Thursday, June 26, 2014

Game Miniature Hobby Tips: Where to Find Affordable Basing and Terrain Materials

If you've gotten into miniatures for roleplaying games or wargames, you have hopefully realized part of what makes the difference between a good and great mini is a nicely composed base. A miniature's base is to a mini as a frame is to a painting: not strictly necessary, but the right one compliments and makes your paint work shine brighter than it can on its own, while the wrong one or a poor one can ruin the composition. Bases are especially important for wargames minis, as unified looking bases helps even a diverse army look like a cohesive unit; this concept can also be applied to RPGs--different bases (even just painting the rim a different color) can help you discern between baddies, friendly NPCs, and PCs.

Fortunately, basing itself is pretty easy: glue on a little sand or grit, paint it a nice complimentary neutral tone, and glue on a little turf or static grass, and you've got a good, simple base that sets off your mini nicely. Getting those or similar materials can be a challenge, though, especially if you're on a budget.

The "problem" is, of, course is a gamer's first instinct is to check gaming sites and stores for supplies. Sure, these sites have them--Citadel, Gale Force 9, and Army Painter all have solid, respectable lines--but they're a little pricey. A tiny tub of static grass or sand may retail for $5. No, that's not terrible, but how much is sand really worth to you? It also adds up very quickly if you want a wide variety of materials or are doing a huge terrain project.

As hard as it is, move away from the game stores (you will still support them by buying your minis and games). Time to venture into a broader world: craft stores and, of course, the outside (yes, that strange place you've heard of with the fresh air and stuff).

Craft stores, such as Michael's, A.C. Moore, and Joann Fabrics are your friend. You can scour the whole place for ideas and supplies, but here is where you especially want to look:

Floral display supplies: Yes, you heard that right. This is the BEST place to go. This section of the store includes supplies for what they call "filler"--stuff they can put into pots and vases to make their potted plants and fake flowers look prettier (for exactly the same reason we base our minis). Much of this "filler" includes things like sand, pebbles, lichen, and moss--stuff that is phenomenal for terrain and bases. Compare:

Michael's Ashland Coarse Decorative Sand: MSRP $2.99 for 1/75 lbs.

GaleForce9's Grit: MSRP $5.00 for a small container.

GF9 does not post the volume or weight of their materials, but I would say roughly you're getting roughly twice to three times as much sand from Michael's for $2 less.

Now, I should pause to note before I tempt argument: GF9's grit is not actually sand--it's a somewhat porous substance. They claim it is better for not flaking off than sand. This is sort of true: if you glue sand onto a base with standard PVA glue (such as Elmer's White Glue), sometimes not all of it will stick--UNTIL you paint on top of it. When you paint over sand, sometimes it might stick to your brush and get into your paint or primer, and then sand gets stuck to other bits of your model. The easy solution is either to use spray primer (which is enough to seal in the sand), or if using brush primer, don't glue sand to your model until after you've painted the figurine. Then paint over it using a crappy brush to prime and base coat it. Some loose sand may get into your crappy brush--and that's why you use a crappy brush--but once the paint dries, it seals and holds down the sand and none of the rest flakes off. I have dozens of 10+ year old sand-based models that have never lost basing material once painted. Plus I prefer the sand precisely because it's NOT porous--it won't soak up glue or paint. That means it looks nicer unpainted (in which case I just seal it with extra glue or brush on sealer) and takes on color without soaking it up. It is less uniform in size, which also helps make the base look more natural and interesting.

But if you really want "grit" -- get it from the train section of your craft store or hobby website instead, where it's called gravel or ballast. There, you still get more for cheaper (if not as cheap as sand). Example:

Scenescapes Gravel for $3.45 at Micromark

You might get sand for bulk even cheaper at construction/home improvement stores if you have a place to put it, and accept that it's probably not as clean as the craft stuff.

Sand's just an example. Floral sections in craft stores also have huge bags of lichen, pebbles, and other useful terrain stuff that is much cheaper for quantity than what GF9 or Citadel will sell you for exactly the same stuff. They also have glass beads and other neat things which you might find a use for if not for bases and terrain, then for tokens (although the glass beads and fake gems may be perfect to fill out your alien landscape). Most of the fake flowers, vines, and grains are too big for miniature products, but depending on your project, you may find other stuff useful in that category as well. I even saw at A.C. Moore the other day big sheets of what I would call "terrain paper": basically, thick backed paper covered in turf or static grass or other "terrainy" patterns. I presume they use these to decorate the bottoms of certain kinds of fake flower displays. For miniature hobbyists, I imagine you could use them as a quick and dirty start for adding terrain to your table or cut them out to glue to bases. Finally, this section carries foam in interesting shapes for cheap that may be useful for larger terrain projects.

But don't quite see what you need here? Then move on to the...

Diorama Section: More and more craft stores dedicate at least one aisle for diorama creation, usually intended for kids to make school projects. However, you know what wargame terrain is? Basically a diorama (or a start of one, at least). All the stuff you use to make dioramas is exactly the same stuff you use to base minis or make terrain. There's usually lots of good basing material here, including turf, flock, static grass, etc. as well as things like polymers to make water effects, and sculpting materials to help build up scenes. I bought a tube of "realistic water" for a project for $8, whereas at a nearby game store I would have been charged $15, and it was exactly the same stuff. What's nice of course is the actual diorama kits as well if you don't already have a lot of basing supplies--for $12 you can often get grit, flock, and other useful materials that is enough for several minis (compare to the $18 terrain kits at GF9). The how-tos that come with the kits may also be helpful if you're trying your hand at terrain design.

Now, you do need to check your prices here. There's a reason I sent you to the floral section first--often, you can find lichen, sand, etc. in the diorama section too--but it's more expensive. Yes, even in the same store. If you find an item that might have a multi-craft purpose, such items may exist in different places throughout the store at different qualities and prices, so take time to look around.

There's also often some neat "toys" in this section as well: miniature people, buildings, etc. They are almost never the right scale for gaming (most wargames and RPGs use 25mm or 15mm scale, whereas most everything else in the hobby world uses popular, entirely different, train scales like N or HO). Still, it's worth plumbing for useful terrain extras (crates, barrels, boxes) as well as monsters (the "wrong scale" toy spider may be a perfect giant spider for an RPG). Oh, and there's usually loads and loads of miniature trees--very handy!

And on that note, need more unusual stuff for bases or decoration? Or some tools, maybe? Next place to go:

Jewelry-Making Aisle: Lots of crafters are increasingly getting into beading and jewelry making, and these store sections are full of stuff useful to miniature hobbyists, especially if you have a more unusual project. Many shells and beads might be useful for an alien or unusual landscape. The steampunk craze has hit jewelry makers hard and you may also find cool useful terrain accents like miniature gears, clock parts, etc. (great especially for a WarMachine project). Chains and wire in many gauges of course also abound--and again are much cheaper than the wire a miniature supply retailer is going to sell you.

You can also find useful hobby tools here: jewelers use the same wire cutters and needlenose pliers we often use for our projects, for much the same reason: they manipulate and cut soft metal. Likewise, here you may also find stuff like table magnifiers and such. Sometimes the prices you can get for these tools are much better, although if you're a stickler for quality you may want to do some brand comparisons. 

If you still haven't found what you're looking for due to a specialty project or what-have-you, don't be afraid to look around the rest of the store. The woodcarving section can be really helpful, for example, selling other bits and pieces good for terrain building (especially if you want to make buildings as part of your terrain) as well as wooden tiles that may serve as a large base. I've had trouble finding stuff in exactly inch-scales for D&D scale minis, but sometimes you can find wooden tiles, both square and round, that are the right size for RPG miniatures and, depending, they may be cheaper than an official base of the right size.

The mosaic and sand art section may be useful for more sand, as well if you want to have "tiled" bases or something similar.

Most of this stuff you can buy online, but I suggest hitting a brick and mortar store if you can; not just to support brick and mortar stores, but also to look at what you're getting and making sure it's what you want. Once you get a sense of what you want you can order online and find the price that's the best deal.

If your budget can't even accommodate craft stores or bulk bargains, however, there's always plan B: found items from around the house and outdoors. 

This section comes with a BIG caveat, however: if you're working with anything that is either degradable or ANYTHING outside, you need to make sure it is as CLEAN and DRY as possible.

For example, I've heard of miniature hobbyists using used tea or coffee grounds for terrain materials--great idea! But if that stuff is at all moist, you can end up with a moldy miniature. Yuck. Stuff like that should be baked in the oven at a low temperature until it is very, very, very dry. Check on it so it doesn't burn.

Going outside you can of course find dirt, sand, sticks, and so on. Stick to what is the least rottable--it may be tempting to use real moss, but that invites ick. If you want to use sand like sand from a beach or playground, you need to sift it and make absolutely sure it is free of bugs and trash (don't glue broken glass to your mini unless you really really mean to). I would avoid dirt if at all possible, and if you really want to use it, I'd use potting soil or something else you can feel pretty sure is sterile.

Sticks can be useful for terrain, especially for larger miniatures or other projects--for example, I have a dragon sitting on top of a "log" (a big stick I found) for one of my miniatures, to help show off its features. When I found the sticks I wanted, I chose very dry wood and made sure to rub off any flaking or rotten wood, carving off anything questionable with a knife if needed. I then actually soaked the sticks in water mixed with a little bleach--this was to be sure any little bugs or microrganisms chewing on the wood were gone--and let them dry in full sun (to drive away lingering molds and fungi). Then of course makings sure they were completely dry, I added them to the terrain, and also fully painted and sealed them for good measure (I wouldn't use bare untreated wood--I'd always paint or seal it, for the very same reason we paint and seal most wooden items).

You can get creative here too, of course: if you like to go beach combing, you could of course bring home driftwood, interesting stones, and shells to add to your minis. You could take a dancing girl figurine and put her in a real scallop shell and behold! Miniature Aphrodite! Just as always make sure to clean and dry them thoroughly. I highly recommend the bleach treatment here--there's all kinds of stuff that lives in the sea, and it should not become part of your space marine army.

If you take this route to find terrain items, always be careful, and do not loot materials from other people's property--yes, even if it's junk. Be aware of any toxins or other unpleasant stuff -- is that pile of sand a dog's favorite pissing spot? Wash your own hands and all the stuff you get when you get home thoroughly.

Now get out there and get to basing your miniatures properly! It's cheap to get the supplies for it and it makes a world of difference in helping your miniatures look as amazing as possible.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

An Arrow/Black Canary/Laurel rant

I am hoping at some point to do a rewatch of the first two Arrow seasons and write something resembling thoughtful analysis on them, but I keep making the mistake of reading fandom forums and seeing people say stuff that I let get to me, even though I know it's the Internet, where everyone else is always wrong, and I should just leave the wrongness be. ;) I also really want to react less to fandom anyway, but well, good luck with that, me. Because here I am going to have a rant, that is based on what I see as stupid shit being said by the Arrow fandom, on stuff revolving around Laurel Lance and the comics character Black Canary.

So: Laurel Lance is a contentious character. She's contentious because she is a very different, alternate universe take on Dinah Laurel Lance, who is the crimefighting Black Canary II from Earth 2 and Earth 0* in the DC Multiverse (if I've even got that right). (Also the DCAU, I think.) She's also contentious because she's been inconsistently written, as the writers can't figure out if she's a 1) love interest, 2) a damsel in distress, 3) a smart associate who aids the hero with her areas of expertise, or 4) just kind of the series broken bird/woobie. (HINT TO THE WRITERS: IT SHOULD BE #3.)

(And yes, some people just don't like the actress, but for the purposes of this essay, that is neither here nor there.)

Clarifying note: for the purposes of this rant, when I say "Laurel" I mean Dinah Laurel Lance from Arrow, and when I say "DLL" I mean Dinah Laurel Lance from the Earth 0 DCU Comic Books.

A lot of the fighting over Laurel and who she should be or what she should do is based on arguments over what they THINK DLL is about.

First of all, given Arrow very firmly twists EVERY comic book reference it uses on its head, assuming Laurel should be any one thing "because comics" is ridiculous.** If you're not furious that Merlyn's first name is Malcolm instead of Arthur, if you're not furious that we have Thea Dearden Queen instead of Mia Dearden (and who background wise, by which I mean rich brat, is actually more a sneakily worked in Kate Bishop), if you're not furious that Moira Queen is actually a character who just didn't start the story as a dead background note (but instead died later), then you don't get to be furious about how Laurel is different from DLL.

But even that, there's a lot of false or at least heavily distorted assumptions about who DLL is and why Laurel should or shouldn't be that way. These are the ones that bug me the most:

1. "DLL is the ONLY Black Canary and ONLY DLL can be the Black Canary!"
Many superhero titles are passed around to other generations and successors, and Black Canary is one of them. The Black Canary title started with Dinah Drake, later Dinah Drake Lance. DLL is her daughter, who took on her mother's mantle.

There are also other "Canaries" in the comics continuity: White Canary, a member of the Leage of Assassins, and Jade Canary, a handle Lady Shiva took on when swapping places with DLL during a Birds of Prey storyline. Both of these women are incredibly, capably trained assassins (DLL, while a very capable fighter, is not an assassin). Just something to think about if you're worrying about where a certain Arrow character who is called the Canary (with no color attached) might actually fit in in terms of comic references.

DLL has also sometimes been identified by other names; in the alternate future storyline "Kingdom Come" she wears all white and uses a bow and arrow like Ollie and is unofficially referred to as White Arrow (she is only called by her real name in the comic). Lady Shiva calls DLL Paper Monkey (Lady Shiva's a little weird).

If you look at other continuities, we've got the Birds of Prey TV show, where the Black Canary was a woman named Carol Lance (her daughter, Dinah Redmond, was a lead character on the show, but had an entirely different, Jean Grey-like skillset).

So, DLL is not the only Black Canary, and a woman named Dinah Laurel Lance is not "destined" to become Black Canary just because of her name, and could have other names. That's a word out to both people who insist Laurel MUST become Black Canary (no she doesn't), and to the pearl-clutching haters who fear the very world will crumble to pieces if she does become Black Canary--because she doesn't have to be the only kickbutt girl with a Canary-related title. Black Canary is not Highlander. There does not have to be only one. 

2. "But Black Canary is DESTINED to be Oliver Queen's ONE TRUE LOVE!!! She was DESIGNED to be his LOVE INTEREST!!!!"

Black Canary and Green Arrow existed in the comics as separate, independent entities for a long time before they became romantic interests. Black Canary was NOT "designed for" Green Arrow, nor anyone else. Especially as the original Black Canary from 1947 was Dinah Drake, whose love interest was Larry Lance (the conceptual forbear of Quentin Larry Lance on Arrow). It's also worth noting that in the current New 52 Continuity, DLL doesn't exist, and Black Canary Dinah Drake Lance who is married (? I can't keep track) to Kurt Lance, and she barely knows Oliver Queen. And in the New52, since Dinah Drake Lance and Oliver Queen are contemporaries, if she and Kurt ever have a child Dinah Laurel, she will be much too young for Oliver. Like, seriously, ew. 

DLL and Comics Ollie's on-and-off again romance began when they both joined the Justice League. They fought for a long time before they dated. They went through several periods of being together and apart; Ollie cheated on her and broke her heart several times. They did, eventually, get married for awhile. Oliver died temporarily, as one does for awhile, and when he returned, he revealed he had murdered a villain and wanted to be left alone. Dinah separates from Ollie and returns to single life. The Earth Zero/Post Crisis Universe's story ends with DLL and Oliver Queen being broken up. 

Let me repeat that:  The Earth Zero/Post Crisis Universe's story ends with DLL and Oliver Queen being broken up. 

 So if you want insist that what is true in the comics MUST be true on Arrow, then Ollie and Laurel's destiny is to ultimately remain apart.

Someone once argued to me the "destiny" comes from the Kingdom Come universe, an Elseworlds/possible future of Earth Zero--but note in Kingdom Come, where Oliver and DLL are married, they get brutally killed together. So I'd really rather not count on that as being "destiny."

I also want to emphasize that DLL is really her own character. She does not "belong" to Oliver or the Arrow family per se. She HAS often been involved with the Arrow family--and has also been very close to Mia, Roy Harper, and Connor Hawke, being a stand-in mother/big sister to all of them. She has often worked as a partner to Ollie. But she began her life as a solo heroine and then member of the Justice League (which in some variants on continuity, she helped found). And she was a longtime member of the Birds of Prey--whose monthly and title ran for years and years longer than, say, Green Arrow/Black Canary, and in which members of the Arrow family rarely appeared only as guest stars. Arrow didn't have to necessarily include Laurel, and if you did a show called "Black Canary," the creators shouldn't have to feel beholden to including Oliver Queen. They are two very complete characters on their own, who also happen to share large chunks of history together.

Personally, I think the less the Arrow writers focus on a romance between Ollie and Laurel and the more they just build her as a friend and associate, the better the writing for the show in general and the character in particular should be. Ollie needs to hang up the chick habit, go celibate for awhile, then find someone after he gets over some of his other trauma (he uses sex like Laurel uses prescription painkillers to escape--and it would be cool if she pointed that out to him). Maybe McKenna Hall can show up with a bionic leg. She was a nice girl and didn't put up with his shit.

3) "Laurel is NOTHING like DLL!"

When people say this, they mean Laurel isn't very good at martial arts. Because apparently "knows martial arts" is a personality trait and should be the key defining feature of a human being. It is true, Laurel isn't very good at martial arts. The writers even screwed her over by making her reasonably competent at self defense in early episodes, based on her dad teaching her, but then the sexist asshole writers took most of that proficiency away from because they decided she was more narratively useful if she was helpless all the time. And yes, that is annoying.

Sadly, sadly, oh so sadly, making Dinah Laurel Lance helpless so Ollie can save her is not an Arrow specific thing. One of the worst things about DLL becoming Ollie's love interest was that she was frequently made a damsel in distress for Ollie, and it was indeed all the more nonsensical because of how capable a fighter she was supposed to be. One big example was the Longbow Hunters, where she gets captured and brutally tortured (such that she loses her Canary Cry for awhile), and Ollie has to save her. But that's only really the most memorable example. So, sadly, Laurel being a damsel in distress for Ollie is really not all that different from DLL after all. But of course that's not a personality trait either.

Who is DLL personality wise? This is my sense of her, from having read every issue of Birds of Prey volume 1 (plus the preceding miniseries): DLL is a passionate, moral woman with a strong sense of justice. She values family deeply, and is very protective of her family members, tries to honor her mother and father in her work, and her protectiveness extends to close friends whom she thinks of as family. She loves spicy food, loves takeout, and can't cook. She loves and protects kids. She has awful taste in men, and is drawn to bad boys (she dated Ra's al Ghul once, both of them not recognizing the other at the time). She is doggedly persistent, and will often throw herself into incredibly dangerous situations that she may not be able to handle alone just because she is insistent on getting the job done. While she can do what it takes the to get the job done, she favors ideals over pragmatism (once, Oracle asked her to get these files Oracle was going to use in a somewhat dirty way to stop some bad guys; DLL destroyed them and told Oracle they were lost because she didn't like the methods Oracle wanted to use, even though the methods would have been effective, just a bit corrupt). On the rare occasion she does start to feel hopeless, she can however fall into a self-pitying rut and be sloppy and self-destructive (this is the state she was in when the Birds of Prey first formed, where she was still reeling from the events of the Longbow Hunters amongst other things; one of the reasons Oracle specifically hired her was to help DLL get her confidence back). She is more able to work herself out of self-destructive tendencies by being shaken out of isolation and working with close friends.

I really would describe Laurel Lance exactly the same way.

Personality wise, I think they have an incredible amount in common. 

What different is the background. DLL was raised by a superhero, her mother, and was influenced by her mother's superhero friends from the Justice Society, who also trained her to fight (Ted Grant, Barry Allen, etc.). The life she built for herself was to take after her mother. IIRC, Larry Lance died before Dinah Drake did (both of DLL's parents are dead), and thus DLL was much closer to her mother than her father.

Laurel's mother is an academic, not a superhero, and Laurel was not raised by any superhero friends. She did spend more time with her cop father, and was taught some things by him. Laurel's mother left, and Laurel grew much closer to her father than she was to her mother. Laurel was inspired by her father's dedication to the law, and pursued a career in law. Laurel in short is an Elseworlds DLL where DLL took after dad instead of mom.

But personality-wise, they are very much the same person.

Compare: Sara Lance, for what is worth, personality wise is very little like DLL. Sara is a more reckless and ruthless. She has a party girl background. She is pragmatic--very willing to just take the kill shot on the bad guy than find the best moral solution. Actually, her personality is a lot like the comic book version of Helena Bertinelli, minus the sorority girl stuff--which would explain how she and her sister can butt heads but still care for each other (DLL and Comics-Helena are good friends). Sara and DLL have little in common, background or personality wise, save for her protective streak and a weakness for Ollie. Note this does NOT mean Sara shouldn't be the Canary character that she is (she can and should be, IMO). It just means that Sara Lance is NOT a proxy/expy for DLL.

While I don't like how inconsistent the writers (and editors, for a lot of Laurel's good scenes end up on the Deleted scenes of the DVDs) treat Laurel, I'm cool with where she is on the show. She does not have to be exactly like DLL in terms of background or destiny. (I think DLL would think it's amazing there's a version of her somewhere that graduated law school.) I think it's better the less she is pushed as a love interest for Ollie (the writers may disagree, sadly), because it means she is more likely used as a character, not as a plot device.***

I think she can and may become a crimefighter, but it's not going to be in the same way DLL did--it CAN'T be. There's no Justice Society to train her. Her mom apparently doesn't know jack about fighting (sadly). She'll find her own path. Ollie may train her. Her dad's police friends may train her. Maybe Sara will return and train her. Or she'll find a new mentor (which could be a cool storyline). With her law background, she may be more like Manhunter (Kate Spencer, whose Arrow counterpart just died), and that's cool. Elseworlds where Dinah Laurel Lance becomes Manhunter. I'd read that comic book. She may well become Black Canary, but it's very clear the show is taking its own slow path toward that route, and I'm not going to waste energy worrying about how it's not like a series of comics that, in fact, are outdated and no longer part of current DCU comics continuity anyway.

I also don't think Laurel's existence or journey to becoming whatever she becomes precludes or overtakes the existence of her sister Sara. Sara Lance is a great character with a great story, and they actually serve each other well by existing alongside one another and acting as foils to one another. Seeing Sara live to see another day at the end of Season 2 gives me hope interesting stuff is in store for both characters. The two should not be pitted against each other, nor should Laurel be pitted against her comics counterpart who has decades more history and an entirely different background. It's only fair as with all characters to first and foremost see her in the medium she is in alone, and trace her evolution from there, without letting alternate continuities muddle up character interpretation.

* Post Crisis on Infinite Earths, Pre-Flashpoint, AKA the comics between roughly 1987 and 2010, AKA the "Iron Age." I believe we're in the "Silly Putty Age" now.

** Hell, the only character I am frustrated with because she isn't more like the comic book version is Helena, because the HERO who is in the comics is one of my favorite HEROES in the DCU, and I hate that they made her a two-dimensional psychopathic villain because of some stupid fiance death, rather than the woman who lost her entire family and swore to shut down all organized crime because of not only what she went through, but because of the evils her family represented. And that's just because the comics Huntress is a much cooler character than the lameass vengeance junkie on the TV show. But I digress.

*** I think that's actually why so many people "ship" Felicity Smoak with Oliver. Because Felicity is a real-feeling human-like entity, with her own personality, and she is consistently written as such, and not as a plot device. Laurel they can't seem to reconcile her personality/back story and with the love interest idea and then she just gets turned into some doll they need to have thrown around to give Oliver something to react to. Everytime Laurel becomes love interest, she loses all uniqueness and self-agency. I'm not an "Olicity" fan but I dig why people prefer that relationship. They want to see a relationship between two people, not one person and a human-shaped object.