Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Model Wargame

Recently I've had the chance to encounter Chirine's Workbench, a blog by a war gamer and modeling aficionado who happens to have discovered Empire of the Petal Throne and Professor Barker a couple-three decades ago, and has been gaming in Tekumel ever since. Chirine describes himself as a modeler first and foremost, and was first tasked with painting and creating miniatures for the Prof's EPT games "back in the day" before becoming enamored with the world setting; now he continues to play (and model) using the richly detailed setting along with a home-brew rule set that combines EPT with pieces of OD&D and Chainmail.

Watching videos of his recent mini-skirmish campaign (posted to YouTube here), a couple thoughts strike me, besides the obvious comparisons to Mordheim and its (online, unofficial) expansion, Lustria: Cities of Gold.

A) With regard to D&D (and all its variations, everything from EPT to my own Five Ancient Kingdoms), we just don't give enough consideration to the game's wargaming roots. So many things about the game...what might be called, I suppose, "D&Disms" are based in and on the needs and wants of the wargaming subculture. 3rd editions five foot squares are a poor substitution for the games originals inches and scales (from a war gamer's standpoint) yet is an attempt to make sense of the need for ranges and scales anyway. Personally, I have never worried all that much about whether or not a person was shooting their short bow at long range or short range...or the radius of light sources...or even (usually) the f'ing diameter of a fireball spell! Instead, I'm just "roll to hit with your bow" (assuming the character's not engaged in melee) or "you see the monsters" or "you're going to launch that thing underground into a tiny chamber? What exactly are you hoping to occur?"

[alternatively, I'll just say, "ok" and roll saving throws for the bad guys]

The micromanaging of ammo and light and rations and encumbrance and ranges, etc. is just so low down on my priority list, it just often slips through the cracks of my games (I'm writing this as a DM or "referee"). It's just not IMPORTANT...and yet we still pay dutiful attention to it when noting movement rates and tracking how many arrows are left in the quiver. This attention to detail during the game (to be clear, shopping for high, soft boots or short, hard boots during character creation can give you a distinct image of the PC you are playing), slows the pacing of the game...and when you are trying to keep a group of players engaged and enthralled in your imaginary world, it's important not to disrupt that pacing.

Having said that, I have played and enjoyed war-games in the past and my personal preference is to have those games move along at a good pace, too. An over-abundance of "realism" can make a long, slow game even longer and slower...which I detest (yes, I realize that this stance is anathema to many die-hard war-game fanatics). I don't know...maybe I just have a problem with opponents taking a shit-long time to maneuver and measuring every measly half and quarter inch when my assumptions of battle are that they tend to be kind of fast-paced and (at times) sloppy.

I will say this: Chirine's skirmish/battle was a lot quicker paced than some war-games I've seen, and faster than many (recent) edition D&D games, despite maneuvering several teams of miniatures for each player, and using two different playing surfaces.

B) Models are cool.

That's something I keep forgetting or letting slip from my mind, and not in the way I do with "D&D's wargaming roots" (the latter is something I always know "intellectually" but simply fail to process or consider or give weight to). I remember models from when I was a kid...and here I'm talking painted miniatures that represent characters/monsters...models that were owned by older players I knew but with whom I never gamed. They did not have the fantastic, realistic paint jobs you see in those Golden Demon award winners or anything, but they were still so cool...they inspired me, made me want to play a game that used them. I can see the same glow in my son's eyes when we see miniatures in a game shop...he wants to have them and hold them and play games with them. I saw it with the teenagers that I introduced to Warhammer back in the day, too.

I don't know what it is about gaming minis...they're not dolls (or "action figures") that have posable limbs for play. But their sheer static nature makes one want to fill the void...the lack of movement...with story and imagination. "This is my adventurer X; here's what he's going to do." Anyone ever see that old Henry Thomas movie, Cloak & Dagger? It's about a kid that talks to his imaginary friend, personified in an RPG miniature (from a secret agent game) that he carries around with him.

I love miniatures, love to paint them, sometimes even love to modify 'em. Here's the thing though: few of us (outside the truly dedicated) have the time and money to really go whole hog with the miniature thing. Certainly, I could never afford them as a kid...I shoplifted one once (as a pre-teen), but didn't have any paints or tools or knowledge and so did nothing with it. We never used minis in our games as kids anyway...using those stand-up cardboard cut-outs and "area maps" in Marvel Superheroes was a novelty for us (and one that we eventually dispensed with).

As an adult, I found myself (for a time) with an excess of both money and time, and became a collector and painter of minis. Since then, the money has receded somewhat (kids, dogs, mortgages, debts) and the time has dwindled to almost nothing (kids). I still have plenty of unpainted (or half-finished) minis, just no time to paint. As for modeling...wood-working and sculpting set-pieces...well, I'm fairly hopeless with anything requiring much "hands-on" creativity. Comes from being 1) a perfectionist (stopping before I start) and 2) never wanting to 'get messy.' Just beginning to paint minis in the first place (circa 1997) represented a bit of a breakthrough for me.

[and, yes, improvement does come with practice]

Killed some PCs with a very similar model.
However, using "found objects" for models (as Chirine does at times) or re-purposing other things for minis/models (like rubber frogs, plastic animals/monsters, those giant packs of generic zombies, etc.) IS something I can do...and something I experimented with good results, back when I was still running a B/X game down at the Baranof. It was a lot of fun to use minis in a game...but it sure was a pain in the ass hauling all the props and whatnot to the venue (something that really hit home when I was transporting my gear to last summer's Dragonflight convention). If you have the stereotypical basement or garage or unfinished concrete bunker in which to play with your buddies, that's certainly ideal...though I'd imagine enticing new players down to your "lair" might be tough (ugh!).

ANYway...those were my main thoughts when watching Chirine's videos. It's after 3am here, so I better hit the hay.

[oh, yeah...go USA!]


  1. "lustria, city of gold", eh...?

    how come i didn't know this existed?!

    well, i do now, thanks to you. now i can start plotting how my underlings can grab-grab lizardman gold for deathmaster shlomeek. if those stinking fool-fools of clan pestilens interfere they will have to die first of course. :)

  2. Almost everything plays too slow to fit in between kids and work etc. these days. Which is one reason why I often find myself back at B/X and variants (plays quickly, can prep in my sleep). And which is why, despite being a Warhammer Fantasy Battle fan, I've recently begin experimenting with miniature games that declare themselves to be quick-play - De Bellus Antiquitatis, Hordes of the Things, and Songs of Blades and Heroes for that 'warband' Mordheim-like fix. I'm also trying, against some resistance, to convince my fellow gamers of the virtues of 15mm (cheap, quick to paint, a natural block on 'Golden Demon' perfectionism, and can be played in a 2ftx3ft space (or similar), rather than the 4ftx6ft space that is really the minimum for a game of 28mm WFB that involves are opportunity for tactical maneuver).

    But Lustria: Cities of Gold? I will have to check that out!

  3. Wow! Great post, and good comments!

    What you see us doing is pretty much what we did, back in the day; the 'larger RPG skirmishes' were pretty much indistinguishable from our 'smaller wargame skirmishes'; there wasn't any real dividing line between them.

    I agree with the comments on the Golden Demons. I think that they have done more to squash people's wanting to paint figures; I had a very sad thing happen, back a few years ago, when a gaming buddy passed away and his widow gave his huge Warhammer collection to his two beloved nephews. Their dad, my buddy's brother, got on their case and insisted that they "paint those miniatures up right, just like in the book, because they cost a lot of money.."; the kids lost all interest at that point, and the figures still languish in a box to this day.

    Paint what you like, how you like, and play what you like and how you like! That's what's important!

    - chirine

  4. +1000 to Andy Bartlett above. I wrote a BX homage game to address 1) returning to wargamig roots while maintaining the D&D feel and conventions and 2) speeding everything up. Totally works for our table.