Sky: Children of the Light

thatgamecompany is known for making computer games for people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in computer games. Sky: Children of the Light is their attempt at making a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game for people who would otherwise not be interested in MMOs. In my opinion, they did not succeed; if you’re not already a gamer with some experience and/or aren’t willing to face some bitter disappointments, you’ll find Sky a difficult game.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so: SPOILER ALERT! Since the game is meant to be played over and over again, at most I’m only going to spoil the experience of the first run-through. Or maybe I’ll spoil the game by giving a critical review to what is may be a delightful MMO if I got over my own limitations. Once again: SPOILER ALERT!

Background

In the first thatgamecompany game I played, Flower, you play a breeze guiding a flower petal to gather more flower petals. It was delightfully non-competitive. You could revel in the beauty of the environment, blowing past flowers to make them bloom and collect their petals. For the most part, you were playing with the game and not against it.

Their follow-up game, Journey, had you making an epic journey through several worlds to get to a light on a distant mountain. It introduced player interaction: In the second world, you met another player who could accompany you on the trip. You could only communicate through simple beeps. Your behavior options were limited: you could help the other person progress, or you could ignore them and proceed solo. There were hazards to avoid in a couple of the worlds, but the worst that could happen is that you’d lose the ability to fly somewhat and you wouldn’t be able to get some of the achievements.

When you complete Journey, you can play the game again. The incentive (apart from achievements) is that each time you’d meet someone else. Their behaviors could make each run-through different: Would they help you? Could you help them? Would they go off to journey solo? It didn’t matter that much from a game-play perspective, since the game didn’t require much skill to give a sense of satisfaction and completion. There was a zen-like quality to the worlds and the journey that made replays rewarding even if you didn’t meet anyone else.

Sky is similar to Journey: You travel from world to world, heading towards a light in a distant mountain. Your key mode of transportation is based on your cape; as you travel, you collect items (in Sky these are the Children of the Light) to improve your cape and let you fly longer. The design of the worlds in Sky is very similar to the worlds of Journey: the desert world; the skiing world; the world where monsters attack you; the world of the tower; the struggle to reach the summit of the mountain.

Children of the Light

The differences between Sky and Journey begin with your cape. In Journey the cape was useful but not required; in Sky it’s almost essential. Therefore visiting the Children and collecting their Light is a key component of the game. You can’t even visit the final world in Sky without collecting at least 20 of them, and if you consult the hint guides they suggest collecting at least 40 or more because of the difficulty of that level. My own experience is that you’d want at least 50.

Collecting all that Light is important. As you might guess, some of the Children are easy to find. Some are in locations so obscure that even with a hint guide you might not be able to find them. And some are in locations that are difficult to reach unless you have very precise control of your character.

In Journey, controlling your avatar wasn’t difficult. In Sky, the difficulty of controlling your avatar is a complex function of environment, world, cape energy, and whether you’ve just been slammed by a creature (more on that below).

More than once I’ve tried to do some precision flying in an environment and just clip some surface. The avatar starts ping-ponging all over the place, zooming uncontrollably, only able to turn slowly. If you were in the room at the time, you’d hear me screaming at my iPhone: “Why are you going over there? I didn’t tell you go there! Why aren’t you turning when I’m telling you to turn? Go up! I’m pushing the up button! Why aren’t you going up? Why are you flying when I’m telling you to jump? Why are you jumping when I’m telling you to fly?”

It makes me glad my cat is almost deaf.

As you might have figured out from the paragraph above, right now Sky is only available for iOS, on iPhones and iPads. When iOS 13 is released later this year, it will be possible to use a PS4 controller with iOS games. Perhaps then I won’t experience the frustration of trying to do precision movements on a touchscreen.

Hostile environments

As I said above, Journey had creatures that could damage your flying cape, but that wasn’t important to the overall trip. Sky also has creatures that can attack you and steal your Light, and gathering Light is basically the goal of the game. If your avatar loses Light and therefore flying power, you might have to start the game again from the first world.

Unlike Journey, in Sky these creatures are in dark environments where the screen contrast is very poor, even when when I crank my iPhone’s contrast to maximum. It can be hard to see the creatures, places you can hide, even exits from the area you’re in. There are worlds where standing in water drains your Light away.

Once, I was knocked by a creature into a dark area, my flying gone. The pit was filled with water, surrounded by blobs of blackness. I watched my Light disappear. I didn’t know what to do. (There’s a Sky equivalent of a Hearthstone in World of Warcraft, but I didn’t know about that option at the time.) I splashed around desperately, but there was no escape. Finally my avatar “died.” I found myself in another world of darkness, though with stars in the night sky at least, until I finally figured out the direction I was supposed to go.

If you play a game like Dark Souls, this sort of thing is par for the course. It certainly doesn’t match the zen-like joy of Journey or Flower. It’s as if thatgamecompany was trying to appeal to both hard-core gamers and the audience for their other games.

Other players

In Journey, you could meet with at most one other player in a given world. In Sky, when you enter an area there can be up to five players initially, and up to eight total (there’s a way to teleport to the location of one of your friends).

In the first couple of minutes of Sky, you’re limited to the same level of communication with your fellow players as in Journey: beeps and sitting down. That rapidly expands as you encounter Spirits, also known as Emotes for their basic reward. A Spirit takes you on a small trip across the landscape, with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the world. At the end of the trip you receive a new gesture, pose, or sound effect for your avatar.

There are something like 36 Emotes in the game, so potentially you have access to a wide range of expressions. Often you’ll see a group of players standing around in a common area showing off the Emotes they’ve acquired to each other. This sort of “playing around” is certainly not possible in Journey!

For more direct communication, there are chat benches in all the vendor areas of the game and scattered throughout the rest of the worlds. If two players sit on the same bench, they can type text messages to one another.

Another annoyance: The “microphone” key is not available on Sky‘s keyboard, so you can’t use the iPhone’s dictation feature.

For my part, I only found someone willing to sit on the bench with me twice. The first time they typed in Japanese. I tried to apologize for not understanding them, but they promptly left. The second time I was seeking help to get through one of the monster-laden worlds; the other player expressed ignorance and left before I could say more.

The next level of social interaction is to become Friends with another player. This costs a Candle (more on currency below). This allows you to assign a name to that player. For the few couple of Friends I took the time to compose names for them. After that I just hit “Randomize” for a quick name, so most of my Friends have names like Ewotuka, Acoc, Oyes, and Isefa.

The game is easier when you travel with other players. When you’re close to another avatar, the cape energy passively regenerates. When you’re Friends with another player, you have the option for one of you to hold the other avatar’s hand and lead them, guaranteeing the energy regeneration. You can even form chains of up to eight avatars, each one clasping the hand of the next one. There are Children of the Light that are almost impossible to reach unless someone else is there to help you regenerate.

You can see an example of this in the (spoiler-laden) videos available in the Sky wiki: https://sky-children-of-the-light.fandom.com/wiki/Sky:_Children_of_the_Light_Wiki. In those videos, the player forms her own chain by playing Sky with four devices at once, regenerating cape energy rapidly.

All of this sounds wonderful, but there’s a communications gap: Without text and with the range of Emotes available, you can’t tell if someone wants to accomplish a game task or just wants to play around.

Here’s an example: Someone offered to become Friends with me. I accepted. They offered to clasp my avatar’s hand, and again I accepted. They promptly dragged me into the initial area of the most monster-laden world. Then they go of my hand. I interpreted this as they were asking for a guide to get through it. I knew something about the region. As I alluded above, I’m crappy at dodging the monsters and precision flying so I couldn’t give them a complete tour, but I could offer something. I offered my hand, they accepted, and I took them deeper into the world.

It wasn’t until we were deep into that world that it became clear that the other player wasn’t looking for a guide, they had been looking to play with Emotes or something and had picked the most dangerous world at random. In a dark area, they activated a spell that made their avatar glow. This is a purely cosmetic effect; it does not illuminate your surroundings in any way. But in a dark zone, it made my iPhone’s screen wash out with the bright glow. I could no longer see the dark terrain and the dark exit to get out of the dark zone. There was only the glow of my companion.

I didn’t want to abandon them in a zone they didn’t understand, but I was stuck fumbling around blind. I tried to initiate a text communication with them, but they refused. (I later learned that Japanese speakers are often embarrassed that they can’t communicate with English speakers.) I continued to try to find a way out, but finally we met up with someone else who knew what they were doing and I joined them, leaving my first companion behind.

That’s just one incident, and I’ve experienced others. The bottom line is that there’s no way to express ideas like “Please, I need some help” or “Please, let me help you” or “I just want to dance” directly. You only have guesses based on behavior. In the incident I described above, I tried to be helpful only to come across as rude in the end.

Of course there are ways around this, but they’re the standard MMO tricks. In this spoiler-laden video (https://youtu.be/Ah_-W3XKEfY, recorded just last night as I type this) you can see a Sky expert coordinating with her friends using some communications program; I can’t tell if it’s Twitch, Discord, or something else.

Eventually this will all shake down. Some standards will emerge and communities will form. Perhaps there will be default communication channels for each language. Something like this happened with World of Warcraft, except that WoW provided open text communication from the beginning, and servers were already segregated by geographic region. Maybe a sort of pidgin will evolve based on the available emotes.

This is far from the contemplative joy and basic companionship in Journey.

Currency

There are five currencies in Sky: Candles, Hearts, Ascended Candles, Seasonal Tokens, and Seasonal Candles. The last two are for cosmetic improvements only, so I’m not going to discuss them further.

Candles are the basic currency. Once you’ve interacted with an Emote and gained a new expression, that Emote becomes a vendor in a world’s social area. Candles will let you purchase some upgrades for your avatar.

Candles are also the basis for social interactions between avatars. When you make an offer to become someone’s Friend, the cost is one Candle. To upgrade interactions with that Friend costs more Candles. To be able to text-chat with that Friend costs yet more candles.

Candles can be forged by collecting wax from other candles in the environment (something I do in real life) and from other sources. It’s possible to spend time in the game each day grinding for wax. According to one of the videos I linked above, you’d get about 15 Candles for two hours of work each day.

Here’s where the real-world money comes in the free-to-play app: You can also pay for Candles. For example, for $20 you can get 60 Candles (actually, it’s presently 72 for $20 as a new-game promotion). That lets you make Friends freely and purchase quite a few minor improvements for your character.

You may ask, given that my critical review of the game thus far, did I resist paying for Candles? I’ve already confessed that I’m a former WoW pet collector, so you can guess the answer.

If you want serious cosmetic improvements to your avatar (hairstyles, masks, trousers, capes), you have to move to the next level of currency: Hearts. These costume items have no effect on the game. They’re a digital good, like WoW pets, that solely affect the appearance of your character. The cost of new trousers might be 5 Hearts; the price for a really nifty cape might be 30 Hearts.

Hearts can’t be directly purchased through real-world cash. You can purchase them from the Emotes/vendors at a price of three Candles for one Heart… once for each vendor. Since not every vendor sells a Heart, you might get 35 Hearts this way (at a total cost of 105 Candles, which takes us back to spending real-world money for Candles).

You can also get Hearts from Friends. If you send a Friend a bundle of three Candles, they’ll receive a Heart. So the way to get Hearts is to give them. You send Hearts to your Friends and hope they’ll reciprocate. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this “investment” of Candles will pay back in Hearts, especially if you haven’t paid Candles to initiate a text chat with that Friend to arrange any deals. You send out bundles of Candles and hope for the best.

This leads to another my criticisms of Sky, in the choice of their iconography. Suppose a newcomer to the game meets me. I could use someone else when visiting a difficult world, so I offer to be Friends with them. They accept, we travel around, I show them where some hidden Lights are. Later, I send them a Heart to see if we can work out an exchange.

Is this how they perceive it? There’s nothing obvious in the game about the informal Heart economy. You can read about it in fan-based web pages (that’s how I learned it) and it may be implied in the optional game tutorials (I haven’t checked).

In other words, a newcomer adventures with a stranger for a brief while and later they get a Heart from them. It might be perceived as a creepy gesture. I wish the Heart wasn’t a “heart” but some other icon without the same connotations.

That leaves Ascended Candles. They are a reward for going through the final world successfully; if you recall above, that’s the one that requires at least 20 Light to enter. The more Light you enter that zone with, the greater the potential reward… if you can manage a challenging environment.

The Ascended Candles can be used to purchase “permanent” cape upgrades from the Emotes/vendors; most vendors offer one such upgrade and a couple offer two. Each upgrade means that when you start the game again, your cape starts out with additional Light. Overall, this gives Sky some of the visceral feel of Diablo: You go through the same adventure each time, but you get a bit more powerful and maybe you can handle some tougher challenges.

Ascended Candles can also unlock the most potent Friend option: To be able to Warp to a Friend’s location within the same game world. Since Ascended Candles are so hard to get, I’d only use this option on someone I really, really trusted.

Unskippable Cutscenes

I wanted to mention the unskippable cutscenes in this review. Have I talked about the unskippable cutscenes yet? There are unskippable cutscenes. They’re annoying after the first playthrough, especially if you’re in the middle of a complicated maneuver that gets interrupted by an unskippable cutscene. There are skippable cutscenes, but not enough compared to the unskippable cutscenes. If you think this paragraph is wordy and annoying, just wait until you have to deal with the unskippable cutscenes.

Conclusions

I investigated Sky because a friend of mine was a big fan of Flower and Journey. They were looking forward to another game from thatgamecompany that echoed the meditative qualities of those two. I offered to test the waters for them and walk them through Sky when they were ready, as I had when I introduced them to Journey.

Sky: Children of the Light is not the game I think they were expecting. When my friend finally has the chance to sit down and play the game with me, I think they will be disappointed. It’s not likely that they’ll read this review (my blog is so obscure that not even my good friends read it), but I’ll keep the critical tone out of my voice and let them make their own judgements.

I’m neutral on the monetization of the game. You can play Sky without spending a dime. You can forge your way through the game solo, get the 20 Light to be pounded in the final zone, emerge to see the game’s ending, then never play again; I think you’d have more fun doing basically the same thing in Journey. You can also make Friends and gain Hearts by grinding for Candle wax, but you’ll spend time instead of money.

I think my WoW friends would perceive Sky as a very light MMO. I can easily see some of them playing Sky with one hand as they tank Ragnaros with the other… if they cared to play Sky at all. There’s definitely a market for people who like light MMOs; Second Life is one example. But I believe there’s more to do in Second Life than there is to do in Sky.

Sky is too much of an MMO to be like Flower and Journey. I’m turned off by its occasionally frustrating controls, difficult environments, and player communication issues. I hoped for better from thatgamecompany.

Sundrop, tan zenithal, and contrast paints

The new incentive

This post continues a saga I began in an earlier post on the hobby of painting miniature figures. In that post, I described how I managed to paint the minis in the game Mysthea to a satisfactory level.

At the end of that post, I looked forward to painting the dragon Volfyirion and the miniatures in Icaion, both from Tabula Games. I’ll go over my efforts to paint Volfyirion in another mini-painting post.

Since I wrote that post, a new element entered the picture: I pre-ordered two more games with miniature figures: Tainted Grail and Etherfields, both published by Awaken Realms. I knew from Icaion’s Kickstarter campaign that painting those minis would test the limits of my skill. Well, with all due respect to the designers at Tabula Games, the mini designers at Awaken Realms are more ambitious. If you click on the Tainted Grail and Etherfields links, you’ll see how elaborate their minis are.

The Awaken Realms minis are beyond my skill to paint, even with the watercolor-like approximations I applied to the Mysthea minis. With only one working eye and trembling fingers, I did not think I could improve my ability above what it currently is.

However, an idea presented itself. The Awaken Realms Kickstater pages offered to paint the minis for you, using a technique they called Sundrop; Aella13 calls this pre-shading and Vince Venturella calls it sketch style. It’s a simple method: zenithal prime a mini, apply a wash for contrast, and you’re done. In fact, it’s what I did for the armies in Mysthea:

Golems - wash - front
These Golem minis look a bit cartoonish to suit my taste for the more elaborate Awaken Realms minis, but that was a deliberate choice on my part. I wanted to give the Golems the same colors as the player colors used in Mysthea and were the colors of the minis’ bases. There are no “armies” (a collection of identical units) in Tainted Grail and Etherfields. The armies in Icaion already come in the players’ colors (though I may choose to apply a wash once I see them).

Caerulas - filed and painted
I can focus on the wash colors that I feel suit the character of each individual mini. The photo above shows the result when I “sundropped” Mysthea’s Caerulus mini with Agrax Earthshade wash, with just a bit of highlighting for the eyes. That was the more “mature” color scheme I was looking for.

Tan zenithal

As I went over in my previous mini post, conventional zenithal priming has an overall coat of black primer, an angled coat of light gray, and and overhead spray of white.

However, I learned that when you plan to paint in warm or autumnal colors (e.g., brown, red, orange, yellow) it’s best if you’re painting over another warm color. Since I planned to paint Volfyirion as a fire dragon, I explored a different zenithal scheme.

Unpainted dwarf
An unpainted Dwarf Brewer, straight out of the package.

Dwarf - base brown
Using an airbrush, apply an overall coat of brown primer.

Dwarf with tan zenithal
Spray tan primer in a 45-degree angle around the figure.

Dwarf with white overhead
Highlight with white primer sprayed from above the mini.

Let’s compare the “gray zenithal” with the “tan zenithal”:

Two Zenithals

To test the assertion that warm colors would look better over a brown-ish base, I airbrushed both minis with a 1:1 mix of Vallejo Air Red with Vallejo Glaze Medium. I chose this mix because I wanted the red to be translucent enough that it wouldn’t completely override the zenithal effect. I used glaze medium instead of water because I didn’t want to thin the Vallejo Air paint any further, since it was already thinned for airbrushing.

Two zenithals with red glaze

To my eye, the mini on the right has the more vibrant color. The color theorists are right!

Given this result, I knew I was going to run more tests using autumnal colors. I applied a tan zenithal to all my remaining Dwarf Brewer minis. I then applied a red glaze to a couple more to see effect of washes on top of the glaze.

Two washed dwarves
The Dwarf on the left was washed with Citadel Shade Casandora Yellow. The one on the right was washed with Citadel Shade Agrax Earthshade. Note that I left the beer barrels unwashed so I could see the color shift.

Sundrop / pre-shading / sketch style

The tests I did with the red glaze were in anticipation of techniques I’d use to paint Volfyirion (in a later post I describe why I dropped this approach). But although wash-over-glaze is a perfectly valid technique, I wanted to see what I could do with just the Sundrop approach: wash-over-zenithal. I tested with more tan-zenithaled Dwarf Brewers.

Dwarf - shade Agrax Earthshade
Agrax Earthshade over tan zenithal.

Dwarf - shade Reikland Fleshshade
Reikland Fleshshade over tan zenithal.

Dwarf with Drakenhoof Nighshade
Drakenhof Nighshade over tan zenithal. Notes: Blue over tan zenithal was not the best choice, but I wanted to see the result of a blue shade; again, I omitted the beer barrel to see the color shift; my iPhone has difficulty getting the darker shades in focus.

I also have some pictures of the same approach with non-Dwarf non-Brewers.

Green wash over zenithal
Citadel Shade Biel-Tan Green over gray zenithal.

zenithal - black coat
Citadel Shade Nuln Oil over gray zenithal.

I was content with the results I got. I knew I could Sundrop minis fairly quickly, not get bogged down in details, and get the gray off the table. If you’re wondering what that last phrase means, compare this image with unpainted minis to this image with painted ones.

So all was well and I had a plan. Until…

Contrast paints

If you paint miniature figures, it’s hard to escape the hype surrounding Citadel Contrast Paints. If you don’t paint minis, the quick summary is that, for newcomers to the hobby, they can accomplish a single coat what would otherwise involve a basecoat+wash+drybrush.

They’re supposed to be easy to use: just slop the paint over white primer and you’re done. For the inexperienced, they’re supposed to give the visceral thrill of quickly painting a mini. The experienced have access to more powerful techniques (blending, layering, etc.) and don’t have much use for them.

I saw the videos and I was intrigued. A product made for n00bs? Well, I are one.

Finally, a friend of mine made a recommendation that I give contrast paints a try. I succumbed to peer pressure and tried a few to see how well they worked. Was it all hype?

To my pleasant surprise, the answer was no. All of the following examples are contrast paints over tan zenithal.

Dwarf - contrast Blood Angel Red
Blood Angels Red

Dwarf - contrast Aggaros Dunes
Aggaros Dunes

Dwarf - contrast Snakebite Leather
Snakebite Leather

Dwarf - contrast Wyldwood
Wyldwood

It may not be clear from the pictures, but the contrast paints’ colors are richer than those of the washes. The recesses into which the paint flowed are darker than with the wash, so the raised areas are highlighted more. This definitely doesn’t come across in the photos: The darker contrast paint colors have a sheen to them that makes the surfaces seem almost metallic; the Wyldwood mini looks like it was made of bronze.

That last point raises the issue of how to varnish a contrast-painted mini while retaining that sheen. Do I use a varnish with a satin finish or one with a gloss finish? I’m sure you’ve guessed the answer: I’ll have to test on more Dwarf Brewers.

I’ve ordered some more contrast paints, and Dwarf Brewers to test them on (of course!). There’ll be a follow-up post with more contrast paint examples. If you’d like to get an idea right now, check out this page.

This doesn’t mean I reject using washes over zenithal for my future Sundrop efforts. Depending on the figure, I might want a less intense color; e.g., a mist creature or an undead. I’ll decide on a figure-by-figure basis as the games arrive.

Going back to Etherfields, I found a video of someone painting Etherfields miniatures. Synopsis: The painter (who is far more experienced than I am) spent a long time painting one of the figures in detail (the mini on the right in the video’s preview image). After that, he settles for using contrast paints to Sundrop the minis, with some minor highlights on the larger ones (the mini on the left in the preview); that’s pretty much what I plan to do.

References

Warning: This post contains self-indulgent meanderings on the passage of time. If you young’uns can’t handle that, skip this post and get off of my lawn.

A few weeks ago I was in the lunch room of Nevis Labs. I was the oldest one there. The rest were summer students about 20 years old. The topic had shifted to assigning everyone there an alignment according to the D&D system. I was assigned “Chaotic/Good”, which I accepted.

I’ve had problems with the D&D system that were older than the students there, and its alignment system is one of those problems. In an attempt to be satirical, I said, “Okay, now we can figure out which of us is Samantha, or Carrie, or Miranda, or…”

Dead silence. They looked at me blankly. They had no idea what I was talking about.

I muttered something about Sex and the City and retreated into my private thoughts. Three feelings washed over me:

  1. I felt the usual disappointment of a geek who made a reference that no one else got.
  2. I felt old. I’m almost three times the age of the summer students this year. In a couple more years, I will be more than three times the age of summer students at Nevis. Will I even be able to understand what those kids are saying as time goes on?

    After all, it’s normal for most culture to be ephemeral. A couple of personal examples come to mind:

    • Back at Cornell in 1978, I had a friend named Adams Douglas; his mother wanted to remind him that he was a great-to-the-nth descendant of John Quincy Adams. You can try to do a web search on Adams Douglas, but he’s hard to find because you’ll get thousands of results about some other guy.

      Adams was the son of the actors Jan Sterling and Paul Douglas. They were household names in the early 50s. But by the time I knew Adams, they were already forgotten, footnotes in cinematic history.

      Adams himself has become a footnote. He passed away in 2003, a year before his mother did.

    • Also in 1978, I happened to read a play called Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. It was written in 1901, and assumed that the audience would be familiar with a song of the same title that was written in 1868.

      The song had been popular for 33 years at that point. It probably felt reasonable to assume that it would stand the test of time. It didn’t. When I read the play 77 years later, I had no idea that the song existed. It’s now 41 years after that, and despite an opera written in 1975, I’m probably one of the few people left who still remembers that the song/play/opera ever existed.

  3. Triumph! The geeks had won after all!

    Let’s look at some dates. Sex and the City was broadcast from 1998 to 2004. It’s only 15 years later, and it’s beginning to fall off the “cliff of relevance”. If you consider the Nevis summer students as a representative sample (and there are many arguments that would suggest they are not), then if you’re 20 years old or less you will never have heard of it.

    Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974. It’s 45 years later, so it’s three times older than Sex in the City. (Note the similar age ratio of me to the summer students.) Some of the students took the superior-intellectual stance and claimed they had never played D&D, but they all knew what it was and knew about the alignment system.

    I got my copy of D&D in 1975. (I still have it; it’s probably worth some money.) I remember parental disapproval, the claims that D&D caused teenagers to commit suicide, the claims that it was Satanic (BADD). All of that has pretty much fallen off the cliff of relevance (though my father still doesn’t “get it”).

    What’s survived? The D&D alignment system, obviously. So have half-Orc Barbarians, Lawful/Good Paladins, dual-class Sorceror/Rogues, Dwarven warriors, Elvish wizards, Mages’ towers, Lich pits, Demogorgons, Beholders, platinum pieces, Bags of Holding, armor classes, experience points… and of course, dungeons filled with treasure and dragons filled with menace.

    They’ve not only survived, but thrived. Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha are fading. The geek dream lives on!

Obviously, I’m glossing over a lot of cultural complexity in order to make a mildly amusing point. Sex in the City appealed to thirty-something women looking for relationships; that’s not likely to have much appeal to 20-year-old science students. For my part, I may have seen no more than three episodes out of the 94 made, though I do know about SitC‘s four-fold path.

Also, the “cultural competition” associated with SitC is different than that of D&D. There are lots of relationship comedies out there, and the genre is continually reinventing itself as new issues come to light. For example, did SitC ever explore the difficulties of the transgendered to find relationships? (I have no idea.) I know such series exist… but they’re not SitC.

On the other hand, D&D is a tabletop role-playing game fixed in a general fantasy setting. The existence of other media in the same setting (the Lord of the Rings movies, the Game of Thrones TV series) tends to increase interest in D&D, not push it off the cliff of relevance. Even the existence of competing fantasy role-playing games such as Pathfinder and Rolemaster tends to reinforce the ideas and memes associated with D&D even if their players have never read the D&D rules.

Does this mean D&D will pass the “test of time”? By my own arbitrary definition, we won’t know until everyone who was alive in 1974 has passed away. If they’re still talking about hit points and character stats by then, then the geeks can score permanent victory. By that definition, I will never live long enough to be certain.

In the meantime, I can stave off some of the pang of aging into cultural irrelevance by shouting out with glee: “Stuff it, Carrie! And suck it, Captain Jinks!”

The Four Doctors

This is a follow-up to my post The Three Doctors. Again, it’s not a Doctor Who post.

I’ve got a PhD in particle physics, am a doctor by courtesy with Universal Life Church, and also a doctor by courtesy with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Why would I want another?

The issue is being able to perform weddings. The ULC is widely known, and is not regarded as a “real” church. I’ve performed weddings with my ULC credentials, and it hasn’t been a problem. But there’s one region nearby where those credentials would not be recognized: New York City.

I don’t know any Wiccans in New York City, at least not personally, nor anyone else who might choose me as an officiant for a NYC wedding. (There’s one exception, but I’ve already officiated at his wedding in a ceremony outside NYC.) I don’t anticipate ever needing to do so.

Still, I wanted to have that option. It’s a minor matter, but I’d like to make my ministry credentials as complete as I can.

So I got my fourth “doctorate”, this time with American Marriage Ministries:

AMM certificates

The ULC and AMM are similar in that they both offer free ordinations on-line. Neither is more valid in places like Tennessee that don’t recognize ministerial credentials from on-line sources. The difference is that AMM focuses on marriages; their ordination packet contains lots of useful information on counseling couples and performing ceremonies.

More importantly for me, they include any special instructions needed to have their ordinations recognized in places with special regulations, such as NYC. I followed their directions, jumped through the hoops, and received the following in the mail today. There is a subtle error on the certificate issued by the Office of the County Clerk in the City of New York. See if you can spot it.

NYC Certificate of Marriage Officiant Registration blurred

Oh well. But it’s still official: If you want to get married at the top of the Empire State Building, I can officiate.

This means that my full alphabet soup of titles is now:

Doctor Doctor Doctor Doctor William Glenn Seligman, B.S., M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D., D.ULC, D.FSM, D.AMM, PBK

Despite all this, my cat treats me in the same way. I suppose I have to expect the same from everyone else.

Lost and Found and What’s Next

A couple of days ago, Christopher Chase sent me some pages from an old issue of The Crone Papers that mentioned Isaac Bonewits. (Christopher, brother to Sabrina Chase of Blue Star, is on the faculty of the Philosophy and Religious Study Department at Iowa State University.) After I downloaded the pages, I went through my usual practice of placing the pages in a Dropbox directory, coding the pages, and storing the codes in Zotero.

I took a glance at another directory I had on Dropbox that contained Isaac’s documents that I had not yet coded… and found the directory almost empty. I searched the hard drive of my computer, and those files weren’t anywhere on my hard drive. I searched my backups on Apple’s Time Machine, Dropbox, and Backblaze. They weren’t on the backups either. Three levels on backups, and none of them had the missing files.

What happened? In reverse chronological order:

  • When I set up Backblaze, I found that I’d deliberately omitted all my Dropbox directories from the off-line backup. I probably felt having two offline backups of the same files was not necessary. (Pro tip: I was wrong.)
  • Periodically, my Time Machine disk drive fills up in a such a way that it requires a fresh backup from scratch. This last happened at the beginning of May 2019. Since I suspect that these files disappeared before then, they weren’t on the Time Machine backup.
  • Dropbox only keeps deleted files for 30 days.
  • In addition to off-line backup, I use Dropbox to synchronize a suite of files and directories between three computers: my home computer, my work computer, and a laptop. The laptop is primarily used for the Science-on-Hudson talks, but I also use it for when I go on trips.

    When I was in the hospital at the end of December 2018, one of my work colleagues brought the laptop to me so I could watch movies to pass the time. But while Nyack Hospital offers excellent medical care, their wi-fi stinks. I struggled with turning off the Dropbox synchronization for the laptop to save on bandwidth and disk space.

    What I suspect happened, though I will never know for sure, is that somewhere in that process the flaky wi-fi connection made Dropbox interpret “do not sync this directory” as “this directory has been deleted”. This would have been propagated to all my other computers running Dropbox.

As I write this, I’ve not yet had the chance to inspect my work computers. It may be that the files are there in their separate Time Machine backups. However, I strongly doubt it.

What have I lost? As far as I can tell, I’ve lost most of the contents of two directories related to Isaac’s biography: the documents I had not yet coded; files I copied from Isaac’s old laptops and had not yet even started to look at.

The most important directories were unaffected by this: the files I had already coded, which to some extent were of the greatest interest to me; the recordings of the roughly 50 hours of interviews I’ve done so far.

Is the material really, truly lost? The answer is no, on two levels.

  • The originals are in the Religious Studies Archives of the University of California at Santa Barbara. They’re available to anyone willing to make the trip. For medical and practical reasons, I can’t make that trip. But if someone is willing to be an Isaac Bonewits scholar, it’s all still there.
  • I used two devices to scan Isaac’s files. One was my scanner at home, a low-end consumer device that could only scan one page at a time. The other was a scanner at work, which was fast and could scan piles of 8 1/2″x11″ paper placed in its document feeder.

    I also scanned some files into Adobe Creative Cloud using my phone, but these were relatively unimportant documents that Phaedra sent me a couple of years after my main scanning efforts. I can live without copies of Isaac’s old debts and bills.

    The work scanner delivered its scans to me via email. I checked last night, and I kept all those emails. So anything I scanned at work is, in principle, still retrievable.

Why “in principle”? The work scanner labeled the files it sent to me with coded names like “20110501163942716.pdf”. I took those files, used tools like PDFPen for OCR, and extracted/moved pages into files and folders with appropriate names. It took me hours to do this work, though it didn’t seem like much at the time because I worked on relatively few files after each scanning session. To do it all over again seems like a Sisyphean task.

Now comes the big question: How much did I really lose when it comes to the actual biography?

In a previous blog post, I addressed some issues associated with reducing the scope of this project. Maybe losing those files could be a positive thing. I’ve already have a lot of material. I have 50 hours of interviews; Jimahl di Fiosa wrote a biography of Alex Sanders based on less material than that. When I think about the material I had not yet tagged, I don’t remember most of it except for a big folder on Isaac’s EMS, and I only needed that for dates and such.

I still have questions about Isaac’s life that I would want the biography to address: Who was the Creole woman who introduced the Christian-raised Isaac to magic? Why was he attracted to Druidry over Wicca? Why did he found the ADF? What were the issues he faced as ArchDruid that caused him to resign? But if I don’t have the answer after interviewing Isaac’s spouses, what makes me think that some mysterious key to his life lurks within the files that I had not coded?

So I’ll set a limit: One more interview, with a member of the musical group Real Magic. If I’m able to recover the lost files, be ruthless: Only code those files that look critical. Then listen to the interviews and take notes of quotable sections. Use the already-coded material as reference.

Then do what Deborah Lipp has encouraged me to do for the past few years: Just write the damn thing already.

It won’t be the work of scholarship that I originally hoped for. But the first biography of Gerald Gardner wasn’t a scholarly work either. Let those with the credentials, the will, and the means become Isaac Bonewits scholars. Who knows? Maybe what I write will inspire them.

Final Fantasy X

Disclaimer: I did not play this game to the end, for reasons discussed below. This review is based on what I experienced until I decided to quit playing it.

A few months ago, I posted my review of Final Fantasy XV. I was still looking for something to occupy my time during my convalescence. A friend of mine recommended Final Fantasy X on the basis of its story. I’ll start with my immediate impressions.

It must be said: This is a clunky game. It’s a port of a game published in 2001 to modern gaming systems. It was strange to play a game for which the right knob on my PS4 controller did almost nothing at all. There’s no way to change camera angles; you take the view the game gives you. Switching between targets during combat is not intuitive.

Since it is an old game, I’m willing to let that slide.

In my FFXV review, I made a big deal about the blatant sexism of the character of Cindy. In FFX many of the female characters show a lot of skin, but so do the male characters so I’ll let that part slide as well.

However, I’m not going to give a pass to the character of Lulu. She’s modestly dressed compared to most of the other female characters, except for exposed cleavage. The issue I have is the game’s focus on that cleavage: many of the cutscenes have the camera pointed at Lulu’s chest, cropping out her face; Lulu’s “victory dance” at the end of combat has her flaunting her cleavage at the camera.

Lulu is a popular subject for fan costuming, so I may be overreacting; if female fans have no problem with Lulu, I probably shouldn’t either. Still, it bothered me that one of the most powerful characters in the game is presented as a subject for adolescent ogling.

An observation instead of a criticism: I was startled to see how many of the game elements of FFXV were also present in FFX: chocobos; potions names and effects; victory music at the end of combat. It made it clear that the Final Fantasy series has traditions of its own.

Let’s get to the game itself. You get to choose your viewpoint character’s name; the default is “Tidus” but I picked “Artax” (which in retrospect was a mistake). Tidus is a successful Blitzball player in the city of Zanarkand. After a confusing introduction that reminded me a bit of Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2, you find yourself 1000 years in the future. Through a few info dumps, you learn that you’re part of a team of characters whose goal is to defeat the monstrous creature Sin.

There are open-world elements to FFX, but basically it’s a linear story from your arrival in the land of Spira to the final confrontation with Sin. As you engage in combats you gain skills and stats, as is typical games of this genre.

This leads to my first frustration with the game: the Sphere Grid. Instead of the standard skill trees in similar games, the abilities and improvements for your character are unlocked by navigating a visually confusing circular display. As you win combats, you gain different kinds of spheres. You navigate between nodes on this display by gaining “sphere levels”; you activate the nodes by using special spheres dropped by most of the monsters you fight.

Here’s a much better explanation of the system:
https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Sphere_Grid

Even after I understood how to use the Sphere Grid, I had two problems with it. The first is that it was all too easy to “lose your way” among the concentric circles. This cause me to waste sphere levels as I tried to navigate a character’s location on the grid, only to find out that I headed in the wrong direction.

The second problem is that sections of the sphere grid, with more powerful abilities or opportunities to navigate to other characters’ skill sets, are blocked off by “key spheres”. These are extremely rare and do not drop randomly. By the time I stopped playing FFX, I had activated all the characters’ spheres within their areas of the sphere grid. Without the necessary key spheres, I could not improve them further (not even basic stats like hit points). I accumulated sphere levels with no way to spend them.

Another issue I had with FFX was with the difficulty of the late-game boss combat. I played the game in Easy mode (as always), but there are increasingly more combats as you continue with the game that, realistically, can only be won by consulting a hint guide or by failing a lot until you learn the appropriate strategy.

The latter sounds acceptable; after all, someone must have done this before writing a hint guide in the first place. The problem is that the game punishes failure. If you lose a combat, the game is over. You can always restore to the last save point, and there are save points before every major boss combat. But restoring a game forces you to watch a three-minute unskippable cinematic before you can play again.

This means that, without a hint guide, late-game combat becomes “glasschewing”: You lose, spend minutes restoring the game state, fight the boss to the same point as before (which can take several minutes on its own), only to wipe again if you miss some important strategic concept for that battle.

When you reach a stage where only a hint guide can move you forward, you’re not really playing the game anymore; the hint guide is. That’s when I lose interest. Now that I think of it, that’s when I stopped playing FFXV, when I could only progress using hint guides.

But in FFXV, the Uncharted series, the Tomb Raider series, Horizon: Zero Dawn, even God of War, I didn’t need a hint guide to get to the end of the story. I only needed guides for the optional content, though I may not have realized it at the time. FFX required me to have hints to get to the end of the game’s story.

What of that story? My friend was right to say that FFX’s story is better than FFXV’s, without question. The problem is that while the story is better, the writing is awful. In the cutscenes, characters say the same thing over and over again, they repeatedly state plot points that are painfully obvious even to players unfamiliar to any of the conventions of the fantasy genre, and they whine incessantly and repeatedly about the same issues. I’ll give the game credit: both the male and female characters do the same amount of whining.

Perhaps this dialog sounds better in the original Japanese. Or perhaps it’s pitched to a very young audience. I discount the latter, because of the difficulty of the late-state combat and confusion of the Sphere Grid; I don’t think six-year-olds could deal with those game elements.

Or perhaps I’m underestimating six-year-olds. It would not be the first time!

Final (fantasy) verdict: Final Fantasy X served its purpose, to occupy my time during long stretches when I couldn’t move from my easy chair. At $15, it was priced reasonably for a time-waster. But I can’t give the game an enthusiastic recommendation.

Sometime in the next several months Square Enix will release a remake of Final Fantasy VII. Hopefully by then I won’t need time-wasters. Unless the reviews are glowing beyond measure, I don’t plan to visit the Final Fantasy series again.

Painting Miniature Figures

Portions of the following essay, the pictures in particular, have previously appeared in my Facebook feed. If you’ve read those status updates, the only reason to read this blog post is to immerse yourself in my terse, brief, non-repetitive, and direct writing style in order to bask in its brevity.

The incentive

I have games that include miniature figures. Off the top of my head, these include Talisman and Fortune and Glory. I never had any desire or incentive to paint those figures.

  • The figures in the above games are small and lack detail. They have more visual appeal than simple plastic counters, but that’s about it.
  • The above games are not popular with my gaming groups. Talisman is seen to be too simple for a game of its size and length. Fortune and Glory is a “press your luck” game which is not a popular style among strategy gamers.

I purchased Mysthea on the basis of its Kickstarter campaign. I got it for its design and mechanics. I knew it included miniatures, but until I saw them I didn’t realize how much their size and detail screamed “paint me!” A couple of experienced miniature-figure painters posted their work on BoardGameGeek:

By pecktec:

By rulzac

So I knew it could be done. I knew I couldn’t do as good a job as the painters above, or someone who had gained experience by painting entire Warhammer 40K armies, but I hoped for something that looked better than simple gray resin on the colorful Mysthea game board. A discussion on BoardGameGeek gave me an initial direction to follow.

History

I started almost from zero. I had painted some minis in the mid 70s, but they were clumsy attempts. Here’s the only one I still have from those days. I think it’s supposed to be a Kobold.

A Clumsy Kobold

I’m pretty sure I gave all my other painted minis to Daniel Holzman-Tweed in the 80s. I could have sworn I kept some paint and brushes, but I hunted through my various toolkits and craft boxes and found nothing. I probably gave those to Dan as well. Given the crudeness of my painting, I hope he’s thrown out those minis by now.

When I clumsily painted that Kobold (or whatever it is), I was in my teens. My manual dexterity was better than it is now. I also had two working eyes, each one of which had better vision than I do at present. I looked at that little old mini and despaired.

On the other hand, the hobby of painting miniature figures has grown tremendously since the 70s. There are now tools and technologies available that I did not have then. In the 70s, there were no web sites or YouTube tutorials I could consult. I was effectively a n00b, but I could be a better-prepared n00b in 2019 than I could be in 1977.

A disappointing beginning

When I decide to embark on a new project involving something for which I have no skill, I have a strategy that seems appealing and never works: I overspend. I did it when I built the gadget to control my air conditioner via HomeKit, and I did it here. I won’t give any itemized lists, but whenever I describe a dead end you may assume I regard it as money wasted.

My first question: Where to start? As I did my initial research, I learned about the Reaper Learn To Paint Bones Kit. As the name suggests, this was supposed to contain supplies and instructions to teach beginners.

I had a miserable experience with this kit. I won’t detail the problems here, because I have a vague plan to write up a full description for both this blog and for an Amazon review. My first attempt applying a brush to one of the included minis ended badly. I overcame my despair and forced myself to complete the mini, following the instructions as slavishly as I could. Instead of the great-looking mini that I saw in the instruction booklet, I got this:

My conclusion was that I was a clumsy oaf who couldn’t follow directions.

I did not give up, mainly because of YouTube. I had watched a few videos on mini painting. YouTube then added more mini-painting videos to my Recommended list. So I continued to watch instructional videos even after my bad experience with the kit.

I came to understand the problems I had were not entirely due to my physical limitations. The kit had included cheap brushes and had not provided adequate instructions for their care. The included paints needed to be thinned, which had not been mentioned in the instruction booklet at all. For a few weeks after I started working with minis again, I was convinced I couldn’t drybrush; it turned out that the kit taught a drybrushing technique that didn’t work for me, but there were other methods out there.

I still have to give some credit to the Reaper Bones Kit. It provided me with a starting batch of paints which proved useful later in the project. There are painting tips that begin “Use an old junk brush for this” and the brushes in the kit became my junk brushes. The techniques described in the kit (basecoat, wash, drybrush basecoat, drybrush highlight) are important in mini painting, and in time I used a version of them in some places. But I didn’t do it the way the kit taught.

The airbrush

I eventually learned a mini painting technique that worked for me. I’ll describe it in detail below. Before I do that, I want to focus on an important tool for that technique: the airbrush.

I’d played with an airbrush once before, at an informal airbrushing class. The experience was not enlightening. I had not felt I had control over what was going on. Yet I needed an airbrush to shade my minis.

I consulted with my friend (and talented artist) Vann. (If you click on that link, you’ll see human models that he’s both hand- and air-brushed; I found that his advice translated to plastic fantasy miniatures.) After getting his advice and searching on the web, I eventually decided on the PointZero Airbrush Airbrush Kit. Vann agreed that, though cheap, it would be adequate for what I planned to do.

The PointZero kit included a compressor and three airbrushes. It was overkill (or so I thought) since I only needed one airbrush, but the other available kits that had only one airbrush either cost much more or did not include a compressor. To make it clear: an airbrush needs a source of compressed air; you can use a compressor or a tank of compressed air, but an airbrush alone does nothing. The PointZero kit cost $100 and included everything needed, including a regulator for the compressor and a hose to connect it to the airbrush. For a sense of scale, it’s not unusual for a professional to spend $300-$1000 on an airbrush alone.

Despite the difficulties I describe below, I think it was a good purchase. However, I had the luxury of consulting Vann when I got into trouble. Your mileage may vary.

At the same time I ordered the airbrush, I got an airbrush cleaning kit, airbrush cleaning fluid, and airbrush flow improver. All of these proved useful in the project. I also purchased airbrush thinner, but that had a very strong odor and it turned out that I never used it.

As these items arrived in the mail and looked over all the included documentation, I became aware of a peculiar facet of the airbrush world: the instructions include little practical information about the care and use of airbrushes. The PointZero kit included a DVD, but its videos were focused on industrial-level airbrushes. It also included links to instructional PDFs, but they were mostly oriented towards safety and were very generic.

The best advice for airbrushing came in a pamphlet that accompanied the airbrush cleaning kit. But while this gave nice lessons on using the airbrush they contained nothing about how to use the cleaning kit!

In the end, most of the advice on practical use of my airbrush came from Vann, supplemented with a few web sites and YouTube videos.

After using the airbrush a few times I became more safety conscious. Here I am wearing a respirator and safety goggles. They were probably unnecessary, but my health was becoming worse as this project went on and I didn’t want to add to my medical woes.
Prepping for airbrushing

Following Vann’s advice, I set up an airbrushing station on top of my stove. This was not problem for me, since I rarely use it. (I’m a bachelor. I microwave.) The reason for setting up on a stove is that I could turn on the stove’s ventilator fan and blow out any airborne spray from the airbrush.

The first time I airbrushed, I got into trouble. The paint stopped flowing through the brush. I assumed I had a clog. The videos showed users casually disassembling their airbrushes whenever a problem occurred. The airbrush came with a parts schematic, so I went ahead and took it apart. Not only could I not find any clog, but I couldn’t put it back together. I bent the tip of the airbrush’s needle while trying to reassemble the airbrush incorrectly.

I sent a message to Vann, saying that as I predicted I broke the airbrush. He was kind enough to do a Facetime call and guide me. I was lucky: Vann not only had years of experience working with airbrushes but teaching them as well. Thanks to him, I was able to put the airbrush together correctly. He assured me that bent needles are a common event when working with airbrushes, and that he’d seen and worked with needles that were far worse off than mine.

Then, as he offered and I requested, he guided me through a complete disassembly of the airbrush again. It’s common to take an airbrush apart to diagnose problems and to clean it, and we wanted to make sure I knew what to do. Everything was fine until I removed the airbrush sprayer with a custom tiny wrench. When it came to reassembly, I could not screw the sprayer back on again. The sprayer (or nozzle) is s tiny part that I found hard to grip in my fumble fingers.

Vann was patient, staying on the Facetime call with me for something like 45 minutes as I tried to get the sprayer back on, dropping it, finding it with blurry vision, and starting again. Finally we agreed to call it quits. He suggested I ask a mutual friend of ours with airbrush experience to stop by and screw in the sprayer.

The day after the call, I examined the unscrewed sprayer more carefully and compared it with the parts schematic of the airbrush. The reason why I couldn’t screw the sprayer back in again is that I broke it when I originally unscrewed it.

Fortunately, these types of events are also common with airbrushes. I ordered a kit of airbrush replacement parts. The replacement sprayer fit perfectly.

While I waited for the kit to arrive, I continued to airbrush minis using one of the other airbrushes that had come with the PointZero kit. It was smaller than the one I broke so it wouldn’t hold as much paint, but otherwise worked fine. I was careful not to break this one! I was lucky that I’d decided to get a kit with more than one airbrush, otherwise I would have had to (horror of horrors!) wait for the replacement part.

Technique

The chief problem I had when attempting to paint the minis in the Reaper Bones Kit was in painting small areas on the surface of the mini. I simply did not have fine enough brush control. Eventually during the course of the project I got better at it, especially after I understood about thinning the paints, but initially I needed a method that could I could apply without detailed brushing or highlighting.

I settled on technique that I only recently learned is called “pre-shading.” First I applied a zenithal prime to the mini using the airbrush. Then I used a wash to give the mini its overall color.

If you’re not into model painting, I’ve thrown a couple of terms at you that you’re probably not familiar with:

  • “Zenithal priming” is a way to apply paint such that it creates an effect like overhead lighting. Here’s a couple of web pages that describe the technique (1 and 2); a search on “zenithal prime” will fetch many more.

    To summarize: Spray a mini all over with black. Then spray it again, this time in gray, holding the airbrush at a fixed 45° angle. Finally spray the mini with white, but hold the sprayer at a 0° angle with respect to the top of the mini.

  • A “wash” is a very thinned paint. Instead of just sticking to the surface that you apply it to, it’s intentionally designed to flow, depositing inks in the nooks and crannies of the mini. The net effect is to further shade the deeper parts of the mini, and highlight (by contrast) the raised parts.

Here’s an example of the process. These two pictures show one of the minis that came with the Reaper Bones Kit. The one on the left shows the mini zenithal primed. The one on the right shows that same mini washed with a purple tint.


Unfortunately, I did not take a “before” picture of the unpainted mini. It may be hard to tell, but the shading on the mini does not come from my kitchen light, but is imposed by the zenithal priming. Note how the crevices are darker in the washed mini.

Testing

I didn’t want to start painting the Mysthea minis right away. Those minis would be hard to replace, since the publisher does not have any spare parts in stock yet. I therefore tested the technique on the only other minis I had, those from the Reaper Bones Kit. Here’s a test of the red, green, and black washes respectively over zenithal priming.

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I had more wash colors I wanted to test. It would have been better to test on actual minis, but I wanted ones that were big enough for me to practice on any details and didn’t have annoying features like the skeleton’s bow or the orc’s sword that I’d have to paint around. Until I found suitable minis, I used twenty-sided dice instead; I had plenty of them, some dating back to the 70s, and their edges were so worn that I knew I’d never use them again for anything else. Yes, you’re looking at zenithal-primed and shaded D20s.

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You can see in this slideshow that, while painting the minis, I held them with poster tack on the top of old pill containers. I filled the containers with water to give them some heft and keep them from tipping over.

Finally I got some real minis to test on that satisfied my requirements: nice details for painting and drybrushing, not too small for me to handle. I called them my “standard dwarves”. I ordered four of them, and later wished I’d ordered more. Here’s one of my tests with the dwarves, as I compare the effect of different zenithal priming base layers combined with yellow and red washes.

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Even after I started painting the Mysthea minis, the standard dwarves were useful to test combinations of paints. I may buy more dwarves for future projects… or I may keep repainting the ones I’ve got.

Paints

As I noted above, the hobby of model painting has grown considerably since the 70s. I don’t remember what paint I used for that silly Kobold (if that’s what it is), but I probably didn’t have too much of a choice. Now a single manufacturer like Vallejo might have hundreds to choose from, with variations in color, texture, and purpose. I knew I was going to stick with acrylic paints for miniature figures, which doesn’t really narrow the field at all.

I knew the minis had to be primed. “Primer” for models means the same thing as it does in house-painting: an undercoat that helps the paint adhere to the surface. Since I knew I was going zenithal all the minis, I used primer for the purpose. I purchased white, gray, and black primer. You may have noticed in captions for the dwarves above that I experimented with brown primer, but in the end I did not use it.

Some paints had come with the Reaper Bones Kit, and I’d still use them. For the other paints, I decided to go with Vallejo. The general consensus I found that they made good-quality paints at a reasonable price. I only had to purchase red and orange fire; the former because there was no red paint in the Reaper Bones Kit, the latter because I wanted a brighter orange than I could get from mixing red and yellow.

For the washes, I went with Citadel Shade Paints. Citadel is part of Games Workshop. Their paints are designed for their minis (notably Warhammer 40K), but that would have little effect on what I planned to do. I found a great color guide to help me choose which washes to get.

Experts might disagree with my choice of Citadel washes. In general, Citadel paints are considered expensive for what they deliver. Also, it’s not that hard to make your own washes: just add enough water to your paint. But I wanted reproducibility in my shades of wash, and I was willing to pay to get it.

Let’s get to it

There are four classes of minis in Mysthea: Golems, Troops, Monsters, and Champions. The first two are “armies,” with lots of identical units. Each Monster and Champion figure is unique.

The “armies”

I started with the Golems and Troops. There can be up to five players in Mysthea, and each chooses their player color. I wanted to paint the armies in the player colors. I started with the Golems, which were larger and therefore easier to handle. Also, the rocky nature of their design made the washes fill in their details beautifully. For these, I have “before” and “after” photos so you can see the effects of each stage: unpainted, zenithal primed, washed (front and rear).

Golems - unpainted
Golems - zenithal primed
Golems - wash - front
Golems - wash - rear

If you’re sharp of eye and quick of mind, you may wonder: The Mysthea game comes with colored bases, so you can tell which Golem or Troop is assigned to each player. But now the minis have been painted. Why keep the bases on? Answer: Because the minis are hard to remove from the Mysthea box’s trays without those bases. The minis are easier to handle if I paint them then put the bases back on.

Once I painted the 20 Golems (four for each player), it was time to paint the 40 Troops (eight for each player). Here I show examples, with a Golem in the background for a size comparison.

Troops - wash

It was at this point that I finally got a handle on drybrushing, mostly from watching more videos and practicing on the standard dwarves. (The secret is to make the final swipes on your arm, until the paint no longer flows into the cracks of your skin.) I decided to drybrush the backs of all the Golems. However, the effect was barely noticeable. The drybrushed Golem is on the left; original is on the right.

Drybrushi test

I believe what happened is that since the wash left the tips of the rocky surface pretty light in the first place, adding white-based highlights didn’t make much of a difference. As we’ll see, I got better at contrasting highlights by the time I got to the Champions.

The first two Monsters

I knew I wasn’t going to settle for mono-colored (mono-washed?) minis for the Monsters and the Champions. I was going to stick to washes over zenithal prime, but I wanted to paint different regions of each mini with different washes.

If you scroll to the top of this blog post, you’ll see that other Mysthea mini painters made their own color choices. I decided to stick as best I could to choices made by the lead Mysthea artist, Travis Anderson. I started with the Monsters, since the minis were larger and easier to paint.

My first two Monster minis were the ones I felt were the easiest to paint. Kodror is on the left, and Caerulas is on the right.

It wasn’t until I published the Caerulas photo on Facebook that I saw the big seam running along the side of the mini. This was a n00b mistake; all the sites and videos that talks about prepping minis included inspecting the minis for any seams. It was an understandable mistake, though. The Mysthea minis were so detailed that it was hard to notice a manufacturing seam until the washes brought it out.

Could I live with it? I should have, but I didn’t. I bought a miniature file kit, filed down the seam, and repainted the mini from scratch, primer and all.

Caerulas - filed and painted

I later noticed other seams on the minis, always after I’d painted them. Those I let go. None were quite as obvious as the one on Caerulas.

“Over-graying”

This is where I was at this point, with all the Golems, Troops, and two monsters painted, and with all the other minis zenithal primed.

It was then I realized that the depth of the zenithal shading was not as great as it had been on the first few test minis I painted, like the ones you can see near the middle of this post. The more recent minis seemed “over-grayed,” with less black shading or white highlighting visible.

I think there are some related reasons for this:

  • I may have gotten too efficient at airbrushing for my own good. When I was new at airbrushing, it took me longer to switch the brush from black to gray to white paint. Once I reached the point where it took me less than a minute to run cleaner through the airbrush, the paint from the earlier coats may not have had enough time to dry.
  • I may have gotten over-enthusiastic about applying the paint (especially since I only had so much time in each airbrushing session before my eye started aching). I probably applied coats that were too thick, which increased the drying time.
  • Getting the right consistency for the primers was difficult for me. The general rule is that airbrush paints should have the consistency of milk, but I left my lacto-consistency meter in my other pair of pants.

    At least one web site I saw suggested that Vallejo primers are of airbrush consistency right out of the bottle. I was more cautious, and went with primer:water:flow-improver of 10:3:2. Maybe this was too much thinner.

  • Part of the reason why the white highlights were not strong enough may have been that the white primer needed to be thinned more; I was told that this is because the bits of white pigment in acrylic medium are larger than the other colors.
  • To speed things up and to get some consistency between sprayings, I pre-mixed my primers and thinners in squeeze bottles. Here’s how it looked.
    Prepping for priming.jpg
    This means that if I made a mistake in the ratio above, or it encouraged me to speed things up and not let the previous coat dry, that error would persist across multiple airbrush sessions.

I decided that it wasn’t worth trying to reprime all the minis I’d already painted. When I return to mini painting again (see below), I’ll do more tests on my standard dwarves to see if the problem persists.

The rest of the “bosses”

The remaining Monster minis had smaller areas than the first two for me to paint. I dealt with this problem by getting an illuminated headband magnifier [1]. I also improved my toolkit by getting a better set of brushes and a separate drybrush.

Here are all the monsters, in a shot I call “The Merry Mysthea Monster Marching Society” for reasons that only old comics fans will appreciate.
Merry Mysthea Monster Marching Society
Again, you can compare these to the Mysthea Monster artwork to see how close I came.

Working with the larger Monster minis helped me to develop better brush control. As a result, I had some confidence I could work with the smaller Champion minis. Here are two of the best, Anuth (on the left) and Sanya (on the right).

The female Champions offered me an esthetics issue. In the Champion artwork, the females follow the usual fantasy trope of showing more skin than the male figures (because nothing protects from a broadsword blow like a bare midriff). The miniatures follow suit.

Should I have painted over these sections of skin with the same paint I use for the armor? It would have made things easier on me, and it might make the figures look less sexist.

In the end, I decided to go with what the artist originally intended. In part this was because there was some balance: Anuth (see above) has some nice pects and biceps in full view; Celethe shows skin in the artwork but not in the mini.

Here’s the full set, in a shot I call “We Are The Champions!” You can compare these with the Champion artwork [2].
We are the Champions!

Varnish

These minis are not meant for display. They’re meant to be played as part of the board game Mysthea. Here’s an example.
Diorama - side

From a practical standpoint, this means that the players will be handling the minis. I didn’t want them to get their pizza-laden fingers all over my artwork. OK, I’ll admit it: I didn’t want to put my pizza-laden fingers all over the artwork.

The standard solution is to varnish the miniatures. A friend advised me to use satin spray varnish, as a reasonable compromise between a glossy and a matte finish. I purchased a can and prepped the entire collection by using poster tack on cardboard.
Ready for spraying

A couple of days ago as I write this, the temperature was high enough and the humidity low enough for me to take these outside and apply a couple of light coats, two hours apart. Now I’m letting them dry in my kitchen for another couple of days before I put them back in the box, ready to be played.

So what’s next?

Within the next 3-4 months, Tabula Games will release Volfyirion, which I helped to Kickstart. For those willing to pay extra, the game will include a 120mm (4.7″) dragon miniature. If you don’t like to click links:
dragon_0001_2
Before I started this project, there was no way I could have painted this. Now I’m already planning what to do.

In May, Tabula’s follow-up game to Mysthea will begin its Kickstarter campaign. It’s called Icaion. It will have its own set of miniatures. Tabula has already released a few designs, including that of The Colossus.
colossus_squarespace_2

These games are not only interesting to me because of their minis and their mechanics, but also because of the way they fit together. They all share the same world background, but what’s more fun is how the games interact: the Volfyirion dragon can be used in Mysthea; game pieces from Mysthea and Icaion can be combined together to play a third game.

When the time comes, I’ll be ready to paint. I hope my gamer friends will be ready to play.

Footnotes

[1] If you put together the hints I’ve dropped about vision issues, you may ask why I didn’t put this project on hold until my vision improved?

The answer is that this project was meant to occupy my time while I was home-bound due to a different medical issue. I needed to be stubborn and push this through because otherwise I didn’t have much else to occupy my thoughts except binge-watch TV.

Besides, although this project is the basis of one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever written with more pictures than I’ve ever included, it didn’t take all that much time. I worked on it perhaps a total of an hour a day, in 10-15 minute intervals before my eye started aching and I’d have to rest it for an hour or two. Most of my “eye time” was spent working from home which had similar limitations.

So although the project took me about six weeks, the actual total time was probably 40-50 hours, including the time painting over my mistakes.

[2] If you didn’t click on the artwork link: My leaving the skin areas of the Champion minis unpainted was not due to laziness or because I never bought any flesh-tone paint. In the original art, the Champions’ skin is either white or very pale purple. I decided the best way to emulate that was to leave any exposed skin, including the faces, the same color as the zenithal primer.