by Mike Shea on 30 July 2018
Updated 15 August 2018
Note: This Kickstarter is now over but I'm keeping this article around for those who backed it and will soon use the pledge manager to choose their final selections.
The folks over at Dwarven Forge are right in the middle of their sixth Kickstarter for a new set of cavern-focused encounters and pieces called Caverns Deep. The Dwarven Forge folks reached out to me based on the guide I had put together last year for their Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter and asked that I put together a similar guide for getting the most out of your Caverns Deep Kickstarter Pledge. This article will take one view of how we can get the most adventure for our dollar for these amazing pieces.
Note that I'm publishing this article after the first week of the Kickstarter. The folks at Dwarven Forge continue to release new add-ons as the Kickstarter continues and I will update this article again before the end of the Kickstarter.
Please also note that I am being compensated for this article by the fine folks at Dwarven Forge. Know too that I've been a big fan and customer of theirs for more than a decade and will be backing this Kickstarter myself. Yes, I'm biased, but I really do love this stuff.
Before we head into the Caverns Deep, it helps to understand how Dwarven Forge fits into Dungeons & Dragons. Dwarven Forge is, in my opinion and the opinions of many, the best 3D terrain you can get for Dungeons & Dragons. The price, however, puts it out of the realm of possibility for many.
If the price is prohibitive for you, I have good news. Dwarven Forge is a wonderful accessory for D&D but it's not required. People can run awesome D&D games for hardly any money at all. The $20 D&D Starter Set or the free D&D Basic Rules are enough for a group of friends to share some fantastic stories together for a long time.
It's easier to think of Dwarven Forge as the titanium golf-clubs of D&D. They are not necessary to play but they sure grab attention at your D&D table.
Our goal in this article is to find the highest value pieces for the dollar—the pieces that will find the most use at our table and capture the most attention.
Dwarven Forge Kickstarters are the best way to get into this hobby. With a substantial savings (at least in the US) for both shipping and taxes, discounted sets, and added stretch goal pieces thrown in; if one wants to get into Dwarven Forge, starting with their Kickstarters is a great way to go. In particular, this Kickstarter bakes their stretch goals into all of the relevant pledges or add-ons which is a big plus. Even the smaller pledges get some good stretch goal pieces.
That said, this campaign is more of an "advanced builder" campaign than the previous Dungeon of Doom campaign. This set heavily augments Dwarven Forge's second Kickstarter, the first Caverns Kickstarter, that focused on the primary building blocks of walls, corners and floors. This Kickstarter focuses more on the advanced pieces to make our rooms and corridors more fluid, dynamic, and detailed. This Kickstarter does, however, include a starter pack that can get new Dwarven Forge collectors started in their cave collections.
I personally choose to go for painted sets because I like to pull them out and use them out of the box. If you're crafty and familiar with painting miniatures or terrain and you have the spare time, you can save a lot by going with unpainted. The Dwarven Forge folks have some good paint tutorials up on Youtube if you decide to save a bunch of money and paint them yourselves.
The Dungeon of Doom was a huge Kickstarter with new encounters and new add-ons being released every day. That said, it was relatively easy to see what you got with each of the encounters.
The Caverns Deep Kickstarter breaks things up to help backers get exactly what they want but at the sacrifice of clarity in the pledges. Nate Taylor, the creative director of Dwarven Forge, referred to this campaign as the "Caverns of Cherry Picking." They have the full expectation that people will pick and choose just the pieces they want from this Kickstarter. Because of this flexibility, there are numerous types of kits in this Kickstarter including pledge levels, encounters, adventure packs, core packs, universal packs, and miscellaneous packs. This can be quite confusing. I would worry less about the types of packs and, instead, choose exactly which packs you want that contain the pieces you will find most valuable at your game. That's what I've done in this guide.
It can be hard to know exactly which pieces you want, however. In this guide, we choose one philosophy and list of potential pledges but your own list might (and probably should) vary based on your own budget and your own desires. Some people love LED pieces (I'm one of them) while others want to focus on bread-and-butter pieces. Some love super-detailed and accurate pieces while others want walls, floors, and corners so they can build quickly.
Adding to this, the folks at Dwarven Forge have been adding new sets and add-on packs every day so far and will likely continue to near the end of the Kickstarter. This seems to add to the confusion but this often comes from the direct feedback of the backers, helping to build packs that better fit peoples' desires. It also means we can enjoy this Kickstarter every day instead of all at once, watching as new pieces come out.
Most importantly, prepare to do some research and cherry-pick the pieces that fit your budget and bring you the most value for your own game.
There are a couple of excellent spreadsheets made by some other industrious backers here and here that can show you exactly what pieces you get with which pledges. They're a couple of great planning tools.
Now let's talk about my own Dwarven Forge philosophy.
Anyone who gets into Dwarven Forge and spends some time with the pieces usually ends up building a personal philosophy towards them. This philosophy will change from person to person but I will give you mine, refined after over a decade of collecting and using Dwarven Forge pieces in my own D&D games.
I like big meaningful pieces. I like big pieces that I can drop on a table and instantly change an area. I like the big flashy pieces that make players go "wow". I want pieces that the characters can interact with. I want them pulling arcane energy out of glowing crystals, throwing bad guys into fiery pits, getting an advantageous shot when they climb a high tower, and falling into portals to the nine layers of hell.
This Kickstarter has some great big meaningful pieces. If one doesn't have any other cavern pieces, these big pieces look like they will work well in any sort of battle map, Dwarven Forge or not. Examples include the LED basalt floor from the summoning chamber adventure pack, the stairway to violence, the dwarven forge, and the stuff in the shrine of Skyss Ryssa adventure pack.
If you already have some previous cavern sets or if you're picking up any of the starter or core sets in this Kickstarter than there are some big pieces in this Kickstarter that look like they'll have some high value for our cavern setups. This includes the entrance riser, the corner curve, the corner entrance, the LED wall pack, and the 6x6 floor. These big pieces help you build out rooms quickly and with a lot of variety and are included in a few different sets.
The various components of this Dwarven Forge cavern sets are, without a doubt, beautiful. One question we must keep in mind, however, is how often they will see use at our table? The ice set, for example, looks great, but how often do our characters fight in icy corridors? The glowing Mother of All Mushrooms is also awesome but how often will it land on the table?
These are hard questions we must ask ourselves to ensure that we're really getting a high value for the pieces we pick up. A 6x6 floor piece may not seem nearly as flashy as a giant glowing mushroom but we can drop that 6x6 floor in any big cavern room we build.
While the Caverns Deep Kickstarter focuses on building small encounter environments, we can mix our media, using the stand-alone set-pieces in this Kickstarter with more traditional 2D maps, either hand-drawn on flip mats or using pre-printed flip mats like those published by Paizo for Pathfinder.
Freestanding walls can sit out to break up line of sight on a larger battle map. Elevation pieces can give characters and monsters higher ground from which to snipe foes. Glowing terrain, like the basalt floor or the dwarven forge, can sit in a larger map surrounded by chanting cultists while something horrible raises from the hellish portal. You'll see a full list of my favorite stand-alone centerpieces below.
Using Dwarven Forge pieces like this is also quick to set up so it works well for improvised areas. One can draw a sketch of an area and then drop a piece or two of Dwarven Forge to spice it up in just a couple of minutes.
When we're shopping for pieces in this Kickstarter, it helps to know what we already have in hand and how we typically build encounter areas already.
On to our shopping lists. First, we'll start with these excellent stand-alone centerpieces pieces that look like they will work for just about any setup, including right on a flat battle map. I've listed these in my own priority order.
The Stairway to Violence. A three-story platform is really an awesome piece to drop into an encounter area. It's only two pieces so it's easy to set up and it's versatile enough to use in a lot of encounters. It will bring a lot of 3D to an otherwise flat map. Note, this isn't yet available as an add-on but I expect it soon will be.
Summoning Chamber Adventure Pack. Who doesn't need a big glowing summoning circle? This is another great set piece that will define an encounter area and catch a lot of eyes around the table. Summoning circles are common enough that we'll use this a lot but cool enough to wow us every time.
The Dwarven Forge Pack. A small accessory pack with an awesome LED dwarven forge with a removable top. This is a great eye-catcher that looks like it has a lot of versatility and works as a stand-alone centerpiece that characters can interact with (or vice versa!). Who doesn't want to kick a hobgoblin into a fiery pit of molten metal?
Shrine of Skiss-Ryssa - Adventure Pack. This pack is more expensive but looks cool and comes with three different glowy pieces and some other neat accessories like the gibbering mouther and the magnetic chained crystal. Nearly each of these pieces can act as a story centerpiece in an adventure.
Natural Bridge. The natural bridge looks like it will give us a really cool piece of elevation that we can drop on the table without requiring any other pieces. It also looks like it will mix well with the stairway to violence.
Stalagmite Pack. This pack gives us a whole pile of cool stalagmites, some small and some huge. It also has two excellent raised platforms to shake up any chamber, whether you use Dwarven Forge or not.
Hag's Den - Adventure Pack. The Hag's Den pack contains a myriad of flavorful accessories to dress up rooms. These sorts of accessories can turn a plain chamber into something really unique. Personally, I'm already swimming in accessories like this from other Kickstarters so I'm going to pass but if you're brand new, it's worth considering.
The Underdoom and Dreadhollow Forest sets likewise have numerous stand-alone options and are worth checking out.
Going beyond stand-alone pieces, we come to sets that actually build out full cavern areas. Building large rooms with this Kickstarter can get expensive quickly but rich and interesting small chambers and halls are within our grasp. We'll get the most from this Kickstarter's core pieces if we already have a bunch of cavern pieces from the second Dwarven Forge Kickstarter. After a lot of study I've come to a list of sets that I think contain the most interesting cavern pieces with an eye towards price at three price ranges.
The Starter Set. The Caverns Deep starter set includes a small pile of walls, floors, corners, and general cavernous accessories. One set is enough to either augment a larger purchase or build a small room but, on its own, one set probably isn't enough. If you're looking for more general pieces, two or three starter sets will likely give us enough material to build a good sized set of chambers. These starter sets also mix very well with the Cavern Entrance Encounter. One cavern entrance encounter and two starter sets gives us a solid collection for a bit over $300. This might be enough on its own to build out a good variety of cave encounters for an evening. Starter sets can also add a number of basic pieces to any larger core set if we go for those.
Cavern Entrance Encounter. This set includes the summoning chamber circle mentioned above along with the awesome entrance riser. It also includes big epic corners and a bunch of other bread-and-butter pieces. This really doesn't have enough pieces on its own to build more than a single small room so augmenting it with one or two starter sets will fill it out. We can likely skip this set if we're adding a bigger core set to our pledge.
Cherry-picked Add-On Sets. Instead of choosing one of the larger core sets, we can cherry pick the exact pieces we want from the exact sets. The add-on sets that have my eye include the Cavern Floors Pack, the Passages Pack, and the Cave Cliff Pack. These, mixed with the starter set and the entrance encounter gives us solid amount of bread and butter pieces to build out a lot of locations.
The LED Wall Pack. This Kickstarter includes a 2x6 cavern wall with a door, archway, and torch sconces for glowing torches. It won't work well on its own but as part of a cavern setup, it looks like it will be easy to set up and bring a lot of cool features into a room. It includes a stand-alone wall with a socket that has a lot of uses in a lot of set-ups.
Stilts and Terrain Trays. Back with the Dungeon of Doom, Dwarven Forge introduced magnetic terrain trays. These are plates of metal in different sizes covered with a neoprene cover (sort of like a fabric). We can put magnetic pieces right on it and elevate them up to have large elevated sectiosn of our dungeon. I'm all about dungeon elevation when we're using Dwarven Forge. It really shows the value of 3d terrain when there are multiple levels to explore. This Kickstarter now includes a bunch of different Terrain Trays and Stilts. The stilts are small magnetic posts that stick right to the bottom of the terrain tray and let you elevate them for not a lot of money. We can safely get these unpainted since they're likely to be inside our builds and not really visible. This saves about 50% of the cost.
Encounter 11 Hag's Den Core Set. If you don't want to cherry pick a bunch of pieces and instead want a big variety of pieces for roughly the same price, the core set for the hag encounter is a great package. This one will build out a nice-sized room and a few passages. It has a lot of pieces awesome pieces including the 6x6 floor (one of my favorites in this Kickstarter; I love big floors). A bunch of the pieces in this core set are the same as the entrance set except for the basalt floor or entrance riser. Instead of buying this AND the entrance set, you can get this set and then the raised entrance and basalt floor from that set as add-ons.
Essentials 1 through 9 Set. If one had $1,500 to spend on this Kickstarter, this all-in-one package has a whole ton of great pieces. For the money, this is the no-brainer pledge. The only thing missing is the Shamanic Circle which I would still add as an add-on.
Dan W. who goes by DW, Chancellor of Valoria on the Kickstarter's huge comment section, offers up that we can leave out one or two sides of walls when building out a room or chamber for a Starcraft-like setup that gives you a lot more potential surface area. That's a neat idea I haven't yet tried.
So what am I actually going to order? Here's my own list in priority order. This list might certainly change before the end of the Kickstarter depending on what they announce. I'm mostly cherrypicking the specific pieces I want along with a cavern entrance set and a caverns starter set as my base pledge. Again, check back before the end of the Kickstarter to see how I've updated it.
This Kickstarter is only about eight days in as this article is published, with almost two weeks to go. As the days move on, the landscape changes and so too might these recommendations. Keep an eye on this page to see what updates come in before the end of the Kickstarter.
When I look at the pictures from this Kickstarter, it reminds me of the awesome set-pieces that Wizards of the Coast puts together for Chris Perkins's Acquisitions Incorporated games. Those hand-made sets take his games to a new level and, typically, we wouldn't have access to anything like that. Dwarven Forge stuff, however, gives us that access. It gives us modular terrain, hand sculpted by D&D nerds to let us build awesome tabletop setups for our D&D games.
This stuff isn't necessary to run a great game but, for those who can afford it, Dwarven Forge adds an entire new element to the games we enjoy. Give it a look and see if it's for you.
Special thanks to Teos Abadia, Shad Ross, Dan W., my wonderful wife, and the excellent folks at Dwarven Forge for their help and suggestions with this article.