Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Obscenity in Lead

Fantasy Role Playing Games by J. Eric Holmes is a fascinating book. Published in 1981, it's an overview of this then-new hobby, written at least in part to clear up some popular misconceptions about RPGs and the people who play them. It's also a terrific window into the state of things in the late '70s and early very early 1980s from the point of view of someone knowledgeable about the West Coast scene and with connections to many of the movers and shakers of the Midwest region as well. 

Over the past few months, I've been returning to the book and re-reading certain sections of it, focusing on those where Holmes offers interesting or even unusual takes on those times. A good example of what I'm talking about occurs in Chapter 11. Entitled "Little Metal People," it discusses, among other topics, the use of miniatures in roleplaying games. At one point, Holmes notes that

Traditional wargame figures were all male. Minifigs did make castings of a few ladies who might appear on a battlefield – Queen Boadicea, for instance. The wives, sweethearts and camp followers of the armies of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon were not depicted in lead, however. Fantasy gaming has changed all that, since female characters are of major, or central, importance in many fantasy and science fiction stories. Also, for the first time, the game players who used the figures were often female.

The first set of female figures wasn't much to brag about. Minifigs added Amazons to the early Sword and Sorcery line and "Valka Spacewomen" to the first science fiction series. These ladies were either nude or almost so. It was several years before any of the figure companies realized that there was a market for lady adventurers and sorceresses who dressed appropriately to their role and did not look as if they were about to star in the middle of a Las Vegas nightclub chorus line.

I was, at best, an indifferent collector and user of miniature figures in the roleplaying game campaigns of my youth. Nowadays, I don't make use of them at all, though I have made good faith attempts to do so in the recent past. Consequently, I had – and indeed still have – relatively little knowledge of the history of miniature figures. What Holmes says above is not surprising to me, but, until I'd read it, I never gave it much thought. He talks more about this topic and, in doing so, discusses some intriguing bits of history.

The women in the Western, Star Trek and Barsoom figure series are all dressed appropriately. For the Barsoomian ladies this does mean near nudity, but that is true of the male figures also and entirely faithful to the stories. Ral Partha now makes a series of amazonian warriors whose femininity is obvious but whose armor and military equipment look distinctly functional. There are now appropriate figures for a princess, a lady thief or an old witch, although as yet no lady clerics, orc or dwarves. There is a sharp controversy within TSR Hobbies over whether a female dwarf wears a beard. Since Gygax insists she would, perhaps there is no hurry to produce a game-playing figure.

Intriguing, as I said, not least because the matter of female dwarven beards remains a contentious one, even among old schoolers. I sidestep the issue entirely by imagining sexless dwarves, though I nevertheless like to tweak my fellow gamers who hate the idea of bearded female dwarves by sharing this illustration from Dragon (and others like it). I find it equally intriguing that Holmes treats Gygax's opinion on the matter – which I remember his voicing on several occasions – as if it settled the matter. That, too, comports with my memory the oracular status Gary once possessed in certain quarters of the hobby at the time (though just as many, perhaps more, people would have laughed at the suggestion that Gygax's thoughts had any special status).

Holmes continues, bringing us to the section that occasioned this post's title.

This sexual revolution among wargaming figures appears to have taken place without much fanfare. Such is not the case in the hobby of the large military miniatures. I gather there had always ben an "underground" traffic in castings of the female body, but when fantasy figures began selling in the larger sizes as well as the game-playing 25 millimeters, an advertisement for a series of beautiful and sexually exciting nude figures in the British magazine Military Modeling produced several letters of protest. Protest was over the "obscenity" of the figures and their appearance in a hobby magazine that appeals to "innocent" young boys. These letters were followed, of course, by others pointing out the ludicrous nature of a charge of obscenity against the female body, long an accepted challenge for the artist and sculptor, in a hobby devoted to the accurate depiction of men and mechanisms equipped for the killing and maiming of other human beings. Meanwhile, in 25 millimeters, the ladies seem to have entered the field, in various stages of dress and undress, without serious opposition.

Some things never change! Unfortunately, I can find no evidence of the particular advertisement of which Holmes speaks. He provides insufficient detail to determine when this might have occurred or even which company's advertisement it was. If anyone has any insight into this, I'd love to know more. In any case, it's precisely these kinds of stories that Holmes shares regularly in the page of Fantasy Role Playing Games and why I find it such a remarkable book. 


  1. Hi,
    I remember back in the 70's that Battle and/or Military Modelling magazines had adverts for a couple of companies - Barry Minot and his Thane Tostig range and (IIRC) Phoenix Miniatures with their Atlantean range. As mentioned these figures included nude or semi-nude female figures and some were modelled as bound captives or being tortured. I think these provoked an outraged response re indecency and corruption of minors. This was around the same time that Dungeons and Dragons was lambasted for promoting devil worship and the occult.
    Hope this helps.

  2. A good source for tracking down old fantasy miniatures by range:

    I have a large number of issues of "Battle for Wargamers", a similar magazine at the time. I'll take a look to see if I can find an ad that matches the description.

  3. Ground Zero Games has been selling their "Gentlemen's Collectibles" range for more than three decades now, and they were his best selling figs in years past despite most of his catalog being starships and 15mm scifi. Hasn't done a new sculpt in years and they look pretty bad by modern standards, but younger companies like Raging Heroes and Brother Vinny cater to the same hypersexualized or sexually explicit market. Used to be several German casters that did out-and-out porn figs in a variety of, ah, positions, but I'm not sure any of them are still around.

    Never really understood the appeal, but one person's porn is always someone else's WTF moment.

  4. There is this set, from Minifigs' Valley of the Four Winds range:

  5. The larger figures that got adverse comments in the Military Modelling letters column were probably the Cliff Sanderson designed ones for Greenwood and Ball, though there was also the Lost World Of Atlantis series by Phoenix Model Developments. These both came out around 1976-77.

  6. You guys are completely out to lunch. this isn't porn, this is identification.

    backstory: I buy the kickstarters from Reaper minis, get the core set, and by the end of the campaign, you get a great deal on a ton of figs. I sometimes add a few special items, and that gives me more items than I ever use or paint.

    The guys at reaper get asked this all the time. why are all the chicks built like silicon porn stars? why not decent armor and realistic figures?

    Answer: because when we did that, no one thought they were women. They looks at the slender female elven archers, and everyone, women included, assumed they were all male.

    and there you have it.

  7. IIRC it was Cliff Sanderson's "Rape of Tortuga" pirate figures that caused the riot. Pirates drinking and having it on with pirate lasses in a very Not-Disney fashion. Mascot Miniatures started out making "Warrior Women" but switched to erotic figures, or X-rated, however you want to call it, because it sold better.

  8. Does anyone else think "Obscenity in Lead" sounds like the name of a Cthulu mythos story about some radioactive horror monster sealed in lead?

    1. I would like to subscribe to your newsletter, sir.

  9. Nice article. Side observation, Holmes book sells for nearly $100 on Amazon!

  10. I believe my Dad was referring to Sanderson's large scale minis. I know that he owned a few and was not ashamed of them.