Friday, May 29, 2015

In Which I Chronicle My Descent into Miniature Madness

It was never my intent to become interested in the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game or to accumulate the small snowdrift’s worth of plastic and metal figures awaiting painting on my worktable. I never had much interest in miniature wargaming, but I somehow fell victim to its allure—a fate a handful of hobbits would fully sympathize with.

I recall the early days of Games Workshop, back when White Dwarf wasn’t a house organ but this weird RPG magazine that occasionally made it across the pond and turned up in the hobby shops I bought my gaming supplies at. I remember being captivated by the few issues I actually owned back in the mid-to-late 1980s. White Dwarf was a glimpse into this vaguely-familiar but utterly unknown gaming scene, one that shared similar characteristics to the one I was involved in, but was its entirely own thing.

Then 1987 arrived and I started seeing advertisements for these weird little figures called “space marines” and a new game entitled Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader—and all my friends went crazy (or so I thought). Suddenly, everyone was forking over far too much money for little plastic men and spending hours upon hours assembling them (and occasionally actually painting more than a handful). After seeing how much time and money it took to play this new game, as well as the need for a modicum of painting skill to make the figures look anything like those in the ads, I firmly declared I’d be sticking with my dice-and-books, thank you very much! It was a vow I’d keep for twenty years.

In 2008, I returned to the role-playing hobby after a long absence. Upon my return, I became very interested in the roots of the hobby, especially the early days of D&D when the line between roleplaying and wargaming wasn’t quite as distinct as it is today. I decided that I needed to learn how to paint a miniature with enough skill so that I’d not be embarrassed to put it down on the gaming table.

That was my first mistake.

My initial efforts weren’t fantastic, but they beat the pants of the minis I’d painted back in my youth, slathering Testors model paint over a lump of ill-shaped lead. It was amazing what the proper brushes, paints, patience, and reading a few online tutorials could produce. Painting minis became a sideline activity, one to indulge in when there was nothing good on TV. Regardless of the connections between wargaming and RPGs, I still had no desire to delve into that strange world of pushing tiny men around over terrain, adjudicating range and movement with a tape measure.

I soon found myself running a D&D campaign set in this off-the-cuff pulp swords & sorcery world: a desert land filled with ancient ruins, lost civilizations, and bizarre cultures gathered in a walled city along a major trade route. To better convey that exotic atmosphere, I decided to buy a few unusual miniatures to serve as the city’s town guard and soldiery, since I fully expected the PCs to butt heads with the authorities in alley battles and street fights. I set out on a tour of my local game stores to find the perfect set of miniatures.

It was at Men at Arms Hobbies, the oldest of the game stores I frequent, that I located something that fit the bill precisely: a Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (abbreviated “SBG” from now on) box of 20 Easterlings. They were exotic, not exactly recognizable from the movies, and there were enough of them to stage even a large skirmish in the city streets. I bought it on the spot, expecting to use it only for my D&D campaign.

That was my second mistake.

I didn’t immediately plunge into full-on wargame addiction at that point. In fact, it would take me three or four years to even get around to finishing painting all twenty minis. But as I started attending more old school RPG conventions, I began paying more attention to the guys playing wargames. I was captivated by the paint jobs and the scratch-built terrain, and I contemplated incorporating more mass combat into my RPG campaign. Over time, I bought a boxed set of 24 Warriors of Minas Tirith and a 10 piece box of Uruk-hai (Because of poor research on my part, I thought it was another 20+ box). I even picked up the Mines of Moria Starter Set for the SBG, purchasing it more for the included terrain pieces and the masses of goblins (As any old school RPG referee knows, you can never have too many goblins!). I still wasn’t wargaming, so these sets were added to the pile of unpainted minis on my worktable, but I continued to harbor ideas of introducing large-scale battles into my tabletop games. 

Then, somewhere along the line, I stumbled across one of the supplements for the SBG: The Ruin of Arnor. If you read one of my previous posts, you know I have a soft spot for the Northern Kingdom, the Dύnedain, and the Rangers of the Wild. The Ruin of Arnor contained sample armies that covered both Arnor during its final years and the years surrounding the War of the Ring. Reading that was the penultimate nail in the coffin. I decided that, even if I wasn’t wargaming, I was damned certain I was going to have a Grey Company army to use some place at some time. I shortly thereafter made my first miniatures purchase with the intent of building a wargame force. I wasn’t complete lost to the bug yet, but the slope had become very slippery and very, very steep.

In the year or two that followed, I’d occasionally paint some of those Grey Company miniatures or pick up a blister pack or two when the opportunity and funds allowed. I had no real hope of actually playing the SBG; the game seemed to be dying on the vine and the wargamers at my FLGS were into Flames of War and Warhammer, not Lord of the Rings. Collecting and painting would have to be enough.

But towards the end of 2014, my regular gaming group gave The One Ring RPG as shot and it proved to be well-liked. I was soon running an ongoing TOR campaign (which I’ll discuss in another post). I never expected to be refereeing a Tolkien-based RPG as I’m more of a Leiber and Clark Ashton Smith sort-of-guy when it comes to fantasy. I was astonished when the number of game sessions ran into double digits and I found that I was truly enjoying both the game system and setting. It looked like I’d have to expand my knowledge of Middle-Earth. This decision would lead to my wargaming downfall.

Scouring the internet for reference material, I stumbled up the existence of Battle Games in Middle-Earth, a periodical designed to introduce players to the SBG. Unsurprisingly, I’d never heard of the magazine before as it was A) no longer in print, and b) never available in the United States. I found a few issues in the back alleys of the internet and gave them a look-over.

That was my final mistake.

Battle Games in Middle-Earth appeared to be the best introduction imaginable for the time- and space-consuming and expensive hobby of wargaming. From the very first issue, it provided the reader with everything required to immediately start playing. You could be fighting your first skirmish in the time it took to snip 12 goblins from their sprue and put them on bases. Not only did it get you playing right away, but it taught you the rules of the SBG, the basics of painting and terrain-building, and allowed you to build warbands and forces incrementally. I instantly fell in love with the magazine and set out collecting as many issues as I can. 

Although the issues I have are used and most are lacking the minis they originally came bundled with, I noticed that I already owned a fair number of the figures covered in the early issues. Maybe not the exact poses precisely, but close enough for my purposes. A new idea began to build in my head: What if I went through the entire series of BGiME, painting and gaming as I did so? And, what if I started up a new blog to cover that endeavor? My fall was now complete and the result is this blog you’re currently reading.

In future posts, I’ll begin working my way through my Battle Games in Middle-Earth collection, discussing the contents of each issues, painting the minis detailed therein, tackling the terrain-building projects presented, and playing through the wargame scenarios whenever possible. When all is said and done, I intend to have a sizeable collection of Lord of the Rings SBG miniatures on my shelves (all of them painted!), a decent inventory of wargaming terrain, and hopefully a cadre of fellow players to enjoy my addiction with. Now that you know the full story of my descent into madness, I invite you to join me for the journey.

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