Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Chaosium on Minis

My 1980 printing of Basic Role-Playing (which is 16 pages long) includes the following section, entitled "Figures and Focus:"
Basic Role-Playing can be played as a strictly verbal game, as you can see from the example about the farmer's child coming to the big city. But many games go farther than this, and play with miniature figures and a battleboard.

Focus is always useful, for all the players can then weave their imaginations into the framework. For instance, setting up a marching order for a party of Adventurers to travel overland shows which characters will be in a position to speak to each; this may be significant if a character must choose one person out of many to aid.

Aiding rules interpretations is an excellent reason for using figures. When the figures are on the table, it is possible to see that your friends are blocking the field of fire your bow might have, or it will show which characters are first assailed by giant wasps striking from the flank, or how long it will take for one character to aid another. With figures, measurement provides answers to "My guy was supposed to be here," and "Where is the elephant?"

Even a few props will provide drama. A large ruin can be constructed with childrens' plastic construction blocks. A bit of scrounging unearths railroad props, cake decorations, weird things from hardware bins, and so on. Styrofoam packaging can be carved to different shapes. A few HO trees, some toy fences, and a large rock will turn an otherwise lifeless melee setting into intriguing opportunities for deployment and use of special skills.

Figures are commonly 1" high led miniatures. These may be purchased at many game and hobby stores or ordered through the mail. Some manufacturers have published attractive cardboard figures, and many people make good use of the cheaper and more readily available plastic toy figures. Preferences and pocketbooks have a large influence on what is used. Remember that no one is likely to have every varied monster or person type called for in a game, and that it is common to substitute something. In any case, figures are recommended.
With some variations to the quoted text, this section has appeared in every edition of Call of Cthulhu since 1981, including the current edition for sale from Chaosium.

The second edition of RuneQuest, meanwhile, includes a very brief discussion of minis under the heading "Other Playing Aids" and says simply:
TIN/LEAD OR PLASTIC FIGURINES (These are optional, but give the play some focus and help settle arguments over who was where. We recommend 25 mm miniatures as the best all around size.)
Section 1.4.3 of Stormbringer is entitled "Use of Miniatures" and says this:
There are an enormous number of fantasy miniatures (small figures cast from lead) available in the game and hobby stores. Many FRP players choose to paint one or more miniatures to represent their characters, and to use these figures to get a picture of where the characters are in relationship to each other. Some GMs are so prepared that they have miniatures of the monsters ready for the combats. Use of miniatures adds color and an added degree of realism to the game, but requires quite an additional investment in time and money by the player. Whether you use miniatures or not is your choice (Ken St. Andre doesn't; Steve Perrin does.). It is likely that a line of Stormbringer miniatures will appear sooner or later.
Ringworld follows RuneQuest in having only a small section devoted to minis under the title of "Play Aids."
Metal figures are frequently used to represent explorers and other characters. If you lack metal figures, the box includes a sheet of paper explorers in various poses.
This is interesting, because, once upon a time, most Chaosium boxed games included a sheet or two of paper cut-out "minis," with additional ones being included in referee's screens and other products. The first edition of Call of Cthulhu certainly did, as did the first edition of Stormbringer. I don't believe I've ever seen such things for RQ but I could simply have overlooked them. Regardless, I think it's intriguing to note that Chaosium's RPGs throughout the 70s and 80s were all extremely friendly to the use of miniatures, including games like Call of Cthulhu, which isn't a RPG one normally thinks of as having much connection to the wargaming roots of the hobby (though, to be fair, there have always been CoC minis available for the game -- I even have some).

21 comments:

  1. Interesting observation. The attitude of RPGs and D&D in particular to miniatures is something oft-argued and it seems is often treated almost schizophrenically by the player base - I for one would never associate Call of Cthulhu with miniatures despite, as you say, the presence in the book and the existence of figures.

    I've struggling to think of a game which seriously suggested that using miniatures was a bad idea, certainly, even though plenty of gamers will refer to some games (in particular later editions of D&D) and mentions of miniature use and act as if it's some cardinal sin.

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  2. Focus is a great term for what mini's are mostly about, and focus does no harm to the imagination, as some gamers think mini's do.

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  3. My next RPG: "Preferences and Pocketbooks".

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  4. I am a big proponent of using miniatures in roleplaying games. It is important to note that miniatures use doesn't automatically mean "rigid miniatures related combat rules." One can use miniatures in a free-form or a mechanical fashion. One can be as loose with movement rules as one wishes while still using the miniatures to settle small arguments like, "but I meant to be behind Dave!"

    I have never understood how a hobby that began as an sub-genre of miniatures war gaming -- though has transcended that beginning -- came to have so many fans who are so venomous to the use of miniatures at all.

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  5. Minis, like funny-shaped, multi-colored dice are a crucial part of gaming for me. :)

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  6. People forget that miniature use relied a lot on what was practical for the players and the GM. Most games were neutral on the topic.

    It wasn't until within the last decade when companies discovered collectible miniatures that I seen them hard baked into RPG rules. And the reverse where they were deliberately excluded.

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  7. I like to use them, however we mainly plan at work, so they are a no no. Character sheets and rulebooks join the other general kibble around the office, and dice are just another thing on your computer monitor. Minis on a grid bring the boss around. However, I prefer them, but that's more likely because I am a hardcore modeller at heart and I constantly convert and sculpt minis for my PCs and monsters. The GW squad boxes are great for the hordes of foes at lower levels. Of course it helps that I play those games as well...

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  8. Infamous said: "I like to use them, however we mainly plan at work..."

    Is your employer hiring?

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  9. wasn't until within the last decade when companies discovered collectible miniatures that I seen them hard baked into RPG rules<

    And then some older games like Champions/Hero System, where they are hardly mentioned at all, yet good luck playing a game of Champs just in yer head.

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  10. What always strikes me about the Chaosium rulebooks (just re-read CoC) is that the prose always seems so sane and peer-to-peer and "reasonable". This is in stark contrast to Gygax's prose, which is like a mad professor's (maybe my favorite mad prof)--asides about things totally alien, vocab words from hell, whole days spent on obscure topics.

    Anyway, point is Chaosium books seem to be very well-written and user-friendly.

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  11. Zak,

    You're absolutely right. My admiration for Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide is great, but, when it comes to useful advice, presented from one player to another, few companies can compare with Chaosium. Their stuff, even the stuff I don't really like, is of uniformly high quality. I wish there were more companies like them.

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  12. Anyway, point is Chaosium books seem to be very well-written and user-friendly<

    I remember a book (by Rick Swan, I think) about rpg's described the system in Call of Cthulhu as "elegant." that is a great word for CoC and most Chaosium products.

    Hell, even Chaosium's Mythos Card Game has fairly elegant gameplay.

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  13. Roleplaying games expressly designed as miniatures vehicles include Star Frontiers (though it's chits instead of minis), Dragonquest, the aforementioned Champions -- you don't give all the measurements in inches etc. if you don't want minis use, The Fantasy Trip (megahexes and all), Snapshot (a combat supplement for Traveller).

    To say that minis focus is a new thing is to retcon history in baffling ways.

    We played D&D without minis, at least my group did, but the books kept telling us how important they were.

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  14. I don't believe I've ever seen such things for RQ but I could simply have overlooked them.

    I'm pretty sure the Deluxe RQ2 boxed set (released in 1981) included a sheet of cardboard silhouette minis just like CoC and Stormbringer.

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  15. The problem with minis specific to D&D/AD&D is that Gygax wrote rules that were frankly out-of-synch with minis' physical size and presence. So as much as I wanted to use them back in the day, it was necessarily either an exercise in frustration or writing your own rules modifications.

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  16. I bought LOTR minis from S&T before I had any gaming materials other than wargames. Just for the collectible coolness.

    We started buying minis as they became popular, with Grenadier sets and Trav 15mm figs. I remember the little air raft. Also got some Runequest stuff (with tiny runes), and Cthulhu figs. And Star Fleet Battles ships.

    It was very time-consuming painting all those little grey guys, though. When we ran through everyone's painted collections, we had to start using the unpainted ones for the grunts.

    Still, better than using the cardboard thingies.

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  17. I tend to take most mentions of miniatures in RPGs, be they from the early 80's or today, with a serious grain of salt. Especially when they are followed with "and you can purchase specially themed miniatures at your local hobby store" (which I believe even the original DMG said.) It seems to me that even in the early days miniatures were an obvious way to capitalize on your RPG brand, and this idea has only grown in importance as the years went by.

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  18. I tend to take most mentions of miniatures in RPGs, be they from the early 80's or today, with a serious grain of salt. Especially when they are followed with "and you can purchase specially themed miniatures at your local hobby store" (which I believe even the original DMG said.) It seems to me that even in the early days miniatures were an obvious way to capitalize on your RPG brand, and this idea has only grown in importance as the years went by.

    Oh, certainly, but, at the same time, gamers did use minis and many rules sets recommended their use for wholly un-cynical reasons arising out of the existing culture of play. I increasingly think that someone with more direct experience than I ought to look into exactly how minis were used in the early days in order to better contrast with the way they've come to be used in many games (or at least as they're promoted by the companies producing those games). My guess is that we'll find, as we so often do, that there are a lot of nuances that get missed and these nuances are very instructive.

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  19. My favorite mention of minis is from Tunnels & Trolls 5.5:

    Tunnels & Trolls was never designed originally to be used with miniatures, and in all honesty, it isn't now. Nevertheless, miniatures can be an interesting and enjoyable addition to the game.

    McEwan miniatures has begun to produce a line of T&T miniatures, based on personalities and illustrations taken from the wide variety of the support-service publications to T&T put out by Flying Buffalo (hopefully, including illustrations from this rulebook!) The line is growing fast and we expect it to continue to do so.


    After which follows some practical advice on using the miniatures.

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  20. I increasingly think that someone with more direct experience than I ought to look into exactly how minis were used in the early days in order to better contrast with the way they've come to be used in many games

    Not sure exactly what you're looking for here, but I can give my perspective as a minis-user in the early days.

    Prior to getting involved in D&D, I had been playing with miniatures and miniatures wargames. In fact, my initial reason to purchase Tractics instead of Dungeons and Dragons was partially due to the way miniatures (while clearly mentioned) were downplayed in D&D.

    I think before I owned any actual RPG game books, I received some miniatures for Christmas. I remember some early experimentation with miniatures using a chess board.

    When I actually started playing D&D, I'm not sure we were really using miniatures, but when I attended a game convention at MIT, I was introduced to extensive use of miniatures for combat, using dominoes to lay out the walls of the dungeon. And thus began my use of miniatures.

    Early on, we did not use a grid, or count movement allowances, the miniatures were used in a more abstract way, to show positions, but not to get nit picky about grids and movement and such. I did experiment with tiles with grids on them, but I don't remember being nit picky about the grid.

    I also played with Glen Blacow a few times. He had sheets of cardboard of various sizes that he used to represent dungeon rooms. They had a staggered square grid (basically a hex grid, but using squares). I don't remember if he was nit picky about movement and placement.

    It wasn't until college and I started playing Cold Iron that I started to be nit picky about grids and movement. At that time, I was shifting away from miniatures (due to having to lug them about and perhaps not wanting to lug them off to college), so we used counters. I did get back into using miniatures in grad school. But even with Cold Iron, I wasn't as nit picky about things as D&D 3.x is, that was a whole new experience.

    I can see how people, exposed to 3.x and all it's complexity would rebel against use of miniatures.

    Frank

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  21. I know for a fact that gamers still use minis today. A 3.x gamer told me quite bluntly that D&D was a wargame, and that's the way he liked it, and I shouldn't try to change it. (I was lamenting in one post that D&D combat didn't give me the same visceral thrill as reading about Conan).

    I suppose the wargame quote might be true for d20, but knowing that Gygax didn't use miniatures, leads me to believe otherwise about D&D in general...

    As far as combat goes, I really just handwaved minis, whether it was D&D or Stormbringer or The Fantasy Trip. I found them to be prohibitively expensive, and minis tended to slow the game to a crawl.

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