22 Terrain Hacks For the Low Budget Game Master

Frugal terrain for rpg
Frugal terrain for RPG

Last week featured minis tips on the cheap. This week, the series continues with ideas for doing terrain without breaking your budget.

  1. For scenery, keep some rocks, pebbles, lichen and large chips of bark in a shoebox. You can increase the atmosphere a lot with simple terrain.
  2. Junked tire. Cut an old tire from a car, bike or lawnmower into strips or squares for use as terrain markers, burned out building ruins, strange floors, and so on.
  3. Playdough. Easily moldable into virtually any shape, and near infinitely reuseable (just add water) it makes for excellent terrain with minis. Use the various colors combined with some cookie cutters or mini molds to craft forests, trees, building shapes, boulders. Let key pieces harden overnight to give stone walls more durability, and leave more easily destroyable things (such as bushes) soft and deformable to the encounter’s conflict.
  4. Use playdough to make enjoyable area effect displays (from things like spells or explosives) to spice up combat. Most players I know love to deform the terrain when using minis if given the opportunity. Google for easy playdough recipes.
  5. Aquarium decorations make great cheap alternatives for terrain. For example, plastic coral makes great mountains.
  6. Use styrox, or as some call it, expanded polystyrene (EPS). It is available for a pittance or for free. Use a sharp knife to make near-instant 3D landscapes. Make them modular for easy storage. Add key features from toys or crafts. Glue felt or canvas on the styrox for colour, or use spray paint that does not melt the shapes.
  7. Use water-based paint to temporarily paint dried playdough figures and terrain areas, or to add a splash of color to dry erase style boards and battle mats without burning through the colored markers. (It generally washes off dry/wet erase boards without staining them, but check in a small corner to make sure first.) This can be good for adding trails of blood, splashes of acid or fire, or other sudden special effects to terrain, and gives them a more natural 3D quality than a marker would.
  8. Legos. These are fun and easy enough to acquire in bulk from yard sales or eBay (or raid a family member’s toy box for the evening). While a little pricey when buying new lego kits, the reusability factor alone makes them worth the cost (and with a little paint and artistic flair, they can be further customized easily). They have the added benefit of being destroyable during combat encounters, adding another level of interactivity to scenes.
  9. Lincoln Logs. Another reusable terrain option you can buy on the cheap at yard sales or eBay. They can be used to quickly construct buildings or barricades on mini maps without much fuss, and can be reused endlessly. For sci-fi games, a little paint can turn them into passable steel tubing or metal walls without much effort.
  10. Sugar cubes and hot glue. These work well to quickly build walls or ruined building structures without a lot of money or effort. Perfect for winter settings, a quick hit of gray spray paint after building can turn them into castle or stone walls in no time.
  11. Carpet and linoleum scraps. Nearly any furniture, tile or carpet store will have a ton of these they’ll be happy to part with for free. You can find pieces ranging from as little as 1 foot square to as much as 4 foot long strips several inches wide. A little model knife or scissor work later and you have lots of ground material for forests, rivers, buildings, and so on. Trim tall carpets with sharp scissors so minis stand on them well.
  12. A small sand box. Play-sand makes perfect terrain. Use brown sand for desert, white sand for arctic or winter. Mold sand into all sorts of destroyable terrain with minimal effort and a few drops of water. One small caution: if used in an area where cats are present, keep the box covered when not in use to avoid unpleasant random encounters.
  13. Zen garden. Did you get a zen garden as a gift one year and now it sits unused? Put it on the game table as a cool special effect area or use it as a physical puzzle.
  14. Printable paper terrain works great.
  15. Putting together furniture and other objects commonly found in taverns and houses is a good investment since they can be reused quite often.
  16. For zones or spell effects, I like to make custom templates from paint swatches that are available for free from the hardware store. For walls, I take a pipe cleaner and attach 1″ squares along them to mark out the shape. After that, I make a 1×2 stand-up card to represent the effect (fire, ice, smoke). I’ll be writing a post on how to do this on rpgmusings.com, where I’ve also explained how to make zone effects, under the title DIY Templates.
  17. Add 3D relief to your battlemats. Cut out sections of gridded paper and glue it to different sized cardboard boxes.
  18. Players shouldn’t be scared to make their own mini monsters. Good times making soap monsters, golems out of any material that will dry or stick together, cutting up farm animal figs or other toys to make giant abominations.
  19. Christmas time at the dollar stores is ideal for cheap minis terrain. I’ve picked up packs of trees for a buck. I even found some dungeon type walls. Some minor painting gets rid of the xmasy look on them.
  20. To make blast and burst templates, use pliers to open up a metal coat hanger. Bend the hanger into the appropriate sized shape. Cut the ends with a cheap pair of wire cutters. Use a file to dull off the sharp wire ends. Bonus step: I use heat shrink (you can get this at Radio Shack) to close off the square to eliminate the sharp ends and help keep the square whole.
  21. For swarms and minions, I make tokens out of Sculpey and write letters and numbers on them once they’re done. You just roll the clay into a ball then press down with your thumb to make the tokens.

Scratched and old CDs (AOL and WoW discs, anyone?) make ideal bases for do it yourself terrain. Paint the disc, glue on your rocks, peddles, trees and other terrain, and then place on the battlemat whenever you need.

  • http://www.haarausfallursachen.org/4.xml Andy

    Ha, I think I still got some Legos and Duplos (like Lego, just a lot bigger) on the attic. What a great idea. never thougt of it!

  • josh

    I use star wars minis for my star wars game… i have about 35-40 of them, mostly just a few for any occasion I guess… but as far as terrain goes, I use a set of random sized blocks. some are made of 7/16 inch plywood that i have cut into 4×4 squares and sanded down… these make good floor plans for houses, hallways, etc. I have some other blocks that are actually thicker, but i find that these flat blocks are the most useful. I have some that i have cut 1×1 and 2×4 to represent things like furniture, and have some that are 2×2 to represent things like pillars. In the future I might make an entire set of them, complete with several blocks of every size, all made out of 7/16 plywood. I think that this would do the trick for just about any situation my group would run into… of course, a bit of imagination is necessary in order to make the plywood into a starship or a cave, but isn’t that what role playing is all about? lol

    Anyway, I find that at least laying the groundwork for the setup is better than doing it all in your head, because that keeps people clear on things like the location of enemies and allies, lines of sight, who is adjacent to who, etc.

  • Chris ‘Frogg’ B.

    I use sculpey for making both minis and terrain, but a lack of RL players have just made me just making them to improve my sculpeycraft. So far all my minis are of Final Fantasy Classes (Thief, White Mage, Black mage, Red Mage, etc.), and a few terrain features (barrels, crates, bushes, broken statues, statues, etc), but they are useful however you look at them.