Terrain update

So, for a long time I’ve been struggling with my Hirst Arts plaster cast blocks and what to do with them. Even though I have not been really able to commit to much actual building, I’ve still done a fair bit of block casting in the last few months. Just for some perspective…. I have purchased a total of about 130 pounds of plaster of some sort or another. (Well, 180 actually since I bought another 50 pounds yesterday.) I’ve used up all but about ten pounds of that, so that means I’ve mixed and poured about 120 pounds of plaster. Figuring that 10% or so of that is lost through spillage or scraped off the top of a mold to make the blocks flat on the bottom, that means roughly 100 – 120 pounds of plaster that is now in the form of blocks or some sort of terrain.

That’s a lot of plaster…

There’s a couple of folks who sell plaster casts from Hirst molds, and they sell for $5-$10 each mold casting. Just off the top of my head, I probably have 250 or so mold casts now, so a retail value of about $1,500 – $1750 of cast blocks. Comparing that to commercially sold blocks from DwarvenForge, I’ve got enough blocks to compare to several thousand dollars worth of Dwarvenforge blocks. Of course DwarvenForge is plastic, not plaster, and so is probably much more durable, but the Hydrostone I use is pretty dang durable.

But until I make stuff out of the blocks, they are just raw materials. So now it’s time to start making stuff.

Well, technically I have made a few things. So far I’ve made the wizard’s tower, the fieldstone bridge, a large fieldstone hut, a ruined tower and a couple of other things. But the large majority of my blocks are still sitting in plastic drawers, neatly stacked and awaiting the opportunity to be glued and painted into fantastic fantasy architecture.

Well, last night I finally had a bit of a breakthrough on how to move to the next step for these blocks. Basically I made a decision on how to modularize my dungeons. One issue I have been having is that there are several techniques to make a dungeon component, and which way you choose sort of locks you into a long-term solution for how you use the rest of your blocks. (Sorry for the no pics, but I’m doing this at work, I may try to take some photos tonight.)

For example, the blocks are essentially designed in standard sizes. Typically a floor tile is 1″x1″ and wall sections are 1/2″ wide and vary from 1/2″ to 3″ long. So when you make a hallway you have to decide how the floor tiles are arranged, and how the walls are attached to the floor tiles. This is a far more difficult decision than you would think. There are so many factors that come into play. The most basic decision is how wide to make your “standard” hallway. Since the whole point of modularizing the pieces is to be able to assemble dungeons from the component pieces, they have to fit together. So it becomes quite difficult to manage hallways of different widths. Based on the commercially sold dungeon components and the galleries of custom made ones, the “standard width” of a modular dungeon is two inches.

Well, there you go. So that’s easy enough, right?

Well, except remember that the floor tiles are typically 1″x1″ wide. So if you want to put walls on the side of the hallway, you have to figure out how to glue them together. This becomes a critical question about both design and structural integrity. How strong the bond between the walls and the floor is depends on how much surface area of the wall and the floor meet. If you stack a wall beside the floor tile, you get basically a 1/4″ by 1″ surface area for the glue to hold (the floor tiles are 1/4″ high). Even if you use paper or cardboard underneath the floor, that bond is pretty weak. If you instead stack the wall on TOP of a floor tile, then you have double the surface area (1/2″ x 1″) for the glue to hold, which ends up being a much, much stronger bond.

So, again, how hard can that be? You just lay three tiles wide and as long as you want your standard hallway module to be (I’m using 3″ long) and you’re good right?

Well, not quite. It turns out that if you put three tiles side-by-side and put the walls on the edges, you end up with half-squared on each side of the hallway and one full square in the middle. That’s how Hirst Arts recommends that you build them for the highest strength. But it means your hallways are sort of awkward from a miniature positioning perspective since most minis won’t fit on a 1/2″ square and so it sort of pushes you to have your minis walk in single file down the center of the hallway.

I didn’t like that, so that’s a major reason I have been “blocked” in building out dungeon modules.

But yesterday I decided that I could “fix” that in such a way that not only maintained, but improved, the overall structural integrity of the modules. So what I did was to make a “standard 3″x3″ floor segment” from my tiles, where I have a 1/2″ tile, then two 1″ tiles and finally a second 1/2″ tile. That means the center of the “hallway” is two individual squares with a 1/2″ margin on each side.

Then I made a silicon mold of that floor segment so that when I cast a segment, it was a solid 3″x3″ tile of Hydrostone. I was able to make the mold and cast three copies of the segment last night and they ended up being very nice tiles. So now I can glue the walls on the 1/2″ segments on each side of the hallway and leave two full squares for miniatures to move through the hallway. And since the segment is a single piece of Hydrostone it is far, far stronger than if I had glued 12 separate tiles together.

But, that’s just the standard hallway tile. I will also need a few corner and intersection tiles to fully complete the set, and some joinery tiles to make assembling them more convenient. But that’s just a matter of figuring out how to lay out the floor tiles, make another mold and then cast as many copies as I need.

So now I’m committed to this design choice. The downside of that is that any limitations of that design choice are now embedded in future dungeons I make. The upside is that I no longer have to agonize about making a decision and can focus on making actual dungeons.

Ah, but that’s just the floor. The next key decision I have to make is “how high do I make the walls?” This seems pretty simple again, because the answer should be “well, the walls should be as high as a hallway hall, right? Well, not so fast. The problem with making an eight or ten foot high wall on a ten foot wide hallway is that it becomes a pain to position and move miniatures around the dungeon. I don’t want my campaigns to be constantly interrupted by the attempt to move a miniature resulting in the dungeon modules getting smacked around as clumsy fingers (like mine) collide with the walls while trying to reach down between them to manipulate a miniature. Also, sitting on the side of the table will result in some of the hallways being mostly obscured by the high walls, leading to players having to stand up and lean over to see what is going on.

A low wall is much easier to play with, move and manipulate miniatures and see what is going on. But that leaves a sense of there not really being a wall there, which then calls into question the whole concept of 3D terrain. After all, if your 3D terrain is really only 2.33D terrain, is it really worth the effort of making it in the first place? If the walls are going to have to be imagined anyway, why have walls at all? Just draw them.

So there is some balance between having the walls high enough to look like a wall, but low enough to allow for visibility and game play. Of course lower walls means using fewer blocks which means I can make more terrain for the same time and effort invested, so that’s a factor too. I am going to have to engage my play group to decide what works best for us.

But whether the walls end up 2″, 3” or some other height, the floor pieces will remain the same. So I can get busy designing, molding and casting those elements while working out the wall height.

Bottom line is that by making the mold and casting the floor segments, I have at least broken through a major creativity decision block, meaning I can now move forward and start making stuff.

One thought on “Terrain update

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