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Friday, January 7, 2011

Miniatures and D&D: My Thoughts

Ah, Grenadier's AD&D line, my first love. Like a lot of people my age, my first introduction to the use of minis with my D&D game came with Grenadier's official AD&D gold box line of miniature figures. My first box was the Dwarves set. I foolishly traded them away for some inferior unofficial minis so I could have a greater number of figures for my game. I immediately regretted that decision setting a pattern for my ownership of miniatures that continues to this day. I did manage to purchase a bunch of the other sets over the course of time though, coordinated with the other guys in my neighborhood D&D group so we could avoid too much overlap.

I had, ultimately, one large boxed set (5002 Monsters), and four small boxed sets (2001 Wizards, 2002 Halflings, 2004 Hirelings and 2007 Females). Tim M. (the regular DM) had one large boxed set (5009 Dragon's Lair) and six small boxed sets (2003 Dwarves [the reason I never replaced mine], 2005 Fighting Men, 2008 Thieves, 2010 Denizens of the Swamp, 2011 Orc's Lair and 2012 Dwellers Below), which I just fact checked at .

We didn't have anyone else buying minis in our group (yet), and we preferred boxed sets to blisters since you got more bang for your buck, with a couple of caveats. I, for example, had terrible luck with the boxed sets between broken unfixable minis that clearly came from the mold messed up (Werewolf from the Monsters, Druid with dart from the Wizards), missing parts (again with the monsters, my poor wingless gargoyle, ) or just the wrong mini (Halflings box gave me the halfling thief from the thieves set instead of the slinger). It's like they had a 10% quota for messing with me. Only the Dwarves that I traded and the Hirelings came as they should have, I don't count the Females, they were a birthday gift.

Then there were the useless ones, the ones that were only good if you were planning to build a diorama. The Halflings gave us the lookouts, one standing on the other's head, the camp guard, lounging against a small tree and the lancer mounted on a pack-mule is of, at best, limited utility. The Thieves gave us the climbing thief, the thief opening the chest and the nearly useless thief with grappling hook. Just annoying. I loved them anyway though. I have a deep nostalgia for them. I would love to have them again, despite the fact that they are not up to modern standards as sculpts and they are small compared to today's pseudo-25mm scale minis (which are actually 28-32mm scale)

I sold all of mine off before the end of the 1980's because I wanted to get new minis that I could put better paint jobs on. I figured that I had like a decade of painting experience at that point and I could avoid all the old mistakes. When I first got them I had worked under the theory that I should just slap some paint on them and get them to the table. I mostly painted them with Testors model paints because that's what I had. After a few years of use they weren't looking good, so I sold them to my friends and used the proceeds to buy more minis (in theory anyway, I mostly used the money to buy beer, cigarettes and gas). My mini collection would recover eventually, but not with my beloved Grenadiers.

I have seen most of these miniatures recently, so I can attest to their primitive appearance when compared to newer minis. This leads us in to the story of Lance the lucky. Lance W., who was a member of my old neighborhood D&D group (actually 2 of them, after most of the old crew had graduated from high school and moved on he went out an recruited a new bunch to take their places, I was primary DM for the Dempster D&D group phase 2) went to Gencon about 10 years ago and spent most of his time at the auction (every time he has gone since he volunteers at the auction, he has gotten free admission more than once because of this), while he was there the auctioneers got a sealed suitcase for auction. It was late, they didn't open it up. The description of the contents was extremely vague. No one wanted to bid on it. Lance eventually bid five bucks for the suitcase. He won. The suitcase contained, among other things, a nearly complete set of Grenadiers AD&D miniature line still shrink-wrapped. Now you know why Lance loves the auction and why I call him, in this context anyway, Lance the lucky.

The funny thing is Lance had been buying old Grenadier lead all along. He had picked up the bulk of Tim's collection (although in real roundabout way, Darryl C. had bought them when Tim went through the same newer, better phase I did, Lance just managed to catch Darryl years later when he was in the mood to sell). I think he bought some of mine, and he had been hunting it at garage sales and flea markets since he got his first job. Lance even stayed with Grenadier into the 1990's as a loyal customer. Sadly Grenadier is no more. I wonder what happened to their old molds?

Scale Creep is the scourge of our time. It makes our old minis useless next to these huge minis produced today. Scale creep means that we have to either rely solely on old, no longer manufactured, increasingly expensive and difficult to find sculpts or replace our entire collections and start over. I blame Games Workshop and their Warhammer minis. I guess it's in their interest to try and get people to buy more, newer stuff all the time; and their bigger is better philosophy certainly seems to be popular, but I can't help but wonder- who gave control of the entire fantasy miniatures manufacturing industry to them? Historical miniature wargamers would never tolerate scale creep in their hobby. That's half of what the problem was with WotC's Axis and Allies miniatures line, the vehicle scales were inconsistent and not scaled to the soldiers. WotC had to re-issue all of the vehicle models redone to the proper scale to try and fix the problem and get the line taken seriously by what should have been the core audience they were marketed to.

D&D as a tactical miniatures skirmish game really irks me. Since 3e hit the market you haven't been able to play modern D&D with out minis. I really didn't care initially (when I started playing 3e, which was literally years after it's release) because I have played and enjoyed tactical miniature battles before. After a while it started to wear on me though, because all of the 3e rules are fiddly. I hate all of the conditional nonsense that I am likely to forget as DM. Attacks of opportunity were a good idea in theory, but in practice just make everyone move in a really super paranoid and weird fashion across the battlefield.

I didn't realize how much I had come to hate it until I eventually dumped D&D in favor of Hackmaster (4th edition, the D&D based one). The group I was DMing for played through a small, quick combat and it didn't occur to me to use minis for it or "battle-board" it up. It was like as a group we had some sort of catharsis. After that battle no one in the group wanted to use minis at all. We didn't and it was awesome. Don't get me wrong, we all had a long history of using minis with our D&D games, but I think they had become a symbol of the shackles of 3e and when we didn't need to use them we chose not to as a hallmark of our liberation from them. Kind of like how America drinks coffee instead of tea since the revolution.

Now minis have snuck back into my game, both because I loved them once so very much and because my kids were taught D&D using 3e (they insisted, they wanted the newest, best edition). I have bought a lot of WotC minis, both their D&D minis and their Star Wars minis. The D&D minis I bought for use with my FRPGs, the Star Wars minis partly because I love Star Wars and partly because I was hoping to entice John into my love of wargaming through a Star Wars gateway (unsuccessfully, I tried a similar tactic with Heroscape equally unsuccessfully).

I have previously mentioned D&D miniatures and their collectibility being a problem for me. It annoys me on the one hand to not know what I am getting, since I am old enough to remember buying minis that told you what was in a box, and I know that it is just a scheme by WotC to milk their customers of more of their hard earned money than a decent product should. What I have not mentioned before regarding WotC D&D minis is that they are moving farther and farther from being useful to an early edition player. New PC races are essentially useless to us, I mean we can use the dragon dudes for lizard men or draconians or something, but not what they are intended to be; the other elf looking people could be used for elves I guess, but they are not really producing suitable PC minis for some old school races (gnomes, cough, cough), not that 3e gnomes (or halfling for that matter) really looked right for old school games. They are also changing the appearance of a lot of older monsters. The Shambling mound comes to mind. It used to look like the swamp thing, now it looks like a poorly trimmed hedge.

Now, I am sure someone will point out that Otherworld miniatures has come to our rescue with awesome old school minis in a modern scale, and that's true. However they come at a premium price and they are made in England so the shipping adds to that. Now, I live in upstate NY, which is in the US, whose economy collapsed a couple of years ago. I also have 3 kids at home. I am a grown man and I can't really afford them, how are kids supposed to get them? Since I was a kid myself everyone I have ever played D&D with always wanted to have at least a miniature to represent their character. Many of those people were kids. Minis are too expensive for kids and they lack the instant gratification effect when you have to wait for them to be shipped. Plus they lack the appeal of pre-painted minis in that they are not ready to game with as soon as they arrive. Reaper is solving this problem a little bit with their new line of non-collectible pre-painted plastics, but they are typical reaper sculpts, not necessarily representing an early edition aesthetic.