The Waving Hands in Three Dimensions project

For a very long time now, I’ve wanted to play WAVING HANDS with miniatures.   What’s Waving Hands, you ask?  A mostly pen and pencil (and online PBW) game about spellcasting and wizardry.  Why is it interesting to me?  Because the “combat system” is quite unique and magic oriented.  In fact, it’s entirely about magic– the foundation of the game is a system of gestures the wizard makes with left hand, right hand, or both.   Waving Hands began life as a postal game by one Richard Bartle, published in his gaming Zine SAUCE OF THE NILE.  Richard designed the game as a teenager, and lacking the resources to publish, he decided to go the zine route.  Kind of a pity, that.  It would have made an excellent commercial game, I think.

In any event, the game rules are written with pen and paper in mind.. much action and reaction is abstracted to make game play more intense.  Waving Hands has jumped over the cyber barrier and is now a game playable via a website ( or mailing list (firetop mountain).  In both instances, the game, which uses simple text codes for magic gestures, adapts perfectly to the media being used to present it.   I’ve played it many times on ravenblack, but I keep visualizing the game as something I could, and should, put on as a miniatures based game.  And if I’m going to miniaturize it, I really should go large scale, neh?

I envision: a game played using a slightly modified version of the core WAVING HANDS RULES with edits to allow for movement and one more layer of physical attack and defense.   Each player would run one large wizard figure (54mm for the visuals), representing himself casting spells and depicting where that wizard is in relation to other wizards in the playing area.

Barbary Mage: Spellcaster
Spellcaster Figure: Barbary Mage, copyright Iron Wind Metals

Now, there’s the rub.  There are enough 54mm scale wizardy-looking single figures in existence that I could pull this off without trying to convert green plastic army men into wizards or something silly like that.   That’s almost the easy part.  Iron Wind miniatures, in its Ral Partha incarnation back in 2004, created a very decent wizard duel game called SPELLCASTER that had a line of 54mm wizard figures to go along with it.   The problem I have with Spellcaster is that it is far too linear and narrow of focus to work for a game of miniatures, in my opinion.   Spells pretty much seem to do the same things.   The miniatures seem to be nothing but tokens moving on a board in this game.  No matter.. the figures will adapt nicely for Waving Hands.  I have a few of them now, namely Dark Elf Sorceress, Elf Half-Demon Sorcerer, Barbary Mage , Gnome Conjurer w/”pet” dragon , Human Necromancer , Litch,and Sorceress .  In addition I have the Eldash Nasdra Evil Sorceror and Wizard figures (somewhere) and the Good and Evil wizards from Valiant.  So quite a few of the principle characters in this game, namely, Wizards.  But that’s not the only figure being represented in this game.

Painting 54mm figures always has been a bit of a challenge for me, as the expectations for this scale are always higher than my workmanlike paint jobs can deliver.  Usually I don’t have the time to lovingly lavish detail on several 54mm figures that need to be painted at once (see my long-standing gladiator games for visual examples of rush jobs on several 54m gladiator figures).   Fortunately I know of a few decent resources online to assist painting in  large scale.

The bigger issue for me was finding 54mm scale summoned fantasy creatures and spell effects to run the game with.  Spells are not just fun words to say in this game; they create things.  Something external to the wizard that can be “seen” in game terms, is usually the result of a spell.  Often, they create critters.  How to simulate this?  For instance, in the original Waving Hands by Bartle, there is a whole category of Summoning Spells that create a single creature that can attack other wizards physically.  This is the element of the game that turned it into a miniatures game in my mind– implicit to the assumption of summoned creatures are design elements like movement, combat, protection, facing, lethality..  these are straightforward in the pencil game, but in three dimensions, they will require a little more conversion.  And critters.  Where will these come from?

Here is the section on Summoning from the original text (text in italics, my comments not italicized):

Summon Goblin

gestures S-F-W. (Note for the reader– S-F-W is shorthand for the magic spell gestures.  In this case, the spell would require “Snap” “Fingers” “Wave” to summon a goblin) This spell creates a goblin under the control of the subject upon whom the spell is cast (or if cast on a monster, the subject monster’s controller, even if the monster later dies or changes loyalty). The goblin can attack immediately and its victim can be any any wizard or other monster the controller desires, stating which at the time he writes his gestures. It does one point of damage to its victim per turn and is destroyed after one point of damage is inflicted upon it.

The summoning spell cannot be cast at an elemental, and if cast at something which doesn’t exist, the spell has no effect.

(…)  (condensing this quoted text, Ogres are like Goblins with two hit points.  Trolls are like Goblins with three hit points.  Giants are like Goblins with four hit points.  Elementals are unlike goblins and have some special rules attached:

Summon Elemental

gestures C-S-W-W-S.  (for those following along, that’s “Clap”, “Snap”, “Wave”, “Wave” , “Snap” to summon an Elemental) This spell creates either a fire elemental or an ice elemental at the discretion of the person upon whom the spell is cast after he has seen all the gestures made that turn. Elementals must be cast at someone and cannot be “shot off” harmlessly at some inanimate object.

The elemental will, for that turn and until destroyed, attack everyone who is not resistant to its type (heat or cold), causing three points of damage per turn. The elemental takes three points of damage to be killed but may be destroyed by spells of the opposite type (e.g. fire storm, resist cold or fireball will kill an ice elemental), and will also neutralize the canceling spell. Elementals will not attack on the turn they are destroyed by such a spell. An elemental will also be engulfed and destroyed by a storm of its own type but, in such an event, the storm is not neutralized although the elemental still does not attack in that turn. Two elementals of the opposite type will also destroy each other before attacking, and two of the same type will join together to form a single elemental of normal strength. Note that only wizards or monsters resistant to the type of elemental, or who are casting a spell which has the effect of a shield do not get attacked by the elemental. Casting a fireball upon yourself when being attacked by an ice elemental is no defence! (Cast it at the elemental…)

Now that’s a neat visual.. I’m already seeing panicky wizards running from summoned goblins, trolls, ogres and giants in my mind’s eye.  The problem is, there aren’t a lot of named fantasy figures of the “cheap cannon fodder” style in 54mm.  I had hoped that I could find some plastic dollar store game sets with 54mm fantasy creatures, but surprisingly this is just not a niche that never seems to have caught on in the States.  Plastic green army men, yes, but no orcs and trolls and goblins.  Bummer.  However, I did manage to find some dandy bargain plastic skellies on Amazon for pennies a figure (yay!).

Cheap Plastic Skellies, all painted up, like.  Size is perfect.

As something like 20 or so come in the bag, I immediately have made Skeletons my easiest to cast critter in the miniatures version of Waving Hands.  I wasn’t going to use single figure metal 54mm collector style miniatures for Orcs or “Goblins” (there are a few, here and there) as the cost would incredibly prohibitive for a game that uses summoned critters as a disposable commodity.  Again, I lucked out!  On ebay, doing a search on 54mm Orcs, I found a Russian company that makes 54mm figures of a distinctively cartoon like quality.

Russian Plastic Orcs
Russian Plastic Orcs. No idea who makes these.

Who makes these things??? I don’t read Cyrillic very well so I’m at a loss for what company actually manufactures this in Russia.  As my standard authority for researching foreign plastic manufacturers seems to be a little distracted right now (that’s another story), I hope someone reading this can come to my assistance with a website for the manufacturer.  Just for my own curiosity really.    In any event, I ordered a box– they are pricier than the skellies but still pretty cheap at about 8.99 for five figs with a nice level of detail.   So they will be my next-highest figure in terms of cheapness and availability (and the spell will be “Summon Orc”.. for two points each).

(late breaking note: the company appears to be TECHNOLOG (link is to a translation of the Russian website).  They are the same folks who make interesting plastic kits for cyberpunk settings.  I like this stuff, might get more… Thanks and a tip o’ the chapeau to the folks on TMP for finding this.)

My plan is to use the D&D miniatures (new plastic ones) HILL GIANT figures to represent OGREs, who will be a three point figure, and last and greatest cost, the “LARGE FIRE ELEMENTAL” from the same line to represent elemental creatures– there are two in the game, Ice and Fire, and I will just have to shop around until I find a decent collectible miniature game figure of the appropriate size and look.  Elementals from the D&D Line are largeish but not 54mm.. I can get away with using them because..well, what’s the “right size” for an elemental anyway?

So, in sum, figures are going to be problematic here and there.. but not impossible.  I’ll have fewer than in the core rules but I can compensate by maybe summoning TWO skellies, which I have a ton of, in the “Summon Skeletons” spell.  That would make it tactically more appealing than “Summon Orc”, and a lot cheaper than “Summon Troll”, which is just an Orc with another point but at the cost of two more gestures.   Elementals seem quirky enough to keep in the game.. sufficiently different than any other summoned monster that I’ll keep them in.  Four summoned monster types should be enough.

With figures accounted for, how to represent the actual spell effects in the game?  How would the spell effects translate into three dimensions?  Should I build Ice storms and Fire walls and walls of thorns and such?  Well, maybe some day if this catches on.. i love visuals.  But right now?  I think I can make some simple templates that could fit the gaming surface.   I’ve resolved that the action will transpire on a two or three inch hex grid– fairly easy to make templates for, easy to regulate turning and movement.   So a simple Games Workshop Cone and Circle template should handle a lot of spell effects for me.. as well as range.  Range isn’t a factor in the pen and pencil game.  I will have to retro edit the spells to work in a three D universe.

The most challenging part of the pen and pencil game was keeping track of spells YOU are casting, while planning on and avoiding the spells your OPPONENT is casting.  In this sense, Waving Hands is a giant memory game.  “Was that S-P- (aha! he’s staring a summon Skeletons!) on his left hand or S-W (Yikes!  It’s a Summon Fear coming.. i have to get a counterspell ready!)?” This game has some devious angles.  So I’m preparing a series of Spell Counters in Inkscape using Public Domain clipart resources.  The counters will have an icon representing the spell, title and a number of stars to indicate the number of gestures each spell requires.  I plan on printing these out and gluing them to the bottom of large flat decorative  glass beads, the kind you see in aquariums sometimes.  This way you can keep the token face down near you and your opponent can’t see what you are on about.   They will also make a nice token for persistent effects like Confusion, Blindness, etc, but turning them upside down behind the Wizard figure.   Here’s a sampling of the counters so far:

Spell Tokens
Spell tokens (in work) using Inkscape

I’ve put them in distinctive color groups, as well, to aid in the visual sorting.

Mechanics are going to need a little work.  No less a person than Richard Bartle himself has suggested (on this blog in fact, read the comments here) that his plans were always to have the game feature spatial movement and combat, but he had to tighten it up for publication.  Bartle suggests a game sequence like so:

Actions (1 spell gesture per hand, combat, defense)

From the horse’s mouth, as it were: Hmm, I’m not sure I kept a copy of the original rules anywhere, but it’s possible they could be mouldering in the attic somewhere. As far as I recall, I tried both a movement phase and a move-as-an-action phase. I think I went with the former, but I don’t remember whether I had it before or after the gestures phase. I also tried integrating the two, but not entirely successfully…

Mister Nizz asks: How far did the wizard move in a turn?

It was on a hexagon-shaped battleground with hexes to move over. There’d be about 15 or so hexes from one side to the other, and I think wizards moved 4 spaces, less if they were injured or slowed, more if they were hasted.

That sounds like a good place to start to me.   Wizards all start as movement 4 unless modified during the game.  Half movement at half hit points (they all get 15 at start).  I’m thinking I’m not going to make facing particularly complicated.. allow a Wiz to orient him/herself to a hexside for free at the end of movement.

Should I roll for actual combat?  I’m still pondering that one– it’s almost automatic unless a Shield is cast in the paper game.   I hate to mess with the elegance of the original system in any way, but I also hate the notion of automatic damage.  Oh well, there may be enough checks with the gesture-magic subsystem that rolling may not be needed.

There is much to work out– paralysis, invisibility movement on the board, the proper hex size, spell templates, the perfect game sequence.  I plan on having the players actually MAKE THE GESTURE with their own (human) physical hands and that will be the sum total of visual clues the opposing players get for indication of intentions– so I won’t have to make “spell cards” up, just a cheat sheet for every player, and maybe a dry erase status sheet that will hold a spell token for each hand and indication hit point status.

So that’s where I am with this project, which is looking to see the light of day not at Cold Wars (good Lord, no!) but certainly at HISTORICON 11.  As Dr. Bartle suggests:

What I’d suggest is that you play it, tinker, play it, tinker, play it, tinker, and so on until you reach a point where you get something that works.

… which is what I plan to do for a few months before this project debuts.


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