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.)


  1. I've had a lot of the same problems, and I think you've got a very lucid take on it.

    One thing that has helped me somewhat is having miniatures on a drawing mat with no lines. I just eyeball most movements and ranges (I keep them rounded off a six-inch resolution anyway), and the players seem to be fairly spontaneous, without having to mentally or on paper keep track of how many goblins are left or who they are endangering (I use hand-drawn paper minis, so I can drop a lot on the table at once).

  2. Yes very interesting. I never used miniatures because I found that having used a figure once it was corny to use it again as something other. In that case one is better off with abstract pieces like dice.

    My old crew were still fond of fidgeting with their chosen lead representatives as visual artifacts during a game.

    My new crew (new to the game) look on miniatures with unspoken contempt and dont want to see them on the table. This puzzles me.

    I think as soon as you whip out a nice large scale map miniatures are a positive feature for positioning for exploration but they have a degrading effect on the verbal description of the freedom and dynamics of combat.

  3. this is one of the many reasons I am switching back to basic dnd.

  4. In terms of Aristotle's dramatic elements, we might suggest that miniatures downplay Action and Language in favor of increased Spectacle.

    I've been very down on miniatures the last few years. I think my emotional exhaustion from using them extensively in my 3.5 campaign was transformed in outright aversion after reading Guy deBord's work on the Spectacle.

  5. Back in the day we always played with figures or other markers. Leading (in a gloriously Gazeboey way) one new player to think Ogres were large white cube shaped creatures until he bought the Monster Manual.

    But we were never very tactical about it, measuring distances or counting squares. We used them to show marching order. Because that way the DM didn't have to ask when a trap was going off or something had snuck up on us. Otherwise when he did ask (and usually it was me DMing), there would be a jockeying for position, to have the best arrangement for they thought might happen. That sort of Metagaming ruined the illusion for us.

    When an actual combat broke out, we used the figs to show who was fighting what enemy; and who was "over there" doing something else. There was some tactical movement e.g. the giant tries to break through your line to get to the M-U. And that was all resolved by reasonableness and DM fiat when necessary (after all the point of a DM was that you didn't need 500 pages of rules to cover every possible situation-the DM was the rulebook).

    Plus minis are cool. And girls like minis, they think they're cute. (Still important, even these days, that last bit.)

    NICE: auto word-complete is trying to help me with the word verification.

  6. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    On the subject of marching order, I ask my players and just make a little sketch in the margin of my notepaper. I find that with minis for that players tend to take a lot of time discussing & repositioning the line during play on the table, when it mostly isn't significant.

    Re: Joshua, "One thing that has helped me somewhat is having miniatures on a drawing mat with no lines." -- That too was part of my separation process; I got a gridless map that I used for about 2 years or so (with rulers), hoping to solve the chessboard problem. It improved stuff somewhat, but not the silver bullet for me.

  7. I've always liked miniatures, but my fascination with them predates my playing D&D.
    Early on we used some 25mm Lord of the Rigs figures (absolutely every elf was represented by Legolas or on of the Rohan archers. every magic user was represented by the Gandalf figure, etc.). The placement of said figures was, as Gratuitous Saxon Violence said, considered approximate... I suppose because the rules dealing with them was considered approximate as well... we had just a few paragraphs... no diagrams, no other rules, etc.
    So most rulings were done (more or less) by DM fiat. "You are here and you want to move here? OK, but this ogre gets to attack you as you run across the room..." etc. There were no rules in regards to such things (at least none that we knew of) and our squares on our tabletop were 3 inches across... which represented ~ 10 feet.
    I don't remember it taking very long to resolve things... there certainly wasn't any square counting and debates about attacks of opportunity, etc.

  8. Another intermediate step between a zero mini game and full on little guys on a grid is what we tended to do for Paul's Labyrinth Lord game (*sigh*) where the minis were used as tokens for easy indicators of marching order and party dispersal during combat (front line, hanging back, split off to sneak up for a backstab, etc. etc.) Paul never used minis for the monsters, just the PCs.

    You saw a bit of this when I broke out the PC minis for his Forgotten Realms tournament game at Helgacon.

    As for myself, I still loves me some minis, but there is much to be said for not having to fiddle with 'em during play.

  9. We used miniatures back in the day (AD&D) for marching order and splitting into watches. There use in combat kind of varied over the years. Sometimes we used them a lot, sometimes only for the big combats. We never used them in the counting squares fashion. Normally we told the DM what we were doing, “I’m charging the Orcs!” He would then tell us what happened. “They charge you too, and you meet in the middle of the room.” So we would put the figs in the middle of the room. None of the back and forth movement that would allow the first guy to cross the whole room without them moving. There was no measuring and counting squares for spells either. Throwing a fireball and bi-sec ting two combatants was considered impossible, so that kind of obsessive measuring was avoided. Our combats did not really run much longer with minitures.

  10. I'm absolutely with you on miniatures. I started playing Moldvay Basic and moved into AD&D without using minis, just describing action and occasionally sketching out a little thumbnail map for clarity. I kept it that way even when playing, for instance, MSH, right up to the 3.x/Pathfinder era. Like you, I found it slowed combat considerably, and I've been inspired to give up 3.x/PF rulesets because you can't "do away" with the tactical map without breaking the game.