Monday, 25 June 2018

From hoard to horde

What's the difference between a zombie and a skeleton?

Let me expand upon this to say I'm talking about the kind of zombie and skeleton hordes found in fantasy, undead tropes. Not Haitian zombies and not real-life skeletons (buried in the ground, or hanging on frames in medical labs, or living unassuming lives hidden inside someone's body).

No, I'm talking about the flesh-eating zombies of the horror genre and the re-animated skeletons of films like Jason and the Argonauts.

Strangely, the answer to this question, although immediately obvious for any casual fan of this kind of thing, doesn't really stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

Zombies tend to be wild, mindless beasts, incapable of wielding any kind of tool or weapon, yet driven to horrific acts of violence by an insatiable hunger for human beings, whereas skeletons are usually clinical echoes of their former selves, re-animated to perform certain acts from their previous lives, often with great skill.

But does that really make sense? Surely the difference should merely be one of decomposition? The skin on a skeleton has mostly rotted away, whereas zombies still have some of theirs.

Of course this can probably be argued, ad infinitum, to be dependent upon the process and act of re-animation. Have zombies come back to life because of some strange virus? Are the skeletons held in thrall by the magical mind of a necromancer? That kind of thing.

For me, one of the best, most rational* descriptions of zombies and skeletons comes from a book I only finished reading a couple of months ago. It was Dan Abnett's The Magos (which I mentioned here too). In it the re-animated dead come in various forms, but those with no muscle or sinew are slower and more cumbersome, because magic has to do all the work, whereas, the more recently dead are still held together quite well, so the magic can concentrate on getting the other jobs done.

At least, that was my take on it.

I think for the purposes of my gaming collection I have fallen somewhere in the middle. Zombies and skeletons are very similar, at different stages of decomposition, but it is not necessarily this that determines their level of awareness. I like the idea that one skeleton might be little more that a shambling pile of bones, whereas the next could be a right dangerous creep, running at you with axes swinging. I guess the slower ones would naturally fall behind and form a unit of 'zombies', whereas the more warrior-like characters would likely form up to create a unit of, er, well, warriors.

And that leads me neatly on to why I'm going on about this in the first place.

It's because of my kitbasher's love of blurring the lines between unit types in Warhammer and Warhamer 40,000. The whole thing can be summed up, simply by saying I wanted some of the skeletons in my Undead force to have the odd remnant of flesh and occasional scrap of clothing clinging to their otherwise bare bones.

I tried to achieve this by starting with Citadel's original skeleton plastics and mixing in a hoard of parts from the Chaos Warriors, Zombie Regiment, and Beastmen sprues (plus any other one-off bits 'n' pieces, that looked vaguely right, that happened to be in my line of sight at the time).

One of the biggest problems with this approach turned out to be the scale. The plastic skeletons seemed visibly smaller than most of the other parts I was planning on using, and this prevented me from freely mixing and matching. Everything had to be carefully considered, with lots of parts needing to be shaved or cut down. I don't mind if one or two characters are bigger than the others – you see this in life too – but a tiny person with giant arms hanging below his knees can look a little silly.

Another unexpected issue was to do with their skulls. I had planned to use a few Zombie heads, but the scale thing really scuppered this, and I found myself a little short of the requisite numbers. I ended up having to repurpose one or two skulls from other places, where the level of detail probably wasn't quite high enough.

And finally, the eagle-eyed will notice there are three miniatures above that didn't start life (or undeath) as Citadel plastics. The first was a really old metal skeleton reaper. Its pose was very static, and its robes pristine, so I used Green Stuff in an attempt to add a little movement and deterioration to it. The second was the final Deadman of Dunharrow miniature with a head swap (see my previous entry), and the third was a plastic Mantic Ghoul, with an arm swap.

All that's left now is to paint them. With a little luck (and a lot of commitment) there'll be more on that next month.

*If you're thinking what I'm thinking, then I agree. Rational is not a word that has much place when you're playing make-believe. However, that said, any story should always have its underlying logic stand up to a little gentle probing. If it all comes crashing down at the slightest provocation, then it's no better than a liquid metal robot being able to use a time travel machine that's only supposed to work on organic matter. Or a landing party of cutting-edge research scientists taking off their helmets on a hostile planet, simply because they detect some oxygen. Or alien invaders who are fatally allergic to water, attacking a planet that is predominantly water, and deciding the best way to do it would be if they were naked**.
**I can feel a whole new article coming on.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Bones brigade

About a month ago I mentioned my plan to paint up a bunch of old skeleton miniatures that I still had from my childhood. I decided the first batch would include most of the metal infantry figures, plus a couple of plastic test models for the next batch. Some of the metal models were, ahem, 'bona fide' skeleton models, while the rest were from other Citadel ranges, that I had roughly converted about a decade ago (mainly by decapitating them and grafting on a plastic skull head instead).

This left me with quite a mixed selection of characters, with very little coherency from one model to the next (other than the fact they were all Undead, of course). But this was exactly what I was after.

I love the idea that each model in my collection is an individual. There are no indistinguishable troops, faceless and identical to each other – even when talking about skeletons whose faces have literally rotted away. Every single warrior in a battleline will have had an entire life stretching out behind them before they got to that moment. And with the Undead they'll have had a death or two thrown in for good measure.

This concept of individuality has been with me since my earliest days in this hobby, and was probably fuelled by the fact that in the 1980s most purchases of miniatures were in blister form – where you built a unit by buying three or four unique warriors at a go.

The official photography of the time reflected that, and nowhere was it more apparent than the wonderful, sprawling dioramas occasionally found in Games Workshop publications.

With the Undead there was a particular diorama that imprinted itself on my young mind. I think it was first seen in the Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd edition book (released in 1987), having been painstakingly created by the now infamous John Blanche, Games Workshop's director of art.

Stretching across a double page spread we got to see what looked like hundreds of Undead troops rambling towards a Dwarven stronghold in the mountains. The Undead warband was comprised of skeletons, ghouls, zombies, wraiths and other strange and fantastic creatures, all in various stages of decomposition and clearly meant to be possessed of different levels of free will.

As far as I can tell this incredible diorama is now on display at Warhammer World. But if you can't get there to see it in person, there are some decent pictures to be found online. You can see a good few of them at either Orlygg Jafnakol's Realm Of Chaos 80s blog here or Steve Casey's Eldritch Epistles blog here.

Anyway, as a young boy, when I first saw that shambolic horde of re-animated corpses, I really wanted to create a tabletop army equivalent. And now, as a middle aged manchild, my Addiction Challenge seems like a good excuse to, ahem, bring the idea back to life.

So in this post let me present the next twelve warriors in my Undead warband.

In the above photo the character on the left was a head swap on a miniature from the old Men At Arms range, the middle one was a regular skeleton warrior (perhaps released a little later than most of the others shown here), and the one on the right was part of the Skeleton Command Group selection.

The next three include another Skeleton Command Group miniature, a head-swapped Deadman of Dunharrow from the original Lord of the Rings range, and a plastic Skeleton Horde miniature given arms from the plastic Zombie Regiment.

Here we have another Skeleton Command Group member, a zombie of some kind, and a converted Paladin.

And finally, the above three miniatures include the Skeleton Horde conversion that I showed last month, the final Skeleton Command Group miniature and another Lord of the Rings Deadman of Dunharrow (whose head seems to have been replicated on the top of the banner next to him).

So that's twelve new miniatures to subtract from my Addiction Challenge. But before I show you the score, here's a group shot of my completed Undead warriors so far.