Tuesday, April 5, 2011

For the Love of Counters

Counter Sheet from GDW's Snapshot
When I entered the hobby in late 1979, its connection to wargaming, especially miniatures wargaming, though more tenuous than it once had been, was still not completely severed. One way that this was apparent was that fact that many boxed RPGs included both cardboard counters and maps among their components, with the expectation that they'd be used to adjudicate combat and movement on the tabletop. Four games I distinctly recall taking this approach were TSR's Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, and Boot Hill and GDW's Traveller, by way of its boxed supplement Snapshot.

My friends and I didn't always use the counters and maps when we played these game but we did so frequently enough that, whenever I think of them, my memories include pushing little pieces of cardboard across a poster-sized map. What's interesting is that, to a lot of people involved in the old school renaissance nowadays, this is anathema, much like the use of miniatures and dungeon tiles/floor plans. Back then, though, we never gave it a second thought, since not only was this the way these games were "supposed" to be played -- otherwise, why else did the games include these components? -- but that's how we saw them and, indeed, many other RPGs being played.

Counter Sheet from Star Frontiers
Even more interesting, I think, is that, lately, I've found myself longing for that way of playing RPGs. Some of it is clearly nostalgia, as I associate those games with a particularly great time in the hobby and my involvement in it. But it's more than that, as it so often is. For me, counters and maps represent a time when publishers and players alike still remembered that RPGs are games, right down to having pieces like both wargames and boardgames. The term "tabletop roleplaying" is of a much later vintage, after computer games calling themselves "roleplaying games" had appeared, but the very existence of the term suggests that, to many people, a tabletop was an essential component to the hobby and not just as a surface on which to roll dice.

I bring this up not just as a trip down memory lane, though I won't deny there's some of that at work in this post. I mention it as a mild corrective to the notions many of us have about the place and utility of miniatures and other similar representations in RPGs. I suspect there's some degree of contrariness at work here, since, in recent years, the use of miniatures has come to be associated with the post-TSR editions of Dungeons & Dragons and in a decidedly negative way. I think that's too bad, if only because I think it further divorces current discussions of old school gaming from part of how these games were played in the past.
Counter Sheet from Universe
And of course, I also wouldn't mind seeing a revival in the use of cardboard counters and maps in old school gaming. I think their use helps to lend a little tactical complexity to things like combat and it helps remind us that there's more to this hobby than sitting around with friends pretending to be an elf. At the very least, the greater use of counters (or miniatures) and maps might go some way toward reminding us all that there's nothing at all antithetical to roleplaying about their use. Indeed, some might find, as I did as a younger man, that their use can contribute greatly to roleplaying. Plus, sometimes it's just fun to push around a little cardboard square to represent your character's grav car as he chases after space pirates on an alien world. What's not to like?


  1. The irony is that with WotC's move away from plastic miniatures, a number of recent D&D4 products -- including the Monster Vault -- come with card counters to represent characters and monsters.

    I've produced some of my own for an upcoming game; while nowhere near as flashy as Wizards' tokens, they turn out to be quite easy to make.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly! Though for my part I tend to use generic pieces rather than miniatures or counters (plastic pawns, bingo chips, &c.). Light on the wallet, light in the ol' portable gaming kit.

  3. For me miniatures (or LEGO minifigs, which is what I sometimes use) is a trade-off between better visualization and extra time and effort; it definitely slows things down. Counters slow things down just as much, if not more because they're harder to handle, and give much less visual oomph. Even back in the day, after we tried Snapshot a couple of times, we went back to playing Traveller without the counters.

  4. The first game I played that included counters in the box was Villains & Vigilantes. We went so far as to cut pictures out of old comic books to customise the counters. I still use counters occasionally, although these days instead of maps I tend to use vinyl grid sheets. They do still come in handy for dungeon crawls, just to let players know what they can see - or where they are when the trap springs!

  5. i have 2 criticisms of miniatures. 1) they're usually too big for the map hexes/squares and so are usually only used off to one side of the (large dry erase mat) map drawn for combat in groups i play with. 2) you can't ever have enough to represent any and all characters and monsters, so why bother? if the main focus is on the careful painting and presentation of miniatures as is the case for some styles of warhammer-type battle hobbyists, then it makes total sense, but that's a whole other animal. that's almost like model train enthusiasts and a kind of art form that has little or nothing to do with how i play. 2) if you're using the same 12 assorted monsters to stand in for every encounter regardless of what you're actually fighting, what's the point? i like the abstraction of counters, because i tend to have more vivid things pictured in the brain than could ever be represented in a feasible way with objects, so pebbles or pennies with letters and numbers in sharpie, mini chess sets and the like work for me as well as anything else. all they're really doing is saying "skeleton number one is behind you this far away, and this carrion crawler is being flanked by you two" so nobody argues or has to figure it out every round.

  6. I've never much liked miniatures except as a vague way of describing stuff. Much better is a sheet of notebook paper or even a whiteboard. I like the action to be in my brainstem, since one's miniatures tend to bleed over into the game.

    One time we had a large axe-wielding miniature used for the party's elf scout type, and he decided to charge into melee and use his axe. Wait, what axe? You've only got a bow! Well, it was on his mini, so he could have sworn he had one.

    Little cardboard counters could be nice, though.

  7. Those SF counters bring back good memories. Great post.

  8. I am a fan of both miniatures and counters -- as well as "free form" play. There is something neat about using the counters provided with first edition DragonQuest to design a room, or the early dungeon tile sets from Games Workshop.

  9. "One time we had a large axe-wielding miniature used for the party's elf scout type, and he decided to charge into melee and use his axe. Wait, what axe? You've only got a bow! Well, it was on his mini, so he could have sworn he had one."

    Well that guy really seems to have a problem with abstraction. Good thing you weren't using chess pieces as minis, "Darn I can't get into melee! My knight can only move in L shapes right?"

  10. while nowhere near as flashy as Wizards' tokens, they turn out to be quite easy to make.

    I actually like yours better! I've long felt that the tokens produced by WotC were too big for regular use. I prefer my counters to be smaller, so they can be easily transported. I think the ones included in the games of old were just about perfect.

  11. @ Kelvin, those are awesome!

    Regarding the topic at hand: as with so many gaming related issues, I find I have no hardcore stance. I'm cool with minis and counters both, but I require neither.

  12. What about using Virtual Table tops? With VTT software, you can easily create as many mini's as you need for very little or no cost at all.

  13. Count me in as a counter fan... :-)

    The point about the challenges of miniatures (variety, transportability, and effort to collect and paint) drove me to counters for much of my college gaming.

    I have done hybrid, miniatures for PCs, counters for opposition, which is nice, makes it easy to see the PCs, and easy to track the opposition.

    For opposition, I have several sets of numbered counters. Two colors marked 1-10, one color marked 1-20, and one color marked 1-50. The counters with multiple decades have different patterns on the back for each decade, so it's easy to sort them back into my little box. The different colors allow instant identification of visually very different types (such as the leader type who has better armor, or is even a different creature).

    For my Champions game, each player decorated their own counter. I still have some of these, while some player just put their character's name, some drew symbols and such (small since the counters were 1/2" square).

    For 3.x gaming, I liked making counters the appropriate size for the monster, so I have a collection of 2"x2" and larger counters...


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  15. Sorry, cant spell today.
    I cant count how many Advanced Squad Leader counters I own. The world my never know.........?

  16. I could play Star Frontiers without counters, but my players love the hell out of them. The maps are fairly easy to make (save for having to draw-out the half-inch grid), and they like to interact in my unique environments. The counter system can be really annoying, unless you have a way to keep them organized in storage - no one like to shit-pick through them, in the middle of a game!

  17. john madden play analysis-style skirmish diagrams on dry erase boards can be funny to look at after the fact. trying to figure out what the hell they're even trying to represent is not always easy....

  18. My first RPG was _The Fantasy Trip_. (No, Frank, really?) The original Micro-games came with counters labeled with a gothic letter and evocative if occasionally puzzling line art for the character or monster. Giants occupied three hexes with oversized triangular counters; dragons took up four or seven. The "arena" map used one-inch hexes grouped into seven "mega-hexes". Ah, a simpler time ...

    Having said that, these days I avoid tactical movement. On the other hand, FATE and other systems explicitly break a location into "zones". Players may move only one zone per round; missiles may travel across two or three zones, possibly with range penalties. Even in a wholly mapless system, a strategic sketch of the area, with pawns or counters indicating approximate positions, avoids a lot of arguments and backtracking.

  19. I recently bought three sets of chess for a cub scout chess tournament, at the dollar store. Now we use those instead of counters or miniatures, at least for the monsters, the PCs still generally prefer to use their minis (or some of my old odds and ends from Warhammer).

  20. I love the counters with the halberds for Snapshot. I know that's a weapon I'd want for fighting on a starship.

  21. I'm all for counters and use them in my games, old-school or otherwise. With miniatures, I've found it's an all-or-nothing sort of thing. Unless you buy tons and tons of them, you invariably run into the "this skeleton is representing an otyugh tonight" situation which tends to break immersion. That has led me down two roads:

    1) Completely abstract game pieces - I have a craft-bin full of pawns, tokens, counters and beads that I've scavenged from board games and craft stores. Since nothing is in fact representative, you always have the right miniature (the green glass beads are goblins, the red pawn is the fighter, the blue one the magic user, etc.). In some games I've run this way, people will select different pawns almost as though they're selecting a mini and the appearance of the pawn (color, height, etc.) will affect how they play their character.

    2) Two-Dimensional tokens with artwork - I've taken to making my own tokens by color printing my artwork at the right size, spray mounting it to chipboard and then cutting out the tokens. With a 1" circular arch punch (and a rubber mallet), you can actually make homemade tokens with the same heft and quality as the ones that come with Fantasy Flight boardgames. Of course, you also get to hit something with a mallet, which is therapeutic in and of itself. :) The benefit of this is if you need 28 kobolds, you can just make them. I also have to give a nod to Wizards for putting out the Monster Vault, which is probably the best product they've put out in years for the tokens alone, though it's alot more fun to make your own tokens.

  22. Those SF tokens sure bring back memories! It was the first SF rpg I played, and we played it a lot. I still remember some of the Volturnus critters from the tokens...

    I've been sad many times over the fact that I sold my SF boxed set in 1995 or so - it would've been brilliant to own now.

    In the high school equivalent time we played AD&D with paper counters one friend of mine drew. They were like cardboard heros, and they were brilliantly done. He did all the characters and almost all the critters we encountered.

    The giant crab used to creep up in many fights, though...

  23. The nice thing about miniatures and counters is that they show the tactical situation at a glance. One set of games where they were vital was The Fantasy Trip, which was a wonderful game for tactical combat. I ended up using Dennis Loubet's Cardboard Heroes (SJG) for them, in the main.

    Of course, in many situations you aren't really playing a tactical combat game. And most modern rpgs don't handle tactical situations at all well. There's 4th Ed and I'd really like to try the Sanguine edition of Usagi Yojimbo as a proper tactical game. Although the downside of these games is that character generation takes too long, so you don't have the same sense of risk as you have in The Fantasy Trip.

    I was quite envious of many of the older wargamers, as they had quite impressive collections of miniatures.* After all they were relatively cheap at the time, and given that they habitually painted whole armies (unpainted figures were strictly forbidden). But it was still beyond my price range, beyond the occasional collectors pieces, that you wouldn't want to use in a game because you had spent so long painting them (I once painted every scale of a dragon separately -- never again).

    I did have a set of nice Western figures fror running games of Once Upon A Time In The West. A miniatures western game that if it had of been written earlier would really have been considered a role-playing game. As it was, we tended to use it as a role-playing game.

    Incidentally I also remember playing in tabletop miniatures games of Boot Hill Superhero 2044, and Gamma World. They weren't roleplaying games. They were tactical combat games using rpg rules.

    [* Of course, many of these older wargamers could field entire armies of miniatures and actually use Chainmail and Swords & Sorcery as they were meant to be used.]

  24. I too have always been a big fan of Cardboard Heroes - light, inexpensive and had fantastic Denis Loubet artwork...Loved the Jeff Dee chits that came in V&V scenarios, too...I always thought minis really bring a game to life, and have huge appeal to younger gamers as they visualize it as "being in a videogame".

  25. Another game of the era that came with cardboard counters was Star Trek the RPG from Fasa. Counters for personal scale combat and movement, and counters for the starship control panels and ship movement and combat. They were very handy. Add in the gridded deck plans of the Constitution class and the D-7 (separate boxed sets) and some of us were in heaven back then.

  26. I've always thought of miniatures as "old school." I can't ever remember playing without them (or at least with counters if we weren't playing at a wargamer's house).

    Generally we always had painted minis for PCs; painted or unpainted minis for NPCs and some kritters; and tokens for the rest. We got a ton of mileage out of a set of old wooden Risk blocks, we even found stick-on numbers to help with differentiating members of a horde of block kritters.

  27. I have always enjoyed playing “wargames” with chits and minis. I pretty much never played an RPG with them, however, until I started playing GURPS in the early 1990s. Some of us had minis for D&D, but we never actually used them. We never had the Traveller games that came with chits, and we never had Traveller minis. We didn’t even use them for Warhammer FRP.

    So, with that background, it always seemed to me like TSR only included chits and maps for them in those boxed RPGs to help new players transition from conventional games. (Which seemed to be the same idea that led to The Dragon’s Den D&D boxed set.) When I’ve played those games, the chits were never used.

    I’ve now tried minis, counters, paper minis, and generic pawns. At this point, I’ve decided that I just don’t enjoy them in my RPGs. The thing that is worrying me now, though, is that some players may find the lack of visual aids to be a real hinderance. So, perhaps my thoughts and feelings on this matter will have to continue to evolve.