Tutorial: Swamps and Craters

Swamps, Craters, and the Illusion of Depth
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A simple - yes, simple - swamp.
Tools and Supplies:
  • An old, defective, or otherwise unwanted CD or DVD
  • Glue gun or caulk
  • Sharpie Pen
  • Sand and small rocks and/or cork
  • Envirotex-Lite Resin (for swamps)
  • The usual allotment of sprays and paints
isks are a common tool in terrain builder's arsenals, and with good reason. Where else can you find a perfectly round disk of plastic of that size and for so cheaply? The size is excellent for smaller terrain features like craters, ponds, and swamps as well as basing larger monsters like dragons or carnifexes. While I normally prefer to base large miniatures and terrain on the much thicker masonite, CDs are too numerous to not take advantage.

A perfect round base brings to mind terrain features that fit neatly within a circular pattern. While there are innumerable ideas that will work, two of the most common sights on a gaming battlefield are water-filled depressions and rubble-strewn craters. Not coincidently, both of these types of terrain can be created in similar ways, and so they both have their respective places in this tutorial.

But wait. A forest pond and a cityscape crater are crafted in the same way? Yes, they are! What they have in common is that they both create an illusion of depth. Clearly, we're not gouging out huge chunks from the local store's gaming tables to create sinkholes and other areas of negative elevation (at least, those of us who ever want to be invited back to game again don't do this!), so we'll have to make do with faking it. Since we can't go below the bottom of our base, we'll take the opposite route and build the edges of our bases upward.

Start with a Swamp

Planning out the swamp.
It's always useful to keep a figure of the appropriate scale nearby when creating terrain, to ensure the sizes are appropriate.
Swamps and ponds are easier to see this than craters, so we'll begin with a basic wetland. The first step, as always, is a bit of planning. Using a magic marker, we'll sketch in the basic outline of the swamp we want to create. This outline will indicate the water's edge, so leave plenty of space between the edges of the CD and the inside of this outline.

One flaw apparent with CDs is the hole in the center. Not a big problem! I trimmed a business card down and taped it over the hole. Alternately, you could use masking or duct tape to fill in this hole, or cover the entire top of the CD with cardboard before tracing on the pattern. Since I'll be using a lot of texture on this piece, I felt that just covering the hole was good enough. However, if you want the water to be very smooth, you'll need to cover up the entire CD and then trace the swamp outline -- otherwise, you'll be able to see the edges of what you used to fill in the hole!

We have a lot of options for building up the edges. On the next page I'll use a hot glue gun for a crater, but for this swamp I'll use silicon caulk. Caulk will give me a more natural 'mud' effect. A word of caution: be careful which type of caulk you select. Some types are considered hazardous to handle with bare skin, so you'll want to make sure you get a tube that isn't toxic or be sure to carefully apply it with tools rather than a fingertip. There's also no need to buy a lot; one tube will last you for all the craters, swamps, or rivers you'll ever want to make.

If my cautions about caulk have you too worried to use it, there are a lot of other appropriate materials you can use. Air-drying clay is an excellent alternative. You could even use Green Stuff, or Kneadatite, is the most common two-part epoxy that sculpters use to craft miniatures. This is not due to any wonderful sculpting properties (in fact, it sculpts somewhat like chewing gum), but because it's heat resistant enough to survive the vulcanizing mold process. Most miniature stores carry this now.Green Stuff if you wanted, but since that's rather expensive to use for terrain, it's best to use it for only important details.

Creating the illusion of depth.
The ridging process, from application of chalk to priming. Make sure you use a tool or stick to smooth chalk, as some brands are a little rough on the skin!
Whatever material you decide on, it's applied the same way. Line it up roughly with your outline, then smooth the exterior side down in a gentle slope, leaving the inside raised. Set it aside and let it dry completely, then glue sand to the exterior slope.

At this point, you may want to add some texture to the area that will be your water. I chose to do so with Liquitex Natural Sand Texture Gel, which is a very fine sort of goo-texture and suitable for mucky water. You could of course just use very fine sand, or leave your water smooth. After all texturing is done and fully dry, we prime and paint the entire piece just as we would with a miniature. I chose to paint my water in shades of blue just for cartoon value, but in real life swamps tend to be brown, green, or even black rather than blue.

Of course, it isn't really a swamp without some old stumps, now is it?

Adding a few stumps is a simple and easy way to turn a pond into a marsh. The trick here is a deceptively simple one. First, pick some dry twigs from your yard or local park. Make sure you gather ones that have smaller branches sprouting off of them. Snap off these tiny sub-branches, then saw the twigs in half right along the thick portions where the smaller branches were attached. Dry twigs are easy to cut and with only a few minutes work, you should have a half dozen stumps ready. Glue a few of these in the water next to the shore as well as on the shore before you texture the base.

A swamp is of course a prime bit of terrain to fill up with plants and grass like in my vegetation tutorial. Once the piece has been suitably covered in greenery, use a small amount of Envirotex Lite to create a realistic water effect. Be careful if your terrain's slopes aren't very high, as Envirotex has a tendency to creep over edges if you use too much. Less is more -- you can always add another layer if it's too shallow, but you can't remove a layer if you've added too much and made it seep over the edges.

Cutting the template out.
A curious halfling approaches the final version of the swamp, entranced by the illusion of depth.
As you can see, the basics of swamp terrain making is creating an illusion of depth with a ridge, then "prettying it up" with standard basing techniques (plants, mushrooms, rocks, stumps, etc). If it weren't for that perfect round shape, you'd never even realize it all started as a CD!

And guess what? It works the same way for craters, which I'll explain on the next page...

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