For a lot of roleplaying games, it’s the idea that counts. How much space does something take up? What can I see from here? As a gamemaster you can paint a great picture with your words, and let a much simpler version on the table serve as a reminder. Here are a few things I’ve done in recent years to help tell the story.
The wizard cast their tiny hut at the end of the gaming session and I needed to pick things up next game with a clear indication of where the party was safely camping. I knew it’d be gone from the table in the first five minutes and it needed to be 2″ in diameter representing their 10′ hut. The sideboard with dishes is right next to the gaming table and well, here we are:
As the party rapidly explored a map, I needed a quick way to indicate what they’d seen and what they didn’t yet know about. However, I had no way of knowing in advance which sequence they’d explore in. Sticky notes to the rescue!
Blue construction paper works incredibly well—especially over video—for indicating water areas under a build with 2D or 3D terrain.
For spell effects, it can be handy to make something a little sturdier you can use again and again. This black circle of a darkness spell—made out of a plastic report cover—works great and takes up basically no space in my cupboard of GM tools.
The same technique would work for creating covers for 3D rooms the characters haven’t reached yet (an alternative to the sticky notes a few pictures back), though for flexibility and speed—and not having something that will fly off the table with a sneeze—I tend to use black cloth napkins.
Many ‘proper’ tabletop terrain items are intended for a grid and it can be hard to manage large circular spaces, particularly when you want to “fly them in” when the party reaches that point. I used a big metal tray to very good effect for the roof of a circular building, dropping some transparent grid overlays and a 2D terrain card on it to keep the minis placed well enough for combat calculations.
This tray actually came onto my gamemaster radar while I was coming up with a puzzle room for an earlier adventure. The party’s foe was electricity-friendly and I wanted them to have to deal with it in a highly conductive space. Great; a metal floor! But what to build the scene on for the table? What I had to work with was this round serving tray and I actually love the way the room turned out.
When the map I want to use is complex, full of curved walls or odd angles, but we’ll be touching it enough that dry erase marker isn’t ideal, I’ve found it easiest to mark it out on a plain Paizo flip mat using masking tape. Still pretty dang fiddly though and taped-together printed pages would probably have worked as well and been easier still.
Really anything will do, but color helps convey information.
Notice that the picture above is the end of the session. Next game, I rebuilt this scene separately so that I could use the map on the other side of that flip mat. Below is the same body drifting in the water and the same chunk of alchemist’s fire on the top walkway which is completing its destruction of someone’s crossbow (if I recall rightly). Be bold and mix it up!
The more you pull in different improvised solutions the more creative your settings will get. I got a sample of brilliant yellow gold formica. Didn’t use it on the remodeling project, but it made a great fancy marble floor for an arcane lair, complete with sinister runic circles made out of plastic soda bottle rings.
What are your go-to solutions in a pinch at your gaming table? What’s the silliest thing you’ve seen that actually worked great?
One thought on “cheap and silly GM tricks for tabletop terrain”
Necessity being the mother of invention…. you have a great imagination for MacGuyver DM solutions!
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