Thursday, September 17, 2020

Lego Terrain: Game Pictures

One of the main problems that all GMs have is quickly setting a scene. Just creating common knowledge among the players of what is happening, without boring them with detail, is a hard problem. I have seen and used many methods of setting a scene, from drawing on an erasable battlemat, to using various kinds of dungeon tiles (including Lego builds), to verbally describing the room. The method of putting Lego wall segments and scenery bits on a gridded tablecloth is by far the fastest, easiest, and most fun method. Everything else just feels wrong now.

In this post, I use pictures from games I have run to illustrate various things I have learned about the use of Lego as terrain and play aids, discussing my experiences of what has worked well and what has not. The Game Pictures post is four years old, and since then I have run a lot more games, using a lot more builds and techniques. For almost all of them, I had to take all of my supplies somewhere in a backpack, meaning I was running the game with what I could fit in a plastic shoebox.

For a while, I experimented with using a hex-grid tablecloth instead of the square grid one. I found that Lego walls and small builds work just fine on a hex grid. It worked especially well for outdoor environments; I could quickly create a vast scene with lots of room to roam around and explore, in this case an overgrown temple overrun with bugs:

Experienced Lego builders, or Ninjago fans, might have recognized the terrain piece from The Vermillion Attack in the picture above. It has a play feature where you twist a Technic piece and the egg pops open and snakes jump out. I added a plate so that it could make spiders jump out instead. I can confirm that it is loads of fun to spring that on the players in-game.

The yellow wall in the picture above is a Wall of Stone, which the party wizard cast to control the battlefield and prevent the party from getting surrounded. You can see that it is just 1x4 and 1x6 yellow bricks stacked up, representing two 10-foot segments of the wall. Making Lego builds to represent spells like this that place anything on the environment is a very handy play aid.

Another way to make a large dungeon that you can fit in your backpack is to use microscale. Have each stud represent a 5-foot square and use Heroica figures for the PCs and enemies. You can build the dungeon on baseplates, and pull out and connect the sections as the PCs explore:

Microscale is also appropriate for naval combat. Make microscale ships, and move them around with people on board. One Spelljammer game featured both of these uses of microscale. The PCs had to stealthily approach a Mind Flayer Nautiloid, using space terrain as cover, and breach it with their ramming craft. The setup uses my then-standard technique for setting the height of floating objects or flying or swimming characters: blue bricks and plates, placed sideways, with every three studs marked. This normally marks 5 feet of height, but in microscale it marks 15. However, they were very prone to falling over, and in future games I will be using sideways tires as the base for flying objects and marking vertical distance and all associated diagonals with a ruler.

After breaching, they fought their way to the core to defeat the mother brain. ( In my game, the inside of the ship was a single level that tapered to a point, using gravity magic to curl it up into the nautiloid shape.) That is the microscale dungeon above.

Then, after they took over the ship, in the next game I switched back to normal scale, representing the ship's bridge with a few walls and magitech gizmos. As they were piloting it back to salvage, they had to fight off a swarm of space jellyfish. The jellyfish are a simple build of sticking tentacles and tubes under a cockpit piece that otherwise has no use in a fantasy world:

In a different storyline, back on the ground, they fought Yuan-ti, made with a large humanoid torso on a radar dish base that represents the snake coils. I was experimenting with a variable-height terrain system, using technic pegs and long beams, but it was more trouble than it was worth. Next time I'll just put the baseplate on four big pillars of stacked 2x4 bricks.

If you look closely at the baseplates above, you can see my favorite method of making a 1-inch grid on a Lego baseplate: put a 1x1 plate, or some other thing, every three pegs. in each direction. Minifigs are placed in the four pegs in the center of the square formed in this way. This creates a workable grid in a way that looks natural, and matches the little white crosses that mark out grids on some dungeon tiles.

Here's a mad wizards's lab. Note the gold pylons, made with a yellow ski and propeller cowling. These kinds of pieces inevitably show up bulk brick lots, and tend to accumulate, cluttering up my brick filing system until I sit down with them and try to figure out how to make them into useful game terrain. The system of placing things on a non-Lego surface helps a lot, because it lets you easily ignore traditional geometry and place things sideways. It would have been a much more challenging build to put that pylon on a Lego baseplate, but instead I can quickly throw it together and toss it in one of my terrain bins.

Speaking of using up 'worthless' parts, I use printed space parts to represent a modron hive. The party had to destroy one when the modrons tried to start a colony and consume the ecosystem. The red slaad in the top-middle under the orrery is a party ally; recruiting a creature of chaos to fight creatures of law can be a good strategy. To the left you can see parts of a wall of fire that the wizard cast to block off a hive opening, and near the bottom is a summoned scorpion from a figurine of wondrous power:

The black tiles surrounded by gray plates represent pits or fissures in the ground. I use those little things a lot.

The gray disks are puddles of gray goo. To make the modrons more powerful and scary, I made them dissolve into puddles of living corrosive goo when they die, which have to be destroyed with magic or energy attacks. I have gotten a surprising amount of use out of piles of loose radar disks. They can mark status effects, environmental conditions, and other markers of interest on the map.

Here, assemblages of colored cones and dishes and small round plates are used for a puzzle room. They had different effects based on the color of one part, and the method of removing or dispelling them was based on the color of another part. The players had to try different things, watch what happened to their characters, and then figure out the rules of how to guard against and remove the magical effects.

Another good use of space parts is sideways engines to represent summoning rings or teleportation circles.

I ended up using cockpit-based elementals and oozes quite often. The 'junk pieces' ended up being more valuable for running the game than a lot of monsters or locations that you might be tempted to buy just for the game. The lack of perfection and detail gives them more flexibility. In this case, I added green bricks to the air elementals because they had been enhanced to include poison gas:

And of course, putting character minis inside a gelatinous cube never gets old. Here, they were cruising along in their little assault craft when they flew too close to a cube that was lurking along the travel path. Rescuing your teammates from one of those things is significantly harder in zero gravity. But by then, they had learned never to go into wildspace without a large supply of harpoons and grappling hooks. I got a lot of use out of those Lego rope pieces.

I have also gotten a lot of use out of the boulder pieces: earth, metal, ice and lava. They can represent elemental nodes and similar features, especially with the ability to put things inside them. If they roll high on some kind of search or investigation check, I can open the piece and hand them an interesting object. But they get used often enough that the players don't assume that there is always something inside. They are easy to throw in the bin and add variety and interest to encounters.

Of all the secret door pieces I have built, the red ones have been the most useful. Black and red have been the wall colors I use most often, and it is important to mix the secret door pieces in with basic terrain pieces. The variety of red secret door pieces, and the frequency with which I use red walls, mean that I can there are usually one or two of the secret door segments in every scene, whether or not there is a secret door there. If the characters look for one and find it, then open the door, and quickly add the other room and its contents, in this case a five-pointed shrine with different elements:

Overall, my experience has taught me to focus even more on simplicity, flexibility, and reusability. The builds that I keep replying on time and time again are often just one step up from using dice to mark terrain features on the map. Often they are just a few pieces stuck together, something that you can throw together in a minute with a novice level of Lego building skill. But that is all it takes to make the game so much better.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Wheels as Bases

For years, I had been vaguely dissatisfied with the options available for minifig bases. Because I use a 1-inch grid, I need something three studs wide or less. This rules out the bases that come with collectible minifigs or Dimensions characters. 3x3 plates are very rare, so I usually ended up using 2x3 plates. These were less than ideal, because on a cloth surface they often tip over. There are some off-brand solutions, but I don't like buying expensive custom parts.

Recently, I realized that wheels placed sideways make perfect bases. The rubber gives them a weight and grip that make them more solid and resistant to falling over, and several types of wheel fit nicely in a 1-inch grid:

I have a large bucket of wheels that came with bulk lots, just sitting around waiting to be used somehow. The only constraint is the number of 2x2 plates with the pin in the bottom.

There are even some old wheels that already have studs attached:

The wheels are taller than baseplates, which can look odd, but I suspect that we will get used to it quickly.

And while while the wheels are slightly better for minifig bases, they are much better as the bases for flying creatures:

You can use a much larger selection of wheels here; they can be taller and don't need to fit in a single square if they are the base for a Large creature. Try to use the kind of wheels that are a bit wider than the plastic tire, so that only the rubber is touching the table.

Large Humanoids

When running a game, you will often find that you need figures to represent Large humanoids like ogres, minotaurs, etc. And you will often need many of them; mid-level parties will often encounter packs of them. Here a design that allows you to mass-produce such creatures using common parts, using an ogre as an example:

There are of course many possible variations for the shoulder armor (use whatever fender pieces have accumulated), head, arms, and equipment.

Minotaurs can be produced on the same general template:

As well as a variety of more exotic things like Slaadi

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Magic Town

It all started with a Corner Deli set that I got as a present:

I liked the architectural styling, and I had a lot of door and window pieces I needed to get rid of, so I started making more. First I made a palette-swapped copy:

Then I started using up all of my spare doors and windows to make more buildings with the same height and approximate roof styling, adding fantasy and magical decor.

Finally, I used the ancient tiny doors and windows from the 70s, and a lot of wacky printed pieces (I think that chicken came from a happy meal), to make a gnome building:

I am really happy about how this turned out. It may not be suitable for a traditional fantasy game, but it is perfect for the homebrew Spelljammer/ Planescape/ Eberron mashup that my games are set in. It made a good setting for an epic battle about a town being attacked:

In addition to being a good game backdrop, it is the most display-worthy things I've built. It is colorful and well-styled, reminding people of a brownstone neighborhood.

I especially like how it came almost entirely from 'junk' parts that accumulated from bulk lots: Town doors and windows and printed awning slopes, odd printed tiles, and primary-colored bricks. Throw them all together, and you get something that looks like a magitech Diagon Alley.

It was also easy to build. Planning out a creation requires thought and effort. But copying and extending a simple build that you recently made from a kit is much easier. If you build a simple two-story ten-stud-wide house/storefront facade every few nights, pretty soon you have a thriving village.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Set Recommendations: Summer 2020

For the first time in a very long time, the current lineup of Lego sets can conveniently give you everything you need to run a fantasy game, with minimal alteration. It won't be a traditional medieval European fantasy game with historically-accurate castles, but frankly most games have not taken place in that setting for over 20 years. Fantasy RPGs are not about castles, they are about a team of adventurers (usually from a variety of backgrounds and cultures) exploring strange (usually creepy, haunted, or magic-infested) locations, and this year has lots of great dungeon terrain.

Hidden Side is the hidden gem of the recent sets. I'd recommend half of them. Dropping $100 on the good locations will set you up very nicely for running games, giving you a "GM's toolkit" of terrain and monsters that is more flexible and useful than any castle:

The Welcome to the Hidden Side set is an excellent value: For $20 (list price, usually a few bucks cheaper in most stores) you get three ghostly monsters and terrain that can be used in your game with minor adjustments. Just take off the plates with the English-language words, and separate the sections, and you are good to go. For a bit more customization, you can remove the black tree branches to make a standalone black tree with blue leaves, and take off the face opening from the brick doorway.

Newbury Subway, Lighthouse of Darkness, and Abandoned Prison are also great choices for the dungeon crawls and outdoor ruins that games usually take place in. All of them are filled with the kind of interesting and interactive terrain that makes a game fun. Once you make them, you'll want to split them apart into separate dungeon dressing or wall segments for flexibility and reusability.

The 'castle' set (that actually resembles a Victorian era mansion) is nice-looking and tempting, but has less play value than a collection of the smaller sets. It is a distinct place that you may use once or twice rather than generic terrain you'll use every week.

Piling on the riches, this summer's line of Ninjago sets is much closer to a traditional fantasy adventure feel. Most of them, as usual, are giant creatures or vehicles with limited value, but the location sets are perfect:

Journey to the Skull Dungeons is also an excellent value: For $25 you get minis with really nice, unique equipment and accessories in addition to perfect terrain and dungeon dressing. Wu's Battle Dragon is also a great value: $20 for a dragon, goblin, old wizard, and some dungeon dressing with a nice treasure to loot. And if you want to go upscale, the full Skull Sorcerer's Dungeons promises loads of fun.

There is a third iteration of the Creator 3-in-1 dragon and monster sets that are always nice. If you have one of the first two, this doesn't add anything, but if you are starting out, you will want it.

Every game will run into giants eventually. One option is to go with Forbidden Forest: Umbridge's Encounter, which also gives you two centaurs, forest terrain, and three minifigs, a good deal for $30.

Another option is the sets sold as 'mech suits', which are a good way of getting a nice poseable giant for $10. You have to fix them a bit, usually by adding a head. Usually Ninjago has a couple that are serviceable, but this year I'd go with the Thanos Mech. With a bit of alteration, you can remove the 'infinity gauntlet' pieces so it looks like a normal giant hand, and if you swap out the helmet the minifigure will be a generic purple-skinned humanoid rather than anything unique to the Marvel universe.

Friends has a 'Jungle Rescue' mini-theme that, while not as good as the Elves sets, does add more character and terrain options to your GM's toolkit. The minidolls are still appropriate for elf characters, even without pointed ears. About half of them do not have any modern-looking vehicles. Variety is always nice, so I would recommend one of these $20-30 sets rather than buying a third or fourth set in one of the themes you already have.

You should have something to represent a town or storefront or manor house or other civilian location. If these kinds of adventures will not happen often, you can go with something small like Townhouse Toy Store or Emma's Fashion Shop. Either of these works well, especially if you replace the plate glass on the first floor with something more period-appropriate (or just use as is and add magic gizmos for a Diagon Alley type of place). If you are running a rustic or lower-magic setting, go with last year's Outback Cabin, while you can still get it.

But if you have the budget, or expect a lot of town adventures, go with Attack on the Burrow. While it's no Medieval Market Village, it gives enough terrain for a small historical-fantasy village, once you de-stack it, and also gives you eight minis that are good for townsfolk or low-level starting adventurers.

And finally, Creator has given us a wonderful pirate ship for $100. I don't necessarily recommend it for most people, because you will get more value out of the smaller location-type sets, but if you are running a nautical (or Spelljammer) campaign it could be the center of many adventures:

This is the best pirate ship Lego has ever produced, for the simple reason that it uses a brick-built hull and sails rather than special pieces. The whole point of Lego is that you should be able to make anything from basic bricks. The old pirate ships broke this rule, and trained people to believe that you had to buy the special pirate ship set in order to make a pirate ship. If you tried to make your own, it would feel like an inferior substitute. But with this set, Lego is sending the message that normal bricks can do anything. After you build this ship, you should be able to make more on a similar pattern using your own bricks.

The special bonus of a brick sail is that you can customize it extensively. The skull and crossbones can be replaced with the iconography of a faction or nation in the game you are running. And the ship itself is also flexible, with potential for alteration. One of the great things about introducing ships (or airships) into a campaign is that it gives the players a mobile base that they will always want to upgrade. With this ship, you can alter or upgrade almost anything, and even make it longer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Terrain: Ledges and Crags

The Lego company and the online builder community have trained people to make large complicated display-worthy sets. This is sometimes nice for a big climactic showdown, but in order to sustainably run a game every week, you need a collection of simple yet robust multi-use terrain pieces. Here is a useful bit of 3-D terrain that is fun to drop in a game:

The build is pretty simple; you can adjust to use whatever you have available and probably make it look better.

1) Start by making the base. I prefer to put 1x1 round plates in this pattern, to match the 1-inch marks on printed dungeon times or battlemaps, but you can also make them with 4x4 plates if you want more space for the minis and don't care about compatibility with the standard grid. Add a technic peg in the back:

2) Add height. This one is a rough cave-like wall, but you can also go with a masonry wall and have the top bit be a balcony:

3: After making the wall nine bricks high (eight on top of the base pin), add the ledge or balcony. This is a good use for those plate-width bases, but if you don't have those you can stack plates together. Put another Technic pin on top:

4: When it is a height of 11 bricks, i.e. 9 bricks between the technic pins, connect them with a 1x13 Technic liftarm or a 1x14 Technic brick. If you don't do this, it will fall apart in transit or whenever you put something on the top:

Another fun option, although much less robust, is the little eroded crag island from the Tiger Widow Island set:

I downloaded the instructions and mass-produced them, because it was a good way to use up that big drill piece, or larger engine pieces that otherwise have no place in a fantasy world. I ended up using them a lot to represent floating islands in my Spelljammer game:

If you were not running a sea or space game, you can replace the blue base with gray and have them be mountain terrain.