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A gamer or a collector?

July 16, 2009

These last few days I’ve been thinking about the following question:

Am I ever going to game all those scenarios I’m designing, or use the forces and gaming tables that I’m building for actual gaming?

For someone who’s invested a fair amount of money and time in collecting, putting together and painting a ton of miniatures and scenery, this might seem like a strange question. Surely all that stuff has been bought for a reason, and that reason is gaming. What use is a gaming table if it’s never played on? Why pick up two opposing forces if you’re not going to get some dice rolling? Good questions, indeed.

I was introduced to the hobby by my two older brothers, who were avid RPG gamers way back when the D&D red box was all the rage – it was even translated into Finnish – and who used to buy and paint all sorts of fantasy miniatures to use with roleplaying games. I was around 6-7 years old, and the little toy soldiers fascinated me. My brothers would paint them up, and of course I wanted to try that too. After I had dunked a mini or two completely in a jar of paint (I figured that’d be the quickest way to basecoat) they decided that I’d painted enough and would have to  wait a few years before trying again.

That few years turned into 6. I kept on playing RPGs and while I was familiar with miniatures, I didn’t see the use in buying them. If we needed miniatures to represent and clarify a combat situation, we’d dig into the old plastic box where my brothers’ more or less painted stuff was. Or we just used pennies or whatever we had at hand. And then I was introduced to WHFB. The stuff was like crack, and I was instantly hooked. It didn’t take me a long while to assemble my first army of miniature orcs and memorize all the fiction in the army book and the rules.  And the painting! I painted them slowly and meticulously, at a pace at which it must’ve taken me 4-5 hours for every single miniature, and looking back I can’t see where all that time went, the minis really aren’t much to look at.

Anyhow painting wasn’t the important thing. Painted miniatures looked better, sure, but it was the gaming that counted. We would spend hours and hours designing army lists that exploited every little loophole in the rules. If your opponent was bringing a knife, you brought not only a gun but slash-proof vest as well. If he had a unit that was immune to psychology, you brought a magic item that ignored psychology rules altogether. And so on and so on. Most of our armies were unpainted, and we used a lot of proxies. An empty base was a giant, a troll was an ogre and a dragon was a chariot. We didn’t really mind, as the painting and the miniatures themselves were clearly of secondary importance compared to the game itself.

Years went on. Armies grew and started to have more paint on them than before. The spirit of the games shifted in a friendlier direction, as new rules and slowly amounting maturity stopped the games from becoming simple tasks of army optimization. Slowly but surely narrative began to creep in. Units were not chosen solely for their combat prowess or special abilities, but for their flavour as well and themed armies started surfacing. The games were still competitive affairs, but now it was becoming more and more fun even when you were losing. It was – and is today – common for us to narrate whatever was happening with the rules, leading to some hilarious battles. It somewhat lessened the frustration of seeing your entire army devastated in two turns, too. The majority of our gaming group have always been RPG gamers first and wargamers second, which might explain our tendency towards narration.

With battles coloured with narration, the same narrative thinking started making its way to my painting as well. As I was painting a miniature I was wondering what his name was, and what the story behind him was. It was glorious to place a unit of such individuals on the table, and awful to see them swept away with a bad roll of the dice. I started to get the feeling, that the best part about creating a unit of miniatures wasn’t actually using them, but instead the process of painting them and giving them life through background stories and painted and modelled detail. It was like a doll house: creating an intricate model of a house for dolls becomes much more pleasing than actually playing with the dolls themselves.

When you combine a narrative mentality like that with my overall tendency for excitability for whatever I think is cool for the moment – mostly due to a book read or a movie seen – it’s no wonder that I tend to easily pick up a bunch of models for this or that genre, which I will paint up and not game with as I shift my attention to something completely different. Aliens, predators, colonial marines, vampires, werewolves, vampire hunters, werewolf hunters, zombies, zombie hunters, post-apocalyptic dragon hunters…you name it. Sure, I always think of all the good games I’m going to have using whatever miniatures I’m painting at the moment, but very rarely end up playing the games. They turn out much more fun when reality is not allowed to mess with good solid fantasy.

Where am I going with all this rambling? Maybe it’s just the question of me no longer seeing myself as a miniature gamer, but as a miniature collector or modeller instead. My approach to the hobby is starting to resemble that of the doll house enthusiast or the model railway hobbyist, as the process of building something and adding details and narrative to it is becoming more important than actually using the thing “as intended.”

As a roleplayer, however, I find the idea of blending RPGs and wargames intriguing. Could it be possible to retain the best elements of both and combine them into a seamless system sporting both the strong narrative element of RPGs and the strategic and gaming element of wargaming? That’s what I’m looking for in my gaming. If I ever manage to nail it, I’ll be sure to let you know. I’ll probably type up a full post one day when the mood strikes me.

Now, to answer the question presented at the start of this post:

Probably not. But with all the fun had with the designing, painting, building and all, it’s not really a big loss, is it?

Oh, and we’re having our annual WHFB summer bash in a week or so. Even with all the fancy-pants talk about narration, it’s always a special feeling rolling 20d6.

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5 comments

  1. What a really thoughtful, incisive post. I find it remarkable how closely your evolution as a gamer mirrors my own despite the distance both physical and cultural that separate our hometowns.

    I too came into the hobby by way of RPGs, in the ancient days of 1980 or so. At the time minis were around, but I thought they were kind of dumb and pointless when you could just sketch diagrams on notebook paper and use any old thing for markers.

    All that changed when I caught the GW bug in the early 90s. My old RPG group had broken up and I was looking for a new social activity, and Warhammer 40k grabbed my time and money with both hands. I played for blood and was damn good at it. Check out my own post “A Momento of Battle” for my reflections on that time in my life.

    Eventually, though. I discovered that I really liked the painting and collecting for its own sake, My eclectic pile of lead was one inspiration for starting the Alpha to give some kind of form and purpose to my acquisitions. It now matters less and less to me if a given mini ever sees any use on the game table as long as it’s fun to paint. Of course I’ve found a lot of unlikely uses for various minis since my RPG gaming picked up again a few years ago…

    I really understand your point about creating narrative for wargaming minis. My Space Wolves company had a whole elaborate backstory about the two brothers who lead it and how each of the squads came to join up. I’ve forgotten most of it, but Torbin and Rolf Ironheart remain two of my all-time favorite characters, even if they never had character sheets.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It’s a nice bit of writing made even more impressive by the fact that English is not your native tongue. I am so bereft of language talent myself that it seems like witchcraft when I come across someone who can use a foreign tongue with such mastery.

    Of course, I made a similar observation to my Danish friend Torbin Skov (my Space Wolf captain’s namesake) when I was over there some years ago. He laughed and pointed out that if the Danes didn’t learn other languages, they’d only be able to talk to one another, since hardly anybody speaks Danish outside of Denmark. I imagine that it must be similar for the Finns.


    • Thank you very much for the long and thoughtful comment, and for the kind words as well. You were right with your assumption about Finns and foreign languages. With only 5 million Finnish speakers, we simply have to learn other languages to keep up with the rest of the world, and the overall level of English in Finland is probably quite high, especially in the last few generations. The percentage must be very high with gamers, as practically 95% of all material is available only in English.

      In fact it’s an ongoing joke in gamer circles how Finnish gamers employ the English language. Having learned a lot of the vocabulary and wording from fantasy novels and rpgs, the language occasionally becomes humorously archaic and overly complicated. So “some funny and strange markings” becomes “a myriad of peculiar patterns, unfathomably eldritch in nature” and the written text starts to sound more than a little Lovecraftian. I must confess that I have to keep myself in check too, so as not to do that as well.

      It’s always a little intimidating to work in a foreign language, so I’m eternally grateful for the heartfelt words of exultatory quality that you have so cordially cast in my direction. Or as you natives say: thanks.


  2. Thats a great post. While not wanting to sound overly zen, the journey is the thing, not the destination.

    Like many gamers I have innumerable miniature projects in varying states of completion, far more than I will ever probably actually game with. I am OK with this as the creative part of the process has always been the most interesting bit for me.

    The weird thing however is that every hobby project that I have has a gaming application. Even though it is obvious that I will never get to use *all* of them in games I find it impossible to paint up miniatures that dont have some kind of game application. I cant imagine painting figures purely for display, even if that is essentially the fate of the majority of the figures that I paint.


    • I know exactly what you’re talking about. No matter how fine a miniature I see, I won’t buy it if I can’t find a use for it. Occasionally I might paint something as a gift for a friend, but that’s it. Like you said, it’s somewhat ironic that my minis end up mostly as display pieces anyway.


  3. […] is important. Even if I’ve become much more of a collector than a gamer in the last few years, games still hold a very special place in this hobby for me. While I often […]



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