Thursday, April 20, 2017

Painted Vikings for Saga

Behold the warband of Gaukur Trandilsson! This is a 4-point Viking army that I painted for Saga, the Dark Age skirmish war game. These are 25 mean, nasty, ugly-looking people on the bench there. Mother rapers. Father stabbers. Father rapers! This week I want to introduce you to the rank-and-file warriors (or Bondi) in Gaukur's force, and next week we'll meet Gaukur himself and his elite hearthguard.

I've fallen pretty hard for Saga over the last few weeks. What makes it so good? In my view, there are two things. First, it is an extremely violent and deadly game. Once opposing units crash, they mutually annihilate each other like subatomic particles. Both sides are constantly rolling handfuls of dice and flicking figures into Valhalla. When you combine this with a simple but realistic mechanic for fatigue, the results are brutal. Soon you are left with a few survivors who fight out the climax in an agony of limping exhaustion. It's glorious!

A Saga battle board
The second thing that distinguishes Saga is it's use of "battle boards". In conjunction with special six-sided Saga dice, you use the boards to activate your units and trigger special abilities unique to your faction. The Viking's board usually makes melee even more bloody, whereas (for example) the Welsh board makes that faction more adept at hit-and-run raids. And so, these boards add a lot of faction-specific flavour to the game, and ensure that the way you play your army fits in with its historical model. 

But besides the flavour, there's another element to the battle boards that I enjoy. Many historical war games boil down to "advance to meet the enemy and then fight until one side breaks". Such games can be fun (especially when the lead is well painted) but there's not a lot of meaningful choice. And in my view, meaningful choice is the key to making any game truly interesting.

That's where Saga excels. The battle boards add lots of options, by giving your units access to special bonuses and devastating attacks. The game hinges on how each player exploits these advantages at the crucial moment. At the same time, the battle boards limit your choices -- if you roll poorly with your Saga dice, you may not be able to activate all your units. And thus, the player is always presented with fun but difficult choices that go well beyond "how far up will I move my troops". 

Not that Saga is a perfect game. The rules for moving into combat are unnecessarily fiddly. Cavalry is not handled well. And the battle boards add a level of complexity to the game that make it hard for newcomers. But once all those Vikings start fighting and dying, it's all worth it.

Well, enough talk... here are the Bondi of Gaukur's warband...

All my Viking Bondi are metal miniatures from Gripping Beast. These are superb sculpts -- they contain lots of personality and interesting details. The most realistic touch is that many of the warriors wear hesitant expressions or carry their weapons in oddly tentative poses. They hide behind their shields and otherwise convey the idea that they don't relish the idea of having their limbs hacked off.

All my shields feature transfers from Little Big Men Studios, who have a line customized for Saga. I've never used transfers before (and I guess there's a part of me that thinks that they're cheating), but I couldn't be happier with the gorgeous patterns. I added some battle damage and cracks to the wood to give them a less pristine appearance.

My goal was to paint these Viking warriors in a historically accurate way. They favoured bright or embroidered clothes, and were concerned with cleanliness and personal appearance. Apparently, combs are frequently found in archaeological sites. So even if they're Dark Age warriors, there's no call to make them "grimdark".

Above we see that standard of Gaukur Trandilsson, the "Bölverkr" (or 'Bale-Worker', one of the epithets of Odin). From the Channel Isles to Iceland, so war-banner is more feared. Stay tuned next week when we'll take a closer look at Gaukur himself...

Thanks for looking!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Nucleus of a Vacuum: the Investigators for Signs of Carcosa

Welcome to another batch of Cthulhu investigators! These are heroes for Signs of Carcosa, a small expansion for Fantasy Flight Games' excellent Lovecraftian adventure game, Eldritch Horror. Chronic readers will recall that one of my long-term projects is to find metal miniatures for each of the investigators in this game.

Carcosa is a white rabbit that runs through the past 130 years of horror fiction. This fictional city originated in Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (1886). To my knowledge, this is the first literary work to portray a haunted and amnesiac main character who discovers to his horror that he is a ghost, and that the flitting shades around him are actually live people (for another example, see the 2001 feature film The Others). For Bierce, Carcosa was a bricks-and-mortar place, perhaps the French city Carcassonne or some Middle-Eastern town. The details are not important because Carcosa was just an incidental element with an exotic name.

Robert Chambers made Carcosa immortal when he borrowed the name for his book of short stories The King in Yellow (1895). Chambers reimagined Carcosa as the dreamy setting of a play  -- also called "The King in Yellow" -- which drives insane anyone who reads its script or sees it performed. Lovecraft incorporated passing references to Chamber's work in The Whisperer in Darkness (1931) and the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), but it took August Derleth to firmly instantiate Carcosa into the Cthulhu mythos in The Return of Hastur (1958). And in 2014, the HBO series True Detective gave new notoriety to Carcosa and the King in Yellow.

Carcosa and the King in Yellow have a haunting power. Isn't it scary to think that merely watching a play can drive you insane? It's not unlike the cursed video in The Ring (2002) or "the Entertainment" in Infinite Jest (1996). All of a sudden, a work of art is a lethal virus, and there's no way to protect yourself.

For my part, I think the seed of Robert Chamber's perilous concept for Carcosa is the idea (prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) that works of art could wreak permanent moral or psychological harm on the public. This was the age that saw puritanical condemnation of Aubrey Beardsley's periodical The Yellow Book (1894-1897), violence at the premier of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913), and outrage at Oscar Wilde's play Salome (1891), which was banned from the English stage for 40 years. Indeed, with its dream-like poetry and decadent plates by Beardsley (see right), Salome has always seemed to me to overlap with Chamber's play The King in Yellow. 

It's also worth noting the importance of the colour yellow -- it's not accidental that the King in Chambers' play wears rags of that shade. Authors like Dickens or Charlotte Bronte had long used yellow to suggest decay. But in the 1890's, yellow came to stand for a particular kind of decay -- the spiritual decay of modern ideas. During the late Victorian era, French fiction (often racy French fiction) was imported into England in distinctive yellow covers. Yellow became associated with decadence and avant-garde arts -- so much so that the 1890's garnered the name "The Yellow Nineties". Such associations were exactly why Aubrey Beardsley named his anti-establishment magazine "The Yellow Book". Such a name perfectly captured the idea of decadence, freedom and artistic extremism.

Most importantly, five years before Chambers published The King in Yellow, another writer was imagining a fictional book with hallucinatory powers. In A Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Oscar Wilde writes about a "poisonous book" in "yellow covers" that induces corrupting dreams in anyone who reads it. Indeed, it's difficult to read Wilde's description of the book and not see it as the direct inspiration for Chambers' King in Yellow:
The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.
Speaking of creeping shadows, let's get on to the miniatures for Signs of Carcosa!

Above we have Dexter Drake, the magician. His miniature is "the Ripper" from Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror range (1986). To make him slightly less homicidal, I removed the dagger concealed beneath his cape. I also inserted a rabbit under his hat. Can you see it?

This is Jenny Barnes, the dilettante. The Call of Cthulhu role-playing game (1981) introduced the "dilettante" as a class of investigator, and I'm glad that Fantasy Flight Games carries on this tradition. I have had a soft spot for this career ever since my brother introduced a new character into our long-running Call of Cthulhu campaign as "Belmont Labante-Delmonte, who's a bit of a dilettante."

Jenny's miniature is "the Young Girl" from Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror line (1986). I tried to leaven her air of innocence by painting a creepy eye-shaped amulet on her neck.

Here's Michael McGlen, the gangster, one of the dozen or so gun-wielding Irishmen to grace Eldritch Horror. His miniature is "the Hood" from the CC1 Gothic Horror line (1986). 

Observant readers may note that I cannibalized the head and hand from a duplicate Hood miniature to create my likeness of Hunter S. Thompson a few weeks ago.

Finally, here's Wendy Adams, the urchin. There are no children in Citadel's Gothic Horror line (and few in the entire range of Citadel miniatures), so I turned to Hasslefree Miniatures, who produce some excellent youth for the modern era. This miniature is HFA030 "Alyx", a wonderful multi-part kit that lets you customize the girl with a wand, teddy bear, pistol etc. 

Well, I started with Ambrose Bierce, so let's give him the final word. Here's his proto-Lovecraftian definition of 'reality' from The Devil's Dictionary (1911): "REALITY, n. The dream of a mad philosopher. That which would remain in the cupel if one should assay a phantom. The nucleus of a vacuum."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Investigators for Under the Pyramids

The strangest episode in H.P. Lovecraft's real life literary career was when he ghost-wrote a story for Harry Houdini. "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" (1924) was an allegedly true account told in the first-person about how Houdini got lost in caverns beneath the Great Pyramid of Giza and witnessed certain monstrous rites in praise of a dark god. This story is revived and brought to the gaming world with Under the Pyramids, an expansion for Eldritch Horror. As usual, I've painted up metal miniatures for each of the 8 characters in this set.

"Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" is a neglected gem -- it is rarely ranked among Lovecraft's top stories and is often omitted from his anthologies. And yet, it features some of his best writing. The descriptions of Cairo are filled with lively detail that convince the reader that the writer was really there. The worst (best?) of HPL's baroque language is saved for the very end, and truly lends force to the climax. Most importantly, in assuming the voice of Houdini, Lovecraft created a fully-fleshed narrator with a sense of personality that far outstrips his customary wan, hapless and bookish heroes.   

Even if it's not read as often as it deserves, "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" had a lasting influence on the gaming world. It was a primary influence on The Fungi from Yuggoth (1984) by Keith Herber, which is (in my view) the best adventure ever written for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. So I'm happy to see Fantasy Flight Games carry on this tradition with Under the Pyramids (which was, by the way, Lovecraft's first name for "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs"). 

Well, on to the characters!

Above we have Hank Samson, the farmhand. FARMHAND? I guess Fantasy Flight Games is running out of ideas for characters. After all, there is only so often that you can re-use the idea of an Irish gangster.

In any case, Hank's miniature is the Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror "Peasant" (1986).

Professor Harvey Walters is, well, a professor. At least that's a proper Lovecraftian career -- an expert in the field of crypto-antiquitarianologicalism. His miniature is the CC1 Gothic Horror "Sir Charles" (1987). He's been slightly modified by yrs. truly -- I added the impressive side-whiskers. I have a soft spot for Harvey Walters because he predates Fantasy Flight Games by many years and originates with the the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, where he was the sample character in the rulebook:

Notice how his player's name is given as "Sandy" -- presumably, this is Sandy Petersen, the author of the game.

Above is Joe Diamond the private eye. His miniature is the CC1 Gothic Horror "Professor" (1986). With his studious crouch, this miniature looks less like a professor and more like Sherlock Holmes -- after all, we know from stories like A Study in Scarlett that Holmes would crawl around the floor with his magnifying glass. I'm not sure, however, where Holmes would have found the scroll for summoning a Star Vampire.

Above is Mandy Thompson, the researcher. I really love this miniature -- she's Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror "Rancher's Lady". She's got a great stance and lovely details like her sweater vest. But when it came to paint her face, I realized that her mouth is formed into a very circular scream. It makes her look like she's "smiling like a donut".

Above is Minh Thi Phan, the secretary. Never trust a secretary who reads The King in Yellow -- she's apt to jam straightened paper clips into her eyes at inconvenient times. Well, in any case, Minh's miniature is the Gothic Horror's "Betty" (1987). 

Above is the infelicitously named "Monterey Jack"  -- the archaeologist. God I hate that name. Well, he gets a cool miniature -- the CC1 Gothic Horror "Rancher" (1986).

Above is Rex Murphy, the journalist. Coincidentally, here in Toronto there is a real life journalist named Rex Murphy, who's always looked to me like he's seen his fair share of cosmic horrors:

Citadel has not produced any sufficiently writerly miniature for Rex, so his miniature is "The Reporter" from Foundry's City Slicker's range. 

Finally, above is Sister Mary, the nun. Non-sexy, non-gun-wielding nuns are hard to come by in 28mm, but I finally tracked down a suitable figure from RAFM -- an excellent producer of Lovecraftian miniatures (and other delights) based here in Ontario. Sister Mary is the RAF02908 "Holy Sister" from the Cthulhu range.

"If only I had not read so much Egyptology before coming
to this land which is the fountain of all darkness and terror!"

Stay tuned for next week when I'll be looking at Carcosa and the King in Yellow...

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Discrete Charm of Speed-Painting for Mansions of Madness

As a miniature painter, every once in a while, it's fun to gird your loins, drop your standards, and get ready for some CRANKHEAD SPEED PAINTING. Enter the arena of complete shamelessness. If you find your resolve weakening, huff some fumes from your can of Army Painter Strong Tone and turn up the Motorhead. Lemmy doesn't care if your miniatures looks like shit. Just. Pump. Them. Out.

My excuse for speed painting was Fantasy Flight Game's 2nd edition of Mansions of Madness and its expansions. They comprise three large box teeming with cheap, plastic miniatures of Lovecraftian monsters: Shoggoths, Nightgaunts, Byakhees, Deep Ones... even the Dunwich Horror makes an appearance. But given all the other projects I want to get done, I gave myself only 2 weekends to paint about 50 miniatures, including some very large and tentacular monsters. No Sleep Til Hammersmith, indeed!

My technique is tried and true. Slap on a basecoat. Do some quick dry-brushing. Saturate the miniature in a glaze of Army Painter Strong Tone, Citadel washes, or a solution of human spittle and peanut butter. Add a detail or two, like the eyes on the Shoggoth or the mouths on the Dunwich Horror. And then, move on and repeat until you run out of Benzedrine.

Deep One Hybrids

The results vary from dingy to morbidly poor. But that is besides the point. The point is the sheer joy of production: to paint miniatures like a horse shits or R.A. Salvatore writes novels.

And so, without further ado...


Child of Dagon

Zombies (polite looking zombies, no?)

Cult Leader

Deep One



Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath



Star Spawn of Cthulhu

The Dunwich Horror

And finally, the worst miniature I've ever painted...

Priest of Dagon

*   *   *

WARNING: People who visit Oldenhammer in Toronto are too nice. Complimentary or even polite comments on these miniatures risk summary deletion. In order to make this easy on you, reader, I have pre-written some appropriate remarks that you can cut-and-paste into your own comment:

Did you paint those miniatures or surgically remove them from the stomach of a sea turtle? 

Your miniatures are bland, and your prose is over-written. There's a typo in the first paragraph. Worst of all, your celebration of "edgy" drug culture is both vulgar and laughably disingenuous, given the implacable bourgeois odor of your blog, your hobbies and indeed your life. Well, try, try again. Signed, Mom. 

Sux!!1! Lol

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fear and Loathing in Unknown Kadath

We were somewhere around Celephaïs on the Cerenerian Sea when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should steer. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the ship, which was sailing about 10 knots with full sails to Kadath. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Nodens! What are these goddamn animals?”
Hunter P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is Decadent and Depraved

The current state of US politics is giving me the fear. The usual explanations explain nothing. And so we must look to literature and fantasy to understand our new reality. And when it comes to the deep weirdness that lies at the heart of America, there are only two authors that really knew the score: H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson
Although these two authors are not often mentioned in the same breath, they are startlingly similar in tone. Both used violent and overblown language to communicate a sense of moral decay that transcended the ordinary boundaries of acceptable thought. Both sought to portray how a reasonable mind twists and melts when exposed to a horrific reality. Both saw barbarism beneath a hypocritical veneer of American modernity. 

And both H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson were past masters at portraying altered states of consciousness. For Lovecraft, this came in his Dream Cycle stories like The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926) or The Silver Key (1926). For Thompson, it was his drug-fueled romps like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) or the under-appreciated gem, Fear and Loathing in Elko (1992). In these works, Thompson and Lovecraft drag their benighted narrators through a phantasmagorical landscape populated by monsters and madmen. Indeed, sometimes it's hard to tell the two authors apart. But maybe that's the drugs talking.

Well, in any case, listening to the audiobook of Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 has given me some solace in understanding the last American election. It's also kept me busy while painting some miniatures for The Dreamlands, the latest expansion for Eldritch Horror, the Lovecraft themed board-game.

As usual, I try to find metal miniatures from Citadel's Gothic Horror line to match the heroes from the game. Here's what I've come up with...

Darrell Simmons, the Photographer

This is my ode to Hunter S. Thompson. With his shorts, cigarette, revolver and high socks, I tried to capture Thompson's odor of violent and disreputable journalism. The miniature is not really from the Gothic Horror range -- originally, he was "Nyudo" (1985) from Citadel's Judge Dredd line. Nyudo was an almost unbelievably racist miniature in his pristine form. Apparently an Asian tourist, he featured slanted eyes and buckteeth. Well, so much for that - I cut off Nyudo's head and hand, replacing it with bits from a Citadel gangster. I think Hunter would be proud.

Amanda Sharpe, the Student

Amanda's miniature is the "Office Girl" (1987) from Citadel's Gothic Horror range.

Carolyn Fern, the psychologist

I'm close to exhausting Citadel's fund of female heroes, so this miniature is a GN7 "Gun Moll" from Copplestone Casting's Gangster line.

Gloria Goldberg, the author

I'm glad that Fantasy Flight Games has continued the long tradition of Jewish investigators in Cthuloid activities. Gloria's miniature is another Copplestone Casting, from GN11 "Swell Dolls".

Kate Winthrop, the scientist

Some days you eat the bar and some days the bar eats you. When it came to creating a miniature for the scientist Kate Winthrop, I got eaten. Jesus, this is a bad conversion. She started out as another Copplestone GN11 "Swell Doll" but after I replaced a number of her limbs, she now looks more like a goiter with big hips. At least she's wearing a lab-coat so that you know that she's a scientist. She an expert in science.

Vincent Lee, the Doctor

Although this miniature isn't a particularly good likeness of Vincent Lee, it's such a beautiful sculpt that I can't resist using him in this role. The mini is "the Doctor" from Wargames Foundry's Old West City Slickers range.

William Yorrick, the gravedigger

God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well. And I intend to use my shoveling abilities to fight the Great Old Ones.

Whatever. Poor Yorrick's miniature is the "Man" (1987) from Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror Range.

Luke Robinson, the Dreamer

Luke Robinson is clearly a stand-in for Lovecraft's dream-questers like Randolph Carter, Kuranes or Raoul Duke [ed: fact check, pls].

His miniature is one of the rarities from Citadel's Gothic Horror range, the Illuminati (1987). Variants of this miniature also appeared as Wu Jen in Citadel's Oriental Heroes range. This is one of my favourite miniatures, and I'm pleased with the way his bright colour scheme worked out.

Turning Pro.

There is no way to explain the terror I felt when I finally lunged up to the sentry and began babbling. All my well-rehearsed lines fell apart under that woman's stoney glare. "Hi there," I said. "My name is ... ah, Randolph Carter ... yes, on the list, that's for sure. Free lunch, final wisdom, total coverage. ... why not? I have my attorney with me and I realize of course that his name is not on my list, but we must get into Kadath, yes, this man is actually my driver. We brought this red shark all the way from Leng and now it's time for the desert, right? Yes. Just check the list and you'll see. Don't worry. What's the score, here? What's next?" 
The woman never blinked. "Your chamber's not ready yet," she said. "But there's somebody looking for you." 
"No!" I shouted. "Why? We haven't done anything yet!" My legs felt rubbery. I gripped the desk and sagged toward her as she held out Silver Key, but I refused to accept it. The woman's face was changing: swelling, pulsing ... horrible green jowls and fangs jutting out, the face of a Moray Eel! Deadly poison! I lunged backwards into my attorney, who gripped my arm as he reached out to take the Key. "I'll handle this," he said to the Moray woman. "This man has a bad heart, but I have plenty of medicine. My name is Nyarlothotep. Prepare our chamber at once. We'll be in the bar."
Hunter P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is Decadent and Depraved