The Counter Culture 2009 Part 1: The Culture of Counters
What are counters? Well, if you’ve ever played, still play, or wish to play a table-top Role-Playing Game (RPG) then chances are you are familiar with miniatures, as well as other kinds of markers/playing pieces to represent characters, monsters, or villains. The term “Counter” refers to a graphic image that can be used as a playing piece in any genre of RPG. Generally, Fiery Dragon has focused on counters for fantasy related games such as Dungeons & Dragons, but given the format with which we present the counters, and the many different themed packages that we offer, our entire counter line can cross over and be used for just about any RPG out there. Generally speaking, to an experienced gamer, counters are an alternative to miniatures, which for many years has been the playing piece of choice. Understandably, miniatures are great fun, but we at Fiery Dragon think that while miniatures have their place, our counters are a must-have for any table-top RPG…
This is the first of 3 articles that delve into Fiery Dragon Production’s long line of Gaming Counter products. Part 1 “The Culture of Counters” talks of the company’s long standing history of producing counters for the gaming industry and many of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) that we have encountered over the years. Part 2 talks of the Philosophy of counters; how counters can help to improve one’s game beyond their obvious use, and lastly, Part 3 “Counter Workshop” gets into the construction and care of counters. Let’s begin!
The Culture of Counters
From our very first published product NeMoren’s Vault 9 years ago we’ve been in the gaming counter business. In those days, to include counters with a D&D adventure was certainly a novel feature, and for all the positive feedback we received for NeMoren’s, it was clear that people appreciated the counters. After that, including counters as often as we could in our adventures was one of the signatures of Fiery Dragon. After the first couple of releases the most important thing to happen to the counters had occurred – artist Claudio Pozas came aboard. With Claudio’s enthusiasm and impressive skill, we were able to publish entire counter collections, expanding the popularity of the line as well as its scope. Once D&D, and its various genres were covered, we branched out into other themes including horror, modern, and superheroes. We’ve done counters for Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved and Ptolus, as well as links with other company’s products, such as Green Ronin and Necromancer. In fact, it had become quite clear to us that in spite of all the other great releases we were putting out, when people started referring to us as “the counter guys” we had come full circle with this product.
- A sample of NeMoren’s Vault counter set for its 3.5ed re-release
Now-a-days, we like to consider ourselves the counter specialists. For the last nine years we’ve been consistently putting out counter products whenever we saw the opportunity for one. Let’s just pause for a moment at this amazing fact; Claudio Pozas, over those 9 years, has produced over 3 000 unique images. That’s really, really close to a counter a day. After that amazing fact, there are a number of FAQs that we’ve encountered consistently over that span and now we’d like to take the time in the first Part of this article to address them.
Table Top Combat or “Why We Love Counters”
- Fiery Dragon counters join the battle!
Anyone who plays RPG games does so for escapist’s need for adventure. And although adventure can be defined in many different ways, I think it’s fair to say that the backbone of adventure is spectacular battles. When Dungeons & Dragons began many moons ago, and the subsequent RPG games that it would inspire, combat was done through pen, paper, and the combined imaginations of both GM and players. Yes, miniatures were alive and well back then – D&D was born of miniature war games – but given their cost, the time needed to paint them, and the fact that you could play without them meant miniatures were a luxury. In fact, it was rare to see a game that used a full array of miniatures, placed in 3 dimensional environments which completely enhanced the adventure at hand. With the 2nd Edition of D&D, and the rest of the gamming market, combat systems became more sophisticated, as did the gaming accessories market. The availability of dry erase battle mats provided a static battle ground and GMs began visualizing combat rather then explaining it to their players. Furthermore, games like Villains & Vigilantes provided counters with their adventures; the counters to be played on those battle mats, with its rules set geared towards emphasizing their use.
With the fanfare of 3rd Edition and its new approach to table top combat, tracking combat visually was now an essential part of Dungeons & Dragons. Rules concepts like Attacks of Opportunity all but guaranteed the need to know where your character was in relation to other combatants, and the tactics one would choose as they moved through the battle field. This importance of needing a battle grid and using either miniatures or other markers instantly reminded us of our old Villains & Vigilante days. Miniatures are cool, but counters seemed to us a convenient alternative. When we were producing our first adventure, we wanted to represent the monsters and personalities with a sheet of counters. NeMoren’s Vault was a success for us, and consequently established the prominence of the counters. We knew we were onto to something…
Counters vs. Miniatures…Why Counters?
This debate comes up in our production meetings literally every time we sit down to talk about counters. First off, we actually like miniatures a lot. You have to keep in mind that we grew up on RAFM lead miniatures. Since we’re Canadian, from the “Greater Toronto Area” (GTA) no less, RAFM Studios were just over yonder in Cambridge, not an hour outside of Toronto. In those days, miniatures were heavy and expensive, but highly collectable, and very much loved. They also represented a lot of work considering all the priming and painting required; not to mention the amount of time one had to spend. And there’s my first point as to why counters – they’re less maintenance. Then there’s always the issue of not enough monsters. If you’ve purchased any of our digital counter products, you’ll know that you can print as many counters of any given monster you’d like. Even if you’ve obtained one of our published products, chances are you’ll have enough of a particular monster for any standard scenario or encounter group. If a GM had his heart set on a 20 skeleton room, not only does he need to shell out for the skeleton miniatures, he needs to locate a hobby/gaming store that actually has that many. With the much newer trend towards pre-painted miniatures, you either need a place that has opened lots of packages and created a bulk bin, or, you got to keep spending and spending till you get your skeletons. Then there’s the storage issue, for which counters win. And transportation, and again this has to go to counters. But more importantly, one of the things that counters really have over miniatures is their versatility; especially when using the digital collection. With hundreds of images attributed to PCs it’s not difficult for a player to find an image that comes really close to their personal vision of their character. If you’re using digital character sheets, you can take that image and insert it on the player’s character sheet. Or you could size up or size down any monster you like, changing the inflection of what the monster should be. Furthermore, most miniatures portray EXACTLY what they are supposed to portray. Counters, in many cases, can portray a number of different personalities, or dangers, and with a simple paint program, you can even change colour, or customize as you see fit.
Now, miniatures do have a number of points that they clearly win. Most interestingly it would be that miniatures are a hobby unto themselves – the hobby within the hobby. Secondly, they are easier to handle and maneuver around a battle mat. And lastly, the 3 dimensional qualities of miniatures always seem to give the table that cinematic feel.
But for the sake of convenience while still wanting to enhance game play counters clearly win. In light of this, counters in our eyes were never meant to completely replace miniatures, but augment them. However, our latest set, Counter Collection 4E, not only has the normal counter image on one side, but if you flip it over you now have a “bloodied” side. Miniatures can’t do that!
Other Counter Sources Old and New
I think that it is fair to say that presently, we are the biggest producers of counters. Yes, in the past we had our good friends at Dragonscale that produced a quality product – and then of course, there were the free counters/tokens offered in Dragon/ Dungeon. Free is always good, but all the images were taken from the Monster Manuals, so astute players would know immediately what their opponent was. There were also the tokens found in the Dungeons & Dragons 3E Adventure Game which were excellent and carried the same idea over to their new Starters Set for 4th Edition. Before us, the next biggest source for counters was the Games Unlimited Villains and Vigilantes super-hero adventures, which we’ve said already were the primary inspiration for our counters. Each adventure would come with a page of counters (sometimes two) in a 1” format for which you had to cut out. We initially did this with our adventures, but had to stop due to cost. It was much more cost effective to offer the counters in collections or packs. Steve Jackson games used to produce stand-ups. I’ve seen two separate collections, published in large soft cover books, with a dungeon effects book that provides flat card-stock environments. Also, if you owned the module B6 – The Veiled Society, it came with similar stand-ups and buildings you could construct too. After that, it’s a hodge-podge of games and offerings that had counters; The old Gangbusters game featured counters and environment mats; the original Judge Dredd game from Games Workshop featured stand-ups and environment mats; TSR had box sets that contained cardboard buildings…And I’m sure there are many, many more.
- Gangbusters counters in action
- …and Judge Dredd stand-ups. “Drokk!”
Why the Flat, Square Format?We often get questions as to why we don’t publish round counters, usually referred to as “tokens”. The primary belief about tokens is that they are easier to pick up and re-position on a battle mat. That belief would be correct. However, round is less efficient for a number of reasons and here’s why. First, when fitting them all on a counter sheet they’ll end up being placed in an imaginary square anyway. Second, you run the fear of cropping a portion of the image. Lastly, and more importantly, round is very difficult to cut out. In other words, when you print round counters off from a digital format you are destined to cut them out. Round suddenly becomes very frustrating and time consuming once you start this cutting process. You would use scissors most likely, and you would never get them perfectly round. The other format is “stand-ups”. That is, a full body image of the subject, rendered front and back, and printed in such a way as you could fold them into a standing position. This format has its charm, but it too has its limitations. Number one, the cost of art would be very expensive. Claudio would be a very busy guy with this format, producing full-sized images front and back. He could do it, but it would be time consuming and translate to a higher retail price. Second, because of the cost and time, it would be very difficult to publish entire genres or sets. Our new Heroic 4E set would have to be published in parts instead of having the entire collection purchased in one shot. And why would this have to happen? Because the out-put of stand-ups on an 8”x11” sheet would be very low. Stand-ups in a flat position take up a lot of space where as with the 1” square we can get a total of 70 counters to a sheet. There are other problems with stand-ups as well, sizing being the biggest issue. Anything above the size of medium in D&D would translate to one big stand-up, compounding the problem of publishing entire sets at a decent price. And then what about things like horses, or cars, or dungeon effects? Even with stand-ups these items are traditionally flat. If that’s the case, then we figure everything should be flat. Weighing all this in, concerning stand-ups, you might as well go with miniatures. Or preferably, counters.
We are very lucky to have Claudio Pozas. His style and attention to detail is extremely well suited for the demands that are placed on an artist who has to create an image that will eventually be reduced to a 1” square. Too much detail or the wrong selection of colours and the image can suddenly become muddled. Moreover, Claudio has but two hands, and on average, it takes Claudio a month and a half to two months to turn out the art for a counter collection. He pencils them first, scans them, and then runs them through photoshop in order to apply the colours. He does this individually for each one. For Counter Collection II back in the day, he rendered 150 separate images! That’s a lot of work. One thing that Claudio brings to the counter art is his very special ability to bring a sense of personality, story, or menace to each image. We are often asked if Claudio renders an entire image head to toe before it is “cropped” to fit the counter size. The answer is “no”. In most cases, you are seeing 90% of the total rendering.
Seeing as this is the end of Part 1 I would like to end this section with a selection of some of my personal favourites by Claudio…