Friday, June 25, 2010

TABLETOP GAMING - "Making Rivers"

It's been a while since I've posted something for my "tabletop gaming friends". So I thought I'd pull some images out of the archives and add something new. Here's how I made a some "scratchbuilt" rivers.

About four years ago, when I was making a lot of terrain for my buddies, Jaye and Steve, I had the opportunity (thanks to Jaye) to see if I could sell some hand-made river sets at a gaming convention. Sadly, not one thing sold. Happily...Jaye and Steve got all the rivers!

My first set was a "muddy brown river" series. I tried to standardize the width of all the segments, so that they could be interchanged to create multiple layouts. They were about 6" wide at the adjoining edges. After painting them with acrylic, I glazed the "water" with clear high-gloss varnish.

The next group got a bit more elaborate. The "green river" set had some larger segments, that featured little islands, some swampy areas, some "y" junctions, etc. For the rocks, I used little pieces of styrofoam, or bits of pine bark. The rest of the textured surfaces were made of sand mixed with gesso. I don't have any "making of" photos from the original river sets shown. So for this blog, I've re-created the process for you below.

First I made some templates out of posterboard. After tracing the shapes onto masonite board, I cut them all out with a jig-saw and a table saw, then sanded the edges of each section. On the right below, you see where I cut out a thicker piece of cardboard that will be the river's "bank". I spray-mounted that to the board.

Next I mix up a "concrete" made from sand and gesso. You can vary the amount of sand to achieve different results. Then you generously apply the mixture, following the contour of your cardboard edge. Taper the "bank" to the sides of the board.

You can allow the gesso to dry at room temperature, place it near a fan, or put it under a lamp like shown below. With some of my earliest attempts, I was able to get some really cool cracking in the dried surfaces, when using mostly gesso with very little sand. But for some reason, I couldn't replicate that effect for this demo. You can see the different textures on the pre-painted segment below, after it dried.

The last images are of various effects you can achieve, simply by painting the surfaces with the right color combination. You can have a nice green bank near clear blue water, or paint the same texture to look like ash-covered rocks with flowing lava! Or perhaps you need a very dry, muddy river bed...which could also be painted to look like the snow-covered banks of an ice flow!
Hope that helps you create some interesting stuff for your gaming tables!


Fitz-Badger said...

Thanks for sharing these! I always like to see terrain and other gaming stuff other people do. It's nice to see people being creative and it often gives me ideas.
Imade some river sections something like these quite a while ago, but lately I've been taken by the idea of just cutting out the spahes and painting the rivers right on the flat pieces without any texturing or anything. It gives a simple old-style toy look to them, which I kind of like (also easy to stack and store and no worries about bits falling off! ha ha).

I do like the picture with the 4 different effects. I had thought about doing some dry riverbeds/wadis/nullahs for Colonial gaming.

Warren said...

Hey, Fitz...good to hear from you again! Glad the post gives you a couple of ideas to try. I certainly appreciate the "stack and store" approach. I think I'm just attracted to the projects that remind me of "dioramas" I saw as a kid in museums...the more real looking, the better.

Fitz-Badger said...

I always loved the dioramas at the museums. You do some great realistic terrain, that also appears to be quite functional for gaming, too.

You can see an example of my painted mdf board rivers, as well as a waterfall, on my blog at
I've also used the same technique to make road sections and some dry rocky hills for Colonial gaming.

linsolomons said...


Warren said...

Hey, Lin! Ha! I sent you an email, explaining a bit more of the gaming community. If you want to see all of the stuff I've made for my friends, click on my "Labels" link that says,
"Sculpture-Tabletop Gaming".

To see how these rivers look in action, scroll down that list of links to the blog post for: Thursday, August 20, 2009...TABLETOP GAMING: "Mountain Waterfall" It also shows a wide-angle photo of a gaming convention in action.

Warren said...

Fitz...nice solution for the waterfall and rivers. Very simple, yet believable. Reminds me of sets for a stage play, too. Thanks for the link!

Tnoussis said...

This is a great tutorial, i was actually just about to make a river for my gaming store, and this gave me soem great ideas, especially with the curved and modular sections. Thanks!

Warren said...

Thanks,'s it goin' up there in Canada, eh? It's been fun having folks from all over the place drop a comment. Glad you came for a visit before you started your river project. The modular style is flexible, but the same techniques work if you decided to add a continuous long, curving river into some terrain (like winding through a 2'x2' square of foam with carved hills).

Tnoussis said...

Well I finally tried this out last night. It looks fantastic! The river is a very nice addition to my collection of terrain. The gesso and sand work great together for texturing terrain pieces, I've even now started to use them to create a stucco effect on buildings. I've been looking for some thing like it for ages. Thanks for the great tutorial Warren!

Warren said...

Terrific, Tnoussis! Glad it helped. I think it's cool that you used the same technique on the's quite a versatile mixture.