Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Complete Set of Talisman Miniatures

I'm adding a new feature to Oldenhammer in Toronto: the Oldenhammer Galleries. These are permanent pages (accessed through a sidebar) that set out a complete collection of fully painted miniatures. My hope is that these galleries will be useful for other miniature painters who are looking for inspiration or a reference.

Talisman Hobgoblin, Barbarian and Amazon, Citadel (1986, sculpted by Aly Morrison)
The Hobgoblin, Barbarian and Amazon from Talisman Expansion (1986)

My first 2 sets of galleries are:

(1) The complete collection of Citadel's 1st and 2nd edition Talisman Miniatures -- organized by set (Talisman Basic Set, Talisman Expansion, Talisman Adventure, Talisman Dungeon, Talisman Timescape, Talismans Toads and Alternate Miniatures). This collection is inspired by the wonderful collection at Talisman Island.

(2) The complete collection of Fantasy Flight Game's Star Wars Imperial Assault Miniatures -- organized by faction (Rebels, Imperials and Mercenaries).

Royal Guard Captain, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)
Royal Guard Champion from Imperial Assault (2014)

I hope to add other galleries soon! 

Thanks for looking - sharing these pictures brings me a lot of joy.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Painted Miniatures for Star Wars - Twin Shadows

If I had a reason for living past the age of 40, I think that it's so that I could paint a miniature of Boba Fett. Surely I've been preparing my whole life for this moment. And well, now that the moment has come, it feels good. 

Boba Fett, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)

Mr. Fett is part of Twin Shadows, the new expansion of for Star Wars - Imperial Assault. Over the past month (including a lovely week by the seaside in Nova Scotia), I've been painting up the full complement of miniatures, including Sand People, Sandtroopers, and (my personal favourite) R2-D2 & C-3PO.

C-3PO and R2-D2, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)

At the very beginning of The Analects, Confucius observes, "Isn't it a pleasure to study new things and practice what you have learned?" I wonder if Confucius painted miniatures. Seems likely because I know just how he feels. For the first time, I've been seriously studying how to apply dirt and battle damage, and trying out the various techniques on these Star Wars miniatures. Although I'm just beginning to learn this tricky business, it's been a blast.

As I've written before, my initial impulse with Star Wars has been to keep the miniatures clean. I've had enough of the sooty aesthetic of Warhammer -- instead I wanted to emulate the hygienic gleam of the Stormtroopers who first burst on to the Tantive IV. Be that as it may, I realized that painting Boba Fett without chipped paint is like painting the Last Supper and leaving out Judas. 

After playing around with various chipping techniques, the one I settled on was very simple: outline the place to be chipped with the lightest shade of the surrounding area's highlight colour. Then dab black, black/brown or terracotta spots into that highlighted area. This creates the effect of light reflecting off the inner angle of the chip, with the dark metal or rust peeking through at the bottom. (You can see an example on the right). For extra-deep chips, a prick of silver in the midst of the dab of dark paint gives an impression of scraped metal. It's an easy technique but yields nice results. Sometimes, the simplest approach is best. (That's probably another saying patented by Confucius.)

Tusken Raiders, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)

And if I'm going to present a distressed Boba Fett, I decided that I'd also make the Heavy Stormtroopers look like the poor, dirty grunts on Tatooine. Dirtiness is a tricky thing to paint using regular acrylics. I find that acrylic washes pool in ugly and unrealistic ways. Dry-brushing can emulate the spray of dried mud, but it's not particularly effective at showing the smeared dirt that gets into cracks and joints. I used some powders (Sienna and Umber) to soil the robes of the Tusken Raiders, in an effort to replicate the dust of the desert -- however the results didn't stun me.

Heavy Stormtroopers, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)

So when it came to the Heavy Stormtroopers, I turned to oil paints. 

I've got to say, I love oils. Despite my preconceived notions, they are remarkably easy to use -- and they create a lovely muddy effect without too much effort. You just dab some paint around, and then use a white spirit to thin it, blend it and (when necessary) erase it. The best part of oils, of course, is that (unlike an acrylic wash) they have a very realistic staining effect when you thin out the edges with white spirit. And they blend like magic. I enjoyed using oils so much that I also employed them to dirty-up Boba Fett's pants. Somehow I have trouble believing that Mrs. Fett is scrupulous about doing the big man's laundry.

Saska Teft and Biv Bodhrik, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)

In general, I continue to be impressed by the sculptures of Benjamin Maillet and his team. C-3PO and R2-D2 capture the intricate details of the droids. Boba Fett is full of movement and drama, as are the Tusken Warriors. Other miniatures in the Twin Shadows box include two new Rebel heroes: Biv Bodhrik and Saska Teft. Neither are positively overwhelming sculpts -- although I do like the fact that Biv appears to be wearing some salvaged Stormtrooper armour. 

Kayn Somos, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)

The final member of the Twin Shadows suite is the Stormtrooper Captain, Kayn Somos, who comes (like Boba and the droids) in an associated figure pack that you have to buy for extra. His is a simple design befitting the fascist anonymity of the Stormtroopers. I like that he wears the striking orange pauldron that denotes a squad leader.

Here's one final pic of Boba Fett... what a wonderful miniature he was to paint: so much colour and so many details. 

Boba Fett, Imperial Assault FFG (2015, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet)

Thanks for looking!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

You are now a slimy, little TOAD

Here's the full set of Citadel's toad miniatures for Talisman (1st/2nd edition). 

Talisman Toads, Citadel (sculpted by Aly Morrison, 1986-1987)

Of all the cliches that populate Talisman, my favourite is being zapped into a toad. Getting turned into an amphibian is an an old saw that starts with the fairy tale of the Frog Prince and reaches into every story where magic plays a role, from The Lord of the Rings to Monty Python and the Holy Grail ("Well, I got better.") But as far as I know, Talisman is the only board game where getting toadifacted is a regular and oddly satisfying occurrence.  

The pick of the litter, at least as far as I'm concerned, is the Pirate Toad. It's not just because he's an especially grotesque figure, but because he represents the only occasion where I've made money on my miniature collecting habit/obsession.

About two years ago, for reasons that are still not clear to me, I set out to collect and paint the entire range of Citadel's Talisman miniatures. I thought I already had a good start, having painted a couple dozen of the most common minis. Little did I fathom the magnitude of my self-appointed task. Did you realize that there are 70 Citadel Talisman miniatures, including expansions, alternates and amphibians? I sure didn't. That's because I'm A Idiot. 70 is a lot of lead. A lot of very expensive lead.

Talisman Pirate Toad, Citadel (sculpted by Aly Morrison, 1987)

Well, after blowing a fortune, I had finally gathered 69 of the miniatures. Only one lost sheep eluded me: the Pirate Toad. He couldn't be got for love or money. For painful months eBay was quiet. The Oldhammer Forum was silent. I wandered through the internet, looking for a Pirate Toad, but no Pirate Toad was to be found. Like every loony collector, I became convinced that this one last piece would never be found.

And then the PT surfaced on an eBay auction! There was only one catch. He was included in the collection of some other poor madman who had collected the entire range of Talisman miniatures. He was bundled with 71 of Talisman miniatures, as well as a complete set of the game and most of the expansions. It was a massive and very valuable lot. I was terrified this auction could easily run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars. But, one of the odder laws of eBay is that large collections often sell for a fraction of their true value -- even though individual Talisman minis often sell for between $20-40, this whole auction eventually topped out at only $200. That is to say, it sold to me for $200.

After unwrapping the Pirate Toad and laying him on my shoulders, I was left with only one dilemma. What to do with the extra 6 dozen Talisman miniatures that accidentally came with him? I hate selling stuff on eBay, especially piecemeal. So I asked around at the Oldhammer foum about selling in bulk and made some discrete inquiries of ads in the back of certain magazines ("turn your lead into gold"). I finally settled on Noble Knight Games. To my amazement, they offered me over $400 for the minis. (Not only did they give me a fair price, but they were a pleasure to deal with -- so I highly recommend them if you too are selling a bulk lot). I got to keep my toad, plus a nearly mint version of Talisman 2nd edition, Talisman Expansion, Talisman Adventure, Talisman Dungeon and Timescape. 

Thanks for staying with me for the whole, long story. When a man finds his lost Pirate Toad, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my Pirate Toad which was lost.

Talisman Pirate, Citadel (sculpted by Aly Morrison, 1987)
"Well, I got better."

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: In the House of Tom Bombadil

Chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring

After being chased by Black Riders, lost in the Old Forest and molested by a malignant tree, the hobbits take a break. They spend this chapter singing, bathing and catching up on their sleep. At the centre of it all is the enigmatic figure of Tom Bombadil, undoubtedly the most controversial figure in The Lord of the Rings. Tom has a polarizing effect on people. He seems to be especially hated by screenwriters. As Peter Jackson said of his decision to give Bombadil the shove
The main reason is not just time or pace, but one of simple narrative focus ... the Bombadil sequence has so little to do with Sauron or the Ring, it is difficult to justify the screen time. It simply doesn't give us any vital new information. A very simplest rule of thumb that I use in movie storytelling is to try and further the story with each new scene.
Perhaps it's true that Tom doesn't advance the narrow story of the destruction of the Ring. But if that's all there is to The Lord of the Rings, then you have a pretty impoverished view of the trilogy. I mean to say, once they're captured by the Uruk-hai, Merry and Pippin don't advance this storyline either, but no one goes around slicing their detour through Fangorn and Isengard out of the frame. So why does Tom take it in the neck?

I think that one of the reasons that people don't like Bombadil is because he is a deeply ambiguous figure, and people (in general) don't like ambiguity. Ambiguity is especially bad in a screenplay, where it tends to confuse the Members of the Academy. However, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes Tom such an important element in The Lord of the Rings. Tom may not be important to the plot narrowly construed, but he casts a fascinating light on the larger, richer story of Middle-earth.

There are a lot of theories about who Tom Bombadil actually is. A lot of theories. Is he a Maiar -- that is to say, a semi-divine being (like Gandalf)? Is he the physical embodiment of the song of the gods? Is he God himself? Some fans look for clues in Tolkien's letters, where the author describes him (somewhat awkwardly) as "an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science." (Letter 153, Sept. 1954). In my view, trying to slot Tom Bombadil into a tidy map of Tolkien's mythology is approaching the issue precisely backwards. The question isn't how we use Tolkien's other writings to understand Tom, but how does Tom help us understand Tolkien's mythology.

First off, I think the best way to encounter Tom Bombadil is the same way that the hobbits encounter him: as a living being who comes "charging through the grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink." Like us, the hobbits also want to understand exactly who and what Tom is. But Tom resists their interpretations as stoutly as he does ours. In response to Frodo's inquiries, Goldberry says, "He is, as you have seen him." The next day, when Frodo asks Tom directly, he replies, "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?"

That last answer reminds me of the Zen koan, "What was your original face before you were born?" And indeed there's something of the stench of Zen hanging around Tom. Like in Zen, his immunity to interpretation isn't an accident -- it is his essential quality (Indeed, in the letter quoted above, Tolkien says "I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it.") All that we, or the hobbits, can know about Tom is that we don't know about Tom. Even his immunity to the Ring of Power shows that he seems to exist outside the established order of things (As one astute commentator has noted, Tom literally "looks through" the Ring).

So what does this zero add up to? Anyone with an interest in Tolkien and an internet connection knows that there are thousands of fans who seek to understand the "Legendarium" of Middle-earth. Tolkien himself invites this practice, by carefully constructing in The Silmarillion and other works a complex but cohesive mythology -- so internally consistent that it seems to come alive. As one of my favourite commentators on this site, Zhu, has pointed out, part of Tolkien's mythology is a hierarchical Chain of Being, with the creator god Iluvatar at the top and Valar, Maiar, Elves etc. cascading on down. Thus, there is a strong temptation for readers and fans to want to systematize every character and element in The Lord of the Rings -- to understand where it comes from and how it fits into the Chain of Being.

The only problem with this approach is that a truly systematized world is a dead world. Real world mythologies are always populated with the irrational and inexplicable: How come Zeus transforms into a swan to have sex? Why do the Norse gods keep listening to Loki's advice? Where do Cain and Abel's wives come from? I think Tolkien grasped this point. Although he clearly had a powerful impulse to organize his own world, he also understood that there must be enough room for the mysterious, the irrational and the unknowable to let the whole thing breathe.

Tom plays that part. He lets us know that Middle-earth will always defy our full understanding. Nor is he the only one in Tolkien's writings. I would argue that in The Silmarillion, Ungoliant takes a similar role. Consider: after a carefully laid out cosmology which seems to explain the origins of absolutely everything ("The Music of the Ainur"), Tolkien abruptly presents this giant, malevolent void-spider. Ungoliant tears into the story. She has no origin, no place on the Chain of Being and seemingly no death. She literally comes out of nowhere. Just like Tom.

In sum, Tom Bombadil teaches us something vital about Tolkien's mythology: that it can never be fully comprehended. His ambiguous and mysterious nature let us know that ambiguity and mystery are at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 8. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 6 here.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Tom Bombadil" Acrylic on Board (1976).]

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: The Old Forest

Chapter 6 of The Fellowship of the Ring

In this Chapter, the intrepid hobbits wander into the magical Old Forest and find themselves bewildered, enchanted and entrapped. I don't so much have a commentary on this chapter as I do a question: Why is there so much overlap between The Lord of the Rings and its predecessor, The Hobbit?

There are many parallels between the two books, including a journey through a menacing, sentient forest. Consider these two passages:
They picked a way among the trees, and their ponies plodded along carefully avoiding the many writhing and interlacing roots... and as they went forward it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker. There was no sound, except an occasional drip of moisture falling through the still leaves. For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity.
And this...

They walked in single file. The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The path itself was narrow and wound in and out among the trunks. Soon... the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened. 
The first excerpt is from the chapter under consideration and describes the Old Forest. The second is a description of Mirkwood from chapter 8 of The Hobbit, "Spiders and Flies".
But of course the similarities between the Old Forest and Mirkwood are only the tip of the iceberg. In no particular order, here are some of the other parallels between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

  • Both books have a Baggins for the (unlikely) hero. 
  • Both involve a party of adventurers led by Gandalf. 
  • In both books, Gandalf disappears and then rejoins the companions. 
  • Both books bring us to Rivendell to consult with the wise Elrond. 
  • Both involve a failed crossing through a pass in the Misty Mountains. 
  • Both take us to the orc-infested tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. 
  • In both books, giant Eagles provide a timely rescue (or two!). 
  • Spiders are an "intermediate" villain in both books.
  • Ultimately, both books require the hobbit to sneak into the domain of a vastly powerful and evil being. 
  • In both books, we meet a scion of kings who has now fallen on hard times. However, by the end of both books, both Bard and Aragorn will return to kingship. 
  • Both books climax in a grand, set-piece battle in which the hobbit plays little role. 
  • In the widest sense, both works conclude the epic quest with the journey back home -- which return helps the reader appreciate how much the hobbit has been changed by his adventure. 
The overlap is so pervasive that if the two books were written by different authors, you would call The Lord of the Rings a work of plagiarism. 

For me, the question is why did Tolkien tread twice over the same ground? It's not like he needed to repeat himself. Works like The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin show us that he's more than capable of different types of heroes and different settings. His conception of Middle-earth is so vast, it's almost perverse that he had Frodo follow in Bilbo's footsteps from the Shire to Rivendell to the Misty Mountains and beyond. I mean, why not have Frodo go due south from the Shire? Or strike out West and head to the Grey Havens, there to take a ship to the environs of Mordor? Why did Tolkien repeat himself?

I'd truly love to hear what other people think of this. For my own part, I think that The Lord of the Rings started out as a sequel to The Hobbit, but "as the tale grew in the telling" (to borrow Tolkien's own description of his creative process), something unforeseen happened: The Lord of the Rings became not a sequel, but a revision of The Hobbit. Tolkien was still haunted by the same images of Middle-earth, and so arranged them in a different key. The journey under the mountains and across a magical landscape changed from a light and playful children's story into a dark and Germanic epic. It's the same story, told two very different ways.

Where does this leave us as readers? When we come upon areas where Tolkien repeated himself (like the magical forest in this chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring) we know that we've hit upon an image or an event that was so powerful, Tolkien needed two kicks at the can. These are the images that lie at the heart of his imagination.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 7. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 5 here.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Old Man Willow" Acrylic on Board (1978).]