Thursday, 17 October 2019

Robbers on the road


I don't recall coming across the term road agent before I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It means a highwayman or robber of stage coaches. And it's got a wonderfully sinister tone - amplified in McCarthy's tale by the fact that his road agents are murderers and cannibals too

Murderous robbers play a big part in the Greek myths. As I put together a campaign with an ancient-world flavour, I've been thinking a bit about these. The best examples are the eccentric murderers encountered by Theseus on the road to Athens: Sciron, Procrustes and the rest.

These robbers get up to all sorts of unsavoury tricks. They stretch people to fit beds - or lop off their limbs to do the same. They kick people from cliffs, or wrestle them to death, or beat them with cudgels, or tear them apart with trees.

They also provide a tremendous template for RPG encounters. The PCs need to get somewhere, but there's an obstacle in their road. They can go round it (creating an opportunity for wilderness or maritime adventures) or they can go through it.

That entails dangers. Here's Plutarch on the robbers on Theseus's road to Athens:

For verily that age produced men who, in work of hand and speed of foot and vigour of body, were extraordinary and indefatigable, but they applied their powers to nothing that was fitting or useful. Nay rather, they exulted in monstrous insolence, and reaped from their strength a harvest of cruelty and bitterness, mastering and forcing and destroying everything that came in their path. 

Some of these robbers are demigods or literal monsters, like the cyclopean club-wielder Periphetes. Some of them also guard entrances to the underworld and consort with monsters: a giant sea turtle or a savage giant boar.

While the brief ancient texts can imply that these robbers were solitary individuals, some have families with them, and it's easy to imagine them holding court among thronging followers: as bandit chiefs rather than solitary brigands. That adds further scope to an RPG encounter: approaching the haunts of an infamous bandit might involve ominous portents, surly guards and obsequious underlings. Think of Jabba the Hutt's palace - or Kurtz's lair in Heart of Darkness:

Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber. 

An encounter with a road-agent of the sort that Theseus faces might, in a gaming session, include interactions with all manner of ne'er-do-well, opportunities for audiences with the monstrous bandit-king himself, and the chance to witness a horrific execution - or become an involuntary participant in one ...

1/72 hoplites


These are the first 1/72 figures completed for my new RPG project. Nothing fancy - but quick to paint and, when seen on the tabletop, they'll "do".

They'll probably be player-characters, but could well end up as henchmen or villains too.

One thing about this scale is that you can do quite a lot of "conversion" with paintwork alone. I may well paint up some of the duplicates as ghosts or undead in corroded armour and with pallid flesh.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Enter 1:72 - and a protocol for miniature use in RPGs

Converted lizardman from Caesar; hoplites from Zvezda

Miniatures are a bit of a double-edged sword in RPGs. On the one hand, they provide focus for the players and create lots of tactical options in combat situations. On the other, they can erode the 'theatre of the mind' that's such an attractive feature of the game.

Most of the miniatures I own are the standard 28mm sort. A couple of years ago, though, I ran a Whitehack campaign using 15mm miniatures based on pennies. The smaller scale has lots of advantages: the dinner table becomes a much bigger space, and there's less of a sense of identification about the miniatures. So you hear less of "We killed that goblin last time!", because your 15mm goblin tribe probably has various duplicates on the table at the same time.

But there were disadvantages too. Painting 15mm isn't that much faster than painting 28mm, and the miniatures aren't that much cheaper - especially as you have to buy in batches, often of the same figure. And the best stuff for fantasy RPGs - Khurasan and Splintered Light - isn't readily available in the UK.

On top of that, "15mm" miniatures vary radically in compatibility with each other. I'm not a huge stickler for scale consistency, but the difference in size between "small" and "big" 15mm stuff can be enormous. That can spoil one of the main attractions of the scale: using the huge range of historical figures with fantasy ones. Alas, dwarfs and goblins from some manufacturers tower above men-at-arms and knights from others.

Also, the smaller figures don't take up much room even on a penny - so that 'crowding' is no more achievable than with 28s based on the standard 25mm round base.

And because the figures are metal, they're heavy and fragile. With reasonable success, I constructed a travel set of 15mm miniatures in a box lined with magnetic card, so that the kids and I could play skirmish games on holiday. The only problem with it was that the magnetism wasn't sufficient to keep the miniatures from rattling around in a rucksack - so that they needed a fair bit of retouching afterwards.

I'll probably rebase the lizardmen on twopence pieces

The allure of an intermediate scale
Enter 1/72. I've dabbled in this scale before, but only in monsters that are somewhat scale-agnostic, such as the Caesar lizardmen, which I've used in both 28s and 15s. But I've started to see the attractions of RPG gaming in 1/72 scale entirely.

First, 1/72 figures tend to be a lot more compatible with each other than 15mm. Yes, there are scale discrepancies between manufacturers. But they're slight. One viking or hoplite won't be twice as tall as another. That opens up a huge range of historical soldiers and civilians (1/72 ranges offer a nice array of ancient and medieval civilians). Populating a crowded marketplace or court is far more achievable.

The second attraction is cost. For between six quid and a tenner, you can get 40 or more miniatures. Yes, there'll be some repetition, but there's also a lot of variety within boxes. I bought some Italieri crusaders yesterday; the box included nine mounted knights along with multiples of eight different foot-soldiers.

And those multiples offer a further attraction: anonymous 'extras' for town guards, the local baron's men-at-arms or whatever. Compared with the characterfulness of 28mm miniatures, the unassuming nature of 1/72 figures takes some of the emphasis off the miniatures on the gaming table and back into the players' minds.

At the same time, the compatibility of the figure and their anatomically correct scaling (as opposed to the 28mm emphasis on faces and hands) adds an extra dimension of realism. And the miniatures occupy a penny base just about perfectly - allowing for a reasonable amount of crowding while still providing stability and weight. And they'll travel unscathed in my magnetised box.

Swords, sorcery and soft plastic
But the biggest attraction, for me, is 1/72's suitability for sword and sorcery. I don't much like Robert E Howard's Conan stories, which I find poorly written and heavy on the sublimated wish-fulfilment. But I do like the Hyborian blueprint of a world including lots of thinly veiled proxies for historical cultures, all thrown together with anachronistic glee. Fritz Leiber does it rather better, and so too does Howard's contemporary and correspondent Clark Ashton Smith.

The best way of representing that sort of mish-mash - ripe for games involving travelling adventurers - is to have different cultures visually represented. And 1/72 opens up a whole wealth of intriguing possibilities. Imagine these as town guards in one northern city. Or these as invaders threatening a coastal civilisation far to the south. If you want a human-centric game - or one that's set in or nodding to Glorantha or Tekumel - this is the scale to do it.

Fantasy creatures, of course, are less well represented. But Dark Alliance/Red Box and Caesar do quite a few fantasy sets: orcs and goblins of various stripes, lizardmen, ratmen, trolls, hyena-riders, fantastical barbarians and undead. And, of course, 28mm monsters will generally work fine in 1/72: they'll just be bigger (and nastier).

It's also worth noting that some of the official D&D miniatures from Wizkids are a nice fit with 1/72 stuff, because they are similarly (i..e more naturally) proportioned. This snakeman is much bigger in 1/72, but the proportions of his human elements make him a better fit in 1/72 than in 28mm.


Also, some 15mm goblins work pretty well at this scale. I reckon the little chap below is perfect for a small Middle Earth orc or a D&D goblin:


The same's true of these (rather large) 15mm frog-men:


And I'll be stripping down these Ral Partha dwarfs (painted by a friend when we were teenagers) and repainting them. They're tiny by 28mm standards, but just right for short but strong mine-dwellers in 1/72:


These old Chronicle kobolds and orcs work too (as larger and fiercer monsters at this scale - gnolls and ogres, perhaps):


I can also see lots of potential for using these in Dragon Rampant. The reduction in unit 'footprint' makes a 3'-wide dinner table a better battlefield - and assembling and painting up cavalry is much quicker. And then there's Hordes of the Things. A box of 48 miniatures (like the Dark Alliance fantasy sets, with four identical sprues of 12 figures) could be used for a couple of different factions of individually based models for RPG and skirmish games and a few elements of multi-based troops for massed-battle wargames like HotT. 

Then there's painting. I found the Caesar lizardmen exceptionally easy and quick to paint. The softness of detail is actually an advantage when it comes to painting 1/72 for RPGs, as you can blast through them without worrying too much about precision.

A protocol for miniature use in RPGs

These considerations of scale and "anonymity" have got me thinking about how miniatures are best used in RPGs. Nicely painted 28s and precise floorplans are great for dungeon crawls and one-shots, but take a lot of time to prepare. And there's the problem I brought up at the start: the way in which the tabletop props can detract from the imagined scene. That doesn't much matter in the typical dungeon crawl, but it causes problems in more sophisticated games - not least because if everything's set out in detail and represented with miniatures, everything looks like a fight.

So here's how I'm planning a forthcoming session with some old friends. I'll almost certainly use The Fantasy Trip for the game, because of its simplicity and speed of character generation and its tremendous tactical combat. That entails a hex grid, so I'll get one of the Chessex dry-erase maps. The smaller scale of the 1/72 miniatures will compensate for a grid size that's smaller than the TFT standard. 

Now, what I want from an RPG session is plenty of roleplaying. But if there's to be fighting, I want that to be intense and tactical - essentially a mini-wargame for players and GM alike, with both sides aiming to win. Of course, I'll allow and encourage any convincing stratagem that interrupts the normal flow of combat. 

To balance that with role-playing and 'theatre of the mind', I won't use the dry-erase markers until swords are drawn. The players will know they're in a large audience chamber or a cramped tomb or whatever, but until they have a fight on their hands, I won't sketch it on the grid or place miniatures to represent NPCs. 

That should have two important effects. First, the players will process the monsters and NPCs as they're described before they see how they're represented on the table - if they see that at all. And second, rather than every encounter looking like a fight, as it does in a floor-plan-assisted dungeon crawl, every encounter will appear a role-playing opportunity. Only if that leads to fighting will I quickly sketch in the scene, place a few props and - finally - plonk the baddies down on the table.




Saturday, 5 October 2019

Speed-painted space orks




I'm not normally one for painting orcs green, although I occasionally make exceptions. But when it comes to orks ... well, why not?

These fellows are for Xenos Rampant, Richard Cowen's sci-fi variant of Dan Mersey's Dragon Rampant, which looks a lot of fun. I have a game scheduled with a few old friends in a couple of months, so need an army. That demands some extremely fast painting, so, as outlined a couple of posts ago, I'm using GW's contrast paints over black undercoat drybrushed with grey and white.

It's a very quick and sloppy technique, but I quite like how the miniatures look on the table - a bit dark and more Ian-Miller-ish than the typical "greenskin"- or at least I hope so. 


One of the joys of the Rampant family of games is matching available miniatures to the troop types. So, in the picture above we have the following: recon infantry; light infantry (possibly with the Assault Doctrine and Close Combat Doctrine options); Heavy Infantry; and Berserk Infantry (with Heavy Armour). 

I'll probably add some black and white emblems at some point, but for now the focus is on churning them out. I've got 17 done already (3 recon, 6 light, 6 heavy and 2 berserk), but I want at least 6 recon and a dozen or two of each of the others). Onwards ...

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Snaga


Although I've never done any Middle Earth wargaming, I'm often tempted by it and always on the lookout for suitable miniatures. Those can be surprisingly hard to find - especially, perhaps, when it come to Orcs.

The fairly recent release of the Oathmark goblins changed that a bit; they're very nice Tolkien-esque figures, and wolf-riders are apparently to follow. But the only problem is that they fill only one of the two main Orcish slots in Tolkien's writings: that of the Uruks.

In The Lord of the Rings, goblins are broadly divided into two classes: the big fighting goblins (the Uruks) and the lesser kinds (whom the Uruks call "Snaga", meaning "slave"). The Oathmark goblins, being somewhat shorter than Men but still fairly large, fill the Uruk role perfectly (you might want to change the swords and bows for Isengarders).



But the smaller types must be closer to Hobbit-sized, because Frodo and Sam are mistaken for them when suitably disguised.

So I was pleased to discover that Oathmark heads and arms fit rather nicely onto Mantic goblin bodies. The Mantic goblins are much worse than their other lines - indeed, notoriously so. The beaky heads have a certain charm, but the arms are poorly cast and don't fit terribly well on the bodies. The Oathmark appendages solve that problem at a stroke.


What's nice about this is that the Oathmark goblins come with lots of extra heads and limbs, because each sprue allows for the assembly of its component Orcs as archers, spearmen or swordsmen. So by buying some Mantic sprues to go with the Oathmark ones, you can assemble five Uruks and five Snaga from each.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

You want it (grim)darker ...



A forthcoming game of Xenos Rampant with some friends has got me scurrying to paint up some more regimented sci-fi troops than my typical rag-tag scum and villains. For these Mantic orcs, I used my new speed-painting method: Citadel contrast paints over black undercoat drybrushed with grey and white.



They're not terribly pretty close up, but they'll make a nice red-armoured horde en masse. And they're very, very quick; if you exclude drying time, I'd say that they take longer to assemble than to paint.



I might add a few details to them here and there once each squad of 12 is finished, but the aim for now is to get a few dozen done to this standard. These two are the first of six; the other four are done barring the bases.


The ratman is a GW plague monk with Skitarii arms and weapon. Six of these will form a unit of 'recon infantry'. I've based them to match my fantasy ratmen, so that they'll blend in with those (I'm going to do some with the same blue-grey hide as this one, so that they can all work together).

Both lots will doubtless end up as encounters in fantasy RPGs and feature in Mutants and Death Ray Guns and the like too.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Contrast paints and black undercoat


In my incessant quest to find quicker ways to paint miniatures, I've been trying Citadel's contrast paints over a black undercoat. After undercoating in black gesso, I drybrush in grey and white before slopping on a coat of contrast. I think it works fairly well. In the case of the beastie above and below, I painted the bone and belly-scale areas buff before the white drybrush.


With these crab-men or selenites or whatever they are, I drybrushed silver-grey over base-coat colours (red and buff) before adding the contrast.


These leeches were straight black/grey/white contrast:


So was this fishy thing:


And these space orcs - very quickly done for friends' children - were my first experiment. Black/grey/white/contrast again; it took just an hour to finish all three:


They may be crude (and it's not a great photo), but I quite like the effect. I'm painting up another batch for domestic use. Here are how they look along the way:


And here's a Reaper Bones troll who's there or therabouts with the same technique:


It's never going to be a prize-winning technique. But for quick monsters, it's actually quicker than using contrast paints over white, because the black undercoat takes care of the joins and recesses. So there's much less tidying up to be done at the end.