Full-table builds without taking up the whole table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everyone still had room to roll their dice.

The Experimental Zoo, a no-plan build that turned out quite handy

A view through a miniature landscape over the serpent-tentacled head of a Snakecat emerging from under a tree, past another one atop a dirt mound, and on over the scrub and beach to a third which is hunting a horse with water for its mane and tail running away across the tops of the waves. In the blurry distance are other creatures in the unnaturally proximate swamp and mountain cliffs.

Sometimes no plan is the best plan.

Last Thanksgiving, my pal Lance and I celebrated the day by making a gigantic miniature terrain build on my dining table.

We riffed on various ideas and settled on a multi-biome artificial landscape which would be a kind of a zoo. During the build Lance suggested that we were Eminences (the extra-planar, powerful creator beings in Our Magic) who design creatures. We naturally fell into a lovely bit of improv roleplay about how we weren’t entirely satisfied with how some of them were turning out. No problem with the Snakecats, of course, those are great; but wouldn’t the Wavehorse really be better as just a spell rather than a beast?

In the multi-week gap between our making the build and my catching up on some other things I needed to post, I realized that this build actually would be great for something in my Thursday night game. Thus I haven’t been able to share the images until now, when the players have been there.

The characters were approaching 20th level using my heavily home-brewed D&D 5e mechanics. It takes an unreasonable amount of adjustment to make a non-combat game work inside D&D, which was a vital lesson, but we rapidly were nearing the point when I could “graduate” them from that world to a whole new universe and use my new Our Magic rules.

As part of the story, they needed to get advice on how to survive the journey to a new universe. I had set up a lead for them an attendant to the Eminence Creation, a person who had apparently survived the journey to this universe when it was created untold centuries before. What if this person turned out to specialize in the creation of apex predators, and the best place to meet them was at their workspace in another plane?

Lance stands partially in frame carefully angling his phone to take a picture from the point of view of someone on the roof deck of the tower looking out over the landscape. The build fills the six-person dining table, with mountains rising up at the wall end. Trays of other terrain pieces are visible under the table.
Lance gets the point-of-view shot.

They’d found out about this person in an old diary they’d paid dearly to gain access to and between two glued-together pages discovered a hidden magical drawing of a teleportation circle. With that image clear enough for them to use, it was just a matter of taking a step into the unknown. They emerged in a round stone room, with no apparent exits at floor level. They could detect magic—LOTS of magic—but were wary of trying to dispel it. After going upstairs and speaking with a harried person in an office full of extremely odd drawings of various dangerous parts of animal anatomy, they were sent to the roof to wait for their meeting, and were faced with this extraordinary landscape.

Negotiations were made, a natural 20 was rolled, and things turned greatly to their advantage. Before leaving on their journey to the new universe, they wanted to turn the sorcerer’s familiar into a person so that she could carry on their work. It was going to be a tricky process, but between the convenience of being in the magic-rich home of Creation and some assistance thanks to good rolls and prior good deeds, things got much easier.

The only thing I added to the scene that wasn’t originally in the build Lance and I did was a ritual circle between the tower and the levee. The powerful being they consulted returned the overlarge housecat to its component magic potentiality, which charged the ritual circle for the party. They used that to make their bird familiar into a person ally and then, as the predators began to take notice of them, hastily made their getaway.

You never know where a build, even one you think you’re only doing for the sheer fun of building, will take you!

The miniature landscape is unnatural. Immediately beside a rough stone levee is water deep enough for a huge creature with the tail of a shark and the forebody and coloration of a leopard to leap entirely from the water. Scrubby thornbushes suggest a barrier between areas, but the strolling giant housecat on land apparently smashed right through them. In the near distance is a small swamp with mature trees and mountainous cliffs. Various other weirdly incompatible animals populate the landscape.
Looking up the levee to where a Sharkleopard leaps in the water. A 30′ long housecat—unreasonably large—strolls in the scrubby ground near the base of the tower which houses the predator designers’ office.

A visit to a secluded shrine

A lower angle view of the scene. (Tabletop terrain from Dwarven Forge is arranged to create a narrow rocky nook, crowded with trees, plants, roots, and stumps. A procession of people, some carrying baskets, winds through the tangle past the worn standing stone at the bottom of the picture toward the small stone brick shrine at the top. There are pink crystals on the shrine.)

Villagers from Millbake wind their way past the standing stone and through the tangled woods to pay their respects at the shrine of the Eminence Focus.

This ancient, sacred place is associated with earth element magic and the shrine is adorned with a large grouping of beautiful crystals. After the picnic, those who feel brave enough may touch the crystals to see if they receive a blessing (or a challenge). The crystals absorb wild magic from this area and may discharge it in interesting ways…

Tabletop terrain from Dwarven Forge is arranged to create a narrow rocky nook, crowded with trees, plants, roots, and stumps. A procession of people, some carrying baskets, winds through the tangle past the worn standing stone at the bottom of the picture toward the small stone brick shrine at the top. There are pink crystals on the shrine.

I’m enjoying the 12″ x 12″ December build challenge from the Dwarven Forge community on Discord. Definitely not going to get through twelve of them, but I like the constraint of painting a vivid scene in a small footprint.

On the game development front there is lots going on—both my long-standing hybrid game of homebrew and D&D 5e and my playtest game of Our Magic are converging on lots of key world-building decisions for Our Magic. But because some of them are spoilers for the players, I’ll hold off on writing about them for now. Suffice to say I contine to fine-tune and condense the game mechanics and the world details down their most playable form. An ideal mood for honoring Focus!

Tide Pools, a modified paint scheme to create a new biome in Dwarven Forge terrain

Miniature terrain pieces form a seaside landscape in a color scheme of tan, rust, and green with water indicated by gloss on the pieces and a "negative build" using  mats with water images below the pieces. The exposed ground ends in a cliff face. Small animals appear in the landscape, with two people at the top right corner working near a boat.
Low tide at the coast. Time to unload a small boat and sail out again before the tide comes in. Turtles, crabs, rays and other creatures of the coastline forage for food amongst the sprawling bits of kelp.

One of the peoples of Kabalor, the Shafori, are coastline dwellers and I’d been really puzzling about how I was going to illustrate their towns with a build. Dwarven Forge, makers of the excellent miniature terrain I use, has dungeons, caverns, cities, castles, hellscapes, forests, mountains, and swamps, but no beachside biomes.

I realized, looking at the pieces, that the cavern sculpts could be adapted for a low tide look, converting slow drips of limestone to draped kelp and anemones. It took me a while to go from idea to implementation, though, as this is a very big paint scheme. Many steps and lots and lots of detail work. But I love the result! This will work for tide pools, riverbanks, and even somewhat muddy caves.

A detail of the low tide landscape showing the pieces more closely. It reveals the gloss added to indicate wet areas and a tiny crab placed beside one of the pieces.
Odd light reflection in this one caused the cliffs to look much more white than they actually are, but the other colors are accurate. The mats underneath the build are from Mats By Mars. The tiny crabs and turtles are metal jewelry charms.

The big lesson from this project is that doing test pieces works. I worked out the scheme on four varied pieces and kept those around a while to confirm I really liked them (and a couple color adjustments I wanted to make) before I tackled the full project, assembly line style. It got fairly dull at points; it’s about 50 or 60 individual pieces to do each step on, but the end result is really fabulous. Along the way, I completely caught up with all the channels I subscribe to on YouTube and made progress in a couple audio books. 😆

The reaction to the paint scheme in the Dwarven Forge community on Discord was really nice. Lovely folks. Great to get cheered after crossing the finish line of something that has been gracing my craft table for a couple months!

Another detail of the low tide landscape, in which animal miniatures are tucked in a few places. In the "deeper water" indicated by the mat protruding below the pieces a little black rubber manta ray swims into the bottom frame of the picture.
Always check the tiny plastic animals bins in toy stores and kids museum’s shops; never know when you’ll find a game-scale manta ray!

Here are the painting instructions:

  • Start from unpainted or from cavern paint scheme.
  • This uses all Pokorny paints, plus Golden Gel Gloss Medium for the water areas.
  • Heavy dry brush / base Earth Stone avoiding pools of water, allow to dry.
  • Dry brush 3:1:1 Stucco & Earth Stone & Olive Dry Brush avoiding pools of water, allow to dry.
  • Some Stones for Erinthor mountains paint scheme accent and compatibility, Base Grey, allow to dry
  • – Some Stones: dry brush 1:1 Earth Stone & Olive Dry Brush, allow to dry
  • – Some Stones: feather light dry brush Cavern Stone Dry Brush
  • Kelp: heavy dry brush Base Wood, allow to dry
  • – Kelp: light dry brush Terra Cotta Dry Brush, also on any area that should look more sandy and on the sides of pieces
  • Pools, low spots, and anemone centers: detail brush 5:1 Sludge and Shallow Water Seaweed Green, allow to dry
  • Pools, low spots,  and anemone centers: very light dry brush 1:1 Moss Green and a fairly light blue like Water Bubbles Blue
  • “thoughtful touches”: paint various critters in appropriate colors e.g. mushrooms -> alternate anemone color like pale pink; bat -> brown crab;  side of piece buried coins/eggs? -> light gray clams.
  • Anything wet: clear gloss, filling puddles thoroughly since the gel gloss medium will shrink. (Also it will dry very slowly over several days. It starts out white and then finally becomes clear.)

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?