Australian Tabletop Gaming Manufacturers Association

A shared forum space for gamers to directly interact with game product designers from small local manufacturers.

Our Modular Terrain System

The place to discuss all aspects of working with plaster terrain pieces.

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Postby Griffin Grove » Sat Sep 28, 2013 7:07 pm

Greetings one and all,

I want to start this off by talking about the dominant player in RPG modular terrain.

Dwarven Forge produce a pre-painted modular terrain system for producing building/dungeon interiors. DF product is easy to use and the individual pieces are well made and painted. It has three key issues though...

Firstly, it is extraordinarily expensive. While the individual pieces and the individual sets are exorbitantly priced, what really needs to be considered is the cost involved in acquiring sufficient pieces as to be able to run all of your gaming sessions' combat scenes within a tactical combat environment built around Dwarven Forge product. It's great if someone buys you a DF Catacombs Set set for Christmas -- it's heartbreaking when you realise you'll need a dozen more such sets before you have a practical tactical combat environment for your combat scenes.

Secondly, DF product is uniform to the point of being bland. There is no choice in paint schemes. So everyone who has a Catacombs Set has the same colour scheme, the same look. When you look at a tabletop of DF product the uniformity of height, of colour, of angle is reinforced over and over again.

Thirdly, DF product is designed around a grid. The walls don't interconnect, they abut. The floors are usually 2" x 2" or sometimes 6" x 6". The eye is drawn to vertical lines and so with DF product you see these vertical lines between wall sections wherever you look. The floor is gridded to the point where the player can easily calculate range to target accurately before deciding what their character will do -- something their character could not do were the situation to be played out in reality.

To me there's little point developing a new product if all you are going to do is repeat the issues of existing products. I would also suggest that there's little point developing product designed to integrate with an existing product if your "new" product adds no value to the existing product. In the case of DF product this would include product that looks like DF product but is sufficiently different as to avoid design-rights infringement.

Having talked about DF it is time to move on to our product...

The Griffin Grove Gaming Team
Griffin Grove
Posts: 3
Joined: Sat Sep 28, 2013 6:08 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Postby Griffin Grove » Sat Sep 28, 2013 10:10 pm

Greetings all,

Looking at each of the points above:


Breaking down the Dwarven Forge Catacombs set you get:

x4 Corner Wall w/Flame, LED Light (& 3 batteries)
x4 Curved Wall w/2 Standing Skeletons
x4 Straight Wall w/Skulls in Fireplace
x4 Straight Wall w/4 Shelves of Skeletons
x2 Straight Wall w/Arch
x10 2” x 2” Floor
x4 Freestanding Long Wall w/Skeleton Shelves
x4 Freestanding Short Wall w/Skeleton Shelves
x4 Curved Wall
x4 Skulls Pillar
x1 Bones and Debris Pile
x2 Skulls Pile

This equates to 40 square inches of free play area, 24 square inches of play area bound to walls, 48 square inches occupied by walls and features, plus 24" of free-standing walls (plus some accessories such as columns). Does this sound like a lot of stuff? Well, for US$150 plus postage you can make one room 14" x 8" -- less an 8" x 2" indentation.

This is where it gets truly frightening...

Our standard gaming table is 82" x 36" (2100 x 900). That's 2,952 square inches which, at scale, represents a playing surface 492' x 216' (164 yards x 72 yards -- not really a big space in real life, as a football/soccer pitch is typically 115 yards x 74 yards). To cover that with a single layer (no multi-layer setup) of DF Catacombs would cost a staggering, mortgage-draining US$4,612.50 plus PPH and import duties.

Our modular terrain system will have a lower cost to the gamer.


We will address this in three ways. Firstly, we will offer a variety of paint schemes with our pre-paints. Secondly, wall height will not be uniform. Wall height will vary from 2" to 4". Thirdly, floors will be secured to walls with magnets -- and will thus be interchangeable. This will allow for a great variety of wall and floor paint scheme combinations.

Judging Distance

Some games are designed around the idea that the player is free to measure the distance between their character and an intended target before making the decision whether to attempt to launch a missile attack at the target. Naturally this ensures that the player never attacks a target that is out of range.

Some games though are predicated on the idea that judging distance is a player skill. This better reflects the situation where the character is having to judge the distance and makes decisions based on that judgement.

Our modular terrain will support no grid, square grid, and hex grid floors.

The Griffin Grove Gaming Team
Griffin Grove
Posts: 3
Joined: Sat Sep 28, 2013 6:08 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Postby Griffin Grove » Tue Oct 01, 2013 9:41 pm

Greetings All,

Beyond addressing the shortcomings of DF product there are a number of broad issues that have been taken into consideration as we designed our own modular tabletop terrain system. I would like to look at each of these in turn and give you our thinking on each topic. In no particular order...


Anyone interested in a modular terrain product may have already made a significant investment -- in time, money, or both -- in an alternate modular terrain system such as DF. They may well be looking at our system from the point of view of integration rather than replacement. So, as long as it doesn't compromise our design in some way, we will try to ensure that our terrain system can be used with others -- such as Hirst Arts and Dwarven Forge. Primarily this will be about the thickness of floors, so that when our pieces abut those of other manufacturers there won't be a noticeable step between the pieces.


I enjoy making tabletop terrain. The design and construction are enjoyable in themselves and there's also a great payoff when you unveil a new build to your friends -- and then get to game on it.

One issue that has to be addressed at some point is storage. Big builds require a lot of storage and, let's face it, eventually test the patience of non-gamer family members. You might be fortunate enough to have a dedicated room or external shed but space is limited. So when we looked at developing our modular terrain system efficient storage was at the heart of the design.

We tried a lot of things but in the end everything has to store flat for the modular terrain to occupy the least amount of space. Naturally it can't store flat unless walls can separate from floors. There are a variety of locking mechanisms that would,like jigsaw pieces, allow walls and floors to combine together. Unfortunately the precision required is outside the shrinkage scope of plaster. The net result is that the "lock" is too loose.

That left us with magnets.

Magnets have the distinct advantage of being added after the product has cured -- so shrinkage isn't a factor in the effectiveness of the "lock".

The main issue with magnets is the accuracy of the positioning. Manual drilling is error prone in terms of positioning and depth. That left us looking at a CNC solution. CNC is very precise in its positioning and depth. CNC is also much faster in turning out a lot of pieces.

Having determined that we could store our product flat we still needed to consider how best to store it. The pieces are painted; those paint jobs need to be protected for transport. Figurines are often stored in foam cutouts. We decided to take the same approach, with custom cutouts designed specifically to hold our modular terrain.

The Griffin Grove Gaming Team
Griffin Grove
Posts: 3
Joined: Sat Sep 28, 2013 6:08 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

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