by Mike Shea on 3 July 2017
Note: This article is an update from the original published in June 2010.
One of the interesting things about the hobby of Dungeons & Dragons is the extreme range of the cost to play. Essentially, this range goes from zero to almost infinity. I'd estimate that the average is about $100 for players and $200 for DMs, though.
We'll be talking more about how to play D&D for nothing (or very cheap) in the future. This article, however, goes the other direction; into one of the higher potential costs in our hobby: 3D terrain. In particular, we'll be looking at the best 3D terrain available for tabletop fantasy gaming: Dwarven Forge.
A solid set of Dwarven Forge dungeon pieces runs about $300 to $500 on the low end. If this cost is too high, there are many more affordable options for D&D battle maps. Take a look at our Battle Map Comparisons guide or, if you want to go really cheap, consider running combat in the theater of the mind. In my opinion, Theater of the Mind is the most cost effective and flexible way to play D&D and doesn't cost a penny.
This review comes from about nine years of experience with Dwarven Forge products, including products from all four of their previous Kickstarters and a bunch of their resin-based products before they came up with Dwarvenite. Its based on its use at hundreds of games, most at home but some at local game shops as well.
However, these experiences are really just a single view. Our recommendations here fit a particular philosophy and that philosophy may be very different for other collectors. Our goal for this guide is to focus on the most useful, versatile, cost-effective, and easy to set up pieces. We can break this down into two other ideas:
Get big pieces that matter.
Focus on a few versatile pieces and get a lot of them.
Many other collectors enjoy building out very large arrangements with lots of amazing details. Roads, sewers, houses, and hamlets; Dwarven Forge sells products for all of these areas and they look amazing. This variety comes with a cost beyond money though. It also comes at the cost of space (this stuff takes up a lot of room) and versatility ("nah, the sewers sound nasty. Maybe we'll go somewhere else."). Good solid dungeon pieces, however? We can use these things just about anywhere.
For this article we're primarily going to focus on the core dungeon sets. Dwarven Forge also makes excellent cavern and city sets along with a castle set that will soon be available on their website and was the focus of their 2015 Kickstarter. These sets are wonderful but not as versatile as the core dungeon sets. Dungeon walls fit just about anywhere but castle walls really only work with castles, towns, and the like.
The original Dwarven Forge Kickstarter focused on three primary components: the wall, the floor, and the corner. With enough of these three pieces we can make a nearly infinite variety of rooms, passages, and corridors. We can build small rooms inside of bigger rooms or rooms with walls that act as cover. Though it seems like these three pieces alone wouldn't be enough, we can do a lot with them. How many is enough? Probably two to three sets with a minimum of 12 corners, 28 walls, and 24 floors. That's enough to build out two or three big rooms or three to five smaller rooms with halls and passages and the like.
I'm going to add two more core components to this list of primary pieces: cubes and large floors.
One major advantage of Dwarven Forge is the added dimension of height. We can make this even better by using things like 2" cubes to elevate parts of our dungeons including platforms, altars, sniper positions, and other interesting parts that stick up from the flat floor. The two-inch Dwarven Forge cubes are perfect for this. The only way to get these cubes currently is as part of the Dwarven Forge Caverns set which look more naturally formed but still fit well into our normal dungeon arrangements.
Bigger floors are also a wonderful and useful piece for building rooms quickly. The 4x6 floors work well to fill out a room or build a platform.
With walls, corners, 2x2 floors, large floors, and 2 inch cubes; we can built all sorts of amazing halls, rooms, and chambers with elevated platforms, altars, and interesting places for our characters to explore.
Filling out our dungeon rooms with cool accessories will really make them unique and fantastic. Dwarven Forge themselves have wonderful light-up accessories to fill out a room but we can also pick these up as Reaper Bones or even model train or aquarium accessories. Recently Wizkids Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons miniatures have started including dungeon accessories and decorations as well which can sometimes be picked up on the secondary market.
Like our philosophy of focusing on important versatile pieces, we can choose the accessories we're likely to use a lot. Here's a short example list:
One good rule of thumb for picking up accessories is to ask "can the characters actually do something with this?" If its merely decoration, we can probably skip buying it, but if its something that characters can actually interact with, or something that will interact with the characters, that can be a nice aid to pick up.
Unpainted miniatures can make for great statues to fill out a dungeon as well.
One great way to make the most use out of Dwarven Forge is to mix it with our 2D battle maps, such as Paizo's Pathfinder Flip Mats. We can use four corner pieces to make a small 3D building on a town map, for example, or use the elevation blocks to build a small ziggurat in the center of a forest. With a four-inch piece of card board we can build square towers out of corner and wall pieces. We can use some 2" blocks and floors to build an elevated platform on one part of the map. Even just throwing out some wall pieces onto a battlefield can add some interesting cover for characters to hide behind.
Dwarven Forge isn't cheap. If these products are outside of your price range, fear not. When we think about the joy we get playing D&D, accessories like Dwarven Forge can definitely add to the experience but aren't required. We can have a whole lot of fun playing D&D with hand-drawn maps on a blank flip mat or even completely in the theater of the mind. We're also not including the high cost of miniatures in any of this discussion; thats a whole other topic.
That said, for people who are really into this hobby of ours and have the income to spend on things like this, there is no better tabletop dungeon accessory than Dwarven Forge.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.