Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Pondering Tiles

I am not alone with my hobby of 3D printing things for tabletop games. It is the beauty of the internet that even with a “1 in a million” hobby or interest there are enough millions of people out there to find a like-minded community. There are YouTube channels and subreddits on printing miniatures for games. And looking at these one finds that besides miniatures, a lot of people are 3D printing scenery, and that there are multiple systems of printable dungeon tiles out there.

Even before 3D printing there was already a market for boxes of 3D plastic tiles, which unlike their 2D cardboard tile relatives have upright walls, doors, and similar features. I never bought any, because those 3D tiles are expensive, and then you always are short of the special tiles you wanted for your dungeon, like diagonal walls. 3D printing tiles thus makes a lot of sense, because if you only count the cost of the filament, you can print tiles for one tenth of the cost of the commercial ones. And you can print exactly the tiles you need for your dungeon. While I don’t paint my miniatures, I could easily get a spool of grey filament for $20 and print dozens of “stone” tiles that would look good even unpainted. So why don’t I?

I do actually own some boxes of cardboard tiles from back when Wizards of the Coast promoted those for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Some 4E adventures came with floor plans designed for those tiles. In the end I rarely used them: They made for boring grey scenery, and didn’t show most of the stuff that players were actually interested in, like chests and other furniture. The walls and floors are usually the least interesting parts of a dungeon. I got more colorful, better battle maps with more features by designing them in software like Cartographer / Dungeon Designer and then printing them on a color laser printer. Some I even had printed on posters, which made for great if expensive maps.

Currently I tend to use a tablet for dungeon maps. Using a standard paint program I load the map in the background layer, and create a black foreground layer hiding the map. As the players explore, I erase that part of the foreground, revealing the dungeon map behind. That way I can play through large dungeons with very little work. However when there is a battle, I still need to draw the room with wet erase marker on a Chessex battle map to place the figurines. So that part I could possibly replace with 3D printed dungeon tiles.

However the tiles are mostly good for the old school dungeons we used to draw on graph paper. There is even a system called True Tiles that specifically is made for dungeons in which a wall is just a line between two squares on a graph paper, which in reality would be unpractically thin. The system needs to fudge and make the squares 1.25 inch wide to have space for quarter-of-an-inch walls and still leave space for 1 inch base miniatures. Most tile systems use half-inch walls which only leave half spaces next to the wall, which then doesn’t correspond to the drawn map. Many of the dungeons in the adventures I am currently running are far more complex, like irregular cavern walls. While cavern tiles certainly exist, one would need a lot more different tiles to create caverns that feel organic and not just rectangular.

Even the first dungeon in the 5th edition starter kit is a cavern with clever use of elevation and irregular walls. I don’t even think the gently sloped tiles one would need for the main corridor even exist. As I am not skilled enough to sculpt the special features, I would be unable to even reproduce this introductory dungeon faithfully. The second dungeon has more rectangular features, but also has a crevasse that would be impossible to print. So dungeon tiles are not an universal solution to dungeon mapping and creating battle maps. They might have some use for more rectangular dungeons, of which there still are many in the published adventures.

One thing to consider is the time requirement. Home 3D printing is not a fast technology. At the highest quality a simple 2x2 squares tile with a straight wall takes 6 hours to print. If I want to print faster, I would need to compromise on the quality. My old printer wasn’t very good at printing several pieces at once, but on my new printer I could easily print four 2x2 tiles at once and just leave it running for a full day. Still it would take me a week or more to make a set big enough for a trial run. But maybe for floors and wall I don't need the highest quality, and the prints should be easy enough to succeed with not too many fine features.

So in the end I got myself a spool of "warm grey" Zortrax Z-ABS and will try out printing various tile systems like Dragonlock and True Tiles out. I'll just start printing the free sample sets first. Then when I decided on my favorite system I can still buy sets of files, a typical dungeon set costing just under $10. I promise that once I got a dungeon together, I'll post photos.


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