This article series is aimed at that huge mass of players who use D&D Miniatures in their role-playing games. It's a big miniature world out there, but we're going to make sense of it for you and improve your miniatures experience at the same time.
D&D is a "paper and pencil" role-playing game. Paper, by its nature, tends to live in two dimensions. It lies flat on the table and does little else. The same goes for maps, whether they're the DM's master map of the adventure, the sketch map that the players are creating as they travel, or the battlemat that the DM unrolls when an encounter turns into a fight.
The fact that you're using miniatures, however, means that you've already partially broken the wall separating the two dimensions we know from the theoretical "third dimension." If you're going to go 3D partway with miniatures, why not take a full step and add some 3D scenery?
Adding scenery -- "table props" or "table dressing" -- isn't difficult. In fact, it can be downright simple, if you start slowly. The trick is to begin in the right places. Chances are good that you have many useful items ready and waiting to enlist in your game.
Found and "As Is" Items
The easiest way to break the 3D barrier is to use items that can be plopped onto the battlemat with no preparation whatsoever. Some of these things you'll need to buy; others can be found in the basement, the attic, or your little brother's or sister's toy chest.
Wood Blocks: Number 1 on the list is wood blocks. We don't mean the kinds that have letters and numbers on them, although those can be used, too. We mean blocks that come in different geometrical shapes for building -- rectangles, triangles, pyramids, cubes, cylinders, cones, and arches. These are your best friends! Just a few wood blocks positioned on the grid can create a pillared room, a dais, a ramp or staircase, a ruined temple, or dozens of other simple locales. The potential in a box of wood blocks is amazing. Whether you painstakingly pre-plan your encounter areas or create them on the fly, always keep a pile of wood blocks at your elbow.
Other Toys: With a bit of imagination and an eye for shapes, a search through your old toy box will turn up all sorts of toys, pieces of toys, broken toys, and toy parts that would be more useful in your D&D box than in a junk box that never sees the light of day. A wicked-looking axe that's way too big for any D&D miniature can become part of the altar in an evil temple; a broken-off head from a monster action figure becomes an idol or monument. Giving a second life to a favorite, old toy that you thought you outgrew is oddly rewarding.
Stones: Pick them up in your driveway, your garden, or along the side of the road. You'll find an astounding variety of rocks and stones out there, once you start paying attention to them -- smooth, rough, light, dark, flat, rounded (igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic, remember?). Get a few of each. Rinse them off to remove the dirt, grass, and dead bugs, then dry them in the sun. These are the cheapest, and some of the most useful, table props available. For that special touch, you can even spend some money on rocks. Most museum gift shops have trays full of inexpensive, beautiful, polished stones. Mix in a few of these as special items, treasures, or giant crystal balls.
Foam Padding: Whether you buy a sheet at the local fabric store or rip some out of the broken-down chair in the basement, foam padding is handy stuff. Cut it with scissors into any shape you want. Weird crystal growths, giant toadstools, and collapsed buildings are all equally possible with foam padding.
Colored Felt: OK, this isn't really 3D, but colored felt is worth having around. Fabric stores carry felt samples in 10- or 12-inch squares and a range of colors. An irregular strip of brown felt becomes a road; green shows the outline of a brushy area; blue can be trimmed into ponds and streams (scatter some of your rocks along the banks for extra authenticity!); black is a pit; red is fire; and purple is that weird, translucent mist drifting across the battlefield. Felt is cheap, light, easy to store, and versatile.
Soda Caps: All those screw-on soda caps that state, "Sorry, no prize -- Please play again" can be put to use in your D&D game. They become round tables in the common room of the inn (you know there's going to be a fight), an altar, a strange arrangement of rounded stepping stones, or even elevated bases to indicate flying creatures. Spray paint quickly turns them brown, white, red, black, gray, or any other useful color.
Beads: These are generally good only for pure table dressing -- that is, they make things look better without being especially functional -- but making things look good is at least half the point. Beads come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The ones you're after look like urns, baskets, rolled carpets, gilded pillars, and so on. Look for them in craft, hobby, and fabric stores.
Aquarium Accessories: This is a jackpot, if you're willing to spend some dollars. All sorts of ruins, columns, plinths, stone heads, caves, pagodas, and stairs to nowhere are available in the pet store. A few feet further down the aisle is all the strange, plastic plant life you could ever want.
Wedding Cake Decorations: Are we getting a little esoteric here? Not really. Wedding cakes, and specialty cakes of all types, get some nifty touches. The most obvious things are Greco-Roman columns -- always useful in any temple or palace. Also available are useful things such as fences, palm trees, cacti, brushy plants, and even strange, alien-looking fauna. The cake decorating aisle at the craft store is a worthwhile detour.
Cork Tile: Home improvement stores sell cork tiles in one-foot squares that are around one-quarter-inch thick. If you or your family did any home remodeling recently, you might even have a few of these tucked into a corner of the basement. It's worth asking, anyway, before spending a few dollars at the store. The great thing about cork tiles is that they can be easily broken into interesting shapes that look like rock. Stack them and you get layers of stony outcrops or terraced hills. That's all there is to it -- snap and stack.
Next installment -- simple do-it-yourself.
Previous installments have covered --
About the Author
Steve Winter is a web producer, writer, and game designer living in the Seattle area. When not lost in fantasy worlds of his own devising, he drops in on other people's fantasies. That's been interesting ...