Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rise of the Miniature

Phil Viverito's "Siege of Alesia"
at Cold Wars 2010
It’s a piece of RPG legend that D&D arose from wargaming. Although that’s true, it’s a case of something not really meaning what people think it means. A more accurate statement would be that D&D arose not from wargames but from wargamers. After all, the magical spark at the core of D&D is that it wasn’t just another wargame; it was a little of this and a little of that rearranged into something startlingly new and different.

But the inventors and early adopters of D&D were steeped in wargaming ideas, and they left a strong imprint on the game. Typically, this influence gets simplified to the most recognizable of the wargamers’ tools—miniatures—yet miniature figures are probably the least of the ways in which wargaming influenced RPGs. Early editions of D&D stated clearly that the game didn’t need miniatures at all. That was an important declaration, because rules for miniature wargames are what TSR published in the early 1970s. Anyone who bought a rulebook from TSR expected it to be for and about miniatures; hence the need to be up front about what people were buying.

It’s curious, then, that the use of miniatures in D&D and its offshoots reached an apex here in the 21st Century. After being almost entirely written out of the game in 2nd Edition, minis came back with a fury in 3E and 4E. Some people love that 3-D emphasis and some hate it, with pretty much the same fervor displayed in religion and politics.

It’s fair to ask, then, what purpose miniatures really serve in D&D. Are RPGs made better or worse by little plastic or metal heroes and villains?

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)


  1. We I first started playing, we used rocks. We later upgraded to Legos, and eventually found a head shop in the next town over that sold minis. As time went on, however, minis fell into disuse.

    Now, in my current games, they're almost never used unless the situation demands it. I keep a megamat on the table and plenty of numbered tokens, minis, and Random Other Things off to the side and if the game every really gets tactical, I can quickly sketch out the terrain and place things where they need be.

    95% of the time, we never use them.

  2. AD&D 2E, '95 reprint, no player's options, slight house rules.

  3. My D&D group uses 3.5 (moving to PF), so we use minis a lot. Our main DM has lots and lots of the plastics, I still have a lot of painted and unpainted metals, so mine get used for PCs, his for the monsters.

    My non-D&D group rarely uses minis, preferring markers and a map, or sometimes counters. We're setting up a WW1 flying aces game, so we may pick up a lot of the "Wings of Glory" cards and miniatures.

  4. I hardly ever use miniatures. I think they add more to the tactical 'crunchy' side of the game than the heart of the game (role-playing).

    For me, imagination has always trumped little plastic/metal figures who never resemble anything nearly as cool as I can envision.

    As a GM, my top complaint against miniatures is that I have never (and I've played for a very long time) seen an instance of a GM pulling out a battle map and setting up miniatures and then canceling the battle when the heroes run/negotiate their way out of it. For me, that's a serious restriction on play and imagination and I don't think it benefits the game.

    In case it's relevant, I'm referring to all editions of D&D, many other RPGs, and my own home brewed systems.

    Thanks for running such a great website, Mr. Winter. You're awesome!

  5. One of my chief hesitations about miniatures is that they focus players' imaginations on the inch-high toy of a lich instead of on the terrifying image they might conjure in their minds if that toy wasn't on the table. That's one way in which they clearly detract from the experience rather than enhancing it.