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Since we have a lot of stuff, we tend to take a lot of stuff with us when we attend conventions. And when we go on vacation. And when we go away for the weekend. Actually, we end up hauling board games or RPGs pretty much everywhere we go. It’s not like that’s necessarily easy; board games are heavy, especially since we like Fantasy Flight games with tons of bits. RPGs can be as easy as a dice bag and a few books, but as you can tell from the blog, that’s not really how we roll; we go in for box sets and lots of props. That being said, we’ve perfected the art of carrying game stuff with us over the past few years. Here are some protips:

  • Useful Bag #1: the LL Bean XL Boat and Tote bag. I got one of these from my work a few years back, and it’s a lifesaver. The thick canvas ensures that it won’t break under the weight of your heaviest games, and the sides stay upright and sturdy to keep your boxes from sliding around in transit. These have a kind of uncool middle-aged mom-vibe which I don’t love, but if you can get your games to fit in them, they’re probably the safest way to go. Tuck a rain jacket in on top to make sure that nothing gets wet on the way into the building.
  • Useful Bag #2: the IKEA bag. Those big-box FFG games won’t fit in an LL Bean tote, but they’ll fit in one of those huge, tarp-material IKEA bags. (I learned while writing this post that they’re called FRAKTA bags. I will now insist on calling them “the FRAKTAS” in an annoying voice from here on out.) Since they’re designed to fold up after use, the IKEA bags have flimsy sides and won’t keep your stuff from sliding around in the car, so make sure you Tetris anything you put in these bags into the back of your car carefully so your stuff doesn’t go flying when you take a left turn.
  • Useful Tip #1: Keep your dice separate from everything else in a handy dice bag. I like the FFG bags, although many people I know swear by DragonChow bags. Little dice bags can get lost in the mess of everything else you’re carrying, so stash them in a smaller bag that you mean to take with you. Lots of games use standard sets of dice, so having a set handy means you’ll have your own handy.
  • Box it: Staples carries Really Useful Boxes, which are my favorite way of carrying little bits and organizing them at the table, but any crafting store will have an assortment of plastic boxes ideal for carrying bits in their beading section. If you store your things in crafting boxes when you put your games away, you’ll have a handy way to keep them tidy on the table, too.
  • Take the right equipment: I’m fond of my cardstock buildings, but they don’t travel well. Pulling out Paizo or D&D map tiles allow for a variety of quick scenery changes without taking up a ton of space.
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I stumbled across the link to iheartprintandplay tonight while surfing Twitter. Its owner, Derek Weller, creates charming printable standees in the style of the Order of the Stick for your D&D games. He’s got a whole host of mini beasties and PCs for D&D, and he’s also got plans for printable origami dice! He’s also created adorable character condition cards, too. Definitely worth a quick trip over, especially if you run a light-hearted game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I may just print these little guys out to put on my desk at work because they’re so awesome.

There’s also a great section of the blog dedicated to other free print and play games. There are only a couple of games listed now, but if you’ve got one of your own, you might want to contact Weller and tell him about it!

I know many of you have been out at GenCon, playing your fill of games and seeing more stuff to buy than you could possibly purchase in a lifetime. I just thought I’d mention a neat Kickstarter project that has some really great potential: Brass Monkey’s Dragons Gameboard.

This nifty little package would let you display a battle map on a TV or large computer monitor for your players to see during tabletop gaming. Each of them could, in turn, manipulate their own tokens on the map via smartphones or tablets.

I absolutely, positively LOVE this idea. Using individual handheld devices at the table would keep my players engaged (and would keep their phones on something game-centered instead of on Twitter or Facebook.) A system like this cuts down on prep time, too; I wouldn’t have to set up a table full of cardstock buildings and minis, spend the morning keeping the kitten off the table, and then switch out a million tiles and buildings mid-session when the PCs moved to a new area. On the other hand, I personally dislike the art style here–I’d like to see something that looks more like an actual hand-drawn map, something less griddy/pixelly. The games I tend to favor don’t focus on strategic battles, so I use maps flavor more than for tactical clarity, and a bunch of colored blocks don’t really add much flavor to a game. The project promises to remain open source, though, so DMs would have the opportunity to implement their own tilesets and could undoubtedly figure out how to make use of the system for other sorts of RPGs.

This project is definitely one to keep your eye on; Brass Monkey has a solid idea, and for those with limited table space, it might mean the difference between making your home a viable place to play and always having to tote your minis and chips to someone else’s house.

I was in a not-so-local but still friendly gaming store the other day where they had a table dedicated to Wyrd Miniatures/Worldworks Games Terraclips for Malifaux. These sets feature lovely, full-color building pieces in modular sheets on hefty punchboard (1.7mm thick, to be exact.) You can clip the sections of wall, flooring, and roof together with the little terraclips made of transparent plastic so that they don’t mar the overall look of the terrain. I only got a quick look, but they seem high-quality and versatile enough to fit multiple scenarios. Best of all, a disassembled and boxed set takes up about the same space as a couple of RPG rulebooks. The Malifaux set would work well for any dark-ish city setting, (general WFRP and Mordheim both leap to mind,) and Worldworks has several dungeon sets coming soon that includes lava pits, rooms full of gold, and sarcophagi. These strike me as a nice compromise between easy-to-damage cardstock buildings and difficult-to-store plastic or resin models. I hope they plan to keep expanding the line! In fact, if this product line keeps growing and the space in my apartment keeps shrinking, I might end up replacing my own shelves of cardstock scenery with these.

After poking around the Profantasy Software site the other day to look at something or other, I noticed the Dioramas Pro module for Campaign Cartographer 3 and picked it up. I’m not a master craftsman of cardstock scenery, by any means. After all, I started this blog by talking about my love-hate relationship with glue. Still, I like to make scenery for my campaigns, as I find that my PCs find it easier to tell the story at hand if they have a shared visual space on which to base the narrative. In my head, I was going to craft highly evocative Warhammery scenery to match the prewritten modules and/or strange and bewitching buildings to match my upcoming Skaven scenario. How cool would it be to have a building for the Garden of Morr that actually had little black rosebushes all around the building? How neat to have buildings that had been heavily “modified” by Skaven engineers (who, of course, don’t exist)?

For full disclosure’s sake, I should say that I only played with DP for one afternoon. Like everything else from Profantasy, DP has a steep learning curve, but it hardly seems impossible; I could easily figure out how to use the tools available, and the quickstart guide helped immensely. I could quickly make a series of different types of buildings that would stand up serviceably when I glued them together. It’s also very easy to change the scale of your building to accommodates different games. What’s less exciting, though, are the visual details provided within the program for decorating the buildings. Bleech. Simple line windows and doors–nothing like the buildings I would want to create. It’s possible to export the skeleton of your building and put it into Photoshop or Pixelmator so that you can do some graphic manipulation there. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ll use DP to do. Still, it would be nice if it were easier to export the images, and even nicer still if the graphics sets in DP were a bit more elegant.

I’m not sure I’m pleased with this purchase. I like the flexibility of crafting any kind of structure I want, but honestly, I’m not sure how often I’ll use it. Part of me wishes I’d just bought some blank cardstock building skeleton files that I could manipulate in Pixelmator. (Those must exist, right?) Still, I think that’s more of a failing of my not really considering how the product was designed than a failing of the product itself. DP seems quite powerful if you’re into the “engineering” side of things. It’s just that I’m more on the “put funny visual jokes on the side of the buildings” side of things instead. Lesson learned about rampantly consuming things I don’t need, I guess. At least until the next intriguing thing I don’t really need comes along. 🙂

I have a love/hate relationship with Worldworks Games. I love them because they make the most beautiful cardboard models on the market, but I hate them because their kits always reveal the shameful limits of my ability to make things with my hands. I once bought one of their kits, printed the whole thing out, and got so frustrated just reading the instructions that I boxed the whole thing up and shoved it to the back of a shelf.

Granted, that probably says more about my psychology than about their models. Most of the difficulty of making their stuff comes from the fact that so much of it is modular, so you must construct every piece with utter precision so that the doodad can fit neatly into the slot and the whatsis can swivel freely on the thingamajig. Unfortunately, when I feel that I have made a part of a paper model “precisely,” it usually means that I managed not to glue the X-acto to my face in the process.

It was therefore with a bit of trepidation that I bought the Roll Arena. I LOVE this kit–it’s a little dice-rolling table with awesome divided drawers underneath that hold cards. I could certainly see a GM using it for his dice and, say, a critical hit deck. It gets better, though: the bottom of the rolling surface has several interchangeable inserts, all of which are divided differently and decorated with unique imagery, and the kit comes with blank cards that correspond to the imagery on the inserts so you can create your own dice games. The piece’s rather Warhammery look and its Unblinking Eye-esque insert pushed it from the “that’s cool” category over into “I’ll buy” for me.

I spent a couple of hours on it this morning, but didn’t complete it yet because work I’m actually paid to do got in the way. I’ll save the rest of the construction for another day when I have less work to do. Suffice it to say that like all WWG products, this kit presents a challenge, but it doesn’t seem insurmountable.

Here are some pictures of my process this morning. (Do head over to Worldworks Games to see the results of a competent model-maker building this.)

Setting my stuff out neatly (ie, throwing everything on the table in such a disorderly fashion that Tzeentch himself would be proud):

Feel the imprecision (and the cat fur!):

The structure of the top partially completed:

I may actually end up printing and redoing this part of the model again now that I know how it works. As you can see, though, it’s decorated with lovely graphics. I’ll let you know how it goes as I finish it up–and of course, I’ll be completely truthful about gluing my hand to the floor or whatever mishap will inevitably happen.

Whew! It’s been a busy week, but I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the gaming store tonight. Although it’s been available for awhile, I was pleased to see Gale Force 9’s outstanding Dungeon Master’s Mat set on the shelf. I’ve already discussed how impressed I was by the map of the Welcome Wench. Made of high quality materials with great graphics, the GF9 mats are sturdy, attractive, and easy to write on/wipe off.

That being said, some of the previous mats had strange graphic details that made made me leery of using them. The King’s Road map seemed, at first glance, to be infinitely useful; how many times a game does a GM need a plain path with a few rocks strewn here and there? Yet the handful of graves alongside the road had me cringing. I could get away with ignoring them once, but by the second time the mat came out, my players would be harping on the repetition like an insidious Internet meme: “My God, these roads are deadly! Is it a pothole epidemic? Should we stop drinking the water? And why do the people always die in sets of three?” If you have a group like mine, minor details in the art can lead to the players asking a major NPC in the next town about “all those graves,” and then you have to make a GM call about whether or not to roll with it and bring their metagaming into the fiction by having the NPC respond–and God help you if they decide to ditch the quest you had planned and instead go after the metaquest, which you’ll now suddenly need to create on the fly. Ugh!

That’s why I was glad to see the plain DM’s mat set available. One mat has a plain grassy background; the other has stone tiles. They’re perfect for placing under cardboard scenery, and since you can write on them, it’s easy to set up the buildings ahead of time, mark where they should go on the map, and wipe the outlines off after your session ends. Further, these mats would be great to throw in a GM’s convention gaming kit, as they have a bit more flair than plain brown grid maps.

I generally prefer detailed and evocative art, but sometimes, simple is best, especially if simplicity serves to focus your players on the details you want them to see.

I’ve talked some about making paper models before. I like to do it, and I’m okay at doing it, but I’m by no means a master craftsman. I’m particularly messy with glue. I have a heavy hand, and glue tends to end up everywhere–on my shirt, on the table, on the cat, and sometimes even in my lunch.

I’m also not incredibly precise. I tend to need a bit of time to get the flaps in place, and if the glue dries too quickly, I find myself having glued the roof to the bottom of the building or some such nonsense. Then there’s a resulting three hours of bad mood in which I swear that I hate making paper models, or, if the mistake was particularly bad and I had to reprint part of the model, in which I might swear that I will never play any RPG again. (Just kidding! I’ve never done that.)

I was excited to find that Scotch Scrapbooker’s Glue helps quite a bit. It’s strong, so you don’t have to sit forever holding a joint waiting for it to dry. Even though the glue bonds quickly, it leaves the paper repositionable for quite awhile, so you can fix it if you glued the tiny paper hay bale together inside out. (Not that I’ve ever done that, either.) Best of all, it has a tiny tip applicator that positions glue precisely on even the narrowest strips and tabs, and the bottle is thin so it’s easily maneuverable as you work on a project. On the other end, you’ll find a sponge applicator, which helps if you need to put a thin layer of glue over a wide area while avoiding saturation that can lead to warping.

I suppose it’s rather silly to celebrate glue. It’s not really central to the gaming process. Still, if part of your fun is putting the buildings and scenery together, it’s always nice to be able to focus on the parts of the process that are most fun while avoiding the parts of the process that are frustrating–like gluing your hand to the bottle. (Not, of course, that I’ve ever done that.)

If you overdo tabletop scenery (as I often do,) it can take awhile to set up at the beginning and manipulate mid-game when the characters do a scene shift. I often don’t even set the first scene up until the players are settled, partly because my cats will Godzilla their furry arses through my town if I give them time, and partly because I often don’t want the players to think too carefully about a scene that hasn’t yet been introduced. Between encounters, massive changes to gaming scenery occur, too, that can seem to grind your game to a halt. Yet those scene changes can be a useful pacing tool for your game, providing that you use the time effectively. Here are a few ideas about what your players can do while you shuffle little cardboard buildings and NPC minis around on the table:

After the module/adventure intro but before the first major scene:

  • Players can write their Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts if you’re playing Burning Wheel or using BW variants for other systems.
  • Players might “shop” by looking at sourcebooks before leaving the town where the adventure begins. (Or, in Warhammer, they might spend time complaining that there’s no shop in the town where the adventure begins!)
  • Players can discuss or agree on overall strategy for the upcoming scenario. This is great for the GM, as you can think about how you’ll respond to their plans as you pretend to focus intently on the tiny buildings.

Between scenes:

  • Bathroom break!
  • Food break! (Moving scenery gives players the chance to do food/bathroom without feeling that they’re “wasting time.”)
  • Players can discuss new information that’s come up during the adventure without feeling rushed.
  • Players may adjust or redistribute gear or items or purchase food or supplies.
  • Players could do any “last minute” minor things they’d like to do before leaving the last locale. (“I want to go back and give a gold piece to the peasant who helped us.”)
  • Players can review crucial game handouts or details.
  • Players can ask questions and get clarifications about things they’ve seen or experienced, or they can ask questions about rules.
  • Players can make fun of your cat. (This may only apply in my house. Not sure.)
  • As above, GMs get a little break to think about how they’ll respond to new items players have purchased, strategies they’ve created, or opinions they have formed.

Remember that it might make sense for you to suggest some of these things to your players if they overlook them; point them to a rulebook or suggest they shop if they aren’t sure what to do.

As valuable as the down time might be, you don’t want to take an hour setting up scenery. Here are some hints for speeding up scenery changes:

  • For complicated scenes that require several buildings and/or NPC minis, set them up ahead of time. Take a picture with a digital camera (I use the one on my phone) as a quick reference for during the game.
  • If you’re setting up scenes on wipe-off surfaces like Dungeons and Dragons Game Mats or GameMastery Flip Mats, use a wipe-off marker to mark locations of buildings/items ahead of time. You can label each one, since the building will end up sitting on top of your label. I’m fastidious, so I often just trace the outline of the base of the building, then write its name in the resulting box; that way, I know exactly how I meant to orient it.
  • If you’re using paper “floors” that you’ve printed out yourself or non-wipe off surfaces like Paizo GameMastery Map Packs, consider picking up a piece of plexiglass at your local Home Depot. You can put it over your paper bases and mark on it with wipe-off markers. (To be fair, it’s a bit of trouble to get wipe off marker off of plexiglass, but it can be done with some Windex and time.)
  • Sort all scenery and sets of NPC minis by encounter, if possible. I throw everything into the Purple Box of Doom, but stuff from the same scene gets stacked in the same corner of the box.
  • If your players will move through several locales during the same session, choose only the most important one or two to represent with scenery. Note, though, that it’s easy to fall into the trap of only setting up scenery for battle encounters. Avoid this; the players will know when to gear up for a fight.
  • Only go “all out” for one scene per session. It’s cool to have eight million realistic little details, but if scenery changes end up taking away from your game, they’re not worth it.
  • Be willing to scrap scenery if the players seem restless. I’ve made whole encounters of scenery that never came out of the box because my players were so invested in the flow of the game that I didn’t want to break their stride. No big deal–I had fun making it, and they had fun playing the scenario. Nobody really lost anything, and most pieces of scenery that you make will eventually be reusable in another adventure.

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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