Visual aids and Terrain can aid the Game Master in setting the right mood and atmosphere for their role playing game. It gives easily identifiable space and placement of combat and with the popularity of miniature use built into the rules of current games good looking terrain is a ready compliment to gaming. Premade terrain or battle maps are very limiting and if they are damaged you have to purchase more.
PDF terrain that is then printed out in full color on sturdy cardstock is a great alternative. It gives the game master flexibility in creating the setting and landscape the way they want and if it becomes damaged it can just be printed out again. I'll cover how easy and flexible making your own terrain can be.
Laser vs. Inkjet Printer
The type and quality of printer will make a bigger difference in the final quality of your terrain. Laser printers are more expensive to initially purchase but their cost per page is cheaper to replace toner cartridges. Inkjet printers on the other hand are far cheaper to purchase however over time they will become more expensive to purchase replacement ink.
An additional concern is that the colored ink from an inkjet printer will run if liquid is splashed on it. However even if you used a laser printer the paper will warp if enough water come in contact with the printed terrain.
The quality of the printer is very important for cardstock terrain. Folding and gluing the terrain must be precise as even 1/8th" will mean the final terrain will not come together. The cheap $50 printers are ok for text print outs but not full color pages of terrain and picture. Generally speaking if the printer prints photo quality pages then it will be a great candidate for cardstock terrain.
The next important step is choosing the right cardstock paper. Cardstock is measured in lb increments with 65 lb, 90 lb, and 110 lb being the common. This rating is the weight of 500, 20" by 26" sheets. The higher the lb rating the thicker the cardstock page will be. 65 lb cardstock is too light and won't hold up very well. For just a few dollars more 90 lb or 110 lb is sturdier which can be important if you stack terrain or add additional visual aids on top.
A green cutting mat will easily pay for itself by protecting your table or work surface that you will do your cutting. They are made from a self healing gel that will seal up any cuts you make with a knife. Make sure you get a large enough one to fit a piece of cardstock no matter which way it's turned. This will save you time and hassle from having to turn and rotate the mat as you cut.
Long Metal Ruler
A long metal ruler is an absolute must. Do not think that you have a steady enough hand. At best you will slide a fraction of an inch and ruin your print out and at worst you will cut yourself. With the guide of a metal ruler you will be able to cut quickly and worry free.
All glues are not made the same so be sure to pick up a wrinkle-free clear liquid glue. School glue or white Elmer's glue will not spread out or dry as quickly and it will cause wrinkles even in thick cardstock. The best type is to get a liquid glue pen whose glue specifically states it is wrinkle free. The small applicator tips will make it easy to apply in the smallest of corners. Even if you only go with 2-D terrain you will want to glue it to foam board for extra support.
What type of terrain to get?
Now that you have the proper tools you can now choose which type of terrain is best for you in terms of how much time you want to spend preparing terrain vs. the visual outcome.
2-D Terrain is simple tiles that are cutout and lie flat. They can be made quickly and effortlessly as there is no folding involved. An additional feature is that everyone at the gaming table will be able to see everything at once. As each person moves their miniatures they will not have to worry about knocking over additional visual aids.
The drawback is that all features of the setting are also flat. Stairs, tables, statues, everything is flat and can take away some of the effect of the mood.
3-D Terrain involves 2-D terrain tiles with additional terrain on top adding in height. Players can move their miniature up the stair case or take cover behind actual terrain. It adds a great deal more atmosphere then simple 2-D tiles alone cannot add. The time spent in making the 3-D terrain can be quite extensive. Spending 15 - 30 minutes per tree can be daunting to make an entire forest. If you use the heavier cardstock weights then the time spent on 3-D terrain should be returned in reusing the terrain over and over again.
Terrain visual aids are an often overlooked part of a game master's campaign setting. Often a vinyl map with multicolored drawings is what's made do. When so much time in creating the setting, campaign, and story is put into the game why fall short with lackluster terrain?