Category Archives: Creative Thinking

Blow it all up

Hi everyone, I was reading Thuloid’s Adepticon report at the House of Paincakes this morning, and the discussion about Mantic got me thinking about the relationship between miniatures and rules. There was some interesting talk about Mantic’s Kings of War, and their strategy of capitalizing on Warhammer Fantasy Battle’s percieved mishandling. I realized that the current norm – companies that are combination miniatures manufacturers/rules producers – is, like most norms, an accident of history. Continue reading

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Balance or diversity: you can’t have both

This post by Sinsynn over at the House of Paincakes had me thinking about people’s expectations of wargames. Specifically, that the general mass of people who play Games Workshop’s flagship games aren’t interested in anything else. And because of this unhealthy(?) focus on one particular system and product, they seem to have slowly got a twisted view of what is possible and desirable in a miniatures game. I’ve been investigating historical games lately, and I have to say the difference in attitude towards the games is very interesting. Take this description of GW’s Lord of the Rings from the excellent blog I have just discovered, Delta Vector:

The “bastard stepchild” of GW’s core series, LOTR is the least popular with powergamers the core GW demographic as model differences are less marked and forces are more balanced bland; magic is subtle and not an “I win” button boring; and the rules are cleaner and faster too simple.

OK, so it’s a teensy bit bitchy, but it also made me laugh.  And only this morning I’ve read worse levelled at historical gamers by someone who is primarily a Warhammer player, so I’ll allow it.

It’s interesting because evilleMonkeigh, as someone with a wide experience of wargaming systems, seems to take for granted the fact that simplicity in rules design and similarity in the way that factions play are necessary for a good balanced wargame.  Whereas I think many in the community of GW gamers (and, I would argue, fantasy and sci-fi wargamers in general) think a game is only fun if your factions are wildly varied with completely different playstyles.  Yet these same people often (quite loudly) expect the games designers to deliver inter-faction balance and an accurate points system.

I’m coming round to the belief that you can’t have it both ways.  Historical games are not so prone to imbalance it seems, since pretty much everyone in history was a human being, and people near enough to fight each other tended to fight the same way, i.e, the way that worked the best.  What happens in real life when two forces go to war with wildly divergent technologies or tactics?  One of them inevitably has their arse handed to them.

It might be time to face the truth here.  If you want a game that’s interesting because of the tactical options it presents, you’re going to have to sacrifice things like factional diversity.  You want psychic space beetles to fight cyborg super-soldiers with chainsaw swords?  Sorry mate, you’re going to have to let go of any expectations you might have for a high degree of balance.

I mean that’s why Infinity largely works balance-wise right?  Most of the troops are within a very small band in terms of abilities and have similar (if not the same) weapons as other faction’s troops.

Fantasy is fantasy and realism is realism and maybe we all need to just accept that?

 

The great Star Wars retcon

Hi everyone. I’ve had a bit of a rough few weeks so I haven’t been engaged much with social media, including blogs. I just found out that Disney has made a canonical statement about the Star Wars universe in the lead-up to the next film. I heard that they’ve declared nothing is canon anymore besides the six original films and the Clone Wars TV series. Naturally my first thought was finally, Caravan of Courage and that other god-awful Ewok movie can suck it.

Once I’d finished gloating though, I was given some more to think about. I was talking to my partner, who has read quite a bit of what’s (now formerly?) known as the ‘Expanded Universe.’ So by this I mean the novels, comics, etc. Hey, even I played Bioware’s excellent Knights of the Old Republic games, and they’re expanded universe too. Well, now none of that stuff happened. It didn’t bother me too much, but my partner was complaining that there was a seminal moment in the expanded universe that had a profound emotional impact on many people who read it: the death of Chewbacca. Soooo yeah. Looks like he got a reprieve and like… now never died. Or something. The issue here is that people had real feelings towards a fictional event, as is fitting. I mean, that’s the purpose of fictional narrative right? To generate real feelings with made-up people and events?

For example I, like many others, felt personally slighted when Greedo was retconned as shooting first. It didn’t sit well with my childhood memories of Han Solo and who he was. He was a hero, yeah, but he was also kind of ruthless and street-smart; the perfect counterpoint to Luke’s naive idealism. I can only guess it’s the same for all the people who read the books about Jacen and Jaina(?) Solo and saw Chewbacca nobly sacrifice his life. Those characters and events are now expected to just vanish with the wave of Disney’s magic wand?

All of this is just me wondering how important it really is to retcon, when it undermines people’s suspension of disbelief so seriously. Really, it’s as if the author of the book you’re reading suddenly knocked it out of your hand and yelled “none of this is real, remember!” right in your face. I think it’s a decision that should always be taken with extreme care, and the process should be accomplished with as little impact as possible. Instead, the approach is too often to just tear huge chunks away, like ripping off a band-aid, and expect people to get over it. It’s not very respectful of the audience I think. The absolute worst, to my mind, is what Marvel and DC comics do, with dramatic events taking place in parallel universes. Weak. How many times has Superman died now? Think of some new characters already!

Whew. So I don’t want to be too negative. I’ll just leave off with one last thought: if you really need to retcon something to make it cool, then maybe it’s not the best fit for contemporary audiences anymore? Maybe it would be better just to leave it in the past and oh, I don’t know… make up something new?

In other news, I’ve got my money and my Good Games voucher I got in a 40k game ready, and if all goes to plan tomorrow, I’m off to buy the Saga rulebook. More on that next time.

Stay safe,

James

What 40k might look like today

After my last post, and a reader’s comment, I started to really think about what a contemporary equivalent of Warhammer 40,000 would look like. Let’s do an experiment.

Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader was successful at the time, (and became the behemoth it is today) for several reasons, I think. One, it took tropes everyone understood from contemporary and canonical fantasy fiction and science fiction and mashed them together with very little to no shame.

Two, it had a rebellious, punk sensibility. The Imperium of man is a dystopia from the political perspective of a democratic western citizen in the 1980s (the target market).

Three, it appealed to a certain desire to be the bad guy: if you played an Imperial force you were fighting for a cause that was, in political terms, more evil than the Eldar, or the Squats, or even the Orks. Well, the Orks are pretty evil I suppose if you consider war for it’s own sake as evil. Yes, Chaos was icky, but the way people had responded to Chaos was to create a society no modern person would want to live in or fight for. You got to be the racist fascists with cool uniforms, or the weird aliens, and it was all a big joke.

What would a modern equivalent look like? It would have to be politically bold, that’s for sure, and you know what? Hardly anything is now. If we take the dystopian element and put it into today’s context, perhaps the Imperium would be a society that was free and democratic on the surface, but underneath was run by an elite for profit. The soldiers of the human race believe that they are fighting for freedom, but really they are just wiping out aliens who refuse to be corrupted by our commercial products so that we can take their resources for our endless capitalist economy.*

The human’s technology would have to incorporate more modern original sci-fi, like the Matrix or Elysium for example. So probably a lot of cybernetics, cloning/body replacement, and AI-controlled troops. I’m thinking a bit like Infinity’s treatment of technology, actually. Oh and the Force. There’d have to be something mystical/telepathic to keep fantasy nuts interested.

What about the aliens and other factions? They would have to be recognised tropes. Something like the noble eco-aliens of Avatar. Something like the terrifying xenomorphs of the Alien franchise. And of course, zombies of some description, and space raiders like the Orks or the Reavers in Firefly. Oh, and maybe humans who don’t fit in and are fighting for their way of life, again like the Ariadna colonists in Infinity.

Just some quick thoughts. I’m not really addressing the aesthetics or the game mechanics of course, which I’m sure had some influence on Rogue Trader’s success. And most of all, I think it would have to be funny. You were meant to laugh at the Inquisition and commissars, not think that they were a grim but necessary evil.

What do people think of this?

*I’m not saying this is how it is in the real world, I’m saying that this is a modern rebellious political narrative on a par with the fascist “for your own good” Imperium of Man.

Too Old to Play

I have a few rules for this blog in order to keep it manageable, and keep it fun for me. The main one is “nothing over 500 words.” I’m about to break that rule for the first time, because I have a lot to say and I can’t possibly do it in that kind of space. What I’m about to write is also probably more personal than anything you may have read from me before, and maybe also controversial.

Continue reading

Painting Miniatures: How Good Should We Try to Be?

Today I want to share some more thoughts along the lines of my previous two posts (here and here) about the way we judge quality in miniature painting.

It’s fair to say that for a while there, during the 5th edition of Warhammer 40,000, there was a bit of community pressure to play as though it were a professional contest.  This competitive way of playing is certainly in the culture of other games too: video games and Magic: the Gathering already have professional players.

The reason I bring this up is because I’m noticing a shift towards imitation professionalism in the painting side of the hobby now.  There is an excellent post here at The Society For Doing Things, laying out a method for avoiding the amateur blues.  But I think it’s also interesting that this problem has emerged at all as something people have to face in their hobby.

We all know that there are professional miniature painters, and they are artists like any other.  It is their job, probably at least part-time, and they are probably trained in fine art or design and supported by a community of other pros.  But at the same time we have the wider community of amateur painters, myself included, and probably you too if you are reading this.  And we are beginning to up our expectations of ourselves and other amateurs in light of the highly visible professional’s work.

I don’t know if this is inevitable, but I don’t think it’s reasonable.  The vast majority of painters (myself included) are not going to be able to produce a professional finish because we aren’t professionals; we simply don’t have the resources in time, knowledge and motivation.  So why do we try to learn professional techniques, and try to mimic their style?  Why do we run contests and judge one another and then just hand the prizes every time to people who can paint like Giraldez? What is going to happen when it becomes obvious that there are a few elite painters, and the rest of us finally admit that we can never match them?  Are most of us going to stop trying?

Possibly.  My only suggestion right now is not to stop trying.  But stop expecting that you’ll ever produce a professional finish without effectively being a professional.  More importantly, stop assuming that other amateurs can and want to be that good.  Aim to create works that you are happy with, and that reflect your own aesthetic sensibilities, within your limits.  Develop a style instead of trying to be the best.  Critique other’s style, not their technique (unless they ask of course).

One more thought: why is it that only certain parts of the hobby seem up for grabs by both amateurs and professionals, and other parts are only for the pros?  It’s a lot less common to meet people who sculpt models from scratch, or design their own games from the ground up, than it is people who are trying to be great painters or successful competitive players.  I don’t see why this is; none of these things seems inherently easier to master or more accessible than any of the others to me.

Comments welcomed,

James

Should Have Had a Better Plan

I’ve been having real trouble lately finishing a miniature I started.  This doesn’t happen to me often – I actually can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish a model within a few days of starting it.  I think it might be because I jumped straight in without a clear picture in my head.

Normally I don’t start painting a model until I’ve been struck by inspiration as to how I want the finished work to look.  This time I just saw a really nicely worn paintjob on a merry-go-round when I was with my son at the park and I took a photo.  It looked beautiful and I wanted to incorporate something similar into a miniature:

merry go round

The unlucky model who was next on my list to start thinking about was a Nomad Sin-Eater Observant for the game Infinity.  The Observance are a rebel Catholic sect so I thought he should have Catholic ecclesiastical colours like purple and red, but I also wanted to make his armour look like the photo above.  Orange and purple are dramatic together right?

In theory maybe.  I can’t get it to look how I want though and for the first time ever I’m pretty sure I’m going to strip him back and start again with a better-thought-out concept.  He just looks like he has an ugly purple coat and badly painted brown armour.  Why would his armour be orange anyway?  He has mimetism I guess and he’s a religious soldier, but he’s still a soldier. If his suit malfunctions he’s not going to want to be wearing hi-vis colours.

I need a break though, I’m starting to blame the model and that’s a bit silly.  I’m going to abandon him for now, take a breather and then work on my Malifaux Ronin, who I want to do in a sort of dusty style for use in Skulldred.  If anyone has seen the Japanese movie Sukiyaki Western Django, I’m planning a warband of crazy wild west samurai and oni-giants.  Maybe with a display base in case I never actually use them in a game, which is a definite possibility!

Till next time,

James

Painting Miniatures and the Cult of Difficulty

Continuing in the vein of my last post, I recently saw someone online showing some miniatures in progress.  They had done some excellent highlighting work to create the effect of shiny black leather/PVC uniforms, and were having trouble getting the model’s helmet to match.  One commentator said “you could cheat and use gloss varnish.”

This is a perfect illustration of what I call the Cult of Difficulty in miniature painting.  There seems to be an unspoken community norm that the more time and effort it takes you to create an effect, the more worthy of praise your work is and the “better” you are as a model painter.  There seems to be little comprehension of the fact that different effects create different visual feels.  And that is what is most important about which method you use – not how hard it is, or how much practice it takes to do it.

I mentioned in another post that since model painting is a hobby, most people who do it are not trained or professional artists.  This has an effect on community norms.  I think this Cult of Difficulty is just an instance of the common sentiment expressed by non-artists when they see a work of art that looks like it was made easily: “I could do that.”  With the silent implication that therefore it is not worthy of much respect or praise.

Trained and professional artists know that the right response to “I could do that” is “yeah, but you didn’t.  And now you can’t, without being derivative.”  This is because it  doesn’t matter how an artwork was created.  All that matters is that it is original and looks good.

Now personally I wouldn’t advise gloss varnish for the model I mentioned at the start of this post.  But not because it’s somehow “cheating.” I wouldn’t use gloss varnish because the rest of the model has been painted in a representational rather than a realistic style, and it would look odd and spoil the effect.  If you want something to look like glossy black paint the best thing to use is glossy black paint.  But if you want to paint a picture of glossy black paint, then you have to approach it in a whole different way.

Many people in our community seem unaware that there are different, equally valid ways to go when painting a model, choices that affect which tools and techniques you are better off using.  It seems completely arbitrary to me which ways the community applauds and which ways they sniff at as cheap tricks, except for one thing: all the ways in the former category take ages to do or require a great deal of practice or a natural aptitude.

That doesn’t mean they are better.  Perhaps you prefer the look created by what I call the painterly style, and that’s fair enough.  But how hard something is to make is not a good way to judge art, at all.

Next time I’ll write a little about a few of the basic aesthetic approaches I can see in use in fantasy and sci-fi miniature painting.

Thanks for reading and feel free to comment,

James

Metallic Paints versus Non-Metallic-Metal Effects

The other day I saw someone online say that non-metallic metal is the best technique to use on Infinity models, and that metallic paints don’t look good on them for some reason.

This got me thinking about the techniques we use for painting metal.  I should say right now that in most cases I prefer using metallic paints (even on Infinity models).  This is because I think NMM methods can create a cartoonish effect.  Lately I have been leaning more and more towards a realistic style, similar to the one a lot of historical modellers aim for.  By this I mean creating depth and realism by using subtle highlighting only, and applying weathering powders and oils over what is essentially a simple neat paint-job.

The thing is, neither method is better, and both involve assumptions.  If you use NMM then you commit yourself to mimicking the effect of a light source, which means imagining where it would be and then painting the areas that you want to look reflective as though the light was there.  This is why I think NMM creates a cartoonish finish, or at least a painterly one: the model will forever after have a light source basically painted onto it, which I think removes it from its environment a little.

Metallic paints actually make the area reflective, which means that the model is at home in its surroundings.  One problem with metallics though is that they get their effect by having lots of tiny chips of shiny in the pigment, so it’s almost impossible to avoid leaving a texture, which doesn’t look great since metal areas are naturally smooth.

I’ve found that this can be overcome by using better quality metallics.  Your GW or Vallejo acrylics have this problem, but fork out a bit more money for some Vallejo Liquid Silver, or a Humbrol enamel, and you’ll find they have a texture similar to non-metallic paints.  Just remember that they clean up with spirit instead of water.

The real problem though is consistency.  If you’re going to use NMM, then you have to paint the whole model as though it has the imaginary light source.  This might sound basic, but I’ve seen models with clever NMM and then the rest of it is shaded and highlighted in a neutral way and doesn’t match.

Likewise, if you use metallic paints then I think the model will look better if the rest of the colours also speak for themselves, and realism is achieved mainly by weathering.  Don’t dramatically highlight the cloak comic-book style and then have a sword that gets its metal effect via natural light.

Anyway that’s just some thoughts.  I wonder if there are other ways to paint metal?  These are just the two that I know of.

Till next time,

James

Painting Miniatures and the Danger Zone

I’ve been painting miniatures a bit lately, and I’d like to quickly talk about something that people don’t generally talk about when it comes to painting: the actual creative process itself.

In order to paint well you certainly need to know techniques and to practice. But there are other more subtle things about the activity of painting that seem to always be ignored. I’m talking about the sorts of things that any artist needs to learn no matter what creative field they are in, be it music, writing, sculpture, or whatever.

I started thinking about this after I noticed that my process whenever I paint a model is always the same. I think about it for a few days until I have a clear picture in my head of what it will look like finished. I then work backwards in my mind, trying to plan what techniques I know that can create the effects I want. Only then do I start painting.

After this, a strange thing happens. I always get to a stage in the painting where I look at the model and think “that’s it, I’ve ruined it. I’ve screwed it up and it’s not going to look how I planned at all.” I then take a deep breath and decide to try something, anything, that might fix the model. The funny thing is, after I do whatever it is I’ve decided upon, the model is always mysteriously saved. It often ends up better than I planned!  A recent example is my Oniwaban Shinobu Kitsune. I originally envisioned her hair as naturally dark, with deep red highlights. This just didn’t look good, and I switched mid-painting to blonde highlights. The whole model was greatly improved and my confidence was renewed enough to finish.

My partner and my brother and sister are all formally trained artists. Like all gamers, I’m creative too in my amateur fashion. I talked to my brother Chris (his miniature sculpting and Dungeons and Dragons blog is here) about this strange phenomenon and he waved his hand and said “oh yeah, that’s the danger zone. It’s the part of the process where you have to stick to it and trust your skills even though you’re tempted to give up. I have two danger zones. The other one is where you’re done, but you just keep working on it, tinkering away, and then suddenly you’ve over done it and it’s ruined.”

I then talked to my partner and she also told me that one of the most valuable things her formal art training taught her was to know when to stop.

I’m lucky. I think the fact that I’ve been painting models since I was about seven years old has given me a good sense of when to stop. My main danger zone is when the model is at that critical point, and it looks to me like I’m not going to be able to pull off the paint job I envisioned. It’s scary, but it’s also the moment of pure creativity amongst the practical work, when I have to think beyond my original plan to get it to look the way I want.

What I’m trying to get across here is that every successful creative work (however you’d like to define it) strikes a balance between being unfinished and being over-realized. And for me at least, I have to hit a sort of rock bottom where it looks as though I’ve failed before I can push through and succeed in getting the model to look the way I imagined it in my head – or hopefully even better. That’s why I find miniature painting so rewarding. There’s always a challenge to be overcome.

This may all sound a bit pretentious for what is basically painting toy soldiers.  But I think we as model painters shouldn’t sell ourselves short. We face the same creative challenges as any artist and in the end we have to learn the same lessons.

Until next time,

James