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Orcs and Goblins and Skaven, Oh My! 

Warhammer subculture lures players of all ages

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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.

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