Creating Random Terrain (Time Machine)

Michael O. Varhola

Following is an article written by gamer William Silvester titled "Creating Random Terrain" that appeared in the May-June 1980 issue of The Courier, "North America's Premier Gaming Magazine." Advances in technology notwithstanding, its essential usefulness for any particular wargame or RPG has not diminished in the three-and-a-half decades since it was written; I can see this being useful for determining terrain when a party is exploring an unknown area and how alternate tables for certain areas could be created. Also, the editors of this piece allowed a number of typos to slip through into print and we took the opportunity to correct them here and thereby further honor the efforts of the author. 

An evenly terrained field which does not unduly affect the outcome of a battle is not only difficult to achieve but unrealistic. Many wargamers, when fighting a fictional conflict or a non-campaign engagement, tend to balance the terrain features in order that the battle can be decided in favor of the man with the best tactical skill rather than the one fortunate enough to be the defender of an unassailable position. Though this system may work to everyone's satisfaction at first it soon becomes repetitious and in time boring. I have found in both solo campaigns and in dual player actions that random terrain not only adds to the realism of the conflict but can severely tax the tactical know-how of the opponents. How best to use unfavorable terrain to one's advantage adds a spice to the game which would be absent on a well-balanced field.

In order to effectively combat boring repetition I have developed a system whereby each and every battle is fought on randomly placed and invariably different terrain. Even if the forces involved are identical in composition from one battle to the next, the engagement will be totally different in tactics, concept, and (often) outcome if the terrain is constantly changed. 

In my campaigns I use a hex-gridded map [with] each hex representing a war game table, though whatever method you use to determine contact points and table terrain will be satisfactory. For ease of example I shall explain my method with the hex method. 

Once contact has been established in a campaign and the play area determined, the first step is to transpose the strategically-indicated features, such as roads, rivers and streams, towns or shorelines, onto a piece of graph paper (I use quad 10-1" with each square representing one square inch on the table.) Once this has been done the tactical features can be placed to conform as shown in the diagram. 

In the event that the game is not part of a campaign but a single action, roads and rivers can be placed by dividing the two sides of the table into six equal parts and rolling a die for each side to determine where the river or road will enter the field and rolling again to find where it will exit. Bridges and fords may then be placed if rivers and roads intersect. 

Now that the main strategic features have been placed we can locate the tactical features such as forests, hills, swamps, and farms. To accomplish this I divide the table into one-foot square sections (using the graph paper, for I have found it much easier to transpose the terrain from paper to table than vice-versa). Now, using a standard deck of cards, jokers included, I shuffle them and deal them out, one at a time, placing one card for each square foot of the table. Thus, a standard 4' x 8' table would require 32 cards. Next, I turn the cards over, one by one, consult the table below for the meaning of each card, and draw the terrain feature indicated on the graph paper. When you are finished you will have a totally random and natural-looking field. 

In the course of placement some minor problems may arise. For example, it is possible, though unlikely, to draw as many as eight different hill cards; hopefully you will have at least eight different hills. to determine which of the eight to place, number the hills and draw and additional card from the remaining deck, disregarding those from 9-K. Heavy woods should cover the entire square-foot area while light woods cover half of that. 

Other options can be developed as well. If your campaign is being fought in the deserts of North Africa then it is unlikely that large forested areas will abound. Therefore, for major desert areas only 7s and 9s indicate trees [and] all woods, farms, grass, and marsh cards indicate desert. For major forest areas add Ks and Qs to the list as heavy forests. For major mountain areas add Ks and Qs to the list as hills. 

If a farm card is drawn and the hex already contains buildings (a "strategically" placed town), you might wish to draw again for a different terrain feature. If you wish to retain the farm then draw a second card to determine if the square foot area surrounding it is fenced (red card = yes, black card = no). If red then A-5 = wooden fence, 6-9 = stone fence, [and] 10-K = hedges. 

A bridge type may also be chosen in a like manner by drawing a red card for a wooden bridge and a black card for stone. If you wish, this system can be taken a step further by numbering your buildings (if a town is present) and drawing cards for the type and position of these. 

It has been my experience that game tables constructed in this manner add a great deal of interest and excitement to the game.