Asynchronous tabletop terrain: building a mini layout for remote play using photos

A miniature building's front room in aerial view, surrounded by brick sidewalks and cobbled streets. The room is large and is a combined workroom and shop, with a complex brewing station at the edge of the work area.
Welcome to the Owlwing Apothecary!

I’ve been running a homebrew-modified Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5e) game since April of 2019. We play just about weekly, but have only met in person twice since March 2020. But I love doing tabletop terrain—and I still can!

For my other multi-year game, which concluded near the end of 2020, I used my phone in an affordable floor tripod (affiliate link; thanks!) dialed in as a separate, muted participant in our Zoom calls with its camera pointed down at the table. I sat at my desk with the terrain table right behind me so I could turn around and adjust minis, etc. It worked surprisingly well if we pinned its view as the main “presenter”.

The game that’s still running, though, is non-combat and thus real-time positioning isn’t essential. With that freedom, I was able to make a complex build, photograph it, and then use the photos during my sessions when the players were in that building.

The characters were about to investigate a business called the Owlwing Apothecary which they believed was perhaps involved in secretive transactions involving crystals charged with wild magic from the city’s institute of spellcraft and arcane studies. Which of course it was.

The building needed to house about as mundane a front business as something dealing in magical ingredients can be, with a warehouse in back in which the actual work took place and where preposterous quantities of magic-infused materials were stored. And the build photographs needed to include the building in various states which might occur during the game.

My pal Lance helped me with the initial layout and some great ideas to add to the situation. We started with the core layout: a once elegant old mansion a few hundred years ago, since converted to this business, surrounded by city streets.

Such old mansions had small front portions where the family would interact with outsiders, and a large inner living area with a courtyard in the center for the family and close friends to relax in away from the outside world. In this case, the courtyard had been roofed over and all the old internal divisions removed, but I used my Dwarven Forge Dungeon of Doom pieces with their elegant pillars to suggest the former life of this now industrial building.

Though the official work of the Owlwing Apothecary is that of selling base components to other makers of magical products—they do the most boring part and create magically-charged liquids, metals, and mixtures which serve as templates for finished goods—the secret part involves participating in the exploitation of students at the institute of spellcraft and arcane studies.

The Institute has a spell ground which is surrounded by panels fitted with absorbing anti-magic crystals; very practical in the middle of a city. After a while these panels become fully charged with wild magic and are taken away—in the middle of the night for safety. But no one really talked about that “safe disposal” aspect of what the Institute was up to—until the party began digging into the suspicious side of the Institute. Nor was it realized that students were milked for years more spell ground practice than was necessary, purely to charge up those magic crystals.

It turns out, those panels absorb a LOT of magic, enough to drive a magical economy that is a key part of the city’s success, and they also provide good opportunity to skim off a little profit or a little magical power whenever the shadowy group involved in both the Institute and the Owlwing Apothecary needed resources.

With that story context, it was easy to figure out what secrets the build of the back room needed to hold: arcane tools for cracking apart the panels and reducing them to their component magic, with protective items holding all this dangerous activity in place, and some physical signs that those protections can’t prevent all the problems that might occur. Plus a storeroom full of dazzling magical loot.

An aerial view of a miniature building showing the workroom and business in the front, with a back area three times as large containing a curious forge surrounded by damaged stonework, a misty blue pool or hole in the center next to a rune-inscribed table, four conical pillars with metal tops, a plain supply room, and a fortified treasure room.  The streets and alleys adjoining the building suggest its city context.
GM’s view of the whole building, illustrating how a photographed set like this doesn’t need to have a finished side where it won’t show in the photos.

In the dead of night, the sales table in the front room is moved aside, and the magical panels are brought in to be processed in the back room, where chill mist arises from a hole in the floor and a blasted forge glows amidst damaged stone. But to any ordinary person peeking through those inner doors, it appears as a boring warehouse, thanks to illusions built into the defenses.

As GM, when they accessed the site, I only needed to show the players the front room—the picture at the top of this post—and describe their first impressions once they picked the lock and got into the back. After they discovered and thus nullified the illusion, I gave them a new ‘first look’:

An immersive view of a miniature setting looking across a stone room and over a table and chairs with mist rising behind it, to a sinister metal forge decorated with the huge head of a bull. The wall behind the forge has a massive crack and rubble sits on the ground beside the forge. Curious pyramidal obelisks with metal coverings flank the forge area, with a desk and a work table near them.
The inner illusion drops and the back room at the Owlwing Apothecary is revealed to be something much more sinister than a boring old warehouse.

The players loved this reveal! Character-view pictures are so worth doing when your build allows for it. And taking them in advance of a game lets you stage the scene, try different angles, and crop the pictures for maximum effect.

After they’d enjoyed this character-eye view and when describing the action required a sense of the whole room, I returned to an aerial view, but at a slightly askew angle which hid the treasure room and instead emphasized the supply room with its open archway.

The same room viewed from above and now showing the misty hole or pool more clearly, the damaged floor near the forge, the open supply room to the right, and the very fancy closed door to the left, with large wooden cases beside it.
Remembered to have the door to the room open for this photo since the characters would have to have opened the door for it to be revealed.

If the group had entered in darkness, I had a photo for that too, but I used a photo editing program to black out the side room with the closed door:

A view from directly above showing the room lit by the glowing blue mist of the pool or hole and the orange glow of the forge.

Though they broke in at night, one of them had True Seeing and Rory’s Telepathic Bond going, which made short work of the illusion and then they also used magic to light the room. Fortunately for them that spellcasting only caused minor magical side effects from all the wild magic in the inner chamber here. As a result, I showed them the mood-setting image above so they’d know the existing light in the room was coming from the cold, misty hole in the floor and the magical forge, and then we worked from the better lit photo at an askew angle as they described their actions in the room.

They searched the room, ran into some awkward but not disastrous wild magic effects, learned more of the secret business going on here, and at last decided to see what was behind that very fancy closed door.

A detail view, shot from a different angle to emphasize the fancy door with its complex locking mechanism.
Those closed shutter inserts for Dwarven Forge buildings worked great as the wooden cases in which the magical crystal panels were transported from the Institute. Delightful when you realize you have a miniature piece that perfectly fits something you’d already described in an earlier session! To my bemusement, they never did look at that scroll on the table. It was in every shot of the room that they saw, but, nope. Ah, players.

When they cracked the puzzle of how to open that door, I treated them to a tantalizing aerial view of the wild magic goods containment room.

A room lit by three deep blue lights, in the glow of which glitters heaped piles of crystals, gems, intricate metal objects, rune-inscribed metal disks, and many small bottles.
If I’d been thinking when I’d taken this photo a week or two before the actual game session, I would have had the door open, but that’s a minor quibble.

Lance had the great idea that when someone entered this room, the bull head on the forge would begin bellowing “Alarm! Alarm! Intruders! Intruders!” at enormous volume and that would in short order bring guards and the apothecary herself with her bodyguard, but a player managed through quick thinking and some great rolls to silence it in a single round without casting a spell in this blue-lit room. Good thing for the party; doing so would have released all the wild magic, with many extremely unpredictable consequences. Well, with multiple consequences rolled on a chart of a variety of effects I’d figured out in advance, but the worst was avoided.

The party didn’t steal all the loot—to my surprise since they had the means to do so—but instead arranged an amazing manipulative message to the apothecary to convince her to side with the students and cut the Institute out of its middleman role. Future sessions will determine if this radical dispersal of economic power will come to pass, but the groundwork was laid. I love playing with a group that wants to wreak havoc… against exploitative magical capitalism. 😄

To my great surprise during their time at the Owlwing Apothecary the party didn’t tinker around with or intentionally damage the protective obelisks in the room and thus cause them to fail, releasing the two captured elementals which power all this magical work, nor did they fumble enough spell rolls to really unleash the vast wild magic stored here. But if they had, I was ready.

The end of the large room now showing the misty opening replaced with an enormous air elemental facing off over the runic table against the forge which has transformed into its natural form of an equally enormous fire elemental with big horns.
Don’t break the obelisks.
An aerial view of the whole building after massive wild magic breaks loose. The blue storage room is empty except for a giant molten pile of melted rock and the fancy door has been blown off its hinges. Various alarming transformations have occurred most notably a set of cabinets turning into a boat imbedded through the supply room wall and the pleasant tree outside turning into a rampaging wood creature.
Or, don’t fire off a room full of wild magic all at once, lest bookcases turn into boats, trees violently animate, scrolls turn into dragon skulls, boxes into campfires, and giant metal spikes shoot up out of the roof of the building.
This picture combines the wild magic explosion with the enormous elementals, who appear to be about to fight with each other and the animated tree.
Oh, and if you didn’t break the obelisks, all that wild magic going off will.
An aerial view of the whole building with all the wild magic effects, the animated tree breaking through the wall, and the released elementals.
The full ‘whoops’ viewed from above.

I’m frankly amazed they came out of this situation as well as they did. You may think a combat game has more mayhem, and maybe it does, but probably not as much radical political change.

Even if you’re playing remotely, even if most of the time you play theatre of the mind, treat yourself to a great build and some fun possible outcome photos. It gives you quadruple pleasure as a GM planning it, building it, running the game, and then showing the players afterward what might have happened if things went sideways.

I’ve used photos of builds many ways now and will keep doing so even for in-person stories. Build photos can help you:

  • set a scene;
  • create a mood;
  • serve as GM virtual backdrops;
  • allow remote play to take place “on the table” without having the overhead of learning and setting up a VTT (virtual tabletop) software service;
  • allow the GM to send remote players a clearer view of where their character is when the rest of the group is in person;
  • allow the GM to send one player a view of a location the others can’t see yet (such as when they are scrying or invisibly scouting ahead or sending their familiar to scout), even if the whole group is in person;
  • serve as accurate “bookmarks”of where everyone is when play ends at a cliffhanger;
  • allow the GM to visually explore options of what events might happen in the build, identify needed pieces of terrain and minis to dress the build for those changes, and then document it for their preparations or use in game;
  • allow the GM to create special effects for the build with lighting or photo editing to help tell the story;
  • allow the GM to document how they built a location to which the group might return in the future;
  • create a souvenir of the story for players and GM to keep or share.

Happy building!

Thanks as ever to my players and my Patreon supporters for encouraging me to make up worlds and travel to imaginary places! 💖

Location: the large town of Tunnelton

view of a miniature landscape: a cobbled road leads up the center to an area of stone and wood buildings, mostly with peaked roofs, and then through a tunnel under a craggy mountain. In the foreground is a three-story half-timbered building with a wagon and horses in the street on one side and a brick plaza on the other. The left and right areas before the buildings by the mountain are forested with a variety of trees.
View of Tunnelton from the south. The inn at the crossroads is known for good bard shows and dancing, as well as its fine top floor deck view of the tunnel entrance.

The northernmost town of the Nymion culture is Tunnelton. It is located on the northwest flank of the sacred Twin Mountains and is built around both ends of an amazing natural tunnel below a high, ridged section of the hardest stone. A cave of softer material underneath slowly eroded over centuries and was then respectfully shaped by the Nymioni into a passageway large enough for the tallest wagons. A good cobbled road now runs through it with sidewalks on both sides.

The town is built into each end of the tunnel with the majority of the residential area on the north end where there is more farmland, but the south featuring several strong attractions. The first is the excellent three-story Huzzon-style building at the northward turning, The Silver Reed Inn. The ground floor offers both a cookshop for hot foods and a general store for fresh produce and crafted things. Rooms to stay in can be rented on the middle and top floors. The upstairs deck, with its bright ceramic statue of a happy, striped beast drinking from a large bowl, has a great view of the southern part of the town and the tunnel entrance. It also overlooks the expansive patio which hosts bardic performances and dancing.

A three-story half-timbered building with a thatch roof stands beside a cobbled road. A loaded wagon drawn by two sturdy horses is parked outside where two people are trading, watched by the wagon-owner's dog. In the distance the road leads toward a town built into the face of a mountain.
The Silver Reed Inn rises over the crossroad leading to Tunnelton.

The Silver Reed Inn gets its name from a local legend of an underground lake hidden within the mountain, secreted away from prying eyes. Wild magic is said to imbue the herbs and other plants there with unusual abilities. The clear, cold pool lit by the phosphorescent cave mosses is ringed with tall, shining stalks, the silver reeds of the inn’s name. Bards and musicians who visit always check the pond nearby for reeds which have flowed out of the mountain. Those reeds allegedly make the best woodwind music, which can sway the reticence of even the most stubborn mule.

Travelers with horses, oxen, or other livestock should note the convenient alley beside the inn which adjoins that watering pond of fresh outflow from the mountains. Just look for the domed stone roof of the water tower which has the outflow at its base. Your beasts may not become musically or magically inspired, but it’s good healthy water for them regardless.

Water flows out of an archway into a pond. Above the archway is built a square mossy structure with concave sides and a domed stone roof. in the distance is a town square with a couple saddled horses tied to a hitching post.
The cold, clean outflow of mountain water, a supply of which is stored above in the tower and piped to the horse trough at the stable opposite the Bull Smithy.

The second attraction in this side of town is the greater access to southern goods and travelers. The region north, beyond Tunnelton, is that of the Four-Horns Huzzoni. Excellent for farm-goods and source of some of the best oxen, but not for the cloth and thread of the First Davuri, the pottery and plaster of the Gatekeep Nymioni, or the artwork of the First Nymioni. Traders bound not through the tunnel, but northeast through the edge of the Four-Horns Huzzoni area and on to the coastal settlements of the Festival Shafori at the Inland Sea will often lighten their load by trading statuary here in southern Tunnelton, their last chance at the lucrative Nymion market for such goods.

After passing the Silver Reed Inn and paying your respects at the shrines to The Memory Palace, The Masked Ball, and The Loom, you will see examples of the fine statue collection of the residents here. Most are not for trade, but it doesn’t hurt to inquire if you are interested in a piece.

A cobbled road transitions up via a rough stone slope to a flagstone plaza, then up another rough slope to a cobblestone town square surrounded by buildings with a mountainside in the background. Beside the bottom slope are two stone shrines. The left one has small bottles and bowls. The right one has a metal frame which holds a fabric hanging.
Wagon ramps taking you from the lower levels into the mountains are lined with shrines and statues.

This southern side of Tunnelton is a popular regional meeting place for scholars interested in the arcane. Local arcanists have a meeting room and private library in the building between the stables and the water tower, and use the flat roof for outdoor experiments. Spellcasters passing through are encouraged to visit and exchange knowledge.

An aerial view of a town square in which a closed wagon or carriage drawn by two horses is beginning to turn down the road leading into a tunnel under a mountain. On one side of the square is a huge forge where a red-haired and red-skinned person is working at an anvil. Behind them is a building with a wide arched opening and a tall narrow tower ending in a soot-stained vent and peaked top. At the right-side of the square, atop a small building, a group of four people are gathered around a table, with various objects resting on the cornerposts of the railings of its roof deck.

The third attraction is the Bull Smithy which has a staff representing all types of metalworking and also does smelting. They serve a wide area and produce quality goods which are traded even farther. The stables opposite the smithy, in addition to shoeing horses, have leathercrafters on site making and repairing bridles, reins, stirrups, and other stable gear. (Note that since a retirement, the wheelwrights are somewhat inconveniently all located on the north end of the tunnel.)

A closer view of the closed wagon or carriage heading into the tunnel and the smith at the anvil. The buildings opposite the smith have closed double doors and the stone and plants of the mountainside are visible behind the roofs of those buildings.
The Bull Smithy with its double anvils at the south end of the tunnel. As you enter the tunnel you can only just see the glimmer of light where you’ll emerge to the north.

Whether your travels are taking you to the main part of Tunnelton or you’re passing the crossroads by the Silver Reed Inn, the southern part of Tunnelton is well worth a visit.

~~~

(Thanks to Lance Arthur for his help getting the build started and the history of the Silver Reed Inn, to Nathan Anderson for a public domain image used as a base layer near the caves on the left side of the build, and Simon Burchell for the CC A-SA image used as the view down the tunnel.)

Building the build: Waterborn

First off a huge thank you to my Patreon supporters, players, and community friends who encourage me to tell stories, create worlds, and make games! 💖

It was such a delight to get to take over my big table for two weeks to make, document, and enjoy the Waterborn build. If you can add a cafe table into your home, I strongly encourage it. Sometimes it’s the little game table that doesn’t interfere with dining, but sometimes it takes all table duties for a while as something big and wonderful happens.

My June 2022 build served many purposes:

  • the setting for June playtests of Our Magic
  • first big test of my new terrain organizational system (spoiler: great success!)
  • first build since my Dwarven Forge Wildlands pledge arrived
  • illustration for world-building blog post
  • relief from ongoing situation of not getting to actually travel much because of the pandemic
  • giving me a chance to document my build process in detail
  • just dang fun

For the playtest I wanted to feature the Nymion and Davur cultures. I knew I had the pieces I would need to build multiple buildings of their cultural style. The most logical place that draws on both is the point where the Mirror Nymioni and First Nymioni regions adjoin, which is at the base of major mountains where they transition down to fertile plains. So, I needed stone elevation, a variety of trees reinforcing the idea of elevation changes and an expanse of green suggestive of a transition toward farmland. But, because I don’t have any actual farmed field pieces, not the farms themselves.

To emphasize the elevation and play with big new pieces, I decided to feature a waterfall from the mountain and to make it the start of a river.

A dining table, in a corner, covered with terrain trays of various colors, one of the new Dwarven Forge Wildlands textured water mats, and some paper mats from Paizo. Extra terrain trays rest on the seat of the chair beside the table and the artist's portfolio from which the non-terrain tray flat items came leans against the wall.
color-blocking the plan with flat pieces

I placed some of my sturdy steel DIY terrain trays along the side edge to help avoid any shifting or slumping in the slight gap there (caused by the trim board at the base of the wall). The waterfall base and river are a tour of the eras of Dwarven Forge water surfaces. I love the new Wildlands one so much, though, that I’ll get at least one more of those when and if the chance comes.

At the top right I placed those dirt textures with the intention of showing a typical Kabalor road, with two lanes separated by useful trees from which travelers can gather fruit, nuts, or sticks. The outer edges tend to be field boundaries, which sometimes have trade points where items can be left when picking up produce or stones cleared from the field. But it wasn’t much farther along at all that I remembered I don’t have fruit trees as such and that indicating the cart lanes would take so many of my bank pieces that I might not be able to suggest the river edge and the transition to the settlement in the way I was hoping. The road wouldn’t be in this build.

blocking in the raised terrain, waterfall, and bridge

In the corner is the classic Dwarven Forge big riser / box piece, atop and around which I fiddled around with risers, embankments, and (because I didn’t intend to use them later) Con-Cave Escarpments to create the appropriate height to support the layers of the waterfall. The waterfall pieces are translucent, so I used a water terrain tray under them.

You can see on the right side side of the table the old cave water outflows which I brought out just in case they might be useful, but which didn’t fit in and so weren’t used on this build.

Note here how completely perfect the Tiered Straight Cliff (piece ER-701) is as a base for the old style waterfall pieces from the Wicked Cavern Pack:

tiered waterfall using very old and very new Dwarven Forge pieces

In my builds I find there’s one feature that takes some puzzling to get properly placed, and once it’s in, then the rest flows from there, either through what it inspires, or the issues it creates which need to be covered up. For this build it was the waterfall.

It’s at this stage a problem that plagued me for the rest of the build is easy to see. I thought if I gave my base layer a little forward extension off the front of the table, it would be helpful for photography. But I didn’t realize, even as I was having to contort myself not to bend that paper Paizo map corner, that I couldn’t comfortably reach the back of the table. This turned out not to be a short-term waterfall building issue, but a hassle for the entire build. Test your reach at the very start.

I also noticed on that paper Paizo mat’s illustration a great place where there could be a worn down area by the end of the bridge, and that is why the bridge was initially positioned there. A little muddy spot where animals balk before being led over the bridge. 😃 Little moments like this are such a pleasure in doing a build, even if the story changes later.

One thing I did do right at this stage was bring out the little cup of greenery inserts for the small square cutouts in the Escarpment pieces. Popping these in before placing the pieces definitely was the easiest way to do it and helped the look of the build more than you’d expect for their size. (I actually left these in for storage since I rarely if ever expect to use those square cutout holes.)

Four minutes after the shot of the table above, the whole waterfall structure is in place.

the core of the high terrain is figured out

By now I am working from specific terrain trays, with one with lots of Embankment pieces seen on the chair beside the table.

A key part of the mountain area is that it is the connection to the rest of the Mirror Nymion region, so there needs to be a trail. The new Wildlands Winding Stair Escarpments Left and Right are perfect with the Mountain Jumpy Stone as a bridging piece and various other small bits filling in the top left of the lower stairs piece.

I’ll have some funny holes to cover up, but I like the look of this trail.

Over the course of that evening I made little bits of further progress in between other activities. Extending the uplands was fairly obvious at the start—get the most wooded area of tree stumps in there—but then I found myself with some puzzling to do about how to bring the leading edge down to the riverbank while leaving myself enough big Escarpment pieces to cover some of the back (north) of the build.

hmm, okay, okay, getting there but not there yet…

Cleaning up the edges and committing to that raised section of forest clearing at the front left helped, so that 15 minutes later I could see that I would be able to make this work, but not quite how yet.

So many problems still to solve.

Knowing I had a limited number of Embankment pieces I began a series of experiments, feeling my way along the northern border—all stretched on my tiptoes to place the pieces and having to make sure I didn’t lift the terrain tray with those big magnets if I moved something. Awkward. My regret for the extended front edge was firmly in place, but I was so pleased with the waterfall I didn’t want to take it apart and start over to fix the problem. So another hour and a half later—probably with a break in there to rest my feet but also with a lot of back and forth—I had something that was finally starting to look decent.

The river’s course begins to reveal itself.

I was ill for a few days then and so it was four days later before I felt well enough to return to the build. I worked on the north half of the cascade from forest to riverbank and lots of clean-up along the upland edge in the foreground. Plus I fit in a few conifer trees to see which problem areas on the mountain I could cover that way. And I puzzled back and forth until I got a good workable base for something beside the waterfall. Definitely took some reworking to make the best use of my remaining Escarpment pieces.

using an Ikea GRÅSIDAN paper storage box for elevation in the center background; thinking about building windows with the sides of the Bridge of Valor in the foreground

It felt so nice to get into a delightful flow state, laying the river edges. I LOVE negative space builds! Get yourself some banks and you’ll be a happier builder.

Working with banks also helps to sort out ideas from earlier in the build. Now that the logical trail through the forest to the mountain trail was obvious, I could see that the bridge needed to move upstream. That encouraged me to shift the land on the other side of the river to the east, making the river widen as it left the mountain and creating a sense of it slowing into a calmer form (outside of its flood season).

I also figured out that the Nymion building on the stony part of the build would be a Magic School. So I finished the rocky plateau at the waterfall base and built that.

It was 12:30am, but a great place to end the night.

The next morning, the day before the playtest where I planned to use an image of the build to set the scene, I kept my priorities in order in the morning and finished up the rest of the essential playtest prep. After lunch I fit in a little area definition work on the build and the land began to look more realistic.

Worth remembering that Titanstooth Base has protruding pieces that can be used in combination with pieces on the level below to soften a straight edge, as I’m doing in the left foreground here.

Without the trees in place you can clearly see the forest trail that goes through the Cave Mouth piece (here used just as an arch) and onward to the base of the winding stairs up the mountain.

Many seams coming together creates some challenges in how to minimize the unreality. Here’s an example of mixing Edge, Bank, and Scatter pieces to help the eye focus on details of landscape rather than construction:

My one disappointment with Wildlands is with the teardrop inserts (and I have little doubt Dwarven Forge feels the same). Their plan for these to fit in place was good and the prototypes they showed looked great, but the problems of production during a pandemic and global shipping crisis just kept this quality control issue from being solvable. I won’t buy more of the pieces with these cutouts and will remember I need to use the ones I have only in good spots for dropping a hedge, big boulder, tree base, or similar disguising piece. On the bright side, the inserts themselves are handy as larger flat boulders or soggy swamp hummocks (depending on their style).

As I hoped, though, the Wildlands pieces blend extremely well with my existing collection. And support my general style of making it look more natural by mixing things together.

a Wildlands (Kickstarter 7) piece on a terrain tray atop an old resin cavern piece next to a Dreadhollow forest escarpment atop Dungeon ledges and Cavern banks with a Wildlands mossy rock mound breaking up a straight edge

I got pretty sneaky with my little cliff ledges over by the waterfall too, hiding a hole and breaking up an edge by tilting one on its side so the points stick up next to the cavern bank I’m using there.

By 6pm the day before my playtest, the left side of my build was pretty well blocked out and the right, where I intended to locate buildings in a field was looking quite manageable.

By 11:17pm, having done other things in much of the evening, I’d positioned the buildings:

“Where the hell are the light colored building tops?” (Finally found ’em on my painting desk. I’m glad I hadn’t gotten to giving them metal caps because the plain stone looks good too.)

Mix of buildings here. The two round, rural buildings on the raised ground at front left are some “primal hut” I got off eBay and a smaller one which was part of the WizKids ‘Jungle Shrine’ set. The one on the low ground is a truly gorgeous resin Iron Age roundhouse from the now gone Steepled Hat Studios. Wish I’d found their beautiful stuff before their final sales. 🥲

In the back is a Dwarven Forge stone City Builder house (using the special double posts to make it wide). The round stone Davur houses on the other side of the river are small and large DF towers, mostly, though one of them has a ground floor made out of four curved resin dungeon walls pushed together.

Kinda sneaky placement on that front farm/smithy building to break up the grassy / marshy transition.

Knowing it’d be easier to see and work with minor structural details before the trees were in, when I got up in the morning I jumped into figuring out the main pieces around the buildings and along the perimeter by the (real) wall behind them. I’m working from the principle that the wind comes off the mountain when its coldest, so many buildings have a partial wall behind which animals can shelter—a great use for ruined wall segments.

Using the pond to break up the lines of another terrain mat transition in the right foreground.

I’m very pleased about how the bramble hedge helps with the back line of the build. Liked that enough to order another set of them.

Even with just a few trees and some edges the rising ground is looking much more acceptable, and most all of the scatter hasn’t even come out yet.

I took a close shot of how I made those cool stairs to the second floor of the public house partly for you, dear reader, but also so I would be able to build them again if I’m back in a Davur area that has flooding.

One thing that’s great at this stage of a build is how a part of your brain begins running around down in the world you’re making, sheltering in the curve of the stairs as you shoulder your pack for the walk ahead, wishing you were still up in that warm and jovial second floor room, instead of about to crunch across the first hard frost.

Having created a local architectural style, I created a similar but less grand version for the house just to the west.

That stair jack is just balanced up there, but it looks OK.

There’s a shrine here too, but I forgot to mention it in my writeup. It’s to The Stronghold, a patron particularly of Nymioni, but of interest to anyone hoping to hold up against bad weather.

I don’t actually own enough ‘small curved wall with a door in it’ pieces, so I did a sly little thing using a Dungeon Vaulted Door Corner Wall. Didn’t worry about how to do the porch yet since I wasn’t sure what would be in front of the building if anything.

12 more minutes was enough time to swap the tray I was working from, bring out the trees, put root extensions into the water, and start roughing out which trees go where. Always better to do this by setting them down rather than fitting them on the bases since something always changes by the end.

Through the middle of the day I kept swinging back to do a bit more tree assembly between finishing up any non-build-related playtest prep.

The build is getting closer to usable after I found the roof tops for the light colored buildings and added edges to soften the back right corner of the build.

That yellow roof, though, is just unacceptable. It’s not haying season and even then it shouldn’t be that yellow.

70 minutes before time to open Zoom for my playtest and I solved that problem.

One hour of frenetic activity and I was able to finish the build in time to take the photos five minutes before game. My new storage system made this work beautifully. With the trees on the table, only a few other trays needed to come out to be drawn from. It was super easy to have the tray beside the table, pick and place, then swap that tray back onto its shelf for the next one.

fences, farm animals, the smithy’s outdoor shop and anvil, lampposts, residents, the sign of The Rosy Pot; everything came together.
bushes and boulders, plants and pets; the little details give the eye so much to enjoy
boats and bridge rails, and whoops gaps in tree trunks noticed later

New rule: no placing trees without looking at them edge on to make sure the trunks don’t have gaps. Of course it would be the conifer delicately balanced in the hardest to reach spot on the build! The fix for that at this point is to take photos from a slightly different angle.

the finished build from the side

Lesson from that last picture is to always do something to cover up the ends of elevation if I can, otherwise I’ll need to cover them with a label on the photo in the world building blog post. Photos aren’t going to have gap-hiding curved edges unless I make them in photo-editing software.

Even with a rush at the end I did not find I needed to go back to do any other additions after the playtest. The storage system did a great job letting me work fast when I needed to and still achieve a great build.

In those couple minutes before the players joined I duplicated a couple shots, cropped them down, and was able to use them as my Zoom background and to show players where the story was taking place. The visual helped them lean into character creation in a new game and a new world with a lot more confidence.

When it came time to clean up the build a week and a half later, my storage system again showed its value. Working from the last to the first this time, I would bring out a tray, put into it what belonged there, and put it away on its shelf.

One big improvement that came up during this build cycle was realizing it was hard to remember which trays fit on which shelf when I had multiple trays pulled at once, so I added numbers to the trays and the shelves. Much simpler now!

I’m very pleased with my Wildlands investment. The variety of trees, ground, water, and rock, plus the many ways to work from negative builds over flat terrain or atop other terrain are going to let me illustrate lots of places I hope to show.

Along with deciding to get more of the bramble hedge (unpainted) for its fabulous back-edge-of-build properties, I decided one more Large Tree Pack (painted, for consistency) would give me the lushness of forest I’ll need for some other builds I have in mind. Having seen how well the small round buildings work, I also am getting one more Small Tower Roofs Pack (unpainted, to make it light stone color). And this build demonstrated to me once again that you can never have enough lumpy little boulders, so I’m getting the Mountain Rock Scatter Pack (unpainted).

an hour of clean-up in, with the completed trays in their proper storage spot

I didn’t track exactly how much time the rest of the putting away took, but it was entirely reasonable compared to the old nightmare of putting stuff away then realizing something else that should go with it, but doesn’t quite fit and rearranging, ad infinitum.

Is the system perfect? No. But look at how little stuff got missed from being packed into its proper tray:

having a few extra trays is very handy

In future I won’t do a full build breakdown like this, instead just featuring tricky problems and how I solved them, interesting piece combinations, or other things that are distinctive about the build. (Though next time I will do a little extra documentation of the post-trees part of the building since I was rushed this time.)

The build has been extremely well received and I’m very grateful to everyone who has shared their thoughts and questions! It’s really encouraging me to start planning another, maybe for the end of July or mid-August.

As someone who does not draw well, it’s great to have this way to illustrate my worldbuilding and share it with the world.

And, yes, I had a fabulous time doing this build! It was a joy to make and to live with for its time in my place. Every time I passed through the main room of my apartment I took a little trip to Waterborn with its lovely waterfall.

Location: the small town of Waterborn

A landscape showing a mountain with a steep waterfall of multiple sections ending in a round basin and exiting und a narrow natural rock bridge to flow away in a more placid little river. Beside the pool and accessed by the natural rock bridge is a rough stone plateau with a long building with a gabeled roof and slate tiles. A Nymion with a gold-topped staff stands before the wooden double doors of this building, the Magic School. The arched windows of the buildings downstream (eastern) end look over the river to a rural area where the forest at the foot of the mountains meets the river edge and several roundhouses with thatched roofs are located. Signs of farm life surround these buildings with more wildlife amongst the trees. A cut stone bridge with heavy rope railings leads over to the edge of the very small town of Waterborn. Three round stone buildings with conical roofs of matching stone form the north edge of a open green space, with subtle signs of past floods in the area. The center building, with its notice board in front, is larger and taller, and has a large ceramic rosy-brown colored teapot atop the lantern post near its front steps. In the foreground, the river flows south with a marshy area and pond to the east. At the eastern edge, the curving stone wall of another round building can just be seen.
the west edge of the small town of Waterborn, looking north toward the Magic School

The mountain homeland of the Mirror Nymioni meets the farmlands of the First Davuri here in the very small town of Waterborn. A waterfall pours forth from a cave at this eastern edge of the mighty twin mountains, and forms one of the many small rivers which eventually join and flow to the Inland Sea far away.

In spring, as the snows melt, the land is prone to flooding, so those of the Nymion culture here build on rock above the flood lines. Their neighbors of the Davur culture build on high ground when convenient, but generally prefer the convenience of good farming soil to the risk of a damp ground floor. Some even choose to simply rebuild a simpler home every year or two, as needed.

The large public house, The Rosy Pot, and some other buildings in the town have their main entrance on the second floor, reducing the inconvenience of the brief high water season.

A view from the signpost at the west end of Waterborn looks past the three round houses, including The Rosy Pot public house toward the river and waterfall in the distance. A tall Nymion bard holding a lute gestures in greeting from the steps of the public house to a Nymion carter leading their draft horse. The Nymion carter, at a typical 8' tall, towers over the sturdy horse.
a bard greets a carter coming to stay at The Rosy Pot after unloading their delivery

Like public houses anywhere in Kabalor, The Rosy Pot provides food, shelter, and community support to any who want them, and always has a mix of long-term and short-term residents who cook, clean, repair, and bring good cheer. Its huge second-floor room with its graceful windows is one of the hubs of community activity. The top floor has sleeping accommodation, with storage in the attic above, while the ground floor has the kitchen, bathing area, and other essentials.

The Rosy Pot was once a musical hotspot a generation ago when the great Nymion drummer Everywhere-Fun was in his prime. Now his memory and enthusiasm lives on, if not his skills.

Davur buildings in Waterborn are round in their traditional style, but the Nymion influence is felt in their decorative plasterwork and arched windows. Likewise, the Nymion buildings here are more likely to show the Davur preference for displaying the natural colors of the stone rather than plastering them over in pale pastels as Nymion culture tends to elsewhere.

Waterborn is rich in resources: stone and wood for building, good soil for grazing, mushrooms from the forest, fish and greens from the river, and herbs from the marshland along the riverbank.

This west end of town is known for The Rosy Pot, the smithy opposite it across the central green, and the sturdy home beside it with its two public shrines—to The Masked Ball and The Crossroads—raised just above the high water mark as the land begins to slope up to the northeast toward the rest of the town.

An overhead view of the smithy opposite The Rosy Pot. It is a round stone farmhouse in the Davur style with its entrance on the second floor to avoid flooding in the wet season. The smith, a red-skinned and muscular Davur stands in front of a hefty stone table piled with a jumble of crafted objects, holding their hammer and a long tool of some kind on which they are working. Their anvil with a bucket of cold water beside it is just the other side of the stone steps from the table of their wares. Beyond them, at the marsh edge of the open green space in front of The Rosy Pot, a small flock of chickens browse near a Davur farmer with a pitchfork who is talking to an attentive seated hound dog. Behind them are a small cart and a plow. The steps of The Rosy Pot, the approaching Nymion carter, and the top of the signpost can be seen along the righthand side of the image.
the central green of the west side of Waterborn

What draws visitors to this spot from both the local area and the villages beyond is the Magic School. This finely restored, Nymion building is situated on a plateau at the base of the waterfall, constantly serenaded by the rushing waters tumbling down the cliff and churning in the pool below before passing under a rock bridge to calm themselves in the little river. (Daring locals know of a bathing pool partway down the cascade where the chilly waters can be enjoyed at only a moderate risk of a painful and possibly dangerous ride down the rapids.)

Lush green against mossy stone colors the western side of the little river, framed by the source of its misty good health: the waterfall emerging from a mountain cave in the distance above the Magic School on its rocky promentory over the river. A rough trail leads through the woods and up a stony, climbing path into the mountains where the trees chance from rounded deciduous shapes to pointy conifers. In the foreground a very large dark brown pig wallows in the puddles of the start of the muddy path near the river crossing.
the Waterborn Magic School in its dramatic setting beside the waterfall and river, with teacher Littletree at the door

It is the quality of the teaching, though, rather than the scenic architecture, which gives this school its allure. Littletree, the Nymion instructor, is exceptionally skilled in Earth and Water Element Magics, also having well above average knowledge of the Element Magics of Air, Smoke, and Fire. They may be short in stature for a Nymion, but their reputation as an instructor stands tall in the region. Not only do many of the magical merchants of the area owe their ability to manage their magic to Littletree, so too do a few other teachers at smaller Magic Schools in neighboring areas.

As soon as the weather permits travel in the spring, Waterborn starts to welcome students whose magic has begun to come in—most of them at that cusp between adolescence and adulthood, but some who have gained magic later. Many are accompanied by a relative or close friend who will remain at least for their first few months of study and perhaps through their entire stay. The majority of students learn to control and direct their magical talents by the time the autumn winds begin to chill, but some—whether through lack of diligence or due to possessing more complex magical talents—remain through the cold and blustery winter to complete their studies. Many life-long friendships are formed amongst those who overwinter at a Magic School, as the classic tropes of song and story attest.

The eastern portion of the town is more typically First Davur culture, though still bearing elegant Nymion windows in places. It has a market square and a petite guildhall of the Farmers’ Guild, along with a variety of craftsfolk and other services. A quieter public house, The Wren’s Nest, is down a lane from the square, a little ways past the cheesemaker and the pie shop. The accommodations there are in a circle of small one to three story little towers surrounding a community garden.

Thanks to the natural dye ingredients found in the moor and marsh south of the town, there are many colorful fabric decorations in Waterborn, along with a thriving trade in the bright embroidery threads so important to that traditional art form of the Mirror Nymioni.

Waterborn’s population is about 1200 residents. It is supported by the farming village of Wellfield a quarter day’s walk to the northeast and the herding village of Rattle about the same to the southeast. Along with those two settlements, there are many small farmhouses and foragers’ huts in the area.

Waterborn in winter is buffeted by cold winds off the mountain and in springtime is soggy, but its great natural bounty from late spring through to the first snow makes up for the inconveniences.

Whether you’re choosing a location for a magically talented relation to understand their new gifts, traveling east or west between the mountains and the plains, seeking materials or tools for your craft, or just looking for a lovely spot to simply be, Waterborn awaits!

(learn more about the making this terrain build)

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!