HIPS Deep in Miniature Gaming

Or: How to build a model citizen

Something awesome this way comes

My job is story and lore. When you lift that hefty book of adventures for Oathsworn: Into The Deepwood (Shadowborne Games), a healthy chunk of the words crammed in there are from the same PC I’m writing this on.

The heart stopping miniatures of the game come from the absurdly talented digital paintbrush of Toby O’Hara. Since I’m a words guy and Toby’s a 3D artist, I’m going to step in and do some words for him.

The Cur. We’ll dissect his mini later on.

When I was writing tales and scenes for Oathsworn, I fell deeply in love with the dark and flawed swashbuckling anti-hero we call The Cur. The editors had to stop me from putting in too many moments where The Cur became some super ninja powerhouse of stealth that stole the show. I saw the artwork from Dongjun Lu (of WETA effects house) and that’s it. I was finished. Why the heck am I even writing stories with all of these other dudes when THAT’S our Cur?

I watched Toby at work in his virtual world, sculpting minis with a tablet (and a dog on his feet, but that’s a different story). I was transfixed.

I’ve worked for companies on miniature based games since 2004. But things have changed. Technologies and expectations are different. I was familiar with centrifuges of vulcanized rubber filled with molten pewter. I understood the process. Then came HIPS.

HIPS: High Impact PolyStyrene.

Personally, I take issue with the S in HIPS coming from the middle of a word, but I wasn’t around to object when someone designed the acronym.

Let’s go back a bit, back when miniatures gaming was a new thing. If we go back far enough, the things were made of lead. Yes, that lead, the poisonous kind. Back then, we painted and played with lead toys at our fingertips for hours. Until someone decided lead might be, you know, contact toxic, and just maybe that was a bad idea.

Lead was replaced with pewter, another fairly soft metal with an even lower melting point. Lead melts around 327C(621F), where pewter goes liquid at 170C(340F). That meant pewter models didn’t require super specialized foundries to get a liquid substrate, which made it worth the increase in cost. You could boil it on a stove top if you wanted. Note that I am not suggesting you try this.

I was working for Adiken Miniatures in Canada in the early 2000s. I had wrapped up writing a ton of fiction for them and had totally rewritten their rules for a game system called Nin-Gonost. The rules got nominated for an Origins Award. We didn’t win. I’m still not bitter, nor do I hate the scoundrels behind Attack Vector Tactical who stole our award.

Adiken was producing their own pewter minis in the traditionally cast way. Someone sculpts a little dude. An orc or somesuch. The material is a polymer clay mixture. One fairly common version is known as The Green Stuff and is available as a two part epoxy-like mix in some game stores. This is regular sculpting, done with dental tools and clay, essentially. You sculpt a tiny one inch wizard with actual material, the size that it will finally be in production.

That sculpture is referred to as a POSITIVE. Next, a mold needs to be created. Picture filling two bowls with wet sand. Now press your positive halfway into the sand of one bowl. Clamp the other bowl, sand to sand, on top of your positive. When you pull the sand bowls apart, you have a hollowed impression of what the positive was. Like leaving a fist print in the surface of clay. That impression and mold is your NEGATIVE. It’s the inverse of your sculpt.

You can see this Adiken orc was fairly flat, front to back, victim of a steamroller

Then you clamp the bowls together without the original, feed a straw in to that negative space in the middle and pour in your liquid pewter. After it solidifies, when you separate the bowls, you will have a replica of the original sculpted positive, but in metal.

A few things to note. First, some metal often oozes between the top and bottom mold. You see that on the final product as a FLASH LINE. Sometimes the model is still attached to the place that the straw fed the metal through. That’s a SPRUE. Also note that due to two halves being pressed together, the mini can’t really have parts that overhang or wrap around each other, as you wouldn’t be able to pull the positive out of the sand, it would get caught. Early generation miniatures are often extremely flat in pose because of this. A little dagger sheath or piece of a cape maybe you could get away with. But sculptors knew their tolerances and designed models knowing they had to be essentially split in two. If you wanted your mini to extend into different planes, you start getting into uneven and curved flash lines and more complex poses which require multiple cast models that will need to be glued together.

In any casting process, there’s also this minute level of degradation that occurs. The sand is not prefect to the positive, then the metal might not be perfect to the mold. Each step leads to near imperceptible imperfections, again softening swords and hard lines just a wee bit.

Replace that sand with vulcanized rubber to withstand thousands of casts of boiling metal, and you now have a pretty good understanding of how miniatures were made. If you had a set of a dozen miniatures, you would arrange them like spokes on a wheel, a pizza of miniatures, with the fill point in the middle. Spin the wheel in a centrifuge like a bike wheel, and the metal gets forced out to fill all of the negatives you have created.

I had seen this process, I had worked on minis, I had a firm understanding of how a little green sculpt became a shiny bit of pewter.

Then HIPS came along. I felt like Jon Snow, because I knew nothing.

This stuff holds amazing detail. Early plastic minis were a soft material that never held a corner or edge and all of your knights were fighting with butter knives. That technology got better and better. The plastic got harder and easier to cast. Trilateral molding came along. That’s squishing three bowls of plastic around your positive, not just two. Things were getting funky.

Then someone said “what if we didn’t actually have a positive and there was no sculpture”. He was carted off and never heard from again.

Enter Digital design. AutoCAD. ZBrush. Maya. Fancy software that let you create your model three dimensionally on a screen. A new breed of sculptors appeared, using mouse and tablet instead of awl and tweezer.

In comes some hotshot like Toby O’Hara, manipulating pixels like Michaelangelo with a chunk of marble. He creates 3D models, just like from any modern videogame. It’s all virtual. There is no actual positive. No sculpture. Not in this reality, at least. Perhaps Tron has the positives.

In various software too complex for mere mortals to understand, the virtual positive is split pixel perfect into segments that will mesh together with impeccable precision, breaking the model into pieces that would not be physically possible if there were a real world positive.

To make a mold for HIPS casting, you start with a block of metal. A solid block of alloy. You then hollow that out using CNC (A computer controlled drill - Computer Numerical Control) or EDM (Not Electronic Dance Music, but Electrical Discharge Machining). The minis for Oathsworn use EDM because EDM is sorcery. OK, maybe not, but it’s close. It’s the process of vaporizing metal through targeted precision electrical charges, almost an electron laser, drilling a surface without ever touching it. Like I said, sorcery. The computer takes the dissected miniature file and figures how deep that non-existent positive would go into the sand. Or in this case, how deep to vaporize the metal block. The negative mold is created with absolute unerring efficiency, creating the imprint left by a virtual digital model. Going back to leaving an imprint of your fist in the sand, this is more like taking a spoon and carving out the crater your fist would leave.

Since we’re not talking about any degradation from positive to negative and back to a positive once molten plastic is pumped in, the miniature can be a mind boggling jigsaw puzzle of parts, freeing the artist from the limitations of two sides of a mold, and allowing a complete freedom of form — as long as they are willing to split that miniature into the proper halves for casting.

From the production factory, here’s a HIPS cast prototype Cur. The plastic will probably change for production.

An Assembled Oathsworn Cur

Next we have a factory prototype HIPS casting of an unassembled Cur model. The models will be supplied preassembled so no one has to wrestle with this tiny jigsaw. You can see it’s been sliced into flat, castable pieces in a way that would be astoundingly difficult if it started as a physical model.

Cur bits.

Here’s a piece by piece growth from that scrapyard pile into a player character:

Not what we usually mean by Character Progression

The precision of that cast allows Shadowborne to create plug and play swap out arms and weapons to match your character as they progress.

Rarely seen by victims, a shot of a Cur in action.

You’ve been tracking for days now. The ravager pack you follow has been moving steadily through the Deepwood. Crawling. Clawing. Killing. It’s not the occasional deer or bear that you find strewn over underbrush that matters. You’ve got to catch up before they reach Ferry’s Way. If you don’t, the price will be too high. When the pack rests, you cannot. You’ve got to catch the skull faced monstrosities first. Cloak of darkness and cover of night drags you closer every hour, just as you’ve been trained. There is no time for rest. Nor hunger. Nor thirst. You cannot let them through. They’re so close now, you can hear the thrash of leaves. There’s no one in Ferry’s way you know. That’s not the point. You’ve a brand on your wrist and a promise to keep. You have a job. Draw your blades. You are the Oathsworn.

As of February 2021, the first print run of Oathsworn: Into The Deepwood is completely sold out. You can follow me @TDIPaulD on twitter or Tainted Dragon Inn on Facebook for various updates and other gaming tidbits or go straight to shadowborne-games.com.

Writer, Board Gamer/Designer. Tainted Dragon Inn on FB, for geeky stuff. Represented by Bonnie Swanson, The Purcell Agency. www.PaulADestefano.com

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