll not be empty again for a long time—and once they were fully dry from a damp cloth wipedown, loaded them up.

I loaded from the top of my storage down, which is to say starting with Denizens in my category list. Minis are a lot more compact than terrain and I had them better organized, already in trays as I wanted them. Nice to have a quick win at the start. 😀

To work the shelf supports around the door fixtures I wasn’t able to hold to a completely strict ordering by my categories, but overall the height adjustments didn’t impact things much.

The MacGuffin tray was a lot of fun to put together and a helpful change. I had previously had these items mixed in various trays and now the enticing stuff is in one spot. It’s also at the appropriate place in the build process since I’m going to be setting the focus of the scene before adding the scatter, etc. that surrounds it.

Area Definition items are the bulk of the collection weight, both in numbers and literal weight. This is on the lower shelves, which means that I get the bending and lifting out of the way at the start of a build when I’m feeling fresh and energetic.

The best parts of this adventure in organization? Seeing what an amazing collection I’ve slowly amassed, looking ahead to creating more builds, and, of course, breaking out the label maker. 😁

Another postcard from Kabalor and the name of the game!

A sturdy house of large wooden boards with a stone foundation and a green grassy sod roof, with an equally sturdy brown-skinned, brown-haired, and dark-brown-horned person in a red sleeveless doublet and black pants tucked into knee-high boots feeding something to one of a pair of tan oxen with reddish backs. There are flowers in the grass in the foreground and tall trees in the background.
A Huzzon feeding their red-backed oxen in the First Huzzoni region (Artwork by Nala Wu)

Hooray! Nala Wu continues their plein air sketching journey north in the western parts of Kabalor and sends us this picture from the western edge of the plain west of the southwest corner of the Inland Sea. This is the area initially settled by the First Huzzoni and the forest boundaries are dotted with their farmsteads, villages, and towns.

Meanwhile, in our world, the trademark process has advanced far enough for me to announce the actual name of this collaborative spellcasting game…

Our Magic!

We are moving forward towards active playtesting at the steady pace of a strong Huzzon Redback ox. I have draft rulebooks I can share with my first group of testers for feedback as I perform the final pre-playtest synthesis and tidying up.

It’s not cake yet, but it’s getting closer to being ready to serve… 🍰

First scenes of the world of Kabalor: a Nymion town

Our first postcard from Kabalor has arrived!

I sent artist Nala Wu on a trip west of the inland sea to do a little plein air sketching. They’ve posted back this beautiful image of a rainy evening in a Nymion mountain town, with a local resident showing off the finest jewel-tone embroidery of the Mirror Nymioni.

A tall green-skinned figure in a dress of purple, blue and red emerges from the doorway of a stone building with smooth plastered walls. Decorative tile rooftops, window frames, wall tops, and foundations form a dark contrast against the pale gray walls of the rain streaked street. Warm lantern light is reflected in puddles on the narrow street that leads into the distance.
Artwork by Nala Wu

This image will illustrate the rulebook for the game, on which I’m making very good progress. The core rules are all in place after considerable synthesis and improvement. I’ve done a revamp of the character creation process and a substantial iteration on spellcasting rules and the core mechanics of what happens when the Game Mediator (GM) calls for a dice roll. The musculature of the game is in excellent shape!

My current activity is to resolve any questions raised in early playtest sessions of specific rules and handle other to-do’s noted during the development process. As I do this, the rough draft of the player guide, needed for alpha playtesting coming soon, is approaching completion.

All this attention to detail is important and rewarding, but it sure is a lift to my spirits and a reminder of why I’m so excited to bring Kabalor to a wide audience when I receive an amazing image from a talented artist.

It’s the story we tell together, hearing each others’ ideas and adding to them, that fuels our souls.

New Art From Li Didkovsky!

A fantastic action shot of a cocky Lissam guide mounted on their noble capybara steed. Artwork by Li Didkovsky.

Where to begin with how fabulously Li has captured this moment of adventure for us?

The capybara confidently leaping over the fallen log. The guide beckoning to those behind encouraging them to follow, and likely taking them out of terrible swampy peril. And is the guide’s cane magical? There’s certainly something special about it. I like to think it’s enchanted to always return to the guide’s hand if dropped.

This glorious illustration will accompany the rules on Movement:

Movement reflects your ability to get around, through the power of your own body, mounts, assistive gear, and learning how to travel more efficiently.

An ordinary adult has the ability to travel all day from one village to the next or to move 5 squares (25 feet) in a moment-to-moment situation. This can be impacted by bonuses and constraints.

The first Bonus you might have is if your Finesse is particularly high.

Learning from playtest 1 on Altercations

This past weekend I was able to sit down on my back porch and playtest altercations with Lance and Daniel. Thanks so much for your time and insight, gentlemen!

As with the first playtest of spellcasting, this test was really to find the big weak spots in my draft version and to scope how major a rework it would need. Working on this with smart, experienced players and gamemasters like these two was a huge asset. We not only found the flaws, we spent a good long time pulling back to my goals and talking through various options.

The highest level takeaways I have are

  1. for a game focused on storytelling and character, avoid mechanics that zoom in on the nitty-gritty detail of discrete actions;
  2. for a game focused on collaboration, avoid mechanics that emphasize the individual’s options over the team’s.

So, for the next playtest we’ll be working with these concepts:

  • How successful the players are (in this context of a dice-decided Altercation Situation) is based how well they roll. (The GM is not making a set of rolls for an opponent and then comparing the two results.)
  • There’s no initiative roll; again, the advantage of a high roll there is moved into the story the players and GM tell about the results of the players’ rolls. (“We rolled so well we must have been able to reach the high ground first…”)
  • There’s not a fixed number of rounds. Instead, the GM will frame each set of rolls by the players as representing the unfolding of the Situation, and will probably default to a “beginning” and “middle” description for the first two and let the next particularly good or bad roll represent how it turned out at the end.
  • In a set, all the players roll, adding the Aspect they’re bringing to bear and any bonuses or constraints that make sense to the group. They and the GM can see how well or poorly they did as an average in relation to the goal the GM has told them applies in this situation. (That goal will be either a default norm or a particular Complexity Number (Cx)). They will all also be able to see how varied their results were and use that to represent the range of what happened to the individual party members.
  • Using their results each player tells the story of what they did and how it went well or badly, with the GM suggesting or modifying as appropriate.
    Player 1: “We averaged really well thanks to you two, but” {turning to another player} “your roll was not good and I got a wild failure.”
    GM: “I think maybe that loose railing you noticed earlier must have given way.”
    Player 2: “I was distracted by you falling, I guess.”
    Player 3: “But so were the gang members, so maybe we two were able to get the bags over their heads as they came out the doors onto the balcony.”
    GM: “Yes, and* then dance them over to the side away from you so they fell down into the street too.”
    Player 4: “cha cha cha!”
    GM: “OK. So the start went well for all but one of the party; what do you think happened as a result of your fall?”
    Player 1: “I’m pretty resilient and hefty; and I’m Nymion so I’m 8′ tall. Not as bad a fall for me as a Lissam like you.” {grins at other player} “I think I got the wind knocked out of me and will spend the next roll getting back on my feet.”
    GM: “Your average was very good, so I think the gang got the worst of the beginning of this situation. The ones you bagged and pushed down will probably not get back into the action before its over. You’ve got open doors and no other gang members visible through the doorway. What do you do next?”

Note how the player who had a wild failure still has an opportunity to make their failure reflect what’s special about their character. They’ll be limited in the next roll in how much impact it has on what they do—even with a fantastic roll, the most they’ll be doing is clambering back up to the balcony to rejoin the rest of the party—but they will contribute to the team average.

Turning the focus to the storytelling and the team lets the players make their characters distinctive and important, without bogging things down in lots of individual actions and the specialty mechanics for them. Whether you succeed with that bow shot is not about range and your skill and the type of bow and the target’s armor or lack of it, but about how well you and your teammates rolled in general.

Sometimes the most successful playtest is the one where you throw out most of what you came in with. 😄

*This post was edited to reflect further conversation with Lance where he pointed out the old example didn’t keep players just telling the story of what happened with the action they said they were trying to do (before rolling their dice to see how well it went). I’ve switched it to have the additional benefit—dancing the bagged foes over the balcony edge—coming from the GM. Thanks, Lance!

Pre-Pre-Alpha Playtesting a Success!

It’s been a busy five weeks of testing and iteration since my last post. Thank you so much to my testers—Rice, Daniel, Lance, Lila, Adriane, Jinx, Joe, and Paul—for their sense of fun and smart feedback!

The spellcasting system has been radically improved and streamlined. The resulting core concepts and method of assembling spells from a variety of “Knacks”, including in collaboration with other spellcasters, have been demonstrated to work with players at the table.

The character creation process has also been streamlined, incorporates the essentials needed to play, and is possible to complete with a group of new players in a reasonable amount of time for a Session One game.

The world details are generating player fun and prompting great creative ideas which expand the story beautifully. Kabalor is “Yes, and…” compatible!

phew.

So, what comes next?
Pre-Alpha Testing!

  • Test the Altercations mechanics and Situations mechanics (for non-combat moment-to-moment scenes)
  • Test the Challenges mechanics (for connected activities toward a goal which take place over a longer stretch of time)
  • Test the Healing mechanics
  • In conjunction with all testing, confirm the Complexity (Cx) mechanics for dice rolls (These are already looking pretty good from testing so far.)
  • Run a Session 2 in which characters will have some adventure and at the end advance to Level 1 (from Novice to Apprentice), gaining new magic
  • Synthesize all the existing rules content into one place (my website content master draft in Scrivener) and make sure everything is consistent
  • Synthesize all the existing spell content into one place (ditto) and make sure everything is consistent
  • Synthesize into one place all the existing world-building which I want to carry forward from the past D&D homebrew setting into this new indie-rpg Kabalor
  • Create a starting map for new GMs of Kabalor (which will be used in playtesting)

And after that is all tested, iterated, and improved, it will be on to actual Alpha Testing. This will start with a short story of probably 5 sessions to bring the characters to Level 2. (This might only take 4 sessions if players decide to continue with a character they already made.) The second phase of Alpha Testing, after iteration from that short story’s lessons, will be beginning an ongoing story with a group of regular players.

Opening up to a broader group of testers—including other GMs—will come after that has been underway for enough time to learn the lessons of play at Levels 2 and 3 and to begin building out the official website, thus probably not until the end of the year at absolute earliest.

The worsening situation with regard to COVID-19 (and my continued concerns as an immunosuppressed person) suggests that I’ll probably need to spend some time on the necessary references for remote players sooner rather than later. Those may wind up needing to be password-protected parts of the future public website, so my sequence of work on Kabalor may get slightly shuffled as I go. On the one hand, that’d be a further delay, but on the other, it would open the possibility of easier scheduling with a wider pool of potential players.

As with planning stories as a GM, the way it actually unfolds is always going to throw you for a loop, but you can still end up roughly where you thought you were headed. 😉

Altercations in Kabalor

Combat will be optional for the game of Kabalor, but that doesn’t mean the game won’t have rules for it. My goal is to keep excitement and player choice, but maintain focus on the story and avoid combat bogging down the game.

We’ll soon be playtesting my draft rules. These limit altercations to three rounds, representing the beginning, middle, and end of the altercation.

Each character involved in the altercation decides what approach you will take in this round. You may not change this after you hear what the others are doing. Probably we will have cards everyone sets down at once to declare this.

Each round unfolds in initiative order, with players rolling and describing their actions as their turn comes up and the GM handling opposing forces.

Along with optionally moving and optionally interacting with an object (such as closing and locking a door), in each round you will be making a d10 roll, adjusting the result based on your approach, and then describing your actions in the story.

  • Defensive (add your Resilience to the roll and the result is pool of protective actions which reduce damage)
  • Offensive (name a target and add either Heft, Finesse, or your spellcasting Aspect to the roll and the result is pool of damaging actions applied to the target)
    Some foes, such as Elementals, only take Offensive actions during altercations. They go until they’re stopped.
  • Protective (name a target and add the Aspect players and GM agree is reasonable to your roll (e.g. “I’m using my Analysis to calculate the best moment to pull the town councilor out of the way of the rolling barrel the cursed brewer is aiming at her.”), and the result is pool of protective actions which reduce damage to the target; surplus damage is split between target and protecting character)
  • Evasive/Active (add Finesse or Heft and any Movement +/- to your roll, result is split between extra moves and protective actions to reduce damage; optionally, can instead declare at the start of the round that you will be using those protective actions as more movement)
  • Reactive (will become Defensive if you are the target of an attack, Protective if ally or bystander is attacked, or optionally Active to pursue someone taking Evasive action)

You can use a combination of different approaches or all the same approach for your three rolls over the three rounds.

Some Items may add a bonus (or a constraint) to Defensive, Offensive, Protective, or Evasive actions.

With three rounds of rolls, there should be enough uncertainty about the outcome for it to still feel risky. With player choice in each round, based on the unfolding knowledge the characters have, there should be enough agency for it to still feel skillful. And with the focus on the player and GM descriptions of what happens, combat can enhance rather than interrupt the characters’ story.

New Ways To Play: creating an alternative to hack and loot

Fantasy role-playing games can be kind and exciting. They can be soul-fueling and stimulating. They can be restorative and involve character risks.

Fantasy role-playing games don’t need conquest to work. But, as I’ve written before, maybe Dungeons & Dragons unfortunately does.

That realization is what set me on the path of creating my indie ttrpg Kabalor. So, how to keep the fun while building game mechanics that escape the bad old tropes?

Knowing what I wanted to drop was pretty easy. #1 on the list was the idea that there are intelligent beings whom it is perfectly OK to murder and take their stuff. “These people are disposable” is toxic garbage and we do not need it in our games.

Finding the fun came out of listening to my players and thinking about my own play experiences. We love the storytelling, continually adding to our ideas and riffing off each other and what happens in the game. We love the ups and downs of crazy plans and surprise results of the dice. We love being characters who can do cool things, which become more and more amazing over time.

I identified Grow, Connect, Explore, Unlock, and Share as the main action areas of Kabalor (as opposed to D&D’s Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard). But how to make sure that action space is actively enjoyable? Through playing open-ended story games without a GM (like Wanderhome), I was able to see that things can loosen up from the traditionally more rigid structure of D&D, where the players often react to the GM’s descriptions instead of building the reality with them. But I also learned that a little more structure—particularly in the progression of what the character can do—helps keep the game engaging.

Wanderhome is great; I really love it and recommend it. But it’s a pretty intense creative experience. The sweet spot—at least for me and my players—would be a world we don’t need to constantly invent, but which is highly adaptable to the ideas of players and GM, and game mechanics which provide some goals and direction for the story to move in. In other words, something you can come to as a delightful break from the working week, which will be fun, exciting, and energizing, and which may not require any heavy lifting emotionally or creatively in a given session. If you’re wiped out at the end of an intense workday, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor. Likewise, if you’re creatively fired up and want to spin stories of people and places, or lean into complicated interactions or emotional growth of your character, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor.

Because combat is not core—and I am designing the game such that it is entirely optional—something else needs to be at the heart of the game and delivering those highs and lows. There also needs to be something to scratch the itch to optimize and improve your character. For Kabalor that is magic, specifically spellcasting.

In keeping with the expansive story style, the spellcasting mechanics of Kabalor are designed to allow players to invent their own spells and to combine their magical talents in collaborative spellcasting. A modular spell system is a big goal and a very tricky thing to make easy to use, but I think I’ve cracked the nut. Lots of playtesting to come to sort out the details and make sure it’s both balanced and fun, but I’m confident Kabalor is on the right path.

Kabalor needs to have the thrill of the throw of the dice, with calculated risks but potential surprises. Since Kabalor is not starting from a grim place of us vs. them in practically every interaction, those surprises can be more fun and come more often. It’s here where the lighter touch can really shine. By making the magic more pervasive, wilder, and inherently vulnerable to occasional unexpected outcomes there’s still plenty of risk, but the results are fun rather than fatal (unless your particular set of players likes even higher stakes).

Kabalor is a fun game of spellcasting and storytelling, with lots of improvisation, and plenty of ups and down, but at its core a hopeful and supportive vision.

The current state of the game is pre-alpha testing, in which I’m working with familiar players and friends to shake down what I’ve created and make sure we’ve got the game mechanics sorted out and functioning enough for the alpha test in which I’ll GM the first stories.

If you’re excited to get involved in this “pardon our dust” stage of development, let me know!

Building DIY Terrain Trays

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.

Note the thickness of that metal piece. A 1′ square one weighs over 1 lb. More about where to find such a thing below…

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.

Mark undersized excess pieces with an X just so you don’t grab them by accident in your assembly phase.

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).

It’s easy in gridded builds to make a pretty seamless break between trays.

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.

I’m pretty pleased with the look of that dovecote.

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.

a terrain tray holds a house interior with a fireplace has clearly suffered some sort of disaster with furniture blown into the corners and the entire floor collapsed into a rubble filled basement

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.

a rectangular terrain tray holds a large room with hallways in and out where a battle is taking place between involving some lizard/snake people, three more humanlike folk, and a shining dragonborn. A bird flies over the fracas.

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!