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Tabletop Terrain: The Basics

by Kim
tabletop terrain

A well-crafted description of a location is one of the best tools a DM can use during a session. But when theater of the mind fails for some players, having a physical representation of the tabletop terrain you’re describing can take your game to the next level.

Advantages of Using Tabletop Terrain

Much like having a battle map out on the table, tabletop terrain allows your players to immediately understand the dimensions of the area they’re fighting in. It also serves to help your player become more immersed in the world. There’s nothing like describing a location to your players and then bringing out the terrain. Land elevations and foliage density will not only become apparent to your players, but it will also force them to be more creative with their battle tactics.

Tabletop Terrain Options

Most table top terrain can be made from items you have lying around the house. Other supplemental objects may need to be purchased from craft stores or specialty shops. All crafting objects have different price points, so feel free to use whatever options are in your budget. We’ve assembled a list of our most commonly used materials.

Paper Crafts

Paper crafts are extremely low-cost and very easy to find. Plenty of us have cardboard boxes delivered to us with every Amazon purchase. If you eat any many eggs as we do, you’ll never be in short supply of materials either. Below is a list of our most commonly used paper crafts:

Plaster of Paris

We’ve found that some of the best applications for using plaster of paris is when used with silicon molds or casts. One of the main benefits, besides its low cost, is that it sets relatively quickly and can then be painted with any oil or latex-based paints. One of its drawbacks is that it can be kind of fragile, so take care when popping objects out of their molds and when storing them.

Polystyrene and Alternatives

Probably one of the most popular tabletop terrain materials, polystyrene (or styrofoam) blocks can be used in a number of different ways. These craft foam blocks lend themselves to different carving, sculpting, and painting applications.

If you have any hesitancy in using polystyrene due health or ecological concerns, here is a list of eco-friendly alternatives:

*Note: All items in the alternatives list above will eventually break down. While eco-friendly, they will have a much shorter shelf-life.

Modeling Clay

Applications for modeling clay can be as varied as the types of clay available. We recommend using single toned, oil-based modeling clay so that you can reshape as necessary. If you want to create ceramic pieces, you’ll need to use water-based clays and then have them fired in a kiln. For tabletop terrain applications, cheaper, reusable clay is your best bet.

Random Objects

You don’t need expensive or professional tools in order to have fun, helpful terrain. Sometimes the cheaper option can be the most fun. Take a look through your local dollar store for cheap animal figurines. If you have a pet store in your area, the fish aisle has a ton of affordable terrain options. The artificial plants and ornaments available can help set the scene for multiple landscapes, like underwater and the Feywild.

Other Helpful Materials

While you probably can’t make an entire map out of the following materials, you might find them essential in building your terrain. The following is a list of materials we use in almost every one of our builds:

Get Crafty

While it would be nice to have professionally constructed tabletop terrain for each of our game’s encounters, the reality is that most of us just can’t afford it. But don’t let cost be a limiting factor for bringing your battles to life. Simple materials that you have lying around the house are just begging to be re-purposed. We will continue our tabletop terrain series with more specific applications and step by step guides on how you can create terrain for your games. Happy DMing!

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