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.

The first Our Magic playtest story has begun!

Small wooden trays on a tablecloth hold seven red beads, four fancy nautilus shell shaped beads with red as their main color, a red and a brown 10-sided dice, and a tiny gray animal about 20% the size of one of the dice. The edge of a red velvet bag can be seen at the edge of the picture and presumably contains the player's other three spent red bead tokens (to bring them to a total of 30 spellcasting points; 10 times 1 plus 4 times 5).
A player’s spellcasting tokens, two ten-sided dice, mini for their character’s animal friend, and spellcasting points bag.

Though the world of Kabalor has been in use through multiple campaigns using homebrewed/hybrid D&D rules, the big news this week is that after recent character creation and first sessions tests went well, we’re continuing on with these new characters in an ongoing story. (I’ll be using ‘stories’ instead of ‘campaigns’ for Our Magic because neither war nor advertising are good analogies for a group of players collaborating to create something new and magical.)

This story began in Waterborn, a town at the edge of the Mirror Nymioni and First Davuri areas in the southwestern part of the world. All the characters are Davur or Nymion as this story is set early in the world, when the peoples are more isolated from each other after weathering the dangerous period following the Eminences moving to dwell far away in their own planes. We are in the Early Period of the Independent Era and as the sports folk say, there’s everything to play for! I expect that this little group of recent graduates from the magic school in Waterborn will set in motion changes that echo down through the later periods and future stories.

Poem, pronounced “pome” and played by Lance, is The Face of the group. Davur kin of the First Davuri culture, he is a young bard/singer/entertainer, who is a decent drummer but a very bad songwriter. Thanks to above average Empathy and Banter he has still been quite popular at The Rosy Pot public house in Waterborn. Poem is also good at Analysis, which helps support his very low-key leadership which is more marketing than management. His constant companion is his pack-dog and magical focus, Binni, and he attributes his magical talents in Smoke (his speciality) and Metal element magic to her. He wears a floppy musketeer-style hat with the flat side in front and has a bit of skill in Hostcraft, Animal Lore, and Foodcraft.

Yarrow, played by Adriane, is The Guide of the group. Like Poem, Davur/First Davuri in kin and culture and often found at The Rosy Pot regaling someone (in trade for a refilled tankard) with a hair-raising tale of how they lost the two fingers on their dominant hand. The tales are all different and are any of them true? Yarrow’s from a family known for herbalism and foraging, though Yarrow’s abilities there are more due to the illustrated herb guide created for them by their sister than to their foggy grip on the details of number of petals, etc. They’re much more of an Attention than Information person, also above average in Cheer and Resilience. Through practice they have good skill in Plant Lore and some in Foraging, and a bit of experience with Doulacraft after assisting with the birth of their sister’s child. Yarrow is blessed with Rain and Wood element magic.

Taüschen, played by Joe P., is The Fool of the group, known for teaching people by jerking them out of their expectations. He is Nymion, of the Mirror Nymion culture, and a bit of a rebel in his family. Taüschen looks younger than he is and with his foolery and talent for Banter and Cheer, folk can easily forget his ability with Information. Scholarship and Arcana are his skills, along with a bit of Acrobatics to get him in and out of trouble. He has a ferret named Chinchilla which peeks out from beneath his soft, Nymion tentacles—like the arms of a sea anemone—or scurries unnervingly under his beautifully embroidered woolen cloak. He has Water and Air element magics.

Taiko, played by Hamish, is The Fixer of the group and has an adoring pack dog maddeningly named Kaito. Taiko is also Nymion/Mirror Nymion in kin and culture. Taiko, like many a Nymion, makes good use of those 8 feet of height and has great Heft and Resilience, but this imposing presence is offset by Cheer and being a decent hand drum player. Athletics are a natural skill for Taiko, but are joined by traditional skills of the region, Stonecraft and Clothcraft, and recently acquired skill in Doulacraft from accompanying Yarrow to help with their sister’s childbirth. Taiko attributes his element magics of Metal and Earth to playing in dirt as a kid (hooray for hippy-dippy parents), and also—as the generalist of the group with three element magics—has Air element magic.

Zuri, played by Lila, is The Heart of the group and has a rescued, somewhat problematic raccoon-cat named Rascal, who rides in a snuggle pocket in her plain but serviceable clothes, much of them made with alpaca wool from her family’s farm. Zuri is Davur/First Davur in kin and culture and has a twin sister. It was a great shock to them both when Zuri came into stronger magic last year and had to go away to magic school rather than them always doing everything together forever. Zuri’s cozy nature comes through in her great Empathy, but she is also above average in Heft and Resilience. A steady friend, and much appreciated in a group for her skills in Foodcraft and Massage, along with the Animal Lore she learned on the farm. Her element magics are Fire and Earth.

This wonderful group has just begun their first big adventure, setting out to the nearby village of Wellfield. (All but TaĂĽschen who will catch up shortly.) It began when a young runner interrupted their post-brunch musings at the new Blossomtea Pie Patio on the east side of Waterborn. A terrible disaster had apparently just taken place and this youth was sent to fetch mages from Waterborn to help with a dark cloud that grew over the forest after the felling of a huge tree. They reported that one of the timberers said, “It’s all gone to charcoal in there!”

The proprietor, a young Nymion named Yooma Parfooma who graduated from magic school the year before them, hurried the group on their way to help, trusting that a proper trade for the multiple pies consumed would happen later. With this encouragement and the prospect of exciting and dangerous magic ahead, the group made the journey to Wellfield in a bit under the usual quarter-day’s walk.

When they arrived they could see the black cloud over the forest. At the first cottage—home to the young runner—they met three witnesses to the disaster, members of the logging team and a healer who they’d had on hand in case of problems. The Davur forester Rembrel sitting on a log bench outside was covered in cuts and small bruises, their body and clothes showing their headlong flight through the woods. In a harsh and raspy voice, they told of how the felling of the great, tall tree—future main beam of the new Musician’s Guild guildhall to be built in Waterborn—didn’t go as expected.

“The noise of the tree hitting the ground just kept going and getting louder and then the cloud of dust and leaves and birds changed to a dark cloud. I saw a bird drop out of the sky when that black cloud touched it and I shouted for everyone to run. We were racing away, deer and foxes and even a bear running beside us.” The group could see the  shadow of that fear and horror on Rembrel’s face. “We don’t know what happened to Oakleaf. I hope they ran into the clear somewhere, but I’m afraid they’re hurt and need our help.”

Entering the cabin they met the healer, Melody, a young Nymion, his voice also scratchy. “I was foraging between the logging site and the village, staying close enough to be called if there was an emergency but out of range of any falling trees. I heard the crash. It was much louder than normal and I saw dark smoke billowing upward from the source of the sound. Then I heard someone shouting to run. I ran towards that voice and saw animals running away, then the logging team came into view racing as fast as they could and I turned and ran with them. We probably ran farther than we needed to because when we couldn’t push ourselves any farther and looked back, the cloud had stopped expanding.”

In Melody’s care was the third witness, the Nymion lumberjack Titi. She lay in a bed, her face and arms covered in cuts and small bruises; her skin pallid and with dark, greenish circles under her eyes. In a rough, rasping voice she gave her account.

“I was final cutter on this one, so I was right there. Got the cut done, saw the fall direction and began backing up watching my work. There was a big cave-in under where its biggest branch hit and then a moment later the dark smoke started coming straight out of the ground. I turned and ran for my life. I swear the trees around me were trembling. I don’t know what gave me the idea, but I ran toward the old grove instead of the village, and when the smoke reached those blessed trees it weakened. I scrambled up the leafiest one and held on for my life, with my face pressed into an old knot hole. I almost passed out, but then the smoke blew away and my mind cleared. I climbed down and the ground was black where I’d come, plants all dead and black and some animals too. I’d dropped my axe—still carried it while I was running somehow; isn’t it funny what we do in a panic?—right at the foot of the tree and it was black as well. I was coughing from the smoke and scared to my bones so I headed toward the green ground I could see not far away. As I came out of the black area, my mind cleared a bit. That’s when I realized I could hear people calling for me from my left, toward the village. My voice was too harsh from the smoke, so I just staggered that direction until we met up. The healer saved me—I mean it; I wasn’t sure I’d survive and I certainly would have lost my good health without his skill and magic. I’ve been resting here in bed since.”

At this Melody the healer said, “And I think I’ll have you back on your feet tomorrow.” To which Titi replied,“Incredible. Thanks be to The Chasm, bodymother of healing. And to The Loom for weaving my path to drop at your feet.”

During this exchange, Taiko took the opportunity to stealthily get a bit of the soot from one of the garments in the room in order to examine this threat. Unfortunately, Taiko also decided to taste it as part of this assessment. Yup. Definitely smoke element magic related and, uh, definitely not good for you. Knowledge gained, but also hoarseness.

With sober concern, the group entered the forest, their excitement about fascinating wild magic muted by all the evidence of the harm it could cause. They first approached the grove where Titi took shelter from the expanding cloud. They could see the line of smoke damage at its edge, beyond which all was crusted black charcoal. In that area it appeared nothing living remained.

A miniature landscape laid down the center of a table. Wooden trays with dice, minis, and spellcasting tokens sit beside the terrain. The front square foot of terrain shows a forest stained with black, the bright spot in it a ring of brilliant yellow mushrooms with some orange ones just peeking out from under the one healthy tree near the area of dead trees at one edge. That edge continues into a section of completely black land.
One of the great pleasures of this game was that thanks to an out-of-town player being in town, our group of players (all of whom have been in other Kabalor games) was able to rapid test and play together in person for only our second time during the pandemic.

As they approached the grove they could see that some trees at the edge were soot-stained and dead. However, two trees at the center of the grove with bright rings of mushrooms at their roots seemed to exert a force of life energy against the smoke-infused ground beyond. Within the mushroom circle under the healthiest tree a wild boar sow had collapsed. She wheezed hoarsely and had unhealthy looking foam dripping from her jowls, but within the mushroom ring she appeared to have been spared worse from the cloud’s effects.

A miniature scene showing black stained ground under living, but soot-stained trees, with two rings of brilliantly colored mushrooms, one of which is entirely filled with a black pig.

Zuri came forward with cautious, soothing sounds and though the sow leapt awkwardly to her feet, she did not charge. (Lila made a good Animal Lore roll.) At Zuri’s direction the party combined their magics to clean the soot off. Fire magic warmed a soft shower of raindrops as air blew the soot from the poor beast’s face and body, while the Resist Confusion knack brought calm into the spell. It was, in fact, about as great a spa experience as a traumatized wild boar could ever hope for and led to our title for the session: “I wanna be the pig now”.

The party’s combined magic greatly restored the ill creature, and it leapt out of the ring of mushrooms and ran away from the blackened ground. With a glance over their shoulders, perhaps of envy, the group moved forward to carefully investigate the scene of destruction. Zuri tucked Rascal more securely into her snuggle pocket and, concerned about them breathing the soot on the ground, Poem and Taiko suggested to the dogs Binni and Kaito that they wait on a rock outside of the charcoal zone to watch.

Proceeding with great care, they moved into the dark ground. To their relief, the small homestead they came to, its surrounding hedge completely dead and black and all within covered with soot, was empty. Apparently it was close enough to the felling site that the residents had gone into the village until after the tree cutting. Beyond it though, things turned very grim. They found cows, fallen dead and blackened, and sadly the body of the lost logger, Oakleaf, also felled by the toxic cloud. The rest of the group did their best to distract kind-hearted Zuri from the worst of these sights.

A miniature landscape about 4 feet long rests on a long dining table. character sheets, dice, pencils, and other player items surround the scene. In the blackened foreground of the landscape, two figures (one sheltering behind the other) look forward into the part of the scene we can't see. Beside them a soot stained body rests at the bottom of a blackened and rotted tree, horribly damaged by the cloud which blew through here. Behind the tree two more figure are approaching cautiously. In the distance, over a soot-stained small farm inside an oval hedge, on a rock with living green moss and below a tree which still has some leaves, the dogs watch from a distance.
The party (represented by the closest minis I had to the characters) face the cloud in the blackened land.

As they’d learned from the nearby folk, the cloud had expanded rapidly, given up its deadly soot and then begun to retreat slightly. Now they could see the remaining cloud had a diameter of about 20 feet, where it churned and roiled obscuring the place where the tree struck the ground.

Poem studied the cloud, considering all they’d learned, and reached out with his Rank 4 Smoke element magic as he did a spell incorporating the knack Investigate Magic. His high Analysis (and a good roll of the dice) helped him understand the current situation.

Poem’s assessment, as of the point where we ended our session, is that, though once much beyond their powers and still dangerous, the cloud has reduced to a level that the group can begin to influence it with their own spells. It’s here that the story will resume this week and continue with another two sessions after that within the next month.

A miniature landscape viewed looking over the backs of two animals in the greenery at the base of a living tree, looking out across black ground, through a blackened farmstead, and at the silhouettes of their people under a soot-killed tree beyond.
The dogs survey the wasteland from the last safe spot.

It feels fantastic to be playing an ongoing story at last. I still have a ridiculous amount to do to finalize the rules of Our Magic so that anyone but I could GM it, but at least the player side of things is starting to come together.

It’s a moment to celebrate, and—even more cause to celebrate—there’s a lot of good story ahead!

Thank you again to my fantastic players, my patrons, and to you for reading!