When is Terrain not Terrain?

When it’s scenery, of course.

What exactly is the difference between scenery and terrain, and why should anyone care? Let’s take that in 2 steps: definition and use.

Dictionaries are only a little help when it comes to defining words in such a specialised context as tabletop gaming. However, the basis seems to be clear: terrain is the lie of the land and nothing else, whereas scenery encompasses not only that, but also the details that are scattered over it. Think about the use of the word scenery in theatre: for stage dressings. That’s more the sort of thing we are doing when we set up a nice tabletop to kill each other over. Terrain then is our tabletop itself, the flat surface, modular boards or whatever that form the backdrop onto which we place scenery in the form of buildings, trees and phone booths (depending on your game).

Does this distinction matter? Clearly not to most rule writers as the term “terrain” is almost ubiquitous in modern rulebooks, and taken to mean scenery (using the above definition). In a more general sense I deplore the loss of subtlety in language, and here there is some that is being ironed out by careless usage. At the same time I am ashamed to say that I am part of this ironing crew. Perhaps I need to try harder. On the other hand, perhaps it really doesn’t matter. A professor of English once said to me that the purpose of language was to communicate, and if we all understand the word terrain to mean houses and trees too, then that serves its purpose. In terms of rules and so on, is there any value in the distinction? Not a great one that I can see.

What do you guys think? It’s a bit of an odd burble today, but I’d like to know your opinions too. Why not post your thoughts below 🙂

This entry was posted in Metagame musings, Tabletop gaming, Terrain. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to When is Terrain not Terrain?

  1. Andy Frazer says:

    I tend to scenery for stuff that’s modelled into the table and terrain for bits that can be set on and moved about as required.

    So basically… the reverse of their meaning… 😦

    My own English teacher used to say “there ain’t no proper way to speak English”, but then he used to hammer us for crappy grammar… in hindsight I suppose he did say “speak”… damn technicalities!

  2. Quirkworthy says:

    When I was a small lad there was always the ultimate threat of a ruler across the knuckles from the headmaster if you were bad at an Olympic level, but hammers? My, that was a tough school.

    I may, of course, have things turned around in the definitions, though there is no definitive lexicon of gaming terms that I’ve yet found to fall back on (please let me know if you do) so I’m making this up based on “real world” definitions, and that’s always subject to being nonsense.

    The idea for this post was from something the chap at Antenociti said online, where he was getting very exercised about the difference, and I can see how it would be important to him. However, I can neither find nor exactly remember what he said (otherwise I would have referenced it properly). I mentioned this post to him and I do hope he will find time to correct me if I’m misrepresenting him.

  3. You know what my dad would be standing up applauding right now if he were reading this. I was brought up being told that scenery were the individual elements of the board and that terrain was the combination of those individual elements and the playing surface. However as I got more and more into the GW hobby I started using, what he would say was the wrong terminology. To be brutally honest I think he was right, however I agree with your English Professor, we developed language to communicate and if the message is received and the meaning understood where is the problem? However I do feel if the language has a specific word for a given purpose we should use it.

    I’d go one further though because I have slowly realised that I personally use both scenery and terrain to mean quite different things:

    Terrain: Actually has an impact upon the rules of the game such as limiting LoS, movement etc or the opposite.

    Scenery: Something that just defines an area mainly its impassable or defines an area you can’t go.

    I never actually realised I did this until I just read this… I can here my dad now ‘you’re wrong, use the right words’.

    • fiend says:

      The problem is that if you interchange the words too much, you end up in the situation like I was in today, where a piece of consumer hardware was quoted in its specs as having “16GB memory”, where it actually means that it has a 16GB hard disk, not 16GB RAM memory.

      Someone in a marketing department has obviously attempted to dumb down the product spec for the mass market, but that makes for a factually incorrect communication to the person with even a tiny amount of knowledge.

      Not saying it matters in use of “scenery” v “terrain”, just trying to illustrate that being precise in use of words is important.

      I think I generally use “scenery”. (And “these trees are infinitely tall”.)

      • Yep I’d agree with that as in that instance the language used has served to confuse the message conveyed. As I said if a language has a specific word for a given purpose we should use it. In you case we clearly have defined language to describe the various components of a computer, if somebody doesn’t understand what those words mean I’d say in the case it would be the job of the sales rep to explain that too them, not for some head office wonk to decide to change 30+ years of language development!!! God I hate marketing speak.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        I’ve come across the same problem myself, Fiend. I think that the salesmen use this sort of thing intentionally as it blurs the edges and allows them to quote bigger numbers at the uninitiated (and bigger, of course, is always better). I don’t know enormous amounts about computers (I just use them), but have often found that I seem to know a sight more than the salesman who is trying to sell me some expensive tat. Thinking about it, if I know I’m not an expert in a subject, then I take great comfort in buying things from someone who is, and correspondingly often will walk away from a purchase if I feel the salesman is as ill-informed as me.

  4. Quirkworthy says:

    Another possible distinction occurs to me on reading this: perhaps we could have scenery as decorative, and terrain as functional. No precedent for that I can think of, but while we’re making stuff up…


  5. Elromanozo says:

    Nice post !

    I believe you’re on the right track, and there is a very clear distinction between function (terrain, the stuff you walk upon) and form (scenery, the stuff you look at)… I always thought of scenery as in “what a pretty scenery”, as in “scenic”, as some sort of a backdrop or a sight to see..; a decor, so to speak. Of course, I never thought of those words in terms of wargaming, but I always assume there was only ONE terrain, the terrain your armies are on, and perhaps “pieces of terrain” when talking about modular hills and the like… That may be scenery as well, mind you.
    However, how can one talk about “terrain” when you’re thinking about a tower or other man-made structure with floors, or structures that haven’t been designed as obstacle ? After all, a house on a plain isn’t “rough terrain”, it’s just a house. Or it’s scenery, if you look at it from afar. if you get closer and enter it, and, for want of a better term, “use” the house as it should be as opposed to walking on it, well… It’s not scenery, it’s a building !
    Then, what words should we use ? I guess we should stick to what works : Terrain and pieces of terrain when buying miniature hills and buildings, scenery with the smaller stuff… Evidently, the words mean something different in the context of wargaming.

  6. Quirkworthy says:

    Different in wargaming, art, theatre and so many other fields. That’s both the beauty and confusion of language, and why it would be convenient if there was a lexicon of gaming terms one could look up for a definitive answer. Of course, if there was then we’d only be arguing about whether it was right or not, and whether the first edition was better than the second 😉

    Gamers, eh?

  7. Jed Norton says:

    There is a lot of confusing usage in wargaming, which isnt really a big deal until you come to list items for sale on the internet; at which point listing something sold as “scenery” can result in no sales as other people are searching google for “terrain”. So list it as both i hear you say? Well that actually reduces your search rankings… so there is a definite…. hmmm.. ‘penalty’, let’s say, for retailers having to guess, or fudge, sales descriptions. That does explain why you see so many items listed as “Scenery / Terrain” though. ¬_¬

    “Scenery goes on Terrain” has always been my general rule though.

    • That’s a really interesting point Jed and obviously not something I’d have thought of. Its bizarre though isn’t it, that as a sector / hobby we haven’t yet managed to nail all our terminology down yet.

  8. Quirkworthy says:

    Thanks for chiming in here Jed. I didn’t know about the multiple listing issue, and it does indeed sound rather harsh. I wonder why it’s designed like that. Presumably to stop people just listing thousands of search terms on their site to artificially generate hits. That makes sense, I suppose, but it doesn’t help you.

    Out of interest, from your point of view would it be more helpful for people to only use one term, or to be more specific in what they mean by each? Or some other option?

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