Improvised Mediocrity

datetime September 10, 2017 2:39 PM

This will eventually be a post about some space terrain.

But, quick tangent to talk about how great I am first.

I am, as the title of this blog accurately states, amazing. And the things that I build have a strong tendency to manifest that same property. However, such quality of output does not happen on its own. While my most amazing amazingness appears to be born purely out of brilliant ideas and skilled implementation, there is a crucial step whose importance even I tend to forget: planning.

I am a very good planner (in that I’m good at anticipating most of the elements of a future project that require preconceptualization, and most of the problems that I will need to solve along the way) and a competent enough concept artist, and a lengthy concept stage always dramatically improves the quality of my final products. For a few recent-ish examples…

These projects were all extremely successful in my eyes, and all were immeasurably improved by the work I put into their concepts, whether that work took an hour (for the skeleton elves) or a month (for the blue terrain). Concepting helps me to understand how vague and superficial my mental conception of my projects tends to be, and forces me to commit to decisions about how things will be laid out, posed, and detailed. Additionally, working out concepts in pencil lets me see in advance where the problems lie, and I can frequently start brainstorming solutions while I draw and have the problem solved before I’ve spent a single minute on actual construction. The concepts you see posted here generally aren’t the first draft; they’re the second or fifth or twentieth, with each one attempting to correct problems from the previous passes until I eventually end up with something I like.

However, the amount of effort I can muster for detailed concept and planning work is directly proportional to how excited I am to work on a project. If I’m pumped to start, the concepts flow from my fingers. But if I’m dreading a project, my brain does its best to convince me not to “waste time” with much forethought, and just to dive straight in to working. This is, almost without exception, a pernicious lie from my lazy brain, and there is always collateral damage.

One of my most celebrated works was my “Dynastic Council” Skorne battle engine for Warmahordes, and I won’t deny that the final product is rather impressive. However, when I look at the model now, I have trouble appreciating its positive qualities, and end up focusing on a number of glaring nitpicks that resulted from the incomplete concepts I drew for the project. I knew from the start that I wanted a three-headed miniature with four giant swords, but all of my concepts were limited to the bulk shapes for the model; I didn’t spend much time detailing the multitude of armor panels in advance, which led to some frustrating on-the-fly corrections (re-doing the entire chest piece after the first one turned out to be terrible) and some irretrievably bad final detail (the terrible right leg and the underwhelming shoulder pads being the primary offenders).

The final product isn’t bad by any means– especially after Yaum salvaged it with the most spectacular paintjob that I have ever seen on a model in person– but I will never be able to look at it with complete satisfaction, because the final product contains a number of errors that I could easily have avoided if I had allocated more time to finishing the concepts properly in advance.

And for one last example, let’s take a look at my Gestalt Mammoth. This one demonstrates a different kind of planning failure, because I did produce a good concept drawing, and the main figures were perfectly well represented in the concept. And that part of the mini turned out exactly as I wanted it to.

However, when I was doing the concept, I hadn’t yet fully planned out how this model’s stats would be represented on my sculpture, and it was only during construction that I realized the piece would need a fourth figure. I had the boxing gloves to represent the Mammoth’s fist attacks, and a slingshot to represent its cannon. However, I forgot that the Mammoth also had a tusk attack, and decided to model this by including a small tusked creature on the base.

I decided quickly that it should be a small, fat lizard to fit the Skorne’s desert themes, but I didn’t bother to actually draw it, and instead just started improvising with wire and putty.

The result is… not my best work. In addition to being sloppy technical sculpting, the lizard’s design is incredibly awkward. If I had taken the time to concept it properly, I could have come up with something that was both more natural-looking and better communicated the idea of “CHARGING TUSK LIZARD”. Like, here’s one I just drew in MS Paint in under five minutes:

It has a more consistent transition of silhouette from the narrow back end to the stout front end, and the tusks project forward at a more believable angle. Five minutes in MS Paint would have made the lizard far more successful, but because the lizard was an add-on to my original concept, I wasn’t as excited to do it as I was the titan calves, and rushed through it to just “get something done”. And so the final Mammoth piece, which is still one of my personal favourite sculpts, stops short of being a flawless portfolio piece.

So, why am I going on about all of this? Well, because I’m about to walk you through a massive terrain project I recently completed that suffered immensely from being improvised without any concept drawings. Almost every component features details that visually match nothing else in the set and pieces that measure up awkwardly against other things they’re meant to link up with.The final product is okay-ish, but there were SO MANY things that could have been improved with a bit more planning and forethought.


So, quick recap: two and a half years ago, I ran an Infinity campaign at my store with custom missions and an intricate storyline. As I wrote the campaign, I started running into situations where the story wanted a mission to happen in a particular location, but my store lacked appropriate terrain to accommodate it. This led me to create a few terrain sets in the months leading up to the campaign that have been featured here in the past– the space transport and the 6-hour sewers. However, there was a third terrain set that I built at this time that has never been featured here, largely because:

  1. I never finished it, and
  2. It kind of sucked

This would be my modular space station terrain set, which I built as an interlocking toolset of walls and couplings which could be assembled into different room layouts. I got it up to a barely playable level in 2015, and then promptly shelved it for two years once the campaign was over. However, when it was announced that 2017 Infinity Global Campaign would be focused around space ships and space stations, I decided to pull my unfinished bin of Space Walls off the shelf and finish them up properly.

Whenever I start a terrain set, my first step is to visit Google Image Search and dig around for ideas and inspiration. In this case, I searched for “sci fi space station”, and ended up with a piece of concept art I liked a lot:

The piece is “Orbital Launch” by DeviantArt person Phade01, and depicts a fighter launch system on an orbital space station. The first thing I liked about the image was the unpolished, rather mechanical look of everything; I’m not a fan of overly smooth sci-fi design, preferring designs like this one with clearly visible panels, support trusses, movement rails, and so on.

The second thing I liked was this small detail: a set of high-tech rings that are used to launch the fighters. While my terrain set would be skewed closer to a cargo yard than a fighter bay, I really latched onto the visual of glowing sets of rings moving large masses around with sci-fi rays, and figured I could adapt something similar as a sort of cargo track.

The last major design consideration I wanted to incorporate was an overall round layout for my station, in the vein of Deep Space Nine, or really any of a million pieces of sci-fi concept art:

(pulling another one from the same artist here just as an example)

A curved floorplan creates interesting movement patterns and fire lanes, which would nicely break up the “field of huts” and “cramped corridor” terrain archetypes that typify my existing terrain.

Now, with all of that high-level stuff decided, I SHOULD have immediately done a bunch of concept drawings to decide…

  • How big everything should be
  • How many wall segments will be required
  • An approximate ratio of “solid walls” vs. “door walls”
  • A distinct and consistent visual pattern for the interior and exterior paneling
  • Accessories to add visual flair and make gameplay more interesting
  • How the interior walls, exterior walls, and various accessories link together

Instead, I made only one concept drawing, which was an effort to depict to another person how the wall segments would link up to each other:

Everything else was limited to “head planning”. And as I should have predicted, this made the project into a bit of a mess. :/

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