By Jesse Decker
The Look of the Game
Not long ago, Mike McVey came to Wizards of the Coast to work on Dungeons & Dragons miniatures as a sculptor. A few months, a couple of visa problems, and an almost entirely different job later, he's having a blast as art director for Wizards' entire miniatures line. While Mike art directs other lines, like the miniatures designed for the new edition of the D&D game and for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, D&D Chainmail currently dominates the miniatures team's time. Amid the rush to get rulebooks, models, and packaging material out the door, Mike took some time to share how he got into the hobby, into the industry, and into the country.
Wizards of the Coast: At the time of "All the Small Things," your first interview with us, you were having some problems getting into the country. Everything okay now?
Mike McVey: Yep. I can't say that everything went smoothly, but I'm in the country working now. No one from immigration is going to read this, right?
Wizards: How do you split your time up?
Mike: Right now, I'm totally focused on D&D Chainmail. Everyone on the miniatures team, including the game designers, sculptors, concept artists, painters, and me, is checking and rechecking the entire project, because each piece is either heading or soon to head out the door. There'll obviously be some more proofing stages as the printers and other vendors actually begin to build the physical product, but right now we're in the busiest part of the product cycle.
Wizards: How does the process start?
Mike: Building a miniature obviously starts with a concept. The game designers generated a preliminary list of models for the game. This gives us (the artists) an idea of where to begin designing each figure. Once we've got the basic premise behind the figure such as the creature type, faction, and equipment, the concept artists begin making sketches. As we work through the concepts, the design team, sculptors, and others all give suggestions, pick the best stance for the figure, and make sure that the concepts are accurate. Once the team settles on a look for the figure, the sculptor finally gets to start working.
Wizards: Are there special constraints in working with D&D or D&D Chainmail?
Mike: You bet! It's no secret that D&D's history is practically as long as the history of hobby gaming. With a game this important, there's a way things are expected to look. D&D monsters look and fight certain ways, hundreds of artists have created images for the game, and the fans have really established ideas of how things should look. On top of that, Sam Wood and Todd Lockwood created a very strong vision of what creatures and characters look like in the new edition, and we need to stay true to that vision, too. It helps that Sam Wood does most of our concept art himself, and that everyone working on the art has been immersed in creating fantasy art for years. The challenge, of course, is that while balancing these two concerns, we want to make fresh images and figures. As a miniatures game, D&D Chainmail is ultimately about the figures, and simple renderings of what's already been done aren't going to keep the players' interest.
Wizards: Once the concept is chosen, how is the miniature actually built?
Mike: After the concept is done, the sculptor starts working. We begin with a small wire skeleton to build the figure around and then start building the figure piece by piece using a special epoxy called kneditite. You basically cut off a strip of the epoxy and mix it. Once it's mixed, you've got about two hours of working time before it hardens. I tend to build from the ground up when sculpting a figure, doing feet first and head and face last.
The epoxy we use is commonly just called "green stuff." Once mixed it's green, but beyond that no one used to know what it was. It's primarily used in plumbing, but it's ideal for our purposes, too. When the miniatures industry was first starting to grow, the guy who discovered how well it worked for our purposes wanted to keep it a secret. So he'd order it, remove the packaging, and pay the vendor by himself. Since no one knew what it was, the name "green stuff" just got used. Even once everyone learned what it was, "green stuff" stuck.
Once the sculpture is done, the process is quite industrial. The figures are put between two disks of unvulcanized rubber to make a mold. After a pretty intense baking process, the molds are ready.
Wizards: How long do the molds last?
Mike: For quite a while, but they do have a life expectancy. They're subjected to pretty intense conditions, not the least of which is holding batches of molten pewter. If you see a miniature with lots of flare or imperfections, it's probably been made from an older mold.
Wizards: The new edition of the D&D game has made me more interested than ever in using miniatures in my roleplaying games, and the D&D Chainmail playtests I've participated in have me convinced that I'm about to have a new hobby -- miniatures. So, I'm brand new to painting and collecting miniatures. What do I do?
Mike: Wow, it's been a long time since I thought about the hobby from that perspective. I guess miniatures is like any other part of hobby gaming -- what might seem daunting to the neophyte seems simple after just a few months' worth of involvement.
If you're asking how to paint, there are lots of good resources out there. I write a column in Dragon Magazine called "Role Models" where I describe different painting techniques and cool ways to use miniatures in roleplaying games. I also write a column on the Wizards website called "Paint Like a Pro" that talks strictly about learning how to paint. I'm not the only one who writes about painting, though, and there are lots of good books out there.
If you're asking about how to get into miniatures gaming, that works the same as getting into any other game. Just find a friend and start playing! Wizards will try to make it easy for new players to find opponents by using its extensive organized play programs. One thing that I like about D&D Chainmail is that the barrier to entry is very low -- the warbands are small and the games take less than an hour to play, so it's easy to get set up and start playing.
Go to the D&D Chainmail main news page for more articles and news about the new D&D Chainmail Skirmish Game, coming in October 2001!