cheap and silly GM tricks for tabletop terrain

For a lot of roleplaying games, it’s the idea that counts. How much space does something take up? What can I see from here? As a gamemaster you can paint a great picture with your words, and let a much simpler version on the table serve as a reminder. Here are a few things I’ve done in recent years to help tell the story.

The wizard cast their tiny hut at the end of the gaming session and I needed to pick things up next game with a clear indication of where the party was safely camping. I knew it’d be gone from the table in the first five minutes and it needed to be 2″ in diameter representing their 10′ hut. The sideboard with dishes is right next to the gaming table and well, here we are:

A tiny maze of stone passageways, traps, and miniature furniture, amidst which is a small dish, turned upside down to make a little dome.
An intricate and well-defended approach to the secret hideout of the gang, a dubious truce, and a powerful protective spell, here represented in pottery.

As the party rapidly explored a map, I needed a quick way to indicate what they’d seen and what they didn’t yet know about. However, I had no way of knowing in advance which sequence they’d explore in. Sticky notes to the rescue!

sticky note line of sight/fog of war

Blue construction paper works incredibly well—especially over video—for indicating water areas under a build with 2D or 3D terrain.

Plain bright blue paper under Dwarven Forge terrain, with a mini figure laying down on it near one side of the blue area.
The secret dock area connected to the city sewer system and a hapless villain, slain in the tunnel to the right and now drifting with the current toward the exit channel on the left. Can’t remember if they thought to retrieve the body and found the nice gems he was carrying before he was lost to them…
Down in the caves! A flat terrain tray with a stone pattern for the cave floor. A rough cut circle of blue construction paper for a flooded pool. A white sticky note at the bottom edge to indicate spider webs blocking a narrow crevice. Dwarven Forge terrain on top of it all to make the twisty little passages. This was super fast to put together but makes a complex combat space.

For spell effects, it can be handy to make something a little sturdier you can use again and again. This black circle of a darkness spell—made out of a plastic report cover—works great and takes up basically no space in my cupboard of GM tools.

A stiff, black plastic circle hides the 3D terrain (and enemy mini figure) under it.

The same technique would work for creating covers for 3D rooms the characters haven’t reached yet (an alternative to the sticky notes a few pictures back), though for flexibility and speed—and not having something that will fly off the table with a sneeze—I tend to use black cloth napkins.

Many ‘proper’ tabletop terrain items are intended for a grid and it can be hard to manage large circular spaces, particularly when you want to “fly them in” when the party reaches that point. I used a big metal tray to very good effect for the roof of a circular building, dropping some transparent grid overlays and a 2D terrain card on it to keep the minis placed well enough for combat calculations.

A round metal tray with a raised rim has its surface partly covered with grid patterns held in place by a 4" Dwarven Forge tower section.
The sloped edge of the roof was represented by the rim of the tray. In the center the narrow central tower extends up from this roof of the lower floor of the keep. (No, I don’t remember why there was a capybara on the roof. Maybe this shot was from when I was cleaning up and using the tray as a tray—bonus!—to carry things away from the gaming table?)

This tray actually came onto my gamemaster radar while I was coming up with a puzzle room for an earlier adventure. The party’s foe was electricity-friendly and I wanted them to have to deal with it in a highly conductive space. Great; a metal floor! But what to build the scene on for the table? What I had to work with was this round serving tray and I actually love the way the room turned out.

A even cross-shaped room with stairs and altars (built with old resin Dwarven Forge pieces) abuts a round room with a silver floor and a tricky interior layout (built with newer Dwarven Forge pieces on a round metal serving tray).
The party solves the first puzzle in the left chamber to open the door to this, but how to get past this highly charged floor—and the guardian powered by it—to the next door on the far side?

When the map I want to use is complex, full of curved walls or odd angles, but we’ll be touching it enough that dry erase marker isn’t ideal, I’ve found it easiest to mark it out on a plain Paizo flip mat using masking tape. Still pretty dang fiddly though and taped-together printed pages would probably have worked as well and been easier still.

The battle zone is revealed once the players reach the crucial part of the chase. (Those running through another floor of the building are placed on a quickly pencil sketched map on paper. Not to scale, but good enough for comparative positions.)

Visible at the bottom of the picture is a box of useful bits and bobs: extra pencils and erasers, small cards for notes to players, sticky note flags for initiative, and whiskey stones for terrain features (which is their only sensible purpose).
A battle scene amidst buildings. Paper is secured with masking tape to show the building outlines. Whiskey stones mark substantial pillars (usable for cover if the party—represented by their mini figures—has to fall back from the gate they are defending). Six-sided dice represent foes (“brown 1, black 3, white 3, …” etc.) and unusual dice at the bottom edge are indicating a doorway from which some foes emerged.

Really anything will do, but color helps convey information.

A Paizo flip mat with some unexplored parts covered by sticky notes and paper. The rubber bands and tokens and the mini figures representing the party and their foes sit atop it.
I didn’t have enough tiny blue rubber bands to indicate this spell effect—eerie twisting ribbons of power in the air—but with the blue color established, I could fill in the rest of the area of effect with blue tokens. (Those are cheap tiddlywinks that came in a set of a whole bunch of different colors including fire red and orange which saw heavy use.)

Notice that the picture above is the end of the session. Next game, I rebuilt this scene separately so that I could use the map on the other side of that flip mat. Below is the same body drifting in the water and the same chunk of alchemist’s fire on the top walkway which is completing its destruction of someone’s crossbow (if I recall rightly). Be bold and mix it up!

We return to the picture of the dock area with the blue paper water.

The more you pull in different improvised solutions the more creative your settings will get. I got a sample of brilliant yellow gold formica. Didn’t use it on the remodeling project, but it made a great fancy marble floor for an arcane lair, complete with sinister runic circles made out of plastic soda bottle rings.

What are your go-to solutions in a pinch at your gaming table? What’s the silliest thing you’ve seen that actually worked great?

Author: Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg

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