Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why I Despise Miniatures

When I was about 10-12 years old, I lived a block away from an office supply store whose back room was reserved for hobby supplies. This being the early 1980's, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia was pretty much obligatory. Between the hobby shop and the books & games shelf at a ShopKo just another block farther, I was in modules and supplements for ages. But it was the glass cabinet containing Ral Partha pewter miniatures that captured my attention the most.

Dwarf with Battleaxe, one of my first minis.

I love these minis; every few weeks my neighbor friend and I would visit the store to see what was new, and return home with one or two more. But my interest in them was as tiny works of art, not tokens for gaming. I failed to see a need for them in AD&D, which at the time did not rely on location-based tactics anywhere near as much as 3rd edition and beyond.

Fast-forward to the 2000's: After a long hiatus, I returned to gaming through the system most familiar to me: Dungeons and Dragons. And I was ecstatic about the introduction of the d20 game mechanic. For decades prior, I thought the system could benefit from a universal resolution mechanic, without having to consult endless tables. But the introduction of feats and attacks of opportunity soured my overall experience.

Tactical Combat is Baloney

3rd Edtition D&D turned combat encounters into drawn-out affairs, sometimes lasting the entirety of a session. Many players seem okay with this, but I fail to see the appeal. Here are a few reasons why:
  • If you want a game dominated by tactical combat, play a minis game. Wargaming exists for players who enjoy moving tokens on a battlemat. Roleplaying games exist for players who enjoy collaborative storytelling, exploration, and problem-solving. In an RPG, combat should represent action high-points in a story, not the bulk of the adventure.
  • A tactics-heavy combat system breaches the realism gap. Ever hear of the "Uncanny Valley?" It's a principle in computer animation which states that if you get too close to lifelike realism, virtual reality becomes creepy. There is a similar threshold in gaming realism. The more flavor you try to add with special moves, skills, circumstantial bonuses and penalties, etc., the more pressure you put on a system to to completely realistic, which is impossible.
  • The more combat rules you add, the less relevant they become. Fun fact: Adjusted to scale, the Earth is smoother than a cue ball. A cue ball is engineered to be smooth, whereas the Earth possesses an immense variation in its surface. But at the end of the day, they are both smooth from a distance. A highly abstract combat system may seem to rob a player of tactical options, but a rules-heavy combat system serves the same purpose in the end: One character, on average, will be stronger than another in combat. The more details you introduce to the system, the more gratuitous they become.
Since 3rd Edition, D&D has often been played with minis, because in a highly tactical combat system you need to mark each character's position. Let's take an objective look at the pros and cons of miniatures:

Pros and Cons of Miniatures in Tabletop RPG's

First, the pros:
  • You can't run a tactics-heavy game without them. Sure, you could mark graph paper every time someone takes a 5' sidestep, but miniatures are easier for all at the table to see; and being little models of characters, they add flavor to the game.
Now the cons:
  • The Realism Gap is in effect. Tactics aside, if you're hoping to use minis to make the gaming experience more immersive, then what of the fact that they will almost never resemble your characters as you imagine them? 
  • You will never have enough. Assuming you did manage to find a mini that looks pretty much like the character you're playing, what happens when that character perishes? Do you purchase a new mini for every character you play? As a GM, what do you do when you don't have enough 1HD monsters for large encounters? Use pennies for the remainder? 
  • They make your hobby more expensive. We already shell out dozens to hundreds of dollars on rulebooks, which is enough for casual board gamers to scratch their heads at. Add the expense of miniatures, and an outsider's bemusement turns to pity. I love RPG's, but there is a limit on how much I will invest in them, especially when the return on my investment is dubious.
  • Who carries the burden? GM's, do you require that your players purchase their own minis? Or do you take on the expense?
When the only "pro" of using miniatures in a tabletop RPG is that they are required, there is something wrong.

Two Solutions

Because minis are helpful in managing combat encounters in highly tactical games, the first solution to the miniatures problem is to simply avoid playing highly tactical games. If you enjoy playing with minis, consider channeling that interest into a miniatures skirmish game. may be a good place to learn more. The Old School Renaissance has brought a slew of rules-light RPG's. I personally favor Labyrinth Lord and Tunnels and Trolls. Other popular games worth checking out are Dungeon World, Swords & Wizardry, and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Lest you think I'm completely averse to post-3.0 D&D, I have enjoyed playing in campaigns using 3rd Edition and Pathfinder rules. But when I run said games, I prefer to craft flat tokens representing the PC's. Something like this:
The triangle at the edge of the circle indicates heading. 26 of these, and you have enough tokens to represent any character. If two characters' names begin with the same initial, I only need to create a copy of the token using different colors. You could use a silhouette of a weapon instead of an initial. Less immersive than likenesses of characters? I say no less immersive than minis that do not look like the PCs anyway. As for monsters, the process is easier: Google the name of the monster, and use whatever image you prefer in the images results. You can print the token on heavy stock paper for live games, or screen cap it, crop a perfect square around it, and shrink it to your preferred size for online games.

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