Monthly Archives: July 2015

4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s

The media keeps telling us how we, the geeks, have won popular culture. Golfers chat about Game of Thrones at the country club. A minister I know boasted that she was a member of her high school Dungeons & Dragons club. The Return of the King won best picture. Fan culture is everywhere. So we forget that in the early days, when D&D burgeoned by word-of-mouth, no one had seen anything like it.

Of course, little in D&D stands as completely new. The book Playing at the World devotes hundreds pages exploring threads of influence. But in the 70s, unless you joined a tiny cult of miniature gamers interested in fantasy, you would have never seen the game coming. Unless you followed a few, obscure genre authors, you would never have seen anything like it. You shared popular assumptions that D&D would explode.

1. Fantasy is for children and a few oddballs.

Forget the The Lord of the Rings, and then name a work of fantasy that was widely known before D&D. Anything you name is a fairytale or fable—something for children. Conan? He’s a comic book character. Every grown up knows comics are for children. Now consider The Lord of the Rings. It enjoyed enough popularity to get cited by Led Zeppelin and some other long hairs, but when Hollywood tried to trade on its popularity, they added musical numbers. Hollywood did not think they could reach a big enough audience of oddballs, so they adapted for children.

In making the 1978 movie Superman, the producers needed adults to see a movie about what they saw as a children’s character. Imagine marketing a Thomas the Tank Engine film to adults. To free grown ups from the embarrassment of buying tickets, they gave a fortune to Important Actor Marlon Brando. For 15 minutes of screen time, Brando received $3.7 million up front, plus 11.75% of the film’s take, right off the top. The film’s marketing rested heavily on the actor’s performance. All so grown ups could gain an excuse to see the movie on date night.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N. A game where trolls lived in dungeons and refused to die. The original Monster Manual revealed beholders, mind flayers, chromatic dragons and countless other dreadful wonders that filled me with excitement.

The public’s unfamiliarity with fantasy contributed to the panic that surrounded D&D in the 80s. God fearing adults saw their teenagers obsessed with spells and children’s fairy tale nonsense, but darker and more violent. They settled on the only logical explanation, demon worship, because the culprit could not possibly be a really fun game.

Meanwhile, I worked to find the books named in The Dragon’s Giants in the Earth column and later in Appendix N. I found none. Admittedly, I suffered the disadvantage of shopping from a mall bookstore. I knew nothing of used book stores or inter-library loan. Nonetheless, few of Gary’s inspirations remained in print. Today, fantasy books of all stripes crowd the shelves. Then, I took years to collect the books that inspired the game.

2. Games are terrible.

In the 70s, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. The winner becomes obvious long before the end, yet they took forever to finish. Games covered prosaic subjects like Life and Payday, or financial wish-fulfillment like Monopoly or, well, Payday. Still, I liked games enough that I even played terrible ones endlessly. (Except, of course, for Monopoly, which I suspect Hasbro makes to convince millions that games are tedious. I cannot fathom their plot’s endgame.) My standards were so low that I liked the 1974 game Prize Property where you launched legal actions against your opponents to stall their building developments. Legal actions. The box claimed fun for ages 9 and up.

People suffered from narrow ideas about what a game could be. Someone wins, someone loses, the game never extends past the board and never continues after you close the box.

Before I saw D&D, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. Working from a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch, I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetSo in a mere 48 pages, the Holmes Basic D&D rule book shattered my notion of what a game could be.

Later, when I described the new game, everyone asked the same questions: “How do you win?” and then, “if you can’t win, what’s the point?” Everyone struggled to grasp the notion that you played to have fun without any chance of winning. For more, see “But how do you win?

3. Adults cannot play act a role.

People sometimes say that D&D did not invent the role-playing game. Kids have always role played; we just called it make believe. Saying that D&D just brought make believe to adults misses the true innovations. The revolution came from playing a character with stats that carried to the next session, and from the idea that characters gained experience and improved. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. The combination proved so compelling that just about every computer role-playing game borrows it.

For more, see “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

Meanwhile, parents feared that playing a role in D&D would lead their children to confuse fantasy with reality. After all, wasn’t anyone old enough for such a complicated game too old for make believe? Kids talked about being a wizard or a thief and responsible citizens worried that kids believed it. The D&D panic stemmed as much from this unfamiliar blurring of reality as from spells and demons.

4. Dungeons are just medieval jails.

Zombies and vampires appear everywhere in popular culture. Both archetypes seem medieval, but the popular conception of zombies only dates back to George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

The concept of a dungeon as an underground sprawl with monsters and treasures, is even newer.

In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.

Now, the dungeon adventure qualifies as a trope that appears in virtually every computer fantasy game.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

In my world before D&D, games gave the fun of launching legal action against fellow real estate developers. When I opened the basic rules, I could brave the peril and mystery of the dungeon shown in the Stone Mountain cross section. Still today, no image inspires my enthusiasm to play as much. I jumped from property law to Greyhawk.

For more, see “From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons: The invention of the dungeon crawl.”

By the end of the 70s, fandom had yet to dominate popular culture, but Star Wars and Superman and Dungeons & Dragons had established a beachhead. The gains would only continue.

For me, the 48 pages of the 1977 Basic Set did more than introduce the best game in the world, those pages turned some of what I understood upside down.

Building a miniature collection on a budget from the most useful figures

Miniatures offer plenty of visual appear, but the task of collecting enough figures for play can seem overwhelming. Fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder include hundreds of monsters, and then most encounters require duplicates.

Despite all the possible monsters, you can add miniatures to many encounters by collecting figures for a few, common foes. For the price of grand, expensive figures like Tiamat and Orcus, you can collect enough cheap figures to power about a third of your encounters.

Unless you want to adopt a new hobby painting miniatures, I suggest building your collection with plastic, pre-painted miniatures.

Not all miniatures paint as quickly as these slimes from Reaper

Not all miniatures paint as quickly as these slimes from Reaper

Instead of opening random boxes, buy your collection as singles on the secondary market. The secondary vendors open cases to chase rares that command high prices, then they sell the dull commons at reasonable prices. You may never play that pricey chimera or balor, but that kobold will see plenty of time on the table.

A few types of enemies appear very frequently in fantasy adventures, so you can fill lots of encounters with just a few figures. The most-played figures represent evil humans and a few low-level foes. In “11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I offered a list that included many of these. For this post, I present an updated list of the most useful types of miniatures.


Human Thug - Harbinger 47

Human Thug – Harbinger 47

The most useful figure of all can appear as a thug or bandit in countless encounters. These types typically carry a simple bludgeon. My favorite tough guy appeared as the Human Thug in the Harbinger miniatures set. The thug’s shiny, expensive armor doesn’t suit a ruffian with a club, but until someone makes a bandit who spends less time polishing, I’ll keep packing these figures with my dice.


Human Rogue - Heroes and Monsters 16

Human Rogue – Heroes and Monsters 16

Not every criminal element favors blunt-force trauma. For thieves and assassins who prefer knives, I like the Human Rogue. Perfect for an encounter it a dark alley.


As soon as the adventure reaches the water, the thugs become pirates. For years I relied on the Cloudreaver for the swabbies and the Defiant Rake for commanders. The Pathfinder Skull & Shackles miniature set brought and abundance of pirate riches. Pirates appear so often that all these figures find a role on the table.

Cloudreaver - War of the Dragon Queen 44

Cloudreaver – War of the Dragon Queen 44

Defiant Rake - Dungeons of Dread 43

Defiant Rake – Dungeons of Dread 43

Pirate Smuggler - Skull & Shackles 14

Pirate Smuggler – Skull & Shackles 14

Pirate Sailor - Skull & Shackles 13

Pirate Sailor – Skull & Shackles 13

Tessa Fairwind - Skull & Shackles 24

Tessa Fairwind – Skull & Shackles 24

Arronax Endymion - Skull & Shackles 27

Arronax Endymion – Skull & Shackles 27


Every tyrant and corrupt official needs guards to keep power, so PCs will tangle with soldiers almost as often as thugs. In fourth edition, the typical guard wielded a halberd, making the Human Town Guard a fit. For a sword-wielding version, I favor the Watch Officer.

Human Town Guard - Lords of Madness 22

Human Town Guard – Lords of Madness 22

Watch Officer - Heroes & Monsters 9

Watch Officer – Heroes & Monsters 9

Wise soldiers shoot from the walls, so I wish some figures looked like a uniformed guard aiming a ranged weapon. The Cleric of Syreth fits best; he just seems a bit too fancy. The Human Ranger also fits, although he seems a bit too woodsy.

Cleric of Syreth - War of the Dragon Queen 3

Cleric of Syreth – War of the Dragon Queen 3

Human Ranger - Heroes and Monsters 17

Human Ranger – Heroes and Monsters 17

Skeletons and Zombies

In the early days of dungeon adventures, no one worried about how dungeon dwellers reached food or water or an exit. Now if you stock a room with a dragon who is too big for the doors, you will lose your game master’s card—after your players stop laughing at you. This leads dungeon builders to fill rooms with creatures that survive on nothing.

Skeletons and zombies make a perfect threat for a sealed dungeon, so they appear constantly. The Harbinger set included my favorite zombie. Its posture suggests a shambling gait and its exposed gut looks suitably gruesome.

The skeletons guarding some ancient crypt shouldn’t sport polished armor, so I like the unarmored, Boneshard Skeleton. Skeletal Archers balance encounters with ranged attackers.

Zombie - Harbinger 58

Zombie –
Harbinger 58

Boneshard Skeleton - Desert of Desolation 39

Boneshard Skeleton – Desert of Desolation 39

Skeletal Archer - Angelfire 50

Skeletal Archer –
Angelfire 50


To dungeon designers, elementals and undead provide the same advantage: Neither type needs food. Elementals appear frequently because they pair interesting attacks with evocative flavor, plus they work at many power levels.

The first medium-sized elemental figures came molded in opaque plastic. The earth elemental looks like a brown Thing. Although the water and fire elementals hardly look wet or fiery, they’re recognizable. The slate-gray air elemental looks like a melting fish-man. It ranks as the worst D&D miniature ever.

Earth Elemental - Heroscape

Earth Elemental –

Medium Air Elemental - Dragoneye 23

Medium Air Elemental – Dragoneye 23

Later, the Heroscape game redid these air, fire, and water elementals in translucent plastic. Three of these figures became favorites. No other water elemental looks as wet; no other fire elemental as hot. Sadly, cloudy plastic fails to redeem the melting fish-man. The Heroscape bases are too big to fit a 1 inch squares, so I snapped the figures off and glued them on smaller bases. Alas, Heroscape ended production years ago.

Water Elemental - Heroscape

Water Elemental – Heroscape

Fire Elemental - Heroscape

Fire Elemental – Heroscape

Air Elemental - Heroscape

Air Elemental –

For medium elementals, look to the Pathfinder Battles Shattered Star miniature set. The fifth-edition Monster Manual only presents stats for large elementals. The Pathfinder elementals stand tall enough to double as large, or buy large figures in the Elemental Evil set.

Air Elemental - Shattered Star 10

Medium Air Elemental – Shattered Star 10

Medium Water Elemental - Shattered Star 15

Medium Water Elemental – Shattered Star 15

Fire Elemental - Elemental Evil 28

Fire Elemental (large) – Elemental Evil 28

Shardstorm Vortex - Savage Encounters 32

Shardstorm Vortex – Savage Encounters 32

Ideally, I want a medium air elemental that looks like a whirlwind and can double as a spell effect. The Shardstorm Vortex comes close except for the dirty wash representing shards of stone.

Dungeon Vermin

In a fantasy game world, rats, snakes, and spiders make a common foe. Dungeon designers can add them without food-chain questions. Unlike charismatic beasts like wolves, no players want to befriend them.

So far, no rat figure earns my endorsement. The D&D miniatures line hasn’t produced a rat that looks much like a rat. Meanwhile, the Pathfinder Dire Rat towers over halflings and goblins.

Diseased Dire Rat - War of the Dragon Queen 28

Diseased Dire Rat – War of the Dragon Queen 28

Venomous Snake - Heroes & Monsters 14

Venomous Snake – Heroes & Monsters 14

The Pathfinder line produced my favorite serpent, the Venomous Snake. For spiders, I like the Deathjump Spider despite its budget paint scheme. The Wolf Spider offers more color.

Deathjump Spider - Dungeons of Dread 54

Deathjump Spider – Dungeons of Dread 54

Wolf Spider - Elemental Evil 8

Wolf Spider –
Elemental Evil 8

Corporeal Undead

Terror Wight - War Drums 41

Terror Wight – War Drums 41

How do you tell the difference between a ghoul and a wight? To me, they all look like angry dead things. One figure can fit ghouls, wights, and similar creatures. My favorite angry dead thing appeared as the Terror Wight. The Castle Ravenloft board game even made this sculpt a zombie, so it can play hungry or angry.

Incorporeal Undead

Lurking Wraith - Against the Giants 51

Lurking Wraith – Against the Giants 51

How do you spot the difference between a ghost, wraith, phantom, specter, apparition, haunt, or other incorporeal undead? You flip the miniature and read the base. My favorite phantom is the Lurking Wraith figure, which ranks as the absolute best D&D miniature figure ever produced. Not only does the translucent figure look great, but it works in numerous encounters at every level. Plus, the sculptor gave the figure a neutral expression, so it can appear as a friendly ghost without provoking an immediate attack.

Evil Spellcaster

Grim Necromancer - Deathknell 36

Grim Necromancer – Deathknell 36

Plenty of miniature sets feature lichs and other evil wizards, but more adventures include evil spellcasters that rank below dark lord. I want them to look evil, but without skeletal faces, crowns, and so on. So I like how the Grim Necromancer looks nasty without appearing poised to explain his plan to kill you all. Bwa-ha-ha-ha.


After Horde of the Dragon Queen and Princes of the Apacolypse, I’m ready for a 5-year break from evil cults. Nonetheless, someone has to join the ritual to free the demon god. Plus cultist figures can double as wicked spellcasters. The detail painted on the face of the Blood of Vol Cultist caught my eye. Someone at the factory should have gone to art school.

Doomdreamer - Legendary Evils 11

Doomdreamer – Legendary Evils 11

Cultist of the Dragon - Archfiends 48

Cultist of the Dragon – Archfiends 48

Blood of Vol Cultist - Blood War 29

Blood of Vol Cultist – Blood War 29

Black Knight

Dread Guard - Archfiends 31

Dread Guard – Archfiends 31

Not every evil mastermind goes to wizard school, so adventures often feature black-knight types. According to an online retailer, the Dread Guard ranks as the most popular figure in the Archfiends set.

Goblins and Kobolds

Most D&D games get played at the lower levels, which tend to limit DMs to pitting players against goblins or kobolds. For instance, the 4E and 5E introductory adventures featured goblins, while Horde of the Dragon Queen opted for kobolds. I suggest stocking both races of evil humanoids, and getting a mix of ranged and melee figures. They’re cheap. Pathfinder GMs should select the game’s distinctive goblins. For D&D, the Goblin Sharpshooter and Goblin Cutter look best. I like the Kobold Slinger, but I have yet to see a definitive kobold melee figure.

Goblin Cutter - Legendary Evils 23

Goblin Cutter – Legendary Evils 23

Goblin Sharpshooter - Dangerous Delves 22

Goblin Sharpshooter – Dangerous Delves 22

Kobold Slinger - Lords of Madness 27

Kobold Slinger – Lords of Madness 27

Inessential figures

In “11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I listed 3 figures that no longer seem to rate as essential.

Animated statue

I wrote: I love to toy with players’ metagame expectations. Every D&D player knows that statues invariably come to life and attack-at least when they have a miniature on the map. So whenever a statue appears on a map, I drop a statue or gargoyle figure on top of it. Inevitably, the players edge nervously around the potential hazard. It never ceases to amuse me. Does that make me a mean DM?

In practice, animated statures appear less often than players fear, and most come in large size. On the other hand, gargoyles see nearly enough play to merit a place on the list of most useful figures.

Animated Statue - Desert of Desolation 2

Animated Statue – Desert of Desolation 2

Earth Element Gargoyle - Blood War 48

Earth Element Gargoyle – Blood War 48

Gargoyle - Dragoneye 52

Gargoyle –
Dragoneye 52

Elf Warmage

Elf Warmage - Blood War 5

Elf Warmage – Blood War 5

I wrote: I always carry a few miniatures suitable for player characters that I can loan out. Players borrow this Elf Warmage more than any other figure. Plus, she often finds work as a patron, bystander, or fey villain.

I still loan out the Elf Warmage and other figures for PCs, but I limited this post to foes.

Guard Drake

With the end of the Dragon Queen storyline, I expect drakes to see much less play. However, the Tyranny of Dragons set offers a Guard Drake that looks imposing. Earlier drakes looked like a pet for the Flintstones.

Guard Drake - Tyranny of Dragons 22

Guard Drake – Tyranny of Dragons 22

Guard Drake - Demonweb 48

Guard Drake –
Demonweb 48