Every season on Project Runway, one episode is devoted to “the unconventional challenge.”

This is a process whereby the designers are taken to some random location—a dollar store, a storage locker facility, an abattoir—to collect the themed materials for their next project. (Or so I’m told. Not that I’ve ever watched the show myself. Or Top Chef. Or Big Brother. And definitely not House Hunters regularly; and I certainly did not apply to be on that show, making it past two rounds of interviews.)

At its heart, the unconventional challenge is about competitive kit bashing—an activity I’ve always appreciated, and have heartily recommended for tabletop gaming. After all, D&D has its very roots in kit bashing. The original rules of the game were born from a combination of wargaming, fantasy, and roleplaying in a process that had never been done before. The first dragons to ever hit the gaming table were remodeled from plastic dinosaurs, and the rust monster, bulette, and owl bear originated from dime store toys. In fact, a good portion of the game’s bestiary is gleefully cobbled together from any number of inspirational sources, mythologies, and genres.

In this installment of Behind the Screens, I wanted to offer a few suggestions for modding and kit bashing at your gaming table, whether it’s with materials, settings, or other options.

MAPS OF THE (GAME) WORLD

In one of my earliest campaigns, the players decided to rebuild a fallen stronghold. Without a pre-drawn map at hand, we mutually agreed to stand in our Post Exchange (we were all Army brats)—we knew the place by heart and could quickly imagine where things were happening, even when the party split up to defend different areas from later incursions. Sure, it broke a certain verisimilitude referring to the castle’s video arcade, sub shop and commissary, but it worked as a very convenient shorthand.

Ultimately, bringing in this real world location ended up making for a great gaming experience. Defending the PX created a stronger connection for the players than it would have for a more generic castle, and they ended up holding the place for long months afterward as their base of operations.

Even if playing in a known campaign world, the use of real-world maps can help better flesh out a setting for the players. Whether it’s maps of individual buildings, a city, or a broader territory, incorporating the real world can help players imagine and identify locations in the game more easily. Certainly, this makes immediate sense in modern or future settings (think d20 Modern, Rifts, or Shadowrun set in your own home city). But it can work just as well for fantasy settings. After all, the World of Greyhawk originated from an older campaign setting built around a map of North America, with downtown Chicago inspiring the layout of the great free city.

When it comes to finding real-world maps, an enormous number are available online. Take New York City as just one example—you might allow the Metropolitan Museum to stand in as a grand palace, use Central Park as a wilderness or druid glen, or turn the subway system into a map of known roads, caravan routes, or hunting trails laid down by monsters or bandits.

PICK A CARD

In another campaign a few years later, my group alternated between playing D&D and Magic: The Gathering. This meant that Magic cards were often scattered around the game table along with character sheets and rulebooks. At some point, I had the notion to grab a handful of cards and incorporate them into the game.

Players and monsters had equal access to these cards, which they carried around as single-use scrolls. Whenever someone wanted to “cast” a card, they flipped it onto the table. As the DM, I quickly adjudicated the card’s effect in terms of a roughly equivalent spell; the higher the card’s cost and rarity, the more powerful the effect. A lightning bolt card was self-evident. A crazed goblin worked as a summon monster spell. A living wall conjured a magical barrier that could be horridly hacked through in order to bypass it, and so on. We even played Nevinyrral’s Disk, which wiped out all monsters in play but also dropped the characters to 0 hit points, forcing them to stabilize in order to survive.

You might consider using Magic cards as physical tokens representing magical scrolls or charms (see chapter 7 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). Many other RPGs use cards in this way already. Deadlands, for example, uses a standard deck of playing cards as part of its spellcasting and combat system, matching the flavor of its Old West setting.

TECHNOLOGY AND TRAUMA

At one point, I wanted to run a group through the classic Tomb of Horrors adventure—specifically, players that had never entered its legendary corridors before. The adventure is renowned as a meat grinder, and for being capricious and arbitrary (to quote one Cosmo Kramer) to boot.

In order to preserve the deadly nature of the adventure, but also trying to avoid frustration on behalf of the players, I opted for a bit of an experiment. The game made use of the original adventure, but was set within a slightly more science fiction/Gamma World version of the D&D game. Players were tasked with completing the dungeon, but their patron (a highly advanced version of the monster known as the brain in a jar) had established an elaborate cloning station at the entrance.

Each time the characters died (and they died often), they reappeared back at that entrance as cloned versions of themselves, ready to assault the tomb again. This instant resurrection didn’t come without cost, though. Think the six-pack of clones in the classic Paranoia game, or Hank and Dean in the Venture Brothers animated series. Or, better yet, Michael Keaton in Multiplicity, a film in which each clone was an imperfect copy of the one before. For the Tomb of Horrors, this meant that each clone returned with a further mutation—handled through Gamma World alpha mutation cards. The only cure? To complete and finally exit the dungeon!

Science-fiction elements have long been a part of D&D, from Dave Arneson’s Temple of the Frog (the first prewritten adventure for the original Dungeons & Dragons game) to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and the legendary artifact the Machine of Lum the Mad. However, if SF isn’t to your particular taste, you might approach a meat-grinder dungeon through the use of a large number of minions for the party—the followers and hirelings of old, revisited in chapter 4 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Such NPCs shouldn’t function simply as door openers and trap testers, however. The more collective risks these minions take for the party, the more shares of the final treasure they earn as a group—all of it taken from the player characters’ shares.

Likewise, in a fifth edition game, the accumulated drawbacks of being repeatedly cloned might be handled by gaining disadvantage for an increasing number of die rolls, or perhaps added (or exaggerated) background flaws (chapter 4 of the Player’s Handbook). Minor or major detrimental properties from artifacts (chapter 7 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide) or specific types of madness (as seen in the forthcoming Out of the Abyss adventure) could also do the job.

TREASURE AND TRINKETS

The spirit of kit bashing in D&D is exemplified in the simple elegance and utility of the trinkets table in chapter 5 of the Player’s Handbook. Good heavens, how I love that table—and the notion of trinkets in general. We’ve solicited and published further elemental-themed trinkets, and would encourage DMs to not only expand the trinket table for their own campaigns (with options that speak to both the characters as well as the players), but to further sprinkle trinkets throughout treasure troves, inside giants’ bags, or whenever players rifle through an otherwise empty storeroom’s sacks, crates and barrels in search of loot.

I recently had the privilege to DM a game at Bungie Studios (running a group through the D&D Adventurers League scenario Defiance in Phlan). During character creation, one of the players rolled for a trinket and came up with number 22 on the table: a small wooden statuette of a smug halfling. The player happened to be playing a halfling thief, and loved the idea that he carried around a miniature model of himself. No later treasure found during the game compared to that trinket.

Similarly, I’ve had players forgo newfound +2 weapons in favor of keeping older +1 weapons of a specific type they preferred, or weapons that had no other powers but simply happened to be named. Players like owning items with memorable details, and they value them accordingly. After all, it’s one thing to find a ten-dollar bill on the ground; it’s something else to find the torn half of a hundred-dollar bill and know that the other half is somewhere nearby. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones treasured his fedora more than that golden idol, I’d argue. To that end, consider more hats and fewer golden idols in your game!

FURTHER RESOURCES

Over the years, a good deal has been written on the subject of props, mods, and variants in D&D—as demonstrated in the Unearthed Arcana section of this website. The following are a few additional references and points of inspiration worth looking at:

  • Penny Arcade published several reports from Gabe’s own game, where he created a real-life light and mirror puzzle and 3D foam worlds (part 1 and part 2).
  • The inimitable Steve Winter wrote a series on crafting table props and scenery for the D&D Miniatures line.
  • The Geeky Hostess (who recently contributed an elemental-themed dinner menu to the Wizards website) runs her own site with advice galore on tricking out game nights.
  • And, as always, check out the many excellent articles on fine-tuning your game from NewbieDM, Sly Flourish, and any of the ENnie-nominated websites offering further tips, tricks, suggestions, and tutorials!

About the Author

Bart Carroll once kit-bashed all the monsters of a Creature Competition together into a single adventure. He then mashed up Gamma World, RoboRally, and Christmas. He blogs at bartjcarroll.com, tweets at @bart_carroll, and would love to hear about your own tabletop tricks (so he can steal them for his own game, naturally).