This post is a collection of personal tips and analysis regarding miniatures. You may find it, or some of it, useful, and even interesting. As always, take what works for you, and leave the rest – that’s what the almighty blogosphere is all about.
I first started to paint minis when I was 13 years old, and I still have a few of the figures I painted back in those days. Needless to say, they are ugly. But then again, the sculpts themselves were not that good, especially if you compare to the amazing figures available today.
My painting skills improved over a period of five years, and then I quit painting minis because I started to play different games that did not really require them. Fast forward to 2014 and I picked up the brushes again, because I started to run a good old First Edition AD&D campaign, and who in their right mind would ever want to do that without some miniatures?
Geeking out for real here.
1. THE PAINTING
Painting miniatures is difficult. It’s far from being brain surgery, but still much more difficult than making toast. Don’t get deterred by the breathtaking stuff you see online. If you look things up on the Internet, honestly, you’ll never start anything new, ever. You won’t take up chess, because Garry Kasparov. You won’t take up sculpture, because Michelangelo. You won’t take up basketball, because Michael Jordan. And you won’t take up miniatures painting, because HopeRiver.
Of course, if you type “Space Marines” into Google, you’ll get the best, most gorgeous Space Marines on the Internet. These guys are professional figure painters. The little ordinary painter won’t post pictures of his Space Marines. But trust me when I tell you – there are way more crappy Space Marines than there are professional ones.
Whatever the heck it is that you do, somebody on the Internet is ten times better at it, and if everyone who played basketball quit playing after watching the NBA guys, that would be a damn shame. So keep playing, and keep painting. Just don’t obsess over it.
Know that HopeRiver is out there, and that her work is awesome. If you ever need one important figure professionally painted, hit her up for a commission, you won’t be disappointed. But for the rest, don’t look at the Internet too much. Paint your own minis, and try to improve yourself over time.
Start with the easy stuff. Paint some elementals, zombies, and werewolves. Elementals don’t carry equipment: they don’t have belts, pouches, backpacks, bracers, talismans or fur-lined cloaks. You’ll tackle these later. Begin by practicing on creatures with less detail. Zombies are excellent to practice layering – if the result is ugly, it’ll still work, because that ugly shade is rotting flesh and clothing.
And when you put those figures on the table during a game, if there is one player who says, “Shitty paint job,” then you can reply, “Well, you know I do this for free, don’t you? I run three or four games a year for you guys, and also paint all the miniatures. I don’t get a buck out of it. When did you run your last game?”
Professor Barker started to use miniatures in his campaign back in 1976, and he used to say, “Miniatures need only be good enough.”
Start painting, take good care of your brushes, and persevere. The first ten figures will look like crap. Then you’ll get better. And you will know when you reach your very own “good enough”.
For instance, this ettin is perfectly okay to put on the game table. When you pull it out, your players certainly won’t start admiring the shading techniques you used; they’re just gonna say, “Ettin, shit. You kill it, Eric. You’ve got your ranger damage bonus thing.”
Even if you paint the most subtle, exquisite nuances, who’s really going to enjoy them? You can’t even properly photograph miniatures unless you’re in a professional studio environment with the correct lighting and all that crap. Otherwise, there’s always gonna be a glare or something. You don’t want to have to become a professional photographer also.
Tabletop gamers and professional miniature photographers are two separate things. Some professional miniature photographers are also tabletop gamers, sure – but it’s not an absolute rule.
In my humble opinion, even ‘ardcoat is optional. It depends on the figure. Magma elemental: yes. Stone golem: no. Magma is shiny. Stone isn’t. And Citadel’s ardcoat is very shiny. So shiny in fact, it’ll make you lose part of your drybrush highlights. I won’t use ‘ardcoat on every figure. What’s up with a shiny bugbear? I have also decided not to use it on player character minis, either. I do not want PCs to shine (pun unintended).
2. PLANNING A GAME
“Which figures do I absolutely want the party to encounter?” This is the first question I ask myself when planning a new session. Start with what you want to see on the table for sure, and then build around that and add other monsters / enemies that are less likely to make an appearance.
This is one very important thing I’ve learned. The boss is not necessarily what I call the core encounter – or busiest encounter – of the game. Miniatures are nothing but a gaming aid meant to clarify chaotic / complex situations. From a miniatures point of view, your core encounter is the one where you have the most figures out on the table at the same time. I’ve got a lot of unpainted cultists: they’re going to be a core encounter sometime in the near future. I’ve also got a shitload of unpainted orcs: that’s gonna be a core encounter next year. Make yourself a painting schedule: it helps a lot.
No monster is boring. This is a role-playing game, not a video game. Give this monster a story. Make it part of something bigger. I recently took simple skeletons and made them amazing by conjugating them with living frescoes à la Tegel Manor – they regenerated any broken bones from painted bones flying out of the frescoes, which were huge eternal battlefields scattered with bones. Players loved it.
Some creatures are unpopular, and there’s not much we can do about it. Sculptors don’t think it’s even worth their time and effort. Don’t search for bandits: you won’t find any. I mean, real bandits – bare-chested, with rotten pants and matted hair and knives and clubs. Nobody makes them. And don’t try to find female undead, either. Ghoul, zombie, mummy or lich, nobody makes female versions of those. And don’t go looking for Lava Children, one of my favorite monsters from the original Fiend Folio. They don’t exist. Trust me. I checked. And you won’t find any figure of the first Cat Lord from Monster Manual II – and the logical replacement for it, Michael Jackson miniatures, are not available in 28mm.
3. MINIS OR NO MINIS?
In the ‘90s, miniatures were “out”. Believe it or not, even Dungeons & Dragons was “out” between 1989 and 2000. Some folks thought it was a superior stage of evolution in role-playing games. I won’t dive into this topic here. No sir.
I used to play in a campaign like that. Pure thought. Everything was only described to us orally. Never a single map. Never a handout. Never a picture. And I really mean n-e-v-e-r. Our brains are the most powerful computers, right?
One day, we got into a big fight in the middle of the audience chamber of some petty Lord, and it was quite confusing. At the beginning of round three or four I said, “Hold on. When you say, ‘the two guards that initially stood by the door’, which door are you referring to exactly? The one we entered through, or the one the Lord used? And those three other guards hanging by the fireplace? You said the Lord went to stand close to the fireplace, right? How come I am currently fighting one of those ‘three other guards’, but am still ‘on opposite sides of the room’ in relation to that damn Lord? Man, lemme draw a quick little map here...”
And I did.
The other players were very glad to finally have an overview of what was happening. It made things less vague. “Theater of the Mind” is okay when it’s just the PCs against two big monsters, because each player knows if he or she is fighting Mr Ogre or Mr Troll. But when it’s 6 player characters against 5 guards plus 1 Seneschal and 1 Lord, you’ll definitely need something visual.
And this, by the way, is also why you don’t need a Demogorgon miniature. When it’s “the entire party against one big baddie” you won’t need minis: it’s a static fight scene. Big baddie in the center, characters around it. No need for a visual. Players can process that.
Even in those games that are not usually associated with miniatures, you will need to use miniatures – or at least a map – once in a while. One of my friends runs the Walker in the Wastes campaign for Call of Cthulhu. Most games, we don’t need miniatures. But there was this time at the end of chapter one – crazy, giant battle in the middle of an Inuit village – and that utter mayhem called for almost fifty figures on the table.
Miniatures are to tabletop role-playing games what video replay is to professional sports. The game is the thing. Minis are nothing but a pretty cool gaming aid.
Know when to use this gaming aid, and when not to bother with miniatures at all. Also, know when there’s room for improvement in your painting technique, and when your figures are good enough. Chances are, they may be good enough already.