Dwarven Forge, 3D RPG terrain

by Mike Shea on 5 August 2008

You know you're beginning to fall too hard into D&D when $100 a set for 3-D dungeon pieces seems reasonable. You really know you've hit heroin-levels of addiction when you look in your dining room and see seven such sets. Like my love for home theater back about ten years ago, I am finding that there is no upper limit when it comes to hobbies. Though D&D can be played with little more than the three core books, some paper and pencils, and some funny dice; there's quite a bit more to spend your money on if you want to.

Dwarven Forge is a modular dungeon tile system that uses ceramic-like 3d blocks to build out dungeons. The blocks come in various sizes from 2x2 floors and walls to smaller steps and accessories and 4x4 or 6x6 floor pieces. Putting them together you can build small, medium, or for those with too much disposable income, very large dungeons.

The allure of Dwarven Forge is easier to see in pictures than it is to describe, though you can't really appreciate them until you see them in person. Check it out on Flickr and from the Dwarven Forge website's own photo gallery. True gamers instantly begin to drool at the idea. I know I did.

For the past two years I had successfully avoided Dwarven Forge for a few reasons. First, it was clearly expensive and I had no idea how many sets I would have to purchase before it was really functional. Two, I wasn't sure how practical it was at the table. I have a hard time setting up D&D Dungeon Tiles at the table on the fly and I was afraid Dwarven Forge would be as hard or harder. Third, I never know if my gaming group is going to last a while or not. What happens when I hit that stage in my life where I can't find a full group to run a game? A few books isn't much of an investment but with an investment in D&D miniatures and Dwarven Forge, not having a group would be a real waste of such a collection.

Then last May, for my birthday, Michelle and her folks bought me two sets of the Medieval Building set for building inns, cottages, and other above-ground structures (have I mentioned that I am married to the greatest woman in the world?). It blew me away and I instantly had to have more. By the end of May I had four more sets. Earlier this month I ordered one more.

So how did it work out? So far, very well.

The cost is still very expensive. This is the sort of purchase that pushes you well into the hobby. You better plan to use it a lot to get the value out of it and I hope to. Right now I have a weekly D&D game and I use it nearly every game. It's also great for running D&D miniature scenarios with even just Michelle and I as a sort of board-game version of D&D. I hope and expect to have a gaming group for years to come, even if it means hunting down new people to play. I recently expanded my group to six just to make sure we always had enough players at the table.

As far as setup is concerned, it turns out that Dwarven Forge is easier to set up than D&D dungeon tiles. For one, every piece is more useful than most of the D&D dungeon tile sets. Second, since all the pieces come in styrofoam packs, you can easily see where the piece you need happens to be. At the game table I'm able to quickly build some basic rooms in just a couple of minutes. The night before a game I'm able to build entire dungeons and reveal each section as it is explored. Both systems work though the room-at-a-time approach seems to be more enjoyable to the players and cheaper since you don't need as many pieces.

The construction and design of the Dwarven Forge pieces is astonishing. Every piece has amazing detail, from the drips of candle wax coming from wall-mounted candles to the individual pits in the rocks that make up a rock wall. They're beautiful and wonderful to use. Each piece feels like it is made out of stone. Though I haven't exactly beaten them up, the pieces have survived many games without a single broken piece. They fit together well and are heavy enough to stay in place when you piece them together. One of my only problems is that the pieces are so beautiful and fun that players often start messing with their own little constructions in the middle of the game. They're just too cool not to screw with. I'd go to the kitchen for a drink and come back with an entirely new design to whatever room I had. Everyone wants to play with them when they see them.

Unfortunately, individual Dwarven Forge sets don't work well on their own. You can't just buy one and figure it is enough to build out a room. Even with four sets of the fantasy dungeon rooms and passages, I had just enough pieces to build two medium sized rooms, one large double-layered room, and a few halls. Even with four sets I just barely had enough to build out an entire adventure worth of rooms. Now if you're building out every encounter individually, you might get away with as few as two or three sets but that would be stretching it. Even as few as three sets still costs about $300.

I've been using my Dwarven Forge sets for two months now and I love them. They make me smile every time I set out a few rooms or passages. My players enjoy them, though they don't distract too much from the story. They certainly aren't necessary. D&D Dungeon Tiles, large poster maps, and erasable battle mats work just fine. However, they do add a whole new dimension to tabletop gaming.

Like my love of fine fountain pens, it is very very difficult - probably impossible - to justify the cost for such a thing, but that doesn't stop me from loving them as much as I do. Dwarven Forge isn't for everyone, but if you decide to make the plunge, you won't regret it. Though the Dwarven Forge community is small, for who can really afford such things these days, every member clearly loves it.

I know I do.