A Model Way to Play, Part I

In 2002, a small industry made its way to the tabletop roleplaying scene: papercraft.

It’s true, wargamers had been making sturdy terrain pieces for their battles out of cereal boxes, cocktail sticks, polystyrene, and balsa wood for decades. However, only in the early years of this century were companies beginning to realize that terrain could be designed cheaply on a computer and then distributed online via high-quality PDFs. With this business model, customers were simply responsible for printing and building—and at a relatively low price. This was a relief for those who had no experience or skill in constructing the sturdier variety. And now, as the decade closes and technology advances, it’s difficult to tell the difference between cardstock models and those built and painted from scratch using the traditional method.

This is Part I of a 4-part series that reviews a bit of the history behind papercraft, provides direction on where to begin, and then delves into some expert tips and tricks.

Anything is Possible

I’ve made everything from houses to towers, castles to cathedrals, cliffs to waterfalls, and tombs to graveyards. When I DM, the dungeons are adorned with crates, chests, pillars, statues, candelabras, portals, and altars. Houses contain beds, chairs, tables, bookshelves, kegs, cabinets, and fireplaces. I even made a warship, complete with sails, masts, and removable flooring in order to continue miniature play below decks. Don’t fool yourself, though; it takes a great deal of dedication, commitment, and attention to detail to put all of these elaborate set pieces together. As for money? Well… it takes a little of that as well.

Click on the thumbnails below for real life examples of cardstock terrain being used in my games.

Dungeon Corridors
A Back Alley
The Maiden
The Graveyard

We’ve Come a Long Way

With my roleplaying beginnings firmly rooted in 2nd Edition’s twilight during the mid 90’s, I never imaged my gaming table would get so cluttered. All we needed back then were dice, pencils, character sheets, and the Player’s Handbook. For the most part, we didn’t even use a table; the lot of us were sprawled out on couches and easy chairs, using clipboards and the fronts of books to hold our character sheets. Movement in combat wasn’t anything more than vague scribbles from the DM on a piece of paper. The greatest advancement to encounter record keeping was in the late 90’s when I brought a whiteboard into the mix.

As D&D—and its combat rules—advanced, I found keeping track of character and monster placement more and more important. During my tour in the Navy, 3rd Edition came out. This caused some pretty major purchases to be made: a gridded dry erase map, pens of various colors, and some tokens to represent the various combatants. Since we didn’t have the extra space to spare onboard those cramped ships, this was all we could afford; it was all we needed.

When I got out of the Navy, everything changed for me.

Though papercraft had already been available online via the small upstart MicroTactix, at the end of 2002 a company came into the spotlight that would change everything for me.

WorldWorksGames—what many see now as the innovator of the 3D cardstock market—emerged that fall season with CastleWorks. Though their freshman release was more of a keep than a castle, it came with everything you needed to get your feet wet: walls, towers, a moat house, a mainhouse, and several outbuildings. Hot on the heels of success, they quickly released two more sets within the next three months: DungeonWorks and VillageWorks, the former bringing portable dungeon walls to the masses and the latter containing nothing more complex than a few buildings and various village-esk accoutrements, such as crates, carts, barrels, a well, and a stable.

To describe the texture quality and model complexity of those nascent days, think back to what it was like watching The Last Starfighter in 1984. You just couldn’t believe what they were doing with computers! Then, 15 years later, The Matrix came out and revolutionized CGI, completely changing the way we looked at special effects forever. The same could be said for WordWorksGames. In other words, you never would have imaged making multi-layered cities, sewers, and dungeons with removable floors and walls out of cardstock by looking at what was available back then—but now those types of layouts are a reality.

Denny Unger and the rest of the WorldWorksGames pioneers weren’t alone. As if they had been biding their time, waiting to see what the market had in store, Wizards of the Coast finally jumped aboard the quickly moving cardstock train in August of 2003—a year after WorldWorksGames had placed their flag firmly into the ground. Not to be left out in the cold, Wizards’ cardstock products were highly detailed and varied. More importantly, they offered their cardstock catalog for free, bringing more papercraft modelers into the fold. This also had the fortunate effect of pushing the existing cardstock companies to greater heights. It’s no surprise that, around this time, WorldWorksGames transitioned from what had become amateur textures to the ultra-detailed models released throughout the latter half of this decade.

SkeletonKey Games, another company that had a serious impact on my papercraft future, slid in just after Wizards of the Coast with their 2D tiles debuting in September of 2003. Surprisingly, they weren’t new on the tiling scene—they’d been making tiles out of magnets since 2001. From dungeons to caves, deserts to swamps, over the last 7 years Ed Bourelle of SkeletonKey Games has made it all—and its all made its way to my gaming table at one time or another.

As the years grew long, so too did the number of companies providing high caliber merchandise. The marketplace, far from being flooded with lackluster product, was instead forcing existing shops to forge further and further ahead, both in quality and creativity.

When Wizard of the Coast eventually realized that the market was solid enough, they started selling pre-printed tiles; to date, they’ve released almost 20 such sets, all die cut and printed on high quality, heavy cardstock. Recently, they’ve even begun to add 3D terrain elements, allowing you to create platforms, staircases, and other dungeon fixtures.

We’ve come a long way in the last ten years—and I barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Are You Ready to Commit?

I realize that “commitment” can mean different things to different people, so let me spell out my level of commitment: If an adventure were to call for something unique—like a statue with a blue gem embedded in its head—I wouldn’t use one of my existing cardstock statues. Instead, I’d Photoshop a blue gem onto the statue’s graphic, print it out, and then build it.

Yes. That’s right—just for that adventure.

For some folks, commitment means printing 2d tiles onto heavy paper and connecting them together with Scotch tape the day of the game. Crates? Barrels? That’s what wooden blocks are for. Here’s a hint: you’re this level of commitment if beer caps and pennies substitute for orcs and goblins in your games.

If you fall somewhere in the middle, then you’re perfect for papercraft.

Until Next Time

That pretty much wraps up Part I. From this point forward, I’m going to go full bore and show you everything you need to know to make amazing looking models, but at any point you can skip to the next step, the next section, or just walk away entirely. Don’t feel like my level of commitment must be your level of commitment; you’re free to disembark at any stop along the way.

If you’re still skeptical on whether you have enough free time for this, or whether you think it’s really worth it, use the following guideline: two to three hours a week is the minimum you’ll need to devote to have even the tiniest amount of stuff for gaming. Only after months at this pace will you begin to have a modest collection of chests, tables, chairs, cabinets, and bookshelves. If you really want to get into it, and by get into it I mean build three-dimensional dungeon corridors, castle towers, cliffs, trees, and entire towns, it is possible to spend at least one to two hours a night working on cardstock.

Ready to turn back yet?

A Whole Mess o’ Links

Take a look at the various offerings out there. Who knows, maybe it’ll get the creative juices flowing. Some of these web sites have free stuff for download; my suggestion is to get everything you can and meet me back here for Part II.

  • WorldWorksGames: Whether they were truly the first on the scene, or they just had a better publicist, WorldWorksGames started it all for me. They’re my go-to for anything and everything—and they don’t stop at fantasy.
  • SkeletonKey Games: Though they don’t make any 3D terrain, SkeletonKey Games has the market cornered on 2D tiles; perfect for building vast cave or dungeon networks quickly.
  • Wizards of the Coast: These offerings are a little dated in terms of complexity, but the graphics quality is solid. Best of all, everything is free!
  • Fat Dragon Games: I have a love/hate relationship with Fat Dragon Games. Although they come up with innovative cardstock terrain, their textures never really grab me.
  • Stone Edges: The quality of Stone Edges products are simply unbelievable. Two problems, though: they don’t offer much more than dungeon and sci-fi corridors and everything is in 1.5″ scale (instead of the standard 1″ scale).
  • Dave’s Games: I just discovered Dave’s Games today while doing research. The first thing I noticed was how dirt cheep their prices are. Definitely worth a look!