Category Archives: Miniatures

To Give a Dwarf, (or A halfling’s guide to carving decoys).

“All dwarfs have beards and wear up to twelve layers of clothing. Gender is more or less optional.” ― Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

After what seemed a lengthy hiatus, I got the chance to run another game for my other group who are relatively new players. The occasion coincided with the birthday of one of the players, so cake and ice cream was as much a part of the festivities as dice and character sheets.

Having known of this with a respectable amount of time in advance, I decided to wait until nearly the last minute to start work on the birthday present. Yet to be fair, the inspiration hit me late in the game, so to speak. There’s always a long margin to consider in sculpting minis, especially with epoxy putty. It takes at least 4 hours before you can fiddle with green stuff without deforming it, give or take some time depending on the temperature. So each stage is likely to eat up a good part of the day. This guy took about three days to sculpt with one day in the interim where I didn’t touch it.

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I finished painting this guy with only a matter of hours before the event, which granted me some well earned sleep before I boxed him up. I managed to snap a few pics after he was done. Here hes standing on the map I made along with some of the 3D map icons I made for the session, but more on that in another post.

This figure had some new elements which took me out of my comfort zone. The axe head and the shield were made from miliput where usually I sculpt from green stuff (kneadatite). While green stuff is great for organic shapes, it’s less than stellar for shapes with hard edges. Believe it or not I used to carve weapons out of materials like wood or plastic, and to my mind, they’re still viable options as they turned out fairly decent. This time though I went with the orthodox method of making the rough shape out of miliput then sanding and carving the shapes down to what I wanted them to look like. The reason a putty like milliput works better is because it doesn’t cure rubbery. It cures hard with the consistency of ceramic which lets you drill or sand it down.
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The second issue was the cloak. I hate sculpting cloaks. They have their up sides. They cover up a lot of detail you don’t have to sculpt onto the back side of the mini, and they generally look cool. You can get a dynamic pose by having the cloak being wind tossed and so forth. But sculpting cloaks require a base piece sculpted on a greased poly bag (clear plastic bag) and then glued carefully to the mini, then having layer after layer sculpted on the base piece, and having a ton of back fill packed into the voids so the mini is one solid piece rather than a mini with a rubbery cape. The difficulty lies in the patience it requires to wait for each step to cure, and to get the folds of the cloak, robe, or cape to look right and to look smooth like hanging cloth.

Anyway, in spite of my sculpting shortfalls and learning curve, the recipient was delighted. Holkvir, the one eyed gold dwarf mercenary was its own, one of a kind, miniature.

 

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Brain Dogs

“It’s literally a brain on legs.”
-Bex Shea

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Intellect devourers are one of those rarely used monsters that come up maybe once every other campaign. They have a long pedigree that stretches back to the early years of D&D. And they straddle that fine line between the goofy and terrifying hemispheres of monsterdom.

You have to go back to 1976 to the Eldrich Wizardry supplement for the original D&D game to see the genesis of these bizarre beasts. They have enough presence in the game to make it on the 1st Edition (AD&D) Monster Manual one year later.  The backstory connects these things to Mind Flayers, or Illithids if you prefer.

It seems Garry Gygax and friends took a look at the squid faced illithids and thought “You know, these guys need a pet.” So the idea was a dark ritual where illithids transform a victim’s brain into nasty little beast that destroys people’s minds and replaces their brains in order to masquerade as their victim and lure even more tasty brains in time for illithid brunch. It’s the illithid pyramid scheme.

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Making these buggers was easier than I expected. There’s not much putty involved. It’s all in the armature. You can pretty much pump these out with a couple hours’ work. There is a couple of design options for sculpting one. Some illustrations show a brain with arms and legs sticking out of it. Some feature dog bodies with brain heads and other concepts have even weirder designs.

My first impressions come from the 2e Illustrations which type, but strangely the body or legs were depicted dark blue.

Personally, as nostalgic as I am, I dig the 5e look.

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So, with this in mind, I got the following results.

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Zombification

“Zombies no, banshees neither, but shades, spectres, and doppelgangers are OK.”
A response by “im pooping” in the Something Awful.com forums to the question “Would you have sex with a zombie or a ghost?”

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OK, I may not be the greatest sculptor around, but it feels like my skills are starting to improve, even if ever so slightly. Zombies are one of those miniatures you can never have enough of. There’s always this still silent whisper in the back of my mind saying “you should learn how to cast a mold and mass produce this stuff.” But then I wouldn’t have all these one of a kind game pieces would I? It would sort of put it in the category of “Limited Edition”, but I digress.

It has been a few months since I mixed up a batch of green stuff, so I wanted to ease back in to it with a couple of simple projects. You never just sculpt one thing unless you have incredible patience since it takes so long to cure after each new application, so I made a couple of intellect devourers on the side, which I’ll be posting here shortly.

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This poor guy is actually the first anthropomorphic (human like) mini I sculpted entirely from Green Stuff aka. Kneaditite. I love this medium, even if many don’t use it for the whole sculpt anymore. It just has the right amount of stickiness and spreads so easily. I’m able to come up with better looking proportions without as much effort, and it takes an infinite amount of detail.

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If there’s one lesson that got reinforced in this sculpt, it’s the need to make a “manikin” head or a blank head that’s a tad smaller than the finished look and letting that cure, so you can apply putty and sculpt on it without deforming the basic head shape. I think I sculpted the head and face twice before I remembered that technique.

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Now to fix a few details, get some paint on him, and base him. He’ll be all set to shamble after some players for those nice juicy brains!

 

“Have you thought of a human-skin rug? That would be so cool in certain very devious and evil lairs.”
-A posting in a Dwarven Forge forum

10440889_829995183736893_30475396273261182_n (1)So my dungeons have been looking pretty sparse lately. Sadly, these little projects are the most fiddly and time consuming so they merely trickle into my collection from the craft table. Here is a smattering of scale goodies to make my tabletop environments appear lived in.
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No crossroads or gatehouse entrance is complete without a bona-fide crow’s cage! If I had this one to do over, I’d have made the frame a “T” and put another cage on the opposite side. The main design flaw on this one is that its balance is a bit touchy, hence all the stones and gravel on the base.

I used square dowels for the frame of course, set on a metal washer with a tiny chain I picked up at a big box store in the DIY jewelry section. The cage is thin strips of cereal box cardstock painstakingly glued together in a grid and trimmed, then glued into a cylinder.

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I traced out the diameter of the bottom, and using hot glue, I applied some texture that I painted to suggest straw. Finally, I sculpted a teeny skull from Pro Create putty to glue in there. Then I glued the base to the cage. It’s worth noting that the cardstock technique for cage frames is best done with PVA or white glue, or Elmer’s glue, whatever you call it. This requires a bit of patience. At each joint, I used a little alligator clamp to bond them together. Hot glue is fast and all, but it makes for an ugly finish.

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Doors are a thing that are absolutely essential, yet I’m never satisfied with them. Over the years, I’ve used computer printouts on cardstock with plastic bases, and they’ve served me pretty well. But what keeps me up at night is the thought that there has to be an easy and cheap way of representing entrances and exits that look better than what I’m using. This prototype is my stab at that goal. This door is largely inspired by DM Scotty, but where his doors are openable, this one is static.

While I like the aesthetic, I’m agonizing over a number issues with it. Namely, compatibility with future systems, whether or not it should open, and ease and speed of production.
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As far as production goes, little is more tedious than making bookshelves. Yet no dungeon is complete without them. Monsters get bored waiting for PCs to smite them, they gotta have something to read, right?

Bookshelves and books are a pretty standard craft, and well explained elsewhere.

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And as far as pastimes goes, here’s a fun bit of furniture. It’s cool and all, but still think it’s missing something. Perhaps a better paint job. Anyway, this was a great use for some of those gear beads I found, and the shackles are pony beads of the very small variety. The rope is actually twisted wire.

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And if that’s not comfortable enough for ya, you could try out these beds. I am seriously happy with how these turned out. the down side is waiting for all that glue to dry.

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You might have seen a table like this posted among my stuff before. I picked up this trick, again, from the DM’s Craft. You can make a bunch of blank tables with table top veneers that have different settings on them without having to make a million different tables and without having to painstakingly set each table with tiny goodies.

The cups and candles are beads. The fruit and bowl and what-have-ya are made from Fimo polymer clay.

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When you’re not using your goodies, you have to store them. I can’t have enough barrels and crates. Sadly, barrels are hard to make at this scale. But I manage with dowels cut and sanded to shape with cardstock banding. the little cage is made from craft sticks and toothpicks.

This is just a start. I’ve got loads more to make and they’re not going to make themselves, so I’ll leave ya there and get crackin’!

 

Mini Menagerie

“There’s no way there can be that many ogres. I know for a fact he’s only got two minis for ’em.”

Well it’s been a bit, but here’s a glimpse at some stuff I’ve sculpted. A couple of these I’ve featured in several posts and pictures previously, but I thought I’d put them together in one gallery.

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You’ve all seen this one. I modeled it off from an old Forgotten Realms Book of Lairs cover by  Larry Elmore.

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This was the first miniature I sculpted. I hope I’ve learned a few things since. There’s not much call for tavern specific minis, unless you have a lot of fights break out in the tap room. I try to keep them down to a memorable few. Of course they help with the need for urban  bystander minis in a pinch.

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Speaking of urban bystanders, here’s an angry peasant. I got the harshest criticism on the peasants I made, so I rarely bring them to the table. I wasn’t really going for the master piece here, just a rough and ready hoodlum mini instead of a stand-in.

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Here’s everyone’s favorite blood sucking bat-mosquitos…stirges!  These minis can be difficult to get your hands on, and secondary markets can be pricey. Thankfully, these guys aren’t too difficult to whip up. Thing is you wind up needing dozens of these buggers.

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Here’s a poor pig farmer being harassed by a couple stirges. The farmer is a WotC mini.

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Here’s my half orc barbarian, just because. This one is sporting a severed elf head handbag.

 

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The axe was an exercise in problem solving. Procreate isn’t the best material for the cure and sand method for making non organic shapes, but that’s all I had at that point. So I carved an axe blade from a small scrap of wood. Wood that small wants to split by the way. Needless to say, it took several tries.

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This is the swashbuckler I’ve featured in a couple of places. The thing on his back is the little lute I carved out of wood blue tacked to his back since I needed a bard NPC for one of my games recently.

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Below is my paladin of Torm. This was my intro to armored mini sculpting. Proportions kinda got away from me here.

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This is, once again, a previously viewed mini. You wouldn’t believe how often you need just a simple friar in a scene. He’s been described as “derpey.” I won’t disagree.

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And now for a couple of monsters. This ogre made it’s appearance on my Facebook page a while back, but it’s here for continuity. This was a Super Sculpey build on a two inch washer.

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Here’s the Ogre Savage I modeled him from in a side by side shot. My ogre is a bit on the big side, but then few of us are exactly the same in nature.

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Finally, here’s a fire archon I made. They’re sorta like elementals, and it can work for one in a pinch. Here’s a couple angles.

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So now we’re mostly caught up with the slow pace of productivity. I’ve been, aside from running games, been spending my talents on terrain building, but that’s material for another post.

 

Off the Grid and the Tabletop Craft Renaissance

“HUGE … tracts of land you say? Now we’re talking!”

164989_482341861835562_1308677549_nGridless gaming is one of those anxiety inducing notions. But I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while now. The power of the grid is quite seductive. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. It’s a universal game element that’s easy to understand, and you can tell at a glance how far your character can move, how far you can attack, or whether or not foes and friends will be caught in an area effect. Truth is, we all wind up counting spaces with our fingers, or plodding our figures along one space at a time like a giant game of Parcheesi. We already start out knowing that we’re playing a game and the grid is a visual element that starkly reminds us of that. Yet we’re also telling a story … which invokes an often bandied term “immersion.”

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Roleplaying games are really hybrids. They are part game and part story. Some may be partial to one element over another, and both are essential to the equation, but I believe that most of us are looking for a seamless experience where the game and story inform each other without interfering with each other. This is ground that, I feel, is most fertile for immersion. “Immersion” is a word with a moving definition in an RPG discussion, and It’s not always a useful term. Being engrossed in the story, being caught up in a role, having a deep mental involvement in the game mechanics: these are all elements of immersion, and if they happen, then great, they happen. Yet I’m always looking for an experience that embraces all of that potential. And If I’m looking at a physical representation of the scenario, and it’s basically a grid, I find it more difficult to divorce the story–or more specifically the situation–from the game in my thinking. It becomes something more akin to chess with limited moves and tactical possibilities than what the D&D (or most any tabletop RPG you can name) can offer, which is really bound only by an agreed upon logic.

Theater of the Mind
In a sense, I’ve already been gridless. throughout the years, my games have been, more often than not, “theater of the mind” which always requires a consensus ad idem or a “meeting of the minds” so to speak. In order for it to work, everyone needs to be on the same page. Everyone also needs to be flexible thinkers and good question askers as well…
“Is there a rock handy I can throw?”
“How far away are they?”
“Is there a back way out of here?”
In this style of play, the situations can be fluid since they are negotiated, but they can be downright confusing as well. And the consequence is often a backtracking, or retconning of the narrative in light of a new understanding for fairness’ sake.

An Evolution of Solutions
A simple solution can just be a basic drawing showing the environment, features, and the positions of characters. I did that quite a bit back in the day. If you want to get more miles from a drawing, then use dice, coins, or whatever’s at hand for tokens and you can use the map for the entire encounter. But already we can envision an incremental evolution taking place here. The graph paper becomes a wet erase board. The tokens get standardized with washers and printed images. You experiment with paper standups. You buy a few miniatures, and pretty soon you’re looking for more 3D options, buying dungeon tiles, looking up how to make terrain online, and at this point, you’re hip deep in game paraphernalia with a dwindling budget and no end in sight and you’re looking for a rehab or support group to no avail.

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“Less is more.” I’ve tried to keep things re-usable as well as “hide” the grid as with these felt ground pieces with just the corners of the grid marked in.

There’s also the problem of flexibility. Chances are you will never have enough terrain to fulfill the requirements for every situation. You can mix your media, add dry erase mats to dungeon tiles, you can agree on varying scales, you can even mix 3D and 2D elements. But it’s quite likely, you’re looking for a certain aesthetic, you have personal standards for what you and your players will accept on the table (hey, I understand!) and mixing media can definitely foil a target “look.”

The trick is, to make the terrain itself be flexible. You still won’t fix every problem. Essentially, you will still be bounded by the pieces you possess to represent tactical situations unless you forgo the table top for a pure narrative temporarily. Sometimes you just have to, things come up you can’t craft or purchase beforehand.

Less is More
And sometimes less is more. You’re balancing two aspects to 3D gaming: diorama vs. game board. I see a lot of embellishment on terrain pieces sometimes. And don’t get me wrong, it has its place, but if it’s something the PCs can feasibly interact with you’re going to have to anticipate questions like…”Is there really that much gold spilling out of that chest?”
“Can I pick that skull up and take it with me?”
“Hey, one lousy spell book? It looks like there’s a bunch of ’em on that table!”
Elaboration can make a visually stunning piece, but then you have to talk about what’s “for show” and what just is. Always leave some room for imagination, and remember that figures have a space they occupy that is governed by their bases. The real world is full of sharp angles and tight spaces, your game environment can’t, for playability’s sake.

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DM Scotty sparks a terrain revolution with 2.5D.

The RPG Crafting Renaissance
Enter what I call the “RPG Craft Renaissance.” There was a serious need for tabletop solutions, especially with 4th edition, making miniatures of some kind a necessity. There already was a great war gaming community out there with how-to videos on terrain for games like Warhammer et al., but not much for games like Dungeons & Dragons in mind. There is a large amount of crossover potential and many of the skill sets and techniques apply, but table top RPGs typically require more discrete and idiomatic settings for the action, like dungeons and interiors. So along comes DM Scotty with The DM’s Craft.

It’s difficult to put to words how praiseworthy this YouTube channel and forum  is. It’s an egalitarian on ramp to easy and cheap solutions for miniatures gaming. There is a prolific amount of content there with useful ideas for any skill set and budget. Now there is a burgeoning community of RPG crafters along with a growing host of other DIY personalities, like the DMGinfo, who emphases modularity, with his own style and whimsical brand of humor. But what makes this revolutionary is the reinvention of 3D and a return to wargaming roots. The idea is to forget the walls and forget the grid.

Mr. Dungeon Master, Tear Down This Wall!
I’ve seen many a building rendered for gaming complete with furnishings and fully realized interiors. Yet when it’s only the roof that comes off the building, just try getting your fat fingers down in there to move pieces around, or even see what’s going on without standing over it, for that matter. Form and functionality collide with these cheaply made tiles. And since things are kept cheap, the crafty DM can anticipate environments beforehand and pump out new rooms, caves, or whatever. You generally don’t need full scale walls to represent the scene in a visually pleasing way. You can suggest the walls and add shadows, even indicate windows and openings, all without loosing that …yup…immersion.

And if that’s not flexible enough for you, Scotty’s “2.5 D Next” concept utilizes large spaces bound by modular walls to define rooms and interiors rather than tiles. This makes the game more travel ready and offers a quick and visually consistent solution for those extemporaneous fights. Personally, I understand the value of the “Next” method, but visually, I still prefer the tiles. Moreover, you get great advice and how-to on dungeon dressing and even some DIY figures. What’s not to love?

Circles and Grids (or lack thereof) 
The second element this renaissance espouses–gridlessness– brings us full circle. You don’t see grids on these tiles (painted tiling notwithstanding). Tapping into the strengths of a miniature wargame style of play, movement can be measured with sticks or strings, and area effects can be indicated with 3D markers. You do give up some certainty and clarity in exchange for directional freedom and more nuanced movements that don’t rely on arbitrary increments, like 5 foot spaces. Spaces don’t have to line up, so terrain placement can be organic and free-form. Uncertainty is also an element embraced by some games. Not being able to pre measure adds a human error factor that can make for a more “realistic” or at least a more “interesting” experience. Also, less clarity can mean greater agency for the GM who gets to arbitrate when “almost” is “good enough.”

Moving (Gridlessly) Forward
The cool thing about 5th edition is that the miniatures rules are optional and flexible. Ranges and effects are given in feet and radii. It’s really up to the individual group to represent or not represent the encounters tangibly, however they want to do it. Since at the moment 5e is my game, I believe I’m going to take that plunge, and what we’ll see coming up on Random Treasure is some of those crafting results.

Behold … er.

“Low level potions and scrolls…for killing a BEHOLDER? What a rip.”

10440889_829995183736893_30475396273261182_n (1) Beholders seem to be a repeat offense as far as home-made minis go. There’s an accessibility factor for the entry level sculptor, and if you simply can’t sculpt (not likely true) then you can always go the wire and foam ball route. And if you want to try sculpting, it’s hard to go wrong, goofy grins and all. Part of the equation is the beholder’s popularity. It’s iconic enough to make it on the cover of the 5th edition Monster Manual, if you’re looking for empirical evidence. Is it a dragon on the cover of a Dungeons & Dragons book? No. It’s a beholder.

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And if you’re looking to buy one, they tend to be on the pricey side anymore. Reaper Miniatures has some that are more economical, but at the time I scribe this, you can pay upwards of 40 bucks (US) second hand. And who wants to shell out good money when you can so easily make your own?

There are a couple of concerns that go along with crafting such a beastie. It floats. Sadly our “real world” physics simply wont’ easily allow for a sculpture to be suspended in thin air over a 2 inch base. (If you come up with a cheap and easy gravity defying solution for this, for pity’s sake, let me know about it in the comments!) Otherwise, we’re forced to choose between a discreet stand or to try to suggest levitation through elements that contact the base.

The second choice seems like the elegant solution to me, but to get a real sense of weightlessness, you would need to have some flimsy contact points. The Reaper miniature has several tentacles coming out the bottom of the figure to contact the base. Now, there could be some intellectual property issues in character design there. I’m thinking beholders are a Wizards of the Coast IP, so commercial iterations are, as needed, legally distinct. Yet still, Beholders in my mind’s eye don’t have butt tentacles. You could have some elevated terrain on the base come in contact with an eye stalk, or the body, and I love seeing those when they’re well executed, but a stick under it will do, painted black, or better yet, transparent.

If I had to have only one beholder in my collection, and I’ll be frank, I don’t use them that often against the player characters–they’re never high enough level–I’d have the one from the cover of the Campaign Guide of the City of Splendors boxed set of the Forgotten Realms setting. Originally, it was on the cover of Waterdeep and the North, but I first encountered it from the boxed set.

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Drow bikini babes aside, there’s something evocative about this image. There’s a narrative screaming to be told here. Sadly, there’s not much about these characters in the set, which seems pretty weak, since this is their strongest image. You get that it’s a shadowy organization with one foot in Skullport (the skeevy, underground antithesis of Waterdeep) and one foot somewhere in the city’s sewers. They’re not quite a thieve’s guild, that would set off divination alarms for the secretive agents of the city’s justice, but they are a shadow syndicate for illicit activities in Waterdeep and Skullport. Only a handful even know Xanthar is a beholder, let alone he’s the kingpin behind it all. So really, the only time you’re going to need a mini for that is for final showdowns, or if the characters took a wrong pipe too many and wound up being a random lunch for Mr. Xanthar. Be that as it may, a Xanthar beholder mini will still make a great stand-in for all my beholder needs.

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Whadda YOU lookin’ at?

Behold the results…

This is actually, my second attempt. I made one years ago that I was super happy with at the time, yet over the years, it is as if he kept hitting himself with his own disintegrator ray, since I had to keep repairing him, until he just fell apart. I may have mentioned that Crayola Air Dry clay is a subprime sculpting medium. This time around, I applied everything I’ve learned since then, and I believe I have a product that will likely last longer than I will. And as my skills have improved, The Xanthar’s never looked better. //I’ll update the post with vintage Xanthar pics when I can dig them out.//

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“You think we took a wrong turn back there?”

My method was pretty straight forward. I began with a tangle of wire at the center tied to a larger copper wire that extends out the bottom (later painted black). I posed the wires for the crustacean-esque eye stalks. I wrapped the center of the mass up with tinfoil strips to make the base for the body. The rest was a matter of applying clay over the wire and foil and sculpting it. I have a bunch of Super Sculpey left over from other stuff. I like it, but it’s really soft and easy to deform while sculpting it, which make delicate jobs tough. I had some Classic Fimo clay, which is crumbly and hard, yet takes good detail. But like I said, it’s crumbly. So, like peanut butter and chocolate, it seemed like a no brainer to mix them to the consistency I wanted. I’m thinking it was 70/30,(?) but heavy on the Sculpey. In the not too distant future, I’ll have more on the tools and methods I use.

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The mini’s featured above are mine as well. Those are a couple of my ProCreate putty minis from last summer. Xanthar isn’t the first art inspiration!