If you’re like me, you also have a great gray marching horde of unpainted miniatures just waiting to get painted. But when/if you’ve painted all of them (or more likely, just need a distraction), you might find yourself turning toward other ways to add to the landscape of your table. You might also find yourself with some extra time on your hands. And if you’re reading this, you’re someone who thinks of gaming now and then. If you’re big into miniatures and making your table look awesome, this might be a good time to think of ways that you can wow your players with a set-piece encounter or two when you’re finally able to physically get back together. And if you happen to live with your gaming group (you lucky so-and-so) building terrain can be a fun way for the group to pull together with some projects everyone gets to enjoy.
To be clear: theater of the mind is great and no one is requiring that you present hugely elaborate dioramas representing hours of work to your players—no game really requires it, but if you have the time, materials, and inclination, they can be a lot of fun to play with, and (for some of us), even more fun to make. Things like maps, miniatures, and terrain can add a lot to a game (elaborated in this article I’m shamelessly self-promoting here).
Not all of these options are available to everyone, and all of them require some combination of money, patience, or specialized stuff that you might not have on hand. That’s okay—as with all things in RPGs, take what you want and leave the rest.
Make it yourself
There’s a lot of terrain-building advice out there. Much of it requires special materials (like cork board, specialized foam, or wood) that you might not have on-hand. Don’t get me wrong: the results of these kinds of super-intensive builds are incredible, and Black Magic Craft and The DM’s Craft are legendary for the stuff they create. However, if you’re stuck at home and don’t want to go out, you really don’t need a lot to create some really neat stuff.
Using a 50/50 mix of PVA/school glue, some of that toilet paper you’ve been hoarding, hot glue, and the backs of old notebooks, you can create killer scatter terrain. Here is a tutorial on creating stalagmites, but the same technique works great for making rocks and trees if you use a framework of aluminum foil. You’ll still need to paint the results, but you don’t need to use expensive hobby paints to do it: go with three similar colors of varying lightness: a dark layer, a lighter medium layer, and a very dry brush of a light color on top will make them pop great. Warning: though you can build out pretty much anything your heart desires doing this, toilet papier-mâché takes forever to dry before you can paint it (24 hours or more), and feels just…incredibly gross when you handle it. I’m not squeamish; I’m the person who reaches into a clogged garbage disposal and pulls out decayed globs of food without flinching, and for fun, I’ve even been known to [redacted] with [redacted] while [redacted] (Editor’s note: CHUCK! This is a FAMILY website!). But all the same, I found myself stepping away from the table multiple times to wash my hands, and afterward, the residue from all the glue made the table I was working on look like [redacted] (FAMILY! WEBSITE!). I might never be clean again.
Also, a dire warning: remember when you were a kid and you looked at clouds thinking “wow, that kind of looks like a dragon!?” Remember that feeling of wonder: you’ll need it, because if you start down this path, you will start looking at boxes, containers and random household detritus not as “things to be thrown away,” but as “things I can maybe turn into terrain.” Your life will become a grotesque combination of childhood whimsy and an episode of Hoarders. Mere hours after starting you will find yourself with a full box of shame somewhere, containing egg cartons, old plastic packaging, and Pringles cans that you will tell yourself you’re going to turn into something awesome. And maybe you will (you won’t). You will join one of the tabletop crafting Facebook groups, nearly all of which have dozens of “works in progress” posts that might be better labeled “here, look at my garbage,” and dozens more posts from people who clearly have advanced degrees in turning litter into three-dimensional, moving masterpieces.
friendly local gaming stores. Admittedly, right now is not the best time to go out shopping, but when this all passes, it’s definitely something to keep in mind. It’s hard to beat this option for speed and ease. Of course, a drug habit would be cheaper. Luckily, if you’re not willing or able to sell a kidney to pay for your gaming group’s fun, there are cheaper options.
- Board games. There are a lot of board games out there that have some really great pieces. Some of them (I’m looking at you, Arena of the Planeswalkers) might not be as much fun to play as you might expect. This is actually good news, as they can often be found online or lightly used for a fraction of their original price (still looking at you, Arena of the Planeswalkers). The minis are great, and if you snap off the base with a box cutter and replace it with another base, they look pretty much exactly like the minis you’re used to. D&D-themed board games are more table-ready in scale, and when painted, can serve double duty. Other games, like HeroClix, will often have “filler” pieces available online for pennies, and you can give them the same treatment.
- Model railroad terrain. Okay, model train enthusiasts. I can hear you laughing at me for calling this “cheap,” but there are inexpensive options—like tree kits—that you can use to build a truly stunning amount of scatter trees for not very much money at all. Thrift shops, estate sales, and garage sales will also sometimes have terrain or train stuff that you can get really cheaply. S gauge is reportedly the scale to ideally use, but with things like trees and hills, scale matters a lot less than with buildings.
- Aquarium decorations. Hobbit houses, castles, fairy hills. Goldfish have got to be playing the best D&D games. Plus, with their memories, they can just replay their favorite modules over and over. Am I jealous? Absolutely. Luckily, you don’t have to eat garbage flakes or poop in your own bathwater to take advantage (I mean, you can, but ew). A word to the wise: never buy aquarium decorations at retail prices: they’re just as expensive as regular terrain that way. But every pet store I’ve seen has a discount table/rack just packed with these things.
Before starting this article, I’d actually never done papercrafting, and there’s definitely a learning curve, but I learned that if you have a printer and cardstock, you can throw together some really visually stunning buildings cheaply in very little time. There are lots of free options, but the examples here are from Fat Dragon Games’ Ravenfell Core Set and Numenera Core Building Set. Also, because of the relatively low barrier to entry for creating this kind of content, there is a huge selection of papercrafted terrain patterns out there.
Note that if you look for advice online, much of it involves taking your papercraft “to the next level” with foamcore and markers and tools and a self-healing craft board and hot glue and a knife forged by the light of the full moon while you whisper the name of your most hated enemy. And, I mean, yeah. The results are great, but…do you really need to take this to “the next level?” I did mine with cardstock, an old kitchen cutting board, and a box cutter so janky that I’m pretty sure I gave you tetanus just by making you read about it. And the results were still…I mean, they’re okay. Reading the instructions probably would have helped. So my advice definitely includes “actually read the instructions.” Of all the things in this article, papercraft is probably the perfect intersection of inexpensive, low-effort, and really freaking cool. I will definitely be doing more of this.
If you already have a 3D printer, none of what I say is going to be new to you. If you’re thinking of getting one? Run away now. I’m saying this because if anything I can possibly say to you will
convince you to not get one, you don’t want it badly enough. This is not a “this hobby is only for the hardcore” kind of humblebrag. 3D printers can be ruinously expensive. 3D printers are also miserable. They’re a combination of all the most frustrating parts of a regular printer, plus the complexities of multiple bewildering new pieces of software and a dash of giving yourself a crash course in materials science, all wrapped up in an expensive toy where even the slightest mistake can cost hundreds of dollars in replacement parts for the stuff you broke. And you will break stuff, even after years of experience. As I type this, our 3D printer is out of commission due to a broken part.
Now that that’s out of the way: 3D PRINTED GAMING TERRAIN IS AMAZING. There are tens of thousands of free files out there on Thingiverse, and a search engine that will also take you to files you can buy. If you can afford it and have the time to devote to getting decent at it, your options become limitless. If you pick up a free 3D modeling program (like Meshmixer) and can get through the tool flail, you can also mix, match, and edit files to create pretty much anything you want. 3D printed terrain also has the same advantage as home built terrain in that you don’t have to use expensive model paints—I’ve painted most of my 3D printed stuff using test pots of paint from Home Depot that I bought almost four years ago. And I’m still on the same test pots.
If you only want to print a few things, and can’t (or don’t want to) make the investment in time and money to do your own 3D printing, many public libraries have a 3D printer available for community use. As a matter of courtesy, it’s probably best to not print out entire castles, and it’s rarely free (nor should it be) but if you’re lucky enough to be near a library that offers the service, there’s nothing stopping you from getting a few pieces of neat, complex, and really unique terrain printed out for you.
So that’s it. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to come out of this social isolation with some really amazing things to show your players. You’ll also come out of it with a very real storage problem, a box of full of trash, terrible board games, and sticky hands covered in toilet paper. But you’ll love every minute.
So did I miss anything? What do you use to build out terrain for your games?