Theatre of War… Making it Real with Terrain


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01 June 2022
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We talk about making it real with our guide to battle maps, ruined towers and unlikely cover for roleplaying and wargames

Words by Christopher John Eggett

“How far away are they?” you’re asked, “sort of medium far, 50 feet I guess,” you answer, “is there any cover?” they ask, “sure, some bushes, a turned over cart,” you decide, “but is it between me and the reanimated skeletons with sledgehammers?” and on it goes…

Theatre of the mind is one thing for roleplaying games, and while a perfectly conjured image using the fullest of your descriptive powers is possible, sometimes it’s easier to just draw the map. And as soon as you do that you’re in the world of moving tokens about, and then things will have to be scale and soon you’re thinking – wouldn’t it be better to play on Roll20 where everyone can zoom in on the precious cover-conferring foliage?

No, it’s not (or at least, it’s not for everyone), instead it’s time to enter the world of terrain, props and miniatures. Many game books discuss terrain and other props (amusingly, advice in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s book suggests that you don’t want to spend too long making a miniature obelisk if people might just laugh at it) – but we’ve never been so spoilt for choice when it comes to the tabletop gaming add-ons out there. We’ve rounded up some of our favourites from the scenery scene and explored why we all get so enamoured with battle mats, terrain and miniatures – and how they help us tell stories.

BOXED ADVENTURE

The simplest way to get an adventure that’s suddenly alive on the table is to buy one in a box. You could pick up the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition compatible Epic Encounters series – this more or less drops you into a boss room and sets a scene. But for something a little more free-flowing we’d have to take a look at wargaming specialists, Mantic. Rob Burman, community manager at Mantic (and previously of this parish) takes us through the leap from military-esque terrain to the world of roleplaying games.

“Ronnie, the owner of Mantic Games, is an absolute terrainaholic,” explains Burman, “he may not be able to paint a Kings of War army to save his life, but he loves tinkering with objective markers, crashed spaceships, etc. to decorate his gaming table.”

Mantic’s first terrain outing was for Deadzone – which with its Third Edition introduces cyberpunk touches like computer terminals and neon shop signage into the mix of ruined industry and traditional sci-fi wargaming terrain.

“The move into RPGs came about after the success of Dungeon Saga, our dungeon crawler,” says Burman, “although Dungeon Saga as a game was hugely successful, what was surprising was the fact the scenery sets inspired by the game sold so well. Both of those sets outsold Dungeon Saga itself and, initially, it wasn’t clear why.”

“We found out that, although miniatures of heroes and monsters are available, there really aren’t that many companies making pre-assembled, plastic furniture. So, people would create these amazing stories, with wonderful minis but would then end up using 2D furniture. TerrainCrate was our solution to that problem and it’s been hugely successful. People really seem to like creating adventures focused around particular pieces of scenery. We like to call it ‘dungeons & dolls houses’.”

These TerrrainCrate boxes are varied in style (check out the Crystal Peaks Camp, Arcade Machines or the Village Shop) and generous in their contents. The Haunted Manor comes with something like 70 pieces of furniture and miniatures – it really feels like a complete game minus a rulebook and a set of dice. Burman couldn’t be drawn on specifics, but we’d certainly wager on this being the next move.

“We talked to a good base of roleplayers about the sort of stuff that’s useful for an adventure,” says Burman, “for example, we know there has to be a bunch of minions and, ideally, the mission should end in some sort of spectacular final encounter. For the Haunted Manor, we thought it would be good for Cthulhu-esque games, while the previously GM’s Starter Set is very much aimed at the fantasy market, with undead minions and a big dragon to battle against.”

 

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MODULAR WIZARDS

WizKids, best known for their roleplaying miniatures on the other hand have opted for a modular dungeon approach. Fully ‘3D’ and customizable, the WarLock dungeon set allows for the creation of castle keeps, deadly dungeon hallway encounters. Using some small ‘keys’ to hold together different elements, like walls and doors, you can create fairly robust dungeons that don’t get scattered to the four winds every time someone heavy-handedly wants to move into melee range. Alongside this, the inclusion of caverns – a series of red-dust stalactites and stalagmites that form the perfect basis for a subterranean delve with the explicit hint that you’ll need to jump across chasms, over lava, or cut down the rope bridge behind you. 

And for those of you interested in the miniatures but not the painting, the WizKids pre-painted range allows players to get characters to the table in no time at all. If you like a little randomness in your games then the recent expansion into the world of pre-painted miniatures booster boxes might be interesting. WizKids has made several sets of these for Dungeons & Dragons settings, from Icewind Dale to Wild Beyond The Witchlight. The booster boxes offer one large miniature, two normal sized miniatures, and then a smaller one for a bonus. We personally like the idea of opening a box at the table to define a random encounter for your players.

 

LET BATTLE COMMENCE

Of course, maybe actual dungeon walls and furniture is a bit much – especially if you have a group of often flits between locations, or you have other reasons to hastily shuffle together a tavern or prison cell.

Loke Battlemats are the ‘go to’ for many looking for a quick way to throw down a grid for players, we spoke to Matt and Tamzin Henderson about bringing the fight as quickly as possible.

“As the most popular and well established games evolved out of wargaming there are lot of games that work well using battle mats. They can also help a roleplaying group to assess their characters surroundings and the environment they are in,” says Matt, “– I’ve generally played and more often run roleplay systems with a tactical combat element so there’s always been a preference to map out and run encounters where possible, especially if it’s a scene where there’s plenty of participants to keep track of. I’ve often had to run games for groups of 6-10 players and for those games having the encounter laid out on the table is fantastic.”

“Maps are also great at helping with the immersive aspect of roleplaying games too as they can really help players picture their characters in the setting. They can also act as a focal point on the gaming table and let players strategize and plan while waiting for their turn to act,” adds Tamzin.

The pair have been creating dry-eraser friendly maps of various sizes for a few years now, but recently took a step to put their battle mats online for use in virtual tabletop systems like Roll20. Beyond the Blue Nebula kickstarted last year, and is proving popular – the team plan to do the same with fantasy maps in the near future.

“We also included a free digital copy of our Box of Adventures range,” says Tamzin, “that’s our system agnostic starter set of terrain and tokens. Not only do we intend this to be pretty much everything you need for a VTT (or in person) game but we hope this helps bridge the gap between players who start a campaign online then move back to in person gaming as this will mean they can make the transition using the same maps and tokens to keep the continuity going.”

Interestingly the most notable recent release from Loke wasn’t a set of maps, but instead, Untold Encounters, a chunky hardback of surprising encounters.

“It acts as a toolbox for planning or running your fantasy games by providing over a thousand encounters for you to use,” says Matt, “our customers like to have a tool that not only can be used on the spot to roll up a random encounter, but also as a planning tool.”

When asked about moving from the peripheral end of games to the more games content orientated approach, Matt suggests it’s a logical step, “I’ve been designing adventures and running encounters for my games for many years and I had loads of ideas that worked really well at my table to share. Also, when I draw the maps I often find myself designing encounters for them so it’s been a great process expanding on this and creating the encounter book. We are always getting asked for adventures set in our maps so you just might see something coming up later this year.”

 

DECIDEDLY 2D

There are others pursuing the battle mat format, such as 1985 games, whose boxes of cardboard that you need to cut up yourself are a charming, slightly indie feeling approach. 

“We focus on filling the gaps left in our community with products made by the type of people that would actually want them in the first place,” says Jeremiah Crofton, the creative director of 1985 Games, “I’ve always been a visual gamer. I think there’s something special about seeing the world you’re in displayed in front of you. That can be through props the GM makes, miniatures, terrain, illustrations, music and more. It’s something special to watch when your players faces light up at the reveal of that special something.”

This bit of magic is baked in to a lot of the Dungeon Craft sets put out by 1985 – initially beginning with Volume One that covers dungeons, cities, wilderness and some creatures, this has expanded to include Hell & High Water (a mix of hellscape and nautical terrain), and finally Cursed Lands (goth stuff). From there they introduced Castles and Keeps provides just that and Realms Edge is a grab bag of community requested terrain.

All of this sounds pretty standard until you introduce the double-sided nature of the cardboard you’re cutting out.

“We knew right from the beginning we wanted you to be able to go inside the houses. This felt unachievable with all the other products out there,” says Crofton. Going inside buildings is only the start – there’s boats in the dock that when flipped burst into flames. Beyond this there’s an amusing element of using props that’s enhanced by the flatness of everything. For example, a GM can set up a situation where a key item is hidden under a piece of furniture with a casual bit of stacking.

“We often see people use the terrain in a more reactional sense. GM’s love the ability to build a random map on the fly when their players happen to head in a direction they weren’t expecting,” says Crofton.

This sense of giving an element of surprise to players, and a handy tool for GM’s can also be seen in the Deck of Stories produced by the company. The deck, and series of decks  is designed to build one shot games quickly. Each card offers a GM, or players drawing randomly, story prompts using an ‘opening’, ‘rising’, and ‘closing’ system.

“We give a set of guided instructions with each deck, we truly don’t see them being used in one specific way. The deck is a tool that helps creative people get some inspiration for whatever their working on,” expands Crofton.

PRINT YOUR OWN

Just as taping didn’t kill radio, printing your own terrain at home using a 3D printer won’t kill the terrain business. And that’s certainly the hope of Jon Webb of Modiphius, who is leading their charge into the world of 3D printed terrain. For the uninitiated, printing at home means using a 3D printer to create detailed models from liquid resin or reels of plastic, while it’s still a new technology, it can be as simple as downloading a STL file (the 3D file type) and hitting ‘go’ on the machine.

“It’s an emerging and somewhat exciting field where customers no longer have to buy their products at the physical stage,” says Webb, “many miniatures manufacturers have been working digitally with 3D printing for a while now. If you have ever received a metal or resin figure and noticed tiny lines akin to thumb prints on some surfaces, chances are it’s a 3D print master.”

The technology now only costs in the hundreds, rather than thousands of pounds, and as such is becoming a great deal more accessible. How did Modiphius get into the scene thought?

“As with most of our projects, it all starts with a message from Chris [Birch] with ‘another mad idea…’ Chris and I have had many a jovial debate about the future of miniatures and he was adamant that this part lay with 3D printing so wanted to get in as close to the ground floor as possible,” says Webb, “With Covid and the lockdown creating a slight pause in our releases, we looked about and managed to land a talented sculptor with a knack for terrain and have had him beavering away creating amazing new sets since.”

These print-at-home sets are initially designed for players of Fallout: Wasteland Warfare and Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms, “the premise is to create terrain pieces that folks can use across two broad concepts, ready to go scatter terrain that can be printed, painted and dropped onto the table or decorative greebles,” says Webb, “and pieces of detailing that can be added to existing third party kits to add that Fallout and The Elder Scrolls flavour and really sell that your games are in the Wasteland or Tamiel.”

“I’m trying to build up thematically linked sets that let folks print and play in recognisable chunks of their favourite game,” continues Webb, “in the first instance there are now two sets themed around the Nuka World expansion of Fallout 4, with one focussing on the car parks surrounding the park (full of rusting vehicles, overflowing bins and faded park maps) and the second taking us to Dry Rock Gulch, Nuka World’s Wild West zone.”

The set that readers of the digital issue of Tabletop Gaming will receive this month is worth £20, but pricing is an issue in the print-at-home market, Webb is concerned that the number of low-cost ‘get 30 files a month for a tenner’ model that is prevalent in the scene, “I worry customers are being trained to expect non-realistic prices and content,” says Webb, “the other issue is the perception vs reality of take up of 3D printing. 3D printing is not print and play and requires space and equipment far beyond a traditional terrain kit. However, I think it’s a really interesting new phase of our hobby, but it’s not for everyone. The day it’s like a Star Trek replicator and I press a button and a ready to go product drops into my lap, then we can talk.” 

Why does Webb think that terrain makes its way into so many games?

“It’s the old ‘third army’ bit of the game isn’t it?” he says, “the battlefield is the texture to the background, the reason you are fighting and often adds a tactical element through blocking movement and line of sight. I get so sad when I see a football pitch battlefield, or even worse one where there is loads of cool terrain but it’s all pushed into the four corners so provides no impact to the game.”

“The best bits of war films are when it’s all down and dirty in the trenches or the face to face madness of urban combat, where you are one plaster wall away from the enemy and the battle descends into these frozen moments of brutal clashing.”

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Everyone we spoke to for this article has new products coming down the line. Mantic are about to launch Firefight: Second Edition – a squad based sci-fi game, ideal for use with your sci-fi scenery. On the potential of roleplaying game/terrain mash-up box, we’re only offered “if you’re an RPG fan, keep an eye out in September for some adventurous news,” from Burman. Modiphus are aiming to bring one bundle or set of terrain a month for 3D printers, and have new waves of Call to Arms and Fallout landing soon. Loke are dropping Volume 3 of their incredibly successful Big Book of Battle Mats series, and Box of Adventure 2: Coast of Dread while there’ll also be a new modular map book set – Castle, Crypts and Caverns coming in early 2023. 1985 have a Kickstarter for VHS Dice closing right now, a passion project that focuses on bringing that tape-based nostalgia to everyone. Until then, we’ll just be looking for a handy bit of cover. 

 

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