I first started playing D&D back in the early 80’s. Me and the rest of my 5th grade buddies played with the old, blue box Basic D&D set with the dragon, wizard and fighter on the cover and the holy trinity of AD&D Gygax books at the time (Player’s Handbook, DM Guide and Monster Manual). We had the time of our lives fighting dragons, kobolds, and evil wizards with our characters and multi-sided dice and snacking on mountains of Doritos and Coke. It was a Friday and Saturday night ritual until one day all that glory faded away into a land of girl chasing, music, cars and part-time jobs, until one day it was all gone and packed up into a few boxes in my mom’s garage.
Life goes on, but then one day one of the best discoveries an old school, 40something year old geek can discover is his old treasure trove of D&D books and miniatures. It’s like the dwarves of Erebor seeing all their lost gold for the first time in years! Well, my Mom recently moved and in that process my boxes of D&D treasure resurfaced. It had probably been 30 years, but I found my old books, modules, dice, etc., but perhaps the greatest treasure of all, my “Arkenstone”, were all the fantastic old D&D miniatures I found. I think what made these so special was that they were a visual representation of some my favorite characters (Magen Fellow the gnome, Cheryl the Wizard and Balwin the Strider) and that I spent many enjoyable hours painting, collecting and gaming with these little 25mm men and monsters. They were a piece of some of my fondest childhood memories frozen in time, that I could hold in the palm of my hand and look at and share. That’s what makes them so magical.
When I first started gaming we didn’t use miniatures. The game was played all in our imagination, or maybe at best we used a few dice and Coke cans to represent combat positions on the kitchen table. As a child I had always had a fondness for a things ” in miniature”, like model trains, 54mm toy soldiers, etc., but when I went into the local toy store as a 5th grader to look for a D&D module to buy, I stumbled across a bunch a little miniature heroes and monsters made by companies such as Ral Partha, Grenadier and Heritage and it was like a lighting bolt hit me! I was hooked and it changed my life in a small, but most excellent way.
I first started buying miniatures to represent my characters, but it soon spread to NPC’s and monsters. I mean you had to be able to represent everyone and everything, right? It was fun to hunt for a miniature that looked like the vision of my druid that I had in my head, or the perfect orc war chieftain. Sometimes it worked the other way in that I would see a cool miniature and then want to create a new character based on the mini! I remember miniatures opening my eyes to many cool weapon and armor combinations….. yeah, I want a dwarf like that that uses a crossbow, shield, axe and darts, with an oversized winged helmet and knee high boots. Yes, fun stuff!
I was chatting with my friend and fellow old school D&D enthusiast Noble Smith recently about why he liked miniatures so much and he felt that it was cool to be able to visually set up a scene with the player characters and monsters. It was a way to direct your own play or be a character designer and set designer for your own movie. I definitely agree! There is something visually compelling and addictive about those little 25mm guys!
The town I grew up in in Georgia had two great local toy stores. The first was called “Rex Toys” and they had a great D&D section crammed in the corner between the dollhouses and toy trucks. I bought a lot of my first AD&D modules and miniatures at that store. They had a great selection of those Grenadier boxed sets. Those were really fantastic! You got like 10-12 figures all with a common theme. Some of my favorites were their boxed sets of “The Dungeon Explorers (#5001), Adventuring Party (#2013), Halflings (#2002) and Dwarves (#2003). These were great because you got a wonderful selection of themed figures and the then box could be used for storage…brilliant! I liked these so much that I remember looking for these boxes at store stores and gift shops across the country whenever my parents took us on vacation! I have recently started to troll eBay for them when I have the time.
Another great toy store in town was “The Toy Box”. I can remember begging my mom to take me and my friends there at least once a month. It was tough being a gamer kid and not old enough to drive. The Toy Box had lots of the individual Ral Partha figures hanging on pegs and also sold lots of other manufacturers like Mini-Figs, Broadsword, Superior and Heritage. The detail on the Ral Partha figures was (and still is)amazing. Tom Meier sculpted a lot of the classic RP figures, and he’s still going strong with his company Thunderbolt Mountain. I liked these figures because they were cheap to buy individually on my paltry allowance and dog sitting money. Ral Partha had lots of figures that worked perfectly for player characters. I know that I got a lot of ideas and inspiration for PC’s and NPC’s just from studying these castings. Great stuff! I miss those old hobby shops. I remember that magical feeling of walking in and heading to the D&D section and just soaking up all the new products from TSR, Ral Partha, Grenadier, Judges Guild, etc. As the old saying goes…they don’t make toy stores like that anymore!
My first attempts at miniatures painting didn’t go well. This wasn’t the era of “how to You Tube” videos and you pretty much had to figure things out on your own. The scale model building hobby was popular at the time and Testors model paints were available at most hobby shops and toy stores. I remember buying a basic set of Testors glossy colors to paint my first figures. Wow, what a mess! I didn’t have much painting skill and I hated the glossy look of the paints and having to clean everything with paint thinner. Practice definitely makes perfect and it took some time to figure out how to paint these little guys. Here’s a look (above) at some of my first figures. These were painted by me in the 5th grade!
Thank God for water based acrylic paints! At some point the hobby stores started carrying Ral Partha water based acrylic paints and they had cool names like “orc flesh” and “dragon red”. They were made with the gamer in mind. The fact that they weren’t glossy and could be cleaned with water sold me and I switched and never looked back. I hadn’t learned of the benefits of primer yet, and I remember painting a lot of figures right on the bare metal. Here is a look at some of my post-Testors figures (below)!
It’s fun to look at my old miniatures today and to share them to my kids. When I packed up my D&D stuff so many years ago, I also gave up my hobby of painting miniatures. Most of my D&D miniature painting probably happened from 5th – 9th grade. I probably thought it wasn’t cool and that it wasn’t going to help my odds of surviving high school and gave up painting miniatures when I went to the 10th gradel. My gaming stuff sat on the shelves for a few years, but then went into boxes and into the garage when I went off to college.
Now I know that there are other like minded, old school gamers like myself out there. I bet there’s a whole generation of 80’s guys with their stuff still in boxes. If you have one of those boxes in your parent’s basement or garage, go on a quest to find that box! It’s s treasure trove of some of the best times of your life! There is a whole movement now of guys that are proud of their geek past. It’s loosely called the “old school gamer movement”, and it’s a bunch of mostly middle-aged men who are no longer ashamed to celebrate all the fun and friendship they had playing D&D in their youth! I think it’s our own form of mid-lfe crisis!
This blog, CigarBoxBattle championships the movement as well as such great sites like Noble Smith’s DungeonsandDorkwads.com. I can also wholeheartedly recommend Ethan Gilsdorf’s Book “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks”, which celebrates Ethan’s quest to return to his geeky gaming roots. Ethan’s story of D&D glory lost and then re-found will be appreciated by anybody that has enjoyed this article so far. It’s a fantastic book that we can all relate to.
So I hope that you’ve enjoyed my tale. I have to say that I have recently gotten out the paint brush again and painted a few fantasy figures to use with my kids D&D adventures. But that as they say, is another story…..and a future post!
Take care and Good Gaming – Cory
If you are interested in getting in touch with your inner mini-geek, here are some links I recommend:
Lost mini wiki- a great resource for looking up those old miniatures – http://www.miniatures-workshop.com/lostminiswiki/index.php?title=Main_Page
Noble Smith’s and Ethan Gilsdorf’s old school D&D website – http://www.dungeonsanddorkwads.com/
Cory Ring lives outside Nashville, TN and is currently reconnecting to his gaming roots. He is a jack of all trades but tends to enjoy: blogging, sorting through his old miniatures, table-top games, running his kids through an old school Greyhawk D&D campaign, coffee, and good food. He can be contacted through this blog. Feel free to drop him a line.