Using Terrain in Fate

March 19, 2018, 8:10 a.m.

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I've been recently watching a lot of youtube channels about crafting terrain for D&D such as The DM's Craft, Black Magic Craft, Wyloch's Crafting Vids, The DMG Info, and especially Runehammer's Room Design Series. All of which are great channels with tons of ideas for making awesome terrain for very cheap. I've always liked making stuff, and I enjoy the visual representation that terrain provides for RPGs. Up to this point, I haven't done much with terrain in Fate because my first group took things very literally and the Fate Core rule book basically tells you not to. But this post is intended to change that thinking. Terrain is awesome! It looks cool, inspires the imagination, and makes it easier to understand/explain a location, so why not use it with Fate as well?

Terrain as Aspects

My idea is to use terrain as aspects, mainly. You've got some modular terrain, whether it be bought or crafted, and you lay it down to map out the scene. Instead of taking so long to write down each individual aspect the players have available to them, just tell your players that the terrain counts as aspects and let them interact with whatever they want to. Maybe a character climbs a cliff and invokes the high ground when attacking some baddies below. Or a character might take cover behind one of the large boulders or knock down the rows of bookshelves to create a barrier. None of these aspects were explicitly written out ahead of time, but they are assumed to be there because they are on the board. In fact, one great thing about this approach is that they can interact with things that you might not have thought to include as an aspect otherwise.

I see a ton of benefits to this approach. First off, instead of spending time writing out aspects, you are building a visual representation of the scene, essentially combining the two steps that you would normally take to set the scene and write out aspects. This approach also takes some of the creative load off of the GM. Instead of coming up with cool aspects, just drop in some interesting terrain for the players to interact with. It can also aid you in your descriptions of a location quite a bit, and inspire your players to interact with the location in ways they would have a hard time thinking of with theater of the mind.

Best Practices

So I also have some ideas for how to do this to ensure that the terrain is helping the game and not hindering it. Terrain can be a crutch if used incorrectly in RPGs, but these ideas should help avoid that.

  • Terrain is not a perfect representation of the scene. Tell this to your players. The terrain is not meant to be a perfect representation of the scene. Just because there is only one rock in the field does not mean it is the only rock. Even though there is no chandelier hanging from the imaginary roof of the cardboard mansion, I would still let you swing from one. Make sure your players know they can still create aspects not represented by terrain and that the terrain will never be exact.
  • Don't craft every little detail. Echoing the first point, don't try to make terrain a perfect representation of the scene. Fate is built to reward player creativity, so let your players be creative. Terrain should add to the storytelling, not replace it.
  • Use modular terrain. Fate emphasizes player choice, so do yourself a favor and make or buy modular terrain so that you can reuse it for an endless amount of situations. If you make massive set pieces for locations that your players may or may not go to, it will be hard not to subconsciously push them in a certain direction so that you can show off that terrain. Of course, if you know a campaign is headed somewhere for a major encounter, crafting a big set piece is a fun way to make it feel even more epic!
  • Don't feel obligated to use it. Terrain isn't always helpful. If you're in a social interaction and you want to give a sense of atmosphere, an image or even just a description might be all that you need. Terrain is best suited for situations when the players could have fun utilizing and interacting with it. Whether they are dodging lava geysers, climbing ancient staircases, or dropping stalactites on the big bad. I would even suggest not using it unless you are in a physical conflict. I can't really think of any other situations where it would be useful, but if you have ideas, feel free to drop them in the comments below.

Movement and Zones

Of course, there is also the question of how you handle positioning and movement. My recommendation is to avoid trying to find a way to use the grid. Fate doesn't need it, and using it can be a bit clunky. Ignoring it also frees you up to have terrain without crosshatched lines all over it, which saves you a step if you are making the terrain yourself and looks nicer.

So instead of using the grid, you can use zones, as Fate suggests. One way to handle this is by calling each location within the terrain a zone. So if they're in a tavern, behind the bar is one zone, while the main eating area is another, and the balcony is a third. In a cavern, the main room may be one zone, the pool of murky water a second, and the altar to some nefarious creature a third. (By the way, I'm not saying all terrain should be broken up into three zones. I'm just throwing out ideas.)

Another way to handle it is by tiles. My plan is to use something like DM Scotty's Tilescapes, which not only are cheap and quick to make, but they are also generally made up of 6x6 inch tiles. If you are using a method similar to this, just call each tile a zone. Nice and simple. You can also have smaller tiles (3x3 maybe) for use in tight situations where you want moving around to be slower. If you are ever in a situation where you don't want the tiles to be zones, you can always switch to the previous method for a single location at a time.

Terrain Resources

In case you are new to terrain, but think terrain would be a fun addition to your games, here are some resources to get you started.

  • The DM's Craft - The father of tabletop RPG crafting. Crafts are mostly made of cheap and easy to find materials.
  • Black Magic Craft - A crafting youtuber who focuses on crafting with polystyrene insulation foam. His stuff always looks amazing.
  • Wyloch's Crafting Vids - Another crafting youtuber who uses easily found materials to make accurate dungeon tiles and wargaming terrain/minis.
  • The DMG Info - A crafting youtuber who focuses on crafting for cheap.
  • Runehammer - The creator of Index Card RPG and a youtuber with tons of videos on designing rooms as puzzle encounters and crafting raw looking terrain.
  • Dwarven Forge - Basically the Cadillac of pre-built terrain available for purchase (pictured in the banner image).
  • Open Forge - A huge library of open source 3D printable terrain.
  • Fat Dragon Games - A collection of papercraft and 3d printable terrain for purchase.
  • Printable Heroes - An awesome resource for printable paper miniatures.

Those are my ideas for using terrain with Fate. I haven't actually had a chance to try it out yet, so this is more of a theoretical blog post, but I plan to try it out soon. I'll make sure to report back with how it goes, and if there's enough interest, I may even write about the terrain I am crafting for it.

What do you think? Is Fate well-suited for terrain? How would you use it in your games?


Unless stated otherwise, the text of the above blog post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

Banner image is by Dwarven Forge and used without permission. Dwarven Forge is a great resource for pre-built terrain.


Tags: fate core terrain tips ttrpg

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