What Exactly Is The Harbinger Terrain System Anyway?

We keep talking about the Harbinger Terrain System.

But what exactly is it? That’s what we talk about in this week’s podcast.

The short version: it’s a way of bringing Vrahode to life in three dimensions, with the ability to create five-level dungeons right on your tabletop, no extra purchases required.

Vrahode will be coming to Kickstarter most likely in quarter four of 2023. When that campaign goes live, you will not only be able to buy the core game, Vrahode: The Calteeryn Ascension, but its three expansions as well.

Learn more about Vrahode on the websiteFacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

00:00 What Exactly Is The Harbinger Terrain System Anyway?
00:20 The Harbinger Terrain System
05:28 Countering complex assembly
07:04 Why has no one done this before?
10:48 Manufacturing Harbinger
17:35 Why go to all this trouble?
19:58 What makes a great game?


Jeff Irving: My name is Jeff Irving and this is the Vrahode Tavern Podcast. I am the creator of the Vrahode Game System, and in this podcast, we’re gonna do a deep dive into the lore and gameplay of Vrahode. I’m joined by Brandon Rollins who will be acting as a stand-in for you, many of the questions you might be curious about yourself.

Brandon, what’s the topic for today? 

The Harbinger Terrain System  

Brandon Rollins: For today’s episode, what I would like to go over is the, the very thing that we’ve talked about a ton, but have not actually gotten to on this podcast yet. Not in a lot of detail yet, and that is the Harbinger Terrain System. So, this is actually so big that I almost don’t know what to ask first. So I’ll just start with the very basic question.

What is the Harbinger Terrain System?

Super early version of the Harbinger Terrain System

Jeff Irving: Well, the, I mean, it truly was the catalyst for this iteration of, of Vrahode. I started with that. It’s like I, I thought to myself, this is really cool, this is something different that I haven’t seen in the board game industry, and I want it to be premiered within the Vrahode Game System. And so it, it started out, it’s just, it’s, it’s exceedingly simple because I’m not an engineer.

Um, I mean, I have a little bit of an engineer’s mind, but I couldn’t obviously come up with something super complex. So it’s, it’s very simple. It’s just I wanted to take tabletop gaming into the vertical dimension. I wanted to get it up off the tabletop because one of the most fun things for me in, in my earlier years playing role playing games was this idea that I’m in this multi-level complex and I’m either working my way down into the depths of something so horrific and horrible to, to try to defeat this end boss.

Or I’d go in and I’m working my way up, you know? And so the Harbinger System was my attempt at an affordable, um, and that’s the key, an affordable system that gets, it gets your gaming off of the tabletop. So what is it and what is it not?

Well, I love what Dwarven Forge is doing. They’re probably the most prolific company out there, the most recognized company that makes these extremely detailed dioramas of dungeon settings and other things.

And what we had to do was challenge ourself to kinda create the opposite of that was to say, okay, this isn’t about walls and torches and, and all this elaborate stuff. This has to be done at the cost, you know, within the budget of a, of a board game series. And so focused on the play surfaces themselves, you know, making sure that we had a one inch grid in our artwork, making sure that the system was functional and…

Brandon Rollins: You’re representing imaginary 3D spaces in a real 3D way on the tabletop where people can actually see that instead of just thinking about it.

Jeff Irving: Oh yeah. No, you can. This thing is designed, this system is designed to effectively create up to five level deep dungeons right on your tabletop. And so we do that with a series of, of pegs that lift, you know, that lift these things up. Uh, we have what’s called a dungeon riser, um, that will allow you to elevate an, an encounter map, which is 18 inches by 18 inches up to four inches off of the table, kind of effectively or effectively becoming level three of up to a five level deep dungeon.

And so it, it really is, it’s fun to put together. It had to go through a lot of redesigns to, to get there, but it’s now fun to put together. It’s easy to take apart. Um, the challenge really becomes, like as a graphic designer is when you’re, when you’re writing quests and you’re writing campaigns is, it’s easy to show what an encounter map looks like.

It’s flat and it’s easy to add miniatures, like terrain miniatures to it because you could just label, label the encounter map, place stump here, uh, put wall here, you know, and it’s all still very, you know, it’s easy to do. Once you start getting into multi-level dungeons, it requires a little bit more savvy from your design team because you have to say, okay, here’s the flat, here’s level two of that dungeon, and here’s where it ties into that flat.

And then here’s level three and here’s where it ties into level two, and then here’s level four, and here’s where it ties into level three and maybe level two. And maybe level one. So how do you do that visually where it doesn’t become a burden on the players more than the game, learning the game itself? And so I’m super stoked because I’m up to that challenge.

I mean, I am a graphic designer and I have been my entire adult life and I know how to do this. I think we color code, I think we color code the levels. So when you go to level two and you start using the Harbinger room and hall tiles, well they have a background color that, that says, “Hey, that’s level two.”

You don’t have to label it. It’s just understood. And you have a key somewhere in the book that says, okay, level two’s yellow. Level three is orange, level four is red, level five is purple. You know? And, and you kind of do it that way. 

Countering complex assembly

Brandon Rollins: And you think that’s gonna keep it from feeling like assembling IKEA furniture?

Jeff Irving: You know, well, and I’m gonna tell you what I think if we can pull off making the, integrating the Harbinger System into the Vrahode Game System and having it feel like it fits with, cuz our, our, our game is not overly complex. It’s designed to be fun, fast, and consequential. And if we can make the Harbinger builds feel the same way, then I’ll feel like we have some success.

I really will. And, and keep in mind we’re not, we’re not reinventing the wheel here, we’re not replacing tabletop gaming with all this vertical stuff. It’s, it’s simply to augment it. It’s, it’s to say, okay, this is an 18 by 18 inch dungeon flat over here on this edge. Let’s go up a level and let’s have a couple rooms over there that we can explore and maybe that kind of represents where the big boss is in the dungeon. Right?

Maybe that gives the players this kind of sense that, ooh, something’s different over here. And the beauty of it is when we hand this toolbox, this robust toolkit that includes the harbinger over to content creators, then they can, they can say, “Hey, I, I love what you guys did here, but I see even more potential.”

“I’m gonna take my characters from this level three dungeon across the bridge over to this third level dungeon.” And, and so they’re gonna have all these tools that don’t inhibit their creativity. It allows them to just freethink and hopefully keep their players in the Vrahode System and not take ’em somewhere else.

Why has no one done this before?

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. So why do you think, why do you think nobody has, has developed something like this yet?

Jeff Irving: Because there’s a challenge to it there. It it, if it was easy, everybody would do this. But for example, look at stairways. Okay? If you’ve got a 35 or a 28 millimeter, 30 millimeter, 35 millimeter figure with a base, how are you supposed to get ’em up and downstairs that are to scale for those miniatures? Well, guess what?

You can’t, if you set that miniature on a, on a stairway, that’s to scale. They’re just gonna fall down to the bottom. Well, we introduce, we call stair treads. They’re, they’re little clear plastic shelves. There’s two of them per stair unit. So you can actually functionally use these with miniatures. That’s a big step.

I mean, it’s simple. There’s, I mean, there’s no real brain power involved. It’s just you have to make these stairwells or stair units functional. And so we did that. We added, um, some beautiful spiral stairs. Well, spiral stairs still have those little stair treads that plug into them. So as you, as your miniatures traverse that spiral stair, they have two stair treads.

On the, you know, as they go up that spiral stair that they can stand on and effectively fight and move and the miniature doesn’t fall down like it would, um, on a scaled, uh, stairway unit. So that was a big part of our system was just resolving stairs in a way that made sense. So the spiral stairs and straight stair units are obviously gonna be black matte plastic, so they’re designed to kind of go away.

But the stair treads that stick into those, that you can move your miniatures up and down, those are clear. So it doesn’t visually interfere with you giving up the immersion of having your hero traversing different levels of a multi-level dungeon complex. And we think that’s a really important thing, is we really focus in our game system on keeping players immersed.

Brandon Rollins: And that, that’s gonna make for some cool photos as well, because a lot of people are going to want to paint their miniatures, they’re gonna want to take photos of all this, and the Harbinger System is naturally going to be photogenic from what you’ve described and honestly from what I’ve seen so far myself.

So yeah, of course, like use, use clear supports on stuff like that because then you won’t even see where they are.

Jeff Irving: Right. And, and the other thing, and you mentioned photogenic, and I think at that point it, it, it begs the question, well, how is it photogenic when all I’m talking about is black matte plastic that goes away? Well, on top of all of those rooms and halls in our system is affixed full color artwork and the grid that allows for accurate movement for all the heroes and enemies.

It’s right in that artwork. And, uh, Wayne Peters. Uh, the artists that designed all of our, um, encounter maps, also designed all of the room and hall tiles for the Harbinger System. So it has a very consistent kind of retro RPG feel to it. I love it. It’s simple, it’s bold. Um, are we going for photorealism and things?

No, we don’t. We don’t care about that. We, what we want is to immerse people in this feel. Kind of like when you took that first step when you were a hero and the DM, if you were playing D&D said, well, here’s a kobold, what does a kobold look like? And you didn’t know whether it was gonna kill you. It was gonna be your friend.

And, and so we’re kind of, the Harbinger System is just a, it’s a very powerful tool in our arsenal.

Brandon Rollins: For just kind of getting those meanings across and helping people understand what the world looks like.

Manufacturing Harbinger  

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. Now the manufacturing on this thing, from our discussions internally, I, I mean, it’s been unbelievably difficult to prototype so far. Now the actual manufacturing itself is not going to be that bad, but the prototyping is really difficult, so can you tell me a little bit about that?

Jeff Irving: Yeah, it took, it took four companies. I went through four different companies before I even found the company that understood my vision of what this thing could be and, and that there was any merit to it. Um, and so I finally found a company, and I’m gonna plug Limelight Miniatures in London because they, not only did they ultimately design the rough Harbinger System, but they also did all the miniatures for our game series.

They understood finally what I was trying to accomplish. But they didn’t realize exactly what they had helped me with until I applied the artwork to it, built it, and then sent them pictures of it and they said, what is this? I said, well, that’s the Harbinger. You just helped me build. They’re like, that’s the Harbinger.

And I’m like, yeah. They’re like, that’s amazing. It’s like, yeah, it kind of is.

Brandon Rollins: Thank goodness for the graphic design background you’ve…

Jeff Irving: Yeah. So after Harbinger was designed by Limelight Miniatures in London, then it took, um, our manufacturing partners to actually redesign this system so that we, they could save us mold costs so that we don’t have to sell the game for $500. And so our manufacturing partner redesigned the game to save us, um, cost on molds. And now the Harbinger System is not only more fun to put together and take apart, but like when you’re, let’s say you’re, you’re just playing in a two, a two level dungeon. And so you have an encounter map on the tabletop, and then you’re gonna put the rest of the room and hall tiles on two inch page, and you’re gonna go up wherever you decide to attach that second level to the first.

And when you place the keys that lock the rooms and halls together, it’s, it’s like a Lego experience. You’re just kind of clicking things together and it all creates it. Once it’s together, it fits like it’s one big piece of plastic. It’s so cool. And then all you do is flip it over, add a few pegs to support it, and you’re off.

And it’s, I’m, I’m telling you, the, the whole redesign to make it manufacturable was the point where the fun started happening. 

And now, And now, it’s, it’s fun. It’s, I love building it. I want to do quests that have the Harbinger in them because I want to go up, I want to go up and up and up and up. 

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. And, and I, I wanna make a technical point here so that people really properly appreciate what you’ve done with this so far. So when plastic pieces are manufactured, a lot of hardcore gamers know this, but most folks don’t. You have to make custom molds for it. And of course, anytime you create some kind of custom mold into which molten plastic is going to be, uh, injected and then eventually cooled and turned into a solid object, it is going to be made ever so slightly off of whatever the original design is.

Like, it’ll be off by a half a millimeter or something that seems trivial. And that, and the amount of acceptable deviation from what is considered to be, you know, the design, that’s your manufacturing tolerance. Now, here’s the thing. When you’ve got interlocking pieces like this that are relatively small in board games, the manufacturing tolerances have to be really tight.

And finding the right companies that can make plastics with acceptable manufacturing tolerances to where you don’t have a peg that is way too big for a hole or a hole that is way too big for a peg is freaking hard. You have to do so much research just to find the right people for this kind of thing.

Jeff Irving: Yeah. I really felt early on Brandon, like I could design the system and the game, the miniatures, you know, translate the 2D artwork into 3D artwork and it would just be done. What I didn’t prepare for in the whole development process of a, of a game system, including four very large games, was the iterative process.

It’s just that back and forth of this isn’t quite right. Let’s do this. Okay. That’s not quite right. Well, we, we ruined that, but we fixed that. Now we go back to the, it is, it’s just been, I mean, it’s been fun. I’m not gonna lie. It’s still fun. It’s just a lot.

Brandon Rollins: Comparatively speaking, it makes everything else in the game look relatively simple. It’s like you wanna make box art, uh, you know, you wanna make a certain box, specify the kind of cardboard, give us a guideline. Easy, relatively anyway. Um, you want a miniature, okay, that’s a little harder. Get a 3D modeler, make a nice STL file, we’ll pop the thing out with a 3D printer or a plastic injection mold.

Relatively easy. Harbinger, it’s actually quite a bit harder.

Jeff Irving: No, and it’s, it’s, it’s the fact that some of our rooms, some of the rooms for the Harbinger system are seven inches across, and so you have this big span of very, very thin plastic. Well, how do you produce that with a rail system underneath and without deflection so that it’s dead flat? 

Well, it takes special kinds of plastics.

It takes special kinds of printers. It’s very difficult. It’s really hard. And so that’s been, that’s been cool. It’s been cool. I, I, I’m, I’m humbled by all the things that I’ve learned in this process, and it, I’m, it’s been fun.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. Like I remember there was a, a part, a period of time in which you had to, like, find the right plastics guy just to be able to find the right kind of plastic, because the actual material itself was relatively obscure to get on a prototyping level. Again, not as much of a problem when you’re doing a big print run, but you have to be able to get it in front of people and make review copies if you’re ever gonna get to the thousand, 1500, 2000 unit run, and hopefully much more, but you get the idea.

Jeff Irving: Yeah. Well, our goal with the Harbinger, with not the Harbinger, but the Vrahode Game System is 10,000 units of the core box and 5,000 of each of the expansions. So you can tell we have some pretty heavy water to carry.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah, absolutely. But I mean, when you’re talking about manufacturing processes like this and the kind of things that go into it, yeah. That is actually about the level where things start to become cost efficient.

Because then, man, people forget. People forget, you’ve gotta like book full containers for freight and stuff like that.

It gets complicated.

Why go to all this trouble?

Jeff Irving: Well, I think what I love the most about this industry and, and this type of product is that if it’s successful, The thousands of, of tidbits of information and the 10,000 headaches that you have through the development process, if you did everything right or if you were close to that and you really truly cared about the product, in the end, if the product is enjoyable and people would rather have it on their tabletop than on their shelf, then you have some sort of success.

And that’s really, that’s, we don’t care how many challenges we face. This is a quality proposition for us. This is not a, a get rich quick scheme. This is not about releasing expansions to make money. This is about releasing expansions to finish a very involved and robust story arc. And I just want, at the end of the day, when someone sits down to play the Vrahode System and they get into expansion two and they’re, they’re, they’re deep into it.

You know, they’ve, they’re invested. and they say, man, you guys really did something here. You know what I mean? Not the core box, not the very first thing they do, but deep into it, they recognize how committed we were to crossing the finish line.

I think that’s gonna be great.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. And I think you’re already leaving a trail online to where people we’re fans and people get really deep into this, are going to understand like just the sheer amount of work that went into it. And I’m hoping honestly, um, that what, what ultimately happens with these podcasts, with the blog posts, with all that stuff, I, it’s important for marketing early, but I want it to eventually become some kind of archival interesting information for fans 15, 20, 25 years on who want to know what you were thinking when you were putting this thing together.

Cuz that’s not a thing that we have as far as I know from like, you know, the guys who made D&D or anything like that.

Jeff Irving: Oh, no, I, I agree with you. I’m, I am. It’s my hope too, and when I listen to them, I think, I wonder, I wonder what this’ll be like, you know, later, once, once we’re done. But I think that begs the question, uh, Brandon, that, you know, I don’t know how you feel about it, but, but a good question, I think is what makes a great game?

What makes a great game?

Jeff Irving: What makes a game that has staying power? What, what makes a game something that’s not a flash in the pan? What, what, what would you say? What, what is, what criteria do you judge a game on as to whether or not it can make it back to your table or with your playgroup?

Brandon Rollins: Honestly, it’s gotta be, I mean, this is gonna sound so simple and almost like a dodge, but like, if people want to keep playing it over and over again, in my opinion, it is a great game. And to me, a great game is something that people can feel drawn to and kind of intuitively understand the things that need to be done there.

Um, so that they can like, so that you don’t have to hand hold with rules and stuff like that. Because if you’re explaining every detail of it, something is not quite right. If you, on the other hand, have people who start playing it, do a little bit of reading, do this like watch a video or two, and then their mind gets going with ideas and strategies and they start thinking about how they can play with their friends.

That to me, that’s how you know you’ve got a great game on your hands.

Jeff Irving: Yeah. Well, and I think, I think one of the things that game designers often get backward, is that the thing that draws people in before anything? Before rules. They don’t know how the game is played. They don’t know how difficult or simple it will be to learn. But people are drawn by strong characters.

They’re drawn by themes that are important to them. And, and so if you can get those things right and then follow those up with rules that are accessible, they’re easy to learn, they’re easy to teach, then I think you have something that’s gonna probably spend some time on the table if it in fact delivered on the promise of a great theme and characters and a world that you care about. And I just got off a phone call with Shawn Dressler, our writer earlier today. Um, we have our sessions today. Uh, and he said, It’s okay to have amazing, an amazing rule system, but people don’t invest in rule systems. They invest in characters.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah.

Jeff Irving: And I’m like, wow, that’s kind of true.

Brandon Rollins: It. It’s absolutely true. I mean, it’s like it, and in marketing it, what they say is like, yeah, okay, try and sell people on features. And you can’t sell people on features. You sell ’em on benefits or even more abstractly you just sell ’em on brands. You sell ’em on ideas. You don’t necessarily sell people on like specific bullet points of what you can do.

People don’t pay attention for long enough for those things to sink in. 

Jeff Irving: That’s, that’s, it’s interesting because, you know, you look at game designers, you see interviews with game designers. I like to watch, I like to watch that stuff because it informs me on my process and how I, you know, how we’ve gone through this and I, I came to. The Vrahode Game System, first and foremost, based on theme and, and a world I wanted to escape to.

I was tired of fantasy tropes and things that just kept repeating every time I would play a fantasy game. It just seemed like the quests all kind of became a little bit generic because they were so similar. And so Vrahode kind of came out of that thematically, uh, as a desire to want to re-explore what a fantasy world could. And then it started to come down to rules at the end, you know, is how do we just, how do we make it fun to explore that setting and that fresh fantasy world? 

And I know a lot of game designers, they, they tend to lead with mechanisms they tend to lead with. I’m looking for that perfect mechanism that gives me the game that will sell a, you know, a million copies for me, I wanted to give people something to care about first, and then I wanted to define, to define how they interact with it.

Brandon Rollins: Yeah. To me it’s like, that’s a, that’s a big difference is like, are you doing, there’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right things.

And I think like thinking in terms of like, what is this game’s soul, what is the essential purpose of this thing that I am trying to create? That ,to me is a question that you always start with rather than like, well, how can this be done well?

Because if you’re asking how a mediocre idea an an interesting role can be done, well what you end up with is something that will entertain, i, in the best scenario, let’s be honest, they’ll entertain for a few minutes, for a few hours, for a few days, weeks, or even years, and then ultimately just kind of disappears.

I can think of a lot of things like that. Not necessarily even games, but like there’s a lot of movies that you watch and you’re like, that was freaking awesome. And then you don’t ever remember them three years later.

Jeff Irving: Right? It’s gone.

Yeah, it had no value. It had immediate, it had immediate gratification at the moment, but it didn’t have the depth to make it memorable. And that’s, I think that’s really what we’re striving for here is basically kind of an interactive series of novels. Something that, you know, when you, when you’ve read a good book, it’s no problem at all years later to go back and read it again because you know how good it was.

And that’s really the experience we’re trying to create with the Vrahode Game System, I think is, let’s, let’s base this on a world that you can care about. That is, it has merit. It, it’s, it’s, people have richness. Um, their relationships are important. And then we create a basket of mechanisms that kind of houses your relationship with that world.

And that’s really where we stop. We let you kind of have some control over how you interact with. So, I don’t know. I think that’s, I think that’s a, I’m, it’s not unique in any means. Obviously everything’s been done, but it’s, I think it’s a bit of a fresh look.

Brandon Rollins: Absolutely.

Sometimes to get a fresh look, what you really need to do is get back to the basics and just put a slightly new spin on it.

Jeff Irving: Yeah. And I have no problem with formulaic. I mean, there’s a lot of bands out there, um, to, you know, kind of look at music as a, as a comparison. Like Shinedown is a perfect example to me. I love rock, I love heavy rock, but I like, um, thought-provoking lyrics.

And when I listen to Shinedown, they’re heavy, they’re edgy, and they have the guy that is the, still with the band that was with him since the very beginning, um, he, he writes damn thought-provoking lyrics, and it’s like, yes, I don’t care if it sounds similar to something that’s happened before, as long as you’re bringing something new to the equation.

Then even formulaic, it can be satisfying.

Brandon Rollins: Well, you don’t even have to necessarily innovate that much with a formula. If you just add a little bit of an innovative spin, then you actually do create something interesting. As a result. It only takes like a three, 4% tweak to make an idea truly creative and fresh.

So at this point, is there anything else, um, we’re coming up on time. Is there anything else that you wanna mention about Harbinger before we end this one and get ready for the next one?

Jeff Irving: Um, just watch here coming up in the, in the coming weeks, um, as we get more samples of the Harbinger, which we’ve been very, very short on as we get samples of the system and we’re able to, to, um, you know, apply the artwork and build these so you can see what it is and it’s it’s capabilities which I’ve, I’ve posted some pictures of a simple level two dungeon with no level one there and no level 3, 4, 5.

You know, I, I’ve shown off some of the artwork and that sort of thing. Soon we’ll be able to show off, you know, multiple level dungeons and stuff. So please take a look, see how you feel like it’ll, um, you know, affect your gameplay and make it more exciting.

Understand that we are gonna take full advantage of the Harbinger in our campaign, in our quests, but then also as content creators understand that these are tools that we’re giving you to invite your players into the Vrahode Game System and, and to give you more options for your, for your campaigns and your quests.

Uh, so it’s pretty exciting. And one of the, one of the cool kind of byproducts that came out of the Harbinger System we didn’t expect was the precarious nature of moving miniatures across an elevated platform, which is essentially what the Harbinger is. It’s elevated levels of dungeon and it really makes people focus.

And, and it really, it kind of amps up the anxiety and excitement level of battles that are occurring up here on level four, that’s six inches off the table, or eight inches off table for level five. So I just, I’m, I’m really excited to finally be able to share this. We’re so happy that we’re gonna be the first company to bring it to market.

And I think as far as the Vrahode Games System is concerned, obviously Shawn Allen Dressler, our writer, who’s written over a dozen books. I think having him as our writer is a huge draw, but as far as a pitch point of something that visually is impactful and compelling and will encourage a lot of backers is the Harbinger System and I’m very proud of it.

I mean, like I said, it’s not super complex, but what it does for your gaming is what’s important to me. And, um, I hope you guys like it. I think the artwork is amazing and, um, the gameplay within the system, um, continues to evolve. So it’s, it’s gonna be fun.

Brandon Rollins: Absolutely. And for anybody who wants to see photos of this as it is being developed, as prototypes come in, the Vrahode, Tavern Facebook group is probably the best place to check that. But you’ll also be able to find it on the Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, and probably also the website as well.

Jeff Irving: Yeah.

Brandon Rollins: All right, so on that note, you wanna take us.

Jeff Irving: I sure will.

Thank you for listening to the Vrahode Tavern Podcast If you enjoyed this show take a moment to subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts If you’re on Apple Podcast please leave a five star review It helps way more than you know. You can learn more about Vrahode on Vrahode.com That’s V R A H O D e.com. Link in the show notes And you can also find us on Facebook Twitter and Instagram where we are Vrahode. Thank you again for listening. We really appreciate it. Keep an eye out for our next episode in two weeks.

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