Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scenery in 40K - why are we fighting in Sherwood again?

Ok, look at those two pics (concept art for Avatar) - just looking at them evokes the feeling of another world - the colours, the strange shape of the plants - similar but not quite right, the lighting. Instantly it transports you to another world.
You can see that this is an area of dense jungle, ancient in age (by the size of the trees), and is unspoiled by man.

This one, also from Avatar, gives pause - is it a strange natural formation? Some relic of a lost culture? A temple, a forum, a prison even?

This is just plain cool.

And here are the guard, waging war on... Colorado maybe? Meanwhile the dastardly Tyranids have invaded...

Louisianna bayou? Cairns? Lots of bugs there.

Now the purpose of this isn't simply to bash GW's scenery range but ask what we, as gamers and modellers, are doing to fix the lack of interesting scenery.
I don't mean things like an awesome objective marker or a detailed ruin, I mean thematic tables that evoke the alien worlds that exist in the 41st millenium.

Most tables I've seen can be divided into a few simple categories:
1. Scattered bits of trees and scrub, a few hills and a couple of random ruined buildings.
2. Barren moonscape of craters and boulders.
3. Aquarium plant jungle.

These all offend my sensabilities on different levels:
1. Ok, why are there the random remains of large buildings in the woods/jungle? Where's the remains of the roads? Shouldn't the buildings be overgrown with plant life?
2. Almost always red or grey.
3. Always green.

People take great pains to ensure a cohesive look to their army, it's one of the basic tenents of painting a large tabletop force really. But when it comes to th eboard all to often people neglect scenery as a chore, or just throw together a board with whatever is lying around.

What causes this? I have mentioned GW's fairly uninspiring terrain already, but I don't think it is to blame. For instance GW will only show the stuff it makes (now it makes it), and only carries a limited range as there are companies dedicated to making scenery so it would be fruitless to compete.
Similarly if they were to make unusual scenery it would just mean I'd add category 4 to the list above - default alien world made of nothing but ten lots of GW's alien scenery kit.

So why do people always resort to the generic woodland/jungle board? Personally I think it has a lot to do with ease of construction. Model train stores are one of the biggest suppliers for the wargaming industry, and as most model train layouts are based on Earth (plus a few in Wales) the materials are all very much like western Europre from the German brands and the London / east coast area for the UK suppliers (LNER being the most popular area). North American suppliers offer desert and winter supplies more readily, but it's all very terestrial.

So what to do with what we've got?

Looks like Earth, but the rather distincitve building makes it seem very far from here. Add a few more butresses and a millon skulls and it could be a 40k building.

Similarly the architecture here is not like that seen on Earth, with the impossibly suspended pillar and its style. Creating unusual or distinctive buildings is a simple way to make a battlefield out of the norm (and no, I don't mean assembling your Manufactorum and Bassilica kits as not-ruins).
The idea is to create a whole table theme rather than a table made of isolated pockets of terrain.

This may be due to my preference for narrative gaming than randomly rolling scenario. But even then having a table that... looks like something is preferable. Picture a table like my point #1 above - a buliding in each corner, a few knots of trees, a low hill slightly off centre... we've all seen them.

Now picture a table with a single building to one side with a series of low walls around it making a series of pens. Further afield are piles of machinery and large tractor wheels. Nearby is a water tower. The rest of the board is scrub and bits of farming equipment.

Battle over an abandoned (or is it? maybe that's why the defenders are defending!) farmhouse or a battle over... D3+2 objectives? I know which I'd prefer. Same mission but giving the table a theme makes the battle have meaning and a story without really trying.

It doesn't have to be as dramatic as a massive, detailed building - thematic terrain is pretty simple to make:

Behold the desert terrain of my super cheap creation. None of it is finished yet, but it gets the point across. The building is pretty standard, as is the water tower - but it gives the sense of people actually living there. The two plant pases on the far left and right are simply air drying clay stuck with pipe cleaners. The big racist head at the back cost me 20 cents.
The stuff in the middle is air drying clay and sculpted in an afternoon. In the pinkish clay there's a skull and eye (made by my girlfriend) and some mesa like rocks. The darker brown has the faded remains of an ancient civilisation - a worn statue and obelisk, and a sunken statue (with a seperate piece to show its hand energing from the sand.

The most expensive part of this is the building, which cost $16 from, though I bought the sets so it was even cheaper.

Not all alien scenery has to be so totally removed from the norm:

Standard green world, but the giant, twisting tree is very sci-fi. It could easily be made using a few small branches from the garden.

They do come in other colours people! Another idea is to try some different lighting - replace the bulbs in a couple of lamps with blue or green ones to give the battlefield an otherworldly tinge.

Also don't be afraid to try and replecate some crazy idea you've seen:

Floating rocks held down by chains? No problem!

There will be a third chain on the opposite side from the others. This is made from coathangers, chains from dollar store novelty necklaces, air drying clay, foam spheres from a sewing store, pollyfiller and a bit of trial and error.

It looks impressive, but game wise doesn't provide a game winning strongpoint or anything:

So even if you do create a green board don't be afraid to jazz it up - throw in some weird statues or some funky looking plants. And when setting out a board don't be afraid to sacrifice fairness by making an asymetrical layout that makes it look like your guys are fighting over more than randomly generated points - it's what I try to do and it makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable.

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