Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Miniatures Heritage of OD&D


Last week I made a post in which I clarified an imprecision in my usage of the term "wargame" with reference to the historical background out of which OD&D arose. This led to some interesting comments, including one about the way that many in the old school movement downplay the importance of miniatures, sometimes to the point of denying that they were ever used.

I can certainly understand why some might wish to do this. The WotC editions of D&D became increasingly reliant on the use of miniatures and so miniatures are an easy target to lash out against as the locus of where those editions "strayed" from the original vision for the game. This is made easier by the fact that so many old schoolers didn't use miniatures in their games. We know, from accounts by his players, that Gygax didn't use miniatures in his home campaign. Likewise, OD&D, as written, doesn't require the use of minis; even large combats can be adjudicated easily without the need for them. Consequently, it's not a great leap from there to argue that miniature figures aren't part of the heritage of the game.

That would be a mistake, though, a mistake I've of which I've been guilty too. I rarely used minis in my early D&D campaigns. I owned lots of miniatures, as I've said, but they were mostly used as "toys," not something we used as part of play beyond visually establishing a marching order or the like. At the same time, we knew of several gaming groups that used miniatures religiously and, again, we know from contemporary accounts that Dave Arneson did use miniatures in his home campaign. There was thus a lot of variation from group to group and the fact that miniatures continued to be bought and sold shows that someone must have been using them and likely putting them to heavier use than I ever did back in the day.

In any case, my point here is not that miniatures are an inseparable part of "the D&D experience" or anything like that. You can easily play old school D&D without the use of miniatures. Rather, my point is that it's a mistake, as some do, to look on miniatures as somehow aberrant or not a significant part of the heritage of D&D, especially in its early days. Roleplaying grew out of miniatures wargaming; that's a fact of history. Many of the hobby's most durable ideas and practices can be linked backed to similar ideas and practices in miniatures gaming. To deny this is to deny history.

At the same time, I'm not arguing, as others have done, equally in ignorance, that D&D was (or is) a miniatures wargame. The truth is a fair bit more convoluted and messy and it's difficult to say just where miniatures wargaming ends and roleplaying begins, but I hope we can all agree that the border lies somewhere within those three little brown books, even if no one at the time quite realized this. Trying to piece together this history is part of why I started this blog. It's an ongoing process and often one that's fraught with setbacks and re-evaluations. Lately, I've been giving a lot more thought to the miniatures side of things, so expect more posts on this in the future. I hope anyone who has more extensive experience with miniatures wargaming in the 1970s will chime in with their insights, since I have so little of my own to offer on this score.

33 comments:

  1. I'm almost your exact contemporary in terms of gaming; we began at the same time and are very near in age. Here's what I and my friends did with miniatures. We would use them occasionally to figure out line-of-sight for spells and archery, but usually only for combat involving human-sized creatures (for some reason we had very few monster miniatures). We almost never painted them, mostly because we didn't really know how and they looked like crap when we tried. We'd use all sort of other stuff with the minis, like plastic dinosaurs, army men, chess pieces...anything that would make a good stand-in. We never got so finicky that we were using minis with a ruler to figure spell effect radius, etc., though I would sometimes use threads of different lengths tied to pins if there was a real debate about precise distance. The other thing we did use sometimes was cardboard counters from Melee and Wizard, which were the first sort-of-roleplaying games I played.

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  2. Yeah, I think it's hard to deny that D&D was always at least "mini friendly".

    Movement and spell effects in inches are clearly a wargaming convention.

    Sometimes I used minis, sometimes not, but I always preferred movement in inches, rather than putting everything on a grid.

    That part IS new. But minis have been part of D&D forever.

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  3. I did know some older gamers who did miniatures wargaming, which is the only reason I understood why D&D did movement in inches (some of my friends didn't). We never thought of D&D as a miniatures game per se, but we did think you ought to have some miniatures to use while playing. We all wanted to have minis of our characters, though we didn't use them in gameplay very much; they were more like personal icons.

    Come to think of it, I also knew some people who made dioramas with minis, which I thought was very cool and also totally beyond my ability. I'd like to try it now, though...hmm...

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  4. I'd say the role-playing started before the original 3 book boxed set. After all, it is what suggested the idea behind producing D&D, rather than just using the Fantasy appendix of Chainmail.

    I think the natural tendency of wargamers to empathise with their leaders and troops in a campaign definitely contributed to the rapid uptake of the game. Or at least that was the case with me.

    Although I tended to use concepts and ideas from minature wargaming I never actually used minatures to play D&D (although I did, by necessity, use them for Melee/Wizard). Probably because I didn't have the money to acquire a collection at the time, and afterwards found there was no need for them. I prefer to work without them now.

    The vast majority of the people that used minatures for D&D in my circle were people that were already into collecting and painting minatures – in which case they served more as a showcase of their art than anything else.

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  5. Hmph. Interesting. We always assumed miniatures were meant to be used, from the time I started in the 70s. I never knew Gary didn't use them. For me, they added clarity to situations, plus, like colored dice with funny shapes, were (and are) part of the charm of the game. (Might also be a reaction to the "real roleplayers" crowd that came in with Vampire and sneered at minis.)

    As always, a thoughtful and provocative post.

    Security word: "unart." What results when I try to draw.

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  6. It's a good point, and emphasizing the subtitle logo from the original box is even better (something I do often).

    Me, I didn't use minis back in the day, but I do now. Works well, I keep it loose, avoid a lot of mini-specific rules, don't use a grid, etc. I think a more accurate criticism could be made about WOTC's turning the game into a chess-like affair, with powers and moves dictated on spaces-this and spaces-that, etc.

    That said, I must say that my primary frustration with Gygax's works is the enormous gaping difference between what he published and what he played. In the late era I became aware of just how many differences there are/were. Salt in the wound is that he would rather scornfully repudiate people who were having trouble using his AD&D rules as written, as it being "obvious" that only some sort of fool would try to use those rule sections. Like, perhaps, minis and all the D&D scaling rules.

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  7. I think it would be best to say that D&D is a game that can be played with miniatures. My group has always used some kind of visual aid in our gaming, whether it was drawing out the scene on graph paper, or a detailed battlemat with minis. We even did this when we played roleplaying games that didn't have any rules regarding position and movement, such as Vampire or Mage. We also play a lot of miniatures wargames, so we have lots of minis available, and we're a group of tactical-minded gamers.

    I'm not sure where the idea that D&D should be divorced from minis comes from, but James' suggestion that it has to do with the minis-heavy play of the new editions sounds as good as any other. The idea that other gamers would criticise me for using (or not using) minis in D&D is laughable, though.

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  8. The people who taught me had miniatures, but they didn't seem to use them very much and it was only around 81' or 82' when the first cloth battlemaps were being sold that people were actually using them. Personally,I'm an old wargamer so I like to incorporate miniatures and the use of the batlemap as much as possible.

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  9. We always used minis and a wet-erase mat with 1" squares. It was good for line of sight, attack distance, areas of effect, that sort of thing. And I really started D&D with 2E.

    I think it's good for an RPG to be playable without or with minis. If you start introducing rules that really require their use, maybe it would be best to redesign the rule.

    That said, I think use of minis (or other tokens) is an excellent game aid. I think after your pencil and paper, and six dice, and rules, your next most important tool is a token to represent your character.

    It's unclear whether you need anything else at all.

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  10. As I understand it, proto-D&D first came into existence when Arneson and his gang were playing a miniatures castle siege, and the players invaded the dungeons under the castle. That sounds like a minis game, with some role-playing tacked on. They enjoyed themselves, and probably came back multiple times, continuing to use minis but each time placing a greater emphasis on the role-playing.

    Arneson and Gygax communicate, Gygax tries it with his group. Initially this may have been a minis battle with a bit of role-playing, but session-after-session becoming more role-playing in orientation.

    Arneson shares his notes with Gygax, Gygax fleshes them out and writes them up. At this point D&D is largely divorced from Chainmail, and most people don't even use minis when they learn and play it.

    I can only speculate that this is what happened, but it makes sense, and adds support to the notion that D&D as published, while inspired by wargaming, was really never a wargame itself.

    I am, however, fascinated by that brief period where proto-D&D existed in a quasi-wargame state. I've been toying with the notion of trying to replicate it with Heritage's Knights & Magick minis rules, which have really nice role-playing hooks and in my opinion make a lot more sense than Chainmail. Just flesh out the role-playing a tiny bit, but keep it a skirmish wargame played out on maps or terrain, with each session being a scenario linked in an ongoing campaign.

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  11. After my first argument of "No I was behind the corner here not there." I was a GM who proudly used miniatures.

    The issue for most is that there a learning curve to using miniatures quickly and effectively. After a few clumsy attempts more than a few GMs say the heck with it and just go without miniatures.

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  12. Sean Patrick Fanon's Fantasy Role-Playing Gamer's Bible actually has a really interesting overview of the "pre-history" of RPGs, and it shows a vast number of incremental innovations in wargames that led to role-playing. D&D did role-playing first, but looking at the way things developed, I strongly suspect that it was inevitable that RPGs would come out of that hobby scene.

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  13. Whether any particular GM uses or used miniatures is a moot point. In the beginning of DnD it more of a miniatures game then a roleplaying game because it had yet to totally evolve into what we know to day.
    We can well imagine that when Gary Gygax first proposed a fantasy game played with indiviual characters that he started with what he and his group of players knew. Thus using miniatures, either specifically for wargaming or his new "rpg", Gary then developed the ODnD rules to fill in where chainmail was lacking. This eveolution from pure miniature to more stats based rules may have taken just weeks or months.
    I agree with James on this, like it or not, ODnD was a miniatures based game.

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  14. Miniatures drew me to D&D. I was too young to get more than an intro game of miniatures with the older gamers of the time (often ww2 armor).
    My first dungeons were all drawn on 1" grid sheets with player placing their miniatures directly on a growing map/board as they explored. We were a little fuzzy on details as even with old 25mm figures you couldn't get much more then 1 figure in a 10' space so we weren't too tied up with the detailed placement of figures.

    Over time the game play evolved and I've gone through picky and not picky phases of many different versions of the game. I consider miniatures a really fun and evocative form of play that is far more enjoyable with moderately relaxed rules.

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  15. "I agree with James on this, like it or not, ODnD was a miniatures based game."

    Is that what was being said? I seem to recall that it was explicitly stated, in Book 1 of the LBB's, that mini's were recommended, but optional.

    D&D was more than a miniatures game. But there's no denying D&D's miniature-wargaming parentage.

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  16. I was introduced to D&D in '78. The gents who introduced me to the game were part of a gaming group at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

    My first visit to the group took place in a student rec-room. Two folding tables held miniatures - a couple of guys around each. One of the tables was using Chainmail rules and featured sets of painted miniatures - including the ultra-hot new fantasy minis from Ral Partha. The other featured a battle involving WWII tanks.

    The rest of the tables in the room had been pushed together. This is where D&D was being played. It was also where the majority of the people were gathered (including 2-3 female players). One DM and approximately 12-15 players lined the tables.

    Piles of paper, printed charts, and a profusion of dice littered the D&D tabletop. No miniatures. Many people would occasionally drift over to examine the minis on the Chainmail table, but there was a clear division -- Chainmail = miniatures -- D&D = no miniatures.

    When I began playing in smaller groups over the next 3 years I found about a fifty-fifty split in the use of miniatures or not.

    It has only been in this decade that I've seen an overwhelming use of miniatures in D&D, no matter the rules set being used.

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  17. That is exactly what I am saying Paladin. Are you having trouble reading my posts?

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  18. Roleplaying games are the natural progression from some forms of children's games like Cops and Robbers.

    If you like miniatures (or action figures) you can play with them - but the activity isn't dependent on doing so.

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  19. Interesting comments! My own experience with both Dave and Gary is pretty much the same as many of the comments above, but I think one aspect hasn't been mentioned. No 'monsters'. Period. Dave's very first set of 'monsters', which used to be in my collection and which I was able to get back to him about a year ago, was a pack of plastic creatures made in China. The Rust Monster from that set went into OD&D unchanged, and several more of the set were slightly redrafted in their illustrations. Lots of us had medieval figures we could use, but nothing to fight...

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  20. Even more interesting is that connection still exists. If you look at Two Hour Wargames they are clearly creating something akin to proto-D&D circa 1972. At this point they don't even call their rules miniature rules but RPG-Lite.

    I don't have Warrior Heroes but I do have it's predecessor: Mayhem: Warrior Heroes. You begin a campaign by generating your star from some random tables. Each season you have an encounter created by rolling on tables and then pick a force to fight it. Win or lose you gain points for killing enemies divided by your starting figures equally. High score wins the campaign.

    It's very much a character centered endeavor. From the APs of an actual campaign for the new game on the THW list I suspect the early Blackmoor gang would be right at home.

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  21. Seeing as how few of the people we gamed with (in the early days) had figures, we pretty much played without them. Being pre-teens, we didn't have the cash to buy both figs and books.

    Would have loved to have gamed with figs, but we got along quite nicely without them.

    Most of the wargamers we knew were from the army base, and were into chit games, or space miniatures played on the floor.

    We didn't know any "sandbox" wargame players that actually had, well, sandboxes.

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  22. Somewhat related to what Herb said above, I noticed something similar this past weekend. I was looking for some non-complex, miniature rules that would be suitable for Arthurian and some Barsoomian minis I've been working on. At a glance, it appeared that some skirmish-level games (Song of Blades & Heroes, for instance) were starting to take on characteristics of RPGs. I'll definitely check out WH and 2 Hour Wargames.

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  23. I have seen that "bag o' prehistoric monsters" for sale at a supermarket within the last three years. The rust monster, bulette, and otyugh were clearly identifiable. At the time I thought some Chinese sculptor had borrowed from the monster manual. I didn't think to buy them - they were bad casts from crappy old molds - who knew I could have had a piece of D&D history!

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  24. "This led to some interesting comments, including one about the way that many in the old school movement downplay the importance of miniatures, sometimes to the point of denying that they were ever used."

    "I will say this just once: GARY NEVER USED MINIATURES!!!" - Mike "Old Geezer" Mornard

    Is he mistaken then?

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  25. Will: The point is there were other important D&D groups besides EGG's, especially Arneson's, who *did* use minis.

    So whether or not Gygax did isn't the end of the story.

    Also, regardless of how he ran his game, ODD is definitely written with minis in mind, at least that's how I read it.

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  26. Is he mistaken then?

    I think the only mistake on this topic is equating what one particular referee did as somehow normative, even if said referee was one of the co-creators of the game, especially when the other co-creator did things the exact opposite. Moreover, as Delta noted above, AD&D itself is written in a very miniatures-friendly way, with rules that only make sense if one assumes the use of miniatures for adjudicating combat.

    Regardless of what single referee did back in the day, I don't see how it can be reasonably argued that OD&D was written in a way that precluded the use of miniatures. Indeed, it seems much more plausible that it was written on the assumption that most players would use miniatures (or counters) to varying degrees.

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  27. I would have to agree with you here. Why not just do whatever works best for each of us. Personally, I love to paint the minis. I love converting them and customising them. I like to give my players, each, a mini representing their own character and I really like aesthetic of the old school minis. BUT, it would be a mistake to tell me that I HAVE to use them. I do not really like the games that say "You have to use the miniatures produced by our company with our games" (I am looking at YOU Games Workshop!)
    We all get told what to do and when, most of the time in our daily lives. Why carry that into our hobby? As for me, I have enough bosses.

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  28. ""You have to use the miniatures produced by our company with our games" (I am looking at YOU Games Workshop!)"

    Slightly off topic, but that's is something only at the tournament level. For friendly games, it's the theme and style that matter, not who made it. Granted, a lot of people use GW miniatures.

    I think part of the problem with latter editions of D&D is that it assumes you use models, so makes everything easier to use with models. Both 3rd and 4th do this, and make it hard to not use minis (not impossible, but extra work).

    I like using minis, and the group I game with love using minis and have been using them for a long time (1st and 2nd edition as well).

    I'm also happy to see that my initial thoughts are echoed by people above. Why does it matter the intent of the original D&D rules and whether they assumed minis or not? To be completely honest, I think Gygax and Arneson would find it odd people arguing over minis being used in OD&D.

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  29. From what I’ve read, there were groups—some of those who only learned D&D from the books—which took D&D to be little more than another miniatures wargame and seemed to largely miss out on the role-playing aspect. (Which I count more as a fault of the books than of the groups.)

    Combine that with the fact that the Wizards’ editions have arguably overemphasized minis, I think you end up with modern groups that likewise play the game more as a minis game than as a role-playing game.

    (Please don’t interpret this wording as derogatory. There is no wrong way to play. No doubt my wording could be better, but it isn’t.)

    As people see these differences in play style, the miniatures—being concrete—then become something of a symbol for a style, even though using minis doesn’t necessarily indicate a specific style of play. The minis and the style of play get conflated.

    Scott Crane said, “As I understand it, proto-D&D first came into existence when Arneson and his gang were playing a miniatures castle siege, and the players invaded the dungeons under the castle. That sounds like a minis game, with some role-playing tacked on. They enjoyed themselves, and probably came back multiple times, continuing to use minis but each time placing a greater emphasis on the role-playing.

    I think perhaps you underestimate the influence of the Braunsteins.

    The other thing about Blackmoor: From the stories I’ve read, I would’ve never assumed minis were used if Mr. Mornard hadn’t said they were.

    While I think James made a good point in the earlier article that miniature gaming had a significant influence on the hobby, I’m less convinced that miniatures themselves have been a significant part of the hobby. Rather, they’re just one of many optional accoutrements.

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  30. Paladin comments We didn't know any "sandbox" wargame players that actually had, well, sandboxes.

    I did know people who used sandtables; the tables were located at the local college (I have no idea what the college had used them for). Apparently you could fill them with water, too, but I never saw that done. Does anyone else know more about this, or sandtable gaming in general?

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  31. THE FANTASY TRIP was a big hit in my circle about the time Advanced D&D was also hitting the scene. Where the rules of TFT really required a grid and markers, AD&D generally did not get down to differences of less than 10 feet and generally dealt in very broadly relative positions. Traveller was also popular, and the "range bands" approach therein really covered the majority of situations. The occasional issues with angles in D&D were perhaps more easily addressed with diagrams.

    The matter comes up in "edition war" rhetoric when people seem to imagine that the miniatures heritage somehow means that old-schoolers must agree that "the game remains the same" with more TFT-like rules despite the first-hand observations of many players that old D&D was not so hard to play without grid and markers.

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  32. The matter comes up in "edition war" rhetoric when people seem to imagine that the miniatures heritage somehow means that old-schoolers must agree that "the game remains the same" with more TFT-like rules despite the first-hand observations of many players that old D&D was not so hard to play without grid and markers.

    This is spot-on IMO. A superb observation.

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  33. > We can well imagine that when Gary Gygax first proposed a fantasy game played with indiviual characters that he started with what he and his group of players knew.

    Proposals to play - and actually playing - individual characters in fantasy wargames predates Gary both in the near-past and long-distance past from the timeframe in which he was working.
    (I don't know how long before 1973 he'd discussed the latter with Leiber and Fischer, though, and it's never mentioned in the pages of the Dragon that that collaboration pre-dates the publication of D&D).

    The old, silly "what is a RPG" debate which is usually twisted to ensure that only D&D fits the criteria list (but more often than not cuts out the likes of MA and Boot Hill *g*) is too often played top-down rather than bottom-up.
    i.e. If you play D&D by post, does it cease to become a RPG?
    If you play D&D in control of single players with many henchmen or even on a battlefield scenario with small armies milling around, does that cease to become a RPG? (And what if that can be played on both 1-1 and higher scales at the same time; same question).

    That D&D originally had "for Fantastic Medieval Wargames" on the cover does rather give the game away... there /is/ no dividing line but merely convenient hooks onto which to hang ones framework given the audience ones talking to. (And too many people retrospectively playing the "words mean what I wish them to mean" games :)
    "Role-playing" was far from being a new word in 1974.
    Similarly, perhaps, the choice of "referee" (on the spot) rather than the pre-existing "gamesmaster"/"GM" which was used more specifically in a PBM context (including fantasy games down to individual scale) rather than face-to-face.

    02c, of course ;>
    d.

    (You still here, James... or anyone else? *g*)

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