9 Dwarven Forge Tips (Using 3D Terrain)

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0257

A Brief Word From Johnn

GM Roleplaying Tips Encyclopedia Updates Soon

Thanks to everyone who has supported the e-zine by purchasing the Encyclopedia. This is just a heads-up to let you know I’m working on the 2004 updates and they’ll be ready in the coming weeks.

The 2004 updates will include all the tips from Issues #1 to #250, sorted and ordered in numerous ways as per the usual Encyclopedia standard. I’ll be e-mailing those who purchased the Encyclopedia in 2004 and 2005 for the free updates when they are ready for download.

Playing Again!

My second campaign has switched GMs, as per the agreement at its start, and now I get to play for a few months until we switch back. I’m playing a barbarian in a homebrew world of the new GM. I find it takes me at least two sessions to get into a PC’s skin and fully flesh out his personality and motives. I’m not sure why. How about you? When you play, do you have your PC 100% figured out before the first dice is rolled, or does it take awhile to figure them out?


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

9 Dwarven Forge Tips (Using 3D Terrain)

Dwarven Forge is the awesome company who sponsors this e- zine. One of their most popular products is the pre- fabricated, highly detailed, professionally painted, 3D fantasy and sci-fi moulded “tiles” for use at the game table with or without miniatures.

3D pieces bring your dungeons, buildings, and scenes to life. They help bring the vertical back into the equation. They help the group establish a shared vision of the map and environment. And 3D models bring a new layer of fun and physicality to the table — they’re one of those high-impact props available to gamers.

The following tips are based on my personal GMing and playing experiences with several different Dwarven Forge tile sets. These tips should also be equally applicable to any 3D-type terrain you purchase or make, such as plaster castings, Lego, or Popsicle sticks.

If you’re thinking of acquiring some terrain, I highly recommend checking out the Dwarven Forge online product gallery and catalogue. Not only would that help support this e-zine (if Dwarven Forge receives sales from e-zine referrals they’ll find value in continuing sponsorship), but based on personal playing experiences, I can testify to their satisfying weight, excellent quality, and coolness factor.

Dwarven Forge

1. Create A Design Before Set-Up

Know your floorplan before set-up. If you’re the type of GM who runs with little or no planning, then I have a few words of floorplan design encouragement for you:

  • Having a whole bunch of interlocking terrain pieces to craft a dungeon from is like being given a blank sheet of paper and told to write about anything. It’s writer’s block waiting to happen.
  • Crafting a floorplan ahead of time will prevent panic attacks and game delays.
  • Dwarven Forge pieces interlock. They’re easy to set-up and disassemble. However, making mid-course corrections during set-up can be a pain with certain map designs. You need to lift out the pieces that are getting re-arranged and then put them back in their revised placement. There’s no simple erase button or CTRL+Z undo.
  • Knowing what you are assembling prevents costly set-up delays and frustration.
  • I chose this tip’s title with care. It used to be named, “Craft A Map Before Set-Up.” However, the word “design” is key.
  • First, you’re going to have a limited number of terrain pieces to work with. These will constrain the number and types of possible design combinations. If you purchase or handcraft another set of tiles, you’re doing more than just adding the ability to set-up a couple more rooms and hallways. You’re actually greatly expanding the number of design possibilities as well, giving you more options and freedom with your creations.
  • On paper, you might whip up a cool floorplan, but your available pieces might require you to revise that plan. Therefore, you have to make the most with all your options and configurations, and this is where good design comes in handy.
  • Second, you want to do more than create a map for the PCs to wander through. You want to craft with the purpose and intention of creating maximum entertainment and game enhancement value. In other words, you should aim to draw up a floorplan that adds more to gameplay than a random map would contribute.

A couple examples of design tweaks: 

  • Add a slight jog to passages to break line-of-sight. This creates ambush opportunities for your NPCs and critters, or for the PCs.
  • Place guard rooms, living quarters, or sleeping chambers near locations that could see action, such as throne rooms, laboratories, and cell blocks. This lets you summon NPCs and reinforcements quickly, adding to the challenge level, requiring PCs to tread more carefully, and building greater tension. This also makes your designs more efficient, requiring fewer pieces.
  • Create a single path, or design paths that can be followed linearly, to encourage forward progress and discourage random backtracking. Unless you have enough Dwarven Forge sets to layout your entire dungeon or location at once, you’ll need to recycle pieces as the PCs move around and explore.If you craft a map that makes it likely areas will be re- visited on a moment’s notice, and encourages or requires the PCs to zip back and forth to repeat locations for encounters, then you’ll be doing a lot of setting up and breaking down of the sets. This slows down gameplay and might frustrate you.
  • Recycle areas. On the other hand, there is value in revisiting the same area or areas repeatedly: you become faster at tile set-up. You soon learn the most efficient way to piece each room together, you get the map memorized and remember where entrances, exits, and other features are, and so on. For example, a gladiator-type room with pillars and multiple levels would be fun to design and you’d become very quick at set-up each time the PCs visit.

2. Use Paper Or Cardboard Facsimiles To Help Planning

To speed up map-making and design, consider cutting up paper or cardboard versions of the tiles and pieces you have available. You can then mix and match, and plan out your floor design much easier.You might also consider taping the paper versions together onto a board or piece of cardboard to serve as a quick set- up template you can use over and over again. This is valuable for complex room and cavern designs, for example.

Another option is to cut Post-It Notes to size. Use a paper cutter to cut whole pads or half pads at once to the size of your tiles for rapid pattern-making.Dwarven Forge sets come with sample layouts and patterns, and the Dwarven Forge web site has a few sample set-up maps you can use: http://www.jefcon.com/df/pages/setups.html

3. Craft Rooms That Share Walls

To save on the number of pieces required for a design, place rooms next to each other and next to corridors and hallways so that they share walls. With a single wall border, you free up additional wall pieces for use elsewhere.Doing this sometimes makes set-up faster as well, depending on what direction the PCs take. If they visit the room next door, you’ll already have one wall set-up, for example.

4. Reserve For Big Scenes

It’s definitely fun having a full 3D dungeon laid out on the game table. It eliminates confusion over boundaries, areas of effect, position, and what’s going on in the game. However, if you have a limited number of sets or pieces, don’t have the space, or find it inconvenient to assemble the dungeon as you play, consider bringing out the sets for special occasions:

  • Climactic scenes
  • Combats with lots of critters or difficult situations
  • Situations where area effects and volume
    calculations are required
  • Scenes with important roleplaying – I’ve found
    the tiles can help with immersiveness

As an added benefit, reserving the terrain for infrequent use makes them even more special. One can get used to the tiles and possibly even take them for granted (just like we do with our dice, if you think about it) if they’re used all the time – though there are lots of benefits for using them regularly too – but if they’re only brought out once in awhile, it creates a great sense of excitement and anticipation.

Another benefit is that you can set-up special scenes before the session for fast, in-game rollout. As you won’t be needing the pieces for other areas, you can assemble things in a non-rushed manner ahead of time, put them aside, and reveal them when the time comes.

5. Use Filler Blocks To Create Big Sections

The Dwarven Forge sets have small tie pieces that are used to link tiles together and keep them snugly fit. You can definitely skip using them altogether. Many GMs do, in fact, as they find it makes things faster to set-up and break- down. The ties are useful if the table is unstable or gets bumped often, if you want to carry assembled sections around, or if you plan on leaving things assembled for awhile.

The fact that many of the pieces have square edges and the ties are optional means you can expand your options by using filler blocks made from wood, plaster, and what-have-you. For example, you could cut up plywood to make small square pieces to act as floors for caverns and rooms. This lets you assemble bigger areas with the pieces you have.Lots of other possibilities exist with different wood shapes and cuts.

6. Wield Lighting For Effect

The Dwarven Forge pieces are fully 3D. They don’t have ceilings, so you work with a “4th wall”, but that makes moving figs around and seeing areas much, much easier.Consequently, the open 3D aspect means you have lots of opportunities to experiment with cool lighting effects!

  • Shadows. The walls and various tile features will cast shadows.
  • Colours. Try for an eerie red glow or soothing green ambience.
  • Contrast. A sharp, bright light can make a room or scene seem stark.
  • Mysterious. Turn the lights down in the room and strategically light up only certain sections of your set-up. The unlit areas will feel dim, grim, and mysterious. Put dark-coloured figs in those sections for greater effect.

For lighting, you have lots of options. Here’s a couple of ideas:

  • Desk lamps. Certain models are perfect because they generally light up a limited area – perfect for spot lighting. They are also adjustable, so you can try some shadowplay. Depending on what kind of lamp you have at your disposal, you might want to mark (i.e. with a notch, marker, paint) different positions that give you the effects you want so set-up time during the game is minimal.
  • Maglite or flashlight. Small, handheld lights are perfect for spot effects and narrow effects. Military flashlights have lens filters and dimming settings for cool lighting effects. These can be hard to mount or position with stability, so think about this issue before the game.
  • For small lights, you can try actually placing them amongst the tiles, such as in corridors are room corners, to light up specific sections.
  • Coloured bulbs. A lamp with a red or blue bulb can turn a regular dungeon into something hellish or submerged.
  • Lighting equipment. There’s a lot of lighting equipment and items out there to check out. Special lamps, shades, switches, and so on can be combined to create neat special effects. I suppose a disco ball would be out of place though, eh?

7. Use A Laser Pointer For Calculations

A cheap laser pen or laser pointer can really take advantage of 3D terrain to help make tricky line-of-site judgement calls. If you have a compact pointer, you can put it into the set-up in front of or near a mini and use the laser to determine what can be seen and how far sight is possible. It also comes in handy for lightning rebound calculations.

8. Don’t Forget To Use Props

Dwarven Forge also produces lots of to-scale props, such as dungeon furnishings, for use with their sets. Props add a great new level of immersiveness and fun-factor when using 3D terrains, and I highly recommend employing some.Dollar stores and department stores are also great places to find props. Cheap glass beads, plastic toys, sewing supplies, and so on, can be used as-is, painted, or modified for use as furnishings, treasure, obstacles, and traps.

It’s doubly effective using props for treasure. When discovered, the treasure can be picked up by the player and held onto. That way, you know who has what, and the gaming set-up gets a cool boost. Players are also more inclined to remember and use items for which they have a tangible prop as well.

9. Choose Figs Carefully

I found that choice of miniatures is very important. In narrow corridors and tightly packed situations, real space is at a premium. Further, when you add walls, you add a new boundary that figs have to fit within.We had the biggest problem with minis of PCs and NPCs that had large weapons or spacious stances. A warrior with a two- handed sword had to be turned at certain angles in some areas of the set-up to fit within the tiles.

Figs with limbs akimbo got hung up in corridors and in party line-ups where the marching order was base-to-base.You’ll encounter these issues and similar ones regardless of what 3D terrain, pieces, and sets you end up using. To mitigate this:

  • Use figs whose limbs and equipment don’t extend beyond their bases.
  • Warn your players about this issue before they go shopping for a mini or pick a fig to represent their PC for the entire campaign.
  • Consider using placeholders for figs in tight spots. Pennies, glass beads, and counters are good for this.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

GMing a Non-Linear Campaign

(The “Tree” Campaign)

From Ria Kennedy

A lot has already been said about putting together a campaign with a beginning, middle, and end, and some has been said about mission-based campaigning, but not much has been said about combining these two types of campaigning. Simply put, when you put both together, you get an Odyssey, with a beginning and end, with a lot of little stories in the middle. Thus, you get a tree, with a trunk and a tip, with as many branches in the middle as you want, and each as its own story.

The drawbacks to an old-fashioned beginning-middle-end campaign is that these can be long and drawn out with no end in sight. Also, there is less free choice for the GM or PC, as there is a main story that must be supported by PC actions and decisions almost constantly, or the whole campaign is a wash that can create undesired tension, and sometimes limit creativity. However, these campaigns are great for developing characters, having a detailed and in- depth story, and they support great emotion.

The drawbacks to a mission-based campaign are that you don’t usually develop characters deeply, have really moving stories, or develop meaningful relationships (most are relationships of expediency – go here, do this). However, there can be a lot of creativity. Since there is no main campaign overhead, you can do stories as the mood strikes you or as your PC is inspired. You get a lot of bang for your buck, and there is a resolution fairly quickly, so no one is left with their hands tied, like in linear gaming, where there is always something else they have to do for the main plot.

In non-linear campaigning, the focus is on the characters and what happens to them on their journey, not on a complicated linear plot, or meaningless, dead-end missions. So, simply, take the strengths of each, and combine them in such a way as to minimize their singular weaknesses.

Have in mind what kinds of characters will be involved. Perhaps you decide one of the characters has someone famous in their background, that someone will take an interest in them, or some other complication. These ideas should be general enough to enhance the player’s own idea of his or her character, but not quash their character concept. The complications should be revealed through adventures, after they have been playing for a while, have a feel for the world and care about how these complications could help or hinder their character.

However, whatever you do, it must be fair, and not something that will penalize the PC unless they will get some kind of help to balance it out.

Create a very scanty main plot, having in mind the beginning and the end for the characters. This is the backstory, and is something that may be touched on occasionally, but will not be focused on unless it is introducing something of each of the character’s destinies, or until the Odyssey is coming to a conclusion.This back-story should be allowed to grow and develop, as you may find it evolves through gameplay.

Remember, this is about the _characters_, not a plot. How do the characters start out? What dilemma unites them? What forces threaten to break them apart? If they survive (and unless they really blow-it, they should), what is the desired general outcome for these characters? Remember, if a heroic character suddenly turns villainous because of a terrible loss, you may have to change this but try to always keep the potential end in focus.

Enjoy yourself by introducing facets and people of the world through finite stories, ones that conclude after a night or two of play. Deeply involve the PCs with repeating characters in the intrigues, dilemmas, and hassles of their world. Make sure some of these short adventures focus on the PCs, so that you can lightly add-on a little back-story information here and there, nothing that overwhelms the ‘branch’ of the story you are telling though.

Remember, you are campaigning a journey here. Backstory adventures can be in the guise of personal PC goals (introduced by somehow getting them the knowledge that something is in it for them) or drama that is not just drama for the sake of drama. This is tied into the things that motivate the character. Perhaps someone tells the PCs something from their deathbed, or gives one a secret map, or there is a dream or a vision.

The tree trunk, or beginning of the campaign, should have some thought put into it, as should the tree tip, or end of the campaign. These are life-changing moments, and as such, should not be accidents or mistakes, but they should reflect the character’s choices and actions, as well as their destiny. If a character has worked very hard to become known for his fairness in adjudicating matters, and you wanted him to be a king, make sure he is known as the adjudicating king.

Each PC should end as a culmination of his choices and actions in your story. Try to think how you can meld your vision, with the vision of your players about their characters.

Everything that comes in the middle of the ‘tree’ is pure world and character development. Yes, some of it may go to the back-story, but most of it is just adventuring, pure heroism or villainy at its best, where a brawl can be just sweaty, ale-reeking men and women beating on one another, and a cigar is just a cigar.

Non-linear, or tree-form campaigning, is simple, fresh, and in a lot of ways, easier than the other two forms of campaigning. In middle-beginning-end gaming, a lot of things get complicated fast, and there are lots and lots of details to manage. In mission-style roleplaying, it can feel like something is missing, and those campaigns are usually quite short – there is no glue holding it together.

Non-linear campaigning puts the focus on the characters and their actions, takes the pressure off the GM, and puts the tension back where it belongs in the unfolding saga of the characters we play.

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Building NPC Relationships 

Starting Small With Family Units

From Deacon Rayne

You want to build a world? Start with the people.

Now before you charge off and create a civilization, scale back a bit, reflect, and then narrow your aim. Start with something small when building NPC relations, such as a family tree.

First off, we need parents. One mother and one father is usually the biological bare necessity for the beginnings of a family. Note that they no longer need to be around or even alive at this point. It’s safe to say, whether by their presence or absence, they had an influence on the family unit. Now, most medieval families were as large as they could feed them mainly for two reasons:

  1. Extra hands to till the fields.
  2. Infant mortality was sky high and one tended to hedge their bets.

You can have as many as twelve brothers and sisters, not to mention extended family such as aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and so on. But let’s keep this simple: one brother, two parents and the starting character. And before the gentle reader is disappointed at the seeming utter lack of complexity remember, Caine and Able proved that even the smallest family units could have some interesting moments from time to time.

So, where to begin? Are the parents alive or dead? If they are dead, how did the origin character (henceforth referred to as “you”) and your brother survive? As Dickens proved, orphans often have a tough time of it. Did your community take you in? If so, who and why? Did they do it out of love and generosity?

Was it grudging, perhaps even unwilling, and do they resent you and your brother for it? (Check out Harry Potter for a good example of this setup). Did you and your brother have to go it alone, perhaps becoming thieves or enlisting into the military? Were you enslaved? Did you and your brother work together to survive, watching each other’s back?

Or did the fear and uncertainty of the situation drive a wedge between you, festering hostility, competitiveness, betrayal, perhaps even to the same biblical degree as mentioned above? Bad situations tend to bring out the best and the worst in people; which were you?

On the other hand, if your parents are alive, what’s the situation? Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opened up with a brilliant insight about this: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Granted, not every family unit in your campaign should be dysfunctional, but let’s face it – domestic bliss is boring story material. Who do you remember more keenly: the Cleavers or the Adams?

If everything was hunky dory, with loving parents and a supporting brother, well, how did that happen? Were you so wealthy that the stresses of earning your daily bread were avoided? Was your family so pious and faithful in their god’s protection that their courage never wavered and were thus able to maintain perfect familial serenity? Everything has an explanation, and in D&D, just like life, no one is perfectly content or even happy without some cause. Find out what it is and define it.

If, on the other hand, there was sorrow and struggle and conflict, why? Was it famine, plague, jealous neighbors, marauding orcs? It doesn’t even have to be an external source of conflict. Ask anyone who’s a child of divorce (myself included) and they’ll tell you sometimes the blackest, bitterest disrupters of your family life come from within your own family. Is the case? Why? Was it about money, loyalty, pride, competition, addiction, infidelity, insanity, or some combination?

Again, it’s a long list and, like happiness, misery needs an explanation. So ask yourself all these questions and remember that nothing is insignificant. For instance, if your brother is an older brother, then there may have been a lot of pressure put on you to live up to your big brother from your parents, whilst your brother himself may have been quite distant and most likely irritated that he had you tagging along trying to imitate him.

If, on the other hand, you are the big brother, the situation was reversed with your parents putting pressure on you to look out for junior while he insisted on following you around everywhere and tried to be just like you.

Once you have worked out how everyone gets along (or doesn’t) with everyone else, step back and play with it a little, then set it aside and start another family using the same method. Keep doing that until you have four to six families and then start connecting them. Many times, most families in medieval communities were kith or kin through either marriage or blood. Get some of that going.

Shakespeare showed all kinds of interesting things could happen between families when love gets involved. Who loves who? Why? Who hates who? Why? Usually, the reasons are pretty similar if not identical. Are there families with long standing relationships? How? Why? Are there feuding families? How did it start? Why does it continue? Keep asking the questions and making the answers and soon you will have a fleshed-out community with detailed NPC relationships.

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Problematic Campaign Anecdote Follow-Up

From Matthew Leach

(In Response to Redwing [RPT #254])

In my previous campaign, I gave my players the freedom to do whatever they wanted. As Redwing hinted at in his first point, I didn’t control what the players did with their characters. My only stipulation was that they only use official source books from Wizards of the Coast.

This posed many problems including the fact that half of the source books were balanced towards v3.0 rules, while the other half were balanced towards v3.5 rules – Wizards of the Coast doesn’t seem to identify which very well. In my new campaign, I have taken character development under my wing in a number of ways outlined below.

  1. I have further limited characters to use only the base classes from the PHB for now. This allows me to know the extent of each characters abilities and to design my adventures around that.
  2. I have taken a new approach to the concepts of leveling characters. Whereas Redwing has totally given the players the choice on when they level and how much XP they gain, I have taken the opposite approach. I have totally removed the tracking of experience from my players. I keep my own record of experience for each character, and the players never know exactly how much XP they have or need to get to the next level. This has several advantages in my mind. First, the players no longer have to think about how much XP they need to get to the next level and should be less worried about ‘power-leveling’. Second, it allows me to grant bonuses and penalties to XP as well as control the ‘flow’ of XP to the characters, similar to what Redwing suggested.
  3. A change of setting seems to be a good thing. The old campaign was set in a vastly open area and I allowed my players to travel where they wished without any trouble. I wasn’t too worried about them keeping track of events on a larger scale, because I do this anyway. However, the characters had no concept of time and they seemed to become detracted from the world. They never seemed to stay in one place for very long, and thus never had the chance to develop vital relationships with NPCs.

My new campaign is something totally different – it’s set in a huge bustling city with a population of around 30,000. A city is a great place to start a campaign; it offers a lot of adventure possibilities in a rather safe environment, granting that there is some sort of law and order present.

It has plenty of places for the party to visit and explore, and plenty of things to keep the characters occupied. On a grander scale, the city is nestled in a much more enclosed environment that offers plenty of adventure possibilities, while limiting character movement with inhospitable terrain (huge mountains, ocean, and so on).

In essence, I have taken away the total freedom that my players may be used to, and shoved in a huge reality check. This is not a bad thing and will ultimately lead to a better game for all. The players still have freedom in the sense that they control the characters, but I have taken back control of the overall storyline.

The characters are, after all, characters in _my_ world. This may seem an arrogant approach, but I believe that it will make for a more interesting story, and at the end of the day, a more enjoyable game for everyone. My players are all aware that I am open to suggestions and that everything I do is justified and for the greater good.

I hope this helps someone in some way.