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"On the "Earth sciences" and being a good demiurge" Topic

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Rhoderic III and counting03 Feb 2015 6:53 a.m. PST

Alright, here goes. This is a post I've made several previous attempts to write but have always ended up scrapping because it invariably ends up being a confusing mess. I can't seem to quite find the right words to explain what I'm trying to talk about, and have particular difficulty making it concise. But here goes anyway: Do you ever obsess about how to model terrain and set up battlefields with a view to making them look "right", in regard to Earth sciences such as geomorphology, geology, limnology, soil ecology, climatology and so on?

For instance, more than once when looking at other players' desert terrain set-ups, I've noticed they've laid out sand dunes in ways that "ought to" be impossible. Typically these are barchan dunes that are facing the wrong way around and/or located too close to other terrain features that would naturally block the aeolian processes necessary for the formation or travel of such dunes in the first place. I'm not a geomorphologist, but I did read up on sand dune formations in preparation for sculpting some dunes of my own a few years back, and I'm glad I did because I'd rather not get it wrong (I ended up not making barchan-style dunes at all, as barchans they tend to imply otherwise flat, featureless surroundings).

To me, this isn't any sort of anal-retentive behaviour that detracts from the hobby. On the contrary, it's one of the things that make the hobby enjoyable and worthwhile. An afternoon spent researching real-world sand dunes is an afternoon enjoyed, much like the subsequent modelling phase where I begin to actually fashion these terrain features in miniature.

Let me put forward another example of the sort of thing I'm on about: Something I know very little about, but have been wondering about lately, is the way different types of mountains and cliff/rock formations "inform" their surrounding landscapes. Like, say, sandstone buttes, or limestone karsts, or granite tors. "Big" talus and "small" talus. Ventifacts and hoodoos. Cliff faces that have dramatic striations exposed. These kinds of features can tell a story about their surroundings in regard to such aspects as aridity, wind, soil conditions, vegetation and other rock formations. The question is, for any given rocky landform, what exactly is that story? Does one type of rock formation imply a wet climate? Does another imply an absence of nearby forests that would have blocked aeolian processes from shaping that formation?

Or how about the nature of wetlands? What are the natural circumstances that make some wetlands acidic bogs and others alkaline fens? How does the acidity or alkalinity of a wetland manifest visually, and equally importantly, what does that tell an informed person about what the surrounding landscape should or shouldn't look like? Does the acidity/alkalinity affect the adjacent environs in an observable manner? Do any factors of the surrounding environs – such that were underlying causes to the acidity/alkalinity of the wetland in the first place – manifest visually? One concrete thing I've wondered about is whether trees that thrive in acidic soil and themselves acidify the soil in which they grow (such as pines and conifers) would be particularly common near bogs but rare near fens. And then there's swamps and marshes, whole other sorts of wetland altogether with mysteries of their own. Now to be clear, I'm not asking these things of TMP as actual questions that I expect answered (but if you're well-informed on any of these subjects, by all means please do share), but rather I'm putting some of my ponderings in writing to give you an idea of the subject I'm trying to discuss here.

One more example: We all know some landscapes on Earth have been shaped by glaciation and deglaciation. But do we know exactly what it is these processes can do to a landscape that no other natural process can? So, if in a game with a very specific background story, one is setting up a battlefield that's supposed to be in a region that's never had glaciation (let's say it's a sci-fi battle on a planet with little water), which telltale terrain features should one avoid, if any? Again, that's not so much an actual question that I expect answered on TMP as it is a fumbling attempt to communicate to you the kind of things I think about – and enjoy thinking about.

I should point out that I have some similarly fussy thoughts about other aspects beyond "mere" Earth sciences. One of my pet peeves when looking at other people's terrain set-ups is saw-toothed factory roofs that are not all oriented in the same general direction, or are oriented so their glazing is not facing the direction defined in the scenario as being away from the equator (eg. south-facing glazing on a Stalingrad board).

On a related note, I also think about similar things when I (occasionally) draw my own maps for fantasy/sci-fi settings. I remember as a young teen ignorantly crafting realms with such absurdities as bifurcating rivers and swampy mountain valleys. That's the sort of thing I'm trying to get away from now. I also find myself studying maps of "established" fictional worlds from an Earth sciences point of view. The other day I was pondering the nature of the Lonely Mountain and its implications on the surrounding landscape in Tolkien's legendarium (although of course, in Tolkien's particular case any inconsistencies can be explained as being by Aulė's craft or Melkor's vandalism).

Well, this has turned out to be a very long and rambling post with way too many question marks. So, returning to my original question, does anyone else immerse themselves in this aspect of the hobby, or am I that unusual? If you do, have you got any tips for easily digestibe books, websites or other resources on the subject? I find myself having a growing interest in learning how the natural world comes together on a large scale: Why any given stretch of shoreline looks the specific way it does (sandy, pebbly, rocky, marshy, etc); which telltale features of an icescape distinguish a glacier from "fast" sea ice; which attendant conditions must be implied by the existence of oases or wadis in a desert; and so on, especially but not exclusively in regard to mimicking such a holistic order of things in my own miniature terrain-making and world-building excercises.

Personal logo Jeff Ewing Supporting Member of TMP03 Feb 2015 6:58 a.m. PST

Ha! I'm always urging people on the terrain builidng subreddit ( link ) (which isn't as active as it could be…ahem) to do things like tuck plant material into crevices and pay attention to what parts of a winter scenic would get sun, and therefore snowmelt. Glad I'm not the only one!

RavenscraftCybernetics03 Feb 2015 7:25 a.m. PST

terrain oblects are the puzzle peices that each side needs to exploit to their advantage to solve the scenario.

haywire03 Feb 2015 7:34 a.m. PST

Wargame Terrain-wise for an entire table? No. You never know the direction something will be placed to give the right game effect.

For a diorama or single piece of terrain piece, probably.

jpattern203 Feb 2015 7:49 a.m. PST

I pretty much agree with RC and Haywire.

For a diorama, yes. For a wargaming table, unless it's dedicated to a specific scenario, not really.

(Although I do prefer what-if maps that accurately reflect the way mountains, rivers, and other geological features form, with correctly located farmlands, grasslands, wetlands, forests, deserts, and so on, even in fantasy and sci-fi books and games.)

In addition to the points already mentioned, there's the matter of selective compression, and ground scale vs. figure scale, on the tabletop. When you have a few houses representing an entire village or town, or a small pond representing a large water feature, having a mountain and farmland and desert in close proximity might be unavoidable.

Rhoderic III and counting03 Feb 2015 8:04 a.m. PST

Ha! I'm always urging people on the terrain builidng subreddit ( link ) (which isn't as active as it could be…ahem) to do things like tuck plant material into crevices and pay attention to what parts of a winter scenic would get sun, and therefore snowmelt. Glad I'm not the only one!

Oh yeah, the intricacies and endless variety of winter landscapes is something I can't seem to learn enough about (and I live in Sweden!). Every day this time of year I study how the snowfall, thaw, wind, frost and bird activity (shaking snow off branches) have altered my surroundings and made the winter look a bit different from the day before. I'm going to face some dilemmas once I get around to building winter terrain. Do I want the trees to have that "soft", snow-laden look as if after a recent snowfall, or a more "scraggly" look as if the snow fell several days past and the sun, wind and birds have taken most of the snow off? Or that more "crystalline" look as if after a mist and subsequent frost? Decisions, decisions…

As for the game effects of terrain, I'm entirely of the school that the battlefield should be set up first in a realistic manner. If I'm the one doing it my opponents get to pick "home" table edges. They may also get to pick victory conditions and such things. I trust my opponents, and would rather play at a disadvantage than have those barchan dunes facing the wrong bloody direction grin. If the terrain is expected to have a specific game effect (such as allowing one player a better defensive position), then the battlefield is being set up with a special narrative scenario in mind. In such a scenario, my attitude is that the first priority is to tell a good story as opposed to having as "fair and balanced" a game as possible. I'm a narrative gamer and care about the story-telling aspect more than balanced game mechanics.

Maddaz11103 Feb 2015 8:20 a.m. PST

My qualifications… as a geologist mean I get really wound up by "nonsense" Terrain.

Then I remember its just a game..

Then I think I will have a pint… then a couple more.. and then generally do not worry any more…

Ping Pong03 Feb 2015 9:05 a.m. PST

I'm also a geologist by education and worked as a hydrogeologist for many years. I appreciate where you are coming from, but I have found that it just doesn't matter to the people you are playing with. I do appreciate any table that has at least some erosional processes going on, but it doesn't bug me if not . Well done wetlands are kind of exciting.

Striker03 Feb 2015 4:06 p.m. PST

I don't get worked up on terrain but make a good faith effort to have it make sense. I'm sure an earth science person would find many faults with it, but of my hobby time there is only so much. I could spend it studying nature but then I'd never have time to paint anything to play with.

Personal logo Bashytubits Supporting Member of TMP03 Feb 2015 4:29 p.m. PST

I am only upset if they have palm trees on an arctic battlefield.

Mugwump04 Feb 2015 6:32 a.m. PST

If you want to get driven nuts as a geologist, just look at many of the maps for fantasy and science fiction games…especially roleplaying games! The only thing they have in common is fitting on a sheet of paper. As a retired geologist/hydrogeologist, I cringe when I see these abominations. Worse yet many of them look the same-and wrong.

As far as some of the fun can be figuring out the configuration of terrain could come about in the real world. This is especially challenging when you use the gentlemen's method of terrain placement. The high roller places the first piece of terrain on the felt. The opponent places the next piece. Then back and forth until all pieces are used up.

advocate04 Feb 2015 7:39 a.m. PST

Different details worry different folks. I've got my own set of things that annoy me. I'm happy if someone putting on a game does so in accordance with their own particular concerns; less so when they point out 'shortcomings' in a game that I have put on. So I try to avoid doing it when other people have set up a game.

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