NOTE: There are what seem like some very good, thorough examinations of this topic in various forums and on at least one blog, but I like to figure things out for myself so I glanced at them, closed them, and commenced reinventing the wheel.
If you’re old, you may remember the Marx Toys playsets of little plastic “Army men” guys. I had the cavemen.
It so happens that my girlfriend’s dad is into the vintage Marx figures (as well as other cool stuff like horror comics and Hammer Films). There was a Marx Toys museum a few hours away and it was closing at the end of June, so I took him there for Father’s Day. I knew virtually nothing about the company so it was a fascinating journey of discovery. (Marx also did the Big Wheel, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and the Inchworm.) They produced figures and playsets in every genre from Westerns to medievals to contemporary figures. In case, you know, you needed that Barry Goldwater figure.
Other than having a pleasant afternoon learning about and looking at all these cool toys whose popularity only slightly overlapped with my life, I didn’t really think much about it other than that I liked the Universal Monsters figures and I wished the “Haunted Castle” prototype had gone into production because it was total tits.
Last night, while I was flipping through Chainmail as one does, I noticed the section about miniatures. As I’ve got a thing for period simulation when I’m working with old games, I immediately started thinking about what sort of “miniatures” would have been available to the mass market picking up Chainmail in 1971 or D&D in 1974. Most people had no way of getting Airfix or Elastolin historicals, so if they wanted to use miniatures, what could they get? Army men, Marx Toys, available cheap in the Sears Wish Book every Christmas.
It turns out that the bulk of the Marx Toys figure lines were in 1/32 scale, also known to wargamers as 54mm. This scale was never in widespread use for fantasy wargaming but it’s not hard to find even today. Marx made a few medievals and a couple playsets that would have been of use, but as with everything else in those days, there was a limited selection that worked for fantasy. If you wanted to play fantasy wargames, you had to DIY things into shape a bit, or sacrifice fidelity to the source material, or (almost certainly) both.
Famously, there was another source of fantasy-appropriate toys: cheap-ass Hong Kong and Chinese dinosauroids, or “Chinasaurs.”
So. I decided to look into what sort of 54mm plastics are actually out there for that genuine old-timey feel. It turns out there are quite a few, mostly historicals. (There’s a Russian company doing 54mm fantasy but they’re chunky and GW-ish, which renders them unsuitable for OD&D.)
Expeditionary Forces in particular has a lot of great historicals.
You’d have to mess around a bit but between the various modern companies, there’s enough for a Western European medieval baseline to cover the usual fighting men and clerics, and you could tinker with scales and troop types to approximate elves, orcs, and other humanoids.
Obviously, with historicals, there’s a dearth of wizardy types and other common fantasy requirements. But Toys R Us has a “True Legends” line that fills in some of the gaps nicely. The Pirates set even has skeletons.
Marx had 6″ cavemen who’d be great as giants.
There are also the usual weird-ass Chinasaurs available on eBay.
Finally, a company called Safari Ltd. makes these little plastic animals. They’re at a larger scale than 1/32 (sometimes actual size), which makes them great for the giant animals one encounters in dungeons.
Some of the shit is potentially pretty cool/weird, like that jellyfish.
Most of these figures are pretty affordable as long as you don’t dip into the vintage well (Marx recasts are common and cheap but the originals often aren’t).
So that’s what I thought about last night while I couldn’t sleep. How to play OD&D with Army men. It’s doable.