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! 💖

Author: Dinah from Kabalor

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

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