Category Archives: Terrain

Building the Lair of the Dragon Cult

I built this terrain setup to commemorate the final session of our group’s D&D 5E playtest campaign.  I decided to do something special for the last session and I was pretty satisfied with the results.  The module that I ran was Temple of the Dragon Cult by Goodman Games.

Here’s where the insanity begins.  I purchased 4′ x 8′ sheets of 2″ and 1/2″ polystyrene insulation from the local big box hardware store.  They nearly blew away in the parking lot before I even got them on the car, but some friendly passers by assisted me in strapping them down.



The dungeon was a mountain lair consisting of four round levels with a central shaft passing through each of them.  I wanted to have the effect of the central shaft being open even though it made construction a good deal more difficult.  Step 1 was tracing a circle for each level then drawing out the portions that needed to be cut away.  The top level had a large cavern opening where the party would enter.


I did most of the cutting using a drywall saw along with a hot wire foam cutter for some minor cleanup.  The drywall saw was extremely messy (see all of the little pink bits on the floor) but went quickly and allowed me to do inside cuts easily. I did a quick sanding job with some coarse sandpaper to knock off the loose bits on any cut surfaces, but overall the texture left by the saw was a pretty good approximation of rough stone.




Once all of the pieces were cut out, I cut floors for each of them from the 1/2″ foam and lined them up.  I did a little extra trimming around the outside to make them line up as closely as possible.





With all of the shaping and floors completed, I moved on to painting.  At this point our gaming schedule changed slightly and my timeline for the project was cut a couple weeks shorter than I had originally planned, so apologies if I missed pictures of some steps here.  I base coated all of the pieces using flat black latex paint bought by the gallon at my friendly big box hardware store.  It went pretty fast using a large paint brush.  I also did a light layer of drybrushing with grey and did some water effects using painters gloss.


All that was left to do was add some room dressing for each level using various accessories, minis, and some Dwarven Forge doors.  Here are the final results.





The top level had a removable floor covering the central shaft.  This was intended to represent an illusory floor trap.  It worked as intended, with one of the players taking a 50′ plunge down the center of the mountain.  Fortunately, it was the monk who happened to fall in and he was hardly worse for wear.



I probably worked on this for about 6 weeks off and on, but I was very happy with the results and it helped make the final session of our campaign a memorable one.






Fieldstone Tower – Painted!

I finished painting the tower.  Not bad for a first attempt.  I have a few other projects that I need to work on for the D&D campaign then I’ll probably attempt some more HA buildings.


Swamp Tiles

I have an upcoming session planned that involves a large swamp so I’ve been working on some swampy looking tiles.  These are largely based on this video posted on Youtube by “WargamerDad”.

I started out by drawing and cutting out the necessary shapes from a sheet of hardboard acquired from Local Big Box Store.  The jigsaw worked decently enough but had the tendency to vibrate the hardboard like crazy if I wasn’t careful.  If anyone has a better method for cutting out unusual shapes, let me know!


Once I had the bases cut out for my swamp islands, I layed them on the back of a piece of sheet moss acquired from a local craft store.  (it’s found in the department with the flower arrangements)  Cut the sheet moss with scissors, glue to the hardboard, and we’re almost done already.




The finishing touches consisted of some random racks and pieces of broken fieldstone building cast using a Hirst Arts mold.  After the picture shown below I also added some pools of liquid using a couple different methods for creating water effects.  I found the one that worked the best with the sheet moss was triple-thick gloss gel purchased from the art section of the crafts store.  You’ll see these in action in an upcoming session in combination with the wooden bridges that I recently posted.

When you find yourself in a swamp, don’t go in.  Turn left instead.


A Bridge Too Far

I need some small foot bridges for an upcoming session so I picked up an assortment of wood pieces from the friendly local craft store. Cut to size, glue together, and you have something that looks like it was quickly pieced together by monstrous humanoids with about an 8 Intelligence. Perfect! I threw a coat of combo stain/sealer on to finish the job.




Hirst Arts Fieldstone Tower


This is my first attempt at a Hirst Arts project.  For anyone unfamiliar with Hirst Arts, they produce molds that you can use for creating a wide variety of terrain pieces out of plaster or other similar materials.  Their web site is and it has not only an inventory of their products but also details about how to use them as well as step-by-step plans for building a wide variety of different buildings.

The process is well documented in many other places around the net and there’s an active community that participates in the HA Message Board.  I won’t attempt to recreate the step-by-step instructions here because I can’t possibly do so with the same level of detail that you can already find from these other sources.

The high level summary of the process is:

  1. Select and purchase your mold(s).  If you look at the project plans on the HA sites, they’ll tell you exactly which molds you need.  If you’re just dabbling for the first time, you may want to select a project that only requires a single mold.  The “6” Fieldstone Tower” I built would be such a project that requires only mold #73.
  2. Select and purchase your casting material.  I bought a 40# box of a dental plaster called Hydrostone off of ebay.  It seemed towork fine but I don’t have much of a basis for comparison.  There are reviews of many different materials on the HA site.
  3. Cast your blocks.  My project required 24 castings of mold #73 which I conducted over the course of several days.  There are detailed casting instructions on the HA site.  In most situations, a casting takes about 40 minutes from the time you start mixing your plaster to the time you can pop the bricks out of the mold.  About 5 minutes of that time is active work.  The rest is just waiting for the plaster to set up.
  4. Let your bricks dry.  You can just leave them out for a few days like I did or use one of a couple tricks such as putting in them in a low oven or food dehydrator.
  5. Glue them together with white glue following the project plan.  (or not, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous)  For the most part it’s no more difficult than assembling something out of legos, just slightly more time consuming because you’ll want to let the glue dry in a few different stages before moving on to the next section.
  6. Paint them.  There are painting instructions on the HA site including the exact colors to buy from your local Wal-mart.  I’ll probably use my Pokorny Paints and some craft paint instead and see how they work out.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about trying since I first saw them at Gencon a few years ago.  I’m glad that I finally took the plunge and now I’m just trying to find time to use the other molds.  At minimum there will be an inn and a fieldstone ruin in my immediate future and I’m planning on picking up some more molds at Gencon this year.

Until your plaster sets, keep turning left.










Sticks and Stones

Having created my grass boards to use as a base for outdoor terrain, I’ve continued to work on modular pieces that I can set up in a variety of configurations.  At minimum I wanted to have combinations of trees, shrubs, and rocks.  I decided to use the foam cutter to shape small hills or ridges to use as natural bases for these items using polystyrene.  I applied the same grass texture that I applied to the terrain board so that they’ll match up.  Finally, I acquired several products from Woodland Scenics to make my scenery.

The rocks proved to be the most interesting part of the process.  I used the Woodland Scenics Rock Faces Learning Kit along with a few other molds.  Essentially you use a custom plaster mixture (lightweight hydrocal) to fill the mold and allow it to set.  They also provide a set of their pigments for painting the finished rocks.

Mixing the plaster:


Plaster poured into the mold:



After 30-40 minutes the boulders are carefully removed from the mold.  I broke about half of them in the process.20140307-154216.jpg

Painted boulders using the pigment supplied in the kit.  The pigments were all heavily watered down (8:1 for the colors and 16:1 for the blank) and applied using a “leopard spot” pattern per the Woodland Scenics instructions.20140307-154230.jpg

Since I don’t plan on creating a huge forest of trees, I opted to purchase pre-made trees from Woodland Scenics.  You can mix and match different sizes of deciduous and coniferous trees for realistic results.  I opted to glue the plastic base to the tree and then glue the plastic base to my foam base for the greatest amount of stability.  I did this prior to applying my grass texture which completely covered up the plastic base on the tree.  I then glued the rocks on to the finished grass base.  They sell molds in a very of shapes and sizes and the plaster rocks are easy to cut/shape to fit your base as desired.  The shrubbery material was also Woodland Scenics and simply got glued down to the base in a clump using white glue.

Here’s an example of the finished product.  I’m making about 10 more in different configurations to give the table some variety.  Once you have the basic materials it shouldn’t be too challenging to combine these components in whatever way you need.  Give it a try sometime, and remember to always turn left.




Look out, Indy!

Sometimes you make things because you think that you need them for a specific purpose and sometimes random inspiration hit you.  During a recent visit to the local hobby shop, I saw that they had a bin full of these 2″ styrofoam balls for sale.  I recalled that I’d been reading a module a few weeks prior that involved a trap reminiscent of the Indiana Jones “rolling boulder” trap.  Now this isn’t necessarily the sort of killer trap that I’d be likely to use as part of a regular campaign, but I do have some ideas for a future one-off session as a respite from dreaded continuity.  For $.30, I figured “what the hell” and gave it a shot.


There was nothing terribly complex about my process here.  I primed with black craft paint and then drybrushed with my Pokorny Paints in a finish similar to what I use on my dungeon tiles.  One thing to note here is that the styrofoam unsurprisingly soaked up a LOT of paint and took a long time to fully dry after priming.



I didn’t want this piece to take too much of a beating over time, so I sealed using a 3:1 mix of water and PVA. (white glue)  While I was at it, I rolled it in a little bit of green static grass to give it sort of an old mossy look.  Here are my final results.

20140216-235857.jpgThrow me the idol and I’ll throw you the whip.  Oh yeah, and always turn left.

Standing stones

One of the scenes that I have planned for a future session calls for a ring of standing stones similar to Stonehenge.  This seemed easy enough to achieve, so I got cutting with the hot wire foam cutter.

I neglected to take a picutre of the planning phase, but I basically made a template for one of my stone pieces and then drew an outline for 17 more of them.  (3 pieces each * 6 standing arches in a ring)  Here are all of the pieces cut out and shaped using the foam cutter and smoothed out with sandpaper:


From there I assembled my stones using hot glue, primed with black craft paint, and painted using my standard Pokorny Paint scheme.




I then primed my hill with green craft paint and applied the same turn technique that I used on my grass terrain boards.


And here’s the final product.  When I use it I will probably dress it up a little bit with some stumps, shrubs, rocks, etc.  I was pretty happy that I could make a fairly custom piece of scenery in only a couple hours.  The stones aren’t attached to the hill, so I can always repurpose that piece as needed.


Don’t lick the hot glue and keep turning left!

MasterMaze Caverns and Narrow Corridors

I love my Dwarven Forge game tiles, but they do still have some limitations.  First, they don’t include any narrow corridor pieces which in my experience tend to be pretty important, especially if you’re running “old school” style dungeon modules.  Secondly, they’re designed to represent indoor man-made spaces and not caverns.  I’ve dressed them up using stalagmites and rocks, but sometimes it’s better to have a true cavern space to work with.

I’m sure that Dwarven Forge is going to continue to expand on their game tile line, but in the meantime I picked up a few items from their original MasterMaze line.  Many of these products are now out-of-print, but you can eventually find them on eBay if you watch carefully.  They aren’t a perfect match for my game tiles, but they’re close enough that it’s not jarring to see them side-by-side.

I currently have their Cavern Set and Narrow Passage Set.  The quality on these is extremely high.  Unfortunately, they tend to be really expensive as well.  (something that they’ve improved on greatly with the new Game Tile line)  I keep them in the original packaging because I’m a little concerned that they might break if I store them carelessly.  With the game tiles I just chuck them in a drawer and don’t even think twice about it.

Take a look at the pictures posted in my session recaps to see how I’ve incorporated these pieces into layouts using the newer game tiles.



Polystyrene and Spray Paint

No, the title of this post is *not* the name of my newly formed terrain-themed pop duo.  (although it’s tempting)

If you’ve been researching terrain at all, I’m sure that you’ve heard that advice that it’s always a bad idea to paint any kind of styrofoam.  (also known as polystyrene)  Why is that you say?  Well, let’s try it out and see what happens.  Here’s my friendly chunk of scrap polystyrene insulation.


Now here it is after a healthy coating of black spray paint.  You’ll see that the propellant in the spray paint has reacted with the styrofoam, essentially melting it.  This probably isn’t a great look for most of your terrain projects, although I could see some limited uses for creating a lava rock effect.  For the most part you’ll want to stick to the old paint brush.  You don’t need to use your fancy (read: expensive) miniature paint for these larger areas.  Cheap craft paint from the craft store will generally do just fine.20140212-081725.jpg