The online landscape of the Necromunda community was a lot different six years ago. Forum interaction was more along the lines of a post or two a week, whereas nowadays if you go a few days without internet you can miss more than a handful of full circle discussions. Back when the LRB was still available off the GW website and the company was still selling off the last runs of their Specialist Games stocks, most online information beyond the odd blog or photo album were almost specifically geared for Warhammer 40K. Most of the available inspiration was urban terrain based around squad sized units: bombed out shells of buildings that you could stack the rank and file units behind. For all intents and purposes, the larger game system utilized terrain that was mostly just aesthetically detailed line of sight cover.
Impressive as they were, it took a lot of ingenuity to try and replicate the grim dark setting that these pieces helped shape into a congested underhive environment. I remember buying up entirely too many Cities of Death sets when I first got into the game, completely unsure on how to bring the setting to life. But, like a preserved secret to the veteran online forum users, there was a website out there that housed an absolute array of top tier home made gaming terrain that easily paralleled any of the works from old White Dwarf pictures. The website is ironhands.com, and Sean Patten - the man behind all the imaginative concoctions - keeps the site up and operating to this day. With albums showcasing works for Necromunda, Gorkamorka, Mordheim, 40K, Star Wars, Gundam, and even games that Sean himself has created, the images and write ups Sean has on Ironhands really beg for countless revisits to the site, with each of his projects overflowing with clever uses of familiar items.
"I was made aware of D&D back when it first came out, thanks, believe it or not, to my mom! She's a writer, and was in tune with early fandom. Because D&D game mechanics were pretty complex, I mostly enjoyed poring over the dungeon maps, and made my own maps with some graph paper stolen from math class, and devised crude but simple combat mechanics using D6s. Being more into Sci-fi, the first tabletop game I bought for myself was second edition Gamma World. I loved the setting, it had everything- robots, mutants, a hint of Road Warrior, urban exploration... Even when playing Traveller with a friend, my favourite part was exploring alien ruins. Exploration is still a huge driving force in nearly every game I play or make".
From a start early on with fantasy and Sci-Fi settings in the art and writing from his mother's influences, what started as those first dungeon maps on stolen graph paper has prospered into a long term investment to the hobby for Sean.
"I've always been interested in mechanics- steam trains, cars, tanks, most vehicles and weapons, so Sci-Fi was a better fit for my imagination than fantasy. It was empowering- anyone with the right know-how could go anywhere or do anything. I saw Star Wars as a kid in 1977, and it must have left an indelible impression on me. I had a copy of Spacecraft 2000 to 2100 AD that I lived in. My folks and I would watch Star Trek, Space 1999, and Battlestar Galactica, helping fill the void between Star Wars films. Later my friends and I discovered Japanese mecha shows and model kits (Gundam, Macross, etc)".
Those early fascinations with the genre helped drive gaming with his group of friends growing up. Once the Warhammer 40,000 universe was being released in the late 80's, Sean and his gaming buddies soon took up interest in the more collection based gaming system
"My friends were all geeks and nerds, so I had pretty cutting edge exposure to games as they came out. I picked up Rogue Trader at a game store shortly after it came out, and loved the setting. I was so poor I ran games with cardboard scenery and painted army men figures! But I made friends with the local shop owner and got discounts on miniatures like Jes Goodwin's first round of Eldar Aspect Warriors. So yeah, I tend to be waiting for a game to finally come out, rather than late adopting... I picked up a copy of Heroquest when it released in the US, and it had advert inside for Space Crusade. A 40K game with friendly rules and team play? I must have this game! It never did release in the US, but my dad happened to be on business in England, and brought back the base game and BOTH expansions. Best birthday gift I've ever had! We expanded the rules further, and ran every kind of 40K campaign we could think of. It was a major breakthrough for gaming at our house, and the best excuse yet to make actual terrain for games. I heard rumors of Necromunda (old White Dwarf articles on Confrontation, sneak previews of minis, etc), and already made my own house rules for campaigns before the game came out".
With his gaming beginning to take on the terrain heavy tabletop fights, Sean first started with cardboard boxes cut into terrain pieces, but soon developed an absolute showcase for turning recycled materials and common items into elegantly detailed board game pieces for an overall astounding collection of themed setups.
"Somehow I managed never to resort to Styrofoam. Too fragile, too melty (esp. under a spray can). My friend Mat and I scoured for scale terrain as a team, discovering O-scale model train kits together. K-line brand was the cheapest, we bought and converted a bunch of those kits. DPM made modular brick building panels, injection molded in styrene. We found them on sale (which meant going out of production, of course). I also kept an eye out for toy sets to convert, including an old Hot Wheels car crusher toy. The best was the Japanese Tomica sets- although meant for Matchbox sized vehicles, they worked well as terrain, especially their lovely sidewalks! I also salvaged computer and printer cases and dressed them with detail. Just drilling holes in them can add a lot of industrial style, if done neatly!".
A staple fixture in some of his inspired designs, the surplus of VHS tapes Sean had available to him while playing Necromunda and his ability to so creatively repurpose their shapes right into the grimdark/gothic science fiction setting is more of his way at looking at all common items, not just VHS tapes, and his ability to incorporate them into such well crafted models.
"I hoarded too much unique junk. In retrospect, it's better to gather a bunch of one material- that way if you make something cool with it, you can crank out more! Some of my early staples were Electrical boxes, plastic clothespins, hotel shampoo bottles, plumbing solder, textured vinyl floor matting, and plastic cross stitch grid. Mat and I also met up with Tim DuPertuis, of Armorcast fame [and here on YakTribe as @timdp], and he had some cool tips as well, such as using half-round beads for rivets (they were initially intended to be used as doll eyes). Halloween was the perfect excuse to pick up plastic skull rings- combined with airline badges, they made great winged skulls! And of course, we found every means to acquire the Necromunda bulkheads before they went out of print. The new GW terrain has more than made up for those of course!"
With the ingenious eye for reimagining such materials with such seamless fit in the 28mm scale science fiction setting, the pictures of Sean Patten's work show his take on a whole assortment of detailed and aesthetically suited terrain made from repurposed materials. Any modern change in available crafting stock doesn't seem to pronounce any challenges to Sean's modelling ability either, and even the obsolete state of VCRs doesn't seem to be posing any issue to him:
"No danger there, I have boxes of [VHS tapes] in the garage. My family dropped their entire collection off: once folks understand your hobby, they start turning up with all manner of junk! I am running low on audio cassettes though... I also miss the Slater brand electrical boxes, you can only find the Carlon ones now. Other yet-to-be-found-again artifacts include finely perforated plastic rain gutter covers from Lowe's, and a huge roll of corrugated plastic floor matting I got at a U-haul storage- haven't seen the like since. At least I can find sound dampening board again, it makes excellent natural terrain material- it's how I get by without styrofoam".
I did a career change to working as an electrician in the time after first using his site for hobby inspiration, and was always disappointed that the electrical boxes we used at my work were never as good as the ones Sean always had in terms of being such a valuably sculpted frame for model structures. Seemingly as a result, I am always swiping various thrown away bits or electrical odds and ends that are accumulating in my bits bin, so I can only imagine the joys of owning a VHS back catalogue. These sorts of stashes can become an unorganized nightmare in terms of bits collecting, and so it is always a challenge for knowing what to keep, what to not bother grabbing, when to make some purges, and when to blitz through some new terrain builds to bleed the stock. With such a tenured collection of 28mm miniatures and scenery, Sean has mastered some pretty great tricks for containing a collection and its accompaniment of stock materials:
"I have installed shelving units in the garage, and the odd cabinet or bookshelf that neighbours give away free. Then I sort bits into boxes, and LABEL the boxes. Works great!... Super Handy Tip: label everything and store neatly, so you don't end up buying more of something just because you can't find what you already have in your garage somewhere.... [In terms of maintaining a collection's stock levels], I ask myself the following questions:
- Have I used it, or something like it, before? That's a good indicator it will justify it's space.
- How easy is it to obtain more? If it's readily and reliably available, I try not to hoard.
- What's it made out of? Plastic is best, wood is good, metal is meddlesome, and Styrofoam is blah.
- Do I have a lot of them? The more of something I have, the more useful it is. Repeated details look better than one-of-a-kind things, especially for small details. And if I find a good use for them, I can use them more often!
- Is it taking up a lot of space? Space is money, so use it wisely. If it's worth the space it is taking up, prove it to yourself by building something out of it!
"... I purge only about once every 3-5 years. I wish I had time to blitz through stock! When I build a project, I try to make two or three at once, it's more efficient (and fresh in my mind). When building, I try to buy just a bit more than what I need for the project at hand... recently we started a group at work to share project skills and ideas, and I was able to convince them to cart off a few bins of stuff. It was a great excuse to cull, knowing that at least somebody might benefit from my hoarding efforts!"
With the Ironhands website hosting a plethora of custom rules, custom games, and even pictorial tutorials on making home made miniatures out of garage sale action figure accessories, Sean has a knack for being able to make table top gaming an accessible avenue to any age or dedicated interest level of gaming. Porting it into project logs, tutorials, commission purchased pieces, and ultimately the Ironhands website to encompass it all, Sean has turned his hobby collection into an internationally recognizable piece of gaming memorabilia within the shared network community of internet gamers. When I got into the hobby around 2010, it was already such a widespread bookmarkable page for inspiration; with so many of the 28mm scale Sci Fi systems that Games Workshop were making being showcased on the IronHands site, Sean's decided "scale of choice" for miniatures gaming was made in part to the restrictions of the spaces he was using
"I have so little space, I can't afford to collect in more than one or two scales. Wherever possible, I aim for 28mm so I can repurpose all my 40K terrain. For example, I grabbed a bunch of the cheap Star Wars minis for my Edge of Empire RPG, I used to have a ton of Epic minis, got 'em on clearance from GW stores in UK and Canada, but ended up selling them off at game conventions 'cos I didn't have room for two scales. Of course, later I did a Gundam tactical game, using the gorgeous 1/300 S.O.G. figures, and had to make terrain that scale anyway hah hah. So yeah, I reserve other scale work for subjects too big to tackle at 28mm- mobile suits, Capital starships, etc..."
In terms of starting up the webpage, Sean comments that,
"Somehow I just knew I needed to post pics of all my work, and after sharing on several short-lived friends sites, I went ahead and did my own. Of course, I haven't learned much in the way of web skills since then, which is why my site still looks like a 2005 website. Sorry about that everyone, I'd rather put the time into more models ;). Peers at the time included Terragenesis, and a few nutters doing fun blogs for Necromunda and the like... I did a blog stint on The Waaagh during a Gorka Morka campaign and it was a blast. Not much online activity since then, but I am starting up a Rogue Trader RPG blog on dakka-dakka, hopefully good things to come there..."
Sean's works have been featured in White Dwarf , and he has had further major representations of his work in industry publications:
"My first big break outside the site was a few articles in Citadel Journal and Necromunda Magazine (which were mainly pulls from my site, made my job easy but I should have grabbed higher res photos. Still should in fact). Then after a few attempts, I finally hit the big time, getting a couple articles into White Dwarf. It was fun trying to come up with terrain that anyone could build, given a few common household objects and GW sprues. This led, of course, to my how-to articles on the site".
The work displayed on the website gives good insight to the modular design of many of Sean's pieces and the playability options that come with it - with pieces that manage to fit well across the different settings of Necromunda, GorkaMorka, and Mordheim (attesting to an eye for making interchangeable terrain with fitting use in the different aesthetics of multiple game systems) - and equally around the collection of a 6'x4' table's worth of a few specific thematic settings such as those that lend themselves well to showcasing larger armies or collections within a single range. Reflecting the latter, the website offers pictures of commission like pieces or sets specific to a single campaign.
"I did two contract Terrain tables for WizKids. No idea what happened to 'em, short of appearing at cons briefly...I also built my first Dauntless wrecked cruiser for a local GW shop, after doing some terrain seminars for them in trade for plastic. Ended up making a second Dauntless for a great fellow up in Canada. At this point, I've built two of the things and still don't have one for myself!"
"Short of the tables for WizKids, I've always built terrain one building at a time. I have large pieces like centrepiece buildings and foundations, then smaller buildings that usually stack, and finally small cover and debris piles to fill in the gaps. Modular terrain is easier to store and more flexible for setup. Usually a campaign will focus my efforts in one theme for a while (alien, Ork, Necro, Star Wars, etc). But a lot of pieces can sneak between themes, especially natural terrain (rocks, jungles, etc)".
With Sean's ability to maximize the practicality of a terrain collection, and with pieces equally as detailed as they are impressive, one would be hard to resist getting in lots of games to really get to play with the boundless options of board arrangements. Within the scope of his collection, by focusing around the 28mm scale of miniatures Sean is able to assemble an appropriate aesthetic quite strikingly for a variety of settings: bombarded old world cities under magical ruin in Fantasy, the combined thematic undertones for an immigration into derelict infrastructure for an overpopulous, vehicular wars between scrap wreckage outposts in the infinite loss of endless desert, frontline battlescapes across a war theatre the scope of the entirety of the perceivable universe, and the naval interactions within the furthest depths of the intersystem are all exemplified at a mastery level in Sean's works.
The latter mention, culminating in Star Crashers, offers naval battle gameplay with miniatures made up of old GI Joe bits and various garage sale treasures from the piles of discarded children's toys, and goes very well in play with his Road Wolf creation, where the antics of Road Warrior and any sort of exploits among highway car gangs within the Mad Max post apocalypse style of Sci Fi are duked out on the table top using dollar bin Hot Wheels and Micromachines scaled toy cars decked out to decay. These sorts of games combine all the hobby elements in Sean's repertoire to deliver such an epitomal offering of what makes table top gaming such a fantastic hobby.
Sean expressed that one of his more current projects is playing through a narrative campaign within the Rogue Trader thesis of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, sprawling across points within the campaign arc that dabble with gameplay from a whole host of Games Workshops rules systems. From onboard battleships to commanding them through naval skirmishes, planet side exploits and mini missions akin to Necromunda/Inquisimunda scale, and all the way to the front end of the Imperium's war torn navigation of the warp laden universe, Sean's personal style and aesthetic for terrain and miniature builds is matched with his game mechanics knack and knowledge to purvey what is ultimately zenith to the whole application of tabletop gaming within the 40K universe. His terrain portfolio boasts some amazing builds, White Dwarf features, and an ongoing personal collection of epically proportioned coolness, not to mention all the stuff that has parted from his ownership over the years.
"I used to display the odd piece at D&J hobbies in Santa Clara, CA way back in the day- I believe they finally closed, which saddened me even though I hadn't been there in like 20 years. Some of my terrain is at local Games Workshop stores. But yeah, most is still here with me, with a few production and contract pieces in private collections all over the world. I'll occasionally purge really old or large pieces, usually giving them to friends. These days I try to make two of anything I'm on contract for, so I get to keep one for myself!".
His spread of works sport his personal touch of craftiness, and they have played as a beacon on the internet for the DIY side of the hobby for well over a decade. Having well harvested roots within the tabletop hobby culture from such an early age, Sean Patten has helped define the look and feel of a miniatures gaming experience much greater than just his own for what has been the better part of 30 years.