Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Minis and Me

As I've mentioned on many occasions, I have been, at best, an indifferent user of miniature figures in my roleplaying game campaigns. In ancient times, when I started playing, we all owned miniatures, at least for our player characters, and often put them in the center of the table to represent the party's marching order. I also owned lots of monster minis, which I'd sometimes (though not always) bring out in order to show what the PCs where facing. I even owned a set of cardboard cut-out dungeon floor plans -- by Heritage Miniatures, I think -- that I'd occasionally lay down in order to show the basic layout of a dungeon, though we often dispensed with this, because it could get tedious and because I didn't have enough floor plan pieces for all but the simplest dungeons.

All that said, I can't say that we ever really "used" miniatures in a significant way. They were mostly cool "toys" rather than an integral part of our gaming experience. In this respect, I am more sympathetic to those who argue that minis aren't a necessary part of the old school gaming experience. Back then, nearly every gamer I know purchased miniatures but none of them really used them except as very limited props. What's interesting, of course, is that I remember reading many articles about D&D in newspapers and magazines -- this was at the height of its faddishness, remember -- and many of them were accompanied by photos showing gamers hunched around a table covered in miniatures. Whether these photos represented the reality outside my little corner of the hobby or (as I suspect) just made for a nice image to accompany these articles, I can't say for certain. For me, though, minis were absolutely unnecessary.

So, when I began my Dwimmermount campaign over a year ago, I figured I'd use minis only sparingly -- and so I have. Part of the problem is that it's a lot of work to pull out all my miniatures and the dungeon blocks and arrange them in play, especially given the rather seat-of-the-pants style I typically employ nowadays. There's also the fact that, no matter how many Otherworld minis I buy, I'm never going to have precisely the right minis I need. Last session, for example, the PCs encountered two shambling mounds and, alas, I have no minis to represent them. Without that, I'll confess that a big part of my interest in minis fades.

Yet, I've seen the utility of minis in play. The reality is that, much of the time, without miniatures, OD&D combat is boring. Heresy, I know, but it's true. OD&D's combat is fast-moving and abstract and it's very easy to adjudicate when the players come up with extemporaneous tactics and maneuvers to get the drop on their opponents. However, many of these tactics only become apparent when there are minis on the table, when the players and I can both see the "lay of the land," so to speak. Without the visual cues minis provide, combat can easily degenerate into a dull sequence of dice rolls without any flair. That's not a knock against my players or a bit of self-recrimination; it's just how things often go without minis.

Consequently, I'm making a concerted effort to bring out the minis for every Dwimmermount session. I still don't think minis are necessary for old school play and I know that many would rather not be bothered with them. For this campaign, though, I've found them extremely helpful in inspiring us to make the most of OD&D's combat system. If only I had an infinite budget with which to buy every miniature figure I want/need, I'd be set ...


  1. We use them to show marching order more than anything else. Oh and of course you get to tip them over when somebody dies.

  2. I am an avid painter and loves me the minis. But when I started getting my group to play some B/X and LL, I deliberately avoided the minis and battlemat for a time, just to get them out of the habit of "thinking inside the grid."

  3. Just curious what your thoughts are on virtual table tops. Mainly cause you can use virtual mini's ... they're free! And, unlimited! Need 100 goblins? No problem .. copy & paste will get you as many mini's as you require. and, there's so many images out there on the net, you should have no problem getting what you need. Or, you can even use abstract markers if you find an image lacking.

    I use Maptool. I've found it fairly easy to use even though it's packed with features: vision, fog of war, the aforementioned minis, macro support, etc.

  4. I agree that miniatures are not a necessity for old school game play.

    One of the things I enjoy most about old school games is that you need very little prep or props to play. I do agree that minis can enhance the game, combat in particular, but I just like the fact that I don't need them if they are not available. I don't think the same can be said of 3e or 4e, although admittedly I've never played either game.

  5. A have an assortment of Reaper Mini's giant figures, we love using them in our games. And when the giant is felled the DM will typically roll a D8 to see which of the surrounding squares the giant hits when he falls. If you happen to be in that square and you've already spent your action for the round, you may be in for a rough time!

  6. I have a few mini's for when I or someone else is playing a PC, but when it comes to my gaming needs, I keep it on a budget. I've been using the same Chessex megamap for years and when I need to place a NPC or monster on the map. I just use any one from my stockpile of paper figures that I have made by taking images from the net and printing them on cardstock.

    It's not as pretty as a table worth of a Dwarven Forge miniatures, but I'm content and it dose the job quite well.

  7. James: I've been wanting to use miniatures for the larger combats in my campaign, for much the same reason you cite: once we can see the relationships between all the characters, tactics become more obvious.

    And, like you, I'm disinclined to use minis when I don't have the exact right figures.

    But then I saw Kobold Quarterly's article on getting the figures one needs and making do with stand-ins, and now I've got a strong desire to see if I can make it work... "Substitution is your friend" indeed.

    Next paycheck I may be spending some money...

  8. I always use minis unless I'm playing a very "cinematic" game like Buffy or Doctor Who.

    Because it's rare I'll have exactly the monsters I need (or in great enough number) as physical miniatures, I find an image of the monster on the net, use a paint program to reduce the size of the image to about an inch wide and high, and then print off several copies. Cut them out and tape a penny underneath (so a sigh doesn't blow them around) and you have instant tokens that you can save and reuse.

    Jeremy Patrick
    Toronto, ON

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  10. More often than not we would use minis in playing Dragonquest. Since TMR was one of your attributes, it made sense to see how things played out on the map. Also various combat bonus were related to one position on the tactical map. While a lot of fun, it could make combats drag on a bit too long. Back in the poor days of high school & college any chit would work for someone’s character. It wasn’t until much later that I could actually afford figurines and make use of them. Having a friend that is a fairly good painter made minis all the more common in the game, I never had the talent or patience to do much with improving the look. had to remove the first post, and correct a typo or two.

  11. What I really wanted was cool dungeon-dressing.

    Now there are some neat dungeon-dressing producers like thomarillion, but even with those producers, the cost is somewhat prohibitive.

    I recently got into building my own dungeon-dressing, but there's only so much I can do with my limited skills!

  12. I am first and foremost a miniatures fan. I re-entered the hobby via 28 MM mini wargaming around 2000 and didn't get back into D&D until a few years later (though the D&D of my youth didn't including mini gaming ... the group I gamed with then used graph paper in those days). So using minis was a foregone conclusion for me.

    I actually refuse to play in a 3.5 or 4E game that isn't going to use at minimum a wet erase map with cardboard hero style minis (though I much prefer painted, or at least pre-painted actual minis). The rules of the game really need a spacial representation system of some kind to maximize their effect. Its very difficult to abstract out who gets attacks of opportunity, who is flanking, just how big an AoE is, etc. I'm shocked when I encounter a group that doesn't use minis with 3.5, Pathfinder or 4E. To me there are systems out there that lend themselves to abstract play to a much greater extent than any 3.0 to current D&D system .. so why wouldn't people who reject minis just play one of those systems instead. I know the answer to that and that is the standard gamer reluctance to every try something new .... "I own the books and know the rules for system X therefore that is the only game I'll ever play ... and I'll fiercely proclaim it the best system ever!!" Sadly many RPG groups stagnate and die because of this attitude.

    But seriously don't get me wrong ... I'm not being a miniatures snob ... I don't fault people who don't want to use minis in their games ... for whatever reason. I just think they should find systems that were designed for gameplay that doesn't include the use of minis. Like it or not D&D from the early inception D&D was designed by Wargamers ... as in addition to being a RPG .. being effectively a small scale tactical skirmish game. Both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were Wargamers. In fact Chainmail (By Gary and Jeff Perren ... the game is forerunner of D&D) was first and foremost a miniatures skirmish game. So it pains me when I hear people forsaking minis in a D&D game. Recently I've even heard people scoffing at using them and I just sadly shake my head ... Gary Gygax used minis when playing D&D generally people ... so don't laugh at people who do. 1st, Basic, 2nd edition D&D were all games designed with the use of minis in mind. I'm not saying this article or subsequent posts were necessarily of that nature ... I'm just tossing out my two cents (which is largely motivated by conversations we've had in our gaming group this past several months). Thanks for the post and commentary!

  13. I'm a big miniatures person for my RPGs, if for no other reason than the bond that develops between the figure and the player. When a player picks up a mini to represent their character at the hobby store, and paints it up (to the accompaniment of much cursing and swearing, usually) the characters stop becoming just a string of numbers on a page, and become something with some actual substance...

  14. I pretty much use minis the same way James does: placeholders for PCs.

    though I was lucky enough a few years ago to get the Steve Jackson Games Cardboard Heroes. I can copy as many Orcs, skeletons and zombies I need!

    BTW, the next Roll For Initiative podcast we'll be taking miniatures. It'll be out next week.

  15. I've almost always used minis in my games going back to 1980 when I first started playing.
    We even had our own wargamish style of initiate for AD&D, with each segment in a round broken down into four parts which ticked off in order, Spell, Missile, Movement and Melee. You would attack/cast your spell on whatever segment you rolled initiative for, but you'd move every segment. Movement was done simultaneously which avoided that weird everyone moves in a world of statues thing.
    Spell Caster who were casting and were hit before they reached their initiative had their spell disrupted. Which made a quick to cast spell like magic missile very useful for spell disruption against an unprotected caster.
    It's all to clunky for me today but back then we had a blast with it.

  16. Back in the day a lot of times I would see a cool mini, buy the mini, and then creating my character to be that mini even if the mini never got used in actual play.

    once we got a erasable battl mat in maybe 92 we tried to run G1 on it but got so bogged down on moving all the mini's and more importantly debating the exact angle of a lightning bolts reflections that we didn't finish the first combat.

    I second the comment above about map tools, its free, easy to use, and with the lighting, range of vision, and fog of war tools it really add a fun layer tactical realism (if your into that sort of thing) that would completely bog down a non computer assisted game.

  17. When I got started with my own D&D games, I was also played HeroQuest. The tiled maps and props made the games more interesting in a way. As much as I really enjoyed detailed props, I found all the preparations to tedious - having to find the right monsters, furniture and floor tiles really bogged down the action. After a while, I discover that simplicity works best. I use the typical method of describing the layout during exploration, then I use a vinyl grid map (the type you can draw on with whiteboard markers) to figure out everyone's placement during marching, door searches, combat, and so on. The players can use a unique figure for their PC, but I find chess pieces to be a good substitute for common monsters. I just say that those 6 black pawns are Orcs, and that black queen is a Troll. It looks shabby as hell, but it works out well enough.

    I have collected a lot of figures over the years. I still use the plastic and cardboard figs for HeroQuest and skirmish-level wargames (like Mordheim). With the expense and frailty of metal figs, I just use them a decorative display pieces. Even people who know little or nothing about D&D, are really impressed with well painted figures.

  18. Miniatures aid so much in visualization, especially when the minis closely resemble the characters and monsters.

    I wouldn't go so far as to say that minis are an absolute necessity, but they are definitely a big plus for me.

    It, again, depends on the gaming system. For D&D, I definitely prefer minis. For Call of Cthulhu, I don't see much use for them.

  19. My first minis were not gaming minis at all, but polished/finished pewter figures of wizards and dragons that my mom purchased for me at the Minnesota Renaissance Fair. It wasn't until about 2 years ago that I was looking at old Ral Partha and Grenadier minis that I saw my old minis were the same molds! I'm not sure if they were copies or licensed or what, but they have brought me much joy over the years.

    As I got older I acquired a few more knights (I kept looking for the "perfect" one) a Chinese dragon, a few WEG Star Wars minis, and a box set of Marvel Super Heroes.

    Those were my first foray into a tiny, but pricey hobby that I thoroughly enjoy.

    Oh, and except for a failed experiment in college, I never paint them because I suck at it.

  20. I'll stick by my assertion that minis are a "vestigial, unusable appendage" in D&D. Chainmail, great. But the scaling rules given in D&D frankly just don't work on the table.

    "... Part of the problem is that it's a lot of work to pull out all my miniatures and the dungeon blocks and arrange them in play, especially given the rather seat-of-the-pants style I typically employ nowadays. There's also the fact that, no matter how many Otherworld minis I buy, I'm never going to have precisely the right minis I need."

    This is almost exactly the same thing Gygax said when he asserted that after switching from Chainmail to D&D, he dropped use of miniatures.


  21. Lord of Excess: "Gary Gygax used minis when playing D&D generally people..."

    No, actually he didn't. See his quote on the subject in the link above.

  22. sevenbastard: "once we got a erasable battl mat in maybe 92 we tried to run G1 on it but got so bogged down on moving all the mini's and more importantly debating the exact angle of a lightning bolts reflections that we didn't finish the first combat."

    Good to keep in mind; I'm planning to do exactly that in a few weeks time.

  23. Somewhere on the net I saw the idea to use Scrabble tiles. They've worked perfectly for me. Normal tiles representing characters by first letter of name, darker Anniversary Edition tiles representing hirelings the same way, cheapo, glass decorative blobs in various colors represent monsters. We play on a battlemat that I draw the dungeon on as it is discovered.

    Super easy, efficient and portable, I'm having to travel to my players' houses.

  24. I've left similar comments on other blogs but basically I agree with you. We've got boxes and boxes if shrapnel in varied stages of decoration. When it comes down to it, we rarely use miniatures - we just end up buying them because they look cool, not because they're useful. If we do ever use them to clarify a combat situation it will just be an approximation: a barmaid for a mage, a goblin for a gnome, a button for a dog etc. Nobody can be bothered to hunt around for the correct figures. The one 'accessory' that we do find useful is a battle mat - we can quickly sketch out a room, keep track of HP, note down treasure etc

    As for combat being like boring bingo, we have a couple of those dice with body parts on them so we can randomly roll which body part gets lopped off by a vorpal sword or takes the coup de grace in a critical hit (although frequently it's an unsatisfying left foot, rather than a head or torso). There's a couple of larp swords lying around too so people can freely show exactly how they kill the bad guy should they feel inspired.

  25. Eraseable matt+plastic minis=happy gaming.
    I always use minis, there is no way -otherwise- to actually see the benefits of light armor and improved movement rates in D&D

  26. I always use miniatures for combat and implement a number of house rules for flanking and sprinting and moving up slopes. I like the tactical nature of combat that brings to the table and scaling up the number of enemies that miniatures allows you to do. It's great to see how the heroes respond when they are realise they are about to be flanked.. and so on.

    I also use the Heroscape hexes to lay out terrain, finding them invaluable to create hills and valleys and rivers and such.

    It's also pretty much essential to avoid arguments about who is in the entangle area and who is not, who got hit by the fireball and who didn't ... and so on.

  27. If the combat is boring and abstract without the use of minis, it's because the DM's storytelling is weak or the game mechanics aren't detailed enough to adequately model the events in the game. Having said that, I use laminated graph paper as an erasable map to draw out the setting for encounters. My minis are a collection of game tokens, bolts and glass pebbles. I also print out the images off the internet and my photo collection to have a playing card style representation of every creature and NPC in the game. I lay those on the table and pas them to players as I narrate the events of the game.

  28. Hate them :)

    For me, they always ruin the immersion and mood that the GM and players are creating with his words.


    It's weird but in all the time I've been reading fantasy and sci-fi books I've never caught myself thinking "if only there were diagrams of this melee that Elric/Corum/Hawkmoon is caught up in so that I can tell what's going on."

    I also dislike the fact that trapped in a series of confusing and irregular tunnels and caverns, the players suddenly get the benefit of a perfect plan view of the surroundings when their characters wouldn't have a clue of such and would be concentrating too much on the fauna trying to kill them.

    As somebody whose natural sense of direction is quite poor (I could get lost on the way to my own bathroom) that particularly jars.

    Why should the players have such an overview of the tactical situation? Soldiers on the real front-lines don't.

  29. The first RPG bits I owned were some miniatures given to me for Christmas.

    My miniatures use really took off when I started gaming at MIT. They introduced me to using dominoes to lay out dungeons. I don't remember getting dominoes myself, but it definitely introduced me to really using those miniatures.

    Since then, I have flopped around between using miniatures, counters, and cardboard minis of various sorts.

    One consideration of battlemats and miniatures and stuff vs. narration. I'm a visual learner, not an audial learner. I can easily get lost if there isn't something visual to help me.


  30. Regardless of whether Gygax used minis in his games or not (and forgive me as factual information is very sparse on that topic) ... I guess I have to take a single post to a message forum as indisputable fact. The reality is he and TSR PIMPED the use of minis in D&D by SELLING OFFICIAL D&D figures for years and taking that hard cash happily to the bank. Look at Dragon magazine from that era and any of the various other publications ... miniatures were encouraged. I can recall my eyes lighting up with wonder going through the pages of some of those publications back in the day ... envisioning amazing miniatures based D&D campaigns like the ones in the magazines. Hell the entire gaming industry would likely be very different without the influence of D&D just in terms of miniatures production. Companies like Ral Partha, Grenadier, Games Workshop (and staring in the early 90s Reaper) and on and on lived and breathed based on the sales of figures for use with D&D. My point about minis is you might not prefer them for use with old school games ... and that is fine, very common even ... BUT ... scoffing at their use by other people is bogus. People have effectively been using minis even with old school games since their inception and for many gaming groups the use of miniatures adds elements of fun that otherwise wouldn't be there .. that is and was my point ... regardless of apparently being wrong about Gygax.

    All that said I agree that minis aren't totally necessary via the rules in 1s and 2nd edition D&D. I won't scoff at people who forsake minis with old school games. I too played games back then where we just couldn't pull them off, didn't have affordable access for one thing living out in rural Eastern Oregon at the time ... so my own first exposure to D&D was via games that used minis sparingly.

    On another note I'll argue very vehemently that anyone not using minis in 3.0 to present is really not playing the game ... they have made up their own game with their own rules. 3.0 to current is designed for miniature play ... PERIOD. If your talking about old games fine.

    I honestly much prefer systems like Spirit of the Century, Savage Worlds (which requires at least a wet erase map and paper heroes) etc. to any of the older D&D systems. I have a love and nostalgia for them and own entirely too many old books ... but I doubt I'll ever be playing actual 1st or 2nd edition again (I'd likely use Osric if I had a bug to do so). Also I think this is a very good discussion of this topic, and I found another at (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/dd-was-a-wargame-i-do-not-think-it-means-what-you-think-it-means/)

  31. I grew up in the 2e era never using minis. In my later 1e campaign I had a gridded, magnetic dry-erase board hanging on the wall just behind where I (as DM) sat. I could easily draw the shape of a corridor or room if I wanted to. We had magnets for each of the players, and for monsters we used letters (A B C D ... “I attack zombie A!”). By arranging the magnets I could give them a sufficient visualization of what was going on that kept us all on the same page.

  32. Oh, I meant to add: when I gamed with Gary Gygax he never used minis.

    I may soften on the idea of minis if I am ever able to afford them, and ever able to understand and get into the whole hobby of painting.

  33. Just curious what your thoughts are on virtual table tops.

    I've never used them, so I couldn't say how I feel about them. My guess is that I wouldn't like them, since, for me, having tangible minis is an important part of the experience of using them. I'd never use dice-rolling programs for the same reason (a friend has a cellphone app that lets you "shake" dice and roll them virtually that, while cool, is something I'd never use in preference to physical dice).

  34. Somewhat OT, but I read this decidedly noo skool post on 4e minis, and I thought you'd get a kick out of it. Turns out the gonzo's not gone from D&D, it's just carefully hidden from the customer, and it happens somewhere between Hasbro's offices and the mini sculptors in China.

    It strikes me that the iPad might be the perfect tool for virtual tabletopping, BTW. If only it were a bit bigger :)

  35. I've been gaming with minis since the late '70's and have amassed a very large collection. I typically show up at our games with two large and very heavy containers full of them. (12 tackle boxes of sorted prepainted D&D minis, and hundred of painted metal minis) We mostly use them to show marching order and to run combats. I have a large table sized battlemat that we draw on with overhead projection pens to show the terrain when combat has been initiated.

    I have found that combat is a lot more fun when you can see the layout. Fighters can use strategy in their attacks. (flanking, blocking corridors, protected missile fire, etc.) It also helps a lot when casting spells. We often draw in the area of effect. (web spells, etc)

    Also being an avid collector it gives me a chance to show off my new minis I spent hours painting. :)