The best terrain for tabletop games is going to vary from table to table, but I’ve had more than enough sessions to have an idea of what does and doesn’t work. If you have extra spending money, then your best choice is a few sets of Wiz Kids terrain. If your budget is tight, then papercraft terrain is your best choice. If you are tech-savvy and have the resources, then 3D printing is probably going to be your best choice. If that’s all you’re here for, you’re done. Congrats! However, if you think I’m wrong or want to know what else is out there, keep on this page, reader!
What makes for the best terrain?
This will be quick, but it’s important to explain the factors that make the best terrain. The goal of the terrain is to aid the story that the table tells together by physically representing the area around the player characters. While the terrain is part of the storytelling, but it also has production limits like a movie. Each table puts a different weight on how good the terrain has to look. What a teenage newbie trying to get into the game and a veteran player in their thirties getting into streaming their games are completely different. The terrain you use will have time, money, and accessibility factors that need to be considered. Most of this article is about the practical limitations, not solely on how it looks, though that will be mentioned.
- Cost: ~$50 – $250 per set
- Time: delivery time and 30 minutes to an hour set up time
Source: My house
The undeniable advantage of these is the ability to simply order up good-looking terrain and assemble it relatively quickly. They look fantastic and the detailing on them is second to none. However, they can be bought unpainted for those that have a passion for the kind of intricate coloring and specific detailing tailored to your campaign.
Each set is provided a different texture and there is an immediacy and a weight when they are put on a table in front of players (and not just because Matt Mercer uses them) because they very much look like video game terrain simply bought wholesale. When combined with a magnetic board, these sets can be reconfigured on the fly as the party goes through a dungeon, disassembling the rooms they’ve already been through and putting more track down for their metaphorical train to go over.
They come in several different sets including Wilderness, Plaguestone, Hellscape, Caverns Deep, Dungeon of Doom, Construct-A-Castle, Castle Builder, City Builder, Caverns, Dungeons, and a few starter sets. Between all those choices, they can be combined into landscapes and fascinating set pieces that tell a story all their own as players progress from one room to another. Within their theme, they try to make the pieces as unspecific as possible so you can remix and reflavor without their imagination getting in the way.
This is free from the baggage of crafting, painting, or searching for a way to produce these. It’s expensive yes, but it eliminates so much work from the DM’s plate, allowing them more time to focus on actually planning the game. They can even be modified quickly by simply adjusting the physical map if players do something like BLOW THE FLOOR OUT FROM UNDER THE ENEMIES, which mine have done and I’m DEFINITELY not salty about.
These are not for the faint of wallet, plain and simple. These are really more for adult fans who take their hobbies very seriously with a job that provides a bit of disposable income. They are fantastic for what they are absolutely, but they may not be right for your table if hanging out with your friends is more important than the presentation.
Assembly is also not exclusively plug and play. I put the time for this one at 30 minutes to an hour for a reason. Be wary that suddenly throwing a map into the middle of a game is going to put the story on hold while you sit and piece it together. Each time, it is a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, not only because of the placement required but also because of the pieces provided. You may not have enough floor plates to plates with two walls to build the right style and structure of a dungeon you may want. If you only buy one set, you’ll be set for a final room of a dungeon with a boss, but you may have to get more creative if it is a mobile fight where they chase a villain down a hall or have to progress through multiple rooms. Art often comes from adversity, and you will be physically limited by the pieces you have. Tight cramped hallways may be a storytelling staple with only one set. It is absolutely essential to buy more than one set to have enough physical track to match your imaginary vision.
- Cost: $40-150
- Time: delivery time and 30 minutes to an hour set up time
Source: My house
I sat to think of an analogy to compare WizKids and Dwarven Forge for a while and what I’ve settled on is that Dwarven Forge terrain is more like having a box of mostly random lego pieces while Wiz Kids is a lot more like buying a set. I’m going to have to use the words “on average” because Dwarven Forge does sell small buildings and ramparts, but I think the way they approach terrain is fundamentally different. WizKids really has an idea per set that they want you to go with. They prefer to create a structure, then make it destructible so you can change out whatever you need. Another serious point of difference is that WizKids terrain actually snaps together. Basically, each tile has a gap on the side where a connector piece can be placed then the individual tiles can be snapped together around.
The WarLock line of products is their big seller and for good reason. Forums are abuzz about them being durable and effective. Many tiles in the WarLock sets are reversible as to provide two sets (approximately) for the price of one. A feature of these sets is that the walls are intentionally shorter than something like Dwarven Forge with the intention of being easier for the players to see rather than high and tall as the characters might see. Due to the modular design, they are even compatible with some 3D printed tiles. (More on that later) There’s a heavy tilt to customer value with these as they are constantly trying to think of a creative way to deliver more.
Sometimes, the clips are going to hurt your hands. It might seem like an odd complaint, but the clips are firm and require a good bit of force to come together. Pliers and gloves will help as long as you’re careful.
The jigsaw problem from Dwarven Forge is present here as well. Having enough pieces for what you design means buying a few sets. Some of these can be 3D printed to bridge a gap if you have a game Friday and can’t spare $50 for another set (see next heading for more on that process).
These tiles will lean more towards the preparation side than they will towards the “lay down track as the players go” approach, not least of which because it is more difficult to put together and disassemble. You’ll have a better time if you build the dungeon, then populate it with monsters and baddies accordingly rather than the reverse. Bridging some of this gap may involve building the rooms, then using a paper map for the hallways between them then placing down the rooms once the players open a door on the paper map.
The cost is a step back from Dwarven Forge and you are absolutely getting your money’s worth in every respect (heck, they even come with a box and a plastic tray layout to help you store them), but they still aren’t $1 per set. It is still something you want a little extra in your budget for to afford these.
- Cost: REQUIRES ACCESS TO A 3D PRINTER but only the cost of resin (or other printing supply) after that
- Time: Print time which can be 3 – 24 hours depending on complexity and size, painting with detail may take weeks
Source: My house
Infinite and Creativity are two words that shouldn’t be thrown around lightly, but we get pretty close with 3D printing. It doesn’t even require a degree in coding or an artist’s touch. With files in hand from the infinite number of passionate players and DMs just handing them out online, there is an endless parade of homebrewed monsters, heroes, and dungeons to choose from.
With the right editing program, even printer-illiterate DMs can customize their terrain to extremely specific needs like adding a family crest to a wall or leaving a mystic array on the ground. However, the quality of the product only increases with additional knowledge with an infinite skill ceiling. Terrain with moving parts is an easy example of a slightly more advanced project that adds another dimension to gameplay.
Different resins provide a different feeling and texture to the things that are 3D printed with them, including soft plastic and a firmer metallic feel. Since this can be a conscious choice by the person doing the printing, dungeons and environments can be that much more intentional adding yet another choice the DM can make to help tell the story.
The detailing limitations can vary some from printer to printer, but most can handle a high level of detail down to the cracks on the wood of a printed cabinet. This makes it ideal for elements that will be used a lot that are quasi-terrain, like doors, flames, stalagmites, tables, and chairs. When combined with the Hero Forge site, for a small fee, the players can use a character builder to make their perfect design then print it off using a 3D printer.
Dragonlock and Openlocks are two systems you’ll hear about in the 3D printing terrain world. They are organized series of files made by dedicated artists that can be in many cases combined with things like WizKids by printing terrain with a compatible design. Here’s a link to free Dragonlock files and Openlock files to get your feet wet.
Time, proficiency, and access are the big catches here. Let’s start with time. The full map tile picture above took 24 hours on its own. As you can see with the mini as perspective, it isn’t gargantuan in terms of terrain, but it did take a freaking eternity to get all the way out for one piece. 3D printing an entire dungeon is going to take upwards of a week to simply get out of the printer, not counting painting it since none of these are going to be painted when they come out. For verisimilitude like Dwarven Forge or Wiz Kids, it’s going to take even longer especially to add extra texture effects like another layer of resin to make something feel wet or extra smoothness where player characters may stand. This is going to be another huge, huge time suck that makes you understand the value of other “buy-out” options even more since they only need assembly time.
Now, the matter of proficiency and access to a 3D printer is another task entirely. Again, it isn’t enough to simply buy a 3D printer (which is VERY expensive anyway; if you’ve got a friend with one, it’s time to make that call). There’s a learning curve with them that isn’t something that can be completed in a night. There’s going to be trial and error for each machine, but there are some warnings we can give you here that apply to all of them. One is the size of the Printing Bed determines how big of things you can print. Printing something bigger than that will require being parceled out into pieces that can be assembled which may or may not be possible based on the file you are operating with. On top of that, the 3D printer may need physical upgrades to function like what you might find in a Warhammer forum. This can mean upgrading the extruder to be smoother so it doesn’t have little divot imperfections, a smoothing chip to help guide the computer, or even multi-extruder upgrades to make the whole thing run faster.
Some 3D printers can be found at community libraries or at university labs, but these are not universal constants and your mileage may vary. This one won’t always be accessible to everyone
- Cost: $25-$40 per mold (but you’re gonna need a lot of molds)
- Time: 20 minutes of hardening time per mold, 24 hours to cure to be painted, AGD (assembly, gluing, and drying) another 24 hours, painting with detail may take weeks
Source: My house
Middle of the pack on cost, low expertise level, high time investment, and easy access mean that this is the choice for those of us with a lot of crafting talent and even more patience. It’s a step back from the efficiency and automation of a 3D printer, but it is a lot cheaper (if you don’t have access to a 3D printer) and requires less technical skills. It won’t provide some of the more detailed things like cabinets, but it can easily provide all the parts necessary to build larger structures in less time. If you have the time, it is the best way to build large areas short of buying terrain. There are a good number of molds available and with enough of them, you can have enough pieces to build these larger sets available to you quickly.
This is the most involved by leaps and bounds. Assembly is a problem where none of the other methods I discuss here is, and boy is it a problem. Finding the right piece to fill each gap and blend together is a challenge especially with multiple molds going and keeping everything organized through all the steps is miserable and exacting.
Just gluing it all together takes up a few days then priming and painting stretches the process of building a dungeon out into a multi-month affair. It will put the Pain in Painting (if I made you roll your eyes with that pun, send this to a friend. That is what makes puns fun).
On top of all of that, storage is an affair as well that needs to be considered at each step. Even high-quality molds can bump into each other and chip the blocks and paint, setting your work back a step or deleting that block entirely if your luck is awful.
Different terrains will require different molds too so even having multiple of one set won’t really get the job done for a varied environment. This is definitely a long-term investment of time and money for results you’ll have to be extremely careful to get the full results out of.
- Cost: $5-$15 or the cost of ink and paper if you print them yourself
- Time: Shipping time, then 30 minutes – 2 hours set up; if printed by self probably two hours
If you legitimately only have $20 to spend on the game that you love, you don’t have a computer and big screen consistently available, no access to a 3D printer, and no crafting or painting ability whatsoever, this one is for you. There’s no shame in this. It’s probably even a good option to supplement some of the dungeon supplies you may already have. Ravenfell from Fat Dragon Games is the best place to start with this. They come in sheets with instructions to fold, friendly even for those with butterfingers. If you dig around some on the internet, you can probably find some for free made by other tables and print them yourself. It goes well with Printable Heroes too so your game can have a visual consistency to it.
If you are interested in printing yourself, we recommend DaveGames collection to get started. They are free and easy to use with a smooth incline in difficulty.
It is paper, not the flimsiest paper in the world, but it is still paper so it is subject to staining and spilling. If you have a clumsy Cheeto finger, Mountain Dew guzzling player, you need to watch out for this. (I am that player sometimes. No disrespect.) It won’t be as durable either. They may get torn and replacing them will mean buying another pack or having to print another. Some people love the giant plastic minis, but there may be a weight limit for multi-story papercraft buildings if two dragons get in a fight on top of it.
Printing your own is also trickier than you might think. The better the printer, the better the quality. You will need a printer that can run cardstock regardless.
- Cost: ACCESS TO A COMPUTER AND SCREEN OF SOME KIND
- Time: 15-30 minutes once used to a program
Edited with Adobe Illustrator
Edited with Roll20
For more check out reddit.com/r/dndmaps/
This style of terrain will almost always go hand-in-hand with digital minis as well. The most common way this is run is on Roll20, but my friends and I sometimes just stream our GIMP programs using Discord’s Screenshare feature. Great artwork for personal use is easy to find and the maps are easy to download and throw up at a moment’s notice. This is probably the fastest of the bunch if you have a computer that can run it and a TV screen that everyone can see. It is easy to track everyone and some programs have additional features that allow certain parts of the map to be hidden without impeding the player’s ability to see the map and it doesn’t take up any additional space on your D&D table. No storage requirement either!
Having a computer that can run a good program may be a problem for people who are just getting into a hobby and don’t have a job that requires a good computer and all the cables necessary to hook up to a TV can be a pain to set up (so can just streaming it to multiple screens, but more on that in a bit). Programs like Roll20 allow players to move their own digital avatar (in place of a mini), but learning a new tool is always a threshold that impatient players are hesitant to cross so it can often fall to the DM to move all the pieces (cause’ we’re not doing enough, right?). This method also falls victim to “the more moving pieces, the more things that can go wrong” syndrome. Sometimes a computer will not want to register files or you buy the wrong cable or the colors look wrong on the screen or it’s being streamed through a program that doesn’t want to connect to the wi-fi or a litany of other problems that will vary from table to table. This is a cheap option if you have the pieces already, but it is definitely for DMs that don’t mind troubleshooting on the fly and have consistent devices to keep the narrative from being interrupted.
While every table will react differently, I have observed that certain players feel a level of disconnect from the game when they have to stare at a screen rather than have a mini in their hand and a map they can touch and prowl around. If I had to speculate with some armchair psychology, I suspect the screen invokes their thoughts on things like a PowerPoint, TV, movies, or a video game cutscene where they just kick back and watch the action. table top isn’t like that. From saving throws to reactions to armor class, table top (and especially its combat) the players have to be paying attention. It can be another layer of separation for the players that can keep them from engaging wholeheartedly. If that’s not a problem for your table, you’re my hero though and I think that’s awesome!
Remember, mix and match whatever you need! These aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe using a TV screen as a base with static clings to form the structure of the map then using papercraft buildings and Hirst tiles and plastic minis is the way your table approaches the game. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I would go as far as to say that’s how most people are going to approach it.
Never forget why we do this! There’s a sort of kinetic energy that forms when players can see the world form around their mini, they can plan and plot and touch the world and make all of their plans before their next turn. This is especially prevalent for large boss areas with different segmented areas where there may be hurdles to clear or a specific order of operations they need to plan around. Interacting with the environment is one of the staples of great combat and players getting creative with it shows how much they really care and have sunk into the game.
The terrain is only a point of reference in that whole process. If it works for your players, they are able to make decisions and be informed about the world, then it’s the right terrain for you. That is all that matters.
Until next time,
May your game, have advantage my friends!