Since Harrowing Halls Dungeon Tiles set made its debut in spring of 2010, I have been experimentally adding various 3d enhancements to our Friday night battles. With the second set of elements included in Desert of Athas, even more options become available, as I will attempt to show in this article.
The tiles themselves come on a pair of the same thick cardboard stock as the regular tiles, and inter-lock with dove-tailing grooves and slots. They are complicated, fiddly, and can take awhile to assemble. There are no instructions, other than a scene showing them all assembled. Luckily, like all problems in modern life, a quick search on the webs will turn up some help with construction of these tiles. I found that in the Harrowing Halls set, the joints were slightly loose. Door jambs and stair treads slip off, or the tops of the larger pieces pop off when picking up or moving them. I resolved this issue with small amounts of Elmers Glue.
With Desert of Athas, the opposite was true. They tried to fix the loose problem of the first set but have gone a bit too far, because some of the pieces were difficult to fit together. (I know, never satisfied…) I even bent one or two items by applying too much force. In the end, they all worked, and I wont be needing glue any time soon. I would say for the traveling DM, the Desert of Athas tiles will hold together better since they are tighter. One other thing I noticed is that the table leg missing on the first set is present in the second, thus enabling the completion of that last table from Harrowing Halls.
One of my earliest uses of 3d tiles was to enhance the (slightly modified) final encounter in Keep on the Shadowfell.
This was the first major use of the 3d tiles for us, which so happened to accord with the grand finale of our first 4e adventure. I changed the way the stairs to Kalarel were set up, and added chain chompers, because every encounter can benefit from chain chompers. I also made the steep stairs difficult terrain, and lots of barbarian combat took place on those stairs as the battle unfolded. The rest of the action took place in and around the chains and tentacles, but the over-all affect of the window dressing really made for an awesome looking encounter. With movement more of a focus in 4e combat, showing the height perspective can help create more dynamic, and therefore dramatic encounters. Falling plays a more important role when pushing or leaping. Difficult terrain is also enhanced, as is my own house-rule of having a +1 high ground advantage, as proved in Star Wars Revenge of the Sith.
This perspective makes battles on stairs especially fun, as it focuses many of these rules into tricky situations. Difficult terrain, mixed with the chance to fall prone or be injured (barked shin damage type) on a failed acrobatics check to navigate rickety stairs while in combat, mean that charging up stairs toward an enemy prepared is often like trying to assault a fortified position. I dont rule that all stairs are this deadly, only steep, damaged, or slick stairs need cause so much grief. In other words, dms should not use the 3d aspect of the tiles as a cudgel against players, but should coax them into accepting and valuing the tactical opportunities that this new dimension adds to the encounter.Here is a recreation of the battle with the elite globe of mayhem from Encounters Week 7. This usage of stairs as a serious impediment first showed up in Dungeons and Dragons Encounters: Season 1 Undermountain Week 7. Throughout the encounter that night, those stairs played an important role, and it was great fun. The addition of difficult, dangerous terrain is a great achievement for 4e, and now with 3d elements, we can better represent the battlefield to take advantage of those elements.
Further stairway themed ideas I would like to try out would be to get at least 6 stairway sets together, hopefully more, to form a grand stair style battle. Also, I have tried many different varieties of the winding staircase in or outside a tower, but these jenga-style contraptions eat up so many sets that with 3 Harrowing Halls and 1 Desert of Athas I still havent gotten above 3 tiers without some serious suspension of disbelief required.In another play session, I recreated the first week of Encounters, which featured a back alley brawl behind the Yawning Portal. The walls were added for dramatic affect, while the key terrain features of the encounter were a rickety, dangerous bridge over a rocky section of open sewer. This encounter was especially fun to play, as it featured a lot of falling and being knocked off the edges into a sewer. The reason that I mention these are recreations is because I have not taken 3d tiles to Encounter Wednesday, due mostly to being worried about transporting them. I have begun bringing a minimum of paraphernalia to the sessions, and these would take up valuable space in my plastic minis box. While weight is definitely not an issue, they are bulky and cumbersome. I could see carrying a few sets worth around in a paper sack for example.
The idea of taking them apart for transpor, possible sliding the pieces into envelopes, then assembling them as required upon arrival might be another solution. In this case, one of those multi-dividing folders might be a great way to carry them. Have the players assemble them, it can be the first riddle of the night. I think, over time, they would become too loose with over-use, so I prefer to store them assembled. They can stack, assembled, on a shelf or mantle nicely, then toss the bits and pieces into one of the upside down big pieces.
Overall, Harrowing Halls provides a great set of basic 3d options for the edification of encounters. With stairs and building blocks, along with some small tables and doors, it is also worthwhile to purchase more than one set, as all of them can be used in a multitude of ways. These 3d tiles are a must have for those of us who like the tactical quality of battles. But how do the non 3d tiles from Harrowing Halls stack up?
Here we see the party in the infamous Inn of the Welcome Wench
The Harrowing Halls set is an excellent addition to any dungeon tiles collection, with its wooden-floored urban theme. Using these various room tiles, such as sleeping chambers, studies, dining rooms, and tavern floors, it is possible to create an infinite number of civilized or urban floorplans. With three sets of Harrowing Halls, I could lay out an entire mansion, or even a small neighborhood setting. These tiles are brilliant and a welcome addition to the line up of possible locales. 3 sets might actually be overkill, but I wanted the 3d sets, and at 10-12 bucks a pop, storage is a more important factor than cost, but that is a discussion for another day, lets just say that you should find the plastic bin or tub system that is right for you.
So the Harrowing Halls set was a great success from every angle, both horizontally and verticaly. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who is a fan of Dungeon Tiles. The set also seems to mesh well with older tile sets, including the Sinister Woods set to make rustic mansions in the wilderness, a la Chateau D Amberville.
Whether it was restaint or the imminent release of Desert of Athas that kept me from buying a 4th Harrowing Halls set I will never know (it was that good) but I am, as of this writing, the proud owner of 2 Desert of Athas sets, and i plan on giving them both a good work out in the weeks and months to come.
Its 3d elements were different than the previous set. It included a 4×4 square hut or block, along with a short and long dock or bridge, and another stair. The unique items this time around were the wagon and the fruit sellers stand. Both of these look slightly odd translated into the 1 inch square size, but I have had great success with the wagon, and the fruit seller will surely make an appearance at the next market.
I recently I used the tiles to create a wizards tower, with a flying buttress observatory to one side. This was intended to be an epic battle, and during the encounter, the tower itself was ripped from its mooring to go wildly teetering through a dimensional rift. The bridge and wagon from Athas can be seen in this poorly lighted snapshot.
This encounter has been the culmination of an attempt to get as tall a jenga-like structure as possible, and it is 4 stories, or 40 feet high at the tallest point. Originally it was going to be one structure but I changed to the flying buttress with a courtyard underneath at the last minute and to good affect.
My biggest mistake while playing this encounter was forgetting that the shifter, who was guarding on the bridge, would have been able to see the White Rose and Company enter the courtyard. This is a good example how the new layers of perspective can complicate matters, and make for dumb mistakes. Another thing to look out for are the rules questions which arise when calculating range or burst area affects. I try to rule without going into details of height, i.e a diagonal line is the same distance whether going across the map or up or down. Another way to put it would be to give the example of an enemy hovering 4 squares directly above a PC versus the same enemy 4 square up and 4 squares over. Still a range of 4 squares, finit.
More recently I have been experimenting with creating an encounter at a ruined tower in the desert of Dark Sun. This grainy hideous pic taken with my new phone (my phone tells me that I spend at least 95 percent of my time in low light conditions, strict phone!) shows off some tower ruins among the dunes from Athas. This picture shows off some of the rocky desert terrain tiles of 4e, and you also see the grass-turning to sand tiles at the near edge.
The 3 affects in the Desert of Athas are interesting but have fewer building blocks than the Harrowing Halls had. Instead they focus more on niche items, bridges, carts, and wagons, and an excellent sarcophagus. The old standards include a stair and a 4-square cube. Now I have 4 stairs so I am happy (edited to say 5 stairs total now with my second, and most likely final Desert of Athas set.)
A view of most of what the set has to offer
This brings us to the issue of the Desert of Athas 2d tiles, and how they stack up. There are a lot of great things to say about them, but first I must air a personal gripe. The fact that the only large tile has stones on both sides, rather than one side being solid dunes, is a real pain. It is almost impossible to make a large swath of rubble-free desert, and this is due to the fact that there is only a single large tile, and that both sides of it are devoted to big chunks of rock. Now then, what else can we say about the tiles?
The fact that they managed to make a set that can be used for desert, for water, and even for a beach with water-to-desert-to-grass is quite impressive. However the optimization of what they included, as far as the flat pieces are concerned, seems to favor the acquisition of multiple sets to truly lay out a battle map of appropriate size for an encounter, and this is only exacerbated by the lack of a large swath of open desert. I strongly urge getting two sets of tiles for any serious desert-dwelling; you will need them for appropriately large settings. After all, deserts are wide open. Lots of LOS – if it werent for the 400 ton chunks of obsidian everywhere.
Each of these sets were made with two packages of desert tiles. It greatly expands the range of possibilities, or I should clarify, it gives those ideas a proper amount of space for a reasonable encounter area. Here we have a beach assault prepared, complete with fortress ruins waiting to repel any invading force.
Next we see another ruined stronghold in the desert, its protective but crumbling walls embracing a hidden oasis. There is a certain vibe happening with the scenes I have built with this new set. The desert theme, obviously, but maybe it is the Dark Sun I have been playing recently, I am seeing lots of ruined walls and half-buried wizard towers.
Another feature of this tile set is that is partially compatible with the Dire Tombs, with the 3d elements being of the same yellow sandstone look. In fact, before I got my second set, in order to get my large swaths of blistering desert, I have used one of the many large tiles included in Dire Tombs set to fill out the desert. I will end this with one last photo showing the maximum size of open desert using the open desert tiles from 2 Desert of Athas tile sets. The map is 60 ft x 90 ft, or 12×18 squares. Using the rocky tiles it would be possible to get a much larger area. Also I suppose one might stack open tiles on top of rock tiles to get the open look, but I try to avoid that messiness.
The Desert of Athas tile set was not as mind-blowingly awesome as Harrowing Halls was when it arrived, but then the whole idea of 3d tiles was new. Now that I have incorporated the mentality into my game, I was expecting more from Desert of Athas. On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Dark Sun, and plan on spending many encounters in the scorching desert of Athas, so the tiles are a god-send to me and my campaign.