Full-table builds without taking up the whole table

Whenever we view a scene our minds are filling in lots of details. As a GM you can use this human skill to your advantage. You don’t have to build the whole place; you just need the center of the action.

For this dramatic situation, in which a villain captured by the party and brought to a public festival to confess his wrongdoing broke loose and began casting dangerous magic, I only needed the center line of the table and a bit of one corner to imply an area ten times as large.

I needed the stage where the confession would take place and a crowd of merchants and festival-goers all around it. I needed the less crowded area south of it, where Sail Square meets the dockside (and where the miscreant was going to make a getaway on one of the boats if not stopped in time). And I needed the large balcony overlooking the square which was already known to the party and which they might make use of during the session.

I did not need the whole building to which the balcony, with its covered pedestrian walkway underneath, was attached. I did not even need the full width of the side street at which the building was the corner. One piece could show the sidewalk and half the road beside the building. One more could show the covered walkway’s connection to the main part of the scene. All the other cobblestones and sidewalks would be filled in by the imagination.

What’s more, that key location, already known to the party, didn’t even need to take any vital table space. It tucked into a corner at the edge of the table.

When the players arrived they saw the view before the chaos, no fire yet, no fleeing bystanders. Just a cheery festival with a couple of bards entertaining dancers from the stage while others shopped, some kind of vigorous sport being played further down towards the docks, and some NPCs they knew up on the balcony to see and be seen. They were instantly pulled into the setting and their decisions through the rest of the session were informed by the impact of what was happening in a place they were seeing transform into chaos and fear before their eyes.

When allies of their captured villain were suddenly nearby it wasn’t a trick of the GM; they were already there among the ball-players, the dancers, the shoppers. The crowd was there in everyone’s minds already. And when the villain surprised them all by casting a fireball, the players were horrified at the risk to innocent people, shifting their priorities to protect the many people in the square. Through clever thinking and their previous actions (to stir up feeling among the city’s student population) generating some rowdy allies for the party, the villain and his fellow criminals did not manage to kill anyone or even escape.

This was one of the finale moments of my non-combat campaign and as a GM it was a delicious twist to suddenly crank the danger dial way higher than it had been in any of the previous years of play. The outcome was by no means a given. Between that twist and the visceral contextualization of the place in front of the players on the table, this episode was able to be as vivid as it deserved.

And everyone still had room to roll their dice.

Author: Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg https://www.patreon.com/kabalor

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