Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Competitive Terrain - Where Hobby Meets Gameplay

So this is a subject I've had bouncing about in my noggin' for some time.

I think that the 5th edition ruleset is very tight. There might be a few things I would tweak here and there, but it's a solid foundation upon which to build a game. Most of the real "issues" seem to stem from codex rules, and not the BRB themselves.

There are, however, many who really and truly hate this edition. I'm sure you've heard a rant or two from these naysayers in your time. The "usual suspects" are Wound Allocation and True Line of Sight. Though I've heard some expressing frustration on other topics, those two seem to be the big ones.

Wound Allocation is a topic for another time. My take on it "in brief": It's an extreme abstraction which prevents you from shielding valuable models from wounds but also allows you to minimize damage against your squad in certain scenarios by having models "throw themselves on a grenade" (or power weapon). It's not a "codex specific" ability, so I encourage everyone to learn the ins-and-outs of how it works and how to best "play" this "mini-game within a game" called wound allocation. As long as we all know how it works (and use it) and accept that it is an abstraction, we can all be happy and it's pretty fair. Whew.

Ok moving on.

Anyways,  True Line of Sight is a bit trickier. For one thing, it makes it very easy in almost all cases to see whether a unit has line of sight or not. If in doubt, a laser pointer helps for this. It is equally simple to determine whether "infantry" models have cover or not. The "one leaf rule" (see what I did there? lol) helps keep it simple and again, I like the way it operates. 4+ cover saves seem a tad generous to some, but I think that it helps keep the game dynamic: If you want to dig troops out of cover you often have to go to them and either flame them out or assault them out. That's cool and flavorful and encourages a movement game which I like.

Now, where TLoS, Cover, etc. start to break down (a bit) is for vehicles and Monstrous Creatures.

Now there are some circumstances where it's VERY clear that the target gets cover - if all you can see is one track wheel on a Rhino, they had better be getting a save! What becomes more difficult (and contentious) is when the vehicle is close to that 50% "borderline" between covered and not covered. I don't think that the human eye is particularly good at estimating what portion of an area is covered if that area is irregularly shaped or if it is "covered" at multiple different points. The example they provide in the rulebook is almost laughingly obnoxious in that it shows the EASIEST possible situation for identifying cover: a side-on shot of a rectangular vehicle with a wall covering it 2/3 of the way up the side. Gee, thanks for helping us out with THAT tough situation, GW.

I think I may have a harder time at this than most because I was actually a tank crewman in the Marine Corps for many years, spending a lot of that time as a gunner and eventually a tank commander. In tank gunnery (as with all shooting really) you have to aim for the "center of visible mass" and so when you see a target at an angle you start to simple trace an invisible line around it and aim for the center of THAT, rather than the center of, say, the front glacis plate that is facing you.


Now we are going to bring it back to terrain and TLoS. I hear a lot of players complaining or seeming to get upset when I shoot their Rhino/Chimera/whatever through a forest and tell them they get no cover. They stare at the large piece of forest terrain with lush, dense canopied forests and they scowl.

Well, it's just the way that the terrain is built, ok? Most forests that I see have a flat, open base (for ease of model placement), and some deciduous trees with their trunks sticking straight up in the air, and then some full bushy canopies up top. From above it looks like, well, a forest. But when you are down at ground level looking "through" that piece of terrain, it's almost as if it weren't even there. All you can see are some toothpick thin vertical tree trunks and a big fucking Chimera on the other side.

At some level I don't really have pity on the player - usually they get in this situation by not getting down and checking out the sight lines instead of just assuming. But I don't find this situation to be particularly satisfying either. Real forests are (usually) dense, thick, tangled sonsofbitches that you can't see through more than 50 feet through in any direction. Now I know that putting "realistic" forests on the table would basically mean you could never put your models in them, which would be bad. So the resulting situation is that we make forests that are visually appealing, work well for infantry, and do jack-all to provide obscuration to tanks and MC's.

I suspect that MOST of the forests we are all using were made during the days where you simply couldn't see through a forest if it was too thick. In those days any tree-trunks you stuck on there were simply to help with imaginative immersion. Now things are different. I certainly don't think we should abandon True Line of Sight, but maybe we do need to change the way we build our terrain, specifically our woods, hedgerows, etc.

I have been thinking a bit about how one would go about this. My initial thoughts are to make the "base" of the forest out of a sheet metal that magnets will stick to nicely. Cover that metal with a layer of dirt or whatnot. Next, take trees and BUSHES so that you have obstructions "high and low" and arrange them on the terrain. They should be staggered in such a way that there are not huge gaping holes when you are looking through the terrain from any angle. Once you are satisfied that the terrain has sufficient density to, you know, obstruct line of sight, then you mark the locations of the bushes and trees and then magnetize them. Whenever infantry move into the terrain piece you can nudge or remove the bushes and trees as necessary to get the models in there, but if you need to check LoS to a tank or MC, you can put the bits back in their assigned positions, do your cover check, and keep playing.

There are of course lots of types of terrain - bunkers and ruins, hills and walls, but all those work pretty well "as is." But people WANT to play with Forests, it's a very traditional wargaming thing, and it seems maybe we should adjust how we build our terrain rather than scrapping what is, otherwise, a very strong set of rules.

I would love to hear your feedback on this. I think that building terrain is an under-appreciated part of the hobby but now more than ever the terrain AFFECTS the game, so poor terrain will produce a poor game. Plus great terrain adds to the visual appeal and makes for an overall more enjoyable experience. So this is something hobbyists and competitive folks alike should be able to get behind.

Let me know if you've run into similar challenges with forests, or whether you have great examples of forest (or other) terrain that works really well for TLoS games AND is workable for moving models into/through. Links to photos are appreciated.