Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pewter, and Plastic, and Lead - Oh My!

I've suffered most of my life from OCD - obsessive collecting disorder.  When I was a kid I collected just about everything: rocks, stamps, coins, trading cards, you name it.  Most of those minor dalliances fell by the wayside at the age of fourteen when I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and found a new focus for my compulsion: those fascinating little metal miniatures.

I still remember my very first miniatures: a package of large-nosed floppy-eared goblins with spears guarding a naked woman in shackles.  I can't, for the life of me, remember the company that made them, but I do remember taking the bus downtown early Saturday morning to buy miniatures for my very first D&D game; I was running my friends through Keep on the Borderlands later that afternoon and needed some goblins for the Caves of Chaos.  The naked chick was an added bonus.  I rushed home and quickly painted my new miniatures with a thick coat of glossy Testors enamel paint and a new obsession was born.

From that day on, whenever I manage to scrape up a couple of dollars, a new Ral Partha would be added to my ever-growing collection, and by the time I graduated from high school I had a fairly impressive selection of the miniatures of the early '80's.  Sadly, few of them survived my mother's rather ruthless purge of my childhood treasures after I left home, but I do still have some of those early miniatures to look back on - usually in horror, given the awful paint-jobs.

My miniature collecting was curtailed sharply during my 'living-out-of-a-dufflebag' years while I was in the navy, followed by my 'scrambling-to-find-money-for-food-and-rent' years while I was in university, but middle age and disposable income has allowed me to grow my miniature collections to heretofore unseen numbers.  I've finally been able to indulge in Warhammer - something I've been longing to do ever since the game was first released, and I've recently added War of the Ring and Warhammer 40K to my repertoire of miniatures games.

One of Britain's earliest palaeontologists, a physician named Gideon Mantell, who found the first Iguanodon fossils, had such a mania for fossil collecting that, according to legend, he moved his family to a hotel to make more room in the house for his growing collection.  My wife, perhaps fearing a similar fate, has often asked "don't you have enough miniatures?"  My usual response is to stare at her as though she had just grown a second head.  She recently asked me what was to be done with them all when I die.  I hope she wasn't posing that as an immediately relevant question.

I must admit that storage is becoming a bit of an issue.  I have shelves laden with miniatures and several Chessex boxes filled to capacity, not to mention several boxes of miniatures that I still haven't unpacked from my last move (seven years ago).  This makes things difficult at the game table, since I often have to pause after describing a scene to run around the house trying to remember where each of the miniatures I need is.  What I really want is a bank of custom storage drawers lined with foam tray inserts near the game table, where my entire collection can be stored and labeled for quick access.  I have a set of  2" deep drawers of exactly this type at my painting workstation:

Given my thirty-year long love affair with miniatures, discovering, via internet forums and blogs, that many old-school gamers don't use miniatures in their games hit me like a Power Word, Stun spell.  Indeed, some people consider miniatures to be antithetical to old-school play.  Now this is an extreme position that I consider to be overweening backlash against 4E' requirement to use miniatures, probably designed to create a market for WotC's line of ugly, cheap plastic D&D miniatures.  The most common objection to the use of miniatures is that they impair the player's ability to visualize the scene in their mind's eye.  This is an objection that I can certainly sympathize with; I feel much the same way about Hollywood adaptations of books that I love.

Using miniatures in the game also tends to force players into a more tactical, gamist, mode of play, rather than a fast-paced, seat-of-the-pants, free form play style.  This, however, is more a function of the game rules in use rather than miniatures themselves.  Counting squares of movement, and worrying about the exact placement of the miniature is important for a miniature wargame, but does tend to detract from a role playing encounter.  Thus, I'm coming to realize that AD&D's one-minute combat round is ideal for eliminating such hindrances.  When your character is able to move 120' in a round, you really don't need to fuss with counting squares in the 30' x 40' room you're fighting in - you just move your miniature wherever you want it.  That's how we played back in high school and I'm coming to realize that its a much more elegant and simple way of playing than systems that break combat down into shorter rounds and require you to move your figures like chess pieces.  Its funny how I've been increasingly introducing house-rules to my C&C game to bring it more in line with AD&D as I come to really appreciate how that system worked.

With respect to miniatures impeding the mind's-eye visualization of the encounter, I believe that this is true.  But my experience playing without miniatures during my impoverished university years taught me that what one player visualizes in his mind's eye is seldom the same as what the other player's are visualizing, and that none of them are visualizing quite what the GM is describing.  This inevitably leads to confusion and bogging down play as everyone is arguing about what is really going on, and in some cases even leads to character death due to misunderstanding.  In my experience, using miniatures sets the scene unambiguously, allowing everyone to understand at a glance what the situation is.

Over and above their use in the game though, to me, collecting and painting miniatures is the hobby within the hobby.  Even if I were forced to give up gaming tomorrow I would continue to collect and paint and probably will the rest of my life.  As for what is going to become of my collection when I die, my hope is that my daughter, Elena, will take them.  Although she is only four-years-old, she loves to sit and watch me paint and has already told me many times that when she is older she wants to have her own paints and brushes so she can paint monsters just like me.  Hopefully I have a future game-geek in the making.


cyclopeatron said...

A lot of old school gamers use minis, and always have used minis. Anti-mini gamers are a vocal minority in my opinion. My groups mostly use minis to keep track of who is next to who, and we rarely end up counting grid spaces or getting really tactical. My players call for minis and the hirst arts/dwarven forge setups - so why not? There are still plenty of roleplaying interludes that don't utilize the physical models.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I'm not sure what will happen to my collections either, perhaps I need to start "bequeathing" some if them now, if only to create some sort of attachment to them.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I don't think there is a significant anti-mini's sentiment amongst old-schoolers. Most of the old-schoolers I know love minis.

Just because they say that they never used minis in the day, and don't believe that they are required to play the game, it doesn't mean they are anti-minis.

It simply means they disagree that minis are required to play the game.

Sean Robson said...

I kind of figured that there were lots of old school gamers who used minis. Somebody was keeping Ral Partha and Grenadier in business back in the '80's, so I know I wasn't the only one buying them. It just seemed odd that in most of the forum discussions I've seen there has been little support for the use of miniatures but lots of, usually justifiable, criticism so I thought I'd put my two cents in.

@Paladin: I think you're probably right that the mini debate polarized around the necessity of miniatures to play. It would be pretty tough, if not impossible, to play 4E without them, whereas they are optional, albeit convenient, play aids for older versions of D&D.