I started out creating some modular floor tiles, but they lacked a three-dimensional feel given I did not integrate walls. Building a layout using these tiles during a RPG session also proved time-consuming, as they were too many small bits. Looking around on the internet and searching different fora I finally decided to go for something resembling the beautiful Dwarven Forge dungeon sets, only with a more rigid room design. Have a look at the short clip below for an overview what we are going to built.
In this tutorial I will document the creation of my initial module, the Crypt of the Damned, providing the reasoning behind my design choices, a list of all materials needed and detailed step-by-step instructions. The crypt’s design is inspired by the video game Skyrim and its long forgotten burial mounds, featuring skeletons and mummified bodies in small wall alcoves garnished with urns, sacrificial offerings, spider webs and overgrown rough stone floors.
The crypt module is supposed to be compatible with any other module I will create in the future. All modules should be durable, yet lightweight, aesthetically pleasing and have a professional finish. Nevertheless it is also very important that they can be used with different rule systems, may these be grid based like Dungeons and Dragons 4ed or allow free movement like Song of Blades and Heroes.
Having a grid often implies geometric, artificial room shapes. To avoid this I decided to indicate a grid in parts of the module, but not in all places. For instance a stone floor lends itself better to integrating a grid pattern than does a section with a dirt floor. I also tried to avoid a too geometric look, taking into account that this would in some cases limit the number of tiles useable by players.
To match the bases of my miniatures and to allow bigger miniatures to be placed easily I went for 3 cm by 3 cm tiles, with a maximum room size of 8 tiles by 8 tiles, making the room a square with 24 cm long sides. This would, however, not allow to add walls in a room that uses the entire space. Accordingly I added a rim of 1.5 cm, which in turn will create a 3 cm by 3 cm tile when placed against a connection point of another module, making the final module a square with 27 cm long sides.
To allow free combination of modules they would all need to have the same floor height and entrances/exits would need to be placed in the centre of a side edge. Naturally special modules could be made allowing a change in height via a staircase, bigger entrance/exit sections or double-sized and quadrupel-sized modules to depict oblong or very spacious caverns.
Another issue is the height of walls. While the integration of walls is indispensable to achieve a three-dimensional appearance, ease of access and effortless placement of bigger miniatures or miniatures with a sweeping stance is of equal importance. I first thought of 4 cm high wall segments, but realised soon that bigger miniatures like Dragons, Ettins and so on would be difficult to place. 3 cm seemed to be a good compromise between accessibility and appearance. In some cases the need might arise to have slightly higher walls to depict a certain room feature.
What you need – the basic layout
- Styrofoam to provide the basic structure for the floor and the walls. This needs to be the denser variant – extruded polystyrene not expanded polystyrene – as it is easier to work with and less brittle. I used sheets with a thickness of 1 cm, but thicker sheets can obviously be used, too.
- Any glue that can glue Styrofoam. Be careful here to choose an appropriate product, as many glues react with styrofoam and dissolve it. I use Selleys Liquid Nails Fast.
- Wood filler to fill in gaps.
- Air-drying modelling clay to sculpt the rock walls and oven bake modelling clay, for instance Fimo Soft or Premol Sculpey. This will be needed to make a master and pressure mold for the rough rock floor.
- Finely sieved soil from your garden or backyard.
- Wood glue.
- Craft paint (brown, gray, black) to paint the rough stone floor and the rock walls.
- Plastic card to cover the sides, bottom and top of the module for a professional finish. Please see Part IV of this tutorial.
- Sharp implements come in handy, too. Best is a X-acto knife and a sculpting tool or a needle with a sharp tip.
- Brushes of various sizes to apply paint and wood glue, but also to drybrush are needed.
- Different pigments ranging from dark brown to light brown. Either bought or simply soil you collected.
How you make it
- First construct an exoskeleton out of 1mm thick styrene sheet. For detailed instructions see Part IV of the tutorial.
- Assuming you use styrofoam sheets of 1 cm thickness cut two squares with 26.8 cm side length for the module base and glue them together. See if they fit in the exoskeleton. If not, trim the pieces accordingly and glue them in.
- Draw a grid pattern on the top of the base to facilitate the design of the room.
- Making a sketch of the room on a piece of paper before you start building up the wall and floor is a good idea, given you can better visualise how the final structure will look like and if the outline will look organic enough.
- When you are happy with the outline built up the wall sections using cut-to-size pieces of styrofoam. If you built it up horizontally it is a good idea to use the bottom one as a template and cut the remaining layers using this aid. If the wall segments are very thin it might be an idea to build them up vertically. it is also a good idea to have a first vertical layer to allow proper alignment of the styrene sides.
- For the alcoves it is obviously necessary to cut their shape out of the middle section of styrofoam.
- Using a sharp knife you can now roughly refine the shape of the rock wall, adding protruding elements and deeper crevices.
- Take the air-dry modelling clay and cover the walls with it. Using a sculpting tool, rolled up tin foil, bark or other objects with an interesting rock like texture shape the wall untill you are satisfied with the look. Let the clay dry overnight and fill in any gaps on the next day with wood filler. I mixed some grey paint in to make it easier to paint the parts later on.
- Now we have to move on to the floor. Using Fimo Soft I sculpted a master of the stone floor, created a press mold to reproduce this floor pattern and made two casts. If you are not familiar with this process please refer to my pressure mold tutorial.
- I cut the two casts apart to achieve more variability in shape and also being able to place singular stones. Glue the stones in place and let set.
- The walls are finished and the floor is coming along nicely, but we still need soil between the stones. Mix some acrylic matt medium, fine sand and brown paint together and cover all areas that will later depict soil with it. Make sure that the transition between stone floor and soil is smooth and that none of the paste obscures the stone floor. If you end up with some of the paste on it just wipe it away with a damp cloth.
- Time to get the grey paint out and basecoat the walls and the floor. I used a rather dark grey with dark brown mixed in, but painted some of the floor stones in a slightly lighter shade of grey or a more brownish shade to add some interest. After you applied the basecoat drybrush the walls and floor with succeedingly lighter shades of your basecolour. Finally apply a wash over all the rock surfaces (a mixture of matte brush on varnish, brown pigment and a little bit of water).
- The stones might be finished, but we still have to add soil in between the stones and give the soil an overall more realistic appearance. Using a 1 to 1 mixture of wood glue and water cover the soil parts and the gaps between stones, followed by a dusting with actual soil. Just get a shovel from the backyard and sieve it until you end up with only the finest particles. Let dry over night and remove the excess soil with a brush.
- Given the fine soil might obscure some of the drybrushing use a damp cloth and wipe the stones. If you feel you need still more contrast lightly drybrush the stones again untill you are satisfied.
- The soil texture might look realistic, but it lacks definition and contrast. Add lighter pigments to the base colour of soil/pigment and mix it in. Don’t overdo it, rather add a little bit a time until you can see a change in colour. Dust it on in some parts and fixate with pigment fixer (I use AK fixer for this)
With this last step the basic outline of the module is finished and we now have to move on to detailing.
Part II will cover the addition of roots and vegetation such as mushrooms, moss and floor creepers.
Part III will cover sacrificial offerings, candles, skeletons in the alcoves and urns.
Part IV will focus on finishing off the module and covering the sides, bottom and top with protective styrene sheet.