For those who like their adventures epic in scope, there could be no better place. Thousands of infantrymen were arrayed on the field of battle, backed by artillery support, headed by a courageous -- or foolhardy -- commander, leading his troops to victory or into the valley of death. Only time would tell -- time, tactics and a sense of proportion.

Proportion is especially important on this field of battle. The troops often stand no taller than 30 millimeters, and the life-size tacticians are adventurers in spirit only. This is war-gaming, and these are the Potomac War-gamers, an unlikely assortment of accountants, bureaucrats, one pharmacist, a lawyer, several retirees and even a real military officer or two. Some 30 strong, they risk only their evenings and weekends in their battles--no lives, no property, no national honor or charismatic cause.

They are about the most gentle group of warriors you'll ever meet. They have buttons that say, "Tin Soldiers Never Die" and "War- gaming Is Hell" and "Have Soldiers. Will War-game." They are kind to kids and they meet in a church nursery school, surrounded by biblical admonitions to turn the other cheek and bring peace on earth, goodwill to men.

"We agree war is hell," said Jim Butters, 56, who works for the U.S. Bureau of Standards, "but the horrors of war are impossible to duplicate. It's just a game, a reversion to childhood. Most of us are ordinary family people who enjoy a hobby.

And yet their hobby and, by extension, its practitioners, have an image problem. It's the word "war" that sets people off. A few years ago, they even lost their lease on another church meeting place after it was decided the group's presence was, well, inappropriate. The church elders would have no wars fought in their basement, by God. Some war-gamers suggested changing their name to something more palatable like "adventure gamers," but, fortunately, saner minds prevailed.

The hullaballoo was a little odd, especially considering how war-gaming got started in modern times. The founding father was no less a figure than pacifist and purveyor-of-the-future H. G. Wells. It was he who devised a game he called "Little Wars." Among other things, Wells saw his game of miniatures as the war to end all wars.

"We want fine things made for mankind, and so I offer my game, for a particular as well as a general end," he wrote in a delightful little book about it published in 1913. "Let us put this prancing monarch and that silly scaremonger, and these excitable 'patriots,' and those adventurers, and all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with cork carpets everywehre, and plenty of little trees and little houses to knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers--tons, cellars-full-- and let them lead their own lives there away from us.

"My game is just as good as their game, and saner by reason of its size. Here is War, done down to rational proportions, and yet out of the way of mankind. . . ."

For years, wargaming remained a minor diversion for a few, mainly Englishmen. Oh, the generals played it, of course, in both world wars, to aid in their actual battle plans. But it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that it began to catch on with civilians here in the United States. Perhaps it was the gore of televised war from Vietnam that turned people onto wargaming. Or perhaps it was nothing so profound at all, more like a simple case of model railroading run amuck.

Whatever the cause, wargaming exploded like a round of cannon fire. Societies of wargamers sprung up across the land. magazines flourished, some of them sponsoring their own organizations that, in turn, increased the demand for wargaming supplies. Not only a hobby but an industry was born.

"DID YOU KNOW," began an ad to retailers in one issue of Wargamer's Digest, "that this month the 'Military Miniatures War- gaming Association' war- game battle sets are going out to thousands of members? That when members start studying their 'Orders Of Battle' they will be looking for more metal miniatures and plastic kits? That maps mailed to members will call for more terrain material which they will be buying?"

If the hobby shops are still mostly for kids, most war- gamers today are grownups. They prefer history to fantasy, eschewing the game of dungeons and dragons that has won over so many young people. They delight in the tiny figures they move around (although a few use cardboard chips representing whole regiments and battalions). And, whether their wargaming is macho or not, they're almost all of them men.

"I'm just studying," said one war-gaming widow, sitting off to the side at a recent meeting where she was reading the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene code of regulations she needed to know as a licensed nursing home administrator. She had hidden them inconspicuously inside a book about World War I, like a kid in school hiding a comic book inside a notebook. "I'm with him," she said sheepishly.

Him was P. J. Condray, of Alexandria, a civilian program management officer with the Department of the Army in real life who specializes in two-dimensional figures known as "flats." He and his flats were busy battling over the fate of Vienna, circa 1680.

"This is the only thing he does that I don't do," said Pat Condray. "I haven't the vaguest idea what these things are about. He paints (figures) about four nights a week. He has thousands of these little things, boxes and boxes. I married Patrick and his flats. We got rid of all the kids but kept the flats. They all grew up, but the flats stayed there. It's a whole different world. They correspond with people in France and England about war- gaming, send translations back and forth across the water. They're really serious about this."

The opposing forces meet on battlefields of green cloth (blue for naval battles). They cover basement Ping-Pong tables or sand tables and, on the third Friday night of each month, preschoolers' desks at Pilgrim United Church of Christ off Layhill Road in Wheaton.

"Welcome to adventureland," said Wally Simon, a 49-year old Metro contracts administrator who is the moving force behind the Potomac War-gamers and its chatty monthly newsletter," PW Review." There were six little wars in progress one recent Friday. They ranged from a time mismatch between Norwegian Vikings (c. 1100 A.D.) and Asian Indians (900 to 430 B.C.) to a World War II confrontation between Germans and Russians on the Eastern Front.

What all had in common were the basic elements of troop movement, firing of weapons (catapults in pre- gunpowder days), hand-to- hand combat or melee, and morale. Advances were measured in inches, with a ruler or tape measure, while a throw of the dice established body counts. On a stand holding more than one trooper, toothpicks are often used to mark the dead. "When I take pictures, I only use dark green toothpicks so they won't show up," explained one avid war-gamer. "I save all green cocktail toothpicks."

"It's very straightforward," said Rick Walker, a NASA project support manager who easily moves from the space age to ancient times, his war-gaming specialty. "If you can do income taxes, you can do this."

In this match-up of miniatures, a single soldier can represent as many as 60 or more soldiers. There are at least two reasons for this. One, too many toy soldiers becomes cumbersome. Second, the game may be free of risk but it is not without its cost: These military budgets, like the real thing, can get out of hand, especially when troops can cost $1.25 or more apiece.

"If you start adding up what your hobby costs, you don't do it anymoraming se," said Ed Hyland, a paralegal and a dedicated war-gamer who had just refought the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz in the church nursery school. On the table was, he figured, about $800 worth of 15 millimeter miniatures. That was just the raw cost of the lead figures, unpainted.

Painting the figures to historical accuracy can also be costly. A series of books with color plates sells for around $8 each, in paperback. Some war-gamers pay extra to have their figures painted, while to others, painting the miniatures is what the hobby's all about.

Here, the hobby divides into one of its several splinter groups. The National Capital Military Collectors, a separate organization, concerns itself largely with the collecting and painting of miniatures and the related study of uniform styles and colors. John Victor, a retired government worker who was twice the group's "commanding officer," said he quit because "I decided my greatest love is war-gaming, and a person can't do everything. I'm not a collector. I paint to use, not to collect."

Victor is also one of a growing number of war- gamers who manufacture the fighting figures. He has a franchise from a British company to make and sell micro- armour," at five millimeters in height the smallest fighting forces around.

Wally Simon also makes and sells lead figures, only in the more expensive 30-millimeter size. He and wargamer Robert Wiltrout II, a self-described "Beltway Bandit," in partnership with a housing contractor in North Carolina and others, market "Fusiliers," which are early 19th-century figures. Their business took Simon and Wiltrout to Raleigh one recent weekend where their partner has a casting machine. Another reason for the trip was to play on the man's basement-wide, horseshoe- shaped sand table.

"You can wet it down, sculpt it, do anything you want," said Wiltrout. "We sculpted the 1806 Prussian battles of Jena and Auerstadt, which were fought within a few miles of each other. "We scaled the whole thing out, spray-painted green for general terrain, blue and brown for rivers and roads. It was beautiful."

Their favorite time frame spans the Napoleonic Wars, the magnum bellum of wargaming. It's considered both the first modern war and the last conventional one featuring large movements of infantry, artillery and cavalry. Some of the more avid Napoleonic players have even journeyed to Waterloo to study the real battlefield. "It's a journey to Mecca," said Simon, who visited it with Jim Butters, a former president of Potomac Wargamers.

Whatever the era, war- gaming can produce strange soundtracks when the players assume their vicarious roles as commanders of opposing forces. Listen to some onversations overheard in the various theaters of war at the church nursery school:

From the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz--"I'm the Austrians so I'm kind of out of it right now." "Are you ready to have your town taken? Oh, wait a minute, I get to charge. Thump, thump, thump." "I think you guys are supposed to notice me after the battle starts." "Kevin, are you moving your Austrians?"

From the shifting fortunes of war in the Asian-Viking conflict--"It's gonna be a very long trip back to Norway." "I think if any of this had happened in history, India would be a Scandinavian country."

From the World War II Eastern Front--"Is it our movement? Whose penetration is these guns?" "Have the Russian dogs (a ruse; it's really ammo in the truck approaching the square) moved yet?"

Serious if obscure debates erupt over historical footnotes that affect the outcomes of even well-researched wars, and sometimes new ground is broken. Practitioners of "Napoleonics," as war-gaming that era is called, argued feverishly one evening the heated question of how the third line could have fired, as history books maintain it did, with the heads of first- and second-line soldiers in the way.

Such arcane controversies lead war-gamers to collect not only miniatures but books. Wally Simon's living room library, for instance, includes biographies of the duke of Wellington and Napoleon.

War-gamers mostly stay away from wars like Vietnam, however. Politics aside, noted Wiltrout, who was an Army medic there, "it's very hard to war-game because so much of it was surprise and concealment. It's hard to put on a table. There are guys who make the figures and try to play it, but it doesn't work that well."

Wargaming World War III is also problematic, although it has been tried. At last summer's "Origins" convention in Baltimore, hobbyists attempted to conduct the dreaded conflict. Given the ranges of modern weapons, they slugged it out on a 100- yard field, pacing the trajectories. It began with conventional weapons in Europe, but the outcome was uncertain. "I didn't stay to watch it," said Wiltrout. "I had a battle of sailing ships to go fight."

On the eve of the First World War, nearly sixty years ago, that H. G. Wells--the self-styled "chief inventor and practicer (so far)" of Little Wars--discerned the great lesson to be learned from war games. Doubtless, most of today's playful protagonists would agree; they are, after all, war-gamers, not warmongers.

"How much better is the amiable miniature than the Real Thing!" he wrote. "You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be. Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion . . .

"Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but the available heads we have for it are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do."