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Orcs and Goblins and Skaven, Oh My! 

Warhammer subculture lures players of all ages

The frenzied throng jostles for position, shouting and laughing. All eyes are pointed upward, focused on the man holding a bag in his upraised hand. He is dressed in black jeans and a black shirt, and his black hair is tied back in a ponytail. A giant, silver, eagle-shaped belt buckle completes his outfit.

"What's in the bag?" he bellows.

"Waaaagh!" erupts the testosterone-fueled crowd of nearly 100.

It scares the bejeezus out of me.

I had unknowingly entered the realm of Warhammer, a world of savage creatures, dark gods and bloody battles. Well, actually, I had entered a store at Concord Mills called Games Workshop, makers of Warhammer, one of the most popular "tabletop war games" in the world. All these rabid warriors were in the midst of a Warhammer auction, bidding on various armies and weaponry.

The "Waaaagh" war cry gets the already excited crowd really hyped up. In fact they're making such a ruckus, a mall security guard comes in and tells everyone to hold it down. Yeah, right. As soon as he leaves, the circus-like atmosphere continues.

"What's in the bag?" the black-clad auctioneer asks again.

"Waaaghh!"

I back out slowly and make my way to the food court, thankful to have emerged intact. However, I vow to return. I know a raging subculture -- and a potential story -- when I see one.

Three-D Sci-Fi and Fantasy

The man whipping the mob into a frenzy turns out to be Derek Vener, the manager of Games Workshop. The company was started in Nottingham, England, in the late 1970s, and over the years has slowly made its way into the US. Today, there are hundreds of stores across the country, and a number of Warhammer Grand Tournaments are held annually in cities like Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, and Baltimore, each one attracting hundreds of competitors. An estimated 3 million people play Warhammer games worldwide, a number that continues to grow.

Vener explains that Warhammer auctions, like the one I happened upon, are held several times a year and always draw big, enthusiastic crowds. Vener's trademark "What's in the bag?" bellow was lifted from Brad Pitt's tortured "What's in the box?" line from the movie Seven. (It was Gwyneth Paltrow's head, you may remember.). As for the crowd's responding "Waaaagh!," that's the war cry of a particularly nasty, green-skinned Warhammer character named Orc.

In addition to the auctions, several times a week Games Workshop also hosts Warhammer gaming nights that attract both novice and experienced players of all ages. Hoping to get a crash course, I decide to check it out.

Warhammer players start filing in around 5pm, their armies concealed in black and gray, foam-lined, custom-made carrying cases. There are four different platforms in the Concord store, each one outfitted with its own unique scenery and battlefield terrain. Vener, clipboard in hand, authoritatively calls out the players' names, assigning them to their specific war stations. They snap to, gathering up their armies and taking their positions. Vener then establishes the parameters of deployment, and the players go at it.

The chatter is loud, excitable and constant. Some talk trash, calling into question the fierceness and ability of their opponent's army. Others make goofy jokes and provide sound effects and blow-by-blow commentary on the action. For others, this is serious competitive business, and they wear a stoic game face, giving nothing away.

Total, there are about 50 guys present, ranging in ages from 10 to 50 -- and one lone girl, 20-year-old Laura Cronell. When you've got a roomful of mostly adolescent guys, their already raging hormones keyed up from the adrenaline and testosterone rush of Warhammer, look out.

"I've got to watch out for all these guys, they're always hitting on her," says Cronell's boyfriend, Philip Wilson, also 20. Believe it or not, Cronell says she actually wants to be here. She enjoys the combat aspect of the game, she says, but the real appeal for her is more aesthetic.

"I like painting the armies," she explains. "I'm an artist."

Games Workshop produces three main products. Warhammer 40,000 (introduced in 1987) is set in the nightmare future of the 41st millennium, and is populated with ravenous aliens, malevolent creatures and heretical rebels. It's a science-fiction lover's dream, and, not surprisingly, is the most popular version among teenage boys. Warhammer Fantasy (introduced in 1981) is set in a medieval world of legend, where mighty warriors, wizened mages, and savage monsters struggle for supremacy. This version is more of a hit with guys in their 20s and 30s (and oftentimes 40s and 50s). And then there's the newest Games Workshop offering, The Lord of the Rings Tabletop Battle Game, based, of course, on JRR Tolkien's books and the blockbuster movie series, which is expected to bring in a whole new generation of players.

While the imagery and characters are similar to the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, D & D falls into the "role playing" genre, whereas Warhammer is known as a "tabletop war game," and is played with intricate and detailed model figures and vehicles, all of varying scale. Once the miniatures are pieced together, players paint them, usually with painstaking relish and artistic flair. While the game can be played on any flat surface, such as a kitchen counter or dining room table, most prefer to make or purchase scenery -- little trees, buildings, bridges, etc., fashioned out of cardboard and polystyrene -- and create their own battlefield terrain.

In effect, Warhammer is several different hobbies in one -- collecting, model building, painting, converting and sculpting (where players customize their armies). And then there's the tactical challenge of waging war. It's not a hobby one can enter into lightly, such as checkers or cards. The rules are complex and lengthy, and the game pieces themselves can be relatively expensive, although they now make plastic miniatures that are less expensive than their metal counterparts. A Warhammer "starter kit" usually costs around $75.

Tonight, the game of choice is Warhammer 40,000. As I drift from station to station, I hear lots of esoteric science fiction references, a few Austin Powers impersonations, and more than one line from a Monty Python movie. The game is played with rapid-fire speed. Small, six-sided, red and white dice determine much of the action, like whether one soldier succeeds in hitting another, whether troops stand their ground or flee, and the distance armies can move or weapons can fire. Players painstakingly record these distances with retractable tape measures. The fine line between enthusiasm and geekdom is continuously walked like a tightrope all evening.

Overseeing the action is Ross Sinodis, 21, who's reminiscent of a young, punk rock-loving Jerry Lewis. His father got him into Warhammer about six years ago, and he's been hooked ever since. He's been working at Games Workshop for a year, and is truly in his element here. "I like playing with soldiers and waging war," Sinodis says simply. "And to get paid for it? Sure, I'll do that."

"It's a hobby of burden," says Todd Taylor, 33, opening his carrying case to proudly display an army of detailed and intricately painted metal miniatures. "You have to know your army, your opponent's army, and the best strategy. It's all about the quality of your troops and tactics. Without that, you're going to smoke and burn. You've got a lot of time, money and energy invested in this. And if you get your ass handed to you in the first game, it hurts."

Jerry Frazee, a 42-year-old caricaturist with a distinctive strip of hair running down his chin, is dominating the action at one table. Frazee is a bit of a Warhammer guru, having won the annual Warhammer Grand Tournament in Baltimore back in "98.

Frazee and a group of friends get together on Wednesday evenings to hang out and partake in a little Warhammer action. Hoping to get more insight into the whole Warhammer subculture, I make plans to attend one of the sessions.

Warhammer Pioneers

When I arrive at Jerry's, the boys have just finished gorging themselves at a neighborhood pizza joint. Homer and Bart Simpson Pez dispensers sit on the mantel. In addition to Frazee and the Simpsons, also present are Tom Poston, a tall, lanky, 38-year-old software designer with red hair and glasses; Brad Ewing, a friendly and talkative 30-year-old graphic designer with shoulder length blond hair and lots of jewelry; and Chuck Tuttle, a stocky, 28-year-old West Charlotte physics professor with short blond hair and a goatee. Tuttle also works part-time at Games Workshop. It's a diverse group, but they're all sharp and quick-witted, given to postulating about war, politics and history, and to peppering their conversations with erudite pop culture references. Of the four, two are married and one has a girlfriend. They say their significant others are all accommodating of their hobby, and in fact encourage these Wednesday night get-togethers.

Not surprisingly, the four friends are big science fiction buffs, and while growing up they were avid fans of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And for most, seeing Stars Wars for the first time was a momentous event in their lives.

"My brother took me to see it when I was like four," says Tuttle. "I've seen it hundreds of times since then."

These guys are also some of Charlotte's Warhammer pioneers. Most of them met back in the early 90s at Heroes Aren't Hard To Find, then off Central Ave., when it was one of the few places around where you could find Warhammer products. Ewing helped talk the store's manager into holding Warhammer game nights, and it soon became standing room only. Eventually, the Warhammer gamers were squeezed out of Heroes, and game night was moved to the players' homes.

Tuttle was a bit of a latecomer to the group, having moved to Charlotte from Colorado about five years ago. He first got into Warhammer as a student at Appalachian State University.

"It snows up there a lot, so I found a hobby to get into," he said. "The aspect of building and painting an army was really attractive to me. Also, I was working on my degree in physics, and Warhammer was such a great diversion from all the rigorous studying."

Shortly after moving to Charlotte, while browsing at Heroes, Tuttle saw Frazee, whom he recognized from one of the local hobby magazines. The two struck up a friendship, and Tuttle joined the Wednesday night Warhammer sessions.

As Tuttle and Ewing discuss how to improve on their own Warhammer battlefields they've assembled at home, Frazee and Poston get a game going. An expansive 5x8-feet homemade gaming table dominates one of the bedrooms in Frazee's house. Made of plywood, foam and masonite, it's a detailed landscape complete with trees, hills, valleys and a realistic looking stream. It sits above dozens of long, narrow white boxes which house Frazee's sizeable comic book collection. Two eight-foot bookshelves display his vast figurine collection -- separated into Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k -- and numbering well into the thousands.

Perhaps the only one who has an army that can rival Frazee's is Poston, who won Best Painted Army during the "98 Grand Tournament in Baltimore. Poston estimates he's spent over $10,000 in the past decade on the hobby. When I gasp at the expense, he replies, "It all depends on how you define expensive. I like to use the analogy of playing golf -- you can easily pay $1,000 a year in greens fees. This is the same kind of thing, my hobby just happens to be war games."

Warhammer has its own unique language, and if you're not familiar with its vocabulary, it might as well be Swahili. To try to explain the specifics of the game in a few sentences would be futile. (The Warhammer rulebooks are all nearly 300 pages.) Poston sums up the basics as well as anyone.

"Essentially, you have your force, and the other guy has his force, and you have battles based on different scenarios," he explains. "Each gamepiece has a fixed movement rate and other statistics that determine how tough they are, or how well they fight with a sword, bow and arrow, etc. The randomness comes in when you're ready to attack, and roll the dice.

"You'll see some guys who have done some serious number-crunching to try to come up with an invincible army that can beat everyone," Poston continued. "Of course when you're dealing with a game of luck and dice, the best-laid plans can go awry."

"There's a lot of rules to keep track of," Frazee adds. "And some people have complained that it's too complicated, but then you see 13-year-olds dancing rings around the older guys."

As the two friends situate their armies on the battlefield and work out a plan of attack, I ask them how they first got into a hobby that has since become such a big part of their lives.

"I've always read science fiction, and some of my friends started talking about this game that had space marines like Robert Heinlein wrote about," said Frazee. "It sounded interesting, and I just got hooked."

"Largely, it started out as an alternative to our Dungeons and Dragons group," said Poston. "People were getting older and having kids, and it wasn't as easy to get five or six people together, but we could still get two or three people together to play Warhammer. Plus, I just thought the miniatures looked cool. I've always been the creative, artistic type, and I really enjoyed painting them."

Well aware of the stereotypes many might associate with grown men playing tabletop war games, Frazee and Poston half-jokingly ask if the headline of this story is going to contain the words geek or nerd. I assure them it won't. After all, when you consider how many guys have taken up alcohol consumption or watching the tube as hobbies, perhaps battling your friends across a war-torn fantasy world of heavily armored knights and hulking savages, where humanity's very existence hangs in the balance, isn't so bad after all.

Contact Sam Boykin at sam.boykin@cln.com or (704) 889-7398

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