Roleplaying with Miniatures

Roleplaying with Miniatures

Mike Eaton, Play Unplugged

Let’s start this off right by telling you what happened to me a moment ago, on the way from my Local Gaming Store, in the name of miniatures: I tripped while running for my bus and fell face-first into mulch. But I spilled not one drop of the iced tea I was carrying, broke not a single mini, and still made my bus.

It was a good day.

centaur miniature five guys burgers


Let’s also get a major point out of the way: some roleplaying games (like D&D 4th Edition) mostly need minis to function properly, and some (like really anything from White Wolf’s World of Darkness) are far too cinematic to want them. (Who cares how many squares you’re moving when your humanity is at stake?)

I’m mostly talking today about games where minis can add value, but can easily be replaced by a dry-erase or chalkboard, or just by the power of memory. What do minis add to our roleplaying experience, and how might they curtail the same?

Vague Assumptions, Creative Freedom

For the most part, in an RPG, you don’t need minis unless you’re in combat. If you and your fellow players are at an inn, very few gamemasters will ask you to position yourselves to search a room, or to sleep, unless that’s going to be extremely and strangely important. Barring that, your position becomes mostly important when some ne’er-do-well is hellbent on attacking it.

What we sometimes lose when we lay down a grid and stick a miniature on it is fluid combat. In games where players are trusted to give-and-take with their gamemaster, this is a common scenario:

GM: Where are you?
+ Player: I was hiding behind something.
+ GM: OK, about how far from the center of combat, do you think?
+ Player: Maybe fifty feet, if I could have gotten there.
+ GM: Well, the wizard still has a decent angle on you, but you’ve got cover from the guys with swords.
+ Player: Hey, one out of three ain’t bad.

In this scenario, character placement is open to interpretation — on both ends (and this is important!). The player in this case had the freedom to try to hide herself from combat, but the gamemaster also had the freedom to build the opposing forces in a way that still threatens the player, but makes a cinematic concession to that desire to hide.

This can get complex if the other players are jealous of not going first, since their positions are beholden to this scenario created without them. In this case, players and gamemaster should hopefully be able to work out placement that makes sense. This can also be complicated if there isn’t trust and the lack of a defined board is exploited, as in these scenarios:

GM: Please place yourselves.
Player: I’m like fifty feet away from the center of combat.
GM: Good. That is exactly in front of the wizard who is already casting.
Player: Well, I mean, I wouldn’t go there if that’s where he was.
GM: Doesn’t matter; he would appear wherever you are, anyway.

Or . . .

GM: Please place yourselves.
Player: Like, anywhere? Sure. I’m behind the toughest one.
Player 2: Yeah, and I’m in front of him. We’re flanking him.
GM: I’m going to say that you can’t just appear in the best possible location for combat.
Player: Hey, you asked us where we were! That’s where we are!

dnd campaign anger bad gm dm player

“Forget this campaign! This isn’t even fair!”

In each of these examples, one entity or another in the game is using the lack of a board to stifle another player’s honest desire to play creatively. That’s uncool. We don’t devote time and energy to gathering together and immersing ourselves into another world just to cut people down.

Another consequence of lack of minis and grids: distances are often estimated. Again, without trust, this can get ugly — but with it, you can bypass a lot of technicality and save a lot of time, and get to the good stuff! (That would be the kicking of butts.)

A positive example:

Player: How far away am I from the guy with the sword?
GM: Who did you attack last?
Player: The wizard. I shot him with my bow. I was trying to keep away from the swordsman.
GM: OK. And he didn’t attack you, so . . . you’re close enough to shoot the swordsman, sure.
Player: Can I get him with my sword?
GM: Sorry, no.
Player: Even if I move?
GM: If you moved far enough to slash him, you’d have to take a full round, so you couldn’t slash.
Player: Ugh. All right. Well, I’ll create some more distance between us and shoot an arrow.

In this case, the player and GM are both able to control their placement in regard to their weaponry; the GM keeps the player close enough to shoot an arrow, but not close enough to have her cake in hand (too far to be slashed) and eat it, too (close enough to slash). The player, in turn, gets to keep away as intended.

However, things do not always go so well.

Player: Am I still far from the swordsman?
GM: Actually, no. He held his action, and now he’s about to attack you.
Player: Wait. I thought I was too far away to slash him, before?
GM: He’s actually pretty fast. What’s your defense score?
Player: Wait, no, if I had known he was that close, my entire last turn would have been different.
GM: Sorry, I said he wasn’t right in front of you, but he wasn’t too far.
Player: Hold on! How far was he? And is anyone else nearby? [Looks at chalkboard of letters and lines]
GM: Just trust me, OK?

Clearly, all players do need to trust each other, but “Just trust me” has been the go-to line for GMs with their head below water for as long as there have been GMs. In this case, the GM can’t keep track of the board and the players aren’t sure what did or didn’t “really” happen in the previous round, so there’s confusion and bad feelings.

Little Boxes Made of Ticky-Tacky

DnD Miniature drow dark elf sword female

Perhaps my favorite mini I’ve used in-game: The D&D Miniatures Game’s Champion of Eilistraee (via eBay, Champion Miniatures)

Some folks feel that minatures weigh them down, by being too definite. We’ve already seen the advantages and disadvantages of going without them, so this section will be much shorter. Here’s what miniatures and grids do bring to the table, though:

Clarity. You know where you are. Nobody can argue where you are or were.
Visual Effect. Picturing a battlefield in your head or interpreting it on a board or paper is functional, but there’s more raw appeal and world-immersion in a miniature that represents you than there is in writing down your initials.
Personalization. Choosing your own miniature to represent you — whether you borrowed, bought, built, drew, painted or printed it — ties you to your character in a physical way. Most miniatures will last longer than the character sheet associated with them ever will.

On the other hand, miniatures also have a way of literally boxing your combat scenario in.

– Rigidity. Once you find yourself placed in mortal danger, you can’t talk your way out of it.
Mostly 2D World. Representing flight, levitation, complex terrain and certain spell effects just don’t lend themselves to a flat grid with little people or pictures on it.
Expense. Roleplaying can be a practical game as far as spending, because you can often have a theoretically unlimited number of adventures with one book. Adding miniatures that represent each character you play or send at a player can add expenses that aren’t strictly necessary, if your group is very casual and isn’t interested in keeping all those tchotchkes around. (We already spend enough on dice!)

dnd grid ship

“Did we really need a grid for this boat?” (Photo via

Clearly, miniatures are essential in wargaming and many other tabletop games, but in roleplaying, you have a choice. If I’m running a game that can make good use of minis, I will always choose them, for the three positive reasons listed above. I feel that the negative experiences they prevent are worth preventing, more than the fluid combat and creative liberties they might provide, but that’s me.

If you’re about to start a roleplaying game (perhaps D&D 5th Edition?), your group can weigh all the possibilities listed here and decide if miniatures are right for your game.

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