Behind the Screen – Chapter 15: Minis or the Mind

I reviewed the demo of a role playing game recently called Bloody Quest, article here, that made me think about the role of miniatures within role playing games. In this chapter I plan to explore the use of miniatures within role playing, look at some pros and cons and possibly offer some insight if those new to role playing wish to utilise miniatures (henceforth known as minis).

Most people know that Dungeons & Dragons is widely known as the first of the modern era of role playing games. But before that, before role playing games, there were wargames (and still are, of course). Back then wargames were different than today, mostly based on real battles. Chainmail, written by Gary Gygax and others, was the first commercially available wargame that included fantasy elements, and Dungeons & Dragons came about as a variant of Chainmail. So the use of minis in role playing games was natural progression, since role playing games came about from wargames, which utilised minis. Of course, not all role playing games use minis, but the more combat heavy games tend to. Certain systems use minis a lot more freely than others, with a lot of rules built in to make it all easy.

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There are so many different role playing games out there, that I couldn’t possibly list them all, but a few of the classics, like D&D, are built to use minis. Many of the games I’ve played over the years can either support minis from the get go, or wouldn’t take much mucking with the rules to make minis fit. I’ve yet to see a system that doesn’t have movement or weapon distance measures within the mechanics, and those are all you need to use minis within that game.

So why use minis for a role playing game? What are the benefits?

As I stated in the previous paragraph, minis are ideally suited to combat-intense role playing games, sometimes called Kick-in-the-Door style games. Without the use of minis, everyone within the group will have to remember where all the playable characters (PCs) and enemy creatures are at a given time. If there are four or five PCs and half a dozen creatures, that is at least ten figures’ positions that must be remembered. Then there is remembering the room description and features and using them within the combat. Not everyone is capable of that sort of spatial imagination, let alone remembering all those things, even if it was static. But since many things can change each round, what needs to be remembered changes constantly. If the group was only fighting one or two creatures, it wouldn’t be too much hassle, but in larger scale fights minis provide a valuable advantage. Being able to see the combat scene laid out can also allow the group to devise and implement significantly better tactics than otherwise. It is a lot easier to figure out which enemies will be within a spell’s area of effect when you can see the models rather than trying to imagine them. Flanking, charging, pushing or any other number of abilities are significantly easier when one can see physical models and can plot paths and trajectories. Cover is also easier to calculate when you can see the models.

An additional benefit of using minis applies to the GM, but will hinder certain types of players. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, there is a certain type of player, called alternately Munchkins or Power Gamers. I’m not going into a full description here, that is what the other article is all about. Suffice to say that some of them will take advantage of any situation to make sure they win. These sorts of players can use the inconsistent nature of non-miniature based combat to put themselves in better positions to either do more damage, get more kills or avoid hazardous situations. Having the minis in play ensures they cannot take advantage of the GMs poor memory or inattention.

Another benefit of minis is customisation. While one person might possess a significant amount of minis to cover all the enemy bases, players may wish to go further. Pre-painted plastic minis, such as the Dungeons & Dragons line, are not of a particularly great quality. They are easily fit for purpose, but are not that much to look at, at the end of the day. A player can go out and find a single mini to represent their character from somewhere like Reaper Miniatures or Games Workshop, who have a reputation for making high quality and highly detailed minis. Then that player can paint that mini to their own colour scheme, and possibly modify the model to their tastes.

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But, of course, there are some downsides to minis as well.

The first, and most obvious, is actually possessing the minis in the first place. Getting enough minis to do everything one might want to do could require you to have hundreds of minis. And these things don’t come cheap. To accrue a mass of minis worthy of a lengthy campaign one could spend several hundred dollars, depending on source. A small amount of looking around gives me the idea that current D&D minis in Australia probably start around $25 a booster (four random minis) and goes up from there. And that is for pre-painted plastic models. If one wishes to go for resin or metal models, such as Reaper Miniatures or the like, a single model could cost as much as an entire pack of plastic minis.

The second negative is only a negative to some, to others it is completely irrelevant. Space. One of the good things about role playing games is it can really be played anywhere, in almost any space. The typical space is on a table, either the dining room or perhaps in the garage (or possibly basement for those that have them). However, any space can work. Quite often, games in which I’ve participated have taken place while sitting in arms chairs and couches, with no table in sight, even though there was one available. I’ve played games in caravans, cars, bedrooms, on a beach, out in the bush and sitting on the grass behind H block at my old high school during lunch break. The one commonality between all those situations was that none of them had minis. A table of adequate size is generally needed to use minis in a game. And that is if one can clear space between all the bottles of drink, cups, packets of chips and lollies, books, pieces of paper, dice, pencils and all the other accoutrements that are normally strewn across the table. But even if one can find enough space, one cannot just have minis scattered over the table, there must be something to put them on such as a map or grid of some sort. There are various ways this can be accomplished, some of which I’ve touched on in previous articles, mainly the technological side. A simpler and cheaper option, though not as fancy, is getting a pre-printed grid of whatever size is appropriate for the game and laminating it. Why laminate? So one can draw the various rooms and such on the sheet (with whiteboard markers), and erase it after, ready for the next scenario.

Now, for those who want to get into using minis within their games, there are several options one can follow to do so, but I will give three options; cheap, medium and expensive.

Cheap option:

The Grid – Information for the size of the grid can be found online, but are normally one inch squares. Find a picture of one inch squares that will fill an A3 sheet. Take that to Officeworks or somewhere similar. They can print and laminate that for less than $5. Grab a couple whiteboard markers while at Officeworks for cheap, two or three colours will suffice. Remember though, don’t fold a laminated sheet, only roll them up. They also may not last long term, laminate does have a tendency to separate after a few years.

The Minis – Re-use anything possible, such as minis from board games (like Descent or Hero Quest) or wargames (Warhammer or so on). They might not be the exact model, but can still work. Otherwise, use anything else. If one has a dice collection like mine, then they are great stand-ins. Folded pieces of cardboard with a name written on them can also be used. As long as they can all be differentiated from each other, then it can be made to work. If you are good at drawing, you can draw your own on small pieces of card.

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Medium option:

The Grid – One can purchase pre-made grids from various different companies, such as Paizo or Game Mastery. These come folded, and are coated in a smooth, shiny finish so whiteboard markers can be used on them. These typically run in the range of $20 – $30. They also normally coloured. My Paizo basic grid is dirt coloured on one side, and stone coloured on the other. These come folded so can be sorted a little easier. I’ve had mine for several years and there is no sign of degradation thus far, just some wear on corners. There are also kits to completely build dungeons, including walls and furniture as well.

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The Minis – One could search eBay or other sellers for lots of second-hand minis, sometimes good bargains can be found for the right price. Otherwise, certain companies offer paper minis. These are generally pre-cut cards with a picture of the creature on it, supplied with a plastic base for the card to stand up, but there are also PDF versions where one can print out the minis themselves. Cost varies greatly, with PDFs starting at only a few dollars and physical product costing more like $20+ per pack.

Expensive option:

The Grid – In addition to the options above, those with more cash can look at some of the technological options too. I’ve seen pictures of a setup where the table has a white surface and a projector is suspended above it. A quick look in Google has revealed projectors from as little as $36. This will obviously require input from a laptop or similar. There is a box where one could insert a smartphone and the screen will be magnified and projected. Then there is the very expensive option of embedding a screen within a tabletop. With projectors being that cheap (only $36!) I might look into getting one for myself.

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The Minis – If money is no option, then the sky’s the limit. One could purchase bulk lots off eBay. I’ve seen a few online stores that sell boosters by the case ($160+). Any number of different models can be acquired from any number of different manufacturers for any number of different prices. One could even go to the lengths of purchasing a 3D printer and making all the minis oneself. This is the most extreme level, of course.

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I tend towards not using minis within the games I run for a few reasons. One is that I don’t possess all the minis needed, and don’t wish to spend the money to acquire them. And two, the games I run tend not to need them. This is normally called ‘Theatre of the Mind’, but it does not work with every game, nor every group. The GM requires a decent amount of skill with description to be able to immerse the group within the world, and the players have to be imaginative enough to be able to picture what the GM describes. It can be a tricky system to get right, but when it does, I believe it is a better, richer experience for all involved. But of course, it isn’t for everyone. I recommend trying both and seeing what suits the group best.

Tell us in the comments below how you play. We here at the ATGN offices always enjoy hearing tales of other tabletop adventures.

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