Up until a few years ago, I used simple game mats or graph paper for Dungeons & Dragons sessions. Occasionally I would print out color maps and laminate them, but it was all two-dimensional. As I began to contemplate the idea of running games professionally, I realized that something tangible and visually striking could really improve the experience for players and give them a reason to keep coming back.
Before I get too deep into this topic, I want to make it clear that I’m not recommending everyone switch to 3D terrain. It can be pretty time-consuming and expensive, depending which route you go. It also can make it hard to resist keeping the party on the rails that you’ve prepped for, rather than improvising a combat and then not having materials ready.
Despite these drawbacks, investing in 3D terrain was something I felt strongly about. I wish I could say I’ve built up a huge collection over time, but I’ve switched materials and scale several times, essentially resetting my collection each time. I’d like to take you through the different options I’ve gone through, their pros and cons, and rate them according to five categories: portability, appearance, playability, design, and prep speed.
Phase 1: Foam Construction (1 1/4 inch scale)
I knew off the bat that I wasn’t going to spend a bunch of money on premade dungeon tiles with so many great YouTubers with crafting tutorials. Since I do a lot of traveling as a game master, I knew I wanted something portable that could quickly be set up during the game. For this reason I don’t like some of the more modular designs that come in multiple pieces. I like being able to plop down an entire room at a time.
After some experimentation, I settled for quite some time on using trusty Dollar Tree foam board with a 1 1/4 inch grid. I used a slightly larger-than-standard scale so that I could put in walls while still fitting a miniature on any space.
I could keep the grid at 1 inch and build walls “outside” the grid, but that introduces the problem of keeping the grid consistent across an entire map. For a while I even went gridless, which works better than you might think, but I still found more difficult for players. Here is a great video that goes more in depth into the benefits of a 1 1/4 inch grid. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ASuNQlrU_U
Foam is a pretty great material though. It can easily be cut and textured, it’s cheap, and it comes in a variety of thicknesses from the standard foam board to the big pink insulation foam sold at home improvement stores.
What eventually turned me off of foam is the standard of visual quality I was looking for. I’m very self-conscious of my artistic skills, and a super DIY solution like this relies a lot on your ability to craft something consistent. And while foam is actually often more sturdy than harder materials, since it bounces rather than shattering when dropped, it’s very light and just feels cheap. I decided to upgrade my materials.
1 1/4 inch foam:
Prep Speed: 1
Phase 2: Plaster Construction (1 1/2 inch scale)
I decided to invest in molds from Hirst Arts. These are a little pricey, but once you purchase the mold you can cast it endlessly. There’s a huge selection of molds too, so you can easily build everything from outdoor terrain, to subterranean, dungeons to palaces, and everything in-between.
Everyone immediately agreed that the new plaster pieces looked and felt much better than the old foam terrain. The effort I would have had to have put in to sculpt foam to the standard of these molds is beyond me. That was the only real improvement, but that’s exactly what I was looking for.
But switching to the plaster pieces wasn’t without its downsides. Casting the molds is a fairly messy and time consuming process. Waiting for the plaster to set takes about half an hour, so unless you buy many duplicate molds, even a medium-sized room can take a whole day’s worth of casting off and on.
Hirst Arts also doesn’t make 1 1/4 inch tiles— only 1 or 1 1/2. I decided to go with the larger sets because I still didn’t want to deal with the issues inherent to a 1 inch grid. This may not seem like a huge increase in size, but it really adds up over several tiles. My carrying containers that used to be able to fit a 6x8 piece of terrain could now only fit 4x6, half the playable area. In addition to transportation problems, it made it harder to fit an entire section of dungeon on a table all at once. I decided to try the 1 inch molds instead.
1 1/2 inch plaster:
Prep Speed: 0
Phase 3a: Plaster Construction (1 inch scale without walls)
My original plan was to switch to 1 inch and drop walls altogether. This would let me pack far more pieces into my containers, as not only would they take up less room horizontally, they’d also be a third as tall. Prepping was also quite a bit faster without needing to build the walls.
Unfortunately, things got very confusing in play any time I had an area with rooms that bordered one another. Even with doors set up vertically to show where entrances and exits were, it was very hard to tell where one room ended and another began. Maybe adding the walls back in wouldn’t be too bad…
1 inch plaster (no walls):
Prep Speed: 2
Phase 3b: Plaster Construction (1 inch scale with walls)
Nope. I can’t recommend adding walls onto a 1 inch grid. Hallways and other tight spaces just get too cramped.
1 inch plaster (with walls):
Prep Speed: 0
Phase 3c: Plaster Construction (1 inch scale with gaps)
So I’ve taken the walls back off. But to solve the previous problem, I’ve put doorways onto 1/2 inch tiles. Now instead of having rooms flush with one another, there’s at least a 1/2 inch gap around all of them. I could have put walls around the sides of rooms, but in addition to all the other benefits I mentioned previously, I think things look a little cleaner and it’s easier for everyone to see what’s going on.
The big downside is now the grid is not consistent as there are some half-sized squares scattered around. This makes dungeon design a bit more tedious, but so far it’s worked out okay. I really like the other benefits of this technique and hope that I don’t decide to scrap everything I’ve worked on yet again!
1 inch plaster (with gaps):
Prep Speed: 2
So What Do I Recommend?
That’s my journey from a 2D 1 inch grid all the way up to a huge 1.5 inch 3D system and back again to a mostly flat 1 inch grid. If you’re not concerned with portability, I don’t think anything looks as impressive as fully 3D dungeon tiles with walls. However, if you travel for games a lot and need a quick setup time, I think a flatter system works better, whether that’s crafted or just printed out. The humble graph paper or battle mat is still arguably the best though, for its sheer versatility and speed.