I’m considering getting some plaster molds from Hirst Arts to build dungeons, houses for town, castles, that sort of thing.
You want these things primarily to show what goes on during a fight. In other situations a visual display just isn’t necessary. Other than that, you probably only need a map of the area as a visual aid for your game. This is just one of a few possible ways to display what’s going on in a fight. Alternatives include a paper battle mat, a wet or dry erase grid mat, fold-up paper models, and just using whatever is around.
You can make a heck of a lot of models with bits and pieces glued together, cardboard, white glue, house paint, scrap styrofoam, and modest tools (sturdy scissors, a ruler, pencil, and a hot wire cutter for the styrofoam if you want to look professional). I’d add a clear spray sealer to that, but you can seal the model at any time so you don’t need it right away.
Or you can make something really professional looking using Hirst Arts molds. You pour plaster in and 30 minutes later little LEGO-like blocks come out. But they’re intricately detailed and quite durable if you use the right plaster. Or you can use cheap plaster and just hope you never drop the model.
The molds are expensive ($24 – 34 each), but the main cost is your time. It takes a lot of time to fill and empty those molds, and to build the models. And you’ll want to use an MDF (dense particle board) base for your models so they don’t break apart from their own weight when you pick them up. And good dental plaster can be spendy, depending. In the end, making your own models from scraps may be a cheaper choice.
You can also make segments of a dungeon and put them together as you go.
The main downside to models is that they take up space. They need to be stored, they’re difficult to transport, and they block line of sight at the table. As such they’re excellent for wargaming where everyone is standing up anyway. But for D&D, not so much.
Paper Battle Mat
These are pre-printed sheets of grid paper with backgrounds. You can use special rules for the printed scenery – such as certain squares being impassible or require extra movement to pass through.
If they’re laminated they’re a lot more durable and you can draw on them with wet-erase markers. But if they’re unlaminated you can fold or roll them up.
An alternative here is cardstock or laminated pieces that are assembled to make a battlefield. For example, you could have the first floor of a house printed up, and then when you place the paper down on the table everyone can see where the house is and what its interior looks like. Or you could use sections of dungeon hallway and rooms to construct a dungeon as the players move through it.
You can’t really use plain paper for this because the paper blows around too much. And it’s difficult to stack an upper floor on a house – you would just put the second floor behind it and everyone would need to remember that it represents the next floor up.
Dry or Wet Erase Grid Mat
This is a rolled-up vinyl mat with a grid of squares or hexagons drawn on it permanently. You use dry-erase markers (never Sharpies, and wet-erase marks are tough to get off) to draw walls or whatever on the mat. When you’re done with that area you wipe it clean and draw a new one.
It’s nice because you don’t need to carry much. The mat and a marker give you all the tools needed to present any play area. But it takes some minor artistic skill, and it does take time to draw and erase everything. And if the players split up into two very different places you have to just wing it. I tend to draw the “other scene” in another part of the mat. And everyone knows they can’t just move their figures between the two because the areas are farther apart in the game.
These are patterns you find online or make yourself, print out, cut, fold, and glue to make 3D models. They’re very cheap, but not durable at all, and have all the downsides of solid models. It’s possible to make paper models that you can stand figures on – so a building with a flat roof or a bridge can be a usable terrain piece.
A mug can become a wizard’s tower, or a few books stacked up can become a canyon wall. A few pencils lined up become a fence. You can use dice or coins for monsters. It’s easy to go crazy with this, but it’s best to limit it to important objects such as walls and barriers and pits. Trying to construct a dungeon like this is difficult but possible.
It’s effectively free. You can buy props that you like, but at that point you’d be better off just making your own solid models.
One downside of any model or prepared mat is that the model will limit your creativity. You will always be able to describe something that you don’t have a model for. So you either use a stand-in, which defeats the purpose of using models, or you compromise your creativity and include only things that you have a model for.
The wet-erase mat and the random object method don’t have this problem. Because you can draw or arrange anything, there’s no limitation.
That’s actually what I do. I have a wet-erase mat for drawing, and for monsters I use dice instead of figures. The players all have miniatures but I can’t possibly have enough of every monster (carried with me!) so I just don’t bother. I try to make my descriptions vivid enough to put the image in their heads.