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.)

Location: the small town of Waterborn

A landscape showing a mountain with a steep waterfall of multiple sections ending in a round basin and exiting und a narrow natural rock bridge to flow away in a more placid little river. Beside the pool and accessed by the natural rock bridge is a rough stone plateau with a long building with a gabeled roof and slate tiles. A Nymion with a gold-topped staff stands before the wooden double doors of this building, the Magic School. The arched windows of the buildings downstream (eastern) end look over the river to a rural area where the forest at the foot of the mountains meets the river edge and several roundhouses with thatched roofs are located. Signs of farm life surround these buildings with more wildlife amongst the trees. A cut stone bridge with heavy rope railings leads over to the edge of the very small town of Waterborn. Three round stone buildings with conical roofs of matching stone form the north edge of a open green space, with subtle signs of past floods in the area. The center building, with its notice board in front, is larger and taller, and has a large ceramic rosy-brown colored teapot atop the lantern post near its front steps. In the foreground, the river flows south with a marshy area and pond to the east. At the eastern edge, the curving stone wall of another round building can just be seen.
the west edge of the small town of Waterborn, looking north toward the Magic School

The mountain homeland of the Mirror Nymioni meets the farmlands of the First Davuri here in the very small town of Waterborn. A waterfall pours forth from a cave at this eastern edge of the mighty twin mountains, and forms one of the many small rivers which eventually join and flow to the Inland Sea far away.

In spring, as the snows melt, the land is prone to flooding, so those of the Nymion culture here build on rock above the flood lines. Their neighbors of the Davur culture build on high ground when convenient, but generally prefer the convenience of good farming soil to the risk of a damp ground floor. Some even choose to simply rebuild a simpler home every year or two, as needed.

The large public house, The Rosy Pot, and some other buildings in the town have their main entrance on the second floor, reducing the inconvenience of the brief high water season.

A view from the signpost at the west end of Waterborn looks past the three round houses, including The Rosy Pot public house toward the river and waterfall in the distance. A tall Nymion bard holding a lute gestures in greeting from the steps of the public house to a Nymion carter leading their draft horse. The Nymion carter, at a typical 8' tall, towers over the sturdy horse.
a bard greets a carter coming to stay at The Rosy Pot after unloading their delivery

Like public houses anywhere in Kabalor, The Rosy Pot provides food, shelter, and community support to any who want them, and always has a mix of long-term and short-term residents who cook, clean, repair, and bring good cheer. Its huge second-floor room with its graceful windows is one of the hubs of community activity. The top floor has sleeping accommodation, with storage in the attic above, while the ground floor has the kitchen, bathing area, and other essentials.

The Rosy Pot was once a musical hotspot a generation ago when the great Nymion drummer Everywhere-Fun was in his prime. Now his memory and enthusiasm lives on, if not his skills.

Davur buildings in Waterborn are round in their traditional style, but the Nymion influence is felt in their decorative plasterwork and arched windows. Likewise, the Nymion buildings here are more likely to show the Davur preference for displaying the natural colors of the stone rather than plastering them over in pale pastels as Nymion culture tends to elsewhere.

Waterborn is rich in resources: stone and wood for building, good soil for grazing, mushrooms from the forest, fish and greens from the river, and herbs from the marshland along the riverbank.

This west end of town is known for The Rosy Pot, the smithy opposite it across the central green, and the sturdy home beside it with its two public shrines—to The Masked Ball and The Crossroads—raised just above the high water mark as the land begins to slope up to the northeast toward the rest of the town.

An overhead view of the smithy opposite The Rosy Pot. It is a round stone farmhouse in the Davur style with its entrance on the second floor to avoid flooding in the wet season. The smith, a red-skinned and muscular Davur stands in front of a hefty stone table piled with a jumble of crafted objects, holding their hammer and a long tool of some kind on which they are working. Their anvil with a bucket of cold water beside it is just the other side of the stone steps from the table of their wares. Beyond them, at the marsh edge of the open green space in front of The Rosy Pot, a small flock of chickens browse near a Davur farmer with a pitchfork who is talking to an attentive seated hound dog. Behind them are a small cart and a plow. The steps of The Rosy Pot, the approaching Nymion carter, and the top of the signpost can be seen along the righthand side of the image.
the central green of the west side of Waterborn

What draws visitors to this spot from both the local area and the villages beyond is the Magic School. This finely restored, Nymion building is situated on a plateau at the base of the waterfall, constantly serenaded by the rushing waters tumbling down the cliff and churning in the pool below before passing under a rock bridge to calm themselves in the little river. (Daring locals know of a bathing pool partway down the cascade where the chilly waters can be enjoyed at only a moderate risk of a painful and possibly dangerous ride down the rapids.)

Lush green against mossy stone colors the western side of the little river, framed by the source of its misty good health: the waterfall emerging from a mountain cave in the distance above the Magic School on its rocky promentory over the river. A rough trail leads through the woods and up a stony, climbing path into the mountains where the trees chance from rounded deciduous shapes to pointy conifers. In the foreground a very large dark brown pig wallows in the puddles of the start of the muddy path near the river crossing.
the Waterborn Magic School in its dramatic setting beside the waterfall and river, with teacher Littletree at the door

It is the quality of the teaching, though, rather than the scenic architecture, which gives this school its allure. Littletree, the Nymion instructor, is exceptionally skilled in Earth and Water Element Magics, also having well above average knowledge of the Element Magics of Air, Smoke, and Fire. They may be short in stature for a Nymion, but their reputation as an instructor stands tall in the region. Not only do many of the magical merchants of the area owe their ability to manage their magic to Littletree, so too do a few other teachers at smaller Magic Schools in neighboring areas.

As soon as the weather permits travel in the spring, Waterborn starts to welcome students whose magic has begun to come in—most of them at that cusp between adolescence and adulthood, but some who have gained magic later. Many are accompanied by a relative or close friend who will remain at least for their first few months of study and perhaps through their entire stay. The majority of students learn to control and direct their magical talents by the time the autumn winds begin to chill, but some—whether through lack of diligence or due to possessing more complex magical talents—remain through the cold and blustery winter to complete their studies. Many life-long friendships are formed amongst those who overwinter at a Magic School, as the classic tropes of song and story attest.

The eastern portion of the town is more typically First Davur culture, though still bearing elegant Nymion windows in places. It has a market square and a petite guildhall of the Farmers’ Guild, along with a variety of craftsfolk and other services. A quieter public house, The Wren’s Nest, is down a lane from the square, a little ways past the cheesemaker and the pie shop. The accommodations there are in a circle of small one to three story little towers surrounding a community garden.

Thanks to the natural dye ingredients found in the moor and marsh south of the town, there are many colorful fabric decorations in Waterborn, along with a thriving trade in the bright embroidery threads so important to that traditional art form of the Mirror Nymioni.

Waterborn’s population is about 1200 residents. It is supported by the farming village of Wellfield a quarter day’s walk to the northeast and the herding village of Rattle about the same to the southeast. Along with those two settlements, there are many small farmhouses and foragers’ huts in the area.

Waterborn in winter is buffeted by cold winds off the mountain and in springtime is soggy, but its great natural bounty from late spring through to the first snow makes up for the inconveniences.

Whether you’re choosing a location for a magically talented relation to understand their new gifts, traveling east or west between the mountains and the plains, seeking materials or tools for your craft, or just looking for a lovely spot to simply be, Waterborn awaits!

(learn more about the making this terrain build)

A postcard from Kabalor: visiting a port city of the north

I absolutely love this plein air sketch from Nala Wu of the Urdesh city of Tama’al by the Northern River, upstream of the Inland Sea.

A well-dressed, dark honey skinned person with upswept orange hair and a very very long soft tail pauses on a pleasant dock area to admire a ship with triple fan-like sails and a wooden balustrade around its deck. In the distance are multi-story terra cotta colored buildings with archways and decorative top edges. One has wide stairs leading to a massive set of tin-plated doors. Nearer to the figure is a street lit by lanterns suspended from many ropes between the buildings. The colors are mostly warm browns and golds except for the figure's fuschia doublet (split for their tail) and blue breeches.
Ready for a city adventure and dressed to impress, a crewmember walks along the docks toward central Tama’al, admiring the other ships in the harbor (Artwork by Nala Wu)

The Urdeshi culture builds the tallest buildings, but work mainly in mud brick and plaster over poorer quality wood and stone than most peoples use. They save the good wood for their ships. This with the triple fin sails is a particularly fine one, with the added flashy touch of lots of carved balustrades around the deck. A head-turner even for a well-traveled sailor.

In the distance are the great doors of the Shipwright’s Guild, but I think our well-dressed Urdesh, Longtail the Navigator, is actually on their way to the restaurants and other entertainments down that many-lantern-lit street. They’ve got some fine stories to tell from their latest voyage and a few old friends to look for in this city of chance meetings.

Another postcard from Kabalor and the name of the game!

A sturdy house of large wooden boards with a stone foundation and a green grassy sod roof, with an equally sturdy brown-skinned, brown-haired, and dark-brown-horned person in a red sleeveless doublet and black pants tucked into knee-high boots feeding something to one of a pair of tan oxen with reddish backs. There are flowers in the grass in the foreground and tall trees in the background.
A Huzzon feeding their red-backed oxen in the First Huzzoni region (Artwork by Nala Wu)

Hooray! Nala Wu continues their plein air sketching journey north in the western parts of Kabalor and sends us this picture from the western edge of the plain west of the southwest corner of the Inland Sea. This is the area initially settled by the First Huzzoni and the forest boundaries are dotted with their farmsteads, villages, and towns.

Meanwhile, in our world, the trademark process has advanced far enough for me to announce the actual name of this collaborative spellcasting game…

Our Magic!

We are moving forward towards active playtesting at the steady pace of a strong Huzzon Redback ox. I have draft rulebooks I can share with my first group of testers for feedback as I perform the final pre-playtest synthesis and tidying up.

It’s not cake yet, but it’s getting closer to being ready to serve… 🍰

First scenes of the world of Kabalor: a Nymion town

Our first postcard from Kabalor has arrived!

I sent artist Nala Wu on a trip west of the inland sea to do a little plein air sketching. They’ve posted back this beautiful image of a rainy evening in a Nymion mountain town, with a local resident showing off the finest jewel-tone embroidery of the Mirror Nymioni.

A tall green-skinned figure in a dress of purple, blue and red emerges from the doorway of a stone building with smooth plastered walls. Decorative tile rooftops, window frames, wall tops, and foundations form a dark contrast against the pale gray walls of the rain streaked street. Warm lantern light is reflected in puddles on the narrow street that leads into the distance.
Artwork by Nala Wu

This image will illustrate the rulebook for the game, on which I’m making very good progress. The core rules are all in place after considerable synthesis and improvement. I’ve done a revamp of the character creation process and a substantial iteration on spellcasting rules and the core mechanics of what happens when the Game Mediator (GM) calls for a dice roll. The musculature of the game is in excellent shape!

My current activity is to resolve any questions raised in early playtest sessions of specific rules and handle other to-do’s noted during the development process. As I do this, the rough draft of the player guide, needed for alpha playtesting coming soon, is approaching completion.

All this attention to detail is important and rewarding, but it sure is a lift to my spirits and a reminder of why I’m so excited to bring Kabalor to a wide audience when I receive an amazing image from a talented artist.

It’s the story we tell together, hearing each others’ ideas and adding to them, that fuels our souls.

New Art From Li Didkovsky!

A fantastic action shot of a cocky Lissam guide mounted on their noble capybara steed. Artwork by Li Didkovsky.

Where to begin with how fabulously Li has captured this moment of adventure for us?

The capybara confidently leaping over the fallen log. The guide beckoning to those behind encouraging them to follow, and likely taking them out of terrible swampy peril. And is the guide’s cane magical? There’s certainly something special about it. I like to think it’s enchanted to always return to the guide’s hand if dropped.

This glorious illustration will accompany the rules on Movement:

Movement reflects your ability to get around, through the power of your own body, mounts, assistive gear, and learning how to travel more efficiently.

An ordinary adult has the ability to travel all day from one village to the next or to move 5 squares (25 feet) in a moment-to-moment situation. This can be impacted by bonuses and constraints.

The first Bonus you might have is if your Finesse is particularly high.

Learning from playtest 1 on Altercations

This past weekend I was able to sit down on my back porch and playtest altercations with Lance and Daniel. Thanks so much for your time and insight, gentlemen!

As with the first playtest of spellcasting, this test was really to find the big weak spots in my draft version and to scope how major a rework it would need. Working on this with smart, experienced players and gamemasters like these two was a huge asset. We not only found the flaws, we spent a good long time pulling back to my goals and talking through various options.

The highest level takeaways I have are

  1. for a game focused on storytelling and character, avoid mechanics that zoom in on the nitty-gritty detail of discrete actions;
  2. for a game focused on collaboration, avoid mechanics that emphasize the individual’s options over the team’s.

So, for the next playtest we’ll be working with these concepts:

  • How successful the players are (in this context of a dice-decided Altercation Situation) is based how well they roll. (The GM is not making a set of rolls for an opponent and then comparing the two results.)
  • There’s no initiative roll; again, the advantage of a high roll there is moved into the story the players and GM tell about the results of the players’ rolls. (“We rolled so well we must have been able to reach the high ground first…”)
  • There’s not a fixed number of rounds. Instead, the GM will frame each set of rolls by the players as representing the unfolding of the Situation, and will probably default to a “beginning” and “middle” description for the first two and let the next particularly good or bad roll represent how it turned out at the end.
  • In a set, all the players roll, adding the Aspect they’re bringing to bear and any bonuses or constraints that make sense to the group. They and the GM can see how well or poorly they did as an average in relation to the goal the GM has told them applies in this situation. (That goal will be either a default norm or a particular Complexity Number (Cx)). They will all also be able to see how varied their results were and use that to represent the range of what happened to the individual party members.
  • Using their results each player tells the story of what they did and how it went well or badly, with the GM suggesting or modifying as appropriate.
    Player 1: “We averaged really well thanks to you two, but” {turning to another player} “your roll was not good and I got a wild failure.”
    GM: “I think maybe that loose railing you noticed earlier must have given way.”
    Player 2: “I was distracted by you falling, I guess.”
    Player 3: “But so were the gang members, so maybe we two were able to get the bags over their heads as they came out the doors onto the balcony.”
    GM: “Yes, and* then dance them over to the side away from you so they fell down into the street too.”
    Player 4: “cha cha cha!”
    GM: “OK. So the start went well for all but one of the party; what do you think happened as a result of your fall?”
    Player 1: “I’m pretty resilient and hefty; and I’m Nymion so I’m 8′ tall. Not as bad a fall for me as a Lissam like you.” {grins at other player} “I think I got the wind knocked out of me and will spend the next roll getting back on my feet.”
    GM: “Your average was very good, so I think the gang got the worst of the beginning of this situation. The ones you bagged and pushed down will probably not get back into the action before its over. You’ve got open doors and no other gang members visible through the doorway. What do you do next?”

Note how the player who had a wild failure still has an opportunity to make their failure reflect what’s special about their character. They’ll be limited in the next roll in how much impact it has on what they do—even with a fantastic roll, the most they’ll be doing is clambering back up to the balcony to rejoin the rest of the party—but they will contribute to the team average.

Turning the focus to the storytelling and the team lets the players make their characters distinctive and important, without bogging things down in lots of individual actions and the specialty mechanics for them. Whether you succeed with that bow shot is not about range and your skill and the type of bow and the target’s armor or lack of it, but about how well you and your teammates rolled in general.

Sometimes the most successful playtest is the one where you throw out most of what you came in with. 😄

*This post was edited to reflect further conversation with Lance where he pointed out the old example didn’t keep players just telling the story of what happened with the action they said they were trying to do (before rolling their dice to see how well it went). I’ve switched it to have the additional benefit—dancing the bagged foes over the balcony edge—coming from the GM. Thanks, Lance!

Pre-Pre-Alpha Playtesting a Success!

It’s been a busy five weeks of testing and iteration since my last post. Thank you so much to my testers—Rice, Daniel, Lance, Lila, Adriane, Jinx, Joe, and Paul—for their sense of fun and smart feedback!

The spellcasting system has been radically improved and streamlined. The resulting core concepts and method of assembling spells from a variety of “Knacks”, including in collaboration with other spellcasters, have been demonstrated to work with players at the table.

The character creation process has also been streamlined, incorporates the essentials needed to play, and is possible to complete with a group of new players in a reasonable amount of time for a Session One game.

The world details are generating player fun and prompting great creative ideas which expand the story beautifully. Kabalor is “Yes, and…” compatible!

phew.

So, what comes next?
Pre-Alpha Testing!

  • Test the Altercations mechanics and Situations mechanics (for non-combat moment-to-moment scenes)
  • Test the Challenges mechanics (for connected activities toward a goal which take place over a longer stretch of time)
  • Test the Healing mechanics
  • In conjunction with all testing, confirm the Complexity (Cx) mechanics for dice rolls (These are already looking pretty good from testing so far.)
  • Run a Session 2 in which characters will have some adventure and at the end advance to Level 1 (from Novice to Apprentice), gaining new magic
  • Synthesize all the existing rules content into one place (my website content master draft in Scrivener) and make sure everything is consistent
  • Synthesize all the existing spell content into one place (ditto) and make sure everything is consistent
  • Synthesize into one place all the existing world-building which I want to carry forward from the past D&D homebrew setting into this new indie-rpg Kabalor
  • Create a starting map for new GMs of Kabalor (which will be used in playtesting)

And after that is all tested, iterated, and improved, it will be on to actual Alpha Testing. This will start with a short story of probably 5 sessions to bring the characters to Level 2. (This might only take 4 sessions if players decide to continue with a character they already made.) The second phase of Alpha Testing, after iteration from that short story’s lessons, will be beginning an ongoing story with a group of regular players.

Opening up to a broader group of testers—including other GMs—will come after that has been underway for enough time to learn the lessons of play at Levels 2 and 3 and to begin building out the official website, thus probably not until the end of the year at absolute earliest.

The worsening situation with regard to COVID-19 (and my continued concerns as an immunosuppressed person) suggests that I’ll probably need to spend some time on the necessary references for remote players sooner rather than later. Those may wind up needing to be password-protected parts of the future public website, so my sequence of work on Kabalor may get slightly shuffled as I go. On the one hand, that’d be a further delay, but on the other, it would open the possibility of easier scheduling with a wider pool of potential players.

As with planning stories as a GM, the way it actually unfolds is always going to throw you for a loop, but you can still end up roughly where you thought you were headed. 😉

Altercations in Kabalor

Combat will be optional for the game of Kabalor, but that doesn’t mean the game won’t have rules for it. My goal is to keep excitement and player choice, but maintain focus on the story and avoid combat bogging down the game.

We’ll soon be playtesting my draft rules. These limit altercations to three rounds, representing the beginning, middle, and end of the altercation.

Each character involved in the altercation decides what approach you will take in this round. You may not change this after you hear what the others are doing. Probably we will have cards everyone sets down at once to declare this.

Each round unfolds in initiative order, with players rolling and describing their actions as their turn comes up and the GM handling opposing forces.

Along with optionally moving and optionally interacting with an object (such as closing and locking a door), in each round you will be making a d10 roll, adjusting the result based on your approach, and then describing your actions in the story.

  • Defensive (add your Resilience to the roll and the result is pool of protective actions which reduce damage)
  • Offensive (name a target and add either Heft, Finesse, or your spellcasting Aspect to the roll and the result is pool of damaging actions applied to the target)
    Some foes, such as Elementals, only take Offensive actions during altercations. They go until they’re stopped.
  • Protective (name a target and add the Aspect players and GM agree is reasonable to your roll (e.g. “I’m using my Analysis to calculate the best moment to pull the town councilor out of the way of the rolling barrel the cursed brewer is aiming at her.”), and the result is pool of protective actions which reduce damage to the target; surplus damage is split between target and protecting character)
  • Evasive/Active (add Finesse or Heft and any Movement +/- to your roll, result is split between extra moves and protective actions to reduce damage; optionally, can instead declare at the start of the round that you will be using those protective actions as more movement)
  • Reactive (will become Defensive if you are the target of an attack, Protective if ally or bystander is attacked, or optionally Active to pursue someone taking Evasive action)

You can use a combination of different approaches or all the same approach for your three rolls over the three rounds.

Some Items may add a bonus (or a constraint) to Defensive, Offensive, Protective, or Evasive actions.

With three rounds of rolls, there should be enough uncertainty about the outcome for it to still feel risky. With player choice in each round, based on the unfolding knowledge the characters have, there should be enough agency for it to still feel skillful. And with the focus on the player and GM descriptions of what happens, combat can enhance rather than interrupt the characters’ story.