Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mapping Dreams

This is unlikely to come as a great shock to those even casually familiar with me, but let me say it: I'm a dreamer. Virtually everything that I have done with any enthusiasm over the course of my life has been an extension of those dreams. I've worked in theatre. I've written symphonies and short stories. I play games. Dreams even shape my travel, since I yearn to see those places that most inspire my own creativity. But perhaps most relevant to the story I've lately been telling on thisforum, I spend time crafting elaborate environments where the corporate dreams of myself and others can unfold. Sometimes this is expressed as models, which impulse is amply displayed in many previous posts. At other times it comprises scratchings on paper. I sketch out notes, character descriptions, lists of names, flowcharts depicting fictional organizations, family trees, and even maps . . .

The above is an example of the sort of thing I might draw quickly for use in a single game. I'm not going to call it a "disposable" map, as I never throw anything away, but it's one that doesn't require too much time or effort but still conveys the information needed. I can look at it and use it as a visual reference as I try to get my players lost in the world. Sometimes I might even show them.

For a moment I'm going to step outside my story and along pass one small piece of information: The Compser's Cartographic Works is back in business. In fact, if you've a map you'd particularly like for a game or your wall, drop me an e-mail. I'm accepting commissions. To skip the fluff and simply see what I can do take a look here.

But if you've the time I'd like to take you on a journey of imagination through a fairy world, its history, and about thirty years of my own life. Come with me to a place I call Abithar.

It's a lengthy trip and it starts in what could be either an unexpected place, or perhaps an entirely predictable one. If you're geeky, from the U.S., and of a certain age maybe your first map looked something like this . . .

What we have here is a dungeon map loosely inspired by Abu Simbel drawb on graph paper using standard elements taken from the D&D basic set that came in the red box. Ah, the musings of the ten year old mind. Mine was quite symmetrical but with just a touch of right-brain whimsy: note the little efficiency apartment at the back and the museum the players might visit if they survive a half dozen dragons, some trolls, three horned monsters, and so forth. (The little boy brain is a goofy place.)

Like most little boys, my first character was a "fighter," as recommended by the introductory solo adventure. In spite of TSR's nomenclature, I preferred to think of him as a knight. And knights need castles . . .

. . . and castles don't float in space . . .

. . . so I had a third map. Ultimately, an eleven-year-old's fantasticalized version of Cornwall was born from this original impulse.

Abithar was an imaginative collage of every piece of fiction I'd read at that point. Places were stolen from Lloyd Alexander, Anne McCaffrey, Susan Cooper, and T. H. White, among a great many others, and dropped into my rescaled land. American boys generally have no real conception of the actual size or geography of England, so thar be mountains and dark ancient forests and many many times the acreage. The size has fluctuated a bit, alternately growing and shriking. The road distance from Abithar to Caer Dathyl, (or Dafyl, in later editions) has varied from about four hundred miles to perhaps six hundred, which is a bit larger than the two hundred driving miles between the approximately corresponding Kelynack and Bristol. Despite the coastline I eventually came to conceive of Abithar as a roughly England sized part of an approximately Japan sized country. 

For a time, I was content to draw inside these new lines. I made castles for my friends, I connected Abithar Halls to the outside world via Portsmouth and a few bridges, and I began to flesh out the other towns.

There was initially some ambiguity to the location of Abithar. It started in the South of England, but moved briefly to The Forgotten Realms, where it acquired a few new placenames and landforms.

At about this time the humble knight disappeared from the story, replaced by his son, who was perhaps my last bone-fide D&D character. As my own role changed from that of a player into the game's master the character was rewritten as king of a new realm.

One of my several complaints with the Forgotten Realms was that there simply weren't enough maps. I wanted more. The sixteen year old me set about charting my own corner of the world with tremendous care. (The careful observer will note the forms of the original village in the center of the growing city immediately below.)

Frighteningly enough, there are more. This is a good sample from the period, but I was a busy little beaver. I mapped out large cities and tiny crossroads alike. By this point Tolkien had made his influence much more known in my fantasy imaginings and while the placenames from other sources were retained you might notice his ghost hanging over a few cities. Simultaneously England crept into churches and castles alike. In the meantime, I was growing increasingly unhappy with the setting. The graduation to high school afforded me with both better research materials and more artistic, historical, and geological sophistication. A bit of sketching one day and some experiments with continents breaking up and drifting about propelled on a variety of oceanic spreading centers led me to the realization that I didn't need anyone else's landforms.

Thus the humble castle had grown to an entire globe. All that remained was to refine the new world. Names would change. New maps would be crafted. A few minor elements might even move around. Obviously interruptions would eventually be necessary to shrink the ocean extremities and fit a flat vision onto a round dream. But the basic shapes of the world and even much of its contents were now set, so I moved on to crafting its history and ultimately fitting Abithar properly into it.

And there Abithar sat for some time. In college version 1.1 I probably did more role-playing than any time before or since. Consequently I got a lot less done. Eventually a fatal error in the programing left me without a regular role-playing group, but still longing for a fantasy fix. I turned back to my own maps. I now had a big fat college research library available, and several friends who had done time in the SCA. Lined paper and crude sketches no longer seemed appropriate, so I began revising, rescaling, and generally artsifying Abithar.

This last is still ongoing. As I work on it you, dear reader, are invited to commission your own gaming map. For a quite low low introductory price I'd like to try my hand at making a map for you, suitable for hanging on your wall or handing out to your players. The place names and land forms can be very much to your taste. It can be as simple as a pen and ink line drawing or as complicated as an isometric view or even a painting. Interested parties are requested to e-mail:

Uninterested parties are given my sincerest apologies for the rough ride. All are given my thanks for their patience. I hope you have found something here to your liking.

The Composer

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Bascinet Problem

A prominent Oldhammerer who goes by Tiny Basement just asked a fascinating question: why did GW ditch the beakie in favor of the 1.9th ed armor I'll call the "micronator" since it reminds me of nothing so much as a compressed terminator. He was himself responding to a very nice post on Oldenhammer in Toronto that pointed out the relationship between Warhammer 40K and Star Wars. What I write here is a response to these, and in imitation of Tiny Basement's lead I shall suggest that you read their posts before you take in my response. It will all make more sense that way.

Why do GW's Space Marines look like Stormtroopers? by Tiny Basement

I have no clear answer as to why GW went from what I felt was a more interesting design to the current one. Zhu Bajiee's speculation, which you can read in the comments on Tiny Basement, makes an interesting case for how the change might have begun, but I don't think it's a full explanation as both designs existed side by side for several years after. It may be as simple as focus group testing, since the change happened at about the time GW was becoming more corporate.

I said before I can't really answer the question. But a lack of any real knowledge has never stopped me before. Please do pardon me as I follow a lovely brunette child and a white rabbit that seem to be in an awful hurry  . . .

There are two dominant cola beverages in the United States. The difference in their respective popularity may be advertising. It may be chance. But might it be a difference in formulation? Pepsi is apparently much the sweeter of the two. (I will make no official pronouncements as I no longer drink either and consider both far too sticky.) As I understand it, Pepsi rather consistently wins blind taste tests. They make much hay of this and used to feature the "Pepsi Challenge" quite prominently in their adds. In spite of which Coke has unerringly retained the no. 1 spot.

This could be the result of a slight seniority to the Atlantan product. Better advertising could possibly explain it. But to be frank, we've all had both. Both are available virtually throughout the world. Both have more or less complete worldwide market saturation. If Pepsi were the clear superior, as the taste testing would suggest it to be, it should have pulled ahead at some point. The best conclusion is that there is something wrong with the test. Somehow it doesn't give a true impression of how we will react to a beverage.

One explanation I have heard advanced works like this: Pepsi tastes better at first sip, since it's sweeter. But about halfway through a glass a great many people find it too cloying and a lot of people actually find Coke more drinkable over the long term precisely because it's a little less sweet.

What has this to do with space marines, you ask? Glad you asked! That rabbit seems to be jumping down a speculative hole and the girl is following after. Perhaps we can learn something there too . . .

What would have happened if the same company owned both Coke and Pepsi and felt some need to pick one? Maybe the forces of the early 90s said "we need to standardize and aim at a younger demographic if we're going to sell more stuff. This complex mishmash of too many different miniatures doesn't work for kids. Let's get together a focus group and see which works better so we can settle on one design." Did this happen? No idea. Pure speculation. But it could have. We know GW was simplifying and shooting at a younger audience at about the right time.

So you have your focus group and decide which design is better. The Mk. 7 is more instantly pleasing. It looks more familiar, more human, more menacing. I know my teenage self was drawn to it more quickly. Loved the Mk. 7 from day one. It looked like terminators. (Which I also loved right off.) The bascinet faced beakies were a little . . . weird. A little alien. In short, they were distinctive in a way that the later variants are not. That comes with both benefits and costs. The costs are all short term focus group findable. The benefits take a little longer to appreciate. It's easy to like something you already know. It's also easy to trade it in on something else. It takes a little longer to love the unfamiliar. There's a reason the word "strange" carries the baggage that it does. But once you do . . . ?

And now it's time for a tangent to the real reason I'm writing this tome. It's all well and good to see why GW might have preferred the micronator to the beak, but why do I think they really did make a mistake? Can any real argument be made about something that's essentially an aesthetic question? The following passage from T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood is sometimes put forward as the origin of the "good artists borrow, great artists steal" meme, and perhaps sheds some small light on the question. In attempting to evaluate the quality of poetry he suggested: 
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
The above is a damn fine description of why I find "Oldhammer" wholly superior to "Newhammer." Bascinets are pretty damn far from storm troopers. Star Wars robs many sources and melds them into one coherent narrative. There's some Medieval, some Arthur, several samaurai peaking out of a Hidden Fortress, a little Asimov, probably some Heinlein, a touch of Flash Gordon, and a dash of Joseph Campbell. Rogue Trader also draws inspiration from myriad sources. Aside from Star Wars you can see Mad Max, Logan's Run, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and many many other sources besides. They cover a range spreading from the Yucatan to Hollywood and back across the Atlantic to England's own tomb brasses and ship burials. As GW has rewritten their universe they've lost both some of the beautiful diversity of the original and I believe also some of the coherence. Where the first story felt complex and organic like the world itself the new one feels more contrived. Norsemen and Mayans largely gave way to more slick Hollywood. Rich, but slightly frayed tapestries and tense, almost primitive sketches were replaced with glossy Madison Avenue 8x10s made superficially grim and medieval with the addition of stone skulls and parchment scrolls. 

In his analysis, Sullivan credits the moral ambiguity of 40K with some of its appeal, likening 40K to to Star Wars without the fairy tale. I think he's dead on here. The original story was presented as a series of pastiches rather than as a single coherent narrative. Rogue Trader gave us the official "Imperial" story, but the Imperium is clearly corrupt and not quite to be trusted. Later articles in White Dwarf and later books like Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned hinted that maybe Rogue Trader left out a few little details here and there to make it seem like the Emperor was the living embodiment of good and light when in reality his corpse was beginning to smell like week old fish.

On paper, a story with a dozen authors none of whom is canon should be a confused mess. In reality, that's just history. Or even better, scripture. Which is to say that a story can be a confused mess and still entirely convincing. Reality tends to work like that. The 40K universe was complex with many authors telling many tales and leaving the reader to decide which is true. There's a device in fiction called the "unreliable narrator." Maybe, just maybe that applies here. In later editions efforts have been made to "correct" that "defect." As a result a surprisingly nuanced history has become a confused story by committee that simultaneously loses both coherence and depth. The need for a single official storyline obliged deletion and alteration of many threads in a complex organic whole that grew almost as much as it was written. 

Yes. I am an Oldhammerer. The current edition of the legendary original may well be a perfectly decent game. It may play better. It may be simpler. It may be clearer. And I care absolutely none. The original was a better piece of art and the real world is richer for its continued existence.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Lords of Space

I'm not really revealing any deep dark secrets if I should mention that the old Metal Magic Spacelords range is back in production. Apparently the good folks at EM4 acquired the rights and started casting them a year or two ago, but you probably already knew that.

What you may not have known was just how darned interesting these old miniatures really are. I have encountered no single line that reminded me so much of Citadel's old lead in so many ways: the sculpts are diverse and interesting, and occasionally remarkably awkward in that "we're still inventing this art" kind of way that you don't tend to see once an industry has matured. The odd blend of the Victorian, techy, and darkly twisted seems to come from the same fertile sci-fi fields that gave us our first 28 millimeter love; one seeded with T. H. White and Isaac Asimov, fertilized with Frank Herbert and Phillip K Dick, fields worked by the likes of George Lucas and Ridley Scott in the decade immediately before Rick Priestly and his merry band. They were heady times.

I purchased two sets, the ships crew and the civilians, totaling eleven figures for £22 after shipping. At about $3 US a miniature that's not a steal, but it's also not bad, particularly given airmail. And these are PrETTY!

Technician Akagi Nabutake surveying facilities at the minesite.

Meet "Colorado" Livinia January Rex-Avis and her favorite suitor Sir Stanley Ursaline-Drakemore, Knight of the Royal Order of the Flowering Lamp. The Rex-Avis clan is one of the more important and yet benevolent families on Moab III.

Sir Stanley Ursaline-Drakemore ROFL expounds to "Colorado" Rex-Avis . . .

. . . about his new proposal for the Graceful Ghost minesite.

The crew of the March Traveler meet Rex-Avis and Ursaline-Drakemore.

There's a certain way in which an unsurprisingly large number of female miniatures seem to have been sculpted by those familiar with the prototype only by reputation. Sure sure. I'm a nerd. I get it. But you know? Order a copy of Playboy and use your imagination to rescale certain features. I understand that this is the heroic 28 millimeter. Heroes and small models both require that certain features be exaggerated. Further, these are from the land of the Wagnerian soprano . . . (which could provide some useful advice for the cast of a space opera. Don't take gold from mermaids, as karma can be a bitch. Don't double cross dwarves as they're mighty handy with a curse. DO listen to your wife. True love may not conquer all, but if you disappoint your woman it will not come out well. Someone once said it's not over until the fat lady sings. Three points: she sings very well, for a surprisingly long time, and when she sings . . . it . . . is . . . over. Well, except the part where the mermaids sing each to each. That's when it's really over. The little happy bit that comes when the world burns down and the Rhein takes it all? Yeah, that's when it ends.)

Anyway, getting back on topic, I suppose one has to accept . . . certain assets. But between the pose, the overly round face, and the . . . uh . . . proportions, this is a rather awkward figure. Still, she's the exception and not the rule. And even she is incredibly interesting. I like her enough that I used her as the proxy for a good friend and even told her as much.

Ursaline-Drakemore discusses plans with local officials and investors in Logansport.

Above you can see some of the Spacelords compared to figures from other ranges. Leftmost in the primary line (the one that's more or less in focus) is the Citadel official from the adventurers range (who I figure is a self important little local magistrate), followed by the admiral from Ramshackle's Society of Intrepid Explorers set, the mechanic from the Spacelords ship's crew, the trader with cape from their adventurers, and at the end another Spacelords adventurer; the lady in long dress. Just over her shoulder you can see the em4 road hero with autoshotgun from their rebels range. I'd say the miniatures fir together fairly well. The Spacelords are, on average, a little taller than the em4 miniatures, a little shorter than the Ramshackle, and on a par with the Citadel. I'm deeply glad to see these miniatures back on the market and I'm not quite sure how I missed them the first time around. They're quite lovely indeed.

For spacelords em4 requests that you e-mail:

I for one would suggest that doing so would be highly worth your effort. I'm sure they would be glad to supply a catalog of miniatures currently in production. (The range is coming back a bit at a time, so it's not all there yet.) These guys are definitely a win for anyone interested in old-school sci-fi.

As always, thank you for your time.

The Composer

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Beauty and the Beast: A Fairy Tale of Wild Women and Satyrical Soldiers.

I like contrasts, and my February paint-cue surely shows that. It's been a month of the archetypically beastly and beautiful. Walking through a certain toystore once a friend pointed to a very masculine item called the "Bulldozer." It was large, black, and hard looking. The box was decorated with high visibility hazard stripes. On the cover were strong men posed with the namesake heavy equipment. It was clear that this was a toy designed for men by men. I wondered if the pink dolphins and transparent purple fairy wings to be found elsewhere were truly a woman's counterpart of this ode to testosterone or more properly a male fantasy of the feminine. (I strongly suspect the latter.) Much like the store's wares my own toys don't represent any proper study of masculine and feminine, originating squarely and uniformly in one or another Xy branded psyche. That said, the reference to the popular Western archetypes so deftly abbreviated in the French tale should be fairly clear.

Before the gigantic ogre of the previous post I painted these three elves. (Two of whom are male, no matter how glittery they might appear. Elves are always a little "metrosexual.")

Odd as this may sound, the elves are probably the least obviously gendered characters I've painted so far this month. While the officer is female she still elicited the standard "ugly" (but well painted dear) from my wife.

The next character, whom I'm calling Nepenthia Rex-Avis (Arthur Zanzibar's cousin), received no such greeting.

Nepenthia will, of course, give you surcease from sorrow if you but ask. The figure, Fidelia St. John Smythe, is another character that was available for a time from Ramshackle. She seems to be out of production now, sadly. If you can stumble across her she's a singularly characterful sculpt that would fit perfectly in just about any space western. It saddens me a little to review her knowing that she's become a bit harder to get hold of. Still, one can hope that Curtis will re-introduce her at some point, should there be enough demand, and she is something of an oddity, being designed specifically to fit into the hatch of a tank. (In this case the Vole Light Tank.) So she's a beauty that implies the presence of a beast by her very posture.

Next up, PFC Asean Fernsy:

He's none other than the elusive "Trooper Gaxt" from the old Citadel adventurers range. He's a quite goaty figure to begin with that I've hopefully made more so with a little careful pigmentation. I like to imagine this particular satyr sends up the punk rockers of my youth with his ripped trousers, spiked wristband, and bared torso. (The last of which is lost in the shadow in all of my photos, so you'll have to trust me. Our goat has no shirt. Only shoulder pads.) Anyway, I am decidedly pleased to have him in my band.

Here you can see him keeping company with our last new member, Jackie Kriegschreiber:

This truly fine lady is a part of EM4's scavengers range. They call her "Female Scavenger. Autoshotgun. Yasser Scarf." To my mind the scarf is more evocative of Jackie O or Audrey Hepburn, thus I've tried to give it a more feminine floral print; undoubtedly one of the more ambitious bits of painting I've done lately. My wife's first comment? . . . She loved the scarf. I'll take that as a positive review. She even called her strong. (Must be the eyepatch.)

Indeed, she is a dangerous looking and quite well armed character. (The EM4 scavengers are nothing if not prepared.)

All in all, I'm really quite pleased with this bunch. Of course, that's why I painted them. As always, thank you for reading along. May your own meetings on alien tabletop worlds be filled with mystery and adventure.

The Composer

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Oh Olley Oh Grin

A while back I bought some Ogryn to join my cast of adventurers. I was really looking for folks about like the fellow on the right below, but two more closely resembled the gent on the left.

 In fact, he's one of a pair of twins. Here's his brother before I stripped him.

He's rather unlike the older model. To that end, I set about "Olleyizing" him. First I whacked off his left arm and green stuffed it back on in a pose less evocative of Howard Dean coming in third in Iowa and more like "I'm going to punch you face if you keep calling me ogre." He's not green, after all. Well, save for  the shoulder.

And the vest. And the gun . . .

And the flack jacket. Hmm. Maybe he is green on the inside . . .

I felt the oversized "newhammer" gun had to go and he needed clothing that looked a little less like he was going to sit around the house all day demanding beer. He is, after all, a working ogre. Wait. *ducks*

There was a brief "adult toy" stage to the gun (ribs for pleasure and point for pain) . . .

But old military jokes aside, as it built up it began to look more functional. This is one of the lessons I'm slowly learning. Build it up one small piece at a time. Layers, SP, layers.

And below you can see how he painted up.

For a final bit of comparison to the authentic Olley Ogryn Little Milt. . . . He says "We're buds now George. The little stuntie Walther is my best friend, but you can be my friend too."

George and I are going to get along just fine.

It's been a fun modeling project. I'm still a bit of a green stuff newb, but I think I'll get the hang of this. As always, thanks for reading along.

The Composer