Wednesday, January 28, 2015

When did Games Workshop Go to Pot?

As a profitable enterprise, today's Games Workshop is a rusty turd. But I often contemplate the dim past and wonder when it was that Games Workshop first lost its way: not as a money making venture, but as a maker of games and miniatures that I want to use and enjoy. This, of course, is a philosophical question: when things went wrong depends on what you think Games Workshop first did that was right. All gamers will answer that question differently, but for me the answer is clear.

"When did it all go wrong?"

Games Workshop's decline began in January 1988. This was the month that White Dwarf #97 came out, opening with a short and obscurely written editorial by Sean Masterson explaining that the magazine would no longer publish articles about games produced by companies other than Games Workshop. In other words, White Dwarf (and indeed all of Games Workshop) was going inward and focusing exclusively on the promotion and development of their home grown games, namely Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. Here's the entire editorial:

There are a few interesting facts about Masterson's editorial. First, it didn't represent an abrupt change in policy but was rather a public acknowledgment of a gradual evolution that began earlier and intensified later. Articles about AD&D had already vanished from White Dwarf, the last being in Issue #93 (Sept. 1987). On the other hand, content for some other games (Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu) didn't disappear for a few more issues after #97.

Some readers of White Dwarf immediately called bullshit on the new policy, leading to some exchanges with Masterson in the Letters page:

In Masterson's defence, he's quite correct that Games Workshop had every right to use its in-house magazine to promote its own games. After all, you will search the pages of Dragon Magazine in vain for any articles about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay... so why should White Dwarf promote AD&D?

Why indeed. This brings me back to my initial point - isolating when things go wrong depends on what you think was going right. And in my view, the special quality that made the Games Workshop of 1985-1988 different from TSR, or Chaosium, or Steve Jackson Games was precisely that it did promote AD&D, as well as Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Dr. Who, Runequest, Judge Dredd, Middle Earth Roleplaying and Paranoia.

a firm believer in ecumenicalism

Games Workshop was a mosaic. This incredible diversity was represented not merely by articles in White Dwarf, but by partnership agreements between Games Workshop and American gaming companies, -- and of course this diversity also played out in Citadel, which produced miniatures for all the above mentioned games in the mid-1980's.

This diversity was wonderful for the consumer.  But it was good for Games Workshop too. The crowded stable of games promoted a vast range of miniatures -- a range that was varied (ninjas! broo! timelords!) but also unified in style and scale. But more importantly, Games Workshop's ecumenical approach kept fresh ideas and influences flowing into their studio, leading to their own creations of astounding potency: Rogue Trader and the 40K universe (1987); the Old World as portrayed in Warhammer 3rd edition and Fantasy Roleplay (1986); not to mention Blood Bowl (1986). 

And although these games were unique and amazing, they were not particularly original -- rather Games Workshop's great trick was bringing together the best of separate, pre-existing elements. Thus the demonology of Cthulhu, the chaos of Moorcock, the magic of Runequest, the grandeur of Tolkien, the aesthetic of Judge Dredd and the humour of Paranoia all found their way into the worlds of Warhammer.

"Waddya mean ize past me prime?"

Everything that Games Workshop has produced since 1987 received its vitality from that early bang of creative energy. And the light from that departing sun lingered a long time in the sky before it began to fade. Thus, the Silver Age of Games Workshop (1988-1993) saw several top-notch games: the last half of the Enemy Within Campaign (1989), Space Hulk (1989) and Man O'War (1993), not too mention some great years at White Dwarf (until around 1990). But as great as these products were, they still didn't break any new creative ground. And after 1993... well we just got tinkering. Updated editions. Expanded armies. But nothing that broke the old molds. Nothing as radical and exciting as Warhammer or 40K. Games Workshop could only cannibalize itself.

The end of Games Workshop's golden age in early 1988 also teaches us something about the way all golden ages end. Games Workshop's undoing came in the very hour of its triumph, and indeed is inseparable from that triumph. Games Workshop turned inward precisely because it was enjoying marvelous success. They narrowed their miniature ranges precisely because so many people wanted to play nothing but Warhammer. They stopped innovating precisely because what they already had made promised endurance and popularity. The Age of Creativity was over. The Age of Profit had begun.

If you have any thoughts about how the creative process at Games Workshop changed, for better or worse, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. Cheers!

[Goblins illustrating this article are some of my paint jobs for Krapfang's Backwoods Bandits.]

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dwarfs versus Dwarves

What's the proper plural: dwarfs or dwarves? And what does the Eiffel tower have to do with it?


Well, I love it when high culture and gaming culture intersect. And so I had a chuckle yesterday when thumbing through the latest issue of the TLS (aka the Times Literary Supplement). Nothing is too rarified for the TLS; as the missus says, it's the best source for news about
latest Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between penises and pepper-pots in ancient Greece. And their letters to the editor are especially entertaining if you like watching academics bitch slap each other over questions like the number of biblical references in Proust.

Anyway, issue #5831 (Jan. 9, 2015) of the TLS contained the following letter to the editor regarding a review of the Italian novel Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel ("All the Iron in the Eiffel Tower"):

 Sir, -- Adam Mars Jones' remarks in his discussions of Michele Mari's novel Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel are interesting in making three references to "dwarves"... Look up "dwarf" in a decent dictionary and you will invariably find the standard plural listed as "dwarfs". It was J.R.R. Tolkien, in Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, who revived the rare and obsolete form "dwarves", hoping by it to distinguish the "character and power" of the dwarfs in his own imagined mythology from the debased dwarfs of folk tales. From Mars-Jones' description, Mari's dwarfs, while serious enough to engage in murder, look to be essentially evil pranksters, and a long way from Tolkien's dignified "dwarves" -- which in any case have no evident presence outside his own works...
Mark O'Sullivan
Thus, the heavily Tolkien-influenced Dungeons and Dragons has always used (and continues to use) "dwarves" (a fact which O'Sullivan misses when he says that spelling has "no evident presence outside" Tolkien). On the other hand, Warhammer (from the 1st to the 8th edition) generally uses the more conventional "dwarfs".

What should you use? I like Mark O'Sullivan's approach. If the fellas in question are of low moral character, you should use "dwarfs". But if they are dignified and potent, use "dwarves". Grammar is easy.

Dwarfs (note shifty eyes) 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Computer Wants You to Have the Right Information

Since I've started collecting Citadel's Paranoia miniatures, I've realized how neglected these minis were in the 1980's and still are today. The range was introduced in 1986, coinciding with the release of HIL Sector Blues, a Paranoia supplement that included rules for using miniatures in the roleplaying game. However, pictures of the miniatures did not appear in the 1986 Spring Journal, the 1987 Spring Journal, Le Héraut Citadel 1986, or the compendious 1988 Catalogue. The low profile continues today: the page for Paranoia on the Stuff of Legends page is just a shell.

As a result of this neglect, it's hard to tell what is and is not a Paranoia miniature. As I mentioned in my last post, Bobby Jackson sculpted some hilarious Paranoia figures for Mongoose Publishing in 2004 - they are slotta based and similar in scale to Citadel, so it is easy to confuse the two from a distance (As I did once on eBay).

William Burroughs said, "Paranoia is just having the right information." And so, I thought I'd provide the right information by reproducing
 the only two ads for Paranoia Miniatures that appeared in White Dwarf. The first is from  #83 (Nov. 1986) and also appeared in the October 1986 Citadel Flyer:

The second ad appeared in White Dwarf #89 (May 1987) and featured a completely different set of miniatures, including my favourite mini of all time, "David-A-DWS with Hover":

Before leaving Paranoia behind, I wanted to tip my hat to Goblin Lee and his excellent post about the funniest Warhammer 40K Rogue Trader scenarios ever written, Vulture Warriors from Dimension X Meet Plenty of Cheerful Orks with Plasma Cannon from White Dwarf 112 (April 1989). The scenario was written by Ken Rolston (who also authored HIL Sector Blues)  and featured some illustrations by the fabulous Gary Harrod.

Although Games Workshop was already decadent and depraved by 1989, Vulture Warriors from Dimension X Meet Plenty of Cheerful Orks with Plasma Cannon is one of the last gasps of the classic Oldhammer spirit: a playful scenario requiring a Game Master and emphasizing simple DIY terrain and a spirit of role-play (In this sense, VWDXMPCOPC reminds me a lot of All the Nice Dwarves Luv a Sailor). 

The scene for VWDXMPCOPC reads like one of Shakespeare's dramas, although I can't remember which one: an expeditionary force of Troubleshooters from the world of Paranoia is instructed by the Computer to step through an experimental teleportation device, and they re-materialize in the Warhammer 40K universe. Unfortunately, the particular spot of the 40K universe they find is a small Space Ork outpost on an otherwise uninhabited Algae World. As you can imagine, fruitful intercultural communication ensues!

The GM prevents the Orks and Troubleshooters from knowing what they're facing when they explore the outpost (which is meant to be represented by nothing fancier than three box lids supported by styrofoam cups). 

If you're looking for VWDXMPCOPC (and I don't know why you wouldn't), I've posted the entire article HERE so that you can relive the glory.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Space Alert - a game of panic and failure

I often use the phrase "golden age" when referring to the period in the mid-1980's, when Citadel produced their best miniatures. But we are living in another golden age right now -- the age of great board game design. Even the mainstream press has noticed this renaissance, with the Guardian recently observing, "Games are simply getting better. Publishers are turning out products with elegant mechanics and impressive artwork as fast as their customers can snap them up."

I like to bask in both these golden ages at once, mainly by replacing the components in modern games with vintage miniatures. My latest project was enhancing Space Alert, a science fiction board game, by using Paranoia miniatures produced by Citadel and Mongoose Publishing.

What is Space Alert? A solo/cooperative game in which the players control a space craft with a very simple mission: arrive by hyperspace in an uncharted solar system and stay there for 10 minutes, until the ship's computer maps the area and then automatically jumps the ship back home. The players spend the game working together to respond to various threats, including aliens, asteroids and boarders. Their job is made complex by the fact that the ship itself is a piece of trash, with unstable warheads, faulty elevators and a slow computer.

Why is Space Alert worthy of your notice? Well, it is designed by Vlaada Chvátil, who (in my view) is the most creative game designer Europe has to offer. No one is better at giving a game that precious quality which sometimes goes by the name flavour: the ability of a game's rules/mechanics to evoke the underlying setting behind the game. Space Alert has flavour because it has an innovative set of rules that perfectly echo the setting of panic and incompetence on a 3rd rate space ship.

Your ship is specially designed to be crewed by morons.

The 10 minutes that your ship spends in danger is played out in real time, with threats appearing in accordance with a CD recording (or a smartphone app) mimicking the ship computer's announcements. But more than this, the game simulates the frantic bumbling of the ill-trained crew by making everyone plan out what they think they are doing for those precious 10 minutes, without giving anyone a proper chance to ensure that they are actually cooperating. The end result is a short but intense gaming experience, where the players face the high cost of seemingly innocent miscues, like trying to pile two people into the same elevator, or forgetting to shake the central computer's mouse before the screen goes to sleep.

The final judgment: a fast, hilarious game with lots of replay-ability, and a high tolerance for beer impairment.

The original crew
A final note about the miniatures. Space Alert requires miniatures for five crewman, each marked out with a different colour. When I was casting about for minis to use with this game, I quickly fell upon the Citadel Paranoia range. In general theme, both games are similar: science fiction parodies involving incompetence and failure. Even better, the Paranoia miniatures look like most players feel when playing Space Alert: terrified, paralyzed or full of hubris. But my search for the best miniatures led me to discover the excellent sculpts that Bobby Jackson made for Mongoose Publishing circa 2004 for "Paranoia XP". These sculpture are every bit as funny and dramatic as Citadel's original designs, and so I was happy to use Jackson's Praying Troubleshooter as one of my crew. (On eBay, you will often see these Mongoose figures confused with the Citadel range -- and indeed, they are completely compatible in scale and feel).

I filled the role of Blue Captain and the Red Security Officer using Citadel's Paranoia Security Guards. The three remaining crewmen are Troubleshooters wearing overalls, two from Citadel and one from Mongoose. I gave the crew unity of uniform by using the same base colour of blue-grey for overalls and armour (Vallejo Colour's Sombre Grey) -- and then personalized everyone by painting their T-shirts and accents in different primary colours. The result: a much richer experience of this great game!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hasslefree Miniatures: Promocode and the Art of Gesture

Hasslefree Miniatures is one of the few contemporary miniature makers that I love. And for the next day, Hasslefree Miniatures is offering 11% off with the promocode HAPPY11. This is in celebration of their 11th anniversary. I didn't realize that 11th anniversaries are a thing – it brings to mind Sammy Maudlin’s 23rd Anniversary Special. Well, whatever the number, happy birthday Hasslefree!

I admire Hasslefree, and its principal sculptor, Kev White, for two overlapping reasons. First, they have a clean, simple style that really cuts against the modern trend toward overly detailed miniatures with lots of folds, fobs, straps, jewels, weapons, plates, layers and fringes. The simple, Hasslefree style instead emphasizes the human body, and the face of the miniature. Like the Citadel sculpts of old [steady, nostalgia rage], Kev White knows that the face is what transforms a miniature into a character - and so everything focuses on the face. 

The second thing I love about Hasselfree and Kev White is that they have a distinctive look: smooth lines, understated features and a well-rounded human form (i.e. a normal body fat ratio). But if there was one word I’d use for White’s work, it is gesture. He has a unique ability to evoke the personality of a figure through posture, poses and gestures. As I’ve said before (about a very different man, Bob Olley), a personal style is what makes a miniature sculptor into an artist. You know a White sculpt immediately upon picking it up.

I also have a soft spot for Hasslefree because my first (and only!) commission as a miniature painter was to paint a HF miniature. My friend Matthew asked me if I would paint a miniature rendition of his girlfriend Emily as a Christmas present. We both scoured the internet searching for a likely likeness, a task which is not too easy when you want a realistic portrait of an actual woman, and not an anorexic death nymph with breast implants. I suggested Matthew look at Hasselfree, and he immediately came up with HFA108 Lisa Lambaste, pictured in this post. 

She’s a great figure: resolute without being po-faced. I painted her outfit to match one of Emily's dresses. As with attempting to paint anyone real, the biggest challenge was getting the skin right in tone and shading. This took hours of experimentation, and one pixel out of place could destroy any resemblance to the real Emily. Anyway, this morning I met her for the first time since she received the gift, and she was very appreciative: she said it looks just like her! I couldn't be happier.

Anyway, if you haven’t checked out Hasslefree before, give them a look. They have a great variety of ranges, and are particularly rewarding if you're looking for (strong) female characters. I also like the fact that Hasslefree gives a name to all their minis... this touch gives the models even more of a sense of individuality. 

Below are some of my favourite HF miniatures.

HFA031 Kendra, Hasslefree Miniatures (sculpted by Kev White)

HFH060 Alicia, Hasslefree Miniatures (sculpted by Kev White)

HFE008 Luna, Hasslefree Miniatures (sculpted by Kev White)

HFG450G Grymn Walker, Hasslefree Miniatures (sculpted by Kev White)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Citadel's Paranoia Miniatures

The Paranoia miniatures produced by Citadel from 1985-1987 are among the most under-appreciated ranges produced in the golden age of Games Workshop. Paranoia is a post-apocalyptic game set in a subterranean city combining the surveillance of Orwell, the bureaucracy of Kafka and the sensibility of Spaceballs. 

But more than this, Paranoia was the first meta role-playing game: a game that mocked and inverted the conventions of other RPGs. Nothing in that game was fair -- for instance, my first character was slain by a random encounter named "Wandering Damage". Indeed, player characters were actively discouraged from even learning the rules of the game, since that could be interpreted as seditious knowledge. The result was a game that promoted willful ignorance, uncertainty and betrayal among players, all in the name of good fun.

When Citadel obtained the licence for Paranoia miniatures from West End Games, it had a great excuse to explore the comic possibilities of miniature sculpting. The results are almost unequaled for humor: neat, simple figures in overalls or padded armour, each one convulsed with despair, terror or denial. Some models are attempting to defend themselves with vacuum cleaners -- some are paralyzed with indecision -- some are just running for their lives. They remind me of how I would look if I was being attacked by an alien menace. In this sense, these miniatures are a refreshing antidote to the grim, heroic figures that populate most fantasy and science fiction, including Warhammer and Rogue Trader.

Sadly I can't find any evidence about who sculpted these miniatures. My suspicion is that Aly Morrison is the guilty party. The pronounced cheekbones and gangley limbs in the Paranoia figures are Morrison hallmarks. And the Paranoia figures also bear a striking resemblance to some of Morrison's early Imperial Guardsmen, leading to the intriguing question of how Paranoia's aesthetic influenced the development of Warhammer 40K's Imperial Army. In any case, Morrison was always the most impish of Citadel sculptors, so the Paranoia figures would be in his wheelhouse. 

Besides being used (of course) in a game of Paranoia, I've always thought that Citadel's Paranoia range make an ideal addition to any game of Warhammer 40K -- perhaps as civilians, crew members, or poorly trained units of a planetary defence force. In a proper game of refereed Rogue Trader, these miniatures could provide vital parts of a story or mission. Be that as it may, I was inspired to track down and paint a body of these miniatures for a very different purpose: I wanted to play Vlaada Chvátil's "Space Alert" with miniatures worthy of his superb game... 

So stay tuned for a brief discussion of Space Alert in my next post.