Soon, we may be gearing up for a new system and a new campaign. I think. I haven’t run this by the players yet; in fact, they’re likely to hear about it here. (Hi, guys! We’ll talk about this at some point when we get back together.)

The exciting thing about starting a new campaign is that I’ll need to make a whole bunch of new scenery. The campaign I’m considering requires some odd pieces, which I’ll need to cobble together from existing sets of cardstock scenery, and I’ll have to make a foray into several craft shops to find some of the weirder things the players will encounter. (I’ll need, among other things, a tiny ribbon and bell set, some fake water, and thatch. My players will be delighted because at least two of those items can be set on fire in game.)

IMHO, scenery adds quite a bit to gameplay; not only do players get excited when they can “see” the world, but scenery also encourages them to think creatively about tactics and about what they might use to accomplish their goals in various ways. (In a more narrativist game like BW, it might not work as well, of course, since the physical space often bends to the desires of the players, but even then, I’d be tempted to put out the scenery and alter it as necessary.)

I adore cardstock scenery not only because I love to make it, but also because the PDF files are cheap and reusable. As you might expect, our relatively small apartment overflows with junk–RPGs, board games, computers, random technology gadgets, books, cat toys, gaming consoles, and so on–and having a bunch of miniature buildings that need storage for all eternity isn’t the best idea for us. Luckily, you can toss out paper scenery without feeling too bad about it; after all, it didn’t cost too much to make, and if you need it again, you can always rebuild it. We keep a few standard buildings around, but I’d say that I end up tossing a good 3/4 of what I make and remaking it if necessary. Often this is because the cats confuse “cardstock scenery” with “cat toys.”

You can easily find cardstock buildings on sites such as RPGnow or drivethruRPG, and eventually, I’ll probably yammer about a few of my favorite sets. Right now, though, I’d like to give a shout out to Dave Graffam’s pieces.

Generally, cardstock scenery comes in two types: passable and easy to assemble or astoundingly beautiful and a pain in the ass to make. As much as I do like to put together scenery, I have a relatively low threshold for frustration. Further, I didn’t put any extra points into the Exacto Knife Use skill at character creation, so while I can muddle my way through the complicated sets, they’re usually not a great time-to-enjoyment investment for me.

Graffam’s models, though, strike the perfect balance. They look great, but putting them together doesn’t force me to the psychological place where I throw my Exacto at the cat while screaming, “IF YOU THINK YOU’RE SO SMART, THEN YOU PUT TAB A INTO SLOT C, YOU SMUG FURBALL!” His pieces have just the right amount of detail; plenty to have character and life, but not so much that they dictate the feel of your campaign. They’re equally at home in high or low fantasy settings and in historical environments. Added bits like wooden fences, hay bales, and garden tiles allow the GM to parcel out space and let the PCs see the cover they might use as they negotiate tactical strategies. As an extra bonus, most of Dave’s scenery comes in layered PDFs, so you can customize the look of the pieces you print just by choosing which layers to show and which to hide. And all of his pieces are relatively inexpensive, meaning that you can pick up several different buildings or sets for a given campaign without breaking the bank.

I always end up in a flurry of activity a week or so before a game, putting together a bunch of buildings and items that the players will encounter. Then everything gets thrown into my Purple Crate of Doom until game day. In many ways, filling up the PCoD is one of the most satisfying parts of GMing for me, and it often helps me cement the key details of encounters in my head before running them. Even if I don’t have scenery for each encounter or every detail, the act of choosing which objects to highlight with physical scenery forces me to consider which parts of the scenario hold the greatest importance. You know, like the hay bales.

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