Building DIY Terrain Trays

Once it’s safe to poke about in builder’s supply stores again, you’re in for a gamemaster’s treat.

Bring along a small magnetic piece of set dressing, one of your standard floor+wall bits if you use dungeon/city tiles like that, and a typical miniature figure representing the people that populate your table. If you’ve got a pair of work gloves, bring those too.

Pop into your friendly local builder’s supply shop (support independent businesses when you can!) and make a beeline for painting supplies. Look for a little roll of drab green or brown or gray protective paper at least 12″ wide. Get that and a roll of masking tape.

Note the thickness of that metal piece. A 1′ square one weighs over 1 lb. More about where to find such a thing below…

Now stroll about a bit—keeping your budget and storage space in mind—just to see if anything leaps out at you as the perfect foundation for your next DIY build after this one. (This is why you brought a mini and the floor+wall piece for scale.) Keep an eye out for little toys around the checkout area just in case there’s an excellent unusual monster.

If you don’t own anything that lets you file the rough edges off metal, get yourself a little metal smoothing file while you’re here. If you don’t own a good box knife, get one. Olfa is an excellent brand. (Remember, real building supplies that work for terrain building are often much better than cruddy, overpriced, prepackaged “hobby tools”.)

Last, visit all the ventilation and ducting supplies. They should have pre-cut metal pieces a foot square and about one foot by two foot (or presumably the equivalent if you live in the land of metric) which are hefty enough to bear a load of terrain without bending. Using your work gloves to protect your hands from the usually quite sharp edges, select the pieces you need and confirm they’re magnetic using one of the pieces of terrain or set dressing you brought with you.

Now that you’re carrying something heavy, it’s time to pay and go home.

Wearing a mask and your work gloves, go outside and use your file to lightly smooth any particularly sharp edges on your metal pieces. You’re going to wrap the edges, so they don’t have to be baby safe, but should be distracted gamemaster safe.

Cut pieces of the paper to twice the length of your metal pieces and the same width.

Mark undersized excess pieces with an X just so you don’t grab them by accident in your assembly phase.

Carefully place a metal piece on top of its paper piece, lining up the end and sides. Fold over the top and crease the edge so it lays flat. Wrap the edges with masking tape.

Voila! Terrain tray! Is it as good as one from Dwarven Forge. Hell no! Are you still going to use it all the time? Yes, yes you are.

The 1′ x 2′ ones are great for combining a long approach and an unknown destination (in this case a secret tavern hidden under the city).

It’s easy in gridded builds to make a pretty seamless break between trays.

You can pack a lot of character into a little 1′ square build—and you don’t even have to make it on the day of the game!

Here’s a nice little workshop or similar small building tucked into a courtyard in a city.

I’m pretty pleased with the look of that dovecote.

The 1′ square blocks are also great for keeping the status of the end of a game or the starting point of the next game stashed in a cupboard for a week. Here’s a tavern after the mayhem where the characters, spotting the bodies in the street, will arrive to a scene of carnage. (Or was it that they’d caused the carnage both in and out, and when we had to stop playing for the night they were halfway through dragging the bodies inside to hide all the evidence from patrolling constables?)

You can also use one of these trays for builds like this with lots of individual little pieces or complex configuration that would be hard to build quickly on the table.

a terrain tray holds a house interior with a fireplace has clearly suffered some sort of disaster with furniture blown into the corners and the entire floor collapsed into a rubble filled basement

Here I built up to create a hollow area for the basement which has collapsed under the influence of an air elemental. By the time the characters arrive, the furniture has been blown into the corners and one wall has been breached.

I used small Dwarven Forge terrain trays to create an area of sidewalk around the front and sides to give the house more context and just in case the battle took us out there.

Let’s end on a picture that ties back to my last post.

a rectangular terrain tray holds a large room with hallways in and out where a battle is taking place between involving some lizard/snake people, three more humanlike folk, and a shining dragonborn. A bird flies over the fracas.

Here’s the big rectangular tray with the build I showed above, only now the party is in conflict with some snakey lizardy people. From the department of silly GM tricks, I’m using soda bottle rings as status markers on one character and I’m using a thread spool to elevate a bird familiar which is flying around the room.

In the picture I showed of the first draft of this build—before I’d decided not to have the barricade of benches and instead surprise attack the party—the build is sitting on its tray on my worktable. In the picture here it’s on the dining table where I carried it out and set it down when the action of the game reached this point.

As a GM I love using trays to have cool scenes at the ready. Keeping the size a little bit smaller allows you to let the players move at their own pace; if they don’t reach this scene tonight, you can keep it for next week. And if you’re not sure if they’ll turn left or right, well, build ’em both and bring out the one you need.

I hope these sturdy, magnet-friendly trays prove as useful to you as they have to me!

Author: Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg

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