A Tabletop Gamer’s Uninformed Leap Into the World of 3D Printing

A close look at the Creality Ender 3 through the eyes of a complete novice.

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Photo: Joe Tilleli

3D printing has been around for a while now and I’ve very much existed on the outside of it looking in. Intrigued by the tech, but never having gone to dive into how it all works. When the opportunity came up to test out the Creality Ender 3, a filament-based 3D printer, I was delighted as a dungeon master to finally be able to print out some real character minis for my players and myself. I figured there was a lot to learn about the space, but I was met by just how little I knew almost immediately.

Assembling That Which Assembles

Just opening the box, I encountered way more parts than I anticipated along with an inscrutable set of picture-only instructions. “Show, don’t tell,” typically makes for sound advice. But in the cases where I haven’t a clue, I sure appreciate being told what I’m looking at. Even as someone who worked a couple of years as a technical writer creating instruction sheets for electrical products, I sat there dumbfounded and intimidated. I took a good ten minutes to identify which piece it was calling out in the first step before I had the much better idea of simply searching “Creality Ender 3 assembly how to” on YouTube.

I discovered a channel called CHEP which had exactly what I needed, offering a detailed explanation and breakdown of the entire build process. He even swaps around steps and calls out the included instructions for being needlessly difficult which I found validating. I highly recommend going straight here before even opening the box.

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Once fully operational, I slotted in the included SD card and prepared to print one of the files included—a cute little piggy. About 3 hours into the print, it had slid out of place so it never completed the ears. More on that later.

Image for article titled A Tabletop Gamer’s Uninformed Leap Into the World of 3D Printing
Photo: Joe Tilleli

Going in With Misconceptions

As a Dungeons & Dragons savant, the first thing I wanted to do of course was print out minis for all my players’ characters. I had downloaded .stl files from Hero Forge and the idiot I am just assumed I’d be loading them up and hitting File > Print, easy peasy. That’s not even close to accurate.

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So, basically, .stl files store only the surface geometry of 3D objects. They need to be converted to .gcode files which actually describe to the 3D printer how to print the job—a process I learned is called “slicing,” which is done with a slicer program. The free one I found by using my extensive research skills (Googling “3D printing slicer reddit”) brought me to a program called Cura. Upon downloading and dropping in my file, I was met with a big blue button labeled “slice.” So hit that, loaded up the .gcode file on the SD card, and then went to print! Easy enough!

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Screenshot: Joe Tilleli

No, Joe. You fool. You absolute dolt.

Of course that didn’t work. Just a few minutes in, the Ender 3 is printing out a hobbled mess of loose plastic string. It would have made for an excellent model of the soot sprites from Spirited Away, but I did not want that. I wanted my cute little goblin boy. I should have realized that a 3D printer takes all the frustrations of regular printing but now adds a third dimension to that.

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Anyway, back to Reddit! At this point, I learned of three new things I needed to consider.

Number one, print the mini at an angle. Filament-based printers like the Ender 3 do a better job printing the base when it is turned slightly. The 3D printer prints from the bottom up, so it makes sense that you don’t want a fully flat layer.

Number two, structures need support. Extraneous parts like limbs extending outward have nothing underneath to be built on. A lack of which is what causes the stringing effect. You need to add in support structures to be clipped away later.

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And number three, you’re going to want an adhesion plate. The nozzle where the filament extrudes from moves along the X and Z-axis during the print, but the bed itself moved back and forth quickly to account for the Y-axis. This makes it very easy for the print to slip out of place. By creating a brim or raft layer underneath your mini, you can use its high surface area to create more stability and adhesion along the bed of the printer.

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Screenshot: Joe Tilleli

Zen-like Fulfillment and Filament

After many attempts of trial and error, implementing these three points of consideration got me a much better-quality print.

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At a certain point, my intimidation of everything new had slowly been replaced with an urge to experiment and dig deeper. Suddenly, toying around with different size air gaps, placements of support structures, adhesion plates, and everything else that could be tweaked scratched a problem-solving itch deep in my brain. The same itch that pulls me to playing games like Polybridge—working to build with more efficiency, less wasted filament, and better fidelity. I may not achieve perfection, but I’ll get better each time. “Tabletop Ready” became a term I quickly added to my vocabulary—just good enough.

Image for article titled A Tabletop Gamer’s Uninformed Leap Into the World of 3D Printing
Photo: Joe Tilleli

After many attempts of trial and error, I had successfully printed out a mini with little to no imperfections. It was time to clip away the supports—a process I found quite soothing and meditative, almost as if I were clipping away stray leaves of a bonsai tree.

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And Yet Something Just Isn’t Sticking

Calibrating is an important step of the printing process, as one might imagine. The Ender 3 has four wheels under each corner of the bed which raises and lowers the platform. It needs to be perfectly level and raised close enough to the nozzle at its lowest point to ensure the heated filament reaches the bed from the start. You achieve this by sticking a sheet of paper in between the bed and the nozzle. Adjust so the nozzle pins the paper to the bed, just barely being able to move it around. You repeat this for all four corners.

Even when calibrating before each print, one problem that persisted was getting the first layer to adhere to the bed of the printer. The filament would trail off immediately, resulting in a garbled mess of stringy plastic. And even when it did find its place, it almost always loosened up over the course of the print (my poor piggy). In one case, it hilariously found its grip again and continued to print the model upwards from its new position.

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Image for article titled A Tabletop Gamer’s Uninformed Leap Into the World of 3D Printing
Photo: Joe Tilleli

What may have been causing the adhesion issue is me having touched the bed, getting the oils of my gross human fingers all over it. A suggestion I found in a few places online pointed out that I should administer a glue stick to the surface. Though at first it seemed like a dumb idea, just smearing glue all over my new 3D printer, after running out of options, I finally tried it and sure enough, it worked! Sort of. It definitely helped. Still, I now needed to overcompensate when calibrating—pinning the paper a bit harder than the YouTube videos explained to me. Once the first layer was in place and not moving, I gave each wheel about a half turn to loosen to the proper levels. This, in combination with the glue application, did the trick. It’s probably not what I should be doing, but it is working for now and I’ll continue to look for a better solution.

Venturing Forward

Before I had the Ender 3, I was confused by the concept of folks getting into 3D printing as a hobby. I figured sure this is a cool piece of tech, but how is that a hobby? I print pics from my phone onto my inkjet printer, but I wouldn’t consider that a way to spend my leisure time. But seeing just how many both figurative and literal moving pieces 3D printing has, I now understand. There’s a much steeper learning curve than I had ever anticipated and I’m excited to climb it. I felt a sense of pride admiring a finished mini as I clipped off the last support piece after a corner of my table piled up with one failed attempt after another.

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Image for article titled A Tabletop Gamer’s Uninformed Leap Into the World of 3D Printing
Photo: Joe Tilleli

The Creality Ender 3 has proven to be an excellent starting point to dip my toes into this new pursuit. And I can’t wait to surprise my players with these new minis as well as develop the next campaign arc where they inexplicably must face off with a bunch of fucked up deformed versions of themselves.