Thanks to social media I stumbled across some of Todd’s work on a terrain building page which linked me over to his Instagram profile. I was in awe of all the incredible boards and miniatures on his page but most especially the boards, something that can often be taken for granted in tabletop gaming. So I reached out to Todd and asked if he wouldn’t mind sharing some more about himself so we can share that with all of you and he has been kind enough to put the following in his own words.
So, who are you and how did you get into the hobby?
I’m 53 years old and work a 40 hour a week job as a Director of Information Technology. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons way back in middle school around 1983 or 84, but of course back then it was all pure imagination and theater of the mind. I started with D&D Basic and then worked my way up through AD&D and 2nd edition. After that, life and work happened and I missed out on 3rd and 4th edition but a few years ago, 5th edition dropped and I figured I would go to one of the local stores and give it a try in a one shot drop-in game. I fell in love with it all over again and was soon in search of people to play regularly. It took quite awhile to get a regular group together but I noticed that when I put a little terrain down on the Chessex dry erase mat, everybody really enjoyed it, including me. That’s when the obsession kicked in for what I call “visually Immersive role-playing.” I started budgeting monthly for terrain and taking advantage of Kickstarters from Dwarven Forge, Reapers and other minis and terrain manufacturers. Seven years later, I have somewhere north of 5,000 minis and terrain for almost every imaginable fantasy story location. I build a new adventure table every week and I cast a wide net for where I get my terrain. Wizkids Warlock tiles, Dwarven Forge, Monster Fight Club, aquarium decorations, Fairy Garden, 3d printed stuff off eBay, Etsy and from kickstarters, etc. I look at anything and ask myself “what kind of story could I tell with this?”
What game systems do you play?
As far as which edition of D&D I use, I stuck with 5th edition for a full campaign but I took notes on what I liked and didn’t like about the system. Eventually, I created my own homebrew ruleset I call Creatures & Catacombs that rides on top of 5e. I made it freely available for download on DMSGUILD.com for anyone who is interested.My last couple of campaigns of 2+ years I have used that. I designed it to be modular so DMs can use just the rules they like out of it without having to change up their entire campaign. Fun fact, all the pics in the PDF are from actual adventures I ran.
What’s the process like for your tables and where does all the inspiration come from?
The process for creating tables, for me, is all about following the story the players are choosing to create. At the end of every session, I ask my players where they want to go next session. Descend to another level deeper in the dungeon or cave they are in, follow the treasure map they found to someplace out in the forest, head back to town and do some investigation or head off in a completely random direction and maybe join up with some privateers to hunt pirates out on the ocean. Could be anything. Whatever they decide, it gives me one week to come up with the story and build that adventure which will last between 5 and 6 hours on the 6’x4′ play space. In order to handle pacing, I just create a few extra optional encounters that I keep in my back pocket, so to speak. If the players burn through content faster than I expected, I can throw the extra encounters at them and they just wind up with a little extra XP and maybe some more gold or magic items. Nobody gets upset about that. If they are going too slow, I can always nerf the monsters to speed things up, but it’s all related to the story. If they just started making really poor decisions, I won’t save them from themselves. I have had players’ characters die on a few occasions. That’s the game. No guarantees and I think that’s what makes it exciting for the players. Knowing that if they survive, they really did do it and it’s something they can be proud of because the adventures I create can get pretty rough, but never unfair. If they make it by the skin of their teeth, that white knuckle experience is a story they can retell forever. For me, when the players have a great time, I have a great time. So the process of building the tables, for me, is all about building out the story the players are interested in and then creating the unexpected twists and turns that make things exciting. On the physical side of the building process, it’s all about storage organization. I have everything stored in labeled bins, so I know exactly where to go to get my desert stuff, dungeons, caverns, Astral plane, etc. I even sub-bag things within the bins so, for instance, I can pull out a gallon zip lock bag from the dungeons bin and see exactly how many floor tiles I have left to work with. The average build time, including creating that session’s story arc and encounters as I am laying out the tiles, is about 3 1/2 hours, however some tables have taken me as long as 7 1/2 hours to build. It’s not for everybody, but I love the creation process so for me, that’s just part of the fun. Tearing everything down and putting it away back in its proper, organized bins takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
How do you normally run the gaming sessions?
When I am actually running the sessions, I cover up unexplored areas with cheap black poster board from Walmart or a black cloth. That creates the fog of war and reduces meta-gaming. Like any DM, I get to play the part of all the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and I do my best to create fun (or annoying) but memorable personalities for the players to interact with. I try to put as much into my NPCs as I do the table design. Players always remember a great non-combat encounter where something funny happens to one of their friends or the NPC just drove them nuts somehow. The visually immersive table looks great and helps during combat but some DMs don’t realize it’s also great for encouraging role-playing from their players. When the terrain and minis are so immersive, it unlocks the players imagination and gets them in the mood to fully participate. Combat tactics are a lot of fun and I love that, but so is a great role-play segment. I personally find the best D&D sessions are a little like a good Marvel movie. Some action, some adventure, a little mystery, dash of humor and maybe some killer drama. Mix that all up in there and generally everyone walks away like they had a fulfilling experience because they feel emotionally invested in what just happened.
Do you use any special paint products or techniques?
For the minis, I painted my first 700 or so myself and then my eyes were just shot, even with a jewelers magnifying glass to paint with, so ever since then I either bought pre-painted or contracted one of my friends who loves painting Warhammer armies to do them. At this stage, if the minis and terrain look good from game play distance of about 3 feet away, I call that good. I marvel at the people who have the skill to create what I call micro-mona lisas, but I just don’t have the time or eyesight to make that happen anymore.
So what else do you have going on and what’s next?
About three years ago I decided to create a Facebook group called D&D Creative Table Designs. It’s all about what people do with their minis and terrain, no matter how they got them. Doesn’t matter if they purchased them retail, 3D printed it or crafted it. “How do you use it on the table?” is the question. So the group caters to everyone from just starting with no budget to pro level stuff. We encourage everyone to share their work because you never know when your solution might be exactly what someone else needs at their table. Our tagline is Creativity Runs on Inspiration, so even if you just want to scroll through and see the cool things others are doing, it can be just what you need to inspire you for ideas in your own game. We just hit 27k and are growing at a steady 1k to 1.5k per month. Really positive place too and I love checking it daily myself just to get inspired by so many other amazing people there. I have a small Youtube channel with seriously low rent production values, but I go through my adventure tables and explain how I build them and what the story for each of them is. I also have an Instagram account where I focus purely on D&D adventure table builds if you just want to see my adventure tables.
Thanks again Todd sharing this with us and I think I speak for everyone when I say we can’t wait to see what your future projects bring and the work you’re doing with Wizkids! Genuinely jealous of your DnD group getting to play on your fantastic tables weekly.
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