Hello, everyone! Today’s Combat Cartography is about a different means of producing exciting visuals. With 3D printing becoming much more commercially available within the last decade, from services such as Shapeways to personal printers, I would be negligent not to mention the technology’s applications towards tabletop gaming. The ability to produce customized physical objects can enable a tabletop gamer to create not only a nearly perfect representation of their characters but also efficiently craft terrain and environments.
3d printing won’t magically replace the processes of crafting gaming terrain that members of the hobby already know and love – it’s another tool and method to add to your repertoire. I personally recommend using it for detailed work which you couldn’t reliably reproduce with XPS foam, or for larger pieces which you may not want to assemble by hand.
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When I mention 3d printing, I’m sure that some of you are immediately thinking about the price. When I’ve asked friends how much they thought a 3d printer would run, I’ve received guesses of anywhere between $500-1000. Fortunately, 3d printing has come way down in price point, and now you can get a low-end premade 3d printer for as low as $200. My mainstay printer right now is a Monoprice Maker Select. It’s a nice little machine that can get a wide range of jobs done, isn’t particularly loud, doesn’t have much more of a footprint on a table than a regular printer, and is *almost* 100% usable straight out of the box. It does have some downsides – it has a comically small print bed compared to a lot of other printers, suffers from some design flaws which reduce its print quality, and from time to time has mechanical defects which are beyond my ability to fix. I’ve had good experiences with Monoprice’s tech support, however, and have gotten the machine repaired for free when this has occurred.
In addition to the printer, you’ll need a spool of either PLA or ABS filament. ABS plastic will get you more “sturdy” pieces with about the consistency of a LEGO brick but needs a higher printing temperature, and you’ll need to keep your printer in a well-ventilated area. PLA plastic doesn’t require quite as much heat to print, and can be used for more detailed prints, but doesn’t have the same durability of ABS. I typically use PLA because of the need to ventilate ABS, and I like to use the fact that it becomes malleable under heat to make small adjustments after a piece has been printed(reshaping narrow areas, taking coarse sandpaper to irregularities in the printed parts, etc.). The prices on these spools of filament will vary, but I’ve generally found it a safe bet to assume you’ll be spending about $25 per kilogram of filament. Make sure to store your filament in a dry area with very consistent temperatures – as with all electronic projects, moisture is not your friend.
(As a note: There also exist resin printers, which are typically more expensive, but produce much higher-quality prints. I’m not going to talk about them mainly because I don’t have much experience with them – my understanding is that, like ABS printing, you’d need to keep the printer well-ventilated, have to protect the liquid resin from sunlight, and keep the printer’s build plate clean between prints)
There are plenty of sources for 3d models, some free, some available at a price. My go-to source for new models for printing is Thingiverse. A lot of models there are freely available, and a lot of artists who also sell their work will release free samples. Since this article is specifically about combat cartography, I’ll be talking about it more from the standpoint of designing environments for your games, but there is also a wealth of miniatures, free and paid. In particular, some excellent sources of miniatures in this space are Reddit user /u/mz4520, who has sculpted at least one mini for literally every monster in the Monster Manual, and Heroforge, a website which allows you to design a custom character miniature and have it printed either through their services or purchase it as a printable .stl file.
For 3-dimensional combat environments, there are quite a few great sources for .stl files. There are loads of contenders in this space who produce gorgeous .stl files, from established teams like Fat Dragon Games to newer artists in the space like EC3D Designs, with several more trying to establish themselves regularly. Keep an eye on Kickstarter campaigns for new and unique sources of 3d printable terrain, as well as communities like the subreddit /r/printedminis.
When you’re choosing models to print, think about how you like to play RPGs. Do you prefer to have a grid? Will the pieces need to be particularly sturdy? Are you in a hurry to get a bunch of pieces all together?
If you like to play on a grid, there are plenty of modular options to help you design a set based on your needs. Keep an eye on the artists’ descriptions and suggestions – some tiles are designed with compatibility with others’ sets, but some may have different connectors between tiles, or different size of grid squares, or different wall heights.
If you’re not a fan of gridded play, you can poke around Thingiverse or your designer of choice to find some simpler scatter terrain and hills – elements to help you break up an otherwise-flat environment – and lay them on top of some construction paper, maps, or colored foam core board to make exciting maps quickly.
Try to start with the pieces which you think you’ll get the most usage out of. It may be easy to print new parts to fill a niche, but if you can’t decide on a set of fundamental features for your game, you’ll most likely end up with a hodgepodge of parts which look individually nice but aren’t necessarily enough to tie an encounter together. You can have a million different tiles representing traps, but if there are no regular floors or walls, what’s the point? Be conservative with your printer’s time – committing your printer to a tile or terrain piece is time that you can’t spend printing something else you might need for your game. Next week, I’ll talk about ways you can get even more utility out of simpler terrain pieces without spending a lot of print time.
Like me, if you’re looking to build a set of tiles which you can use for most of your games, you may wonder where to start. Unfortunately, this rabbit hole goes infinitely deep, so for brevity’s sake, I’m going to go through the considerations I made in choosing a tile system.
My first goal was to produce tiles which would be guaranteed to be compatible with each other. There are a lot of connection options from which to choose.
Clicklock by daandruff uses a series of short tiles which are faster to print and utilize a connector resembling the ones used to connect track for wooden Thomas the Tank Engine railways. Like a lot of tile systems, daandruff’s uses half-scale walls to speed up the printing process. The tiles look great in print, and the connectors hold together strong but have to be connected from the bottom, making it inconvenient to improvise an encounter scene. The system also has a limited number of tiles(corners, some doorways and pillars, flat walls, and flat floors) and are locked into 2×2 tiles. The half-scale walls may not be a problem for most people, but I prefer my dungeon tiles to have full-scale walls to emphasize the sense of scope in an encounter. I made a set as a gift last December(and didn’t have the foresight to take any photos), and would highly recommend it if print time is a concern and if you’re confident that you won’t lose track of the little connectors.
OpenLOCK by PrintableScenery is one of the most common styles, due to its permissive license for designers. Several designers use it, and if you felt the need to craft new elements to supplement your tile system, you’d be able to print an OpenLOCK-compatible base and add the details you wanted fairly easily. Because of the wide range of designers who use it, OpenLOCK is by far your best choice for sheer versatility. However, the design of the locking mechanism makes separating individual tiles more difficult. I like to improvise scenes on the fly, slapping together tiles on a whim based on the tactile experience of poking around with them. Because of this style, the act of “clicking” tiles together so deliberately for a scene isn’t quite my cup of tea.
I use magnetic bases for my dungeon tiles, which house tiny hobby magnets to snap to each other on squares.
At the time of writing, I am working on a simple stone brick set comprised of the following pieces:
- 12 2×2 floor tiles
- 14 2×2 flat wall tiles
- 6 2×2 corner wall tiles
- 4 4×4 floor tiles, to make larger rooms
My reasoning for this simple set is to build on a budget – all these tiles together could be made in one spool of filament(if I weren’t also compulsively printing other things!), and altogether will take 4 packages of hobby magnets(with a decent amount left over for the miscellaneous tiles I decide to make). With some creativity, these tiles can produce just about any basic dungeon or paved city environment, and communicate what’s going on in a scene. My other workhorse pieces are these stock room barricades, which can break up a line of sight and add visual interest to a scene without much thought, and come in a wide range of shapes.
Printing Stuff Out
You may have noticed that I left out the straightforward explanation of how to use a 3D printer. Overall, this process can be pretty involved as you dial in the settings which you like the best for your prints. Once you’ve set up your printer and downloaded the .stl files you want to print, you’ll load the model into a program called a “slicer,” where the print settings for your specific printer are adjustable, such as the amount of infill(how hollow your piece is), how much support you want to provide your prints, and the height of individual layers of plastic, which determines the level of detail your pieces will have. After confirming the details of your print in the slicer you save the resulting gcode to your printer(most likely via SD card). I’m (perhaps negligently) leaving these settings as an exercise for you to mess with, as you’ll probably find yourself liking very different print settings than myself. There are several great tutorials available, such as the various 3D Printing-related subreddits, dedicated YouTube channels, and potentially local communities in your area who will gladly talk shop about their printers with you.
Overall, 3D printing can be a huge boon to your games’ visuals, but it will certainly take time to produce results – at present, I spend about 2-3 hours printing a tile, let alone painting and assembling it. Printing combat scenery won’t necessarily break the bank like it used to, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if the time and money investment is worth it. Next week, I’ll go over some of my tips to get even more utility out of the gridded style of tile I use, so stay tuned!