Breaking off the battle map and onto 3D terrain can bring your combat encounters to the next level.

Astriak the dragon looks down upon his prey. This moment would be far less dramatic on a flat battle map.

A big part of Dungeons and Dragons 4e, and may other RPGs, is tactical combat. Movement, range, zones of control, and areas of effect all play in to making battles that can be both exciting and highly intellectually engaging. Adding a third dimension to the standard combat encounter only increases these advantages.

It is also far superior for immersion by your PCs.

When I came in first in the DM Challenge at PAX East 2011, one thing especially wowed my players and drew onlookers to the table – my final “boss” encounter with the dragon, Astriak. For this encounter, I constructed a large glass flight grid as well as a cliff face and top that was climbable by the heroes. There was no questioning that this was an epic fight.

Once Astriak took to the air and began filling the floor ov the cavern with burning acid, the heroes lost valuable room to maneuver, unless the climbed the cliff face.

To begin the encounter, Astriak stood high above the heroes as he condescendingly predicted their doom. That moment of role-playing worked in large part because the players could actually see just how high above their heads Astriak truly was. That three-inch tall piece of plastic cut a menacing figure when it was placed fourteen inches above the base of the battle map. When combat began, Astriak could actually swoop down in his charge at the heroes. Once he discovered the heroes were a real threat, Astriak again took to the air, directly above the heads of the heroes. As one hero took several turns to climb the cliff face, the player could see the physical progress of his character better than with just using a marker to denote elevation above the cavern floor.

Why would you do anything else?

Well, frankly, the answers are time and money. You can buy ready-made 3D Terrain, like Dwarven Forge, but that is expensive. You can paint your own 3D terrain after casting it or carving it, like many miniature war game hobbyists do, but that takes boatloads of time and a fair amount of skill. If you have lots of time or money, then your solutions are pretty straightforward.

This cavern system was built using the (discontinued) CaveWorks printable terrain set by WorldWorks Games. The “pink” terrain pieces were made before I realized my printer was out of yellow ink.

For the rest of us, however, there are still options. Reasonable doses of hard work and a cash investment similar to purchasing dungeon tiles can get you far. Printable, modular terrain, like that offered by WorldWorks Games and Fat Dragon Games allow you to print, cut, and then glue together impressive 3D terrain. I prefer the terrain by WorldWorks Games because I have found it to be more modular, which I appreciate when reusing pieces. Building paper terrain does have small learning curve, but you can eventually get fairly impressive setups.

Another option is to use pre-printed paperboard terrain, like the Harrowing Halls or Desert of Athas dungeon tile sets by Wizards of the Coast. Really, any dungeon tile set can be used in a 3D environment with a bit of ingenuity. Use wooden dowels, empty thread spools, or anything else you have lying around to set up the tiles on different levels.

My current favorite for 3D terrain, however, is the Terraclips line by WorldWorks Games and Wyrd Miniatures. This is pre-printed, paperboard terrain that comes with clips to assemble large 3D buildings and city environments. There is talk of more sets with more of a nature theme being released in the next few months. I used these in combat for the first time a few nights ago, and I have to say that I was 100% impressed. My players enjoyed the scenario, and it had a very “rumble in the streets” feel to it. Again, this line is modular, so it can be used many, many times over without feeling dull.

In the End

When all is said and done, it does not matter what method you choose, just get some 3D combat into your game. You do not need to use it every time you have an encounter, but it is a great way to jazz up a fight. I took the time to recreate part of the encounter from the other night using only 2D tokens and battle maps. Which would you rather fight in?

Would your players prefer this flat battle . . .

. . . or something a little more eye-popping?

My groups have a clear preference, and I am betting yours will as well.

In future posts, I will help with identifying the small issues that 3d combat can create for people who normally play on 2d battle maps. For now, here are some references to help inspire your 3D terrain plans:

Do you ever use all three dimensions in combat scenarios in your game? What techniques do you use? Can you recommend any other links for the resources list on this page?

6 Responses to “Into the Third Dimension!”

  1. You know, that’s good motivation for me to finally paint Tholecht… Bright silver looks terrible against the background!

    But to the topic at hand… I am very impressed by this city terrain. I can even picture using it for my Shadowrun games.

    And while I’m at it… looks like you have a small typo…
    “Once he took discovered the heroes were a real threat, Astriak again took to the air, directly above the heads of the heroes. “

    • Yes, the Streets of Malifaux set was designed to be very versatile. I know that is has become extremely popular with the Star Wars Miniatures crowd, and I can see why. It works for medieval, it works for Naboo, and it can work for run-down cyberpunk. There is a sewer set as well, which I do not yet own simply because I don’t have the same use for it. I am holding out to see what exactly the 2012 release schedule ends up being for the Terraclips line.

      Thanks for the typo note – it’s fixed now. I finished up the article with a really low blood sugar, and my proof reading was poor at best this time.

  2. Well done, sir!

    As you know, I am a huge fan of 3D terrain, so I really appreciate the terrain you’ve shown us here. I’m not running right now (playing instead), but you’ve inspired me to think about it again…

    • Thank you. I am always happy to hear someone even think about getting back behind the screen – it is the place that drives this hobby.

      I continue to be impressed with the Tower of Power from the picture set I linked. The design is so simple, but it comes together into something awfully impressive.

      • Thanks bud, it was really fun to run. I’d be lying if I said 10 minis didn’t get thrown off the Tower of Power; it was more like 20.

        In retrospect, I should have changed my printer’s settings. The Tower drained it dry!

  3. Nice post! This reminded me I’ve been meaning to make some foam board terrain pieces for stacking up for higher elevations!

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