Friday, February 26, 2016

Dead Man's Hand: Welcome to Cremation

Welcome to Cremation! It's a frontier town that I constructed for Dead Man's Hand, the 28mm skirmish game by Great Escape Games. I love this game... it's fast, has lots of old-west flavour, and boasts a dedicated range of excellent miniatures (by Great Escape) and terrain (by 4Ground). 

Cremation is my first attempt to create my own battle-board -- a custom built battlefield with integrated scenery and buildings. I was inspired by the step-by-step how-to video on Great Escape's website. It was the most satisfying modeling experience I've ever enjoyed. I suppose part of the pleasure comes from the fact that a battle-board is so BIG. But it's also wonderful to lose yourself in a space that can accommodate so much detail. I guess this is a joy that model train enthusiasts know well. And urban planners.

I became pretty obsessed with Cremation while I was building it. This is part of the pain/pleasure of working with 4Ground buildings. Constructing them is easier than painting a miniature, but leaves one with a true sense of accomplishment because they're so good looking when they're done. But more than that, there are so many possible accessories, that it is easy to go overboard. Soon I didn't just want buildings... I wanted furniture. And boardwalks. And shelving. And pictures. And posters. And flower pots.

For instance, I blew about $60 on eBay on various out-of-print Letraset transfers just to do a couple of the store signs (such as "Bledge's Bank and Deposit"). As a result of all this madness, I like the pictures of Cremation without any actual miniatures better than the pictures with them.

Cremation also was the first time that I employed weathering powders in any serious way. I wanted to use these pigments in order to create a variegated but blended pattern of dust and clay for the streets of the town. And frankly it was a joy to see how quickly and easily the powders can achieve life-like results. 

I imagine Cremation as a watering hole in the south-east of the Arizona Territory: east of Yuma, west of Flagstone, south of Red Rock and north of Ague Verde. It's just a pimple on a map of wastelands -- it's main attraction being the fresh water of "Pineapple Creek" (so named because I melted the plastic beads for the river in a used can of pineapple juice). 

But despite its small size and barren environs, Cremation attracts a colourful crowd: Apache raiders, Confederate deserters, bad banditos, bank-robbers and rustlers. And lawmen. Lots and lots of lawmen.

Why, here's a lawman now. In the picture below, we meet Sheriff Dexter MacGrudy, accompanied by the famed Comanche scout, Isaiah Youngblood. If they can't bring order to the streets of Cremation, no one can. Ole MacGrudy may look like he's seen better days, but he's still meaner than a coot and faster than a hungry rattler. Yes, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get the jump on Dexter MacGrudy.

Uh oh. 

Here we see someone who has gotten up pretty early in the morning. Even earlier than Sheriff MacGrudy. Simply going for a pee is dangerous in Cremation. Too bad. Time to get another lawman!

Thanks for looking! Stay tuned for more pictures of Cremation next week.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Perilous Light: 1980's Lord of the Rings Miniatures

Here are the rest of the classic 1980's Lord of the Rings miniatures from Citadel that I painted for The War of the Ring (and its expansion Lords of Middle Earth). I've included some of Tolkien's descriptions for each character, plus my own take.

Gothmog, Lieutenant of Morgul

ME-24 Gondor Citadel Knight, Citadel (1984) (converted)

Gothmog is one of the most lightly sketched characters in the trilogy. He appears only during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields after the Witch King was killed:  
" strength [of Mordor] came now streaming to the field out of Osgiliath. There they had been mustered for the sack of the City and the rape of Gondor, waiting on the call of their Captain. He now was destroyed; but Gothmog the lieutenant of Morgul had flung them into the fray." (RotK, Chapter 6, Book V)

Tolkien doesn't even tell us what race Gothmog was. In Peter Jackson's movies, he's portrayed as an orc with a goiter problem. In The War of the Ring, he becomes a Black Numenorean who wears armor that echoes/perverts the armour of Gondor. This is how I've portrayed him myself, using a lightly converted ME-24 Gondor Citadel Knight (1985). The main changes are his shield bearing the Eye of Sauron, and his banner (which reads in the Black Tongue "One Ring to Rule them All").

ME-24 Gondor Citadel Knight, Citadel (1984) (converted)
Incidentally, my own opinion is that Gothmog is neither a man nor an orc, but one of the Ringwraiths. After all, the only hard fact that we have about him is that he is "the lieutenant of Morgul". And Tolkien provides us with a lot of information about Minas Morgul, courtesy of Faramir:

"As you know, that city was once a strong place, proud and fair, Minas Ithil... But it was taken by fell men whom the Enemy in his first strength had dominated, and who wandered homeless and masterless after his fall. It is said that their lords were men of Númenor who had fallen into dark wickedness; to them the Enemy had given rings of power, and he had devoured them: living ghosts they were become, terrible and evil. After his going they took Minas Ithil and dwelt there, and they filled it, and all the valley about, with decay: it seemed empty and was not so, for a shapeless fear lived within the ruined walls. Nine Lords there were, and after the return of their Master... they grew strong again." (TT, Chapter 6, Book IV)

So the leaders of Minas Morgul were the nine Black Riders, with the Witch King as their head. This fact suggests to me that the second in command of Minas Morgul would have also been a Ringwraith. This is also consistent with the only other named Ringwraith in Tolkien's writings: Khamul who was in charge of the fortress of Dol Guldur.

The Witch King

ME-62, Lord of the Nazgul, Citadel (1985)

We get our best glimpse of the Haggard King as he's leading Sauron's army out of Minas Morgul:

"Before them went a great cavalry of horsemen moving like ordered shadows, and at their head was one greater than all the rest: a Rider, all black, save that on his hooded head he had a helm like a crown that flickered with a perilous light. Now he was drawing near the bridge below, and Frodo's staring eyes followed him, unable to wink or to withdraw. Surely there was the Lord of the Nine Riders returned to earth to lead his ghastly host to battle? Here, yes here indeed was the haggard king whose cold hand had smitten down the Ring-bearer with his deadly knife." (TT, Chapter 8, Book IV)

Saruman the White

ME-62, Saruman the White, Citadel (1985)

Saruman is " old man, swathed in a great cloak, the colour of which was not easy to tell, for it changed if they moved their eyes or if he stirred. His face was long, with a high forehead, he had deep darkling eyes, hard to fathom, though the look that they now bore was grave and benevolent, and a little weary. His hair and beard were white, but strands of black still showed about his lips and ears." ((TT, Chapter 10, Book III)

I love this miniature, both for its simplicity and its artistry: a force seems to emanate from the Palantir that swirls Saruman's beard and robes. And his hands are covered in rings, which is an accurate touch ("For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-Maker, Saruman of Many Colours!")

In an effort to keep him from looking like Joseph and the Technicolour Dream Coat, I avoided a multi-coloured robe and instead painted Saruman off-white ("I am Saruman the Beige!"). However, I tried to add a little interest to the miniature by giving his Palantir a dim red glow.

The Mouth of Sauron

ME-55 Mouth of Sauron, Citadel (1985)

The Mouth of Sauron's most fascinating feature is his magical steed: "... there rode a tall and evil shape, mounted upon a black horse, if horse it was; for it was huge and hideous, and its face was a frightful mask, more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame. The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenóreans; for they established their dwellings in Middle-earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamoured of evil knowledge." (RotK, Chapter 10, Book V)


"Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature... as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he... paddled it with large feet dangling over the side, but never a ripple did he make. Not he. He was looking out of his pale lamp-like eyes for blind fish, which he grabbed with his long fingers as quick as thinking." (The Hobbit, Chapter 5)

Elrond Half-Elven

ME-22 Elrond Elf Lord, Citadel (1985)

"The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young... His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength." (FotR, Chapter 1, Book II)

The Citadel sculptors gave Elrond a saucy little mustache, which makes him look less like an elf lord and more like one of the Village People. I thought about shaving it off with my hobby knife, but decided instead to go where the lead led me... it certainly makes him unique. I further departed from canonicity by making him a red-head.


C08 High Elf Wizard, Citadel (1984)

"Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory." (FotR, Chapter 7, Book II)

There is no 1980's Citadel miniature for Galadriel, so I improvised, using a solid-base Citadel C08 High Elf Wizard (1984). My version of Galadriel looks like a drag queen to me, but there you have it. Sometimes you try to paint a beautiful elf queen, and she comes out looking like Bianca del Rio.

Gandalf the White

ME-11 Gandalf Mounted, Citadel (1985)

There goes an old man in nice white duds. "His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand." (TT, Chapter 5, Book III)

Aragorn son of Arathorn

ME-12 Strider the Ranger, Citadel (1985)

"And the cloaked man spoke and said: ‘He is come.’ And they saw as he stepped into the light of the lantern by the door that it was Aragorn, wrapped in the grey cloak of Lórien above his mail, and bearing no other token than the green stone of Galadriel." (RotK, Chapter 8, Book V)

Hands down this is one of my favourite miniature sculptures of all time. It's compact, dramatic and perfectly composed. I love the way Roheryn is rearing and how this is contrasted with Aragorn's steady gaze... for me, it perfectly captures the level-headed audacity of the leader of the Grey Company.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Painted Miniatures for "War of the Ring"

Here is Citadel's ME-53 "The Mouth of Sauron" (1985), the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr. As I mentioned before, I collected and painted miniatures from Citadel's classic range of Lord of the Rings miniatures in order to play Ares Games' War of the Ring. I've never played a game that better captures the flavour of Tolkien's work. Perhaps the best part of it is that while staying true to the essentials of Tolkien, the game give you the freedom to re-shape the events in his trilogy.

What if the fellowship avoided Moria? What if Legolas followed Frodo into Mordor? What if Sauron had waited longer to build up his forces before attacking Gondor? Or attacked right away? What if Rivendale had marched to war? Being able to simulate these scenarios within the confines of a coherent and elegant set of rules is a deeply satisfying experience. 

Gandalf by John Howe
Often these what-ifs lead to surprising results. When Gandalf avoided Moria, it gave the fellowship the continuing benefit of his leadership... but then the Balrog emerged unscathed from the Misty Mountains and plundered Lorien. When Sauron led a lightning strike attack against Minas Tirith in the early stages of the war, he was able to seize the city... but he galvanized the rest of Gondor into a stiff resistance.

I've never seen a board game where story is so central. Strategy, luck, and rules are all important, but they take a supporting role in creating a larger narrative. This emphasis on story makes the game a lot of fun to play solo. It is not at all designed for solitary play -- but I enjoy playing it alone anyway because it gives me a chance to re-imagine the course of The Lord of the Rings. 

Another element of the game that I have to mention is the artwork by John Howe (a fellow Canadian by the way). The game designers are to be applauded for getting such an iconic illustrator of Tolkien to paint the card art for the game. Whereas most game companies favour flashy, exaggerated or cartoonish artwork, Ares/Asmodee went in a completely different direction by going with Howe. His stately, elegant and sad paintings set the tone for the game, giving everything a mature air that would surely please Prof. Tolkien.

The only thing that needed improvement was the miniatures. I have no complaints about the sculptures themselves, designed as they are by Citadel alumnus Bob Naismith. But they're small and formed in a soft plastic, which makes them poor for detailed painting. Hence my decision to turn to Citadel miniatures from the 1980's (some of which were sculpted by Mr. Naismith back in the day).

C31 Treeman, Citadel (1983)

For example, here's my Treebeard. It's actually the C31 Giant Monster Treeman (1983) later released as "Klinty" from The Tragedy of McDeath scenario pack (1986). I selected this miniature because I love his gorgeous texture, his tangled branches and his sad eyes. But most importantly, he can fit on a small base, which is terribly important for The War of the Ring, where real estate is at a premium.

Treebeard by John Howe

Next week I'll post the rest of my Lord of the Rings miniatures. Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Balrog! A Balrog is come!

Behold one of the great early Citadel miniatures: the solid-base C31 "Giant Monster" Balrog (1983). This was among the first miniatures that my brother and I bought when we we're tiny tots. That original miniature is long lost, but my current interest in miniatures for The Lord of the Rings prompted me to seek out and paint a replacement.

While I was researching The Fellowship of the Ring to plan my colour scheme, I became fixated by one of Tolkien's lines, as delivered by Legolas the elf. Let me set the scene: The nine walkers are fleeing through Moria and suddenly they realize the true nature of the great evil that's pursuing them:
'Ai! ai! ' wailed Legolas. 'A Balrog! A Balrog is come! (FotR, Book II, Chapter 5)
What would you say if you just discovered a Balrog was chasing you? I can think of several options. "Holy fuck, a fucking Balrog!" is top of mind. Other options include "GAAAH!" or "I just shit myself" or  "A Balrog? We're only 4th level! You are a dick DM. I liked this character."

Ad for the Balrog from 1st Citadel Compendium (1983)
I'll tell you what I wouldn't say. I wouldn't say, "Ai! Ai! A Balrog is come!" Let's break it down. "Ai!" is a clearly an exclamation, although it's not certain whether it is pronounced with one syllable ("Aye!") or two ("Ay-Eeeeee!"). In any case, it's rarely used in English, mainly being confined to 19th century poets who were looking for an exciting new ejaculation to place before lines like "Woe is me!" Legolas may be forgiven for saying it once, but saying it twice? It sounds like he's hog calling.

Equally odd is "A Balrog is come!". This is just an archaic way of saying "A Balrog has come!". But it is really archaic. It was becoming picturesque when Sir Walter Scott wrote "O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west" (Marmion, 1808) or when Isaac Watts wrote "Joy to the World! The Lord is come!" in his 1719 chart-topping Christmas carol. All of which is to say, when I see a Balrog coming, I wouldn't say to myself "How can I express my dismay? I know: I will swap 'to be' for 'to have' as the auxiliary verb in the construction of the perfect tense of 'to come'. Only grammar can save us now!"

So, here is my suggested re-write for Tolkien:
"Fuck! Fuck!" wailed Legolas. "RUN you BITCHES!"
Well... back to the miniature. My own paint job was much inspired by this beautiful rendition. I was hoping to capture the mixture of fiery light and darkness described by Aragorn: "It was both a shadow and a flame, strong and terrible." (FotR, Book II, Chapter 7). I'm not sure who sculpted the C31 Balrog, but I'd guess it was Bob Naismith -- if anyone knows for certain, please let me know. I like the fact that this figure is (as Tolkien described the Balrog) in "man-shape maybe, yet greater". Not many other interpretations pick up on this man-like form.

C31 Balrog, Citadel (1983) painted by M. Sullivan

By way of comparison, here's another Balrog-inspired monster... The C-29 Winged Fire Demon sculpted by Nick Bibby (1985). 

C-29 Winged Fire Demon, Citadel (1985, sculpted by Nick Bibby)

C-29 Winged Fire Demon, Citadel (1985, sculpted by Nick Bibby)

With its monstrous visage and ram's horns, Bibby's Winged Fire Demon prefigures many later interpretations of the Balrog (including the one featured in Peter Jackson's trilogy). Nick Bibby's future as a fine-art sculptor can be glimpsed in this miniature's unique flare: the pronounced slouch and the way it drags its whip behind it. The demon's heavy, menacing progress reminds me of the lines from Yeat's poem The Second Coming (1919):

     And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 

     Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Thanks for looking and stay tuned for more Lord of the Rings miniatures (and less