By John Grigsby, Staff Reviewer d20 Magazine Rack
The Miniatures Handbook is a Dungeons & Dragons supplement from Wizards of the Coast. This 182-page full-color hardcover by Michael Donais, Skaff Elias, Rob Heinsoo, and Jonathon Tweet features cover art by Stephen Tappin depicting a lone warrior facing off against two demons. Stephen Tappin, Trevor Hairsine, Des Hanley, Adrian Smith, and Richard Wright handle the interior art and the Miniatures Handbook retails for $29.95.
So now you’ve got the miniatures starter set and you’re probably wondering, like me, why do I need a Miniatures Handbook? The truth is, you don’t. The starter set contains everything you need to be perfectly happy playing the miniatures game. In fact, in my opinion, the book seems to suffer from a misnomer; there is some material on using the miniatures in here, but it’s overshadowed by some other material that, while good, doesn’t have anything to do with the miniatures game. I’ll suffix that by saying, “yet,” because the game is constantly expanding and it’s always possible that new releases will draw on some of the material here.
The Miniatures Handbook introduces four new base classes to the game; the favored soul, the healer, the marshal, and the warmage. The favored soul is a divine caster with an innate casting ability. I’ll admit that this class has been needed since the advent of the sorcerer in 3E and I’m both surprised and disappointed that it took them this long to realize that. The healer specializes in healing magic, supplementing it with other healing abilities. The marshal is a military leader who inspires the best from his companions, and the warmage is a powerful battlefield spellcaster.
Of these, the favored soul is the only one that I really see any need for in the game, although some may argue that this removes a bit of the uniqueness of the sorcerer class. The healer is useful, but I’m not certain that such a role is absolutely necessary. I am pretty sure that gaining a celestial unicorn companion at 8th level is over-the-top, however. This creature is similar to a paladin’s mount, but gains increases to three stats (Str, Dex, and Int) and has the abilities of a celestial creature (not to mention its unicorn powers)! Keep in mind; this is a base class!
The marshal isn’t really much more than a semi-fighter with the ability to generate an aura which lends special benefits to allies within 60 feet (why does this sound like a Paladin from Diablo II?). The aura may be minor or major, and starting at 2nd level, the marshal can project one of each (minor and major) simultaneously. The effects range from a bonus to saves or ability checks to damage reduction or a bonus to Armor Class. The marshal can also grant extra move actions to those within 30 feet.
Then there’s the warmage. He has a very limited selection of spells (largely evocation) and can cast a certain number of these per day, but need not prepare them like a cleric or wizard. Instead, he can cast any spell from the list, assuming he has slots remaining. In addition, he has the capability to wear armor (light at first, but medium starting at 8th level) without suffering arcane spell failure penalties. Does this apply only to spells from the warmage list? The class description doesn’t specify, but it really should, or else I know a lot of wizards and sorcerers who are going to take a single level of warmage so they can reap the benefits of light armor. The warmage also adds his Intelligence modifier to the damage done with his spells.
The Miniatures Handbook offers seven new prestige classes; the bonded summoner, the dragon samurai, the havoc mage, the skullclan hunter, the tactical soldier, the war hulk, and the warchief. The bonded summoner is a spellcaster with strong elemental ties, the dragon samurai is a warrior with draconic powers, the havoc mage casts arcane spells while making physical attacks, the skullclan hunter is a ruthless stalker of the undead, the tactical soldier represents a master of teamwork, the war hulk is a giant trained to handle smaller foes, and the warchief is a savage battle leader. At least one of these prestige classes is the focus for an upcoming miniature (the copper samurai), but how many others may see design in the future is unknown.
The bonded summoner is a good call for anyone wanting to play an elemental mage, but the dragon samurai are a bit of a stretch for any campaign, and I probably won’t be allowing them. The havoc mage isn’t too unbalancing, though the focus of this class could probably just as easily be conveyed by the addition of a couple of feats. The skullclan hunter is a good idea, in theory, but I dislike the alignment requirement of good. There seems no reason why evil characters (or even other undead!) could not be just as skilled at hunting and destroying undead. The tactical soldier has potential, and I can see some fighter and rogue characters dipping into it for a single level if only to gain the benefit of the Flanker special ability (which permits the tactical fighter to flank enemies from seemingly impossible angles). The war hulk and the warchief both seem a little out of balance to me, however.
The war hulk suffers a significant setback in that they are considered to have 0 ranks all Intelligence-, Wisdom-, and Charisma-based skills, but this doesn’t seem like enough to balance a +2 gain to Strength with each level advance, in addition to a d12 hit dice and other abilities! After all, who needs to think when you’re packing 10d12+9 extra hit dice, a +20 bonus to Strength, the ability to hurl boulders using your Strength modifier to the attack roll instead of Dexterity, and can make a standard attack action on a target in every square you threaten with a single blow? By 10th level, these are the capabilities of the war hulk. Personally, if my character saw one of these monsters leading the enemy, he would soil his armor and run crying home to mommy like a little girl. Maybe in an epic campaign, this class would present a suitable challenge, but the requirements are simply too low to permit it in a standard milieu.
The warchief isn’t quite so bad, gaining a +2 boost to Charisma at every other level. His primary ability, however, is to whip his allies into a tribal frenzy, such that every ally within 30 feet gains a +2 bonus to Strength (this bonus increases by +2 every other level). This is nicely balanced out by the loss of 1 hit point per hit die of the frenzied individual for each turn that the frenzy is maintained. The problem I see with the warchief is that the only real requirement is a +3 base attack bonus and that the character must have led a tribe in battle. I think that, at the very least, Leadership should have been a requirement.
A new category of feat is introduced (what, we don’t have enough?!), the sudden metamagic feat. This type of feat is basically a cheat to equalize spontaneous casters (bards, sorcerers, favored souls) by permitting them the ability to use metamagic feats without preparation. There is a Sudden… feat for eight of the nine feats (Heighten Spell is the exception) described in the Player’s Handbook, and one for a new metamagic feat introduced here (Energy Affinity).The remaining 20 feats found in the Miniatures Handbook are general feats that deal mostly with tactical combat, which fits the theme, after all.
One of the things I liked most about 3.5 was that it helped alleviate a lot of confusion in combat by doing away with move-equivalent actions. Now, darned if Wizards doesn’t go and complicate it again with the addition of a new type of action; the swift action. A swift action “consumes a very small amount of time, but represents a larger expenditure of energy and effort that is the case with a free action.” So what is it useful for? Well, you use swift actions to cast quickened spells, activate a magic item, or cast any spell with a casting time of 1 swift action. Oh, you don’t remember that being one of the casting times? There’s a good reason for that…
THEY JUST FRIGGIN’ INVENTED IT!
The good news is that it’s usefulness seems to be limited to a select few spells, the majority of which are presented here. That means that it can be ignored with little or no repercussions to your campaign. The other new type of spell introduced in the Miniatures Handbook is the legion spell, designed for use primarily on the battlefield to benefit or hamper entire units of creatures. In all, there are 66 new spells in this book, most of which are new (though a few have been lifted from other sources, such as Tome & Blood). Sadly (or perhaps thankfully), they neglect to provide any kind of provisions for which spells from the Player’s Handbook should have a casting time of 1 swift action (except feather fall which they specifically cite as an example).
The are some new magical items in the Miniatures Handbook, most, appropriately enough, oriented towards usefulness in combat. Nine new weapon qualities and one new shield quality are backed by six specific weapons. There is one new ring, two new rods, and a whole load of wondrous items. There are even two new cursed items; the collar of obedience and the collar of slavery. Of course, whether or not you consider them cursed depends on whether you’re wearing them!
There are three dozen new monsters herein, including a new type of creature called an aspect. Aspects are “a pale shadow of the original archfiend or deity.” Think of them as a very minor avatar, but unlike an avatar, these are not extensions of the deity or archfiend. Originally, I was very opposed to the idea of making these “minor deities” available as monsters, feeling that it cheapens the effect of the divine beings, but I’ve thought it over and had a change of heart. Used properly and rarely, they could make a very good addition to an adventure set in an ancient temple, for example. However, they should never become so commonplace that they are routine encounters.
The section on stat cards is largely a waste of space. The reverse of the Miniatures Handbook plainly states that the Player’s Handbook, et. al. are necessary to make full use of this supplement, so most people already know how to read the stat blocks (and it’s pretty intuitive anyway). The rehashing of the miniatures stats is of questionable necessity, since it’s mostly the same thing that is covered in the rulebook that comes with a starter set of miniatures. Okay, I suppose that there are some people out there who might not have a starter set and who might have purchased the Miniatures Handbook and a booster pack and are ready to go to war. There are also people who would dump hot coffee into their lap and sue the restaurant.
The section on converting to the miniatures rules is a little more useful, providing sound advice on designing your own stat cards. If you happen to have your own minis and don’t mind spending a little time doing it, this isn’t a bad system for conversion. It is, though, still largely a matter of interpretation, and there’s lots of room for error, so don’t expect to be permitted to use any of your neat new additions on an official table. It isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, if you’re just looking to add some personalized excitement to skirmishes with friends, this short guide will be helpful.
We’re getting in to the section on miniatures now, and here the book begins to repeat a lot of what has already been gone over in the Skirmish Rules that come with the starter set. It is, however, much better organized in the Miniatures Handbook, which I consider a good thing. Most of this you’ve seen before if you’ve played with the starter set, though there is a diagram here that I wish had been included in the Skirmish Rules; a demonstration of how a typical battlemat is lain out. The first game I played, it was unclear that these was supposed to some space between the terrain tiles. I thought that they had to border on one another.
Full-color illustrations using actual miniatures on a grid demonstrate concepts like command range, movement, cover, and attacks. All of these things were covered in the Skirmish Rules, of course, but the color (and increase in size) adds something to them and makes them a little easier for novices to understand. As with the miniatures game, there’s very little here that’s new to veterans and if you’ve been playing D&D for any reasonable length of time, you can probably get by with skimming this chapter to hit the highlights. You might want to peruse the suggestions for new terrain types, however. There are some good ideas there that I wish would be incorporated as a terrain pack.
Building on the five basic scenarios described in the Skirmish Rules, the Miniatures Handbook describes not only those five, but 22 others, including ideas like Random Terrain (jn which the terrain tiles are placed without seeing them) or Halls of Decay (wounded creatures continue to lose hit points). A few of these assume that you have certain figures, but there’s enough variety that even if you don’t you can find another scenario to play. There are also scenarios to change the way that warbands are assembled (such as reinforcements that arrive late in the battle).
The Miniatures Handbook, as alluded to in the Skirmish Rules, also has rules for campaign play. A skirmish campaign is a series of skirmishes in which survivors grow in power, until one player claims ultimate victory over the others. Warbands are freely reconfigured between skirmishes, and permits warbands to gain magic items which may be distributed amongst the creatures in the warband. The idea of a skirmish campaign can be fun, but it works best with four or more players.
This is a miniatures game, so I guess you’d feel cheated if there were no rules for mass battles, wouldn’t you? Well, fear not, if you’ve got an entire horde of orcs sitting around and nothing to do with them, you’re in luck. Mass battles, as might be expected, work quite a bit differently from skirmishes. Creatures are collected into groups called units, for example, though the basic ideas remains the same. On your turn, activate up to three units, who then move, attack, or charge, just like in skirmish games. From there, it starts to get complicated.
Armies may consist of formed units (at least one rank of creatures arranged side by side in a row), unformed units (a group of like creatures in no particular arrangement), lone creatures, and commanders. Each arrangement has certain benefits and penalties, and some creatures cannot be a part of formed units. There’s a lot more detail to the mass combat rules than I’m going into here, but suffice to say, they do a fair job of realistically depicting the clash of mighty armies. However, if you expect to play them out, you’re going to need a lot of miniatures!
Finally, the Miniatures Handbook explores the idea of random dungeons. The random dungeon is exactly what it sounds like, and veteran D&D Players would probably have more fun just going ahead and role-playing out a dungeon crawl, as opposed to using the miniatures rules to handle it, but the option is yours. This chapter tells you how to set up a random dungeon, both with and without a Dungeon Master, even how to play a random dungeon campaign, but it does require a fair bit of work and a good selection of miniatures.
The Miniatures Handbook finishes with some templates for spell effects, “trays” (for use with the mass battles rules, so that you can move an entire formation at once), copies of all the standard terrain tiles, and some brand new terrain tiles which I really wish had been included with the starter set. It would have been really cool to include things like trees, ruined walls, briar thickets, or a huge dragon skull in skirmishes, but now I have to find a color photocopier, copy them, and put them onto cardstock. That’s a lot of extra work and if I wanted to go to that trouble, I’d just construct 3D terrain effects and a battle board.
The book is filled with color photographs of actual miniatures (often alongside the concept sketch), and that’s pretty cool, but many (not all) are of existing minis that you’ve already seen (or can see on Wizards’ web site). While it’s nice to get a look at upcoming minis, like the stonechild or the copper samurai, in the big picture, this just seems like a waste of space that could have been better used. I feel much the same way about the duplication of some of the terrain tiles in the back of the book. Why? Anyone who has a starter set already has these, and on pre-cut cardboard.
Aspects. Of all the offerings in the Miniatures Handbook, this one has been most valuable to me, and not for my miniatures game. I was completely against the idea at first, but having mulled it over, I like the idea of the aspect. This will make a fine addition to a game I’m currently running (I’ll say no more because my players might be reading this).
I think the inclusion of a section on converting to the miniatures rules (making your own miniatures stat cards) is a good thing for those who have appropriately-scaled minis that they would like to use with the game, but its still very much a guessing process. I’d never allow it in a tournament game, and that’s going to remove some of the attractiveness for players who make their own. In a sense, it’s kind of like manufacturing your own Magic cards. They’re fun to play with at home, but you can’t use them in competition.
John’s Hot Pick
I almost didn’t have one with this product, I was so disgusted overall. I’m going to go with the mad slasher, though. I hope that a mini for this critter is in the works. It looks something like a giant six-legged spider whose body is dominated by a single, blinking eye, but when it strikes with Whirlwind Attack, the spikes on the ends of its legs rip and tear away at flesh in a blinding orgy of death!
Overlooking minor formatting errors (like the Climate/Terrain entries on the write-ups of the kruthik), the book is suffering from other, more significant problems. First, the addition of the swift action. Is this really necessary? I’ve thought on this for several days now, and I can’t think of any good reason to add an unnecessary complication to the system. Likewise, the sudden metamagic feats remove any reason to take the standard metamagic feats, especially since half of them don’t even have any requirements! Sure, they’re limited in that you can only use them once per day, but that seems like a very artificial limitation tacked on as an afterthought.
I’d still like to know who thought that the healer class and the war hulk are balanced, and by whose standards? When I talked to my players about it, one gleefully responded, “I can get a unicorn?” The others, perhaps sensing the impending consequences, groaned piteously. The healer is just completely unnecessary and detracts from the province of the cleric. However, it has inspired me to come up with a toned-down version of the class and remove the healing ability of clerics (replacing it with something more suitable to the basic idea of the class) and place it solely in the hands of the healer.
Coup de Grace
I can’t say that this book has nothing to do with miniatures, because that isn’t true. It does, and it adds quite a few new ideas for your miniatures campaign, but a lot of what is in here is a repeat (with a few clarifications) of the material found in the Skirmish Rules. I daresay that 9/10 of everyone who purchases this book will already have those rules, and they’re getting a repeat of old material. That isn’t to say that there’s nothing new here, however. I’m sure that someone out there will appreciate the mass combat rules for miniatures and the miniatures campaign ideas.
If you’re just looking for new monsters to toss against your players, or some new mechanics, you won’t be disappointed. Combat hounds will appreciate the new feats, and several of the prestige classes are nicely balanced and present a good mix of foci. Everyone loves new spells, and if you ignore the swift action ruling, these aren’t bad.
The bottom line is, there’s something for everyone in the Miniatures Handbook and that’s good. The layout is done in the usual manner for Wizards products, and there is no index, though the tale of contents is firm enough to stand on its own. The artwork is mostly impressive (there were a few pieces I didn’t care for), and I will admit that it was nice to see the concept sketches for some of the miniatures.
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