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! 💖

Location: the large town of Tunnelton

view of a miniature landscape: a cobbled road leads up the center to an area of stone and wood buildings, mostly with peaked roofs, and then through a tunnel under a craggy mountain. In the foreground is a three-story half-timbered building with a wagon and horses in the street on one side and a brick plaza on the other. The left and right areas before the buildings by the mountain are forested with a variety of trees.
View of Tunnelton from the south. The inn at the crossroads is known for good bard shows and dancing, as well as its fine top floor deck view of the tunnel entrance.

The northernmost town of the Nymion culture is Tunnelton. It is located on the northwest flank of the sacred Twin Mountains and is built around both ends of an amazing natural tunnel below a high, ridged section of the hardest stone. A cave of softer material underneath slowly eroded over centuries and was then respectfully shaped by the Nymioni into a passageway large enough for the tallest wagons. A good cobbled road now runs through it with sidewalks on both sides.

The town is built into each end of the tunnel with the majority of the residential area on the north end where there is more farmland, but the south featuring several strong attractions. The first is the excellent three-story Huzzon-style building at the northward turning, The Silver Reed Inn. The ground floor offers both a cookshop for hot foods and a general store for fresh produce and crafted things. Rooms to stay in can be rented on the middle and top floors. The upstairs deck, with its bright ceramic statue of a happy, striped beast drinking from a large bowl, has a great view of the southern part of the town and the tunnel entrance. It also overlooks the expansive patio which hosts bardic performances and dancing.

A three-story half-timbered building with a thatch roof stands beside a cobbled road. A loaded wagon drawn by two sturdy horses is parked outside where two people are trading, watched by the wagon-owner's dog. In the distance the road leads toward a town built into the face of a mountain.
The Silver Reed Inn rises over the crossroad leading to Tunnelton.

The Silver Reed Inn gets its name from a local legend of an underground lake hidden within the mountain, secreted away from prying eyes. Wild magic is said to imbue the herbs and other plants there with unusual abilities. The clear, cold pool lit by the phosphorescent cave mosses is ringed with tall, shining stalks, the silver reeds of the inn’s name. Bards and musicians who visit always check the pond nearby for reeds which have flowed out of the mountain. Those reeds allegedly make the best woodwind music, which can sway the reticence of even the most stubborn mule.

Travelers with horses, oxen, or other livestock should note the convenient alley beside the inn which adjoins that watering pond of fresh outflow from the mountains. Just look for the domed stone roof of the water tower which has the outflow at its base. Your beasts may not become musically or magically inspired, but it’s good healthy water for them regardless.

Water flows out of an archway into a pond. Above the archway is built a square mossy structure with concave sides and a domed stone roof. in the distance is a town square with a couple saddled horses tied to a hitching post.
The cold, clean outflow of mountain water, a supply of which is stored above in the tower and piped to the horse trough at the stable opposite the Bull Smithy.

The second attraction in this side of town is the greater access to southern goods and travelers. The region north, beyond Tunnelton, is that of the Four-Horns Huzzoni. Excellent for farm-goods and source of some of the best oxen, but not for the cloth and thread of the First Davuri, the pottery and plaster of the Gatekeep Nymioni, or the artwork of the First Nymioni. Traders bound not through the tunnel, but northeast through the edge of the Four-Horns Huzzoni area and on to the coastal settlements of the Festival Shafori at the Inland Sea will often lighten their load by trading statuary here in southern Tunnelton, their last chance at the lucrative Nymion market for such goods.

After passing the Silver Reed Inn and paying your respects at the shrines to The Memory Palace, The Masked Ball, and The Loom, you will see examples of the fine statue collection of the residents here. Most are not for trade, but it doesn’t hurt to inquire if you are interested in a piece.

A cobbled road transitions up via a rough stone slope to a flagstone plaza, then up another rough slope to a cobblestone town square surrounded by buildings with a mountainside in the background. Beside the bottom slope are two stone shrines. The left one has small bottles and bowls. The right one has a metal frame which holds a fabric hanging.
Wagon ramps taking you from the lower levels into the mountains are lined with shrines and statues.

This southern side of Tunnelton is a popular regional meeting place for scholars interested in the arcane. Local arcanists have a meeting room and private library in the building between the stables and the water tower, and use the flat roof for outdoor experiments. Spellcasters passing through are encouraged to visit and exchange knowledge.

An aerial view of a town square in which a closed wagon or carriage drawn by two horses is beginning to turn down the road leading into a tunnel under a mountain. On one side of the square is a huge forge where a red-haired and red-skinned person is working at an anvil. Behind them is a building with a wide arched opening and a tall narrow tower ending in a soot-stained vent and peaked top. At the right-side of the square, atop a small building, a group of four people are gathered around a table, with various objects resting on the cornerposts of the railings of its roof deck.

The third attraction is the Bull Smithy which has a staff representing all types of metalworking and also does smelting. They serve a wide area and produce quality goods which are traded even farther. The stables opposite the smithy, in addition to shoeing horses, have leathercrafters on site making and repairing bridles, reins, stirrups, and other stable gear. (Note that since a retirement, the wheelwrights are somewhat inconveniently all located on the north end of the tunnel.)

A closer view of the closed wagon or carriage heading into the tunnel and the smith at the anvil. The buildings opposite the smith have closed double doors and the stone and plants of the mountainside are visible behind the roofs of those buildings.
The Bull Smithy with its double anvils at the south end of the tunnel. As you enter the tunnel you can only just see the glimmer of light where you’ll emerge to the north.

Whether your travels are taking you to the main part of Tunnelton or you’re passing the crossroads by the Silver Reed Inn, the southern part of Tunnelton is well worth a visit.

~~~

(Thanks to Lance Arthur for his help getting the build started and the history of the Silver Reed Inn, to Nathan Anderson for a public domain image used as a base layer near the caves on the left side of the build, and Simon Burchell for the CC A-SA image used as the view down the tunnel.)

Building the build: Waterborn

First off a huge thank you to my Patreon supporters, players, and community friends who encourage me to tell stories, create worlds, and make games! 💖

It was such a delight to get to take over my big table for two weeks to make, document, and enjoy the Waterborn build. If you can add a cafe table into your home, I strongly encourage it. Sometimes it’s the little game table that doesn’t interfere with dining, but sometimes it takes all table duties for a while as something big and wonderful happens.

My June 2022 build served many purposes:

  • the setting for June playtests of Our Magic
  • first big test of my new terrain organizational system (spoiler: great success!)
  • first build since my Dwarven Forge Wildlands pledge arrived
  • illustration for world-building blog post
  • relief from ongoing situation of not getting to actually travel much because of the pandemic
  • giving me a chance to document my build process in detail
  • just dang fun

For the playtest I wanted to feature the Nymion and Davur cultures. I knew I had the pieces I would need to build multiple buildings of their cultural style. The most logical place that draws on both is the point where the Mirror Nymioni and First Nymioni regions adjoin, which is at the base of major mountains where they transition down to fertile plains. So, I needed stone elevation, a variety of trees reinforcing the idea of elevation changes and an expanse of green suggestive of a transition toward farmland. But, because I don’t have any actual farmed field pieces, not the farms themselves.

To emphasize the elevation and play with big new pieces, I decided to feature a waterfall from the mountain and to make it the start of a river.

A dining table, in a corner, covered with terrain trays of various colors, one of the new Dwarven Forge Wildlands textured water mats, and some paper mats from Paizo. Extra terrain trays rest on the seat of the chair beside the table and the artist's portfolio from which the non-terrain tray flat items came leans against the wall.
color-blocking the plan with flat pieces

I placed some of my sturdy steel DIY terrain trays along the side edge to help avoid any shifting or slumping in the slight gap there (caused by the trim board at the base of the wall). The waterfall base and river are a tour of the eras of Dwarven Forge water surfaces. I love the new Wildlands one so much, though, that I’ll get at least one more of those when and if the chance comes.

At the top right I placed those dirt textures with the intention of showing a typical Kabalor road, with two lanes separated by useful trees from which travelers can gather fruit, nuts, or sticks. The outer edges tend to be field boundaries, which sometimes have trade points where items can be left when picking up produce or stones cleared from the field. But it wasn’t much farther along at all that I remembered I don’t have fruit trees as such and that indicating the cart lanes would take so many of my bank pieces that I might not be able to suggest the river edge and the transition to the settlement in the way I was hoping. The road wouldn’t be in this build.

blocking in the raised terrain, waterfall, and bridge

In the corner is the classic Dwarven Forge big riser / box piece, atop and around which I fiddled around with risers, embankments, and (because I didn’t intend to use them later) Con-Cave Escarpments to create the appropriate height to support the layers of the waterfall. The waterfall pieces are translucent, so I used a water terrain tray under them.

You can see on the right side side of the table the old cave water outflows which I brought out just in case they might be useful, but which didn’t fit in and so weren’t used on this build.

Note here how completely perfect the Tiered Straight Cliff (piece ER-701) is as a base for the old style waterfall pieces from the Wicked Cavern Pack:

tiered waterfall using very old and very new Dwarven Forge pieces

In my builds I find there’s one feature that takes some puzzling to get properly placed, and once it’s in, then the rest flows from there, either through what it inspires, or the issues it creates which need to be covered up. For this build it was the waterfall.

It’s at this stage a problem that plagued me for the rest of the build is easy to see. I thought if I gave my base layer a little forward extension off the front of the table, it would be helpful for photography. But I didn’t realize, even as I was having to contort myself not to bend that paper Paizo map corner, that I couldn’t comfortably reach the back of the table. This turned out not to be a short-term waterfall building issue, but a hassle for the entire build. Test your reach at the very start.

I also noticed on that paper Paizo mat’s illustration a great place where there could be a worn down area by the end of the bridge, and that is why the bridge was initially positioned there. A little muddy spot where animals balk before being led over the bridge. 😃 Little moments like this are such a pleasure in doing a build, even if the story changes later.

One thing I did do right at this stage was bring out the little cup of greenery inserts for the small square cutouts in the Escarpment pieces. Popping these in before placing the pieces definitely was the easiest way to do it and helped the look of the build more than you’d expect for their size. (I actually left these in for storage since I rarely if ever expect to use those square cutout holes.)

Four minutes after the shot of the table above, the whole waterfall structure is in place.

the core of the high terrain is figured out

By now I am working from specific terrain trays, with one with lots of Embankment pieces seen on the chair beside the table.

A key part of the mountain area is that it is the connection to the rest of the Mirror Nymion region, so there needs to be a trail. The new Wildlands Winding Stair Escarpments Left and Right are perfect with the Mountain Jumpy Stone as a bridging piece and various other small bits filling in the top left of the lower stairs piece.

I’ll have some funny holes to cover up, but I like the look of this trail.

Over the course of that evening I made little bits of further progress in between other activities. Extending the uplands was fairly obvious at the start—get the most wooded area of tree stumps in there—but then I found myself with some puzzling to do about how to bring the leading edge down to the riverbank while leaving myself enough big Escarpment pieces to cover some of the back (north) of the build.

hmm, okay, okay, getting there but not there yet…

Cleaning up the edges and committing to that raised section of forest clearing at the front left helped, so that 15 minutes later I could see that I would be able to make this work, but not quite how yet.

So many problems still to solve.

Knowing I had a limited number of Embankment pieces I began a series of experiments, feeling my way along the northern border—all stretched on my tiptoes to place the pieces and having to make sure I didn’t lift the terrain tray with those big magnets if I moved something. Awkward. My regret for the extended front edge was firmly in place, but I was so pleased with the waterfall I didn’t want to take it apart and start over to fix the problem. So another hour and a half later—probably with a break in there to rest my feet but also with a lot of back and forth—I had something that was finally starting to look decent.

The river’s course begins to reveal itself.

I was ill for a few days then and so it was four days later before I felt well enough to return to the build. I worked on the north half of the cascade from forest to riverbank and lots of clean-up along the upland edge in the foreground. Plus I fit in a few conifer trees to see which problem areas on the mountain I could cover that way. And I puzzled back and forth until I got a good workable base for something beside the waterfall. Definitely took some reworking to make the best use of my remaining Escarpment pieces.

using an Ikea GRÅSIDAN paper storage box for elevation in the center background; thinking about building windows with the sides of the Bridge of Valor in the foreground

It felt so nice to get into a delightful flow state, laying the river edges. I LOVE negative space builds! Get yourself some banks and you’ll be a happier builder.

Working with banks also helps to sort out ideas from earlier in the build. Now that the logical trail through the forest to the mountain trail was obvious, I could see that the bridge needed to move upstream. That encouraged me to shift the land on the other side of the river to the east, making the river widen as it left the mountain and creating a sense of it slowing into a calmer form (outside of its flood season).

I also figured out that the Nymion building on the stony part of the build would be a Magic School. So I finished the rocky plateau at the waterfall base and built that.

It was 12:30am, but a great place to end the night.

The next morning, the day before the playtest where I planned to use an image of the build to set the scene, I kept my priorities in order in the morning and finished up the rest of the essential playtest prep. After lunch I fit in a little area definition work on the build and the land began to look more realistic.

Worth remembering that Titanstooth Base has protruding pieces that can be used in combination with pieces on the level below to soften a straight edge, as I’m doing in the left foreground here.

Without the trees in place you can clearly see the forest trail that goes through the Cave Mouth piece (here used just as an arch) and onward to the base of the winding stairs up the mountain.

Many seams coming together creates some challenges in how to minimize the unreality. Here’s an example of mixing Edge, Bank, and Scatter pieces to help the eye focus on details of landscape rather than construction:

My one disappointment with Wildlands is with the teardrop inserts (and I have little doubt Dwarven Forge feels the same). Their plan for these to fit in place was good and the prototypes they showed looked great, but the problems of production during a pandemic and global shipping crisis just kept this quality control issue from being solvable. I won’t buy more of the pieces with these cutouts and will remember I need to use the ones I have only in good spots for dropping a hedge, big boulder, tree base, or similar disguising piece. On the bright side, the inserts themselves are handy as larger flat boulders or soggy swamp hummocks (depending on their style).

As I hoped, though, the Wildlands pieces blend extremely well with my existing collection. And support my general style of making it look more natural by mixing things together.

a Wildlands (Kickstarter 7) piece on a terrain tray atop an old resin cavern piece next to a Dreadhollow forest escarpment atop Dungeon ledges and Cavern banks with a Wildlands mossy rock mound breaking up a straight edge

I got pretty sneaky with my little cliff ledges over by the waterfall too, hiding a hole and breaking up an edge by tilting one on its side so the points stick up next to the cavern bank I’m using there.

By 6pm the day before my playtest, the left side of my build was pretty well blocked out and the right, where I intended to locate buildings in a field was looking quite manageable.

By 11:17pm, having done other things in much of the evening, I’d positioned the buildings:

“Where the hell are the light colored building tops?” (Finally found ’em on my painting desk. I’m glad I hadn’t gotten to giving them metal caps because the plain stone looks good too.)

Mix of buildings here. The two round, rural buildings on the raised ground at front left are some “primal hut” I got off eBay and a smaller one which was part of the WizKids ‘Jungle Shrine’ set. The one on the low ground is a truly gorgeous resin Iron Age roundhouse from the now gone Steepled Hat Studios. Wish I’d found their beautiful stuff before their final sales. 🥲

In the back is a Dwarven Forge stone City Builder house (using the special double posts to make it wide). The round stone Davur houses on the other side of the river are small and large DF towers, mostly, though one of them has a ground floor made out of four curved resin dungeon walls pushed together.

Kinda sneaky placement on that front farm/smithy building to break up the grassy / marshy transition.

Knowing it’d be easier to see and work with minor structural details before the trees were in, when I got up in the morning I jumped into figuring out the main pieces around the buildings and along the perimeter by the (real) wall behind them. I’m working from the principle that the wind comes off the mountain when its coldest, so many buildings have a partial wall behind which animals can shelter—a great use for ruined wall segments.

Using the pond to break up the lines of another terrain mat transition in the right foreground.

I’m very pleased about how the bramble hedge helps with the back line of the build. Liked that enough to order another set of them.

Even with just a few trees and some edges the rising ground is looking much more acceptable, and most all of the scatter hasn’t even come out yet.

I took a close shot of how I made those cool stairs to the second floor of the public house partly for you, dear reader, but also so I would be able to build them again if I’m back in a Davur area that has flooding.

One thing that’s great at this stage of a build is how a part of your brain begins running around down in the world you’re making, sheltering in the curve of the stairs as you shoulder your pack for the walk ahead, wishing you were still up in that warm and jovial second floor room, instead of about to crunch across the first hard frost.

Having created a local architectural style, I created a similar but less grand version for the house just to the west.

That stair jack is just balanced up there, but it looks OK.

There’s a shrine here too, but I forgot to mention it in my writeup. It’s to The Stronghold, a patron particularly of Nymioni, but of interest to anyone hoping to hold up against bad weather.

I don’t actually own enough ‘small curved wall with a door in it’ pieces, so I did a sly little thing using a Dungeon Vaulted Door Corner Wall. Didn’t worry about how to do the porch yet since I wasn’t sure what would be in front of the building if anything.

12 more minutes was enough time to swap the tray I was working from, bring out the trees, put root extensions into the water, and start roughing out which trees go where. Always better to do this by setting them down rather than fitting them on the bases since something always changes by the end.

Through the middle of the day I kept swinging back to do a bit more tree assembly between finishing up any non-build-related playtest prep.

The build is getting closer to usable after I found the roof tops for the light colored buildings and added edges to soften the back right corner of the build.

That yellow roof, though, is just unacceptable. It’s not haying season and even then it shouldn’t be that yellow.

70 minutes before time to open Zoom for my playtest and I solved that problem.

One hour of frenetic activity and I was able to finish the build in time to take the photos five minutes before game. My new storage system made this work beautifully. With the trees on the table, only a few other trays needed to come out to be drawn from. It was super easy to have the tray beside the table, pick and place, then swap that tray back onto its shelf for the next one.

fences, farm animals, the smithy’s outdoor shop and anvil, lampposts, residents, the sign of The Rosy Pot; everything came together.
bushes and boulders, plants and pets; the little details give the eye so much to enjoy
boats and bridge rails, and whoops gaps in tree trunks noticed later

New rule: no placing trees without looking at them edge on to make sure the trunks don’t have gaps. Of course it would be the conifer delicately balanced in the hardest to reach spot on the build! The fix for that at this point is to take photos from a slightly different angle.

the finished build from the side

Lesson from that last picture is to always do something to cover up the ends of elevation if I can, otherwise I’ll need to cover them with a label on the photo in the world building blog post. Photos aren’t going to have gap-hiding curved edges unless I make them in photo-editing software.

Even with a rush at the end I did not find I needed to go back to do any other additions after the playtest. The storage system did a great job letting me work fast when I needed to and still achieve a great build.

In those couple minutes before the players joined I duplicated a couple shots, cropped them down, and was able to use them as my Zoom background and to show players where the story was taking place. The visual helped them lean into character creation in a new game and a new world with a lot more confidence.

When it came time to clean up the build a week and a half later, my storage system again showed its value. Working from the last to the first this time, I would bring out a tray, put into it what belonged there, and put it away on its shelf.

One big improvement that came up during this build cycle was realizing it was hard to remember which trays fit on which shelf when I had multiple trays pulled at once, so I added numbers to the trays and the shelves. Much simpler now!

I’m very pleased with my Wildlands investment. The variety of trees, ground, water, and rock, plus the many ways to work from negative builds over flat terrain or atop other terrain are going to let me illustrate lots of places I hope to show.

Along with deciding to get more of the bramble hedge (unpainted) for its fabulous back-edge-of-build properties, I decided one more Large Tree Pack (painted, for consistency) would give me the lushness of forest I’ll need for some other builds I have in mind. Having seen how well the small round buildings work, I also am getting one more Small Tower Roofs Pack (unpainted, to make it light stone color). And this build demonstrated to me once again that you can never have enough lumpy little boulders, so I’m getting the Mountain Rock Scatter Pack (unpainted).

an hour of clean-up in, with the completed trays in their proper storage spot

I didn’t track exactly how much time the rest of the putting away took, but it was entirely reasonable compared to the old nightmare of putting stuff away then realizing something else that should go with it, but doesn’t quite fit and rearranging, ad infinitum.

Is the system perfect? No. But look at how little stuff got missed from being packed into its proper tray:

having a few extra trays is very handy

In future I won’t do a full build breakdown like this, instead just featuring tricky problems and how I solved them, interesting piece combinations, or other things that are distinctive about the build. (Though next time I will do a little extra documentation of the post-trees part of the building since I was rushed this time.)

The build has been extremely well received and I’m very grateful to everyone who has shared their thoughts and questions! It’s really encouraging me to start planning another, maybe for the end of July or mid-August.

As someone who does not draw well, it’s great to have this way to illustrate my worldbuilding and share it with the world.

And, yes, I had a fabulous time doing this build! It was a joy to make and to live with for its time in my place. Every time I passed through the main room of my apartment I took a little trip to Waterborn with its lovely waterfall.

Organizing My Terrain Collection

Two labeled, white plastic trays pulled forward from a cabinet to reveal their contents—tiny braziers and pillars, shop goods and boats—with a shelf between holding bins of modular pieces of tiny trees.
A place for everything and everything in its place makes setup easy, even with a big collection of lots of tiny items.

I love being a GM. Helping create a world that my players can escape to and adventure in is one of the most fulfilling things I do. So I invest in it pretty hard, and that’s given me a fantastic collection of terrain and minis. I don’t own a car, but if you need a miniature landscape on the table, I’ve got the goods.

I collect the pieces that will help me create wonderful locations for vibrant stories. My world of Kabalor has been years in development and the places in it that I have traveled in my head are vivid to me. I want to evoke them on the table to share that magical mental transport to a whole new world.

So, here’s the thing. I have a lot of terrain. And I just got two more big boxes of it, thanks to the arrival of the main part of my pledge in the Dwarven Forge Wildlands Kickstarter.

It was time to integrate this big chunk of new stuff into my existing collection. As I’ve known was coming since I made the Kickstarter pledge, that meant taking it all out of my cabinets and rearranging it.

But how to organize it? Thus far I have grouped things by biome, so to speak—dungeon, town, cave—but Dwarven Forge is doing a better and better job of making pieces that fit with multiple biomes. Usually now I mix together mountain, forest, and swamp items in a single build, so that categorization no longer makes sense for me. Time for a new system!

Here are the principles I’m following:

  1. Review my to-paint queue and leave space for items soon to be stored. This is especially important for large pieces or sets purchased unpainted.
  2. Support my building process and group things that get used at the same stage of the build. When I build, while I might pull out a couple key pieces that I know I’ll want in the scene, I leave those set to the side until I get the layers below them in place. With this new storage approach I’ll be able to have fewer containers pulled out at the same time since I can put them away as soon as I’m done with that layer.
  • Base Layers: terrain trays, mats, hidden elevation supports.
  • Area Definition: ground surfaces, hills, banks, water areas, escarpments, floors, walls, roads, balconies, bridges, stairs and dais pieces, doors. Also because they are an alternative to stairs: ladders.
  • Buildings and Roofs: structures where the whole building or an entire floor of a building is one piece, roofs.
  • Enticements: treasure, magical objects, altars, macguffins, special effects (e.g. fogger).
  • Obstacles: pillars, statues, braziers, fountains, wells, stalagmites, trees, shrubs, haystacks, boulders, traps, sand dunes/mud flows, hummocks.
  • Scatter: flowers, small plants, logs, small rocks, furniture, shop goods, transport (wagons, boats, etc.), ossuary walls and other bone-based decor, signage, chimneys, window inserts, roof perches, decorative accessories (including pole inserts).
  • Denizens: creatures, people.
A gleaming white cabinet with 5 of the six doors open and revealing densely arranged shelves of labeled white trays. Four shelves have items in bins or a small number of things sitting loose on the shelf.
The main part of my storage solution. Efficiently packed, but kind to the pieces and to myself when I’m trying to find something.
  1. Store the sturdiest, biggest, most irregular pieces in bins for storage efficiency. I’m looking at you, trees.
  2. If a piece type is an “overflow” for another piece type—that is, one I’ll use if I run out of the first type and need more for the build—store them together.
A tray of miniature terrain pieces which are stone floor with attached stone walls, some have pillars along the wall and some don't.
If I run out of one of these, I could fill in with the other.
  1. Store the most delicate, most distinctive pieces in trays so it’s easy to find that one specific item. I love love love the Ikea Kuggis 8 compartment insert and its perfect fit in my Besta cabinets. This is the primary container unit of my storage system.
  2. Store lightweight, thin, flat things in a zippered artist’s portfolio to reduce dust and damage. It’s compact and it’s easy to pull up and out just the one I need. Over time I’ve learned there isn’t a lot of reason to try to file them in a particular order, since no other filing system adapts better to “oh not that one; I used it too recently” than always putting things away at the back of the portfolio. Last on the table goes to the back of the line. I got this one from Amazon back in 2018 and am quite happy with it. (Affiliate link, thank you for your support!) No picture of this as it is tucked between the wall and the legs of my craft table. Handy but out of the way.
  3. Store large, flat, stackable things in stacks, but don’t bury the stack under other stored items. Keep it quick to grab when building.
A white cabinet section with four shelves, two of which have trays and the others have short stacks of flat pieces like ground surfaces and terrain trays.
My additional low-to-the-floor storage for heavy things and some flat items.
  1. Store larger, awkwardly-shaped things in groupings by height to maximize shelf height efficiency and, if that shelf includes more than 7 items, in a tray or on top of a terrain tray to allow the whole group to be drawn out at once and the piece needed extracted from a densely packed assortment.
  2. If it’s a large base layer that might warp over time if not stored flat, store it flat.
  3. If it’s fairly flat, in a tray or bin, and it safely can go on edge, put it on edge to make more space.
A white plastic tray holding pieces on edge which vary in design but are used together. They are about twice the height of the tray, but stored at a slant so that their details can be seen.
Since these sidewalk/road tiles have multiple configurations—alleys, turns, etc.—it’s helpful to be able to flip through them to find the needed piece.
  1. Within groupings, put similar things together—tables together, barrels together, etc.—and if things can’t be put together by kind of object, put them together by function, e.g. LED things that glow, market and shop stuff, wizard’s tower stuff, etc.
  2. Put the heaviest stuff on the bottom shelves. Also, reinforce your Dwarven Forge terrain storage cabinets especially if you’ve got resin items; this stuff weighs a LOT when you pack it in efficiently. I have a row of four Ikea Besta wardrobe cabinets. They are secured to the wall and only the middle two are allowed to hold Dwarven Forge, so that the outer ones can keep those inner verticals from bowing and dropping shelves. (We pause a moment for a deep breath at that horrible horrible thought.)

    In general, this means you can start at the bottom shelf with Base Layers and Area Definition and proceed upward through Obstacles, then Scatter, etc. This has the advantage of having the lightest weight things on the top shelf where it’s easiest to reach up to lift them down.

My process in switching to this system worked well, but did require taking over my living and dining room during the sorting. I pulled everything out of storage and grouped it following the above principles, using temporary containers. (If you happen to have a Gotham Greens salad company serving your area, their lettuce is great and—at least until they change their packaging to something more sustainable—the straight sided plastic containers it comes in are fantastic for all kinds of DIY and craft activities, including terrain sorting. You can see them in the first picture, holding modular tree pieces.)

Once I had my groups, I cleaned the shelves and permanent containers—since they’ll not be empty again for a long time—and once they were fully dry from a damp cloth wipedown, loaded them up.

I loaded from the top of my storage down, which is to say starting with Denizens in my category list. Minis are a lot more compact than terrain and I had them better organized, already in trays as I wanted them. Nice to have a quick win at the start. 😀

To work the shelf supports around the door fixtures I wasn’t able to hold to a completely strict ordering by my categories, but overall the height adjustments didn’t impact things much.

The MacGuffin tray was a lot of fun to put together and a helpful change. I had previously had these items mixed in various trays and now the enticing stuff is in one spot. It’s also at the appropriate place in the build process since I’m going to be setting the focus of the scene before adding the scatter, etc. that surrounds it.

Area Definition items are the bulk of the collection weight, both in numbers and literal weight. This is on the lower shelves, which means that I get the bending and lifting out of the way at the start of a build when I’m feeling fresh and energetic.

The best parts of this adventure in organization? Seeing what an amazing collection I’ve slowly amassed, looking ahead to creating more builds, and, of course, breaking out the label maker. 😁

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: gallica.bnf.fr 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”)