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.


  1. Well that was a lengthy written missive. An interesting take on matters and I agree with many of the points raised. My only concern is my ability to paint such small figures, curse my aged eyes.

  2. It was a bit! Stream of consciousness after a long week ...

    My hope - and experience so far - is that the lack of 'hard' detail on a lot of these figures means that painting is a lot simpler and less fussy. That should mean no worrying about eyes and teeth, and much more emphasis on tabletop effect from a metre or so away.

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  4. As I have a fond spot in my heart for frog-men, I have to ask, where did you get those 15mm frog-men archers?

    1. They're from East Riding Miniatures:

  5. One of the best analyses in 1:72 scale for fantasy which I read, I could agree no more: in short words: ,price,availability, variety, material resistance and mix capacity are the strong points

    1. Thanks! And yes: that's a great summary!

  6. I just poorly glued my lizardmen spearmen

  7. Yep when you look at the huge amount of historical figures available in 1/72, the possibilities are staggering. It baffles me why the scale doesn't get more love. It's great to see a spotlight being shown on it!