Thursday, 22 August 2013

Miniatures in old D&D?

When I started playing D&D with people two or three years ago the first order of business was to prepare the playing pieces. It was recommended in the instructions, after all. 

Ruining your game: a '79 Grenadier giant that had it's zappy
hand broken off so I made a new one.
Then some time not too long after, when I discovered that there were people who favoured older style games over the tedious accountancy of contemporary D&D (but thanks for luring me back, Wizards of the Coast!) I played with a wise person who said, I don't like to use miniatures in games: it stops the players from imagining what's going on.

I'd been thinking of miniatures like dice, like, the more the better. I hadn't thought of them as a kind of visual railroad. Brendan's point was really good though. And Brendan's Pahvelorn campaign uses no miniatures and very little DM-provided visual information and it's certainly among the best–the most interesting and imaginative– game I've played.

I get the impression that this is standard practice but it's hard to tell. Lots of thoughtful, creative people are playing old RPGs and writing about them on the internet but there's close to nothing being said about miniatures or the other physical stuff people use at the table. Aside from offering a tactical view – what do miniatures (and other tactile game aids) do? What's the right amount - and why?

There's part of me that holds to the view that playing pieces help to make the playing possible in some important, albeit atavistic, way. People agreeing to the terms of representation (whether with miniatures or other props) adds complexity but establishes a useful and particular distance between the player and the game. Story and style gets shaped by this distance. Per H.G. Wells, You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be.” In other words, scale dials up pathos and humour and a sense of being an insect under the unknowable eyes of the gods. No doubt the high mortality of old editions have some connection to D&D's wargame origins in form as well as content.

That said, I have tried using miniatures in a couple of different ways in OSR type games - but maybe that's another blog post. 

In the meantime - are there any thoughtful DM's out there using miniatures or other props and achieving simpler, richer play in the process? How are you avoiding the visual railroad?


  1. Evan, I like the minis. When I started my camapign I swore I would not use a monster unless I had a mini that was at least close. It helps the players and the DM see what is happening. Not every player can visualize encounters and critters.

  2. Yeah I like them too!

    I mean that's potentially a very big constraint to put on the game. A lot of people seem to bemoan this, but I don't think it's automatically a problem.

  3. I decided that minis are essential when I run after the first session I ran of Spears of the Dawn for people who had never played a tabletop RPG before. I was using a penny as the toke for some village chief, and suddenly they were discussing attacking him. I swapped him out for some giant werewolf and they decided that they weren't going to mess with him "now that he is not a penny". Even if we aren't using a grid or diagrams for the action, just having a physical representation sitting out for all the see changes the perceptions of the players towards the NPCs, monsters, the other PCs and their own characters.