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 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 a single 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.
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 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 original Dwarven Forge Kickstarter focused 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 sets of the remastered core sets. Two of these gives you thirty walls, thirty floors, sixteen corners and a bunch of other stuff for $200. These are almost always sold out, however, so you'll have to keep an eye on it and grab it when it shows up. This is 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. We can get tricky and balance some floor tiles on corners to create some elevation but there are a couple of ways we can add elevation to our collection.
The first is with the new Dwarven Forge terrain trays These 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" plates and two 4x8" plates. The 4x8 plates are wonderful for elevation. We can stick a couple of corner pieces under it and line it up perfectly with the top of a wall to form elevated platforms on the side of a room. The 12" plates can also be elevated for big room elevations but it works also really well to build out a room and move it around.
Terrain trays were the biggest game-changer for Dwarven Forge when they came out with their Dungeon of Doom pieces. If you get only one set, water will probably work best, but lava is also useful.
The second 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. They also work well on the opposite side of a wall with another wall piece on them or underneath the terrain trays mentioned above.
The Dungeon of Doom collection includes excellent cubes but they're not available yet. Keep an eye out.
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 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:
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.
Here's a quick list of the Dwarven Forge sets I'd get, given my own personal experiences, if I didn't have anything at all.
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.