Friday, April 15, 2011
Miniatures & Me
Here's the trajectory of my experience with miniatures in D&D: I got into D&D with the Holmes blue-book set around 1979, and very soon after that got the various AD&D hardcovers.
Those rules didn't require any miniatures to play. However, they tended to have a very short allusion to the fact that miniatures possibly could be used. In Holmes it's a single line (p. 5); in the AD&D DMG it's about 3 paragraphs (p. 10-11). While we didn't use miniatures, and we couldn't afford them as kids at the time, there was a sense in which we were missing out on something, that there was a "full and fancy" way of playing the game that was somewhat out of reach.
Now, go back in time a little bit, before I started playing (and more generally, before the boom years of around 1978-1984). I now understand that our favorite RPG developed out of historical miniature wargaming with Chainmail and its appendage man-to-man fantasy supplement. But there was a big shift upon the publication of D&D, upon which miniatures were fundamentally no longer used. Even in original D&D, miniatures are absent from the list of Recommended Equipment (again, the one line reference: "miniatures are not required, only esthetically pleasing..." Vol-1, p. 5). As Gygax later wrote: "I don't usually employ miniatures in my RPG play. We ceased that when we moved from CHAINMAIL Fantasy to D&D." (Here.)
However, the artifacts of prior miniature gaming remained in the rules, with such things as moves and ranges in inches, copied forward directly from Chainmail, even if they were no longer intended to be used directly as such. For example, even though the PHB says that "Indoors 1" equals 10 feet" (p. 39), the DMG miniatures rule is that "Each ground scale inch can then be used to equal 3 1/3 linear feet" (p. 10). That is to say: the 1" technical indicator throughout the rules is no longer actually 1" -- rather, it becomes 3" on the tabletop if miniatures are being used by the book. On the other hand, Holmes D&D initiated the development of removing inch-units from the game entirely, instead indicating movement and ranges simply by in-game feet.
So the truth is that miniatures had become a vestigial organ in D&D, and truth be told, they couldn't physically be used at the scale indicated (see above for how a DMG inch isn't really an inch; or else try to fit three 25mm figures in a scale 10' corridor -- it can't be done). Nonetheless, this prehistory was unknown to me, and with those one-line-per book nods to miniatures, I still felt somewhat deprived.
Fast forward to 2000. 3E D&D was released, with a new heavy emphasis on tactical miniatures (spell areas-of-effect given with maps of affected grid areas, etc.) By that time, I'd become a professional with a fairly well-paying job, no family, and moderate disposable income. So this conjunction permitted me to dive back into the game and finally scratch that itch for tactical miniatures play. In the 3E era, I got a battlemap, markers, miniatures for my PCs and monsters, and so forth.
I did notice that 3E adventuring and combat was enormously slower than the D&D I'd been previously accustomed to. Obviously, there's a lot of factors for this: (a) the newness of the ruleset, (b) the complexity of the ruleset, (c) players counting battlemap squares like a chess game before movement or spell-casting (and explaining and debating attacks-of-opportunity, etc.) But I kept with it, thinking that the pacing would pick up if played properly at some point, making more and more tweaks along the way to speed things up, and stuff like that.
Around the time I started this blog (in the 3.5E era), I was in the process of giving up on the whole thing, first trying to craft a cut-down d20 System variant, and then just switching back to OD&D with some Greyhawk stuff and a bit of mathematical streamlining. I was dialing down my miniature play, telling myself that mostly I'd run things in a narrative fashion, and only use miniatures and a battlemap for more complicated encounters. The problem with that: As soon as you break out the battlemap, action slows down to a degree that one encounter may take up the whole night, and again you wind up with most of your playing time spent in miniatures-mode. (Example: My last year's G1 game.)
This past Thanksgiving I had some mostly non-roleplaying friends over, and on a whim I suggested that I get my Marvel Super Heroes game out of the basement and play a one-off game of that (here). This is a game that also comes with maps of city streets and buildings for tactical play, with specific rules for space-by-space movement, stand-up figures and counters, etc. As I pulled the box open, I started to realize what it would take to introduce my new players to the game -- and quickly thought it best to just skip the whole tactical map/figures part. Without them wanting to process those rules, I could just revert back to "Players tell me what you think to do, I tell you what's necessary for success", which is the easiest ways to dip new players into an RPG game. And it really worked a lot better and more crisply than any of my games for years -- although the maps, box of stand-up figures, and rules for space-by-space movement and ranges went unused. So that's what I also did for my G2 convention game recently (here), and likewise, it was the most satisfying D&D play I've had in a long time, getting to lots more interesting content than in any of the other classic modules I've run in years past.
I'm nowhere near the first person to observe this, but the basic tension for miniatures is something like, pros: (1) tactical specificity, (2) visual excitement, (3) tactile play enjoyment; versus cons: (1) pacing slow-down, (2) out-of-character thinking, (3) possibly limiting the imagination with fixed representations. In terms of Aristotle's dramatic elements, we might suggest that miniatures downplay Action and Language in favor of increased Spectacle.
So in some sense, you might say that I've come full circle, back to where I was in the late 70's, playing by narration only, and no miniatures. And that's just rediscovering the path that Gygax took in the same vein, discarding miniatures once the RPG form was discovered. And it's odd, too, that WOTC on the corporate level has also recreated that same progression, publishing D&D Minatures throughout the last decade or so, but ending that line in the last few months (and also printing some products with counters for use on a battlemap, as I've been told). Are we doomed to keep recycling that progression?
Of course, miniatures are not without a great deal of charm. One thing I realized after my G2 game, as awesome as the play was: I had no compelling pictures after the fact, since there was no instantiation of the game in visible form at the table; there was just people, talking and imagining and laughing. So miniatures are great for promotions and photography, and not having them is a real loss. (Maybe this argues more for the podcasting trend as a truer representation of the hobby, although it takes more effort to produce?) And miniatures are absolutely indispensable for a different kind of game, such as a more strategic game (like Corsairs of Medero), or a full-blown wargame (like Book of War) -- but not so much for an RPG where we want the players to experience looking through the eyes of a single character (especially in a dungeon-delving, hopefully claustrophobic context).
And the same goes for other classic games that come with maps & figures or counters -- like Boot Hill, Marvel Superheroes, Star Frontiers, etc. Holy god, every time I see my container of Star Frontiers counters I just get itchy all over, wanting to pull them out, make use of them, and see those sci-fi monsters, aliens, robots, and vehicles in action again. And of course my quasi-OCD makes it hard to avoid running games with rules of that nature "the right way" if I don't make a conscious effort to snip them out. And it's also true that I've spent quite a bit of time trying to "fix" the broken scaling rules in OD&D/AD&D and rationalize how they would be used with miniatures -- perhaps somewhat embarrassing, if I now don't expect to use miniatures regularly anymore. I would like them to be still usable if desired, and hope that my own scaling house-rules don't also go through a similar process of degeneration from neglect in the future.
But my recent experience, particularly with newer and less hardcore players, is that the immediacy and fast-pacing of play without miniatures removes a big degree of frustration I've had with the game (really, ever since 3E came out). I'm pretty much convinced that the slow-down effect of miniatures play is not wholly solvable. It's the linguistic and mathematical exchange that really fired my imagination for the game in the first place, and it's a lot of fun to be able to re-discover the essence of that.
(Photo by Adrian Cotter.)