Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Old School Minis

I'm not a big fan of miniatures, never have been. Actually, that's not entirely true. When I was a kid, I liked the idea of miniatures -- still do, come to think of it. I remember going down to a game store at Harbor Place whose name escapes me now, but which had a huge glass case filled with individual miniatures. I used to spend far too long staring at that case and creating characters and situations based on the little lead figurines I saw inside. Other game stores had such glass cases too, including the Compleat Strategist -- that was how minis were displayed back then -- but it was the one at the store in Harbor Place that I remember most vividly.

So, of course, I bought miniatures when I was younger. I even attempted to paint them -- badly -- and used them when playing D&D (and Gamma World too, since I had some Gamma World miniatures). Even so, miniatures often felt like unnecessary accessories to me. You didn't need minis to run combats and I wasn't a model builder, so I couldn't adequately represent a dungeon environment like some guys did and whom I always envied. Instead, we just put the minis on the table in marching order and looked at them.

Now, don't get me wrong: despite all of what I've said so far, I loved my minis. Accessories they may have been but they were evocative accessories nonetheless. Finding just the right miniature to represent your character was a numinous moment. Alternately, some characters were born as a result of finding an inspiring mini whose inherent coolness demanded I include them in my game. Ashad Raghul, the Grandfather of Assassins, owes his existence to a Ral Partha miniature I found especially intriguing. So, while I was never a minis fanatic and saw them as far from a gaming necessity, I owned and adored miniatures but mostly for what they evoked in me and my friends rather than their immediate utility.

Still, it's really hard not to be jazzed about the existence of Otherworld Miniatures, a British company whose products are "a range of 28mm fantasy gaming figures inspired by the iconic imagery of the early role-playing games." For example, take a look at this familiar face -- you don't get more iconic than that. And what grognard doesn't have his fancy tickled by a pig-faced orc or a hill giant who looks like Abraham Lincoln sans the stovepipe hat. Otherworld has already produced quite a large collection of minis based on the art of Dave Trampier and Dave Sutherland. I am so tempted to buy up the lot of them and have my talented painter friend paint them up for me, but the cost of the minis (not to mention the shipping from the UK) coupled with the reality that I'll likely never use them as anything other than decorations for my desk has held my geek lust in check -- for now.

What I will say, though, is that these minis are, in metallic form, the kind of thing I'd like to see from old school publishers. They're products that draw on the iconic imagery of older games but do so using modern materials. These miniatures are not exact reproductions of the horribly sculpted, clunky Grenadier miniatures of my youth and thank Gygax for that! Instead, these minis are finely crafted and highly detailed. They use the contemporary 28 mm scale (as opposed to the 25 mm one of yore) and are made from resin or pewter rather than the lead I remember. In short, they're not exact replicas of old minis or even done in the style of old minis. They are thoroughly modern miniatures that have all the features and craftsmanship we've come to expect from such products, even as they completely capture the old school flair that seems missing from WotC's latest efforts to remake D&D iconography in silly and stupid ways.

That's what I wish more print publishers would do with their products. Honestly, I don't need yet another product that apes TSR's trade dress from 1980 or that use badly executed, amateurish black and white line art. And the "blueprint" style dungeon maps? You can keep those in the vault. As I noted elsewhere, I think the one area where modern games and game companies have it over their illustrious predecessors is in the field of graphic design and presentation. Most old school products simply look awful, even if their content has yet to be surpassed.

A marriage between old school content and new school presentation would make me very happy indeed and would go far to get old school products out of the nostalgia ghetto. Because let's face it: that's where most old school products exist. They're specifically geared to appeal to aging gamers who want to remember the good times of their youths. Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, I think nostalgia is a good and powerful feeling that, properly harnessed, will help the hobby immensely. But making products in 2008 with the production values of 1978 isn't what I'd call properly harnessing nostalgia. What it does is make old school products even easier to dismiss as irrelevant than it already is. Old school games face an uphill battle in gaining the hearts and minds of younger gamers as it is; why make it even harder by producing games and supplements that look terrible? The technology now exists for even hobbyists to make slick, well presented products without having to spend a fortune. Why not avail ourselves of that technology? Old school content kicks ass in so many ways. Now's our chance to prove it, as Otherworld Miniatures is doing.


  1. A marriage between old school content and new school presentation would make me very happy indeed...

    You sure about that? Because that tarrasque pic (the one under your "stupid" link) has received a lot of praise.

    Good layout, high production values, and stuff like that is doable. I'd say Mr. Rients is absolutely correct when he says that 0one is on the bleeding edge of that sort of thing. Getting products that look slick, are easy to read and use, and even customizable, though, is the easy part.

    The hard part is the art. People think the new 4e art looks awesome. Others dislike it. As you've pointed out yourself, there are a number of grognards who seem to dislike Wayne Reynolds' work just as a matter of course. And if you really want to start a war, try comparing Erol Otus to Larry Elmore.

    So where do you go for art for your old school product? Slapping Erol Otus on the cover immediately banishes it to the grognard ghetto, no matter how technically accomplished or colorful the piece is. His style and look is too heavily associated with that early era of D&D. If you use Wayne Reynolds, or one of the other stars of the current styles, you might attract some of the new players but you'll alienate your target audience.

    RPGers are highly sensitive to these sorts of issues. The only way forward, it would seem, is to hire artists who are capable of working in a completely new style, one that repels as few potential customers as possible. That's a risk, though; how can you tell, without very expensive market research?

    If I was launching a new "old school" product line, I'd look long and hard at John Picacio ( for my covers. The latest edition of collected Elric stories has one of his pieces on the cover. Apparently, the publisher thought he could bridge the tastes of the old readers and the new. Otherwise, I'd hang out at the art auctions of gamer conventions to see what sold and who was buying.

    - Brian

  2. A new style, done well, would be a boon for neo-old school products, I think. The trick is finding a style -- and an artist -- that both evokes the old stuff without aping it and that is original without being revisionist. The problem I have with a lot of the 4e art is that it's clearly revisionist in intent, a calculated break with the past rather than an effort to extend and develop the past in new directions.

    It won't be easy to do this right; it'll require some thought and planning. It'll also require that grognards be willing to accept there are some good fantasy artists who began their careers after 1983 and the kids to see value in esthetic continuity and tradition. It's a tall order certainly, but well worth it in the end.

  3. I would love to see old-school products with dual-art and dual-maps! Maybe seel it with cool new cartography and art, but have downloadable bonus maps and art based on old-school that you can insert yourself. Or, if there was room, have both versions in the books. Or, if you buy the modern version, you can download the same book with old-school art, trade, and maps.