A Hobbyists’s Journey – by Dan Heelan
Dan Heelan is a well known name in the UK gaming community.
As well as hosting a regular Warhammer Age of Sigmar podcast and running one of the UK’s largest gaming events, he was also part of the team that helped with the initial play-testing for the General’s Handbook.
But it wasn’t always so. Everyone starts somewhere, and here, Dan explains how he first discovered Warhammer for himself, many years ago…
It is 1993. At a scout camp, in a tent in a field a young friend hands me a pack of ‘Top Trump’ cards with little painted men on them. I ask ‘What’s this guy?’, my friend answers ‘A Space Marine, I’ve got a magazine here with more in, look’. That magazine was a White Dwarf.
Looking back now it’s amazing to think where that one interaction has taken me. 23 years later and it’s taken me around the world, given me friends for life, memories and experiences I will never forget, an ‘ego wall’ full of trophies and a internet/social media following that feels surreal even now.
So my journey started there, at a scout camp. It then progressed through the usual channels of badly painted men, kitchen worktops with books stacked under a blanket for terrain and a lot of rules questions for the local GW! For me, this was a time of 2nd Edition 40k, Necromunda, Epic and 4th Edition Warhammer Fantasy. Many memories were made, such as my brother throwing his Prince Tyrion across the room when he had his head removed by a Executioner’s Axe wielding Chaos Warrior – plenty of fun was had.
At 5th edition it all changed for me. I discovered a local gaming club (‘Battle Force Pompey’ as it was known then). The local GW pointed me in their direction and it has been a spiral ever since. At age 16, a guy now known in the ‘scene’ as WarhammerLegend(TM) Al Thompson took me under his wing and said ‘You want to come to one of these tournaments we are going to’. At this stage I barely had 1500 points painted, but with an extra Treeman (or 2!) I could get there…….. but a tournament!? That’s where all the ‘hardcore’ gamers go right? Well, I would find out soon enough – ‘sign me up!’ was my reply.
I had seen these events mentioned in ‘The Tale of Four Gamers’ White Dwarf article and was super excited. We had a group of us large enough to take 2 mini busses. We had matching shirts and hair (sprayed blue!). This event was the 1999 Club Challenge, held at Warhammer World. This was my first trip to the ‘Home of Warhammer’ and I wasn’t disappointed. Bugman’s and the whole atmosphere was amazing. Back in those days, the hall was slightly bigger than it is now, but basically a gym hall with 40k banners adorning the walls – still such a memorable place!
My first event went well, earning a decent finish, but most of all, I didn’t encounter any of these ‘hardcore’ gamers I expected. In fact, everyone I played just seemed like an ‘average’, really nice gamer. I came away with such enthusiasm to produce a new and nicer army. I was blown away by the things you could do. It was the first time id seen a base that wasn’t green, with green sand. They had brown rims and static grass! Game changer (don’t laugh, the excitement was real). Most of all though, I came away wanting to do more. 23 years later, I still feel the same about events.
This experience led me to drive myself to get better at the hobby, eventually earning myself a decent haul of ‘Best Painted Armies’ for my Lizardmen (now: Seraphon). With a lot (a LOT) of practice, I then went on to win my first event some 10 years after my first!
During this time, I took up podcasting. I thought, I love the hobby and like talking about it – my friend Wayne and I chat for hours about it anyway – let’s record! That part is now history and we are into our 8th year of releasing shows twice a month, covering the fantasy side of the hobby.
Wayne and I were also keen to do more in the event community and a result, with good friend Russ, set up the South Coast Grand Tournament at the school I attended as a youngster. This has been running ever since 2009 and is currently the biggest event in the calendar at 200 players. It turns out ‘build it and they will come’ is true! Every year the part I look forward to the most is welcoming the new blood to the scene, it is full of players, tournament organisers and great painters of the future! There are also a lot of people like the 16 year old me, concerned about what the ‘tournament mode’ experience is like, so it’s great to see and hear about their experiences over the weekend. Someone enjoyed it so much, they had the Twitter hashtag tattooed on themselves….
My domestic success then starting me wondering what it would be like to play against people in other countries. This led me to the European Team Championships (the ‘ETC’). 32 countries fight it out in an 8 man team event. I attended this for 4 years, met and played people from 15+ countries, travel to the Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Serbia and Ireland all in the aid of playing Warhammer. It turns out, Warhammer is Warhammer no matter where you are from, and some amazing times were had!
After captaining the country twice, obtaining a 3rd place with our great team (our most successful year) and becoming the highest scoring English player at an ETC (I also hold one of the lowest scores by an English player, but we don’t talk about that year..), I called it a day on my ETC ‘career’. I’d seen some amazing armies, played some (very!) memorable games and made some great friends for life.
Looking for something to do after all that, my good friend Wayne and I looked to the USA for our next challenge! We attended the massive Adepticon event, again making some great friends and seeing some ridiculously good hobby! I also discovered what Mac ’n’ Cheese actually was. Apparently it was obvious?
Ridiculous hobby from USA’s Brandon Palmer:
All this, and then it came. The change to Age of Sigmar (‘AOS’ as it’s known on the interweb). How did this affect the hobby journey? In short, after a brief changing of the guard, it hasn’t changed anything! Events are still well attended, played in the same manner, and people are producing fantastic armies. In fact, I’d say with the smaller model count and flexibility, there has been an increase in the standard of hobby across ‘the scene’.
I’ve also felt a personal shift back towards exploring the more narrative areas of the gaming, as well as the competitive. I’ve always been a competitive guy, so the tournament ‘treadmill’ of trying to better yourself at each event obviously sat well with me, but with the switch to AoS I have personally found myself back where I started – playing for playing’s sake (not on a kitchen worktop though…). The two are not mutually exclusive, but the wealth of narrative material and early lack of a points system has certainly helped me rediscover the love for that part of the hobby. One of the best things about running such a large tournament and being involved in a world wide community of hobbyists is being able to see just how differently groups enjoy the hobby – none of which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. AoS is the perfect toolbox for enjoying it how you want it.
To see if much had changed across the pond, Wayne and I yet again ventured to the US for the first Age of Sigmar event at Adepticon. Another great success from the organisers there, and again not much has changed! Its Warhammer, and hobbyists. Much fun was had!
Since the AoS launch I’ve been honoured to have worked on the General’s Handbook with the Studio team and been involved with the great Community Team on a few projects – all lifelong hobby goals! My signed GH from Jervis Johnson has pride of place in my hobby library!
For the ‘modern’ hobbyist coming into the hobby now, there is such a wealth of information on the internet, and a so many resources from Games Workshop that they are spoilt! If I managed to gain a life changing hobby back then, it is surely even more achievable now. I honestly wonder what the next 20 odd years have in store for me in the hobby? For now, I hope you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane for me. If you see me at an event, please come and tell me about your hobby tale! If you haven’t been to an event before…. jump in, you never know where it could lead you….
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