Casting Dungeons & Models: What I Wish I Would Have Known
Most likely you have seen the amazing models created by Matt Mercer on Critical Role or maybe you have filled your Pinterest board with hand-cast and painted D&D accessories. You keep thinking about how great it would be to hear your players exclaim when you pull up a battle map filled with stone ruins or a wizard’s crumbling castle. Perhaps you are standing on the edge of this decision, just about to take the plunge… Before you buy the molds and plaster and start the long, dark descent into the world of dungeon casting, allow me to tell you all the things I wish someone would have told me before I hit the point of no return.
This list is NOT intended to stop you from casting and building your own buildings and dungeon sets, as a matter of fact, I am enthusiastic in expressing how much I love this hobby to anyone who will listen! This is simply the truth of what you should expect to spend on this hobby. Hopefully, this will allow you to make an informed decision about whether or not this hobby is right for you.
#1. The (Real) Cost
I thought the only cost I would have to start creating my own custom dungeons and buildings was the cost of the molds and a little plaster. I was so very very wrong. First of all, it is worth mentioning that the molds themselves are fairly expensive, at least for my small budget. If you think you can get away with only buying one mold to have on cost, you should know you will be casting that mold 15-30 times or more for just one build. You can do this (I did) but be prepared for a single dungeon to take you 2-3 months to build.
No, this is not an exaggeration. This happened to me. You will need multiples of each type of mold for buildings and at least three floor molds. At $25-$40 a mold, this alone can get pricy. Once you have purchased all the molds for the cavern your players are exploring, suddenly they are leaving the caverns and you need all new molds to create rocky terrain or a village. There is never really an end to this rabbit hole. Trust me.
The next expense I didn’t fully take into consideration was the plaster. I innocently thought I could just use Plaster of Paris for all my molds, which I could purchase in bulk at the hardware store for just $12 a sack. Except…Plaster of Paris produces low-quality casts, no matter how careful and meticulous you are. Not to mention these low-quality pieces also break and chip VERY easily, revealing the ugly white plaster under your excellent paint job.
Because they chip and break easily, pieces made from Plaster of Paris cannot be stored together. The jostling against one another over time will reduce your pieces to dust. The solution is to use high-quality dental stone instead of normal plaster. Dental stone produces exceptionally clear casts and is incredibly durable, but it is also expensive. 12 pounds of dental stone costs $60, compared to 20 pounds of Plaster at $12. You will need every bit of 12 pounds to create one full-sized dungeon with accessories. Constantly buying dental stone to make pieces becomes a reoccurring expense I didn’t consider when I first started out.
Paint. If you are already painting your own miniatures, this will not be an additional cost to you, but if you have never painted minis before and are looking to also buy paint and brushes along with your molds and plaster, this will be another expense you may not have considered. Quality crafting paints can get pretty pricy, make sure this is accounted for in your budget.
I was not fully prepared for the massive amount of time this hobby would demand. I knew it was work, but I was expecting a full dungeon to take one weekend, not two months. Granted, I only had 1 set of molds and this drawback can be somewhat mitigated by purchasing several molds at the same time, but, even so, casting, painting, and assembling a full dungeon or village will take significantly longer than you think.
Firstly, you must cast the pieces, which doesn’t seem so bad until you take into consideration the amount of time it takes to set up, clean after each cast, and cure. Dental stone only takes about 20 minutes to harden to the point it can be removed from the mold, but it takes 24 hours to fully cure before pieces can be painted and glued together. This means that IF you can cast all the pieces you need for your project in one day (which is a BIG if) you cannot even begin assembling and painting them until the following day.
After casting and curing, the pieces need to be assembled. Most pieces are in sections in the mold and require gluing together to make a full piece, like a cavern wall, for example. This doesn’t seem like it would take long to do, except that you just cast over 200 pieces of cavern wall which you let cure overnight. Now all those pieces are mixed together, and you have to play the worst game of “Where’s Waldo” you have ever experienced.
All of them are the same color, all of them look like they could fit, none of the letters turn out clear enough to see without examining. Sure, you could be a super-organized person and sort each tiny piece when it comes out of the mold, but by about the 10th round of casting, it just isn’t going to happen.
Finding and assembling all the pieces, letting the glue dry, and priming the pieces will take another full day. And then…there’s the painting.
I love painting miniatures. I really do. That’s part of why I wanted to start building my own dungeons. But there is nothing fun about painting the same cavern wall the same way 200 times. It is tedious. It is tiring. If you don’t’ LOVE painting, you will HATE your dungeon before it is even halfway completed.
Painting my cavern dungeon consumed every spare minute of my life for a MONTH. Again, I don’t regret it, but you need to be prepared for this to happen. If you are looking for something quick and easy, look at some other options. Don’t make this kind of commitment, you aren’t ready. Trust me.
#3. Market for Selling
“Well, yeah, this is expensive now,” I reasoned with myself, “But I can sell dungeon sets and dice towers and make enough to support my hobby!” Looking back, I would say “oh. You poor, sweet, innocent thing… “Yes. You can do this, and I have done this, but it is not easy. People always love the accessory pieces and dungeon sets, but the price tag is hard for most of them to swallow. You have the cost of the molds, dental stone, and hours upon hours of time to try to pay for. It would be more than fair to sell that massive set for $300-$400, but that rarely happens. After working for a month on a dungeon set, it will tear out your soul to sell it for $100, but I have found few are willing to pay more than that.
Yes, they will say it is worth more than that. They will even say how much they want it, but the reality is most of us gamers is broke. Few of us have the cash to spend on a dungeon set we will probably only use once.
If you are considering selling online to expand your customer base, the shipping fees will kill you. I once sold a dungeon set for $100 with free shipping only to find out that dental stone is really heavy. I paid $60 in shipping cost and lost a lot of money on the deal. Now, I focus on selling accessory packs with treasure chests, campfires, doors, and other essentials DMs will use again and again regardless of the setting of their specific campaign. I price them at $40 and still have some trouble moving them.
Again, this isn’t a big deal if this is a hobby you can afford, but if you are counting on selling pieces to pay for the initial purchase like I was, then this is good to know.
Pieces. Pieces EVERYWHERE. In tubs, on the table, in the garage. Pieces that were extra after a build, pieces curing to be painted, pieces being painted. Painted pieces we aren’t using. They will consume you! Go ahead. Try to keep them organized. I dare you. If you figure it out, please, teach me! I am a simple person with 0 organizational skills, and I wish I would have fully realized just how difficult it was going to be to store everything.
Before you think a few tackle boxes will fix your problems, let me tell you, it isn’t just the pieces. Where are you going to put all that dental stone you bought in bulk to help lower the overall cost? What about your collection of paints? You need a space where you can easily find what you need. Not to mention paintbrushes, paper towels, water cups, mixing containers, the molds themselves, and countless other small items needed to create stunning pieces. My hobby room has quickly become overrun and, to my husband’s dismay, I began to expand into other parts of the house.
Even now with minimal inventory, my room is a mess with paints, brushes, pieces, molds, and countless other items I use to create effects on my models. If you have a small space to work, or a spouse who is a minimalist, enter this hobby with caution.
There is nothing quite like bringing out a dungeon set or a village or even just a few accessories, and hearing your players ooh and aww. There is something about models that makes players want to up their game. When players can see where they are and with what they are interacting, it encourages role play and creativity like few other items can.
I truly believe the player experience can be greatly enhanced with the addition of just a few items on a standard battle map. Boss fights become legendary affairs when a full-size dungeon set is involved. I have even noticed that my players will interact with NPCs in taverns more if they can see them than if they are only described.
Build a standard tavern which you can use every time your players go into an Inn or bar and put random miniatures around the room as NPCs who whom the party can interact. Most players will talk with NPCs, perhaps even gaining needed information to move the story forward, if they can physically see where they are in the tavern. Something about seeing it in front of them prompts them to move or at least helps them remember they aren’t the only ones in the place.
This hobby is expensive. This hobby is time-consuming. This hobby is space consuming. But this hobby is incredibly satisfying. The satisfaction that comes from doing an incredibly difficult task well has few equals.
Having a treasure chest or dungeon you have worked hard on for months admired by others makes you stand a little taller. Just the knowledge that what you have created will be used and enjoyed for years to come is worth the time and money spent. If this deep and profound satisfaction isn’t what is driving you, I would suggest looking into some other methods of providing visuals to your group, such as these quick, easy, budget-friendly builds!
If you are ready to embark on this challenging but rewarding adventure, then I have plenty of tips and tricks to help you be successful!
Whatever you decide to do,
until next time,
may your game have advantage, my friends!