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Howling Tower: Rise of the Miniature

Howling Tower: Rise of the Miniature

Philip J. Viverito's "Siege of Alesia" game at Cold Wars 2010 (Photo: Steve Winter)
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?

Miniatures serve four purposes: they’re eye candy, they improve spatial clarity, they add an element of familiarity, and they make a specific type of play possible that wouldn’t be possible without them.

Wow, nice figures. Did you paint them yourself? This is the most obvious bonus from using miniatures; they’re fun to look at and to play with. People like having toys to fiddle with at the table besides dice, pencils, and erasers.

If Maximinius stands 3 feet to the left, the next fireball will juuuust miss him. Regardless of how exacting your DM is about floor plans and spacing, knowing who’s inside the fireball’s 20-foot radius is important. Miniatures can prevent a host of arguments and save countless PCs from electrocution by companions who target their lightning bolts with less care than safety demands. If you like to see where things are in relation to other things, then miniatures are a great boon.

Oh, I get it. We move these pieces around. Roleplaying is a strange concept to wrap your head around. A new player’s first session can be disorienting without something familiar to grab onto. Moving pieces on a board is familiar; that’s what games are about, right? This advantage fades for most people once they grok the R in RPG, but for some, the board game aspect provided by miniatures is as much a part of D&D as are funny dice and Mountain Dew. It all depends on when and how you first grew to love the game.

Oh, I get it. We need to move these pieces around. 3E and 4E ushered in a style of play that demands miniatures. You can argue, as some have, that this returns D&D to its wargaming roots. That argument is a tough sell considering all those statements in the first 20 years’ worth of Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks that miniatures are unnecessary. No, relying on miniatures to the point where their use is all but mandatory is a relatively recent development in D&D. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, unless you’re an OD&D originalist. By pushing miniatures around on a grid, you can achieve a degree of tactical precision way beyond what’s possible with imagination alone. It’s not to everyone’s liking, as the Great Edition War continues to hammer home. But for cats who dig it, this style of play is their pajamas.

Which leaves us with our question: Are RPGs made better or worse by little plastic or metal heroes and villains?

The answer is, yes, they are. Often at the same time, at the same table. Personally, I like them … in moderation. Coming from someone who’s painted thousands of the little things and owns many thousands more, my “moderation” might not be the same as yours, but the sentiment stands. When they amplify the game, miniatures are terrific. When they become the game or interfere with imagination, they’re terrible. The trick is knowing the difference.

Where does your group draw the line?

P.S. If D&D’s wargaming roots interest you, check out Jon Peterson’s history of D&D, Playing at the World. Also, the photo features Philip J. Viverito’s “Siege of Alesia” game at Cold Wars 2010, which used Phil’s rules Classical Hack. You can learn more about this game at Board Game Geek.

11 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Rise of the Miniature”

  1. This is something our group struggles with. We are all relatively new to playing D&D at the table together, even the DM is learning as we go. While some of us like really like the tactical part of the game, others want more theater of the mind stuff.

    I guess it really comes down to personal prefernce and what the DM is comfortable doing. I have noticed that as we become more familiar with the rules, the minatures become less necessary. We have even done some small bits of combat with out them.

  2. Charles Lee Carrier

    We use an overhead projector with clear acetate sheets and dry-erase markers to show the map on a wall, where everyone can see it. That way my players can sit around the room wherever they please, with plenty of space to spread out their stuff, instead of crowding everyone around a table. If there are ever any questions about exact positioning, I just plop some dice onto the projector to represent monsters and characters. This has worked just fine in place of miniatures for the last thirty-three years.

  3. I’m happy to see Steve plug Playing At The World. It’s a fantastic book that anyone interested in D&D’s development, including its setting, rules, and non-wargame stuff, should read.

  4. Interesting use of an overhead projector. I’ve heard of people doing similar things with digital tables like Maptool and WotC’s ill-fated tabletop, projecting them onto a wall-mounted TV that doubles as a monitor. I’d love to try that sometime, but first I’ll need to get a wall-mounted TV that doubles as a monitor.

    Of course, replacing miniatures with tokens, dice, or projected images is still playing with miniatures. They just take a different form. The real question to me is whether using representations of any sort — 3-D, 2-D, or virtual — is a plus or a minus in people’s gaming experience.

  5. I think minis breathed new life into my gaming life. Mainly because it gave me a side hobby to explore when I wasn’t gaming. I could paint mins (and terrain) and still feel like I was playing.

  6. Started playing with minitures in 0e and never stopped. The fact that the wife liked painting minitures and made up some battle mats to go with them helped alot. I always found drawing the dungeon out on a battle mat was quicker and easier than the verbal room descriptions I used to slug through in my college games. It also gave the rest of the players other than the designated “mapper” a sense of what was going on.

  7. You know, it’s funny. I learned D&D in second edition but really didn’t play a lot until 3.5, so I cut my teeth using miniatures. For a long time, I scoffed at the idea of not using them.

    For almost a decade now, I’m a regular (3 games a month) GM. I have tons of miniatures, more dwarves forge tiles than I care to admit, wire templates, battlemats, and terrain for almost any occasion. But I’ve noticed something.

    The longer I GM, the less “stuff” I feel like I need.

    I still love using miniatures for big battle scenes or set pieces, but I find my games somehow freer just using imagination for smaller encounters.

    The trick, of course, is that with 3.5/pathfinders games a great deal of the spells rely on miniatures and battlemats. If you are not a “letter of the law” type you can work around it, if you are…well…not so much.


  8. Another question of taste and once more it all depends on the people you play with. Being familiar with classic tactical wargames (I played with may grandpa), rpg without using miniatures, tactical rpg (Cadwallon RPG which sprung from Confrontation a Skirmisher Miniature Game), pbem rpg, pbf rpg I can only say that using miniatures (or tokens) at the right moment helps clarify the situation. I opt more for tokens (even if I still have some unpainted minis laying around for over 10 years now) as they don’t narrow down your imagination to the miniature presented before you. When you use a token (the once my girl used to learn maths and have a blue and a red side) you get all the advantages of minis and none of their hindrances.

    Still I adore minis even if I neither have the patience nor the skill to ever paint mine. The are great to look at.

    Just my two cents.

    Have fun doing it your way!

    The Bull

  9. I’m very much a fan, despite the fact that I run a campaign heavy on the “role” side of the equation. First: “hey shoot, this mini is awesome” is a great tool; minis can be props. Second, for simple spatial awareness. Even outside of combat– I use minis for parties, a lot, actually. “Oh, Weird Cape Dude, Crazy Cultist Guy & Bad Ass Archer Lady are all in a clique over here, & so they can’t hear me plotting with Mischievous Gnome over here, good…”

  10. I’ve been playing in a 3.5 game for about two years now and haven’t used a mini-once.

    I’ve also DM’d a lot of 4th edition and yep, absolutely can’t get away from using minis, IMHO. Even when playing with some of the same people who play the 3.5 game they insisted on battle-mats and minis for combat encounters because the rules are just so coupled to it that you can’t even being to play a theatre of the mind game.

    I also play a regular Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay v2 game and we rarely use minis there, but for larger combat scenes we’ll often turn up at the GM’s house to find a huge battlefield ready to go and to be honest, my heart sinks because I pretty much hate wargaming these days. But that’s a rarity, so I put up with it without complaint.

    In general, I like skirmish games (and that’s a big feature of what I like about D&D 4th), but on the whole prefer RPGs without minis.

    Side note: slightly hypocritical, but I’m actually developing a ‘tactical combat’ supplement for Warrior, Rogue and Mage which should be published this year (or early next). WR&M has no concept of minis or tactical combat (until now) and I think it’s one of the best RPGs out there because it’s so light. I’m hoping my supplement doesn’t weight it down too much.

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