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Terrain Sculpting

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"Voila! Himalayas! Good, eh?"

This is a trope where the topology of an area of ground is altered by the conscious effort of some person or group.

This can happen on almost any scale, depending on the way it's made. A molehill isn't very impressive, though making one at the snap of a finger is pretty cool. As cities grow, the ground on which they're built is altered greatly, but because of all the buildings on top we are seldom really aware of how great the change is. Meanwhile, causing a mountain (explicitly volcanic or not) to rear out of a plain is just awesome, no matter how difficult or time-consuming it is.

The uses are manifold. First and foremost is tactics. Controlling passages, obstacles, and high ground for allies and enemies alike yields a key advantage in battle. It can also be helpful to prevent natural disasters, improve land arability, or facilitate transportation (by extending a river, say). It can be done to separate peoples or forces that shouldn't be so close together, or simply as a sign of one's power, to lord it over, literally, those who are less mighty.

The power to do this may be specific to a person, because of some elemental power over earth. But on the larger scales they're more likely to be a Physical God. Alternately, this will be done with the aid of some kind of Applied Phlebotinum, in which case anyone with access to the technology can do it.

But it can also be done in a more mundane way, with dynamite, earthmovers, trucks and patience. This method is less evocative, but the end results are just as impressive. When thinking about an earthworks project (canals, dams, field-tilling, etc) for this trope, consider the magnificence of the creation or the end result.

For alteration of a whole planet's ecology, see Terraforming. For the manipulation of terrain for human settlements, see Terra Deforming. For defacement of monuments, see Rushmore Refacement. For defacement of the moon, see Deface of the Moon. A common small-scale form of this in real-life is an Artificial Riverbank. Can overlap with Regional Redecoration.


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     Anime and Manga  

  • Because Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann centers around drills, this naturally crops up. Mostly toward the end of the first arc, where Team Gurren, for example, traps the enemy battleship Dai-Gunzen in a huge pit. The resulting battle causes the nearby volcanos to (predictably) explode.
  • In Cowboy Bebop, the MPU, a spy satellite gone sentient, uses Kill Sats to re-carve the Nazca lines into the face of the now ruined earth. And, at Ed's suggestion, a giant smiley face.
  • By eating the Stone-Stone Fruit, Pica in One Piece receives this power, referring to himself as a "Stone Assimilation Man." Any mineral surface he comes in contact with can be reshaped to whatever he desires (though he cannot change its composition, nor can he change any part of his body). While he begins fighting by attempting to ambush is foes by shooting spikes out of floors, walls, and ceilings, he then demonstrates what he's truly capable of by embedding himself in a thousand-foot statue of himself and controlling it to fight in his stead as he literally rearranges the landscape of the country of Dressrosa. Less impressively, but just as practical, Pica creates walls, beds of spikes, and hills to separate his adversaries so they cannot team up for coordinated attacks.
    • Shiki from Strong World ate the Float fruit, which allows him to levitate and move any object he touches any way he wants. He uses this for devastating attacks where he reshapes the terrain into giant lion heads, if he's not just crushing victims in columns of Earth.


  • Dark City: The strangers do this all the time, using their "tuning" powers to reshape the labyrinthine architecture of the city to conduct their experiments on the human inhabitants. After their defeat at the end, Murdoch uses his own tuning powers to create an ocean at the edges of the city.


  • As it is a creation myth, this is seen in The Silmarillion. In the beginning of the world, the Valar tried to shape it according to divine plan, while Melkor came along and undid their work. It wasn't even that he wanted the world to be something else in particular, he just didn't want the Valar to create what they wanted. The end result was that the world was very gradually formed.
  • Similarly in The Lord of the Rings, the Ents divert a river in order to flood Orthanc. Once this is done, they put it back again.
  • Happens in the backstory of The Belgariad and is expounded upon in Belgarath The Sorcerer. The evil god Torak, after stealing the all-powerful Orb of Aldur, is faced with a war against all the other gods and their followers. To protect himself and his people, he uses the Orb to crack the entire continent in two, turning a pangaea into two distinct landmasses and causing lots of geological fallout and mayhem. The price of this action is that the Orb turns on him, burning away his hand and eye.
  • Similarly, in The Tamuli in order to curtail a Troll invasion, the Bhelliom decides to curb bloodshed by creating a humongous escarpment to separate them. The trolls quickly find ways around this.
  • Also in the backstory of The Wheel of Time. During the Breaking of the World, all male Aes Sedai went mad and caused total upheaval, creating mountain ranges, dredging seas and creating new ones on top of existing countries. It's suggested that the shape of all the world's landmasses has been radically changed.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy features the Magratheans, a race of planet builders whose jobs naturally include this. Slartibartfast, for instance, once won an award for his work on the fjords in Norway.
  • Iron Druid Chronicles: Druids get their power from the earth, so in the first book the Big Bad lured Atticus to a battlefield where he drained the earth of so much power that nothing would grow back for miles if left alone. Atticus, as the last Druid, took upon the responsibility to nurse that dead space of earth back to health.
    • In the fourth book Tricked, Coyote asks him to magically create a gold vein under some land so Coyote could build a mine. It wouldn't have been impossible for Atticus, but the geological impossibility would attract unwanted attention.
  • In The Stars Are Cold Toys, the Geometers were named so by the main characters because the first thing they saw when they looked at their homeworld was that their continents looked like basic geometric shapes. One of the characters can't shut up about how pointless and wasteful this task is. It's later revealed that the coastlines are largely maintained by what amounts to convicts in labor camps (although the Geometers don't call them that way) using little more than shovels and pickaxes, although it's implied that the original reshaping used some pretty heavy and sophisticated machinery.

     Live-action TV  

  • Caprica: Virtual Zoe and Virtual Tamara use their godlike powers in V-world to turn New Cap City into a mountain kingdom.
  • In the new Doctor Who, Rose and the Ninth Doctor travel to the year Five Billion to see the Earth be engulfed by the sun. When Rose questions why Earth's continents haven't shifted, the Doctor explains that the continents did shift, but were simply moved back to maintain "classic" Earth.
  • Kamen Rider Geats: The Powered Builder Raise Buckle grants whoever wears it the ability to construct and manipulate urban terrain as they please. The primary user, movie villain Kamen Rider Seeker, uses it for tactics like constructing walls between himself and his enemies, building hatches in the walls so he can shoot them with his BFG, then closing the hatches before they can retaliate.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: Some many centuries ago, either the Orcs or the ancestors of the Southlanders build a huge dam in the mountains at Morgoth's orders which created a huge reservoir. Episode 6 reveals that the whole dam is one giant mechanism that can be activated to allow all the water from the reservoir to flow downstream to the magma chambers under Orodruin and trigger its eruption.


  • This is common in creation myths and attributed to a creator god or, often a group working in tandem. The typical ways of creating the earth involve piling up dirt until it lies above the ocean (which is presumed to have always existed), and sculpting it out of primordial matter.
  • According to an American Tall Tale, Paul Bunyan dug the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe behind him, created Mount Hood by piling rocks on top of his campfire to put it out and formed the Great Lakes so his companion Babe the Blue Ox could have a watering hole.
  • In Norse Mythology, Thor accidentally created three square valleys with his hammer Mjolnir. In another myth, the goddess Gefjon separated the island of Zealand (where Copenhagen is now) from the mainland with a team of oxen and a plow.

     Tabletop Games 

  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • Supplement Deities and Demigods Cyclopedia. The Celtic pantheon section mentioned a deity named Dunatis who could instantaneously raise a mountain peak from a flat plain or flatten a giant mountain into a prairie.
    • Supplement Netheril, Empire of Magic. Spells available to Netherese spellcasters included Mavin's Create Volcano and Proctiv's Move Mountain.
    • Adventure OA6 Ronin Challenge. A story tells of the creation of the world by the Celestial Emperor, during which he raised mountains, bored holes that would become lakes, flattened the earth into plains and dug out the path of mighty rivers. His subordinate deities the Nine Immortals were each assigned to carve out a valley.
    • The Move Earth spell does exactly that, reconfiguring up to 13 acres of terrain over minutes or hours.
  • Warhammer Fantasy: Lord Mazdamundi of the Lizardmen is known for his use of this in the fluff, having once erected a mountain in front of advancing Dark Elf army.

     Video Games  

  • Age of Wonders has Level Terrain and Raise Terrain spells in the Earth school.
  • Agent Intercept has a pair as the book-ends of Eris' Evil Plan; her Cataclysm Engine, which the Agency was formed in response to, and Harmony, a much more extensive project that implants the Sceptre's transformation technology into the tectonic plates to shift the entire world. As the first of her special data cards says:
    EMP-001 - Project Cataclysm: I was drilling deep, shifting swaths of the Earth, remaking pieces, when the Earth is a system. It must be treated as a whole. Re-arranged as a whole. Controlled as a whole. Alas, I hadn't the means. Until now.
  • de Blob: As part of a World-Healing Wave, the most powerful Transformation Engines can severely alter the nearby terrain to get Blob to the next area or just celebrate the completion of the level.
  • Fracture: The player uses weapons that can either raise or lower the ground. Enabling him to access areas that are hidden or seemingly unreachable and to create and destroy cover depending on the current tactical situation.
  • Earth 2150: The ED and UCS construction units can deform the terrain to dig trenches which block the movement of ground units.
  • From Dust: The player carries around large amounts of dirt, lava or water in order to gradually create bridges or barriers against environmental hazards.
  • Last Legacy: A major gameplay mechanic is the protagonist's ability to create and remove ground.
  • Minecraft: Every feature in the game is composed of discrete blocks that can be destroyed, picked up, moved around and placed at will. As such, terrain sculpting is a major part of the game, ranging from flattening out stretches of land for building other structures on to sculpting, leveling and building mountains to restructuring entire landscapes, depending on the player's whim and time. Mods such as WorldEdit, VoxelSniper, and the external tool World Painter take this a step further. Rather than altering the terrain one block at a time, you can edit hundreds or thousands of blocks at once, making Terrain Sculpting even easier.
  • Populous: This was one of Peter Molyneux's favorite aspects of the game that would become Populous, and as such is an important part of all the games. In Populous: The Beginning, there are no less than four spells based around the manipulation of terrain.
    • And he's at it again with Godus. This time however the world is built in layers so you're basically making steps or Plateaus.
  • Master of Magic has Change Terrain spell (different terrain has different bonuses and allow different special objects) and Create Volcano.
  • Pilot Wings 64 featured the Little States map, which had the famous "Mount Mario-More" landmark. It had an easter egg feature: while flying the gyro plane, you could fire a rocket at Mario's face and a direct hit would change it from Mario to his evil twin, Wario.
  • Perimeter has this as a main game mechanic. Buildings can only be built on level ground which must be set up by terraforming with Brigadier units. Energy Cores can also only generate energy from level ground in their range. Some weapons work by deforming the terrain, causing buildings to take damage until the terrain is re-terraformed.
  • In Planet Explorers, the player can freely reshape the landscape around them. There is also a fairly sophisticated world editor available.
  • Also a key game mechanic of Reus, as you command four elemental giants to alter the face of the planet according to your whims.
  • The SimCity games allow the player to modify the terrain as befits the needs of a growing city. However, doing so as a mayor is expensive (unless you cheat). Fortunately, each game since 2000 has had a mode wherein a player could sculpt the terrain for free before founding a city there. The controls have become increasingly precise and lifelike, and support for terrain imports became available, so as to recreate real-world locations. In 4, you can also make craters before or during city play by dropping meteors or summoning volcanos.
  • In Spore's space stage, there are numerous tools to modify the shape of any planet you care to visit. However, these are entirely cosmetic and have no tactical or political effects. Also, colonies automatically flatten an area around them when placed.
  • Terraria, in addition to allowing free modification of terrain, lets you dig up entire biomes and place them somewhere else for easier farming of crafting materials.
  • Transport Tycoon and RollerCoaster Tycoon allow players to reshape the land to suit their needs. The cost is usually high enough that the player will only make small changes.
  • In Warcraft's backstory, the Black Dragonflight was charged with shaping Azeroth's terrain, creating valleys and mountains for mortals' benefit (explaining the world's Patchwork Map). Unfortunately their leader Neltharion the Earthwarder was corrupted and went insane, becoming Deathwing the Destroyer, who shaped the world in a very different way for the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion.
  • Wetrix (a Nintendo 64 puzzle game) has the premise of you creating hills and valleys from an initially flat piece of land in order to create ponds and lakes.
  • In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, once you attend the first K.K. Slider concert, Tom Nook gives you the ability to build/destroy cliffs and reroute rivers on your island.
  • In Cities: Skylines, this was initially impossible in the un-modded game until landscaping tools were added in a patch update. Players are now able to flatten rugged ground and/or build canals, hills, artificial islands, Dutch-style polders, etc. The catch is that these projects can get quite expensive, and you have a finite amount of soil to work with; digging/flattening adds to your soil reserves while building up depletes it.
  • In Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Former units are able to raise and lower terrain. Sea Formers can even raise land from beneath the ocean. Some WMDs affect the landscape as well. Planet busters are basically very powerful nukes that leave large craters behind. If the crater connects to water, it floods. Tectonic missiles basically do the opposite by creating mountains where they detonate.

    Web Original 
  • In Orion's Arm there is Von Neumann sculpting: the use of self-replicating machines to reshape the landscape of a planet. This can be as simple as laying down trails or as complex as sculpting entire mountain ranges into portraits.

     Western Animation  

  • An episode of The Magic School Bus had Ms. Frizzle and the class attempt to carve a statue of their town's founder out of stone without using their bare hands. When the statue breaks away from its place, they make a mad chase after it down the mountain. Since the episode focused mainly on erosion, it turned out that they already made a statue of their founder out of stone while chasing after the statue they had been making, by shifting the water flow through different directions of the mountain that formed the face of their founder.
  • The Gems in Steven Universe colonized planets by having hydrokinetic Lapis Lazuli terraform by leveling landmasses with slicing columns of water. Then they'd use devices resembling bacteriophages called injectors, which inject a substance into the ground that'll gestate a gem, at the expense of seemingly permanently draining all capacity for that spot to sustain life.

     Real Life  

  • Land reclamation has been used to create or extend landmasses into water for various reasons (usually to alleviate overpopulation). A famous example is the Zuiderzee Works in the Netherlands, undertaken to fight the continuous sinking of that country. The resulting island is now, by a certain metric, the largest manmade thing in the world.
    • Other major terrain shaping feats include the creation of the Palm Islands and World Islands off the coast of Dubai.
    • There is also the Hong Kong International Airport, which was a tiny island expanded until it was big enough to support the airport it was built for.
    • That Other Wiki has a list of artificial islands here.
    • A number of organizations and companies are now seriously looking into the feasibility of building an actual 2000 meter high mountain in the Netherlands.
  • The Panama and Suez canals. At 77 and 164 kilometers long, respectively, each has effectively made a continent disappear as far as ships are concerned, making worldwide shipping considerably faster.
  • Following the latest Tsunami that rocked Japan and much of the Pacific rim, the Japanese Government is planning to build massive, artificial hills some 20+ meters high just off the beach to stand as wave-breaks.
  • The U.S.A. used a mountain — Mount Rushmore — as a monument, further changes of which made a separate trope.
  • As a somewhat less benign example, several historical conquerors have been known to deal with their enemies — mostly besieged cities — by diverting the flow of rivers, and the like. Alexander the Great, in particular, conquered the island-city of Tyre by turning it into a peninsula-city. It's a peninsula to this day.
  • Mountaintop removal mining, a mining practice used in the Appalachian Mountains, involves using explosives to remove the tops of mountains to mine the coal underneath, with the removed rock and soil used to fill in nearby valleys.