Miniature Painting for the Absolute Beginner

Roleplaying games originated from miniatures wargaming, as any historian of the genre knows, but over time many gamers moved away from using them. D&D Fourth Edition brought the use of miniatures kicking and screaming back to the table. For some players, accustomed to painting little metal men (and women, and monsters) from miniatures wargames, this was not all that daunting. Others, myself included, who never painted a mini before, found other solutions, such as the D&D Minis prepainted line, or by making tokens from washers or other appropriately sized pieces. Painting those tiny little guys is daunting, especially if you’re doing it for the first time, but as Tycho from Penny Arcade and I have both recently discovered, there’s a big difference between painting and applying paint. It’s not easy to do a paint job on a mini that others will recognize as a masterpiece, perhaps, but it’s not hard to do a paint job that looks good, and while getting enough minis to run an entire campaign can be expensive, if you start small and work your way up, you can find yourself with plenty of nice-looking pieces without a ton of effort, and they really do add a lot to the game—especially since you’ll be able to feel a sense of pride for having painted them yourself!

There are a lot of different sources of advice and tips for all levels of skill out there, and I’m still far too new at painting minis myself to provide any real pointers on technique that you won’t find with a quick google search. I can, however, share some of what I’ve learned since I started.

  • Get the right tools for the job, but don’t overpay. Minis don’t require some specific type or brand of paint to look good, and a lot of the hobby-store paints sold specifically targeted at miniatures painting are priced higher than the exact same stuff would be at a regular craft store, and for less paint. Shop around, pay attention to the specific types of paints you’re using, and the amount you’re getting. You can get a very wide range of colors with only a few paints, with a bit of mixing, too, so don’t feel the need to purchase paint in every conceivable hue to get started. On the other hand, if you want to ensure consistent shading over a large number of minis—say you’ve got an army of kobolds that are attacking the town in your campaign—you might consider getting a color you could otherwise mix, just to ensure it matches for every one of them. For brushes, you can get by with a starter pack, rather than buying the individual brushes—once you get the hang of things you may want to invest in more specific shapes and styles, but at first it won’t be as vital.
  • Shop around to find minis you like. While you shouldn’t discount cost in your consideration of what minis to purchase, painting a mini or set of minis you don’t particularly like the look of is pretty unrewarding. There are a wide variety of styles out there, by a wide range of companies—look around at galleries and find some you really like. Don’t go wild with buying a huge number of them, though—remember that it takes time to paint everything, and spread out your purchases.
  • Take your time. This is probably the most important thing I’ve found. If you try to do a rush job, it will show, and it won’t look good. Be patient, and be careful, and you’ll have much better results. When you get tired of working on a mini (or set of minis), stop. Set it aside and come back to it later. Working on something when you’d rather be doing something else isn’t fun, and you may find yourself rushing to finish, and making mistakes. You may feel like you’re wasting paint if you stop halfway and the paint on your palette dries out, but you’ll be wasting paint and time if you have to go back after and correct the careless errors made in a hurry. While you do paint, it helps to have on some music or a movie in the background to listen to—I personally like to throw on a podcast or audiobook and tune out the world.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You can always paint over a little slipup, and in the worst case scenario it’s not that hard to remove a “ruined” paint job entirely and start it over from scratch. Every mistake is a learning experience, and every mini you paint is an opportunity to improve. Don’t sweat it, just take your time and go over it until you’re satisfied.
  • Read up on what others have to say about painting. There is a LOT of guidance available out there for the beginning painter, from a lot of sources. If you have friends who do it, ask them for tips. Google for guides online for starting painters or advanced techniques. Read through as much as you can to learn the techniques others have used, but remember not to get discouraged if your early attempts don’t look quite as nice as the beautiful paint jobs done by the experts who’ve been at it for a while.

It’s not that difficult at all to make a mini look attractive with basic techniques, and it can be quite relaxing to do and rewarding to look at your finished work. It’s not for everyone, sure, but it’s worth trying out before you decide one way or another.

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Cheap Alternatives to Miniatures

I was researching cheap alternatives to miniatures again and got some interesting results.

In 2007 I calculated from the RttToEE miniatures list that a twenty level campaign will use approximately 540 different miniatures.

In 4E you have thirty levels but fewer encounters per level, so 20 levels in 3E has as many encounters as 26 levels in 4E. That works out to 623 different miniatures over two years, and as D&D 4E uses more monsters per encounter you’ll often need duplicates.

Supposing each has an average of four, minis cost an average of $2.50, and you can use another mini as a stand-in half the time, you’re looking at 1,246 minis costing $3,000+ over two years or $30 per game session, most of which is footed by the DM.

Since miniatures are not optional like in 3E, this means the “proper” to play D&D is both more difficult and more expensive than its competitors: video games including WoW and and other RPGs including 3E.

In a search for alternatives I rediscovered Newbie DM’s post on "minis" made from Gametable/MapTools type pogs, printed out and affixed to metal penny washers. I’ve found 25mm washers for £1.82 per hundred, and a 25mm hole-punch for £5. At this price, your 1,246 minis will cost £30/$50 in penny washers and no more than £30/$50 in glue, printer ink and paper. This is so much more affordable that I’m surprised every D&D group isn’t doing it already.

I also discovered a German boardgame website selling coloured 25mm wooden discs for 13 eurocents / 16 US cents, about a quarter of the price of Alea Tools’ magnetic discs which are popular for tracking status effects in 4E.

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When Do Smarter Wizards Deserve More XP?

As I said previously on the odds of each result when rolling 3d6, D&D was a lot more lethal back in 1981. Your character can start with as little as one hit point.

Another odd quirk of the Basic D&D rules, which you can see in Labyrinth Lord's rules (free PDF download here), is that characters with high ability scores gained bonus XP. Since you rolled ability scores before choosing character class, this encouraged players to pick a stat-appropriate class and to alue these rare and powerful characters.

But how rare are they really?

Early D&D and its modern clone Labyrinth Lord give bonuses or penalties to actions based on ability scores, much like third edition D&D’s ability score modifiers. However, statistical analysis shows that bonuses are much rarer than in third edition. The “4d6 drop lowest” ability score generation method in D&D third edition gives a 61.65% chance for each ability score to have some bonus, and only a 17.51% chance of a penalty.

In Basic D&D and Labyrinth Lord when using 3d6, about 48% of ability scores will occur in the range 9-12, which in Basic D&D and LL is a +0 modifier. There’s a 26% chance of a bonus and 26% chance of a penalty, usually only +1 or -1.

Above-average ability scores also grant a bonus to XP if you choose a class for which that ability score is a prime requisite: 13-15 grants +5%, and 16+ grants +10%. Since class can be chosen based on ability scores, only one high score is necessary to gain the bonus.

Around 25% of characters qualify for the 10% XP bonus, and 83.48% gain some bonus XP, if there are classes available for all ability scores. Since the Labyrinth Lord core rules have no classes for which Constitution or Charisma are prime requisites, only 17.272% of characters will gain the 10% XP bonus and 69.893% will gain any XP bonus.

Here is the full list for Basic D&D / Labyrinth Lord. The Modifier listed applies to various uses of some ability scores, but not all. The percentage listed is the chance of this result on one roll of 3d6.

Score  Mod.    XP  Percentage
-----  ----  ----  ----------
3      (-3)  -10%      0.463%
4-5    (-2)  -10%      4.167%
6-8    (-1)   -5%     21.296%
9-12   ( 0)   +0%     48.148%
13-15  (+1)   +5%     21.296%
16-17  (+2)  +10%      4.167%
18     (+3)  +10%      0.463%

What Are The Odds When Rolling 3d6?

You kids today have it easy. Back in the early days of D&D you rolled 3d6 for ability scores, placed in the order you rolled them. No “4d6 drop lowest” or “arrange as desired” - if you roll a 3 for Strength, your character has 3 Strength. Looks like you aren’t playing a fighter this time.

Labyrinth Lord (free download here) is a Basic D&D retro-clone that still uses 3d6 for ability score generation. By third edition or fourth edition D&D standards, LL is quite deadly: poison kills you outright, and dragon’s breath weapons deal their current hit points in damage.

But what are the odds of rolling each ability score on 3d6? I wrote up a quick python script like my 4d6 drop lowest calculator from 2006.

Firstly, the average roll on 3d6 is 10.5, compared to 12.244 on 4d6 drop lowest. The “human average” +0 modifier in third edition D&D comes from this result.

The odds of rolling an 18 are an unlikely 0.463%, or one in 216. The odds of rolling at least one 18 are 2.746%. In both cases this is about 3.5 times harder than third edition D&D’s 4d6 drop lowest. It’s around 20 times harder to get an 18 in a particular ability score, since early D&D required that you assign the ability scores in the order they’re rolled.

Here’s the full chart of results of 3d6:

Score   Freq   Percentage
-----   ----   ----------
3          1       0.463%
4          3       1.389%
5          6       2.778%
6         10       4.630%
7         15       6.944%
8         21       9.722%
9         25      11.574%
10        27      12.500%
11        27      12.500%
12        25      11.574%
13        21       9.722%
14        15       6.944%
15        10       4.630%
16         6       2.778%
17         3       1.389%
18         1       0.463%

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The Difference Between Board Games and RPGs

Justin Alexander hits the nail on the head:

The reason we look for verisimilitude in the rules of a roleplaying game and not in the rules of Monopoly is because we don’t play roleplaying games as if they were a round of Monopoly.


Personally, I look at the rules of a roleplaying game as the interface between me and the game world. I want those rules to be fun and interesting, but I also want them to be transparent: My primary interest is interacting with the game world. If I wanted to interact with the rules of a game, I’d play a boardgame like Monopoly or Arkham Horror.

So if the rules in a roleplaying game get in the way — either due to a lack of verisimilitude; or because they’re boring; or dissociated; or too complicated — then I’m going to be unhappy with those rules.

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The 5 Most Bad-Ass D&D Villains

Vecna is a chump. Sure, he founded an empire, became a lich before it went mainstream clawed his own way up to deityhood, but he’s still not as awesome and gnarly as these characters from Dungeons & Dragons canon.

5. Kyuss (3E, Age of Worms)

Like many Dungeons & Dragons villains, Kyuss had a massive cult of fanatically loyal followers and more high-level magic than the Epic Level Handbook. Unlike most villains, Kyuss discovered a way to ascend to godhood, at the cost of permanent imprisonment in an ancient monolith. Not to be deterred, Kyuss took the deal, but not before setting in motion an elaborate two thousand year long plan to have his cultists break him out of prison.

What’s especially awesome is that it works. Elements of the plan include slaughtering most of his followers, inventing and creating the first dracolich, establishing a cult to last for two thousand years, establishing a fake second cult just to distract adventurers, and bringing about the End Times just so that he can escape.

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Fourth Edition, Another Year On

Over a year ago I posted five things I liked about D&D 4e, and five things I didn’t like. With fourth edition in its second year, how have these impressions held up?

The good

Dungeon Master advice: The advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is still as useful as it was in 2008. Particularly important are the guidelines on player motivations and pacing, which I probably haven’t paid enough attention to. Dungeon Master’s Guide II mainly provides new game rules, but has some good DM advice articles including contributions from game mastering expert Robin D. Laws.

Monster archetypes: Several cracks have appeared in the creature archetypes system, particularly that Solo creatures make for long and boring fights. Monster Manual 2 and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 reveal new guidelines which fix these issues. Soldier type creatures are still very stodgy and Minions still feel a little weird when they go down in one hit.

Faster, more interesting combat: I’m not certain that this held up. Between increased hit point values, increased miniatures use, fewer spells known and more status effects to track, the game in my experience is slower, if anything. This is in online play using a digital gametable setup without voice, so perhaps the real issue is that 4E only works if you have good communication between players. Other players I’ve spoken to report that the game is faster overall.

Rules balance: We’ve yet to see anything truly game-breaking that isn’t quickly errata’d. There are allegations of power creep, though we may see the power balance level out as designers get a better grasp of the game’s power level.

Easy monster creation: This is definitely still the case. First up, the D&D Insider Compendium and Monster Builder has over 3,000 monsters you can repurpose or mine for ideas - there are currently 154 monsters of level 7 alone, all official content. You can scale them up or down by as many as five levels, or apply one of 28 templates (16 DMG, 12 DMG2) or 17 classes (8 DMG, 9 DMG2). There are solid monster creation guidelines for creatures of all types, and a Monster Builder tool to aid the process.

The bad

Ugly races: Tieflings still look stupid with horns coming out of their forehead. Both tieflings and dragonborn still look like monsters in the book art, even when they’re alongside humans and elves. (Perhaps I’m just racist?) There’s a lot of 4E art in general that doesn’t ignite my imagination. Even if it looks good, it’s still just some heroes posing or engaging a monster, without leaving the viewer with questions to imagine wonderful answers.

Cheesy in-character text: “I see the secret patterns of magic, and through the items I carry, I can use that magic to protect you, heal you… or make you explode.” Why would anyone ever say this phrase? Is he at an adventurer job interview? It exists only to summarize the Artificer class in smug first-person. It doesn’t invoke a scene or fire the imagination. There’s hope, though, as the monk’s introductory quote sounds like something he might genuinely say to a villain or an ally: “You fight well, but without discipline and focus, you will fall.”

Too abstract mechanics: This is still the case, but as 4E blog At Will writes, nothing stops you inferring your own meaning into the game mechanics. When the rogue’s Cloud of Steel power lets him shoot a crossbow at ten opponents in a round, perhaps it’s a spell he’s picked up. A healing surge might literally relate to some in-character attribute of personal stamina: for further discussion, see the June article Hit Points and You.

Skill challenges: I still don’t get skill challenges. It feels somewhat arbitrary that you succeed based on the number of times you make a successful attempt, rather than what it is your character succeeds at accomplishing. Perhaps it’s possible to create a good skill challenge that handles both. Errata has improved the skill challenge rules and DMG2 offers further advice for creating good skill challenges.

Pushing other WotC products: This still occurs, but it doesn’t bother me as much. It’s not very prevalent even so.

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Why I Can’t Stop Playing NetHack

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of an ancient computer RPG called NetHack.


I mentioned this game almost exactly two years ago today as an example of how not to run a D&D game: lethal, obscure, and impossible to win. And yet, over twenty years since release, a game with text characters for game art remains popular. So what lessons can Dungeons & Dragons players take from NetHack?

1. Danger is exciting

NetHack is infamously deadly. Less than 1% of NetHack games completed on resulted in a victory. Bad luck will kill you, as will polymorph traps, food poisoning, food shortages, choking on food, cursed equipment, angry deities and ghosts of your former characters. When you are killed, there’s no respawn, no raise dead, and you can’t even re-load your save game.

And yet NetHack is still addictive: not in spite of the challenge, but because of it. I can attest that some of the most entertaining Dungeons & Dragons games happen when there’s real risk of total party kill. The danger, or element of risk, is a vital part of the game’s excitement. This is why DMs shouldn’t be too lenient. If the players discover you’re afraid to kill off their characters, the gig is up.

2. Exploring is fun

Exploring is an important aspect of NetHack. Not just exploring corridors and rooms, but also the rules, the strategy, and the arcana. Learning the game’s many secrets is not just interesting, but vital to success.

Dipping a longsword into a fountain when of lawful alignment can turn it into Excalibur. A pet can be pushed onto a polymorph trap to become a more powerful creature. A lizard corpse cures petrification, while a unicorn horn cures poison. Cursed items glow black when placed on an altar.

In the same way, Dungeons & Dragons is most interesting when you have opportunity to learn about the rules, the world and the arcana, and most rewarding when you are able to reap the benefits of your knowledge.

3. Players will try the unexpected

Tabletop RPGs have something called the Fifth Door Rule: Put the heroes in a room with four ways out, and they’ll find a fifth. Players have a knack for finding solutions that you hadn’t considered. That a human DM is available to adjudicate unexpected actions will always be a strength of traditional roleplaying games.

In a rare example among videogames, NetHack has been programmed to handle many of these logical, if unorthodox player actions. Dipping a potion into a fountain dilutes it. A cockatrice corpse can be thrown to petrify opponents. Smearing grease on your helmet protects you from the tentacle attack of a mind flayer. Pets can be trained to steal from shops.

4. Balance is boring…

The above screenshot shows me (@), a level 1 character hopelessly overpowered by a water demon (blue &) and the unique demon lord Juiblex (green &), after a failed attempt to summon a friendly water demon from a fountain on the chance it would grant a wish. If successful, however, I would have begun this game with the best suit of armour in the game.

There are wonderful instances in NetHack where luck or cleverness can grant you some huge bonus. Magic items beyond your normal level, lucky finds of gold, rare equipment, unexpectedly powerful pets, and even wishes can all boost your power in almost game-breaking ways. Finding a power boost is always exciting.

5. …but sometimes necessary

However, there’s usually a balancing factor so that the decision to take extra power isn’t a no-brainer. A pickaxe lets you cut right through dungeon walls, but it’s heavy so you can carry less treasure. Magic amulets increase your food requirements. Any magic item could be cursed. Even when you find a wish, you find yourself worrying that you could have wished for something better.

Morever, the game remains a challenge even when you do have the best magic items and all the obscure bonuses. In Dungeons & Dragons, there’s nothing long with a player keeping some unexpected boon, as long as they still face credible dangers (perhaps because of it). The player will be that much happier when, not only can he keep the incredible item or ability he won by his own luck or clever thinking, but that power is a major factor in battles to come.

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Psychology of the Grognard

Three gamers sit around a table in a friendly local gaming store. A customer walks in and asks for a sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition.

"Bah," says one of the gamers as he strokes his beard. "Fourth Edition’s nothing but a Wizards of the Coast cash-in. In my group at home, we play nothing but Three-Point-Five Edition."

"Three-Point-Five?" says another. "My group only plays original Third Edition - Three-Point-Oh! None of your money-grabbing rules revisions!"

The last says nothing, and strokes his long beard as he calculates his THAC0.

Psychology of the Grognard

The name “grognard” comes from the French meaning “grumbler”, historically a soldier in Napoleon’s army. From there, the term entered the vocabulary of historical wargaming enthusiasts in the 1970s to mean a veteran wargamer, and eventually referred to a Dungeons & Dragons player who stayed with a classic version of the game long after the release of one or more new editions.

But what makes the grognard tick? How do we explain the mindset of a gamer who still plays an outdated version of a game - perhaps even AD&D First Edition, or older?

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If You’re Going To Bash 4E, Do It Properly

It’s Monday, and time for you to enjoy my opinion. I’m fed up with the 4E-bashing, for several reasons.

  • It’s been almost a year and still people are complaining about the quality of a game they don’t play.
  • The complaints are usually in vague and relative terms, rather than critical terms that could be used to improve the game or measure its flaws.
  • Some compare the game to something else (WoW, Pokémon, anime), but have neither tried the game nor the something else (and the something else is actually rather good).
  • Some insist that 4E players can’t possibly enjoy the game (however, they have no problem accepting difference in taste in film, videogames or other forms of entertainment).
  • Logic is sometimes optional: “You can’t roleplay, because they took out the craft rules.”
  • Finally, the 4E bashing began before anyone had sampled the rules, since they were to replace an edition most current players enjoyed and were heavily invested in.

If you’re going to wail on D&D4, at least give some solid reasons. Take the following examples:

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