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.
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.