Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Minotaur and Medusa: The Commonest of Proper Nouns?

The monsters of D&D have, for the most part, been drawn primarily from folklore and mythology.  Of course, today, with the emphasis on branding, there is a trend away from traditional mythical creatures in favour of creating brandable intellectual properties, but in the old days, at least, the monsters of D&D were the enduring creatures we were familiar with from the stories of our childhood.

When I first started playing D&D, I was not well-read in the fantasy genre.  The only fantasy novels I'd read were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so my understanding of the game was heavily influenced by mythology, and Ray Harryhausen movies.  Consequently one of the very first monster miniatures I ever bought was this Citadel Minotaur, from their Fiend Factory line, which I bought in the winter of 1981.

I've recently been spending a lot of time organizing my old miniatures and when I found this one in the basement, I was immediately struck by how the imagery of the Minotaur has changed over the years.  This miniature is a classical depiction of the Minotaur; a man with the head of a bull.  In scale, it is no bigger than any other 25 mm man-sized miniature.  This is the Minotaur of myth, garbed in Greek robes and probably lurking in his labyrinth, waiting for Theseus to come run him through.

Compare this miniature to more modern depictions, such as this Reaper Minotaur:

Here we see a more bestial monster; a humanoid bull rather than a man with a bull's head, and he's gotten a whole lot larger (see the severed human head on the base for scale).

Here, now, is the Citadel's contemporary depiction of the Minotaur, which has changed considerably from their 1981 version:

This is even more bestial, and larger still, than the Reaper model above (again, note the human head on the base for scale).

And, finally, Citadel's 'boss' minotaur, the Doombull (there is a human skull in the right foreground of the base for scale):

Lining them up together really brings into focus how much the concept of the Minotaur has changed over the years:

There has been widespread escalation of scale in gaming iconography, as I've discussed previously, with respect to dwarves, and the upscaling of minotaurs is just part in parcel of the contemporary focus on the big and the bad-ass.

But I can't help wondering if the concept of the Minotaur has been diluted and bastardized because of their use in D&D as a common noun rather than a proper noun.  As far back as the original Monsters and Treasure book D&D has referred to minotaurs as a race rather than as the Minotaur, the 'Bull of Minos,' of mythology.  The reason for doing so is clear.  We want to use these great monsters of mythology in our campaigns, but we'll soon run out of things to fight if we make them all unique individuals.  And so Minotaur becomes minotaurs, even though the name doesn't make sense any more.  Perhaps it would have been better to call the race of bull-headed men homotaurs ('man-bulls') and consider the Minotaur to be a specific individual of that race, but of course everyone knows what a minotaur is while a homotaur would be just plain confusing.

The problem is that D&D has become self-referential and new generations of writers and artists look to D&D, rather than the original source mythology for their inspiration, and so we get a gradual but steady change of concept into something that bears little semblance to its forebear (kind of like 4E is to D&D).

The case in point would be this minotaur illustration from the 3E Monster Manual:

This illustration has gone to such ridiculous extremes of 'kewl' that it contains no bovine features.  Had I been shown this illustration without the context of the entry in the Monster Manual, I would never have known that that is what it is supposed to depict.  If forced to guess, I probably would have said it was supposed to be a Yeti, or something.

While I understand Gary's decision to turn proper nouns such as Minotaur and Lamia, the child-eating demon queen of Libya, into common nouns,  I'm less sympathetic towards medusae.  As most of us know, Medusa, along with her sisters, Euryale and Stheno, was a gorgon.  The gorgons were terrifying female creatures with snakes for hair, and the name derives from the Greek, gorgos, meaning grim or terrible.  Unlike the Minotaur, there was no need to turn Medusa into a common noun since we had the term gorgon to refer to the group.

Yet, in D&D, as far back as the original Monsters and Treasure, we have entries for both medusae (snake-haired women whose gaze will turn you to stone), and gorgons (scaly metal bulls who exhale poison gas that will turn you to stone).  Why the separation into two different types of monsters?  If Medusa the gorgon can be separated into medusae and gorgons, imagine what we could do with Sauron the Dark Lord.  "You open the door and are set upon by half a dozen saurons and your only escape is to fight your way through the pack of dark lords you left behind you in the last room."

I'm genuinely curious as to what was behind the creation of the bull-like gorgon monster of D&D.  If anyone knows or has a suspicion, please leave a comment.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Stripping Miniatures

As part of my ongoing project to organize and catalogue my miniatures collection I've started stripping all of my early miniatures in preparation for giving them new paint jobs.  I sincerely believe that a miniature does not reach its potential or full aesthetic value until it has been painted to the best of my ability, and a while lot of my miniatures from the early '80's do have paint on them, it was very poorly done.  In fact many of them have been so heavily layered that all detail is obscured.

Consequently, I recently undertook a bit of internet research to find a suitable solvent for stripping miniatures.  The most commonly cited stripping agent is brake fluid, and the runner-ups are hardly less caustic.  Seeing as how I didn't want to mess around with environmentally hazardous toxic materials, I continued my search.  Eventually I found a recommendation on a discussion forum for the use of Dettol, a household disinfectant that can be purchased in any pharmacy.

I was a bit dubious about the efficacy of a household disinfectant for stripping paint, but I thought I'd give it a try since, if it worked, it would be preferable to the alternatives.

Much to my surpise, Dettol works like a charm.  Mix a 50:50 solution of Dettol to water and let your miniatures soak overnight.  Acrylic miniature paint sloughs off easily and light scrubbing with an old toothbrush will get your miniature clean as a whistle.

Citadel Legion of Hell Standard Bearer after an overnight soak in Dettol
The downside is that your house will begin to smell like a hospital, and I recommend using rubber gloves when scrubbing the miniatures or you'll get a sticky, sludgy residue on your fingers.  After scrubbing, soak your miniatures in hot soapy water and scrub them again with a clean brush to get all the Dettol and residue off, and you've got one clean miniature ready for repainting.

Unfortunately, a lot of my first miniatures were painted with Testors enamel paint that I had around the house from model-building.  This is a lot harder to get off than acrylic, but Dettol will do the trick with a bit of patience.  I found that I needed to let the enamel-coated miniatures soak in Dettol for several days.  This will soften the paint, which can then be scraped off with a hobby knife.  I used a dental pick to get into the recesses.  I was never able to get all the paint off in one go, and after an initial scraping, I return the miniatures to the Dettol solution for a couple more days, then repeat the process.  After doing this a few times, I found that even the most recalcitrant enamel can be softened enough that most of it can be removed.

Citadel Vampyre FF 58
The vampyre, shown above, was so thickly coated in enamel paint that most of the details were obscured.  With a little patience and effort I was able to get most of it off, well enough for a repaint,  anyway.

Here's another Citadel miniature from the Fiend Factory line that was successfully stripped of enamel:

Minotaur FF17

I'm in the process of stripping most of my old miniatures, but not all.  This old Ral Partha miniature was my very first D&D character, an elf made using the Holmes Basic Set, and I'm going to keep it like it is for posterity, and as a reminder of what my old paint jobs used to look like.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Session 6: Deification and Other Woes

After a long hiatus during the Christmas season, the City States of Lemuria campaign resumed where it left off last session:

Still unnerved by their recent encounter with talking rats, the party quickly finished mapping the first level and then descended to the next; a system of karst caverns.

As the party entered the first, very large and fungus-filled, cavern, they heard some panicked whispers from the far side of the cave, which was still cloaked in darkness, followed by footsteps receding into the distance.  Ignoring the departure of the cavern's unknown occupants, the party proceeded to make their way along the east wall of the cavern, intent on mapping its dimensions.  A few minutes later they heard the rush of many feet coming toward them, and saw a dozen or so humanoid forms in the darkness, making their way along the north wall to cut off the party's retreat back to the first level.  This was quickly followed by a charge of another dozen  spear-wielding albino warriors that the party had encountered previously on the first level.

After a few rounds of combat, the party was running low on hit points, and several were wounded.  They were flanked by overwhelming numbers and their retreat was cut off, so Aziz the thief convinced the others to surrender.  The PCs were bound and relieved of their weapons except for a dagger that Aziz concealed on his person prior to surrendering, which was not found.  They were herded through the cavern complex that was home to the Albino tribe and into the throne chamber, which contained a large fire pit and spit, around which was piled a large number of charred human bones; a grim hint of things to come.

Much to their surprise, the throne was occupied by none other than Sathera, the missing adventurer, who was believed to have died with the rest of her party.  She spoke to her albino followers in Atlantean, ordering them to cut the party's bonds and return to their work.  Her orders were obeyed, if sullenly, and the PCs were left in the throne chamber.  Sathera explained that her party was ambushed by a party of albinos, who she refers to as Grimlocks.  She alone escaped the nets that entangled her comrades and she cast Light of Aten in an attempt to stun and blind her attackers so she could escape.  Bathed in the illuminating radiance of the spell, Sathera was mistaken by the grimlocks as the living embodiment of Derketo, Thrace's goddess of love, pleasure, and procreation.  She was rushed down to the caverns below by the raiding party, who convinced many of the tribe that Sathera was the goddess returned to return them to the light.

The grimlocks, twisted and degenerate descendants of the human slaves of Thrace, had long ago given up worship of the Thracian gods and turned to Chaos, but Sathera's dramatic appearance sparked old memories, much to the annoyance of the priest of the Rat God whom the tribe now worshiped.  Thus, Sathera had won herself an uneasy reprieve.  Though the high priest was suspicious and jealous of her influence, enough of the tribe were awed by her that she was kept safe so long as she could maintain their belief in her divinity.

The priest of the rat god, meanwhile, was unwilling to concede the loss of his authority over the tribe, however, and was constantly working to undermine the grimlocks' awe of Sathera.  Though Sathera was able to protect the PCs by telling the grimlocks that they were her servitors from the surface, this protection was running out, as it was only a matter of time, she believed, until the priest of the rat god would be able to reveal her as a charlatan, and that the party would need to act quickly to make good their escape if they wished to avoid becoming the main course at a grimlock feast.

After debating a variety of plans, the party settled on Aziz's scheme.  He was in possession of a rat medallion taken from the body of the den mother last session, and he began to ostentatiously sneak away to make obeisance at the rat god's idol in the hope of attracting the attention of the priest.  His hope was to gain the confidence of the priest and get close enough to assassinate him, place the blame on one of the other tribesmen and then escape in the confusion.  The plan worked up to a point.  The priest did notice Aziz praying at the idol, but became incensed at the temerity of the infidel surface dweller.  He, and the three burly body guards that were always by his side, angrily demanded that he remove himself.  Aziz showed the priest the rat god medallion, which he, the priest, recognized as having been taken from the slain den mother.  Recognizing that the gig was up, Aziz pulled his dagger and attempted to thrust it into the priest's heart.  He recognized that the odds were against him, since he would also have to deal with the bodyguards by himself, but maybe lady luck would smile upon him.  As it turned out she was scowling in his general direction.  He rolled a '1' on his attack, and the priest nimbly leaped out of the way of the thrust.  Things went generally downhill for Aziz from that point on as he was forced to fight four angry cultists by himself.  He did manage to avoid their attacks long enough to fatally wound the priest, but was cut down himself in turn by the guards.

The skirmish had drawn a lot of attention, and a crowd had gathered to watch.  The commotion alerted Sathera and the other party members that something was up, and they arrived in time to see Aziz fall.  During the upheaval surrounding the priest's murder, Sathera cast Light of Aten again, irritating the light-sensitive eyes of the albinos, and the party ran for it, cutting down the few warriors guarding the exit to the first level.

The party made good their escape and returned safely to camp, but for how long, now that there is a thoroughly roused and vengeful tribe of albinos looking for vengeance...?

As a happy epilogue to the session, two of the characters finally reached level two, gaining an additional 2 hit points each; ah, the giddy rush of power!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Curating the Collection

Every time I bring home a new miniature, my wife sighs and looks around the house at all of the miniatures adorning every available shelf and asks if I don't have enough already.  Silly question, really, you can never have enough.  Perhaps she fears the cautionary tale of Gideon Mantell, a 19th century physician and palaeontologist, who is famous for his description of the dinosaur Iguanodon.  Mantell's fossil collection became so extensive that he had to move his family into a hotel because there was no longer room for them in the house.

A while back, she asked me what was to become of all of my miniatures when I die.  This is actually an excellent question, assuming that it was not, in fact, a thinly-veiled threat.  I've been collecting miniatures for more than thirty years and I've amassed a collection that reflects the changes in technique, style and casting materials over the decades and, taken as a whole, provides a snapshot of the gaming hobby as well.

The problem is that I've never bothered to seriously organize and document my miniatures, which makes them less of a serious collection than a bunch of knick-knacks on the shelf that may end up going the way of grandma's porcelain figures.  My hope is that my collection will eventually be passed on to my daughter, but failing that I want it to go to someone who will appreciate it, and that can only happen if it is properly organized with contextual documentation.

All journeys begin with a single step, and my incentive to get started on this large project was a dwarf miniature that I bought sometime in 1982 whose origin has been puzzling me for some time.  I've loved this miniature from the moment I laid eyes on it, but all I recall is that it was not sold in a package or bag; it was loose on the shelf at the game store, and was very expensive because it came from the UK.

Asgard Miniatures DA-04 Dwarven Cleric

I've been spending a lot of time, lately, working on my Warhammer dwarf army, and I dug this old miniature out of a box in the basement and finally got around to painting him up.  While I had no idea about its origins, I though it might be an old pre-Warhammer Citadel miniature.  After spending a lot of time making inquiries, someone pointed me to an old Asgard Miniatures advertisement, which confirmed this figure's identity as from Asgard's Dungeon Adventurers line: DA-04 Dwarven Cleric.  It felt great to finally have a positive I.D., and it also explained why I, and many others, thought it looked like a Citadel.  Asgard Miniatures was started by Bryan Ansell, who went on to found Citadel Miniatures and eventually purchased Games Workshop from Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson.  Several of Citadel's sculptors started out at Asgard, so the resemblance is not surprising.

After that bit of success, I've spent the last few weeks doing some online detective work to garner as much information as possible about many of my other out-of-production miniatures.  I now wish that I had recorded all of this information back when I bought them, but in my teens I cared very little about such things; I regarded miniatures as just a play-aid.  Consequently, a lot of information was lost, especially after I mounted many of them on bases, obscuring many of the valuable clues inscribed on the bottoms of the miniatures, such as product number, year of production, and the sculptor's initials.

I've begun officially accessioning my miniatures into the collection by giving each one a unique collection number, which is recorded on the miniature, and on its entry in the specimen catalogue.  I've started a binder to catalogue my collection with data sheets to record as much information as I can get, including a photograph of each one.

Catalogue sheet

At the front of the binder is an index to the catalogue, which contains a list of all specimens and where they are currently stored, so that they can be easily located (unlike my current method of hunting all over the house).

Specimen Index

Finally, I've created specimen labels that go with each miniature in its storage box.

Specimen labels

So, when this project is finally complete, my miniatures will be much easier to find when I need them at the game table.  All of the research and organization will add to their intrinsic value, making them easier to dispose of when I do pass on, and will hopefully save the collection that I love from being relegated to the trash bin along with all my other junk.

In case anyone is interested in cataloguing their own collections, you can download copies of my catalogue sheet, index, and specimen labels from the links below:

The Index Sheet and Specimen Labels are in PDF format, but I've left the Catalogue Sheet as a Word document so that specimen photographs can be easily imported.  To do so, select the portrait box on the form then click on the 'Insert Picture' icon in Word and the photo will be imported inside the portrait box as shown in the example above.

Here are some online resources that I have found useful for identifying my miniatures:
MiniMag hosts a collection of old miniatures catalogues, including The Armory's Buyers Guide to Fantasy Miniatures, which as a been an invaluable resource and can be downloaded as PDF.
Lost Minis Wiki which includes images of miniatures from over 170 manufacturers.
The Stuff of Legends contains product lists from many manufactures with images for many of them.

Happy curating!