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.
If you want to learn more about playing D&D for next to nothing, check out Playing D&D on a Budget.
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.
If you're new to Dwarven Forge and want a quick recommendation for the best sets to look at, here are my go-to sets:
It isn't cheap, at about $550, but it's a fantastic set of pieces to build out some very cool dungeons.
If this cost is too high, there are many more affordable options for D&D battle maps. Take a look at my 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 ten years of experience with Dwarven Forge products, including products from all of their previous Kickstarters and a bunch of their resin-based products before they came up with Dwarvenite. It's based on its use at hundreds of games, most at home but some at local game shops as well.
However, these experiences are just one view. My recommendations here fit a particular philosophy and that philosophy may be very different for other collectors. My 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.
Get a lot of versatile pieces.
For this article we're going to focus on Dwarvenite dungeon pieces. Dwarven Forge also makes excellent cavern, city, and castle sets. These sets are wonderful but not as versatile as the core dungeon sets. We can use dungeon pieces just about anywhere.
The core dungeon Dwarven Forge sets focuses on three primary components: walls, corners, and floors. 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. Two remastered core sets gives you thirty walls, thirty floors, sixteen corners and a bunch of other stuff for $200. These are enough to build out two or three good-sized rooms and some halls.
Moving from a 2d to 3d battle map really benefits from making use of elevation and we can accomplish this with terrain trays and stilts(https://shop.dwarvenforge.com/products/6-a139-u_stilt-pack-unpainted?_pos=3&_sid=47e941c74&_ss=r). Terrain trays are metal plates with a cloth covering decorated with stone on one side and either lava, water, or acid on the other. One pack of this includes two 12 inch plates and two 4x8 plates. Both work well for elevation. The stilts, a component from the Dwarven Forge Cavern's Deep sets, are inexpensive magnitized stilts that can stick to the bottom of a terrain tray and line it up perfectly with the edge of a wall piece. Thus we can set up two-tier layouts easily.
All Dwarven Forge pieces now include magnets on the bottom so the stick to terrain trays and allow you to "fly in" a whole 12" square room when you need it. You can use pizza stands or Really Useful Boxes to store your rooms and then pull them out, fully set up, when it's time to drop them on the table.
Another way to get some elevation into our collections is with elevation blocks. We can drop these roughly 2" cubes anywhere in our rooms to add some raised platforms.
With walls, corners, floors, and elevation; 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 makes them unique and fantastic. Dwarven Forge has wonderful light-up accessories to fill out a room but we can also pick up room accessories from Reaper Bones or even model train or aquarium accessories. Recently Wizkid's Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons miniatures have started including dungeon accessories and decorations 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:
Unpainted miniatures can make for great statues to fill out a dungeon as well.
One great way to make the most 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 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.
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