Sunday, November 17, 2013

Preparation and Simple Conversion of Plastic Figures

I have had people ask for some more information about how I prepare plastic figures for painting, and someone asked for some pointers on simple conversions. So in this post, I'll go into more detail on these topics, covering preparation up to priming the figures. I will also do a simple conversion: doing a head swap to get a helmet, changing the weapon to a mace, and adding a coif of mail.

The figure I picked is from the Airfix Robin Hood set that I think will make a good cleric figure. The figure has an axe and no helmet. I will convert the axe to a mace and swap the figure's head with one of the other Robin Hood figures that has a helmet. I will add a coif of mail draping under the helmet down to the shoulders. This will also strengthen the attachment of the head to the figure.

I like to leave the figures on sprues as long as possible because it makes it easier to handle them, especially if you are preparing a batch of figures. I wait to remove them from the sprue until after priming them if possible, although for mounted figures I might detach and mount the riders on the mounts before priming.

These photos show the materials and tools I use for the preparation and conversion steps. In the first photo, an Exacto hobby knive, single edge razor knife and a pin vise (a tiny hand drill) are on the bottom row. The glue shown here is a 20 minute 2 part epoxy glue, which is good for large batches where you need more working time. I will actually use a 5 minute epoxy glue for this single figure, but its label is gone. Not pictured are electrical pliers that have a cutter that I used to cut the piano wire.

Required materials
Required materials

The second photo shows the tools and materials for the conversion. The blue and yellow cylinders are the 2 parts of "green stuff", an epoxy putty that is widely used with miniatures. I have a bunch of carving and shaping tools for use with epoxy putty but for this post I just used a toothpick and an Exacto knife. The green stuff is not really required for simple projects, but if you do a lot of projects with miniatures you will find the "green stuff" to be very useful.

Optional materials
Optional materials

Buying the putty in tubes is far more cost effective than buying the overpriced little strips. Another problem with the strips is that storing the blue and yellow parts together results in a crumbly strip of cured green stuff that must be cut away, wasting some of the putty. You can also buy a variety of 2 part epoxy putties at the hardware store. I have tried several over the years, and many of them have their uses.

Here are the steps for the preparation of the figure:

  1. Wash figures with dish soap
  2. Remove flash
  3. Convert/ assemble figures as needed
  4. Coat figures with white glue (only required for soft flexible figures)
  5. Prime the figures

The first step is to use dish soap to wash the figures. I use an old toothbrush for this. Then go over the figures with a sharp knife and cut off as much flash as possible. This is difficult with the Airfix figures which are very soft and flexible and are sometimes cast with a lot of flash. Just remember these are dirt cheap if you get irritated.

The figure had a sword, so I carefully scraped the sword off. I used a knife and cut off the heads. I use the pin vise to drill a hole vertically through the head, down into the torso of the figure. I cut a short length of piano wire and pushed it into the head and then pushed the head onto the wire. This will give us good strength as well as let us experiment with rotating the head and bending the neck.

In order to achieve a good bond between parts, you either need a large flat surface for gluing, or as in this case, you need to pin the parts together. I mixed up a very small batch of the 5 minute epoxy and applied it with a toothpick. Be careful not to get big globs on the figure. Glue the bottom part of the wire into the neck and torso of the model, then put some glue on the top of the wire and on the bottom of the head, being careful not to make a big blob.

Pinning the head
Pinning the new head on the figure

Next I worked on the chainmail coif. I shaped the coif and then after it started to cure, I used the toothpick point to rough up the putty and suggest mail. The putty takes a long time to cure, and after it stiffens there is a stage where it is hard to move it around but the surface remains malleable. That is when I worked on the texture. I did it in two steps because it is easier to work on small volumes at a time. I worked on the part of the coif hanging down from the helmet, and after that set up I added the part that goes round the front of the neck.

Mail coif
Progress on the mail coif

For the mace, I shaped a simple mace head from a small amount of putty. I built up the mace head in two steps, the first giving a foundation and then I finished the shape. It was difficult to carve and shape because of the flexibility of the plastic so the mace head was very simple.

If you don't have green stuff, you could use a bit of epoxy glue and build up the neck. Let it cure until it no longer flows and then push it into place. I sometimes use the epoxy as a fillter, but it is harder to control and not as nice to work with as putty. If you are doing a lot of miniatures projects I urge you to get some green putty and try your hand at something like this.

Now that the figure is assembled it is time to prepare it for painting. A beat-up old brush is used to apply diluted white glue prior to priming -- but this step is only required for rubbery, flexible figures. Figures made of more modern plastics do not need this step. I pour some glue out on the tile I use for a pallet and get the brush very wet. I do this in two coats. Use water from a jar to keep the white glue from being too thick. If you are not careful you might get a blob of glue, so I dry the brush and remove excess. After the first coat dries, give it a second thin coat. Make sure you wash out the brush after applying glue with it.

After the white glue dries, I prime the figures with slightly thinned acrylic gesso. Again use two thin coats instead of a thick coat. After the second coat I might touch up thin spots, but three coats do not seem to be necessary.

The prepared figure
The prepared figure, the head donor, unmodified figures (and Friar Tuck looking rather portly)

The flexibility of the plastic makes it hard to work on thin parts, but thicker pieces are easier to carve. The more modern plastics used in Zvezda etc. are very easy to carve and shape. The lack of strength of thin parts is another problem since it is not possible to form a strong joint with a small, flexible region. The head swap and mail coif parts of this project were very easy, and use a similar technique to working on a metal figure. The mace was more frustrating due to the flexibility of the plastic shaft, and the weakness of the hand. If this had been a metal figure, I probably would have formed a mace using a sewing pin or a piece of music wire and epoxied it into the hand and it would have been easy to form a more intricate mace head. But the plastic hand is so small and flexible that I did not think I could form a strong joint and used the existing axe shaft instead.

In my opinion, the low cost and easy availability of these figures more than outweigh the difficulty of working with plastic. Online or at the hobby shop, less than $10 US will get you 40 of the Robin Hood figures. The nicer Zvezda figures are a little more expensive but are still an outstanding value compared to metal figures.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Motion of the Moon (or Moons) around the Earth

The next details to work out have to do with the Moon or Moons of your world. The Moon and Sun are responsible for the tides on Earth, and the cycle of the Lunar orbit has a large effect on life on Earth.

In addition to the influence of the Moon in an ordinary orbit, eclipses of the Sun or Moon are very impressive experiences and have played a role in history many times. Eclipses are tricky to model and I am not sure yet how to handle them so I am going to leave them out of the Quick Start for now. I hope to figure out a good model for them and will update this post after I do.

The period of your Moon's orbit around your world is the first thing to decide. You may or may not have a unit of time between a day and a year based on this period, but that is something to think about. This period will be the mean time from a phase -- full Moon for instance -- to the same phase in the next orbit. Depending on the orbit, this length can vary quite a bit as it does for the real Moon.

Until I have figured out how to handle eclipses there is not much point in determining other features of the Moon's motion. The orbit of the Moon is slightly inclined to the orbit of the Earth so that the Moon crosses the Earth's orbital plane twice per orbit. If the Moon is full (in other words, the Earth is directly between the Moon and Sun) at the very moment that the Moon is crossing the Earth's orbital plane, there will be a lunar eclipse. If the Moon is new (in other words, the Moon is directly between the Earth and Sun) at the moment the Moon is crossing the Earth's orbital plane, locations on the Earth directly behind the Moon from the Sun will have a solar eclipse.

Rotation of the Earth and Motion of the Earth Around the Sun

You may have already determined the length of the day and the length of the year in your world. If not, these are the first things to determine in creating the astronomy of your world. It is best to stay close to the values of the present day Earth if you want an Earth-like world. Throughout the Quick Start guide I will assume that an Earth-like astronomy is being generated, since picking values far from those of the real world may require a lot of astronomical knowledge to ensure a realistic outcome.

The first value to record is the length of the day in your world. How long is it from noon on one day until noon on the next day? If you have elliptical orbits (as we have on our Earth) this value will vary throughout the year, so pick the average value. You should also give some thought to how time will be measured in your world (keep in mind that sticking to a system close to ours will probably be easier on your players). You might want to read about historical timekeeping devices like sundials and waterclocks.

Next record the duration of one orbit of your Earth around the Sun relative to the stars. Assuming the direction of the rotation axis of the Earth moves very slowly (the Earth wobbles like a spinning top, with a circuit being made every 26,000 years or so) relative to the length of the year, this duration will correspond to 1 year in civic life since the seasons will repeat with this duration.

If your year length has a fractional day, you will need to modify some year lengths to keep your calendar in step with the seasons. The calendar we use today inserts a leap day every 4th year (most of the time - not always!) to keep the seasons in step with the calendar, but that is not the only way this can be done. Extra days can be inserted into the calendar when needed or at the whim of a ruler. These extra days may or may not be part of the count of days in a month. Multiple days can be added at once.

Now you should decide what the inclination of the Earth's axis is. Using a value close to the 23.4 ° value of the actual Earth's axis is probably best unless you want a climate very different from Earth's. It is this tilted axis that accounts for the seasons on Earth, with northern summer occuring when the north pole of the Earth is pointing toward the Sun, and northern winter occuring when the north pole of the Earth is pointing away from the Sun (the southern seasons are reversed since the south pole points in the direction opposite to the north pole). This value will be used later to find the path that the Sun, Moon and planets will appear describe in the sky of your Earth.

At this point you have enough information to begin working on a solar calendar, which will be very useful for societies to regulate agriculture, determine when it is safe to sail, roughly predict the weather and so on. You might want to wait until after you generate the data for one (or more) Moons to create your calendar in detail, but it is not too soon to start thinking about month names and deciding what you will do to keep the calendar synchronized with the seasons on your Earth. You can also think about having a unit of time less than a month but greater than a day, but again you might want to wait until you have thought about a Moon or Moons before determining this.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Astronomical Creation for Fantasy Roleplaying Games - Introduction

The astronomical setting of the real world has a large impact on the environment and cultures of our world, and likewise the astronomical setting of a fantasy world should have a large impact on the environment and cultures of that world. While some campaigns go to an effort to determine a few astronomical details for the campaign world -- often to come up with a unique calendar such as the calendar of Greyhawk, or some information on the moons, as in Glorantha -- I think that much more can be done to add to the detail of FRPG campaigns with fairly little effort by developing a detailed astronomy.

Most people lack the astronomical knowledge to develop this sort of background for their campaign world, and it would be very difficult and time-consuming to set out to learn everything needed to do so. As I have been interested in astronomy since childhood, studied the subject in college, maintain an interest in celestial mechanics and ephemeris calculations as well as numerical simulation, and since I have played RPGs since junior high school, I think have a very good background to write a guide to creating the astronomy for a game setting.

While a thorough coverage of all aspects of astronomy as it relates to creating a convincing, realistic setting would require a lengthy book, I plan to begin with a Quick Start guide which will be a cookbook guide to creating an astronomy fairly similar to that of our Earth. Little astronomical knowledge will be assumed. The topics I think are most critical will be covered first. My plan is to post detailed instructions that won't require a great deal of astronomical knowledge or understanding, with some optional topics for those who are interested. I'll post the draft as I write it on the blog and gather feedback, and eventually will post PDF documents after revisions are made. I am also investigating writing software to assist in the creation of astronomical settings. Ideally, there will be simple web based CGI software for ease of use as well as source code for those inclined to read and modify code for their own use. Anyone interested in contributing to such software is encouraged to contact me and let me know.

The topics I plan to cover in the Quick Start are listed here:

  1. Rotation of the Earth and motion of Earth around the Sun
  2. Motion of the Moon (or Moons) around the Earth
  3. Rough sketch of the Ecliptic
  4. Detailed Diagram of the Ecliptic
  5. All Sky Star Map
  6. Inner Planets
  7. Outer Planets
  8. Calculating the Positions of Astronomical Objects

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Plastic Figures

For my recent Chainmail game played at Dragonflight, I needed about 200 1/72 figures. I had a few boxes of the old Airfix Robin Hood and Sheriff of Nottingham figures and knew about some of the figures produced by Zvezda and MiniArts among others. I also knew from reading forum posts that some care needed to be taken so that the paint did not flake off. With some experimentation I found a way to prepare the figures that seemed to produce good results, although I will not know how durable the results are for some time. I found the Plastic Soldier Review website to be very helpful with many reviews and photographs of the figures from many manufacturers.

The greatest appeal of the plastic figurs is that they are cheap. They are also easy to obtain being available in ordinary hobby stores that carry a lot of plastic models as well as online from major retailers. Unmounted figures are roughly $.25 US with mounted figures being 3 or 4 times that. There is some variation in price and the quality of the figures varies from brand to brand and within brands, but the cost per figure for these is a small fraction of the cost for metal figures. Some of the plastic is easy to work with but the old Airfix figures were very soft, flexible and difficult to cut or shape.

The first figures I prepared were the Airfix Robin Hood and Sheriff of Nottingham sets. I like the Robin Hood set, which has a number of good poses. The Robin Hood figure is fairly dashing and there are several good archer poses. The Friar Tuck figure is nice as well. The Sheriff of Nottingham figures however were rather poor. I used a few of the poses, but most of these figures are destined to be chopped up in conversions. Maybe.

These were the least pleasant figures to prepare as they are very flexible and do not cut easily. I coated these with diluted white glue before priming them as I had read somewhere that otherwise the paint would flake off. To prime these figures I used the same metal primer I use for tin figures. I am worried that it might crack because it seems stiff and not at all flexible. I will keep an eye on these figures over the months and years to see if the paint job holds up or if the paint flakes off. I got decent painting results overall , however there was a lot of flash which was hard to clean up. In addition to these problems, the mounted figures of the Sheriff set are not attached to their bases - they have tiny pins which fit poorly into the holes on the provided base. If I use these I will probably epoxy a wire from the belly of the horse down one or two legs and epoxy the other end to the base. Or, more likely, I will discard the mounted figures as they are just not worth the effort. While I might get more of the Robin Hood set, I think the Sheriff of Nottingham set is of little value and I will avoid it in the future.

Next I tackled several boxes of Mini Arts German knights. These included mounted and dismounted poses. There is little variety in armor, and the weapons are either lances or swords. These were a tougher, stiffer plastic but they were still a little flexible. There was some flash on these, but it carved off easily. I started coating these with white glue as I had the Airfix figures, but stopped partway through because they seemed so much less flexible I did not think it would really be necessary. None of the remaining figures seemed flexible enough to bother with the glue. These figures I primed with Golden acrylic gesso. I slightly thinned it with water and gave it two coats followed by a touch up coat for any remaining thin patches. This seemed to work better than the metal primer.

The poses for these were not bad. They were not the nicest figures I worked on for the game but they were acceptable. The sculpts are better than most of the Airfix sculpts but not as nice as some of the Zvezda figures.

The next figures I worked on were the French Infantry from the 100 Years War by Zvezda. They are mostly well-posed, interesting figures although not uniformly excellent. The plastic on these was easy to work with and there was little flash. What flash there was came off very easily, and I used the same acrylic gesso I used for the German knights, and painting went very smoothly. A few of the poses seem odd, but on the table they worked fine as no one examines the individual figures closely enough to notice an occasional awkward sculpt.

The next figures I worked on were the Livonian knights by Zvezda. These were the nicest figures I worked with for this project. They are made of a harder, even less flexible plastic which was very easy to carve. A few of the figures had broken in shipment, so perhaps the greater flexibility of the other figures helps their durability. There was very little flash and painting was a breeze. One minor point is that the shields have raised figures, which may help in painting but which is a pain if you do not like the designs. It was additional work to carve off the designs. There is a mix of mounted and dismounted troops, and a wide variety of armor and weaponry. The sculpts are very interesting and uniformly excellent. In fact the variety of poses is so great that it would be necessary to order many boxes to field units with identical or even similar weaponry and armor. I will probably get more of these figures.

The last figures I worked on for the project were the Medieval Peasants by Zvezda. These poses and sculpts were adequate, but there are some real oddball poses. There was little flash though and the figures were easy to prepare. I did not get beyond a black undercoat, so I cannot say if they were easy to paint or not.

I have not finished all of the figures, although I have varnished a number of the Robin Hood archer figures. I used Golden or Liquitex acrylic varnish (I have both on hand and am not sure which one I used) after letting the paint dry thoroughly.

One point which is very important with these figures that I did not realize is that they are so light they will fall over with the slightest tap on the table. It was very frustrating during the game to be constantly standing the figures up. I bought washers from a hardware store and epoxied them to the bases of the figures and they feel far more solid and are now very stable.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Chainmail scenario at 2013 Dragonflight convention in Seattle


I have long wanted to run a campaign along the lines of the earliest D&D campaigns with an emphasis on military campaigning. I wanted to do something that was partly a straightforward miniature battle with hundreds of simulated combatants, and partly a more traditional RPG with a dozen or so characters. I decided to use Chainmail for the miniatures battle and Labyrinth Lord for the RPG portion. It might have been better to use OD&D however because of the Chainmail game data contained in the rules. Without those rules hooks, the PCs interacted only with the fantastic creatures and by casting spells.

After sketching out a battle setup and subsequent adventure locations, I started to acquire and paint miniatures. I'll cover these in more detail in another post. I used plastic figures from Airfix, MiniArts and Zvezda. Despite some shortcomings especially from the Airfix figures, these were inexpensive and I was able to cheaply prepare roughly 200 figures for the game in a few weeks. Due to time constraints, I did not prepare all of the troop types I wanted but I think I was able to provide an interesting scenario.

At Dragonflight in Seattle on August 10 a local old school gaming group provided 3 players who took part in the game. I have been interested in playing in their games but have not been able to make it to any so far, so it was good to finally meet a few of them. None of them had played Chainmail before but they all have long RPG histories and knew Labyrinth Lord.

The basic idea of the game was that the Evil High Priest of Nebethet had acquired an artifact, the Black Heart of Esset, that allowed the creation and control of powerful undead. He moved to an ancient burial ground with an orc army and was digging up long-dead kings and turning them into wights. This activity being frowned upon, an army assembled to defeat the army. The artifact must be retrieved and the wights destroyed and reburied.

In play we only got through the first part of the scenario. The outcome of play was clear as the orc army routed away. However the High Priest was escaping, so despite a successful military outcome from the point of view of the forces of Law the ending is not determined. I hope to conclude the remainder of the scenario at some point.

The Scenario

Because the scenario did not have the balance I want I don't want to give a detailed OOB. I will sketch out the main characthers, villains and forces involved though.

Chaos OOB

  • Evil High Priest of Nebethet, 10th level cleric
  • Orkul Bloodhand, 5th level orc M-U
  • several wights mounted
  • small force of human archers
  • small force of human medium cavalry
  • large force of orc armored infantry
Forces of Chaos at start
Forces of Chaos at start


  • Baron Athelstan, 8th level fighter
  • 11 other mostly 4th and 5th level characters
  • small force of archers
  • medium force of medium cavalry
  • A large force of knights
Forces of Law at start
Forces of Law at start

The Battlefield

The battle takes place in a narrow valley. The attackers are channeled into the center of the field by hills on either side. A third hill as the three dug up graves of the ancient kings. The chaotic forces are set up in the center. There is a cave on the hillside at the end of the valley which is known to have another exit on the other side of the hill.

After Action Report

There were some definite problems in play caused by lack of experience with the rules on my part and poor testing of the scenario. Morale is a critical element in the rules and I applied the rules inconsistently. There was also an irritating mechanical problem - I did not mount the plastic miniatures, and the table we played on was a little wobbly. Every time someone bumped the table, entire formations fell over (I purchased 400 washers the next day and mounted all of the figures).

The biggest rules mistake was that I messed up the excessive casualty morale rules. Whenever a unit takes a certain percentage of casualties, a morale check needs to be made. I did not do this consistently. Another problem was that unit boundaries were very unclear for Chaos - the orcs were painted black. I had arranged them in units at the beginning and knew which figures were in which units but as soon as they started taking casualties and moving around I lost track of where the unit boundaries were. Movement stands would help this quite a bit. The miniatures for Law were painted in different colors so it was easier to tell where the units were.

The Chaos side was too weak to give strong opposition. One reason for this was that heavy horse is far more effective than armored foot. I ran some combats before the scenario pitting small numbers of heavy horse larger numbers of armored foot and realized that there would be a balance problem. A second problem was that the valley I constructed for the scenario was too narrow. The first orc unit that routed ran into second rank figures because there was no room to pass by. This causes the unit contacted to also rout.

Despite these problems though, I think everyone had a good time. The next time I play Chainmail I will do a better job of following the rules, especially the morale rules.

Forces of chaos routing as the Evil High Priest of Nebethet    
Forces of chaos routing as the Evil High Priest of Nebethet escapes

Future Developments

I will tweak the scenario to try to make it more challenging for Law. Orcs will be increased in number, and I'll probably add some light horse. I will make the valley the orcs are defending wider across so that units can rout away without running into other units and causing a chain reaction rout.