Sunday, March 17, 2013

Designing a Battlefield

There has been a lot of good buzz lately on designing scenarios and dioramas to push the Oldhammer ethos into new environs and player communities. Orlygg has offered a very good analysis of "old-style" and "new-style" wargaming tables, following up on Nico's unearthing of early Warhammer tables from the mid-1980's. The contrast between the old and the new, to my eye, is very reminiscent of nearly canonical theory of "combat as sport vs. combat as war" between past and present versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Wargaming tables from the past are covered with interesting and detailed terrain, and there is little difference between a historical wargaming table and a fantasy one. The goal of these battlefields is simulation. Modern tables simply feature a relatively flat plane with obstacles sprinkled evenly across it. In the latter, terrain "pieces" are discrete and atomized elements that have clearly delineated boundaries, set in a "neutral zone" of open ground. The goal of modern tables is to present a "balanced" playing field to compete with opposing army "builds." The former, traditional, table design is much more organic, with terrain blending together in uneven and visually impressive ways.

This got me thinking, how should an intrepid would-be Oldhammerer like myself go about building a proper "old-school" Warhammer table? Even more pressing, what does immersive battlefield design entail? For the former, I have decided that I am officially opposed to modular table design, despite some extremely impressive entries into that genre. I had come to the decision that an old-school board really needs more loving attention than a random layout could possibly provide. Rather, a good table rested on the latter—on proper battlefield design, so that I began to think about what a battlefield geography should do for a game.

This is not to say, of course, that a big open battlefield is to be avoided. Indeed, this sort of battlefield design allows for nice long battle lines to form up, which are visually impressive and can make for a fun game as the hordes crash into each other and force their way through the ranks. While this is one style of game, interspersing terrain settings throughout the battlefield will break up such tactics and allow for other play styles. What should be avoided, I feel, is treating the battlefield as a mere obstacle course, where terrain features are lone particles flecked onto an empty plane with little care for telling individual stories.


Also, No.

Terrain should not be an obstruction, best sidestepped and avoided during the game. It should be something that draws you into the game, giving you interesting stories to tell. Each little pocket of the battlefield should have its own character and plot. How would the battle have been different if the armies had intercepted each other at the old abandoned mill rather than in the forest clearing? If the armies had climbed the brambled hill to the old stone tower, would they have found the recluse warlock that is rumoured to live there? There should be enough places to explore on the battlefield that a single game could have developed very differently if the generals had chose to fight it out over different locales. In this way, the battlefield is actually a handful of smaller adventures, and each area is richly and naturally embellished with loving care and attention to detail. Instead of mere empty spaces between blobs of forests or hills, each locale should feel sheltered and unique.

Let's take a look at the story being told over a classic Oldhammer table:

Notice the many areas that might be exploited: the village on the right, the hedgerows, the forest behind them, the mill in the center, the riverbanks and bridge, the open fields, the ruined monastery on the left and the burying ground. Even for a fairly open table, there are a lot of possible scenarios that might play out. Such as...

In the main field, the battle is joined.

Over by the bridge, Skeletons and Orcs advance on the mill.

Orcs and Goblins attempt to seize the ruined monastery...

... and are quickly put to route.

The interesting thing is that a small army could have equally benefitted from this table as a large one. To achieve this effect, I would recommend developing each location on the table with care, giving it a natural and immersive feel before moving on or even thinking about another part of the battlefield. Instead of just throwing down a few buildings for a town, try putting a lone cottage on a hill, surrounding it with shadowy boughs, flanking it with a small fenced-in field and a path leading away to a clearing in the forest. Add a small stream and a footbridge to allow a second route into the farmstead and think about putting a peasant or two tending to their daily work. This way, when the Orc regiment marches by, it is not merely advancing past an unimportant and nondescript quadrant of a flat board. The peasants will rush to defend their homes, the Orcs will become stymied in the brook and the area will take on an interesting part of the story that will be told about this battle.


  1. Not really a wargamer - haven't played Warhammer for years, but this is an interesting read and I like what you're getting at. The thought I have, is that how a game works isn't just dependent on setting (which is basically what the above post talks about), it's also reliant on ruleset.

    I remember old Warhammer being pretty unbalanced, in such a way that the tipping of neat terrain effects is just another aspect making the game less predictable. If Warhammer is anything like D&D the combat as sport versions are rather predictable and that requires have a "fair" scenario to shine as builds and tactic predominate over luck and quick thinking. The question becomes - can the system/play style support the setting/feel?

    1. You're absolutely right, game mechanics beget setting more than the other way around. I'm firmly in the "rules matter" camp, although I'm also in the "rules shouldn't rule" camp as well : )

      I guess the balance is made up by the gamemaster, who is an integral part of bringing both balance (in the form of neutral arbitration) and chaos (in the form of hidden conditions) to the battlefield. The rules matter a great deal in providing resources for the gamemaster, but they ultimately do not dominate over good sense and interesting choices.

  2. Hi Evan, interesting article. Is the lack of a follow gadget a conscious decision on your part or would you consider adding one to your blog?

    1. I guess I'm just old-school when it comes to that. I personally do not subscribe to anything online (and do not use RSS) as I feel it takes away the joy of discovery (kinda like how hearing your favorite song on the radio is far better than hearing it come up on your iTunes). I'll look into adding a subscription thing for people who are into that, though.

  3. I have to admit, reading this made my head hurt. because I really wasn't aware that the style of thing you're arguing against was even a thing, and had assumed that the style of thing you were for was the natural and normal way of going about things.

    This dovetails into Alcoholism, as the position and location of a pub can have enormous consequence. Similarly the magical terrain features in 8th are a step back into the landscape-narrative direction.


    1. Yes, the magic terrain is a great idea (and very portable to older games as well). I generally think that this stuff should be left up to the gamemaster, but as 8th Edition has no gamemaster one could view the magic terrain rules as trying to fill that gap.

  4. I agree with what you're saying, although my take on modern tables is purely taken from "aren't modern tables ugly" posts like this one... :)

    Just to be contrary the "Every gamer's dream..." table strikes me as far too cluttered. But the monastry in the corner from the Lichemaster scenario brings back some fond memories.

    My ideal battle table back in the day (getting on for 20 years ago now...) is scenario based and has the appropriate terrain / features but is otherwise reasonably uncluttered.

    I always struggled with scale, as you need to compromise between the figure scale and the movement / shooting scale so your signature buildings and features are both too big (in terms of the space taken up on the table) and too small. Maybe I should just get over it and deal with the abstraction!

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