Details in Terrain

As many of us I am also a member of Privateer Press forums and time to time post some WIP pics of my work there. Reason for this is to have feedback and of course show others what I’m currently working on. The reason behind this post is one reply from the forums.

A while back one active member of the forums, Defenstrator, wrote me some feedback:

“Your work continues to impress. My only worry is that you’re getting carried away. This level of detail is more suitable for a diorama than gaming terrain. At least for warmachine. This looks more the level of terrain you would use for a really small scale skirmish game like Infinity.

By all means this is a valid point. My progress has been very slow if you compare it with, lets say, Mordjins Project. Does this mean that I have truly got carried away by some nonsense which has nothing to do with gaming but to postpone other projects?

If I can’t answer to this question or at least justify my actions I have wasted A LOT of time working on terrain pieces that are already ready. I thank Defenstrator for this comment because no matter what the conclusion is it affects positively on my work. If there is no point in fine details I can say that my houses are finished and move on OR if there is a place for this kind of work I have a justifiable reason to continue to refine my terrain objects.

I will try to scrutinize the topic trough three points of view: Point of Being, Immersion and Personal Trait. Let´s do it!!

1. Point of being, realism

In Japan technology has reached stage where man can construct very lifelike robots with face expressions and natural movement. Still most of the bots that we see are not like above but more like R2-D2 from one quite popular film series. Why? The reason behind this is that no matter how “natural” man makes the robots people will feel a little bit queer around the robots. They can´t point it out what it is but there is just something wrong about the lifelike robot and humans instinctively notice it. So what does this has to do with terrain?

Although we aren’t pursuing 100% realism in miniature games we do observe the game as a whole. Therefor if there is something “not right” in the wholeness (what a great word!) it stands out on the table. Easiest example is the miniatures. I think that the point of painting miniatures is to present the lump of plastic/metal/resin as a part of some believable reality. If it is just a one color pawn it can´t create any thoughts about its past or present. On the other hand if it is one of Picsters figures you can figure out even the maiden name of the characters mom from the details if you want to. Yes, I know that most of the Picsters minis are display pieces BUT when have you heard somebody say that “Nice mini  but I think that you have painted too much details on it if you consider the scale of the game.”

The same thing goes for terrain. If the piece is just a quick cut foam hill, it will perform nicely as a gaming object BUT not as good as a part of some “real” terrain or reality. Let´s look at the next picture:

Hamburger Tactica 2012: Dystopian wars

The whole meaning of terrain is to represent place where something so meaningful happens that we want to recreate it with our miniatures. If the terrain doesn’t fit in to the universe around it, it doesn’t properly fit in to the game and therefore gamers instinctively notice it. The gaming board above is full of details which bring the world alive. It´s realistic and believable in it´s own universe and whats important, among the magnificent terrain lies reason for the game itself.

Everything has to have a reason.

2. Immersion, deeper experience

I would love to live in this city:

Sadly I was born in the age of concrete and electricity so I have to settle for playing in the replicas of this kind of city (The city above is made by Thomas [aka “Chicken”] and you can find more of his work here). When the playing environment looks right (if you don´t know what I mean about right at this stage, forget it) I can picture myself or my avatar really walking on those streets with a massive two-handed axe and singing shameless songs. When I can do this I can truly immerse myself into the game. It´s like a good book. If the text is utterly nonsense I will gladly put the book aside and do something else but if the text captures my imagination it´s almost impossible to stop reading before dawn.

So if we spend hours and hours on our minis then why  don’t most of us pend hours and hours on terrain which, in my opinion, plays a bigger part in immersion? One reason might be the size of the object. If you try something on a mini, you can´t really notice it from the playing distance. But if you try something with a bigger terrain object it´s quite visible on the table. This may scare the gamers and they settle for rude terrain objects.

Funny part is that making good looking terrain demands mostly time and patience, not skill. For my houses I have mostly cut, carved and glued things together. With more patience you can do more details and have better looking terrain, easy! Of course along with bigger projects comes bigger failures. You can easily repaint a bad mini but it´s a different story with terrain which can be ruined by one poor choice of working method (those who use resin for water know what I mean). This could also haunt the minds of terrain makers.

As I said earlier we can´t achieve 100% realism but we can try to make the most of it and detailed terrain can really help on the path to the deeper gaming experience. Like in the real world when you bump into something unexpected, it still makes sense to it to be there. You don´t have to see all the details right away but when you do notice it, it complements the whole situation.

3. I’m a detail Freak and I wallow in it!

So if you use simple gaming terrain or even card templates of terrain does it mean that the gaming experience will be unsatisfactory? Absolutely not! All of the points that I have made above are only the thoughts of a one man. Though let´s be honest, they are the thoughts of a detail freak. I love exceptional terrain and love to hone my terrain to that direction. I stand behind all of the statements above but also notice that not all agree with me. You can use unpainted minis and books for terrain and still imagine yourself as a Great Commander who crushes worlds under your steel boot. In a matter of fact it seems that I have a poor imagination and I need some visual kicks in my ass to enjoy the games more.

Defenstrator, who posted the reply that started this whole article, was referring to my furniture and all of the other little details that I was adding to my houses. Those details are my effort to give the houses a place in that universe. I feel that without a story behind them, who uses them and why, the houses are “lifeless” objects and therefore don´t contribute nothing to the coming table. Even if nobody enters those houses in a game of Warmachine or Hordes, I feel satisfied because I know that if somebody would have done it, it wouldn’t burst the bubble of immersion.

If you look at the picture above, and also more pics from here or from another artist from here, you can see lots of meaningless details which don´t affect game play at all but which all contribute to the wholeness of the board and reality. through these details the board comes alive. Through the living board players immerse in to the game. And that immersion in mind I try to create my terrain and never think that the time spent isn’t worth it!

At the end of this article I have to show you what my playing heaven would look like. This is David Marks Wargaming House. Look at all those details on the gaming board and also on the gaming room itself. Superb!

Details are like little clues for the mind of the gamer to help to build believable reason for the lost of free time that gaming consumes.

What do you think?


ps. ALL of the boards in this article are gaming boards, not display pieces!


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  1. Mugu said:

    Wow, I’m surprised there are no comments as of yet. First, I’d totally love to play on 28mm scaled islands in the Hamburger Tactica 2012: Dystopian wars pic above – if all the tables were connected, even better! But I digress. I have built some terrain (and am no means a pro – certainly not in your league) for my gaming groups in the past. I agree, lots of it really *is* just patience. I love building terrain out of Hirst Arts bricks, but the casting of the parts is time consuming and completely ungratifying. The outcome, however, is entirely gratifying, if not always appreciated by those using the terrain. Regarding too much or too little detail, its entirely in the eye of the beholder. I don’t think any particular game (or scale for that matter) deserves super detailed terrain. But I think that all games deserve terrain and for those who make that terrain, especially those that go that extra mile in making super detailed terrain, my hats off to you.

  2. Mugu said:

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear – when I said no game deserves super detailed terrain, I meant, no game *over any other* deserves better terrain than any other. Hopefully that’s more clear.

  3. volt_ron said:

    The better the terrain looks, the more enjoyable the game is! 99% of the time I play on plain table with felt cutoffs. The game is still fun, but it would be so much more with a beautiful table such as those in your pictures.

    I hope to one day be able to make a table like those.

  4. DieselDM said:

    Detailing terrain is a lot like the quality someone chooses to paint their miniatures. For some folks a bare metal miniature is good enough, while others strive for table-top or better quality. In the same way some folks are fine with an empty table where others strive for 3-D terrain with fantastic detail.

    Having seen the Corvis table in person at Lock & Load, there really is no substitute for really great terrain. It’s amazing to see fully painted armies on a table like that. That doesn’t mean all games need to be that way, but it really is a sight to behold.

  5. Scott said:

    I think the hardest part of building terrain and tables is when you put the time and care into building something really cool, and the careless apes at the FLGS tear it up in a matter of months. If I had my own gaming table in my own gaming space, I might do a lot more. As it is I end up making stuff I know is going to get torn up, then the careless apes complain that there is no cool terrain….

  6. JCooJCoo said:

    Good comments! When I wrote about the details of miniatures and how nodoby comments on those, check out bottom of this thread:

    It´s a perfect example about my thoughts. This guy makes umbelievable conversions, which doesnt affect at all to the gameplay, and there is not a single comment that “you are making too much details!”.

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