Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reflection on GW, My Switch to 15mm, Characters, and Setting

Full disclosure: I only switched to 15mm about a year ago now, and a large part of last year was very busy for me, meaning I haven't advanced much.

Also, this is a LOOOOOOOOOOONG 'personal tale' post, but I hope the thoughts on GW, 15mm, settings, and the 'feel' of games will interest people in a "Aha! I know that feeling!"sort of way.

If you want to skip the long history/reflection on Games Workshop, I suggest just skipping down to the part with pictures- its more to the point and probably a bit more interesting, as well as prettier!

For a long time, miniatures gaming was, to me, collecting my own chapter of space marines. I never played 40k as much as I painted models (with a constantly changing scheme... one day  I wanted each marine to have a unique heraldry, the next day i wanted to paint a whole army blue and white in under an hour, and the next day I wanted camo'd marines, and so on...), thought up my chapter's history and characters, and theorized plans for battles.

I never played 40k as much as I did that, but I definitely played in the early and final days.

You see, I can separate my 40k days into 4 eras:
1) Naive Early Days
2) Arms Race
3) Winning!
4) Rebellion

When I first started playing 40k, I bought a dozen marines, some dark eldar, and a few imperial guard... occasionally adding a few bikes, a tank, a hero. My understanding of 40k's setting was totally absent; I had been vaguely introduced by a friend (who had basically ignored the setting himself) to the setting, and my understanding was basically that the eldar were space pirates, the marines were badass, and the imperial guard were the bloody infantry.

I did not use points, battles were small and personal, and often games were played without the use of squads; with so few models, we made the game into a more one on one skirmish game. All battles were between friends, and there was a very RPGish vibe to the games, with scenarios, campaigns, and characters overruling 40k's setting and some of its rules.

Then I started going to the GW club. Suddenly my Marines (just one squad of regular soldiers) who'd been the biggest, baddest special ops team in all of our friendly scenarios, became slightly above average infantry who were easily shredded by tanks, and, more importantly, not even a large enough force (as they were always used as the command team for an Imperial Guard army) to field on its own. The Imperial Guard, who'd been lead by Marines, were suddenly much weaker feeling. And the Dark Eldar were suddenly our only option to use on the field!

It should be noted that the club was very understanding of our 'old style scenarios' type of play, and let us use a rag tag army at first. In fact, we (that is, my friends and I, who'd bought the models together to use together... we thought of it as being like a more traditional wargame at first, as that was our background) didn't even do bad- we won some and we lost some. But the point is, we were introduced to the idea of collecting your own army and pitting it against others, with points values, squads, no scenarios, and no special characters.

So the Arms Race began. We friends split it up a bit (I ended up with most of the aforementioned dark eldar, marines, and IG, as I helped fund other peoples new armies in return for the models I'd painted... most of them), and for a long time I basically didn't play 40k. I was busy building up a company of marines! No time for actual playing. I also had to learn the setting... without the sorta generic sci fi setting our scenarios had been set it, I'd felt empty just pushing those models around the table.

Even then, I often found myself overriding bits of setting to make my chapter the way I wanted. I still had a special character- Cassius- who hadn't been kidnapped at a young age and turned into a marine, but followed a more traditional military career. I still had him be old war buddies with an Eldar Ranger- don't ask- and a special forces unit of IG (mostly Catachan models) who supported my Marines when they were allowed. My marines ran a fairly nice planet (in that it wasn't grim dark), and generally weren't neofascist feudalists with an extremely xenophobic twist.

Still, I stuck with it. Before too long, I'd gotten a nicely sized army put together (though not fully painted, and with about 10 different competing color schemes...) and I started playing 40k a bit more frequently.

And I hated it.
Everytime I played with a friend, one of three things happened:
1) it was boring as hell and we were happier when it was over, so that we could focus more on talking and looking at the models.
2) We slowed to a halt as we focused more on other things.. rarely got past turn 2.
3) the game was SO bad that we both got angry at the rules (often at first 'angry' at each other over something in the rules, then realizing the real culprit) for being silly.

And when I played with a stranger, it pretty much always was just a chore I did with a somewhat fake smile on my face.

Two things changed: I started playing with the rules (also the edition had changed for the worse) in a much more stickler way... not just myself, but everyone I played with had become more of a stickler due to the influence of GW tournament style play. Also, I still imagined the game as the old, narrative RPG like game I'd known and loved. When I thought up the history of characters, it had more of that feel. Cassius and his Eldar friend chase an evil pirate through a space port fighting off his mercenaries. This marine soldier got his arm blown off, but kept fighting the hordes of orks who charged into his view. These IG are famous for their smart use of suppressing fire and flanking charges. But when I played the game, it was more of a contest of who'd brought bigger guns and who had better dice that day.

And so, despite the fact that I was actually pretty good at 40k (I'd been smart in constructing my army and knew the best tricks in the rules), I decided to try something new.

At first it was experiments in adjusting the rules, scenario based games with friends only, and less caring about points, army lists, etc.

Before too long it became clear that what we really wanted was to play Rogue Trader.

So we did.

It was great.

But it was flawed. Not so much the game, but the experience.

The thing is, I'd recently discovered Firefly at around the same time, had rediscovered a love for the original Star Wars movies (somehow I hadn't seen them in MANY years!), and started to fall in love with Traveller, which somehow had slipped by me.

At first, we loved playing Rogue Trader... the setting was not unlike the one we originally imagined, in that it had the same things (and more!) in it as 40k, but had a more generic space opera feel to it, and a lot more freedom for weird combinations (an eldar and marine fighting side by side wasn't unheard of).
But before too long I started wanting to adjust my band of rag tag marines, eldar, mercenary 'guard', and pirates into something more resembling a Traveller crew, or perhaps a small crew of Independents...
Also, as much as we tried to sort of 'interpret' RT into Star Wars terms and vice versa, that combination tended to break down as we couldn't find models (still mostly GW produced) for a lot of the things we wanted to do, and the setting ended up feeling wrong.

Slowly but surely, I started playing Rogue Trader with this weird setting that can't be described as Rogue  Trader, Traveller, Firefly, or anything else. It was this sort of mutant brew. In fact, the setting didn't exist, the only thing that existed was an Andoran Rebellion, the exact meaning of which frequently changed, and a small free trading crew who had something or another to do with it- that bit was also vague.

I didn't like that sort of vagueness.

What I started to discover about myself were the following things:
I hated mixing settings. I always felt like I was in some way 'stealing,' or perhaps 'cheating,' and at the least I always felt like the things just didn't mesh quite right.
I also hated playing a game that is based around setting in a different setting.
Rogue Trader CAN be played in any setting, and it probably works. But it ends up just not feeling right, at least for me.

Another issue was that I always felt like I had to very consciously rebel against modern 40k to be playing RT correctly, which isn't really the proper way to view it. I always feel that in life it is best not to do something just because another tells you to, but just as bad if not worse to do the opposite of what someone else tells you to do just cause they told you to do something. I think I'm paraphrasing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but its a valid point.

In addition, there'd always been the issue that even Rogue Trader was far from as good as my favorite board games when it came to the tactical and strategic aspects. It felt more like an RPG, which was fine, but I always wanted something a bit better.

So I ended up setting most of the RT models aside (I'd traded in many models for the old ones for some reason), reserving them for the rare game of RT that I get in when playing with some of my older gaming buddies, and started looking for models to represent my new, personally made setting.


The first 15mm model I ever painted... and the first picture of one. God was I bad at taking pictures waaaay back a year ago.

In this search I discovered two things that totally, fundamentally changed miniatures gaming for me.

First, I found out about Two Hour Wargames. Its games had all the soul of Rogue Trader with all the tactics of a good war simulator... perhaps Squad Leader. It also had solid solo gaming rules (meaning I could actually play frequently!), was great for campaigns, made up scenarios for you, and was vague enough about what "Rep" meant to allow easy mixing with other rules... especially for RPGs.

Interestingly, unlike Rogue Trader where I (to this day) feel weird playing anything but an RT setting, I've not had any issue with playing THW (5150 in particular) with RT models and setting. Its just that good of a rules set.

The other big change was 15mm.

After some brief infatuation with some of the 28mm manufacturers who did more 'character' models, like Reaper, I quickly realized the best way to go was 15mm. 

They had Firefly crews!
And lots of weird aliens of many types!
And too many different types of armor to count!
And civilians!
And pirates!
The second group of models I painted... this time personally converted into Firefly Browncoats. I still couldn't take pictures. RAFM
Where 28mm felt like a few large settings from which you could choose models, and a few character models and very generic (and frequently very similar to each other) model producers (who I do support... Go Reaper!), 15mm felt like an endless universe of possibilities.

After years of the large armies of uniform marines facing down one or two types of similarly uniform aliens, it was like walking into the Mos Eisley (Ahem, Mudd Eisley) Cantina and seeing Malcolm Reynolds discussing a deal with Sam Curtis as James Kirk gave a speech to a group of Jawas on why not to disassemble intelligent robots, while in the other corner bounty hunters got in fist fights with unnameable alien creatures over the beautiful asari dancers.

Basically, the perfect world for a gamer who likes the awe of a big universe through the eyes of a space cowboy.

See? Space Cowboys. GZG
Finally, time on a reflection on 15mm, Characters, and Setting. More specifically, how they all tie together.

Not only are there endless options for the 15mm gamer, but its very, very easy to modify. For larger modifications, just a little greenstuff and very simple modeling can totally change a miniature into anything you want. In addition, at this scale, how you paint something totally changes its overall appearance.

Take this next photo for example. 
Captain? You're facing the wrong way... GZG 
Here they make a somewhat cohesive free trading crew. But what if the fellow in the cap had been painted with a grey shirt (as opposed to his current plaid shirt) and grey pants (vs. fashionable desert camo) and a grey cap (a blue cap that says BS in white... what does it stand for? Blue Sun, of course ;)

Suddenly he goes from InfraRedneck to military ship's crew.

Or what if they all had green skin? Blue?

Or painted on eyepatches and pirate-y looking clothes?

See? Endless possibilities. 

And the thing is, if you are into 15mm, you're probably doing a mix of manufacturers, based on a game with no built in setting (or a very vague one that is just there as a guideline for making your own), just like myself.

So with this great freedom, you suddenly have a bit of a job to do; make it all work together.
Setting design and character creation is a built in part of the 15mm sci fi gaming experience, regardless of whether you play small skirmish games or grand scale battles.

The fact of the matter is, I don't see a lot of people with developed settings. The sci fi batreps I see tend to be rather vague on setting (I have Marines fighting Rebels) and tend to focus on one rather simplified character at most (This marine is the sergeant, he is me). There is nothing wrong with that. But I also feel that a good way for this blog to help the gaming community is to focus a bit more on developing that, and helping people find and apply their personal tastes both in the 'behind the scenes' of games-- painting, buying, sculpting-- and during games-- scenarios, effects of characters, campaigns, etc.

So, I'm going to start doing a bit of a study of my characters and setting interspersed with ideas for rules, scenario creation ideas, whatever... and posts solely for the discussion of other people's ideas for settings and such.

Rebel Minis Drop Troopers... just got them a few weeks ago and painted a few as samples today!
The fundamental thing about my setting is that it is basically a mixture of the 'feels' of all my favorite science fiction-- Firefly, Traveller, Star Wars/Mass Effect sorta stuff, Star Trek, American Astronaut, BSG, Homeworld, countless books, Alien, etc, as well as a nice understanding of the 'real world' possibilities for technology. 

The setting doesn't resemble Firefly, nor Star Wars, nor BSG, in almost anyway. Its just that a character that in all ways resembles Mal, Han, or Adama wouldn't be out of place in the setting.

I think once you have that vague feel, coming up with simple stuff- the empires, how things travel, etc- is very easy. 

For example, I knew I wanted a powerful human empire (Star Wars, Traveller) that is a powerful contender but not much greater than several others (Star Trek, Mass Effect), is rather Corporatist and flawed, but not evil per se (Firefly, Alien).

I also knew that I didn't want to have Earth (Firefly, Star Wars... almost MOST of Sci Fi, oddly) play an active role, wanted it to be a separate culture from Earth (in a BSG sorta way), and liked the general feeling of being cut off from home (Homeworld). 

The result? Many years ago, the outer Solar System gained a large wormhole, seemingly out of nowhere (still not fully understood what happened). Recognizing that Earth was running low on resources, and that space had not been properly prepared for taking on the burden of Humanity, they saw this as one chance of survival. Scientists noticed that the system on the other end appeared to have several wormholes as well, and had several planets that appeared as if they could support life... despite the fact that the system was a binary star system (which does not prevent habitability, it just changes the preferred zone).

Seeing an opportunity, Earth put its efforts into two large slowboats that could go through the wormhole (taking many generations, even then) to carry thousands of people to the two planets deemed most likely to be habitable... along with lots of gear for moderate terraforming, in case they weren't perfect already.

These pioneers clearly appreciated that they were starting a whole new civilization, or at least had a mild sense of humor. The two ark ships were named Ada and Evan, the "Twin Suns" as they came to be known are named Sumer-1 and Sumer-2, while the two habitable planets became Tigris and Euphrates. Appropriate names for the cradle of civilization, they though.

By the time they'd settled in with a few small cities in the new system, the wormhole collapsed. It had not been maintained by whoever had built it... if it was not natural.

The humans found themselves in Andromeda, in a binary system with multiple smaller wormholes leading to nearby star systems. Before too long, other races started contacting as they noticed the new radio signals coming from where the wormhole had been. 

I'll go into more detail on settings later....

For now, a bit more eye candy (I flatter my poor painting skills)
Rebel Minis
A Mass Effect inspired character (right side)... wish he was angled a bit more so you could see his arm stripe. Nice thing about a bit universe with lots of diversity is that you can fit in homages to things you like while also having the models to use for games set in other universes... see the Browncoats above, AKA the Shiloh Rough Riders (in my own setting).

Important note on the hooded Sahadeen fellow.
Inspired in part by the sorta 'ancient' feel to bits of the setting, as well as wanting nomadic space middle eastern jewish sorta fellers (Mass Effect, Homeworld, Dune, many more), while also wanting to be able to translate some of my Eldar Ranger characters, I came up with the Viatsi. They're humans, but they don't seem to be from the same wave of colonization as the main Andromedan Humans. Its unknown how they got where they are. Their culture got rather complicated, they were slaves for awhile, now they are mostly wandering with a few small worlds with settlements on them... most of them are independent travellers, but they meet at a larger fleet to support the culture as a whole. Also, they seem to have a relatively high tendency towards being psychic (that is, those who believe in psychics tend to admit that most of them are Viatsi).


  1. Any feedback and reactions to my thoughts on 15mm's awesomeness and the importance of characters and setting would be appreciated... as well as feedback on my setting.

    Also, should I just split thoughts up into posts more often? On one hand, I feel that makes it less intimidating for everyone, but on the other hand, it loses the right flow.

  2. Hi Joe,
    Well said. As much as I loved 40k it is a beast, or monster as a hole. It brings out the bad in most people. But this can also be said about Magic, and other games. I switched to 15mm before it was any thing. I think it was around 03. I have never looked back. I still have some 28s but very few. I also love love love Gorkamorka......... Any way I can help you and you photos. Have a look at my blogs and you will see a cheap ass light box I built out of a large coffee can.

    Have fun.


  3. Here is the direct link to the light box project.
    Also most of the photos on my blogs after the light box was built are taken with my very expensive camera, well not really I use my blackberry storm II. So this shows that it is more the lighting than the camera.


  4. Similar path as my own... Though I started with Rogue Trader, took a dip into later editions (and the awful 'tournament' mindset that went with them), went back to Rogue Trader... and eventually discovered THW.
    We still play RT occasionally, and I haven't fully given in to the siren call of 15mm yet.
    Anyway, great stuff, fun reading.

  5. Noel- Thanks for the light box idea, it certainly makes better pictures!

    Knob- Give in! Mwahaha!

    I'm thinking the light box will make the figures appear, well, lighter... I do have a somewhat darker style to my painting (it comes from being a 40k gamer, I think... 28mm in general tends to be less vibrant), but I feel like the photos exaggerate... Also I'll get less weird shadows.

  6. "Aha! I know that feeling!"

    Seriously, my path to 15mm is parallel to yours in many ways. I really like the ability of 15mm to do what you want, unrestricted by background. I do still maintain my 28mm figures, with very occasional additions, because I really like skirmish gaming with 28mm. If you get more than 2 or 3 squads per side on the table, I'm all for 15mm.

    My personal gaming universe's background still isn't totally fleshed out; it more resembles your comment on how other people's bat-reps are rather vague.

    Good post!

  7. Well I hope I can inspire you to expand that setting, Kelroy!

  8. Welcome to 15mm, Joe. While my foray into WH40K was very brief, I came into 15mm SciFi from 15mm Renaissance (got sick of WRG DBR). While my blog is mainly about my Traveller campaign, my website has my model making and painting log which you might enjoy having a look at.

    Link to my modeling log:



  9. Well done, Joe!

    Maybe because it feels so much like what I would write in my own wargaming blog (if I had one)?

    You know, I am at a very similar point myself.
    Moving to 15mm for its variety, option of mixing different lines of miniatures, faster painting, easier storage, and lower prices.

    I also moved away from my Warhammer 40K hobby. Still like some aspects of the universe, but not enough to justify staying in the 40K gaming community. I liked this kind of wargaming but not so much the competetive kind of gaming most players enjoy. For me it was more about story-driven scenarios and development of the storyline. I found more of it in Necromunda and Mordheim, but then it still didn't feel quite perfectly right to me.

    Unfortunately I gamed less and less... I didn't regret the reduction of my 40K gaming so much as those smaller skirmish games.

    Then I found out about Two Hour Wargames and never looked back since! It was perfectly what I needed. Not many people shared my fascination and enthusiasm (it was not so much about competing and balanced tournament gaming as their favorite games) but then there was the option to play solo.

    Now I could start playing the way I like! Unfortunately my gaming time was badly reduced, but now I enjoyed every single game I played. No waiting for the game to end, no emotionless gaming. Now it could be as thrilling as I wanted it to be. And it could be all about story!

    My universe is not as thoroughly developed as yours, but the general idea is similar - abulity to mix elements of every setting I knew and liked. So I will surely be using elements of 40K, but only next to some Firefly, Star Wars, Aliens, or BSG things.

    Keep posting here. I will be checking for more new posts.

    One thing regarding painting - if I may...
    You say your style is dark because of your 40K beginnings.

    The important truth is that the smaller the scale, the more exaggerated and bold the paintjobs need to be. While 54mm or 40mm miniatures can go with little contrast and limited shading/highlighting (as light will naturally create them), you have to cheat a bit in 32-38mm scale and paint these highlights/shadows there. And in 10-15mm it becomes even more important. These miniatures are small and will most likely be viewed from gaming distance, so they need to be a little exaggerated. Even at cost of technical perfection, details or smoothness. Try it - I am not criticizing or forcing any decisions - just encouraging you to try it.

    And most important: keep enjoying what you do. In your own way.

  10. This is parallel to my own journey as well. While 28mm is generally nicer to look at, 15mm is cheaper, easier to paint (I have so many painted 15mm figures now, as opposed to 1 army for 40K) and my storage space for both the miniatures and terrain is so much smaller (which is a good thing).

    Keep up the posts.

  11. A great read. Very inspiring.


  12. Ha - well, when you mentioned Rogue Trader it took me a while to realize that you were talking about the new RPG rather than 40K:RT. 40K:RT IS exactly what you are talking about -- the vague feel of every sci-fi story you love -- and I was lucky enough to start gaming with that instead of the later incarnations.

    15mm does feel more free to me and I found myself questioning why -- after all, it's only a size difference. But I think you've hit it -- it's way easier to convert and add little details or a different paint scheme. And the cost factor definitely helps there too. Easier to be more creative if you have less invested. I still like 28mm for skirmish -- but I'm having fun with both right now. (With 2HW and Stargrunt 2)

    Great blog -- keep it up!

  13. I'm actually talking about 40k:RT, and I totally agree about it... but for some reason I had trouble ever playing it with whatever setting I wanted: It always felt like I had to make it the RT setting (which I like, but I'd prefer something a bit different).

    I still play it occasionally, and have considered using it for Star Wars, but honestly the new SF stuff from THW is just better when it comes to the actual mechanics, at least IMO.

    I think the other element of 28mm is that a lot of it is more influenced by 40k, especially, the SF. Thats because they want to cater to people looking for 'alternate IG armies' and similar. Which isn't all bad- Pig Iron stuff looks great!-but I do feel it offers less overall variety. And, of course, there are great character figs- copplestone, heresy, reaper- but the cost makes me shy away from them, and the detail is good enough on 15mm that it has the same effect, for me (and the fact that I can more easily make the character 'my own' than with the more detailed 28mm figures might also have to do with it).