Saturday, 27 April 2013

Better Painting for Beginners: Undercoating your miniatures

It's often the basic things that help people paint better and more easily. In our rush to paint a shiny new miniature it's often tempting to skip those basic but rather tedious steps that give you a good foundation to work on. Today we're going to look at undercoating or priming your figures.

Whilst you can undercoat with a brush I think that most people tend to use spray paint. What could be easier I hear you ask? It's a spray can... Actually there's a bit of a knack to it if you want best results.  So here are my top tips gleaned from years of doing it wrong the first time....

  1. Spray outside. Aerosol fumes are toxic and unpleasant and you don't want to breathe them in. Really.
  2. Wear marigolds, you know, the gloves people wear when washing up.  Unless you really enjoy washing spray paint off your hands that is. If you wear gloves then you also have more choice about how to hold the figures because you're not fussed about getting paint on your hands.
  3. Undercoating miniatures
    Blue Tack is your friend when undercoating...
  4. Mount you figures on a nice piece of wood about three feet long. Use some decent Blue Tack so that they stay on firmly and you can move them around without risk of them falling off.
  5. If, like me, you live in the UK it's rare to get a day where there is no breeze at all. If possible try to find somewhere sheltered from the wind, otherwise take a moment to move around so you have the wind at your back. This stops the paint getting blown back at  you and away from the miniatures.
  6. Hold the can about 30cm or 12" from the figures. If you get too close the paint will pool and obscure shallow details like on the miniature of the king.  If your spray from too far away you'll get a dusty look. This is because the paint starts drying before it hits the model and means the paint won't stick as well when you get down to the fun part of painting.  Neither of these are fatal if you're just painting up a few grunts for your army but they won't provide a good base if you want to paint the figures up nicely.
  7. Bad undercoating
    Oops, sprayed too close!
  8. Start spraying just before the first figure and move along the row. Stop spraying just after the last figure. This should give you a nice even coat. You may need a couple of passes. That's fine, it's much better than doing one coat which is too heavy.
    Spray with even passes
    Start spraying just before the first figure and move along the row.
  9. Don't worry about getting the spray into every last area. Trust me, it isn't possible. Just touch up the areas you missed afterwards with a brush using a paint that covers well. If you missed a lot then reposition the miniatures and spray them again.
  10. Leave the figures to dry before touching them. Ten minutes is long enough, although I think that half an hour is better - it gives the odour of the aerosol a bit longer to dissipate too! I've heard that professional painters leave them overnight but frankly at my level I don't think it would make much difference.
Neatly Primed Miniature
One neatly primed with grey paint and accepting
the paint well. :) Note that the crossbow needs a little
tidy up where the spray missed. Typical!

Finally a few things to avoid - you'll just wish you hadn't bothered and, yes, I have done all of them over the years!
  • Don't undercoat in the dark or bad light. You'll miss loads.
  • Don't try undercoating in the rain and juggling an umbrella. Picking up minis out of a puddle is not fun...
  • Don't forget to check they are securely blue tacked.  Trying to find your minis in the bottom of a hedge is not fun either.

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Friday, 26 April 2013

RPGs: Names and voice acting for charcters

One of my favourite things about GMing is the opportunity to play lots of different NPCs, for me they're often what make the story interesting as they interact with the Player Characters.  Over time I've picked up a couple of things which I find make life easier and bring NPCs to life more. Two of the main ones are character names and voice acting.

Names are important but easily overlooked in the midst of prepping a session.  It's unfortunate because Bob the blacksmith sounds lame. His Royal Highness Darren the Magnificent doesn't really work either and Julie the Jedi is going to be laughed at too.  Players just won't take these characters seriously.

It's good to think about names as part of your preparation for a game; always name important NPCs before the session and say the names aloud to check they don't have any unintended comedy value! It's often worth printing out a list of names to keep with you in case you need one on the fly.  YAFNAG is good source of fantasy names but there are tons of lists of baby names out there which are specific to different languages and cultures: Aztec, Roman, Spanish and a zillion others are all out there. Try to choose ones that are easy to say: Tathren'orienel may look good on paper but people will find it hard to pronounce - let alone remember.

Following on from character names is one my favourite techniques: voice acting.  Apart from the obvious benefit that it aids to immersion in the game there are a couple of more subtle advantages. When I voice a character I've noticed that players seem to listen more. I suspect part of this is due to the novelty factor since they're probably used to my normal speaking voice, but I think they also assume I'm saying something important because an NPC is speaking.  It certainly seems to help with keeping their attention.

Voicing characters differently also makes it easier for players to recognise who they are talking to, which is very helpful when they are interacting with several NPCs at once.  It can be confusing to talk to several NPCs who all share the GM's normal voice as it isn't always easy to follow who has said what.

However, even beyond these, the main reason for voice acting is to aid characterisation.  There are a couple of ways to achieve this.  An obvious thing to try are accents.  Some people are natural mimics and others are not, but it's always worth trying even if the thought makes your blood run cold at first! If your game is set in the real world then trying to do appropriate  accents is nice; the players will feel more like they are in Paris if everyone they meet speaks with a French accent.  In a fantasy world you can also associate different races with real world accents. The most notorious example is the Scottish Dwarf which has become so clich├ęd that it just irritates some people. Personally I quite enjoy doing dwarves with a Russian accent.  Like helping players to identify individual NPCs, this can also help players to quickly identify where a new character is from.

A word of warning however: do not do an accent that strains your voice! Or at least not for a prolonged period as you risk ending up with a sore throat.

Other things to try are varying your tone of voice and the speed of delivery  Soften your tone of voice for speaking the gentle Lady Allena and make it louder and brasher for the drunken barbarian in the tavern. Speak slowly and deliberately for the wise old monk giving them advice and quickly for the rogue who is trying to talk his way out of a failed con.  With non human characters, think about how they might speak or what other sounds they might make. For example, anything reptilian I tend to give a sibilant voice whereas giants and ogres usually get a deep voice.

Pet topics and catch phrases are also good and don't require any ear for accents.  They can be anything appropriate to the character and the setting and serve the same function as accents.  They can also lead to some fine comic moments!  A few examples include:
  • "I love the marine corps!"
  • "Are you still carrying that Colt? The Smith and Weston is so much better.."
  • "I suppose you can't help it, you are an Elf..."
  • "What you really need is a horse and lance..."
  • "Have you heard the teachings of Isis?"
How to put all this together then?  Easy - it's all about practice! Pick a character who you want to voice and try out some of the ideas above until you are satisfied with it. I often do this when I'm driving as it helps to pass the time.  You'll probably feel silly to start with but practicing will help you to get over it.  You'll also find that in the midst of a session, when you've got five players and your plot to think about, that it's much easier to do a voice you are familiar with.  With a bit of practice you can build up a repertoire of voices to work with.

Practising voices before the session also gives you a chance to consider some of the things your NPCs might say and gives you an excellent chance to get a feel for their personality. You don't want to learn a script and it doesn't matter if you don't say the things you were practising in the actual session; the main thing really is getting a feel for the character and how they speak.  Even if you don't do any voice acting as such, time spent 'rehearsing your lines' is always well spent in my view.

A few final words of advice. If you're not sure about all of this then start small. Think of a minor character like a barman or shopkeeper and try one or two of these techniques. You can then work your way up to doing major villains of your campaign as you confidence grows.  Don't worry about getting the voices perfect, and don't be afraid to ham it up a bit.  No one is going to get an Oscar for this kind of thing and it's unlikely your players could do any better! Remember, the important thing is to make the characters interesting and memorable and above all, have fun!

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Saturday, 20 April 2013

Better Painting: Washes and inks for shading skin

One way to improve your painting is to try painting minis that allow you to concentrate on painting one particular thing. I picked up this Reaper figure some years ago to practise painting skin tones.  As you can see I didn't really bother with highlighting or shading anything else but Brand the Barbarian has served me well in my collection of RPG baddies nonetheless.

Whilst I don't remember the details of how I painted the figure I do recall that it was one of my early forays into using inks and washes for shading. Washes and inks can be bought commercially and are designed to get in the recesses and provide shading. "What's the difference between them?" I hear you ask. Well, at this level of painting the main one is that inks dry with a glossy finish and can't be made at home. A wash on the other hand can be made by simply diluting paint with water.  If you experiment with them you'll find that they give different effects but that goes way beyond the scope of this post and there are plenty of better painters to tell you about that. :)

The wash on this figure is very obvious around his abdomen and perhaps a bit too heavily applied but it does show nicely how shading should sit in the recesses to add depth to the model. To get it there you simply basecoat the model and then paint the wash or ink into the recesses. A decent brush, a steady hand and a little practice are all that you need. Some pre mixed washes are great and flow naturally into the recesses others need a bit more care.  Keep in mind that if you apply it too thin you can always add another coat to darken it further. If you start with it too dark you need to redo the base coat over that area and start again.

If you want to try the technique out I personally find brown washes can be used on lots of thing: skin, wood, leather, fur. Black washes over metal is also a standard technique that many people use.  You can of course use any colours and there are all sorts of easy and neat effects you can get. Give  it a try sometime!

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Showcase: Hasslefree's Debra, Female Sci-Fi Trooper

Hasslefree's Debra Sci-Fi Trooper
Back in the days of fourth edition Warhammer 40k I was a devoted Imperial Guard player. Most of my collection was Valhallans, which I'll have to post pictures of sometime just to show what you can paint with a sponge! But, like everyone else I toyed with different colour schemes and army lists and at one time thought about doing some Cadians.   At the time I had just discovered Hasslefree miniatures and their fantastic modern day range.  I think Debra was their only sci-fi mini at the time.  I bought her as I thought she'd make a good female Cadian and painted her up to test out the colour scheme.

Hasslefree's Debra Sci-Fi TrooperIn terms of painting the figure was quite straightforward as it's mostly two colours. I started with a black undercoat since I wanted a subdued, natural look. After base coating with Vallejo olive drab and khaki it was mainly a case of using Games Workshop washes to do the shading and dry brushing almost everything to put on some highlights.

Since it was a test piece I spent a bit more time on the base than usual. I chose one of the lipped ones as they give you more room to work and painted part of it to look like swamp water. A coat of gloss varnish gave it a wet look. The rest of it got the usual brown earth paint job and static grass finish.

Hasslefree's Debra Sci-Fi TrooperI spent a bit of extra effort on the face and it came out quite well. One if the eyes is wrong if you look at the close up but it isn't noticeable from a distance. The red lips and helmet light add a bit of colour to model.

I never did do a proper Cadian army in the end but I liked the colour scheme a lot; olive drab and khaki is simple to do and gives sci-fi soldiers a more realistic look. In fact I liked it so much that I continued to paint up the occasional trooper here and there, so watch this space for the rest of the squad..

Preparing your campaign: The Elevator Pitch

So you want to run a campaign. You tell your gaming group that it's going to be a sci fi adventure using Savage Worlds and they should make up some novice level characters. You meet for the first session and they enthusiastically describe their characters to you. Bob has a tough colonial marine type, Fred is playing a pacifist Vulcan scientist and Jane is playing a Jedi with no light sabre but a stack of magical powers. How, you wonder, will this work with hard sci fi Apollo 13 style scenario that you had planned? 

The problem here was that everyone has a different idea of sci fi.  All four people are referencing different bits of the genre and you've got ideas that are likely to conflict with each other. This is perhaps a slightly extreme example but many GMs just tell their players a genre and a ruleset and find that they run into difficulties later on because the game they want to play is not the same as the ones their players want.

The way to avoid this is to be clear about what you want to do from the start. This is where the elevator pitch comes in.  For me, this is the first and most critical stage in preparing a campaign. It's also helpful, although perhaps less vital, in creating a one shot adventure.  In case you haven't heard the term before, the idea of an elevator pitch is that you are in an elevator with someone important and have 30 seconds to sell them your idea, whatever that happens to be. The pitch needs to be clear concise and intriguing  So in terms of organising a campaign, it's a short description that gives the listener a good idea of what it's going to be about.  Sometimes a single sentence is enough. Some examples from campaigns I've run might include:
  • "Star Trek meets Ridley Scott's Aliens."
  • "Become a knight and rule a barony in the service of the king or the church."
  • "Hard-bitten LAPD detectives take on cybernetically enhanced criminals in the near future."
  • "A Game of Thrones with Elves and Dwarves and you need to put a member of your House on the throne."
  • "Drive out the Dragon from the Elven homeland so they can return from their exile."
  • "Star Wars before the Rebel Alliance appeared."
And a couple of example from one-shot games I've run:
  • "It's Firefly and you're doing a job for Mr Niska."
  • "You're ministers in the British government who uncover Cthulhu secrets, go mad and die."
Why is this helpful? Several reasons. One, you need to get clear in your mind about what kind of campaign you want to run. After all, if you don't know what you want to do in your campaign, how will the players know? It also allows you to establish the tone of the game; I find TV, film and book references helpful for this as they give people common points of reference. Keep in mind that if you're using a well established setting then players will expect certain things. For example, in Star Wars I would expect space fights, lightsaber duels and smugglers.  In Star Trek I would be anticipating more investigation and ethical dilemmas.  Both are sci fi but they are pretty different in tone and style.

Your pitch will probably also suggest how linear or sandboxy your campaign will be.  Some people have a strong preference for one or the other so it's wise to think about this early on.  You'll see that some of the above examples have a specific objective, others don't and in my experience both types of game can be good fun. Sandbox style games need plenty of interesting things for the players to do otherwise they end up drifting and people get bored. A more linear game with a specific objectives gives the player characters a goal to work towards and a sense of accomplishment when they achieve it, but they need to feel that they are actively shaping the story and are not simply puppets in the GM's pre-written novel.

An elevator pitch has another important task: it helps you find out if your players are interested in playing the game you want to run before you start prepping.  Yes, you could just announce that you're going to run that awesome My Little Pony RPG you bought last week but your players might not want to play it.  If they're your friends they may start the campaign for your sake but you'll likely run into problems.  People may start skipping sessions or the ponies might turn out to rather more violent than normal in the genre... 

Role playing is a cooperative hobby and it makes sense to find a game that everyone wants to play before you invest your time and energy in planning the campaign.  Just because you have a cool idea for a campaign doesn't mean it's going to work with your particular group of players at that particular moment. This doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad idea but it may simply  not catch their enthusiasm.  Sometimes the reasons for this are obvious, after all, if your group has just finished a long Pathfinder campaign they may not want to play another epic fantasy campaign right away, regardless of how neat the idea is. Sometimes people are just not interested and the reason why isn't really clear.

What I find best is to have a couple of ideas to put to my players before I do any serious prepping for the game.  I do this in a pretty informal way, usually chatting in the pub after the game. I talk about ideas I have for future games and see what people latch on to and also what they don't think will be fun.  I'm sure I've avoided some serious flops by doing this. For example, when I watched the first season of Sons of Anarchy on DVD I really wanted to run a campaign based on it.  Unfortunately none of my players were interested in motorcycle clubs or the TV show itself.  I also struggled to work out how to translate the TV show into an RPG, I just couldn't work out what I wanted to do in the campaign.  Happily I had other ideas, one of which grabbed the others interest and we did that instead.  We had a blast.

Keep in mind that one of the secrets to being a good GM is avoiding the obvious mistakes! Role-playing games run on the enthusiasm of the people involved.  Always find a campaign that both you and your players all want to play before you start and you're already halfway to running a fun game.

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