How much work do you put into your weekly D&D prep? Do you craft a large scale immersive landscape for each adventure, complete with buildings, miniatures, and lighting effects? If not, then that means you’re not Todd Michael Putnam, a 53-year-old IT Director from Lehigh Acres, Florida, who pours an incredible amount of effort and skill into every D&D session he runs.
From shipwrecks amid swirling seas, to floating crystal castles atop cotton wool clouds, to twisting and turning rock-walled dungeons, each game board Putnam puts together is a treat for the eyes. He tackles each project alone, and spends several hours planning and building them to use in the adventures he runs for his regular D&D group. And the most astonishing thing of all? He does it every week.
It all began seven years ago, when Putnam got back into D&D 5th edition after a long hiatus. (He got his start with Basic D&D back in 1983). “I bought a set of unpainted Reaper Minis Stalagmite columns, and it just looked so amazing – even unpainted – on the table that it lit my imagination on fire,” he says.
After that, Putnam “started collecting with every check”, gradually building up a treasure trove of miniatures and construction pieces to be used in D&D adventures. He’s now built over 275 adventure tables and makes “at least one new one” every week. A spare bedroom has had to be sacrificed in order to house all his whopping creations.
Working a full time, 40-hour-a-week job, Putnam has to work fast, and these days he completes the average adventure within three to four hours, “including designing the story arc and encounters as I lay out the tiles and scatter terrain”. He says, “I can often just look at a mini and ask myself ‘what’s his or her story?’ and things kinda take off from there.”
The secret to Putnam’s productivity? Proper storage techniques. Putnam explains that, once a five or six hour D&D session on one of his tables is done, “it all gets broken down like Lego and stored in the organised and labelled bins. If I need swamp stuff, I know exactly which bins to grab from. Same for oceans, mines, caverns, snow caves, and forests.” Putnam asks his players at the end of each session what they want to do next, and that defines his next craft project. That way, like any good Dungeon Master, he can avoid railroading, “and never waste any time building adventures that they won’t ever see.”
An advocate of the table setup approach, Putnam says many DMs (wrongly) see them as only good for combat. “A great visually immersive setup gets players in the mood for roleplay too,” he explains. “It keeps them engaged and interested in what’s going on, even when it’s not their turn.” If you’ve ever had a player tapping their foot, checking their watch, or (we wince at the thought) pulling out their phone, you’ll know how crucial that is.
To encourage other DMs to get in on the act, Putnam created a Facebook group, ‘D&D Creative Table Designs’, in 2019, for people of “all skill and budget levels” to share builds and swap tips. It caught on quickly, and across a few years has swelled to 26,000 strong. “It’s a wonderful community, and they inspire me,” Putnam says. In late December last year, he also started up a YouTube channel, in order to explain his creations in more depth.
It’s tough for Putnam to pick out a favourite build, as he explains that sometimes it’s the adventure that happened at the table that he’s most proud of, and other times it’s really nailing an aesthetic. In the end, he says his favourite is: “whatever table I’m working on next. I go all in emotionally on creating the vibe, and I love the journey of creation itself”.
Looking to start crafting your own D&D adventures, but perhaps a little more low-key for now? These are the D&D mapmakers we recommend. Or if you want to craft your own scenery pieces and minis and get your adventure table factory going, here are the best 3D printers for printing miniatures.