Friday, November 28, 2014

Painting Wrath of Ashardalon

While I was still finishing painting the miniatures from The Legend of Drizzt (part 1, part 2), I picked up a copy of Wrath of Ashardalon, another game from the same D&D Adventure series that comes jam-packed with unpainted miniatures. This post tells the story of painting the Ashardalon miniatures, a project that  took about six months. I'll be giving a bit of background, exposition, criticism, and reflection in the prose, but I don't mind if you just flip through and look at the pictures.

Obligatory box cover image
I had taken a hiatus from painting after finishing Drizzt, and after cleaning up the Ashardalon minis, I wanted to ease back in gently. I started with these cultists.

Human cultists: Never enough skulls
You know what? Black is difficult to paint. You cannot shade it, and you really have to focus on how it reflects light. Starting with these guys was a tactical error. I did a fair job on them and then moved on.

Legion Devils
You know what? Red is difficult to paint. The sculpts have very little detail on their faces, and one was pretty badly miscast. I got them basecoated in red, but I couldn't get a good highlight from there: red + white makes pink, and I'm not sure pink devils would be quite as intimidating. This led me to read more about how to paint red. I've learned since then to basecoat in red-brown and work up to red as a highlight color.

I also had trouble picking colors for the shield, since I didn't want to overdo it on the red and black motif. I picked the green and bronze by playing with a color wheel, and I don't really care for it, but neither did I feel like going back and repainting it. After these and the cultists, I took another short break before painting anybody else. Fortunately, it all gets better from here.

Duergar Captain
I am much happier with the duergar. I painted all four in a batch to make sure I could match the colors of their skin and cloaks. I used the same basing technique as I did for Drizzt, figuring that these guys really belong in the Underdark anyway. I think the highlights turned out quite nicely, especially on the cloaks. This was a nice little win after feeling a bit defeated by the cultists and devils. (I wonder, what kind of search traffic will that previous sentence bring to the blog?)

Rage Drake. He's mad because of the size of the dentist's tool.
Here's the rage drake from the set. His neck had a pretty bad seam in it that needed to be filled. While travelling this summer, I picked up a dentist's tool at a flea market, and it worked perfectly for working some Milliput into the gap and smoothing it out.

Take a close look at the rage drake's base, and you'll see one of my first creative basing experiments. Watching Teri Litorco's video about pumice gels inspired me to pick some up and try them. The rage drake's base has a thin layer of fine pumice gel that was worked up with a craft stick.

Now he's mad because he cannot play in the mud.
Here he is again, with the base painted and highlighted to look like wet mud. I think it works well as wet mud; the problem is that the rage drake is somehow floating on top of the mud instead of sunk into it. I ended up repainting it to look like a blasted desert wasteland instead, and I think they yellow/beige color works better with the warm colors of the drake anyway.

Now he's mad because red is still hard to highlight.
This is the final version. It's a fine piece, but I made the same mistake here as with the legion devils, basecoating in a deep red, washing with a red-brown, and then not having much farther "up" to go with my highlights. Still, the bit of glazing I did on the face turned out OK, though it's hard to tell from the camera glare. It's a decent paint job, and my first foray into more interesting bases.

Orc Basher standing nowhere in particular
Next up, I had a bunch of orcs—three archers and three bashers. Seen here is a basher that is complete aside from the base. Given the strength of Tolkein's influence on D&D, and Ashardalon being a D&D game, I decided to go with a sallow flesh color. I am very pleased with the highlighting here, especially on the flesh. Around when I was finishing the bashers was the time that I bought some static grass. Given how much I liked the paint job, I was honestly a bit afraid of putting on the static grass. I'm not sure how exactly it could have gone wrong, but there was that fear of the unknown. I may have squealed in delight when I saw the result.

Orc Basher standing in the grass

Static grass was a good investment. I used a standard technique for applying it, first dabbing some thinned PVA glue onto the base, then pushing a ridiculous amount of static grass into it. After waiting a few moments, I tapped off the excess, blew from the sides, and sure enough—up it stands, like magic. My only regret here was that I followed another tutorial (which I cannot find now) that suggested spraying matte varnish from a spritz bottle onto the grass in order to varnish post-flocking. I probably put on too much, and it pooled around the base, so some of the Bashers' bases look funny if you get too close. Solution: don't get too close to an Orc Basher. I didn't have to worry about further experimenting with that technique anyway, since the varnish clogged by dollar store spritz bottle, and nothing of value was lost.

Around this time, I watched The Painting Clinic video series on highlighting, in which he goes over the basics with some historical militia. During the series, he casually mentions that the miniatures will all be wearing different colors because they are a militia, not army regulars. When he said this, and I looked over at my Bashers, I realized they were identical for no particular reason. I had painted all three at the same time, which let me reuse colors, and so reuse I did. On the archers, however, I had only done the skin to match the Bashers, the rest being unpainted. This inspired me to give the archers each their own colors.

Orc Archers, proudly displaying their unique tunics
The orcs agreed to pose for one action shot.
After finishing the archers, I moved on to the Orc Shaman, whose flesh I had also done with the rest.

Orc Shaman, almost complete
Orc Shaman, almost complete
These shots show the near-final miniature. His top and back are dominated by the fur that he is wearing, and so I knew I wanted something more interesting than just a monochrome drybrush. I looked up patterns of timber wolves, and then I blocked in the basic colors and drybrushed highlights. Notice that the Shaman has the same kind of red wristbands as the armbands of the Orc Bashers—an intentional matching of colors and themes that I think works quite well here.

I had decided before starting the figure that this would be an opportunity to try object-source lighting (OSL) on his holy symbol. Finishing the rest of the model, and being rather happy with, I had the same hesitation as with the static grass, but perhaps stronger. I had spent hours on this one miniature: did I really want to risk ruining it in trying to make it look like the symbol was glowing? This model contains no non-mixed colors, so there was almost no chance of re-creating any of the colors if I wanted to paint over them. I reminded myself that one of the whole points of the endeavor was to learn something new, and that nobody would really see the result anyway (I mean, nobody except you, dear reader). All right, let's do yellow.

Orc Shaman, finished
Orc Shaman, finished
Here he is, with a cool glowing holy symbol. It took a lot of thin layers of glazing, but I think the result is worth it. Honestly, it looks a bit better in person, but they all do. I'm still just taking pictures with a work lamp and my Nexus 4.

Cave Bears from the Tea & Spice Forest
In between the orcs, I was also working on these cave bears. The paint job was pretty straightforward, and kind of lazy: base coat, wash to get into the shadows, and drybrush the highlights. I did a grey glaze to make the noses look wet. Where I had some fun with these guys was in the basing, continuing a theme of this set. From left to right above, I used loose rooibos tea, bagged black tea, and Italian seasoning from the dollar store. The best of the three is the one in front. I had hoped the rooibos would look like the rich soil in a coniferous forest, but the scale was not quite right: it might work better if I had either filtered out the big pieces or chopped it more finely. The Italian seasoning presented a similar case: the variety of leaves was nice, but they were just too big. The bagged tea, on the other hand, was very fine, and this helped keep the illusion of the scale.

There were actually a few more steps to the bases here. First, I laid down some coarse pumice gel and painted it dark brown, and then I stuck the leaves onto the bases using thinned PVA glue. The leaves were not laying flat: they looked like... well, they looked like someone had haphazardly dumped some leaves and sticks onto the base, which is exactly what happened. I covered these piles in matte varnish—the same I was using to experiment with the Orc Bashers' bases—but the result was that the leaves looked very wet. They soaked up the varnish and became limp, then stuck in place. I put on a second, thin layer of leaves, and this gave a nice effect, looking like newly-fallen leaves on top of older, darker, wetter ones.

A quick note on the coarse pumice gel: I used it on a few models of this set, and it is very easy to tint with inks and slap onto the base. However, it's too regular for most of my uses. On later pieces, such as the dragon, I went back to a mix of different sizes of grit, laying them on with thinned PVA glue, and painting them to look like dirt and stones.

Snakes looking for a snack
I was initially excited to do these snakes and spent some time looking for color schemes on real snakes. However, as I got into them, I really didn't like the sculpts. Clearly, they are snakes, but they don't match the scale pattern of actual snakes. The sculpts have all sorts of bumps and chest plates instead of scales, and there were a lot of casting problems that I had neither patched nor filed off. Without much fanfare, I painted them up and put them in the box. Enough about that, let's do something more interesting.

Grells are interesting.
How about grells? Consider: if you were making a D&D board game with an iconic red dragon on the cover, what kind of classic monsters would you include? Orcs! Cultists! Demons! ... Grells? Yeah, me neither.

Anyway, given three grells, and my still having some difficulty deciding how I liked priming things, I figured I would try comparing my Liquitex white gesso to my Vallejo white surface primer. Both were causing me a bit of frustration: the gesso had noticeable particulate, and the primer (brushed on) wasn't opaque after two coats on colored plastic and tended to form rings. From the picture above, you can see I was diligent in making sure I used multiple coats to get a good, solid white on which to paint.

It was fascinating—and frustrating—to try to paint these three at once. Whereas the brush would glide over Vallejo-primer grells, pulling it over the Liquitex-gesso grell was like pulling a comb through hair. Even when I couldn't see the particulate, I could feel it dragging on the brush. After basecoating, I started using washes for highlights, and here is where the difference became stark: the washes sank into the crevices of the primer grells as expected, whereas with the gesso grell, it just sat where I put it, essentially "shading" the whole darned model. There was not an elegant recovery here except to say, "Some grells are this color, and some grells are that color." I mean, they're grell—who really cares anyway?

Grell in a play dough and varnish swamp, not yet dry
 As with the bears, I decided to try three different bases for the grells. The most ambitious was my attempt at a water base, for which I put on several layers of Future wax. In order to keep the varnish from running over the edge of the base, I whipped up a barrier from the kids' homemade play dough.

Swamp Grell
Tea Grell (gesso)
Rocky Grell
The final swamp grell shows some aberration around the edge of the base, where the varnish and dough had interacted. It would have been crisper had I used something non-porous, I'm sure, but it's good enough. The gesso grell was based in Bigelow Lemon Lift tea, which worked nicely, except I'm not sure I like the light-colored bits. The third one was done in ruins, using cork on top of coarse pumice gel for the rocks and a touch of green turf as moss.

Gibbering Mouthers. Seriously.
Let's try again... Orcs! Cultists! Demons! ... Gibbering Mouthers?

Not sure they would have been high on my list, but they were fun to paint. These were done with a basecoat, a wash for shadows, and many layers of highlights. Lovely and nightmarish. While the popular culture version of "high medieval fantasy" tends to emphasize the Tolkienesque, it's interesting to notice and remember how much impact H. P. Lovecraft had (and clearly still has) on D&D.

All right, a beholder! Now that's an iconic D&D monster. Let's just take a look at the rulebook and find out some more about this ... gauth? Wait a minute now, Wrath of Ashardalon. First, a gauth is even more esoteric than a gibbering mouther. Second, this is clearly not a guath: it should have a big central eye surrounded by six different eyes, which it uses for consuming magic. I know this from my hours of studying the Monstrous Compendium back in the 1990s, and it's corroborated at this handy Web site. In a search for corroborating evidence, however, you may end up on an excerpt from the the D&D 3.5 rules that say that the gauth has ... eyes on stalks?! Come on, Wizards of the Coast, if you're going to change the definition of a gauth then why should we even bother memorizing such details to the extent that we can draw upon them twenty years later?

This is another paint job that features red, although leaning toward purple. I was still trying to figure out how to highlight such colors, and with this one, it worked well to go toward fleshy pink. I think it worked well here, given the purple tone, in a way that it would look too pink on, say, a red cloak or the Legion Devils.

Kobolds. Actually iconic.
Now kobolds, they are actually iconic, and I believe it is still in the D&D rulebook that you have to fight kobolds, goblins, and giant rats while first level. I think the kobolds turned out well, although the common ones probably are too shiny. I got caught up in practicing painting armor, and when I was done, I was happy with the result—except who ever heard of a clean, shiny kobold? I figured since they're working for a dragon, they have had to start washing behind their ears.

Otyugh, front

Otyugh, back
No jokes about iconic monsters here: I love the otyugh. I remember first seeing one in Curse of the Azure Bonds, and I'm sure I threw these at my players back in the day. For the base on this figure, I started with two lumps of Milliput. Onto this, I glued tea leaves, and then I covered these in matte varnish as I had done for the bears. As I hoped, this made it look like a pile of refuse—exactly what an otyugh would call home. Unlike the bears, I did not add second dry layer, so as to keep the trashy look. I basecoated the figure and then gave it a generous sepia wash using Les' wash recipe. This gave the figure a satisfyingly filthy look. However, then I realized it would be nigh impossible to highlight without taking away the dirty look, or I would need to re-wash it. There were so many nooks and crannies in the figure, I couldn't pick out areas to highlight without making it look "clean" in those areas. In retrospect, I should have drybrushed on the highlights before the wash. I had painted myself into a corner so to speak, and I decided to just leave the figure as-is rather than try to be too fancy with highlights or repaint it. It's a big miniature, and these are kind of tedious anyway.

To finish up the base, I mixed up some black and sepia ink into fine pumice gel and worked that around the leaf pile and the otyugh's legs. Actually working up the creature's toes and legs makes it look like it's "in" the muck, in a way that wasn't working with the rage drake. Looking carefully, you may also see Milliput bones that I sculpted and stuck into the muck, under the creature's back leg.

The otyugh was the last of the monsters aside from the dragon, and so I moved on to the heroes, starting with the half-orc rogue.

A thin layer of milliput
Carving into the milliput with hobby knife and dentist tool
Painting the base to look like stone
For the rogue's base, I wanted to give him something more urban, less outdoorsy. The soles on his shoes were large enough to allow me to lay down milliput around his feet and not make it look like he had sunk in. I carved in the blocks and also rolled crumpled tin foil over them to add some texture. A few iterations of washing and drybrushing, and I think it's convincing stone tile.

Half-orc rogue
I wanted to get his flesh tone between a classic European hero's and the orcs, but it came out leaning much more toward orc. However, the face shape is more human, and this gives a reasonable half-orc look. I like how the highlights came out on both his pants and his leather armor.

In the game, each hero has his own ability cards, and these cards have corresponding colors. The rogue's is black, and I think I was able to capture the dark theme of a rogue in the paint job.

Dwarf warrior WIP, starting with the flesh and armor

Dwarf warrior WIP, with a red cape
The dwarf warrior's color was red, and I knew I wanted to bring out that color in the armor. I spent a lot of time on the flesh, and I think this part is one of my best. At first, I thought I would bring out the red in the cloak as well. Notice how I'm using dark red-brown here as a base color and working up to red, in an approach that gives a lot more variation in shade than I had in my other red pieces in this set. As much as I liked the red effect on the cloak, I was afraid that it looked too much like I was trying to make it splattered in blood—a layer of cheese in which I was not interested. I decided to re-do the cloak in tans, still trying to keep a warm color scheme for the figure.

Dwarf warrior, front
Dwarf warrior, back
Changing the cloak color forced me to rethink much of the rest of the figure. I decided to go with a pelt inspired by an arctic wolf. There is very little texture on the pelt, especially compared to the Orc Shaman. I used a stippling technique on the pelt, and it worked exactly like I hoped it would, giving the illusion of texture along with highlights. The emblem on the shield was freehand painted, which is terrifying. It doesn't "pop" as much as I had hoped, but it matches the colors and is sufficient. The gold jewelry is a nice subtle accent to the rather complex texture of this figure.

"Don't paint eyebrows" is one of the cardinal rules of miniature painting that I have read in multiple places. However, she was looking kind of strange without them, given how dark her hair and armor are. I glazed in eyebrows, and I think it gives the face a lot more warmth and realism.

Dwarf warrior and mysterious metallic likeness of a bald man
Around this time, a friend was at the house who had seen some of my Facebook posts about painting. When he saw the miniature's size, he was shocked: he had assumed they were closer to six inches tall. I took this picture to show scale, so now, in case you didn't know, this is how big they are.

Elf paladin, front
Elf paladin, back
The critical reader may have noticed that, somewhere in the middle of this set, I switched again from white to black primer. This was inspired in part by regularly watching The Painting Clinic videos, and he always works up from black. This paladin was my test of my primer since I knew I wanted her to have bright blues and whites. Her cards are blue, which I brought out in the sash. I am pleased with the final result, especially the shining plates of armor and the sash. I decided to do her tiara and sword hilt in non-metallic metallics (NMM, that is, painting in plain colors rather than metallic paints). I had not really done this technique before, but I think it turned out well, with the orange complementing the blues.

I made a blue flower out of a pin and static grass, with the intent of adding it to this figure to continue my creative basing theme. However, as I held it next to this base, I just couldn't make it fit: the flower was very static, whereas the figure is very dynamic. I decided to leave well enough alone and call her finished.

Human cleric WIP, showing the original base color of the cloak and a lighter skin tone
Human cleric, front
Human cleric, side
Human cleric, back

Before starting the human cleric, I got my tube of Kroma Crackle, and I decided to try putting the cleric in a cracked wasteland. It took about a week to dry, but after drybrushing, it gave me pretty much exactly what I wanted. The armor was pretty straightforward, though a bit tricky to highlight with all the various plates and curves. Also, his face was horribly miscast, and so he has that big scar down his cheeks—and that's after filing it down substantially. To get a yellow cloak from a black basecoat took about a billion layers, but this also gave me very tight control over the shadows and highlights. It's easy to say now that it was worth it, because I like how it looks, and I am not currently holding my brush and staring at yet another pool of thinned yellow paint. His card color is a tawny yellow, and I think I've captured that idea in the color scheme.

Also, is it just me, or is this guy really awkward-looking? He is leading with his right foot, but is also swinging backward with his right arm. This is counter to how I would swing such a weapon: shouldn't you step into the swing, not against it? I guess that's why he's a cleric and not a fighter.

Dragonborn wizard
Dragonborn wizard
Dragonborn wizard
The dragonborn wizard is probably the best of the set. The figure is full of detail and in an interesting pose. The cards are purple, which I decided to use for the cloak, and then I pulled in orange, green, and blue for a tetrad color scheme. The cloak, like the cleric's, took many thin glaze layers, but I love the result. Interesting fact: the sculpt only has one leg. I had thought about using OSL on his staff more aggressively, but I decided that a subtle blue glow would be nicer than a harsh one. The range of the OSL only goes about to the wizard's hands—maybe too subtle, but good enough for this.

His base was done with a thin layer of fine pumice gel, as with the rage drake, but this time I tried to make it look more swampy. I picked up GF9 swamp grass while traveling and used it here.

Ashardalon, front
Ashardalon, back
Ashardalon, side
And finally, here's Ashardalon. Like the baalor from Drizzt, he's mostly red and has big wings. I returned to white primer for the dragon, knowing that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life working black up to red and yellow. I basecoated the figure in a mix of about 3 parts red to 1 part green, to get a nice deep red. I put a darker wash over the figure and did some drybrushing to block in the highlights. I stippled on more highlights on the face, shoulders, arms, and tops of the thighs, as well as the tops of the wings and around the wing bone joints. The very best parts, which took a lot of time and patience, are the yellow tips of the frills. That's a lot of glaze layers, but I love the effect. I used ink washes on the horns, claws, and breast to add some depth. In the front-right of the base, I used my Kroma Crackle to make a charred area, as if a fireball had long since blasted the ground. I had thought about trying to add some charred wood or blackened grass around it, but once it was all together, I decided to leave well enough alone.

That about wraps up this edition of my painting update, representing about half a year's hobbying around. I'm not sure if this epic-post format is any better or worse than breaking them up. It's fun to go back through my notes and photographs and think about how I got to where I am. After about a year since my return to the hobby, I am feeling more confident in my abilities. There were a few other things I painted in the middle of this set, which I may write about as part of another post. I have a few options of what to paint next, and there are also a few games I've been eyeballing for Christmas. Don't worry, you'll be able to read all about that... maybe six months or so after it happens.

Thanks for reading, and as always, please feel free to leave comments.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Object immutability and operational definitions of games

One of my students made a fascinating connection today between game design and software design. He happens to be in both CS222 (Advanced Programming) and my honors colloquium on game design.

In CS222, we talked about mutability vs. immutability in object-oriented design. I used the example of a two-dimensional Vector class, and I started by asking the students to implement vector addition. After a few minutes (and a visual reminder of what vector addition means),  I showed an implementation very like theirs, using mutable objects.

class Vector {
  private float x;
  private float y;
  public Vector(float x, float y) {
  public void add(Vector v) {

The students agreed that this works, but then I pointed out that this is not actually modeling a vector at all, but rather, a box that holds two numbers. Vectors don't change under addition. We talked about how a scalar is a one-dimensional vector, and when you add 3 and 5, you change neither 3 nor 5. (I also drew some object diagrams to demonstrating how aliasing is a problem for mutable objects. Unexpectedly, many of the students fell into the trap of predicting the wrong output for a simple aliasing problem, but this means that it was time well spent.)

One of the students figured out that the add method should actually be returning a new vector, and this led into my showing the immutable implementation:

class Vector {
  private float x;
  private float y;
  public Vector(float x, float y) {
  public Vector add(Vector v) {
    return new Vector(this.x+v.x, this.y=v.y);

The students seemed to recognize that this really was a vector because it was behaving like one: adding a vector to another does not change either. We re-drew some of the object diagrams and saw how aliasing still happened but was no longer a problem.

With just a few minutes left in class, I pointed out that this example is relatively simple because everyone agrees on what a vector is in two-dimensional space. I wanted to demonstrate how this technique applies to other domains, so I pointed out that one of the groups was making a simplified course planner for their nine-week project. Although they probably look at a course only as it is offered, I pointed out that we faculty change properties of courses regularly: we change the titles, descriptions, credit hours, and more. For example, several years ago we changed our CS1 course from three credit hours to four. I posed this question: should the course object be mutable or immutable? Should we model this as changing a course, or as creating a new course that has the new properties? I think students recognized that this is a design decision with no definitive right or wrong answer, but that the decision would have a ripple effect throughout a system.

One of the students approached me after class and said that he believed courses should be immutable—that the 3-credit version of CS1 is a different course from the 4-credit one. I tend to agree, and I probably said or at least implied as much in my presentation. He told me that he realized a parallel between this problem and the problem of defining a game: that a game is defined by its mechanics. In my game design colloquium, I had mentioned the provocative idea that there is a one-to-one correspondence between mechanics and games: that is, that changing a rule doesn't change the game, but rather creates a new one. For example, choosing to put money into Free Parking in Monopoly doesn't change Monopoly, it means you're playing a different game with your Monopoly set. (To be clear, the Monopoly rules do not involve putting money into Free Parking; it's just a common house rule.)

I had not previously thought about the connection between operational definitions of games and a preference for immutable objects in object-oriented design. There's a sense in which this perspective on games is itself object-oriented: the game is defined by the features it supports. It's not what we call the game that matters, but how it operates. However, names are important for thinking and communicating about designs. We can call the first vector implementation above "Vector" even though it doesn't behave like one does in mathematics, but doing so leads to cognitive dissonance since vectors don't change under addition any more than integers do. We can call the immutable implementation "Vector" without hedging or hesitation. If you play Monopoly by its rules, there should be no ambiguity in calling it "Monopoly," but if you sit with friends to play a game where you put money into Free Parking, you should probably call it "Monopoly with the Free Parking variant" or something similar. Otherwise you will have a similar conflict when your naming does not match the behavior of the named system.

Also, if you're playing Monopoly, I have some other games to recommend to you, but that's a different story.