Gygax on Miniatures in D&D

I don't usually employ miniatures in my RPG play. We ceased that when we moved from CHAINMAIL Fantasy to D&D.

I have nothing against the use of miniatures, but they are generally impractical for long and free-wheeling campaign play where the scene and opponents can vary wildly in the course of but an hour.

The GW folks use them a lot, but they are fighting set-piece battles as is usual with miniatures gaming.

I don't believe that fantasy miniatures are good or bad for FRPGs in general. If the GM sets up gaming sessions based on their use, the resulting play is great from my standpoint. It is mainly a matter of having the painted figures and a big tabletop to play on.

- Gary Gygax on ENWorld, 2003 (

I've heard in the past that Gygax didn't use miniatures in D&D, but it's interesting to hear it in his own voice. "We ceased that when we moved from CHAINMAIL Fantasy to D&D." This makes sense in a lot of ways.

One of the things it helps make sense is how the rules for use of miniatures in AD&D don't (to be frank) make single lick of sense. Consider how miniatures don't physically fit on a map at 1" = 10 feet scale, and the truly crazy stuff on DMG p. 10 (make maps at 1" = 3⅓ feet). The reason? Well, Gygax had ceased actually using them as soon as the RPG itself came into existence. The ranges and movements are copy-and-pasted from Chainmail, but he wasn't actually using them directly. In other words, the use of minis became a vestigial, unusable appendage in D&D.

Consider stuff like this. A fireball in Chainmail & OD&D has a fixed range of 24". In AD&D that gets changed to a caster-dependent range of 10" + 1" per level. Repeat that for every spell's range and area in the entire book. Why the enormous increase in complexity (requiring math on the fly just to find any spell's area and range)? Especially when Gygax wasn't using miniatures or a game map in any way himself?

Knowing how Gary would write, I can almost hear how he'd answer this. "It's self-evident that more powerful casters will have greater efficacy, and rules for minatures were included for the kind of person who would enjoy that sort of thing." Something like that. Kind of dodging the fact that AD&D is shot full of complicated rules, everywhere, that he neither used nor playtested; looking good on paper but not playing out so well. (Funny, too, that he's licensing and promoting "OFFICIAL ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS miniature figures" [DMG p. 11] simultaneously with abandoning their use in his own play.)

Now, there are other things that this does helps rationalize. One is that it's an excellent point that, in a game with lots of random encounter tables, you really would be hamstrung if you have to go running for different types of miniatures every time a new encounter pops up. Another thing is the need for AD&D rules to now specify random contacts in combat. "Discharge of missiles into an existing melee is easily handled... Assign probabilities to each participant in the melee or target group according to sheer numbers." (DMG p. 63). "As with missile fire, it is generally not possible to select a specific opponent in a mass melee. If this is the case, simply use some random number generation to find out which attacks are upon which opponents..." (DMG p. 70). That sort of thing.

But the one thing this egregiously overlooks is the interaction of area-effect spells (fireball and all the rest). If melee is an entirely abstracted, Pigpen-like dustup, how do you determine who gets hit by an area-effect spell? Everyone, friend and foe? Whoever you want? Just the bad guys? Random determination? To-hit rolls or Intelligence checks? In all of OD&D and AD&D, I'm pretty sure there's not a single line addressing this question, leaving it entirely ambiguous.

A critical history of D&D would include the following -- Start with Chainmail historical mass rules at 1:20 scale (1 turn = 1 minute, 1" = 10 yards); this includes catapult-fire where players declare the range shot without measurement. Then Gygax develops man-to-man combat, including jousting and the fantasy supplement (using the moves and ranges from 1:20 scale, but never addressing what the new scale is or what should change in that regard); a wizard's fireball simply refers back to the catapult rules.

Now OD&D comes out, and in large part it refers back to Chainmail for combat. "Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter", stuff like that (Vol. 2, p. 5). Of course, the game creator himself is not using miniatures anymore. Questions of scale are given only the most cursory treatment: the combat turn is still 1 minute (fixed from Chainmail's 1:20 mass combat), and not until Vol. 3 are we told, "In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given in inches convert them to tens of feet." (Vol. 3, p. 8). Perhaps that's all the attention you need to the issue if combat has been entirely abstracted at this point.

If I had been more observant, a few years ago when Gary was still with us and generously answering questions in several different Q&A questions online, I really wish I'd asked him this: "What do you do in D&D to adjudicate the effect of area spells like a fireball, et. al?" Are we to assume that OD&D's reference back to Chainmail Fantasy, which in turn references back to Chainmail mass combat's catapult rules, requires declaration of shot range? (N.B.: The declare-range rule reappears uniquely in the AD&D fireball description, but is then semi-sabotaged by the stated need for vision to target of fireball in DMG p 65.) Or are we to assume that since miniatures are no longer actually in use on a map, that the determination is done by caster fiat or some random method?

Once I noticed this, it seems funny how much ink is spent in AD&D covering the new hit-the-caster-lose-the-spell rules, and never once addressing who-gets-hit-by-the-spell in its new, purely abstract combat system. Take-away here is two things, I think. (1) Gygax never actually played the game with miniatures at the alleged 1" = 10 feet scale (or 1" = 3⅓ feet, or the stated ranges for moves, missiles, and spells, or anything else), and (2) Area-of-effect spells are left entirely unaddressed in classic D&D, and definitely require some novel, independent adjudication on who gets hit by each individual DM.
Addendum: Another Q&A post by Gygax rules that targets for a sleep spell would be randomly chosen, so perhaps that aims us in a suggestive direction. ( http://www.enworld.org/forum/1972519-post68.html )

Virel: Say a sleep spell is cast at a group of ten characters... Can the caster specifically select the six creatures or six levels he or she wants to be effected?

Gygax: No. Six of the 1st level NPCs would be affected at random.


  1. WHile I enjoy having miniatures at the gaming table, I am ambivalent about the use of miniatures for combat for a couple of reasons.

    The first is (as you say) the trouble of "setting the scene" via the use of miniatures, scenery, dungeon tiles and the like.

    The second is a more thorny issue: the loss of imagination, dread and chaos, that comes from a miniatures-free game.

    Let me explain: when there are no monster miniatures on the table, the players are forced to imagine what the monsters look like. In many ways, this is preferable, since now the DM can describe the monster, and the players can fill in the blanks as to what the monster looks like. Hopefully, this means their imaginations will run wild, and the monster will be far more fear-inducing that a tiny 40 mm figure on the gaming table.

    Secondly, the lack of a precisely laid-out battle map means that, again, the DM can play up the chaos, battle-field fog, and fluidity of the combat, rather than each player being able to determine their location and the most strategic actions given the circumstances.

    That is why, while I love to build scenery, and paint and display miniatures, I am ambivalent about their use during a game.

  2. Definitely strong arguments. I would agree these days that I too, am "ambivalent", even though my current default is to use them.

    I think the main counterargument is reduction of player disputes ("I was around the corner!") and adjudication of big area-effects in D&D.

  3. I think there is a niche for an 0d&d clone that could do two things that no other clone does.

    1) bridge the gap between chainmail and dnd with precise rules for going from 1:1 scale to 1:10 or 1:20.

    2) a system that incoperates miniatures correctly.

    To me, you are that creator! I'd buy that retro clone. I don't buy any retro clones now, because they aren't anything but dnd and house rules. You could be the first to actually fix flaws inherent incthe Orr. Product.

    I mean your post on the area of a torch was simple, yet it's something nobody has ever addressed before!

  4. UWS Guy, you flatter and tempt me enormously!! Thanks for the supportive words. :)

  5. Note though that the original question seemed to suggest a use of miniatures.

    "All of the targets are with very close together and with in range and area of effect."

    My question would be, if the melee is abstracted and you have no figures, how do you determine who is in or out of the area of effect?

    Take the example of 4 F1 (who are the enemy), 2 C2, 2 M2, 2 T2 (who are the PCs). Is it not possible to shift the area over so as to exclude one of the 1st level thief PCs, perhaps at the cost if excluding one of the 1st level fighter NPCs? Certainly on a grid with figures it's easy to see whether this is possible or not, and it is often not possible. But in abstracted combat the tradeoff of missing one enemy per friend you wish to miss might make sense.

    In this way, a Sleep spell can be used with a sort of limited friendly fire, in that you can afford to hit higher-level friends because you know they can't be affected. A Fireball spell has no such friendly fire-resistant feature.