New Ways To Play: creating an alternative to hack and loot

Fantasy role-playing games can be kind and exciting. They can be soul-fueling and stimulating. They can be restorative and involve character risks.

Fantasy role-playing games don’t need conquest to work. But, as I’ve written before, maybe Dungeons & Dragons unfortunately does.

That realization is what set me on the path of creating my indie ttrpg Kabalor. So, how to keep the fun while building game mechanics that escape the bad old tropes?

Knowing what I wanted to drop was pretty easy. #1 on the list was the idea that there are intelligent beings whom it is perfectly OK to murder and take their stuff. “These people are disposable” is toxic garbage and we do not need it in our games.

Finding the fun came out of listening to my players and thinking about my own play experiences. We love the storytelling, continually adding to our ideas and riffing off each other and what happens in the game. We love the ups and downs of crazy plans and surprise results of the dice. We love being characters who can do cool things, which become more and more amazing over time.

I identified Grow, Connect, Explore, Unlock, and Share as the main action areas of Kabalor (as opposed to D&D’s Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard). But how to make sure that action space is actively enjoyable? Through playing open-ended story games without a GM (like Wanderhome), I was able to see that things can loosen up from the traditionally more rigid structure of D&D, where the players often react to the GM’s descriptions instead of building the reality with them. But I also learned that a little more structure—particularly in the progression of what the character can do—helps keep the game engaging.

Wanderhome is great; I really love it and recommend it. But it’s a pretty intense creative experience. The sweet spot—at least for me and my players—would be a world we don’t need to constantly invent, but which is highly adaptable to the ideas of players and GM, and game mechanics which provide some goals and direction for the story to move in. In other words, something you can come to as a delightful break from the working week, which will be fun, exciting, and energizing, and which may not require any heavy lifting emotionally or creatively in a given session. If you’re wiped out at the end of an intense workday, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor. Likewise, if you’re creatively fired up and want to spin stories of people and places, or lean into complicated interactions or emotional growth of your character, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor.

Because combat is not core—and I am designing the game such that it is entirely optional—something else needs to be at the heart of the game and delivering those highs and lows. There also needs to be something to scratch the itch to optimize and improve your character. For Kabalor that is magic, specifically spellcasting.

In keeping with the expansive story style, the spellcasting mechanics of Kabalor are designed to allow players to invent their own spells and to combine their magical talents in collaborative spellcasting. A modular spell system is a big goal and a very tricky thing to make easy to use, but I think I’ve cracked the nut. Lots of playtesting to come to sort out the details and make sure it’s both balanced and fun, but I’m confident Kabalor is on the right path.

Kabalor needs to have the thrill of the throw of the dice, with calculated risks but potential surprises. Since Kabalor is not starting from a grim place of us vs. them in practically every interaction, those surprises can be more fun and come more often. It’s here where the lighter touch can really shine. By making the magic more pervasive, wilder, and inherently vulnerable to occasional unexpected outcomes there’s still plenty of risk, but the results are fun rather than fatal (unless your particular set of players likes even higher stakes).

Kabalor is a fun game of spellcasting and storytelling, with lots of improvisation, and plenty of ups and down, but at its core a hopeful and supportive vision.

The current state of the game is pre-alpha testing, in which I’m working with familiar players and friends to shake down what I’ve created and make sure we’ve got the game mechanics sorted out and functioning enough for the alpha test in which I’ll GM the first stories.

If you’re excited to get involved in this “pardon our dust” stage of development, let me know!

Building DIY Terrain Trays

Once it’s safe to poke about in builder’s supply stores again, you’re in for a gamemaster’s treat.

Bring along a small magnetic piece of set dressing, one of your standard floor+wall bits if you use dungeon/city tiles like that, and a typical miniature figure representing the people that populate your table. If you’ve got a pair of work gloves, bring those too.

Pop into your friendly local builder’s supply shop (support independent businesses when you can!) and make a beeline for painting supplies. Look for a little roll of drab green or brown or gray protective paper at least 12″ wide. Get that and a roll of masking tape.

Note the thickness of that metal piece. A 1′ square one weighs over 1 lb. More about where to find such a thing below…

Now stroll about a bit—keeping your budget and storage space in mind—just to see if anything leaps out at you as the perfect foundation for your next DIY build after this one. (This is why you brought a mini and the floor+wall piece for scale.) Keep an eye out for little toys around the checkout area just in case there’s an excellent unusual monster.

If you don’t own anything that lets you file the rough edges off metal, get yourself a little metal smoothing file while you’re here. If you don’t own a good box knife, get one. Olfa is an excellent brand. (Remember, real building supplies that work for terrain building are often much better than cruddy, overpriced, prepackaged “hobby tools”.)

Last, visit all the ventilation and ducting supplies. They should have pre-cut metal pieces a foot square and about one foot by two foot (or presumably the equivalent if you live in the land of metric) which are hefty enough to bear a load of terrain without bending. Using your work gloves to protect your hands from the usually quite sharp edges, select the pieces you need and confirm they’re magnetic using one of the pieces of terrain or set dressing you brought with you.

Now that you’re carrying something heavy, it’s time to pay and go home.

Wearing a mask and your work gloves, go outside and use your file to lightly smooth any particularly sharp edges on your metal pieces. You’re going to wrap the edges, so they don’t have to be baby safe, but should be distracted gamemaster safe.

Cut pieces of the paper to twice the length of your metal pieces and the same width.

Mark undersized excess pieces with an X just so you don’t grab them by accident in your assembly phase.

Carefully place a metal piece on top of its paper piece, lining up the end and sides. Fold over the top and crease the edge so it lays flat. Wrap the edges with masking tape.

Voila! Terrain tray! Is it as good as one from Dwarven Forge. Hell no! Are you still going to use it all the time? Yes, yes you are.

The 1′ x 2′ ones are great for combining a long approach and an unknown destination (in this case a secret tavern hidden under the city).

It’s easy in gridded builds to make a pretty seamless break between trays.

You can pack a lot of character into a little 1′ square build—and you don’t even have to make it on the day of the game!

Here’s a nice little workshop or similar small building tucked into a courtyard in a city.

I’m pretty pleased with the look of that dovecote.

The 1′ square blocks are also great for keeping the status of the end of a game or the starting point of the next game stashed in a cupboard for a week. Here’s a tavern after the mayhem where the characters, spotting the bodies in the street, will arrive to a scene of carnage. (Or was it that they’d caused the carnage both in and out, and when we had to stop playing for the night they were halfway through dragging the bodies inside to hide all the evidence from patrolling constables?)

You can also use one of these trays for builds like this with lots of individual little pieces or complex configuration that would be hard to build quickly on the table.

a terrain tray holds a house interior with a fireplace has clearly suffered some sort of disaster with furniture blown into the corners and the entire floor collapsed into a rubble filled basement

Here I built up to create a hollow area for the basement which has collapsed under the influence of an air elemental. By the time the characters arrive, the furniture has been blown into the corners and one wall has been breached.

I used small Dwarven Forge terrain trays to create an area of sidewalk around the front and sides to give the house more context and just in case the battle took us out there.

Let’s end on a picture that ties back to my last post.

a rectangular terrain tray holds a large room with hallways in and out where a battle is taking place between involving some lizard/snake people, three more humanlike folk, and a shining dragonborn. A bird flies over the fracas.

Here’s the big rectangular tray with the build I showed above, only now the party is in conflict with some snakey lizardy people. From the department of silly GM tricks, I’m using soda bottle rings as status markers on one character and I’m using a thread spool to elevate a bird familiar which is flying around the room.

In the picture I showed of the first draft of this build—before I’d decided not to have the barricade of benches and instead surprise attack the party—the build is sitting on its tray on my worktable. In the picture here it’s on the dining table where I carried it out and set it down when the action of the game reached this point.

As a GM I love using trays to have cool scenes at the ready. Keeping the size a little bit smaller allows you to let the players move at their own pace; if they don’t reach this scene tonight, you can keep it for next week. And if you’re not sure if they’ll turn left or right, well, build ’em both and bring out the one you need.

I hope these sturdy, magnet-friendly trays prove as useful to you as they have to me!

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?

A terrain build in play: the flooded shrine in the swamp

This shot is from the end of our game last Thursday night. The Urdesh bard, Shashi, has just finished off an errant water elemental on the island in the center. Their companions, the Kamion sorcerer/motivational speaker Paklehm and the Shafor warlock Asteh with her mastiff mount Ludo, are visible further to the right back of the island. The party had successfully rid the area of the other two elementals by polymorphing them into clams and having Paklehm and Asteh’s bird familiars fly them far away to be dropped from a great height into the sea.

In the foreground you can see three electric candles, used to remind spellcasters and me as GM that there are concentration spells going on: the two Polymorph spells and Shashi’s illusion of the fire, keeping the water elementals away from the tree shrine in the center. (Those candles were a great idea I got from Lance, one of the players in my former Monday night campaign, in which we tested the Kabalor world with rapid leveling up. His super-chilled-out Duan monk, Shay, reached 20th level and became an emissary of the eminence The Dreamlands.)

So, how did I create this build? And what’s involved here?

In the previous session, a tsunami had struck the coast and the party rescued people in a village at the point where a good size river comes to the inland sea. That great wave pushed up the river and then up the stream leading to a very small community of the diminutive Lissami folk in a swampy area. This is a sacred place, home to a shrine to the eminence The River, and—as with many areas where the veil between this world and the planes of the eminences is thinner—prone to outbreaks of wild magic. The wave (itself having arisen from great magic) disrupted one of those strong spots of wild magic and combined it with nascent water elementals to create much larger water elementals that are a threat to people and structures. The couple dozen Lissami of this secluded spot fled in every boat they have, leaving behind their possessions in order to carry with them their beloved capybara mounts, and arrived at the damaged village at the river mouth seeking help. Everyone looked immediately at our heroes and, well, ya gotta answer the call, right?

For this build, therefore, I needed: the stream the party comes up, the boat loaned by the Lissami, the shrine to protect, some village structures, a base swampy region, and the suggestion of more flooding than normal, with difficult terrain pretty clearly identifiable onscreen by my players.

The Ikea Linnmon table where I create my builds is narrow—23.75″ wide—but about 4′ long. In general, I work with low terrain in the foreground and higher in the background and that fits well with this scenario of the players coming upstream. It also works well for broadcast to my players over Zoom. A screenshot from the end of our game gave me this picture which I only cropped and blacked out the corners of for this post. I use my iPhone as camera, this Haitent stand to hold it, and this older Jackery Bolt battery pack to keep it going through the game. (Those Amazon links help support this site through the commission I earn. For everything else I link to, I try to support the maker or my friendly local game store. ❤️)

I searched through my Paizo maps to find something suitable as the foundation layer for this scene and came up with the out-of-print version of the Village Square, the flipside of which had a mix of green and a gravelly gray suitable to represent water. (Paizo has since switched to roofed and unroofed views of the village on that map, for which I can’t fault them.) The 3D printed model I wanted to use for the shrine, SunForgeGaming’s Place of Power: Sundered Heartwood Tree Shrine, fit nicely in the middle.

With the core plan confirmed as viable, I pulled out my Paizo Marsh Trails Map Pack and filled in the foreground, borrowing a little bit of water from under a bridge from another of their map pack card sets to indicate the stream itself at its transition into the wave-damaged swamp.

As in any terrain setup I’ll be sharing in a long-shot like this, the next step was to establish the horizon. Fortunately, I was able to grow my collection of Dwarven Forge escarpment pieces with a big investment in last December’s restock. The Escarpment Pack, Escarpment Corners Builder, and the Cave Mouth Pack all got involved in building a nice rocky hillside in the back.

To bring the terrain down to the map surface, I used the Dwarven Forge Forest Transition Banks Builder set (also bought in that excellent restock). These represent fairly undamaged land, while my stone banks in cavern paint pieces (1, 2, look like closest listing in the store now) came into use as water-washed or elemental ravaged areas. You can see a triangular piece sitting between Shashi and the pond and at the corner by the larger (for Lissami) building with the brown roof where a water elemental had threatened it before being turned into a clam.

Other Dwarven Forge pieces in play here are a couple large forest floors (Heavy Forest Pack), some forest scatter terrain, my long-sought and much beloved trees (finally back in stock in a shining moment last December after a long wait), and the rowboat. With a waterfall added (from the old Wicked Cavern Pack) in the distance, the visual line of the normal stream is established along the left side of the scene.

Non-Dwarven Forge items filling out the scene include a few styrofoam wargamer hills (mostly for vague horizon greenery plus definition of the creek edge in the foreground) and a resin pond I bought at a gamestore’s flea market day, haystacks from the WizKids Medieval Farm to represent the domes of Lissami reed houses, the roof from the WizKids Jungle Shrine resting on tree stumps from a forest floor section to be their community hall, and some actual dry branch pieces from the yard for flood flotsam. The mushroom ring from the Jungle Shrine set was also in use on the island for marshy ambiance until a water elemental moved through it and destroyed that spot.

On the near center corner of the island is an almost unnoticeable bush which is there to cover up one of the trails in that terrain piece. That Pathfinder Kingmaker Bush, if I recall correctly, I got out of the bits & bobs minis box at Gamescape (my FLGS). Holy cow do I use that thing constantly. All that ranting about “bring me a shrubbery!” makes so much more sense now. Looking forward to additional hedge action coming in Wildlands this year.

During the session the only new thing that came onto the table besides the character, familiar, and elemental minis was fire. First a Major Illusion filling the whole shrine, making it look extremely unappealing to water elementals, played by the Dwarven Forge Wall of Fire Pack. Then a smaller illusion represented by a piece from the WizKids Wall of Fire and Ice set. My completed Monday night campaign featured a Shafor wizard, Nyba of Pvaku, who was a serious fire hazard and my spell effects collection still bears the burn marks.

I hope this visit to a scene in play has been fun for you too!

DF DIY: Creating a shop front for Dwarven Forge City Builder

While the anvils at Dwarven Forge are busy making lovely terrain for Caverns Deep, Hellscape and the Wildlands, those with adventures set in urban environments have been craving a few more options. The clamoring voices have definitely been heard—survey questions about potential future campaigns suggest fun in the settled regions is coming next—but it’ll be a couple years before that stuff hits gaming tables. Today I’ll show you how to scratch that itch while you wait by making your own shop fronts. You can also use the same materials to make the longer building floors and walls necessary to create jettied upper stories of your buildings.

Are these DIY long floors and side walls and shopfronts as good as professionally sculpted pieces cast in Dwarvenite? Of course not! But are they pretty great for the initial work of an inexperienced painter doing an EVA foam project for the first time? Yes indeed. Give it a try and I think you’ll make something that can find a place on your table too! (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)

Here’s what I’ve made. Let’s have a profusely-illustrated stroll through the history which led me to that design and then I’ll walk you through how you can make your own Dwarven Forge options like these using $20 worth of supplies, a metal ruler, a nice sharp hobby knife, toothpicks, a wire brush (or you can use a toothpick), the craft or mini paints you probably already have, and—if you decide to go for any bigger than 10″ pieces—either contact cement (like Barge or DAP Weldwood) or Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue (e.g. Loctite Super Glue).

Shop fronts! Let’s go!

The most prevalent historical examples to draw on are from the late Medieval period in Europe. I’m still hoping to find pre-modern examples from other parts of the world. The Chinese images I looked at suggested a complete open side to the shop—requiring no modified pieces for our terrain—but that may just be an artistic visual device. This one Japanese scene from Japan in 1855 does support the complete open side idea, but again, may not fully reflect the real appearance. Given the context of this and its companion post-earthquake image, though, I think it’s fairly likely it’s realistic.

Anonymous contemporary woodcut of Edo before the great 11 November 1855 magnitude 7.3 Ansei-Edo earthquake (source)

Note how the kimono shop uses an awning with side panels to display inventory in the street. Goods also are placed in front in the street at the shop in the upper right. It appears that the shop openings may have fittings for panels to be inserted to close the front when not open. Note also the shape of the shop, with a two-story section in the rear. That portion may be workshop, residence, or a combination of the two.

We can somewhat suggest this shop style without matching it exactly using existing Dwarven Forge pieces and a bit of creativity.

Dungeon of Doom Double Doors archway with a couple magnetic Passage Walls on their sides so their metal bases can take the fabric hangings from the Magnetic Accessory Add-On Pack. Small paper insert made to fit in the cottage window (just a larger rectangle with the corners cut out to make tabs to hold it in place, easy peasy). Other shop items from various sources Dwarven Forge and otherwise (including porcelain Epiphany festival charms from France and some neat little stuff from The Game Crafter). (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)

The European examples have some common elements to the Japanese—use of the street space and integrated workshops and/or residences—but also some distinct differences, most notably a shop counter separating the seller from the buyer. The European examples generally incorporate a wide arched window and a simple countertop. Often items are hung around the top of the opening and—taking advantage of the light—the area directly inside is usually a workspace as well as a spot to sell to customers. The wide arched window shape itself seems to signify a shop rather than a residence (see for example this mention on page 313 of The Oxford Handbook of Later Medieval Archaeology in Britain).

A shop counter in the side of a building (This may from the 15th century French encyclopedia Livre des Proprietés des Choses but I have not yet been able to confirm whether from that or a similar book of the 14th or 15th centuries. Credit your illustrations, bloggers!)

Shutters were widely used to close up the shop front when not in use. These might be removable, or be in a vertical configuration as we’re used to seeing in the present day (shown in the illustration below), or horizontal, where a shutter would fold down to create the counter when supported on trestle legs or fold up to provide an awning over the counter. (This is described extensively with many photographs of surviving English buildings in this page on the Architectural Traces of Shops by Stephen Alsford.)

Note the shutters shown in this early 16th century German example from the house books of the Mendelschen and Landauer Twelve Brothers House Foundations, held by the Nuremberg City Library. (Though this smith has wooden legs for his counter, another example, from 1520, in the same collection shows a smith whose counter is supported by narrow metal legs that wouldn’t be out of place in a market today.)

The counter might extend outside as seen above. Or it might only be on the inside, as seen in the tailor’s shop below. We also see in the picture below a barbershop with cabinets which protrude.

Cy commance le livre du gouvernement des princes fait de frere Gilles Romain, de l’ordre des freres hermites de saint Augustin
Source: This is from 1501-1525.
One tailor stands and uses the table/counter as a cutting surface, while the other sits on it and sews. (For a more recent example of the latter, see the historical fashion tailor Zack Pinsent)

The protruding cabinet model appears a lot in Italian market scenes of the 15th century. It is unclear if these are spaces which would be sealed up with shutters or other closures (such as would be used for a tent) when not in use or if the goods would just be taken away. By comparing many images of the same types of scenes we have a better chance of identifying details that have been omitted for artistic clarity in other pictures.

Porta Ravegnana Market Bologna from a 1411 miniature at the Museo Civico Medievale Bologna.
Note the sidewalk-like surfaces in front of some shops.
Here I’m creating that early 15th century Italian open market feeling with terrain and minis. This uses lots of Dwarven Forge—including the flat wooden platforms from the Modular Balconies Add-On Pack—plus other various minis I’ve gathered over time. The shop fronts in the foreground are my in-progress DIY pieces and in the back are Dwarven Forge City Builder Arch Walls. (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)

Italian examples also show counters with an entryway at the side, as in this 14th century view of a pharmacy from Tacuinum Sanitatis. (Note also the stairs leading to an additional floor of the building which has been rendered very small to place emphasis on the shop.) Here’s a link to a German example from 1533 with a half-door set into the gap by the counter.

Below is an early 16th century German example of a chain suspended counter:

From the house books of the Mendelschen and Landauer Twelve Brothers House Foundations, held by the Nuremberg City Library.
Detail from the early 14th century Siena mural ‘Effects of Good Government in the City’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti showing a variety of counter types and the use of a rod to hang goods above the counter.

One of our best resources is the book Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden published in Frankfurt am Main in 1568, which shows all sorts of craftsfolk at work.

The Lanternmaker from Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden showing a protruding counter with square legs and a shelf in the arched opening with both hanging and standing goods on display. (Hashtag: #basketenvy)
The Apothecary from Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden. Here we get more of a view into the shop interior as well as another example of a protruding counter with wood legs and a shelf in the top part of the arched opening. (Looks like this shaggy individual being supported by a friend as well as their dog need some help.)
With The Shoemaker from Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden we switch to a view from inside, looking out. This shop has no protruding counter and instead has a table along part of the arched opening similar to the tailors’ shop illustrated above from half a century earlier. A rod in the opening is used to display goods. Additional workspace is provided at a table further inside the room.
The counter is less clear in this interior view of The Saddler from Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden, but it does provide what seems to be a more realistic view of the natural chaos of a working shop.

Many of the historic illustrations of craftspeople also show them working in rooms at tables under large windows (possibly upstairs, based on the lack of customers or street level activity outside the windows, and on architectural traditions in later centuries as seen in buildings like the 18th century stocking knitters’ cottages in St. Mary’s Lane, Tewkesbury).

A key example I’m drawing from are surviving English buildings, especially one which I was able to visit personally, the medieval shop from Horsham at the Weald and Downland Living Museum near Chichester in the south of England. The building is presumed to date from the late 15th century. This is a fairly wide building with room for two shop fronts.

Note the jettied overhangs which allow maximum use of the property footprint while allowing the upper floors to be larger by extending into the street. These also create a protected space at the front of the building next to the shop counters. (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)

“The shop on the left on the ground floor does not connect to the room on the right and might have been rented separately, perhaps with the building owner residing above and only using the small shop front on the right (which connects to the upstairs with a staircase).Each of the two units had a shop at the front and a small hall or ‘smoke bay’ open to the roof at the back [My understanding is that this is inclusive in the white ground floor part of the building in my photo]. When the building was dismantled the timbers were heavily sooted, indicating that open fires had been burning over a long period. The fires would have been used for warmth, and possibly also for producing goods for sale — for example, smoked meat, pies or bread. …
The building had been dramatically altered during its life and many of the original timbers had been removed. The surviving timbers provided sufficient evidence for the reconstruction, but many of them were not in good enough condition to re-use and have had to be replaced with new oak. On the front elevation none of the ground-floor timbers survived, so we have no evidence for the original shop front. The reconstruction is a copy of a surviving shop front of similar date at Lingfield, near Horsham.” – Weald and Downland Living Museum

In narrower buildings than this Horsham two-shop example, a hallway off the street might have a door opening into the shop as well as to living areas and to the outside behind the building. As the Tewkesbury example is described, “The front door opened onto a corridor which ran past the shop, but gave immediate access, from the side, to the shop; it also gave access further in to the living quarters, and at the far end to the service rooms and garden. The hall lay behind the shop; part of the hall was open through the upper storey to create a void for smoke from the hearth to drift upwards rather than disperse into living areas. Behind the hall were the service rooms (kitchen and buttery [which is where you keep the butts of liquor, often a small room or closet which can be locked]). A steep, almost ladder-like, staircase on one side of the hall led to the upper storey where were two bedrooms: one above the hall and shop, the other above the service rooms. A latrine would likely have been located in the garden at rear of the house.”

To return to our Horsham example, here’s a lovely photo showing museum staff or volunteers demonstrating the shop in use:

The Museum has a wonderfully rigorous historic clothing research project. Photo copyright Weald and Downland Living Museum
Note the shutter folded up inside against the ceiling. (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)
A closer look at the interior as staged by the museum, giving a good sense of the amount of interior space. That’s the supplies for a demonstration of flax being prepared for making into linen in the front. This was probably an activity more likely to be done in a home than a shop. (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)
Looking out from inside the small shop front. (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)

With confidence about the appearance, now it’s time to make our shop. First, we make a pattern for a piece which will fit in the front of a Dwarven Forge 4″ building front. Start by creating a piece of cardstock the size of the piece for which you are substituting.

Make several. You’ll probably get inspired to create variations. 🙂 (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders, as are the other DIY constructing detail shots on this page.)

For our shop front we’re going to use the proportions of the door piece, but make the door opening be the shop arch and the wall be the narrow door. We want to capture to our template the size of the timbers so that the piece feels consistent with the others.

Put the template and the piece foot to foot and mark the timber edges.

Make note also of the top timbers.

Put the door edge, where the timber line is easiest to see, against the edge of your template and mark it. Then flip it over and doo the same on the other end.

Now you can draw in your shop arch and narrow doorway. Draw the whole archway to the ground, even if your finished version will have a wall below the arched opening. It’s easier to cut this way and no problem to adjust back afterwards.

While you’re looking closely at the pieces you’ll be matching, draw in some wood grain to remind you later.

Now it’s time to meet your new best friend: EVA foam. EVA, or Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate.

10mm EVA foam is just a little less thick than a Dwarven Forge floor and a just a little more thick than a Dwarven Forge cottage wall. Works great as an adaptation of either, along with its many other uses.

This magnificent substance is heavily used by cosplayers so there’s lots of good info out there for working with it. It cuts with a craft knife, can be gently sanded to created curved surfaces, and takes paint well (especially after you give it a little heat with a hot air gun or hair dryer). For our purposes you want small panels, of high density, in 10mm thickness so that it matches Dwarven Forge walls. You can buy a stack of eight such 9.6″x 9.6″ panels from Amazon for under $20 (and that link helps support this site through the commission I earn).

Our next step in building our shop front is to cut out a piece of 10mm thick high density EVA foam the same size as the wall piece we’ll be replacing.

I made a sloppy, slightly diagonal cut on the top end here, but it’s not a big deal because those will be trimmed to a point to slot into the corner posts anyhow.

Use your paper pattern, out of which you’ve cut the openings, as a template and mark with pencil where you’ll cut the EVA foam.

Pencil shows up fairly well, you can also gently scratch the lines with a toothpick.

Before you cut the openings, while the piece is still at its sturdiest, trim the ends to fit in Dwarven Forge corner posts. Set a wall on top and trace the point onto the EVA foam on both sides, top and bottom.

You can see how sturdy this stuff is, while still being flexible. This ain’t that squishy kind of foam.

To keep from going too far off the cut line, just go halfway down for each cut, flip the piece over, and then finish from the top. When cutting, go slowly and carefully to keep your lines more straight and to avoid cutting yourself. EVA foam is dense, but still springy. Be careful. 🙂

Ready for the second half of the cut. It’s OK that these are a little rough and wavy; that helps convey the hand-built nature of this architecture.
Save cut out pieces and trimmed bits. They come in handy. Along with any bigger “rocks” you make from trimmings, you can sweep EVA foam crumbs into your ‘random basing grit’ container to add lightweight rough surface texture to your mini bases.
Looking back at the wood grain you drew on your template, use a wire brush or the point of a toothpick to add texture to the timbers on your cut piece. Since you won’t need to prime the EVA foam, this will be enough to create the wood effect when painting.
Here’s a test fit at this stage, using a Dwarven Forge Fruit Stall from the Wicked City Accessory Add-On Pack to create a protruding counter in the shop arch space.
Take your cut out door piece and get a clean stoop timber to go across the bottom of the door frame. (I had a rough bottom edge, so I took my clean piece from above my trimming getting rid of that ragged spot.) Take about the bottom third of the arch cutout piece to form your minimal counter.

Try to keep your craft knife blade perpendicular to the surface of the foam panel, use a metal straight edge as a guide, and cut in smooth, steady strokes. (EVA foam is dense and hard on blades; don’t work with a dull blade. Keep fresh blades on hand.)

Here are our new pieces in place.I’ve made the stoop even with the timbering and set the counter piece back just a little since I expect to paint all but the top of it to match the plastering of the building.

Before we go on to gluing and painting, here’s a quick example of making a simple outside counter as seen in many of the sources above. I’ve cut a counter out of my archway cutout piece and pierced it with two toothpicks. Once I got the height settled to a pleasing position, I cut the toothpicks off with a plastic frame cutter.

You want to use a cutter with a flat side to leave a fairly smooth counter.

If you want your shop front to have a solid door, take your doorway cutout and split it vertically to be half as thick, as shown below.

This is one where it’s good if your blade is longer than the width of the door so that you get a fairly smooth front.
Even though I trimmed extra off the bottom of the door cutout, this too-small, rough-fitting door still looks the part. Now it just needs a bit more wood grain texture from the wire brush (or a toothpick).

EVA foam also is available in large, inexpensive batches as floor matting. This comes in many colors, for example, 24″ square brown pieces (approx. $1/sq foot in a six pack). These floor mats are not quite as dense as the black non-floor-mat type and have a pattern on one side, but are still serviceable. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.)

To build a multi-level shop-front building with overhanging fronts, I’ve cut each floor 1/2″ longer than the one below, representing an overall 5′ overhang at scale. They’re 4″ wide to match standard Dwarven Forge Cottage walls, so I’ve only needed to cut special side walls for the top and middle levels.

NOTE: There will be slight shrinkage from the heat as seen here on this 1″ grid under a black piece (from the non-floor-mat set I bought) that formerly fit to those lines. Cut your pieces ever so slightly oversize. This image also gives you a good look at the surface after heat sealing—ready to paint with no priming!

Before heat sealing, I’ve textured all the surfaces since cuts in EVA foam will separate slightly when heated. This helps retain the detail.

On the left a Dwarven Forge wooden floor. On the right a piece cut from a brown floor mat. I’m using a steel ruler as a guide to cut very shallow lines for the boards at the same scale. Then I’ll use the wire brush to add wood texture. (In future I would also do tiny jabs with the point of a toothpick to create sunken nailheads so that detail would be easier to add later.)
Before heat sealing on the left and after on the right. Nothing else done to the right one to make the detail pop; it’s all the heat effect!

Before painting, you’ll want to heat seal the surface. This is super easy with a heat gun, but doable with a hair dryer on high (or so the cosplay folks say; I’m the kinda gal who owns a heat gun but not a hair dryer and haven’t tested the latter myself). Let the heat gun come to temperature, then pass it over your cut foam pieces, watching the surface become less porous and less matte. It is a very quick change—don’t go nuts and melt your foam—and will leave you with a nice smooth surface for painting, no priming necessary. Note: you’re heating plastic; do this in a well-ventilated area. A silicone place mat is handy to prevent heat damage to the surface you’re working on (and if you get a smooth one in dirt brown or dungeon gray it can do double duty in your builds hiding random items you’re using for elevation like board game boxes).

I made the holes for the Dwarven Forge corner posts using a hand-powered hobby drill after heat sealing the pieces so that the fit stays tight. If you don’t have a hobby drill (like you’d use for putting pins into the bottom of a mini), just use a drill bit about half the diameter of the corner post pins. You don’t need to remove much foam in the hole to create room.

When marking where to make your holes for corner posts, use a Dwarven Forge piece as a guide. Press down hard to make a little circle, then use a hand-powered hobby drill to create a small hole into which you can work a corner post.

For a roof of the new longer length, I got a brown yoga block made of EVA foam and cut it down to size. These blocks happen to have a black stripe, which makes a nice decorative effect. Each block is enough for two roofs for a 5″ x 4″ building, with big extra bits left over. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.) For cutting something like this, I used an Olfa Utility Knife (as recommended by Jeremy of Black Magic Craft.)

Roof and long upstairs side wall pieces cut from yoga block and gym mats, respectively, with texture added. (I used Mel The Terrain Tutor’s technique for a good thatch pattern and used a toothpick to score the foam. That turned out pretty subtle later and in future I’ll try instead very shallow blade cuts before heat sealing.)

Since the EVA foam doesn’t require priming, I can move straight on to painting. For this I roughly followed the excellent color advice and order of operations from Dwarven Forge, with two big changes:
• These aren’t lovely DF sculpts; you won’t get as much instant effect from drybrushing and may have to do a little more painting to get your finished effect.
• Cheap craft paint works fine on EVA foam; an inexpensive assortment like these Apple Barrel paints will get you through a lot of projects. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.)

It’s not perfect, but I am very pleased with the results of this first experiment with EVA foam. I’m looking forward to the day I can replace these with real pieces of Dwarvenite, but until then I’ve got a lot more building options available to me.

EVA foam pieces in this picture, floors and side walls of middle and top stories of building in foreground and its roof, shop front wall insert of rear building at right, extended floor of stone building in center rear, and bonus stealth use of the bumpy side of floor mat foam to fill in background brickwork at top right. (I made the other side of that narrow leftover piece wood-textured so it could serve as a plank sidewalk, dock, or wood deck.) (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)
In this image you can see that it’s not hard to use craft paints to blend in with your Dwarven Forge pieces. You can also see that some trimming and fine-tuning will be needed to the new custom wall lengths so that they aren’t pushing the corner posts outward. As it is it’s suggesting the hand-hewn nature of this architecture perhaps a touch too well. That quick-and-dirty yoga block thatch roof turned out pretty good, I think! Since I bet people will ask, the wagon turning the corner away from us is a Keebler collectible I picked up on eBay, beautifully painted and weathered for me by my artist friend Terrance Graven to fit better in a low-fantasy setting. (Photograph by me, Dinah Sanders)

Whatever shop style we choose, it’s worth remembering that it almost certainly exists in the wider context of temporary market stalls, herded groups of animals, wandering mongers with trays, and all manner of people trading from wagons, baskets, and goods they carry on their backs. Have fun filling in lots of less formal commerce activity!

Detail from Thomas de Saluces, Le Chevalier errant published at the start of the 15th century.

For much more detail on markets as public spaces, primarily from an architectural and current civic space design viewpoint but with many historical notes and illustrations, see The Marketplace: Bringing Back the Public Space Inside the Market by Andreea Tron (2016)

Dipping Your Toes Into Dwarven Forge

image detail from Dwarven Forge Wildlands Kickstarter (copyright Dwarven Forge)

Dwarven Forge makes great, super-sturdy terrain. It’s the best combination of aesthetics and durability out there. It will last, so it’s a good investment as a gamemaster who wants to liven up their play table (whether in person or when playing remotely), but it isn’t cheap.

If you are a person with good self-control who is willing to wait a long time for the goods to arrive, backing their Kickstarters is a great way to get pieces at a better price. Backers pay less than they would later in the store.

Their current Kickstarter, Wildlands, closes on September 2, 2020. I will use it to illustrate some general things that you may want to consider when deciding where to invest your gaming money. Dwarven Forge is fortunately so experienced at this that the big question to ask before backing any Kickstarter project—”Will they deliver on their promises?”—is a firm Yes. (There’s a good overview of their history in the campaign video.) What else should you be considering?

Continue reading “Dipping Your Toes Into Dwarven Forge”

Ikea TJENA + Dwarven Forge pieces = easy and cheap elevation

Quick and dirty tips time. Tons going on at our house (minor bathroom remodel, yay!) so, though this would be better as a video walkthrough à la Nate, since I do not have a video setup or time to quickly fake one, we’ll be one half step better than the Theater of the Mind: a Medium post with some snaps from my phone.
Dwarven Forge and other 3D terrain lovers, get yourselves the little paper organizer set from Ikea known as TJENA. It’s just the right size to work with Dwarven Forge terrain!

A miniature fighter advances across a raised courtyard, as 4 levels up an archer watches. Underneath it all: black boxes.
The five pieces from the TJENA set provide a rising landscape well-suited to Dwarven Forge terrain.

Piece 1: The Tray

An archer stands behind a wall providing partial cover, guarding a short set of stairs. The wall is a normal dungeon wall pressed against the side of the upside down tray from the Tjena set. The figure stands on a flat terrain tray with a stone pattern. The stairs are a 2x2 floor tile with the stair jacks resting on them by the side of the tray.
The tray is about 2.5 floors high, so it works well in combo with stairs (search for ‘stair jack’ to find sets with these little step pieces) or where a raised area with a railing is desired.
An adventurer stands overlooking a sunken area where the floors have collapsed to reveal water below flowing into caves The pit is the tray rightside up, with a smallwater terrain tray resting inside and cavern and cave pieces creating a jumbled flooded scene.
Flipped, the tray is good for lowered areas, but doesn’t exactly match the grid. To hide any awkward fits, use terrain trays or bank pieces or ledges to create an overhang.

Piece 2: Low Square

A guard keeps watch on the roof of a building overlooking a canal. The building ground floor is the low square Tjena piece with a small terrain tray resting on top and passage walls with a 1" wide stone floor forming the canalside path beside a small water tray. There is 4x4 little building creating a second story beside the open part of the roof where the archer stands. Stair jacks on edge form battlements.
Nice for a one story building where the roof is what you’re interested in. (I’m using an old 2″ elevation block to hold up the hidden back end of the stone terrain tray for this shot.)

Piece 3: Medium Square

An archer watches over a winding staircase below her. The high structure she is on is the inverted medium square Tjena with a layer of floor tiles on top. The small terrain tray on its side comes up just below the top of that floor tile.
These work great with small terrain trays on their sides to provide wall texture.

Piece 4: High Square

An archer watches over an even taller winding staircase below her. Again, a Tjena piece with a layer of floor tile provides the vantage point of the archer. It is the height of two elevation blocks, a 1x2 stair, and a stairjack. The black side of the box is fully visible but looks fine surrounded by the stone terrain and terrain tray below.
Anyone who tries to get all the way up here sure better like arrows. (Also, yay for the variety of stairs Dwarven Forge has offered over time. Keep ’em comin’.)

Piece 5: The Big Tjena

The archer guards a shorter staircase this time, but I bet she’ll still skewer anyone who tries to get to her up the jumbled stone stairs. The big Tjena in its horizontal position with two  layers of floor tile on top is the same height as a small terrain tray on its side.
A super handy piece. You’d want to reinforce it inside if you were sticking heavy stuff on top, but it takes this big floor on top just fine. Again, works great with a small terrain tray for wall texture. For stair variety, I’ve used whiskey stones for one of their few legitimate purposes: terrain. Useful to keep in your DM ‘mixed bits’ kit; I use ’em all the time to support things, indicate pillars, etc. If you don’t already own some that taste like the inside of your freezer (and bring that sad flavor to your drinks), I bet you know someone who does.
Dwarven Forge floor pieces are used next to the box to indicate its size for game purposes. It does not fit exactly to the grid.
On its edge the big Tjena piece is very tall. With a floor piece on top it’s 35′ in game terms.
Dwarven Forge floor pieces are used next to the box to indicate its size for game purposes. It does not match the grid.
Unfortunately the narrowest side doesn’t match our grid as well, so this should be used on the edge of a build or in a forgiving location in the overall grid.
Dwarven Forge floor pieces are used next to the box to indicate its size for game purposes. It does not match the grid but through the use of a passage wall butted against it so that the floor of the wall is on the grid, it's fine.
When the big Tjena is on its side, the short edge is a bit easier to work into a grid.

Okay, dungeonmasters, hie thee hence to ye olde Ikea and start blowing your players minds with more multi-level builds!

p.s. I bet the GRÅSIDAN set from Ikea would work even better, all being 2″ tall, but I haven’t gotten one to play with yet.
— — —
As of late August 2019 I have gotten to try the GRÅSIDAN pieces and they’re great!

A Dwarvenforge wall+floor corner piece sits beside a GRÅSIDAN paper tray turned upside down. They are the same height.

“But, Dinah,” I hear you cry, “where will I store all these pieces?”

😉 That’s the life changing magic of tidying up… Flip them over and Konmari your drawers!

A drawer holding rows of neatly rolled socks, which are held in place in a hidden paper tray.

Now doesn’t a stealth roll like that spark joy?


(The original version of this post was published on Medium in July 2019 as part of “D DMs D&D”)

Using maps, minis, and terrain

I’m not pure theater-of-the-mind; I still do like to use miniatures and grid maps to help understand lines of sight, spell effects, etc. I find these help me create more complex situations in which the players can get immersed.

I worried at first using 3D terrain would reduce their engagement, but photos by my players like this let me know they’re being transported.

A photo taken low down near the table looking over the shoulder of a miniature of a dragonborn paladin wielding a sword as he prepares to enter an eerily lit stone tomb. In the background can be seen another player getting in low with their camera to take a picture.
(photo by Lance Arthur)

Now that I’ve made the investment, I’m often using elaborate miniature setups like that pictured above, and in a less character-centric perspective here:

A view down a table with a multi-room tomb laid out with 3D terrain tiles resting on an erasable gridded mat. Beyond the entry hall and first room, through an archway, miniature figures can be seen in a room with an open sepulcher gathered around a closed one. In the background is a stone shrine with a dagger on it which has moved aside to reveal a chamber beyond lit by green and gold lights.
(photo by Terrance Graven)

However, I don’t always use the 3D terrain. In the photo below you can see how I’m combining 2D and 3D pieces to amplify the feeling of a cave environment.

I want the organic intricacy of the cave space to come through, so I’m using a great set of paper map tiles from Paizo. But I also want the players to feel the closed-in solidity, so I’ve built the entrance and exit with Dwarvenforge terrain.

An erasable 1" grid mat is on  table, sitting atop it in the center are color map cards with a view of above of a cave area. At the top and bottom edge, connecting to the cave map, are pieces of 3D terrain which extend the map. Miniature figures of stalagmites and characters are placed on the map.
(photo by Dinah Sanders)

Notice above how I’ve placed a couple 3D stalagmites on top of those drawn on the 2D map. This really helps to give the immediate sense of the ratman peeking out at them from partial cover.

Though this was intended as a non-combat encounter, I was ready for it to become a fight. That’s part of why I built out the exit from the room to show where reinforcing ratfolk would enter and take cover in corners.

I hope that picture also illustrates how investing in even a few 3D terrain pieces can make a big difference.

I recommend your first investment in 3D pieces (whether you buy them or craft them yourself) be these cave pedestals (or something like them):

You can use them in combo with your 2D maps or even without a map to help clarify a complex combat or visibility situation. “I don’t understand. Why can’t I peek around the corner, across the hall, and into that other doorway?”

The pedestal blocks shown below are also super helpful to illustrate vertical situations.

A dry-erase mat with a 1" grid has a small room drawn on it and a group of miniatures standing in the space. One edge has two blocks which look like rough cave stone stacked to be about two and a half times the height of the miniatures. One mini is balanced on the shoulders of two others and it is clear that they would not be able to reach the lip of the raised column unless the ones supporting her hoisted her higher, lifting her up from under her feet.
(photo by Fred von Lohmann)

Here is the party in a small room (which I drew on a dungeon tile grid just before the players got to my house and set aside until we got to this puzzle).

I told them, “The room has a 20′ ceiling, but on one wall the top 5′ are open.” Their challenge was how to get somebody up those 15′ to get into a treasure room once hidden behind a long-gone tapestry.

  • Rhogar metal mini is from HeroForge, I think
  • 3D terrain is all from Dwarven Forge (as is the ratman mini). Be sure you’re buying painted; they do a fantastic job.
  • The paper map tiles are from Paizo (who also make really great big maps with tons of detail, which I’ve used a lot in the past and will be using again):
  • The dry erase dungeon tiles are made by Role 4 Initiative and I think I bought them at our lovely local game store, Gamescape. You should buy local whenever possible to help keep gaming alive; local shops are where many people first play. When I visit a shop and don’t find anything else I want, I try to buy a set of dice or something small and useful like that to help keep the business going.
  • The other minis are from various sources. I am always visiting game shops in cities I travel to and checking for painted plastic minis. Alas, so many are sold in random packs now that for monsters I often buy used to be sure I’m getting exactly what I need. Cool Stuff, Inc. is a good source:
  • The big vinyl mat under all this I probably also bought at a game shop. It has 1″ grid on one side and hex map on the other (tho’ I never use that side). I wish someone would make a vinyl mat that was greenish-tan on one side and stone gray on the other, to be a better place setting for wilderness and city/dungeon adventuring.
  • The nice wooden dice tower, dice tray, and storage box you can see in the background is from Wyrmwood, who make absolutely beautiful stuff.
  • In the background of the last shot you can see the top of my little wheeled cabinet of drawers. This fits in our back room most of the time, but on D&D night I roll it out next to my chair. It’s a huge boon for a DM as you can keep everything you’ll need handy in it and it provides a space for you to put your drink out of the danger zone of your dice rolling and gesticulating. The top drawer has stuff I use almost every game like our initiative order tracker, condition markers, some of the players minis, my pencil and eraser, small paper cards for passing notes to players, etc. The drawers below that I keep empty and set up before each game with the NPC/monster minis and terrain I expect to need. The bottom drawers have my miniatures sorted into broad categories like “NPC/hero/villager types”, undead, goblinoids, beasts, etc. [You can buy the same cabinet here: but as of August 2020 I no longer recommend it. If you put anything at all heavy in it, including a drawer full of papers and softcover rulebooks, the sides bow outward eventually and then the drawers start falling out of their tracks. Cheap turned out to be too cheap. It’d be fine for underwear or lightweight crafts or something though. I recommend also getting some lining for the drawers so minis don’t get chipped as you roll the cabinet (I didn’t stick it down, just cut it into pieces to drape across the inside of each drawer) The caster wheels that come with the cabinet are cheap plastic and will break within six months if my experience rolling over carpet is typical. Assemble it with sturdy ones instead. I got my ball caster wheels at the local hardware store (shop local when you can!) and they look a little like these: ]

(The original version of this post was published on Medium in December 2018 as part of “D DMs D&D”)

Grow • Connect • Explore • Unlock • Share

(posted on the Kabalor Patreon July 30, 2020)

Thank you to all my playtesters and others who have given feedback so far! It’s been hugely valuable and is helping me to make the game’s rules match the stories that the Kabalor world is built to tell.

What has become clear through play—particularly in my non-combat Thursday night campaign, but also in my storytelling-heavy Monday night campaign which does have combat—is that the core action themes underlying the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules are deeply rooted in conflict and conquest. D&D’s big character action areas are Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard.

Those patterns are woven throughout D&D, even in places where they shouldn’t matter. The example which tipped the scales for me was the Identify spell. I hadn’t noticed, when I was thinking of it as something that many Bakani folk would learn in their Arcana training, that the spell’s components require the caster to own a pearl worth at least 100 gps. 1 gold piece = 10 silver pieces = 100 copper pieces. A chicken costs 2 copper pieces. So you need something that costs the same as 5,000 chickens.

In Medieval England around 1300, according to this site, a chicken (hen) cost 1.5-2 pennies. An agricultural laborer might earn about 4 pennies per day, according to Table I here reflecting records from the estates of the bishops of Winchester. (That same source describes artisans in industrial centers—such as carpenters, masons or thatchers—earning a bit less, more like 3 pennies per day.) Extrapolating, we could say that an agricultural laborer in the world of D&D would earn 4 copper pieces a day, thus a character of poor means would need their entire wages for nearly 7 years to afford that spell component. But no worker can live and devote their whole income to savings. Let’s say our character of poor means is very lucky and very determined and saves 10% of their income. They would probably not be able to afford this in a lifetime’s work.

One “solution” is to say that none of the characters are poor, but that denies a huge number of people from seeing someone like them represented in the game, as well as blocking off a whole section of exciting stories. If you’ve got local folk heroes as potential character backgrounds, you need to represent low-income characters in the game.

4 copper pieces per day is only 20% of the 2 sp per day paid to an Untrained Hireling as listed in Chapter 5 of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, but even if we decide that chickens cost the same as our example historical agricultural economies but wages are somehow five times higher in our D&D worlds, it’s still well over a decade’s savings for one spell component for one first level spell. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

The only thing that makes it work is if there is a method outside the normal economy by which the characters are achieving exceptional wealth. In D&D that method is killing “others” and taking their stuff. If you want a game, though, where “otherness” doesn’t make it OK for someone to kill you and loot your home, D&D’s infrastructure begins to unravel.

Thus comes the question, “OK, so if D&D doesn’t let you get away from the ‘Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard’ paradigm, what are Kabalor’s main character action areas?”

The answer is:






Supporting those core themes means that Kabalor needs to be an independent RPG, not a supplement to D&D. It doesn’t have to be as mechanically complex as D&D; it doesn’t have to have conflict assumed from the ground up; and it doesn’t have to do things the same way. Kabalor can be a lot easier to learn and players can have a lot more involvement in the story arc of their characters.

So that’s what I’ve been up to: creating a completely independent, original game driven by those core themes. I’ve also been incorporating player feedback and making the world easier to engage with by merging down the number of peoples from 15 to 9 and the number of Eminences from 51 to 27. As you can imagine, this is going to change most of the content I’ve already shared in the Kabalor Patreon, but definitely for the better.

Since I’ll be updating all the Kabalor content, it’s a good time to solve the limitations of Patreon’s interface for sharing information. My goal is a Kabalor website with all the rules and essential supporting information, and for the Kabalor Patreon to provide a means for people to support that work, to receive early access to new information, and for GMs to get access to special content such as detailed non-player characters, locations, and adventures.

Lots to come as I prepare a new set of playtest rules for the independent game of Kabalor! For the moment, I’ll leave you with this overview of how the gameplay supports the core themes.

Kabalor is a tabletop roleplaying game focused on collaborative storytelling of characters who grow into their unique selves, connect and become a team, explore and expand their horizons, unlock new skills and possibilities, and share to make the world a better place for themselves and others.

This is a world born of creativity and the players unfold their character’s story within that expansive space. The game encourages positive connections not only between the players, but between the characters and the world.

Play in Kabalor enables players to:

  • grow as creative and unique storytellers
  • connect emotionally to themselves and others
  • explore fantasies beyond the ones which have been packaged for them in media and other games in the past
  • unlock new ways of being
  • give and receive support from those with whom they share their game

Your character in Kabalor will also grow, connect, explore, unlock, and share. Characters:

  • grow into their unique selves, gaining and improving skills
  • become a team and connect with other people in the game world
  • learn about the world and expand their horizons
  • increase the options and possibilities for themselves and others
  • make the world a better place for others beyond the character and their team

All this takes place in an expansive, original fantasy world ready to support your best fun!

Thank you for your support!