Foam & Grids & A Story

Recently, I’ve been working on a few different D&D projects that have drawn me away from focusing on this blog as much as I would like to.  That leaves me with a small amount of time to actually blog.  You will eventually see the fruits of those “distractions” here, but for now, I am not at liberty to discuss anything.  However, there is one small element to one of the projects that was a real a-ha moment for me, and I thought I would share it with you.

A little history: about 8 years ago (has it really been that long??) I started dabbling in terrain.  My first effort was a sort of pit or maze made out of foam; my intention was for PCs to find themselves stuck in the pit and needing to make their way out.  One of the most vexing elements to this project way back then was how to get a grid onto the foam.  After all, you can make terrain out of foam as beautiful as you want to, but it’s rather useless for combat without any sort of grid.  What I ended up doing (I blush to think of how complex I made such a simple task) was creating a frame out of basswood and attaching eye screws as 1 inch intervals all around the frame.  Then, I wove fishing wire into the frame so that the lines created a grid, and tightened it with the eye screws until the lines were taut.  Finally, I laid down a base coat of white on the foam, put the fishing line grid on top of that, and then painted the foam brown with the fishing line grid frame still in place.  Wherever the fishing line was didn’t get brown paint, and when I lifted the frame off, I had a white grid.  Don’t worry if you can’t picture it – just trust me when I say it was a lot of work for something that merely turned out to be adequate.  I threw the grid frame and the pit terrain out long ago, so no pictures.  I will note, however, that I was ultimately happy with how the project turned out, overall.

Fast forward a few years, and I was still dabbling in terrain.  This time, I’d taken on a much larger project for a much larger audience.  The group I game with was asked to run a Battle Interactive for Living Greyhawk at a convention in Richmond, VA.  I apologize for not remembering the name of the con, but it’s not really germane to the discussion anyway.  Tyson and I volunteered to create some terrain for the high level tables, and agreed that, based upon the size requirements, foam was the way to go.  We spent many evenings holed up in my girlfriend’s (now my wife) basement, working on several hills and fields.  Again I ran into the grid problem.  I still had the fishing line frame at this point, but it was much too small for what we were doing, and therefore would have been cumbersome to use, so we scrapped that idea.  What we ultimately did was forego a grid altogether, and instead advise players to bring tape measures to the con.  I don’t know how word got out about the tape measures, I just know we didn’t put grids on the terrain.  Gridless worked out ok at the con from what I gather, though I wasn’t involved in DMing the high level tables.  It seems to me that using a tape measure to figure range seems cumbersome though, so in my mind, gridless is also a less-than-optimal solution (sorry Warhammer fans).

In the end, I was also happy with that project.  I don’t remember all the terrains we made (there were at least four), though I do remember one was a hill with a circle of Druidic standing stones at the top, from the center of which a massive oak tree that had been cut down.  That was a fun project, if a little time consuming, even for two people.  Tyson and I both have families now, so doing something on that scale again would probably be out of the question.  Either that, or we’d have to work smarter instead.

So now we’re up to present day, and again I find myself working on a fairly large project that again requires the use of foam.  This time, the foam isn’t the main building material, as in the past, but is rather the base for a model.  Still, it’s an integral part of the whole, and needs a grid on it.  Again, the grid vexes me.

At this point, I will apologize to all the readers who don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “foam.”  I know I shouldn’t make assumptions, so I will define for you what “foam” is.  Or maybe just show you a picture:

I'll bet you can't guess where I bought this...

When a terrain hobbyist talks about “foam,” they’re talking about these huge 4’x8′ sheets of siding insluation for houses.  It’s incredibly cheap, especially when compared to styrofoam that you buy at craft stores.  You can also make really big stuff with it out of one piece.  You can see I’ve already cut my piece out of that sheet there – it was 2’x2′.  I would have had to glue craft store styrofoam together to get something that size, and would have paid double for the privilege.

So there I sit, as I said, vexed by the grid.  No way I was going to make another fishing line frame, and gridless was also out of the question.  If only… there was a way to draw a grid on the foam.  Or maybe I should just, you know, try drawing a grid on the foam (this, by the way, is my a-ha moment.  Sad, I know).  So I got some light green acrylic paint, and painted up the foam.  Then, I took a T-ruler and a dark green fine point sharpie, and lightly dragged it across the surface of the painted foam.  Lo and behold, when I removed the ruler, I had a nice, crisp, dark green line on my light green base!  I mean, it looked really good, and it took seconds.

I’m not really sure what the point of this story is.  It’s not really a “how to” other than to say, “if you need to draw a grid on a piece of foam, use a ruler and a sharpie.”  It certainly wasn’t obvious to me from the start, considering all the gyrations I went through for a grid on my first project.  I guess, aside from regaling you with a story about some of my D&D crafting experiences, the takeaway is this:  sometimes, you’ll run into a project that will stump you.  Often, you’ll shoehorn a less-than-ideal solution, just to get past the obstacle and get on with life, and that’s ok.   But don’t be afraid to go back to that type of project, multiple times if need be, because eventually, the perfect solution will present itself. 

Well, either that, or “if you need to draw a line on something, try using a sharpie.”

5 thoughts on “Foam & Grids & A Story

  1. Geek Ken

    A tip with working with styrofoam (insulation foam is less prone to this), many aerosol paints and matte sprays will eat right through it. Also painting them can be a chore due to its porous surface. Mix up thinned out PVA glue with water (about 1:2 works great) and generously paint over surfaces you want to paint. It’ll work as a simple primer and allow paint to adhere to the surfaces without getting sucked up into the pores (PVE glue = elmer’s white glue).

    BTW, styrofoam and foam core board is the f*%king bomb making DYI terrain. Nice post.

    1. Benoit Post author

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. They do make spray paints that are safe for styrofoam, though I’ve never used them. My last project on regular styrofoam (Build this Terrain for $10!), I used a black wash to fill in the pores, and then generous amounts of acrylic paint on top of that, if I recall correctly. It worked out pretty well. Foam board is definitely the way to go most of the time, though. As an aside, I wouldn’t try drawing lines with a sharpie on the regular styrofoam for the same reason you listed above – too porus – the lines wouldn’t come out as well.
      And thanks for the tip re: Elmers as a primer. I’ll have to try that.


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