Wednesday 20 May 2020

Miniature Diversions

The last few months have been pretty intense for RPG stuff. I wanted to give Electric Bastionland a lot of love to help with its birth into the physical world, so I've created:

Why am I listing out all these things? 

Is it to help alleviate my guilt for the distraction that's currently tugging at my brain?

Yes. One small downside of the otherwise fantastic experience of working full-time on RPG content is that I sometimes feel bad for thinking about things other than RPGs. It's like a weird reversal of every other career I've had. 

For the past few days I haven't been thinking much about running games, describing locations, or... I'm so distracted I can't even think of a third RPG-thing.

Well now I'm facing up to the diversion. I'm confessing, but I'm also not going to let myself suffer. This is me channelling that distraction into something useful. Maybe not useful, but I need to release the stream of consciousness. 

It all goes back to where I started in the hobby, and how it fits with the way my brain works. 

Almost exactly 25 years ago. I was 10 years old, and during a show-and-tell at school one of the boys in the year above had brought in a bunch of what looked like toy soldiers. One squad were desert-themed troopers with guns. Their enemies were weird reptilian-insect aliens. They were tiny, full of detail, and something about them was just innately compelling.

There were magazines too, showing more of these little models in increasingly complex dioramas. I could stare at these things for hours, imagining the situations, the characters, learning about the weird fantasy world. At the risk of stating the obvious, this was pre-internet. The closest thing I'd seen to this sort of thing before was literally toy knights and soldiers, but this was clearly different. The magazine even showed a bunch of scruffy-looking grown-ups playing the game! These weren't kids' toys. 

The next day I bought a copy of White Dwarf from the newsagent on my way home from school. I was in.

The game itself was almost secondary. I certainly don't think I would have given it a second look if the physical artifacts weren't so compelling. I needed to get some of these. But they aren't cheap. The decision of what to buy weighed heavy. 

I suspect my logic was that swords are cooler than guns, so I committed to fantasy. In hindsight I wish I'd gone for the much more interesting 40k.

But which army? When it comes to this sort of decision I'm usually a contrarian. I like to pick the underdog, the least popular option, something that will surprise people when I tell them.

So I picked Skaven. I knew about orcs and elves and dwarves but I'd never heard this word before. Weird little rat guys with some ninja elements, a weaponised hamster-wheel, and a giant rat demon that could lead them into battle. Sold!

At this point the idea of going to an actual Games Workshop might as well have been migrating to another country. Luckily, we'd visit my Grandma every Saturday and there was a shop nearby that sold model railway stuff, airfix models, so maybe they would have some.

Success. For the bargain price of £5 I was able to get ten plastic Skaven Clanrats. I also grabbed a starter paint set and was ready to go!

Those same plastic clanrats that I painted twenty-five years ago are now glued to my desk lamp after they were liberated from my parents' cellar. Their static poses and blotchy paintjob taunt me as I write this post.

I had fun painting them but was a little disheartened. This was more difficult than I expected. Now, 1990s Skaven Aficionados will notice that three of those miniatures are actually metal Stormvermin. Not just metal, but full-on lead! These were the spoils from my first pilgrimage to a genuine Games Workshop, about three months later. To the distant land of Dudley, West Midlands, to the incredibly exciting Merry Hill Shopping Centre. 

I've since revisited Merry Hill, and comparing it to my childhood experience was a stark experience in rose-lens-shattering.

But at the time the excitement was intense. I remember scouring my issues of White Dwarf in bed the night before, struggling to get to sleep. I'll admit I even remember having a stressful dream about getting to the Games Workshop and it being closed down.

My brain sometimes acts in ways I don't understand, and I still find it difficult to explain why I get excited about such trivial things. Other people seem much more focused on living in the moment, spreading their attention between hobbies, friends, and work commitments in an even way. Mine tends to latch onto something and gnaw away to the detriment of everything else. Even in my mid-thirties my mind seems to revert to this childhood anticipation when I'm looking forward to something, and emulate an adolescent sulk if those plans fall through or get changed. I still feel a sort of excited anxiety when I know I have something due to arrive in the post. Looking back at that childhood mind I wonder how many other people feel like on some level they've hardly changed at all.

We arrived at the shopping centre, which in my memory is colossal in scale, but the twist is that we weren't just there to go to Games Workshop. We were Christmas Shopping. I always enjoyed Christmas Shopping with my family. It was a day out, we got to look around big shops, and on at least one occasion we got to have KFC afterwards. However, this year I couldn't focus on the usual seasonal joys. I just wanted to get to the Games Workshop. I'm sure I was unbearable to my parents, hurrying them through each shop we visited, peering around each new corner of the shopping centre until we were there.

It lived up to my expectations. I hadn't realised there would be display cabinets filled with expertly painted and converted armies! I knew you could try out a demo game, and intended to, but today all the tables were pushed together into a giant battlefield. An eager red-shirt could see I was ripe for indoctrination and took me to the table, my dad shadowing me with infinite tolerance.

"We're doing one huge battle today, so you'll just have a small part of the army. When we get to your turn I'll tell you what you can do and you decide"

Great. I have some Dark Elves, the hot new army of the moment. I have somebody riding a Dragon and a unit of crossbowmen. The enemy are just a bunch of humans, we've got this. Aah! It's my turn!

"Okay so this guy is riding a Dragon, so he can probably fly far enough to reach most of these enemy regiments! Or if you want you can fly over and attack these cannons at the back of the army"

I'm ten years old. I'm a tactical genius. Of course I attack the weak, unprotected cannons.

"So you can either charge the crew and attack with your claws or land in front of them and breathe fire all over them"

Again. I'm ten years old. Of course I choose to breathe fire.

"Okay roll these dice, and these, now they roll. Okay, you burned two of the three crew to ashes!"

I'm great at this!

"Now its the Empire turn. The last crew member turns their Hellblaster Volleygun towards the dragon and fires all nine barrels! That's... fifty hits. The dragon is blown to pieces."

At least my demo game was short, so I got more time to look around the shop before my mum and sister returned. Armed with weeks of saved-up pocket money I got the Stormvermin pictured earlier, on the recommendation of the redshirt, and a copy of Warhammer Armies: Skaven, my bible for the next few months.

With the limited income I had, I couldn't dream of getting my hands on the Warhammer Fantasy Battles box until Christmas, but I bought every copy of White Dwarf, before then. I was never very good at reading novels, but I could re-read Battle Reports over and over. Once Christmas rolled around I had a giant box of plastic and rules, and happily spent Boxing Day snapping sprues and wedging goblins into bases with blu-tack.

Then to the game itself. I'd either play with my dad or my best friend. Goblins (with the few Skaven allies I had) vs High Elves (with some allied Dwarves that I'd gotten a small regiment pack of). It was fun, but it never quite lived up to the promises of White Dwarf battle reports. It didn't feel quite as alive.

My terrain was an old brown bedsheet thrown over some books to make hills. I had a few trees from an old model railway set and the essential toilet-roll-tower. Worse than that, my armies were a field of naked grey plastic. I worked away at painting them but I was slow, my attention would drift, and I never liked the results. I wanted to have painted models but I didn't want to paint 60 goblins and 40 elves.

But I almost forgot the Doomwheel! The weaponised hamster-wheel that drew me towards the Skaven in the first place. It was all lead, and I've always been clumsy with my hands, so putting it together was an ordeal. It would fall apart on the battlefield and I even had to resort to using putty to hold the rider in place. Later on I bought a Screaming Bell and I don't think I was ever able to get it to feel stable. Maybe we just had crap superglue in the house, but I was working with what we had.

The game itself was easy enough to learn, but it took a long time to play a battle. Maybe we were slow with checking rules, but it felt like we'd spend a lot of the game slogging over the battlefield, then have a grinding clash before one side fled the field. It was fun, but it wasn't generating war stories like I'd hoped.

This isn't a review of Warhammer Fantasy Battles 4th Edition. I'm sure it ran more smoothly for other people, but this whole post is about how miniature game have made me feel over the years, not so much the nitty-gritty of rules systems.

But forget painting, what about converting? That's where the really exciting stuff would come from. You'd see conversions in White Dwarf that looked unlike anything you could get off the shelf, and you could try whatever weird combination of miniature parts you wanted.

Rat-centaurs with skaven-bodies? Goblins with bat wings? I had lots of ideas, but soon those ideas hit a wall of lead. If I couldn't even assemble a miniature properly out of the box how was I going to create a conversion? The flimsy Stanley-knife pilfered from my dad's toolbox didn't stand a chance of chopping through thick lead. And where do people get the money to buy a whole regiment of models just to use their heads for some other unit? My plastic clanrats came in three pieces. Rat, shield, base. With so few spare-parts going spare my bits box was barren, so I soon gave up on the idea.

I carried on with the hobby but never felt like it ever lived up to my initial excitement. I stopped collecting around my mid-teens, but there were fond highlights before then:

  • Getting Warhammer Quest and playing day after day one summer holiday, using whatever miniatures we could find to represent the array of enemies you could encounter, and embracing the randomness of the between-dungeon event tables.
  • Playing Necromunda on the amazing 3D terrain that came in the starter box, including our attempt to recreate the Purge scenario from White Dwarf, where multiple gangs face off against a menagerie of underhive monstrosities. 
  • Finally getting to play Blood Bowl after only knowing it as an out-of-print game I'd see in old Citadel Catalogues. My Dark Elf team were the closest I've come to having a full painted squad of miniatures that I'm really proud of. 
Noticing the pattern there? 

I always felt like if you weren't playing full-scale battles you were somehow getting a lesser version of the Warhammer experience, but I had so much more fun with those "lesser" games. I could spend a little time painting a handful of miniatures to a decent standard and then I was halfway to a Necromunda Gang or Blood Bowl team. Terrain was often included in the game, like the fantastic tiles and doorways of Warhammer Quest, the pitch and dugouts of Blood Bowl, and the aforementioned towering Necromunda cityscape. My lack of craft capability wasn't holding me back here. My tabletop didn't look like the pages of White Dwarf, but it wasn't bedsheets and bog-roll either. 

This drift away from huge craft projects and long games towards tighter, more personal experiences is probably the seed of what led me to RPGs.  

Twenty years later. I've just turned 35 and I'm facing the next few months mostly confined to my house.

I've occasionally looked at what's happening in the miniature gaming scene, stared in awe at a particularly beautiful diorama, and lamented how bittersweet my experience with the hobby had been. But now we've all got extra time for indoor activities. I've got a birthday amazon voucher burning a hole in my pocket. Maybe I'll buy a squad of minis and some paints and relive my youth.

I go down the online rabbit hole. INQ 28. Narrative wargaming. New Necromunda. Kitbashing. Blanchitsu.

Everything is plastic now, and I have a proper craft knife.

My box of ten Clanrats had 30 pieces including the bases, but these new squads have over 100 pieces. There's no shortage of spare-parts.

Some of the factions that were previously just weird bits of lore now have full ranges of minis.

There are places you can just order individual components for your conversions? I can just buy a Plaguebearer head or a set of wings or a pick-and-mix of weapons?

You can get entire boxes of Necromunda-style modular cardboard terrain?

People are giving away stripped-down one-page versions of all the GW games?

YouTube and Twitch are full of painting tutorials and modelling guides.

All the people I like on Twitter and Discord are sharing their projects and supporting each other.

Okay, I'll get two squads and kitbash them together.

And some paints obviously.

And maybe some spare bits for a few weird conversions.

I don't really need that cardboard terrain. I do like it though. Oops, I bought it.

This all arrived last week, and since then I've been tinkering with an ultra-lite warband-level ruleset, because of course I'm writing my own, and creating an increasingly heretical band of misfit miniatures.

Tech-Apostate Argastes, his Cyber-Familiar, and the rest of the Rusted Order

Rat-headed Maniacs. 

Unnamed Augmented Gladiator and Hanz Skorpion

Flavia Helstrom, Bounty Hunter

This week I'm priming them, hopefully painting at the weekend. I've told myself I won't playtest my ruleset (codename GRIMLITE) until I've got them painted.

Expect normal RPG service to continue, but I wanted to be open about this diversion. Like I've previously stated, my mind sometimes struggles to let things go. During the writing of this post I snuck downstairs to stick a few extra bits to one of my minis. I have twenty (mostly) unique little guys to clash on my cardboard shanty town, and I feel like I did when I was ten years old looking through White Dwarf issue 187. This blog was born out of my passion for games, and it's something I'm often not very good at putting into words. This resurgence of an old passion inside me felt like something I should share.

Next time, what exactly do I want out of a miniatures game, and can GRIMLITE do that?


  1. Welcome to the rabbithole that is warband 28mm. 😁 And OPR has become my go-to for games in the Grim Darkness. Looking forward to what GRIMLITE becomes!

  2. Don't wait too long with that next time :-) . The Warhammers (and associated) could certainly do with an Into the Odd-style reworking.

  3. Love it man. This sounds great!!

  4. Have you read 28-mag? If not, you simply must. It's a fanzine devoted to creative kitbashing.