Flipping the Table: Did Removing Miniatures Save D&D?

Dungeons & Dragons is doing better than ever, thanks to a wave of nostalgia-fueled shows like Stranger Things and the Old School Renaissance, the rise of actual play video streams, and a broader player base that includes women. The reasons for this vary, but one possibility is that D&D no longer requires miniatures. Did it ever?

Wait, What?

When Vivian Kane at TheMarySue interviewed lead rules designer for D&D, Jeremy Crawford, about the increased popularity of D&D, here’s what he had to say:

It’s a really simple thing, but in 5th, that decision to not require miniatures was huge. Us doing that suddenly basically unlocked everyone from the dining room table and, in many ways, made it possible for the boom in streaming that we’re seeing now.

In short, Crawford positioned miniatures as something of a barrier of entry to getting into playing D&D. But when exactly did miniatures become a requirement?

D&D Was a Miniatures Game First (or Was It?)

Co-cocreator of D&D Gary Gygax labeled the original boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.” Gygax was a wargamer himself, which used miniature games to wage tabletop battles. His target audience for D&D were these wargamers, and so use of miniatures – leveraging Chainmail, a supplement he created for miniature wargaming – was assumed. Miniature wargaming was more than a little daunting for a new player to join. Jon Peterson explains in Playing at the World:

Whether fought on a sand table, a floor or a yard outdoors, miniature wargames eschewed boards and the resulting ease of quantifying movements between squares (or hexagons) in favor of irregular scale-model terrain and rulers to measure movement distance. Various sorts of toy soldiers— traditionally made of wood, lead or tin, but by the mid-twentieth century constructed from a variety of alloys and composites— peopled these diminutive landscapes, in various attitudes of assault and movement. While Avalon Hill sold everything you needed to play their board wargames in a handy box, miniature wargamers had the responsibility and the freedom to provide all of the components of a game: maps, game pieces and the system. Consider that even the most complicated boardgame is easily retrieved from a shelf or closet, its board unfolded and lain across a table top, its pieces sorted and arranged in a starting configuration, all within a span of some minutes— in a pinch the game could be stowed away in seconds. Not so for the miniature wargamer. Weeks might be spent in constructing the battleground alone, in which trees, manmade structures, gravel roads and so on are often selected for maximum verisimilitude. Researching a historical battle or period to determine the lay of the land, as well as the positions and equipment of the combatants, is a task which can exhaust any investment of time and energy. Determining how to model the effects of various weapons, or the relative movement rates of different vehicles, requires similar diligent investigations, especially to prevent an imbalanced and unfair game. Wargaming with miniatures consequently is not something undertaken lightly.

D&D offered human-scale combat, something that made the precision required for miniature wargaming much less of a barrier. Indeed, many of the monsters we know today were actually dollar store toys converted for that purpose. It’s clear that accurately representing fantasy on the battlefield was not a primary concern for Gygax. Peterson goes into further detail on that claim:

Despite the proclamation on the cover of Dungeons & Dragons that it is “playable with paper and pencil and miniature figures,” the role of miniature figures in Dungeons & Dragons is downplayed throughout the text. Even in the foreword, Gygax confesses that “in fact you will not even need miniature figures,” albeit he tacks onto this “although their occasional employment is recommended for real spectacle when battles are fought.” These spectacular battles defer entirely to the Chainmail rules, and thus there is no further mention of miniatures in any of the three books of Dungeons & Dragons other than a reiteration of the assertion that their use is not required. The presence of the term “miniature figures” on the cover of the woodgrain box is, consequently, a tad misleading.

James Maliszewski states that this trend continued through Advanced Dungeons & Dragons:

Even so, it's worth noting that, despite the game's subtitle, miniature figures are not listed under D&D's "recommended equipment," while "Imagination" and "1 Patient Referee" are! Elsewhere, it is stated that "miniature figures can be added if the players have them available and so desire, but miniatures are not required, only esthetically pleasing." The rulebook goes on to state that "varied and brightly painted miniature figures" add "eye-appeal." The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, though published five years later in 1979, evinces essentially the same attitude, saying "Miniature figures used to represent characters and monsters add color and life to the game. They also make the task of refereeing action, particularly combat, easier too!"

Gygax himself confirmed that miniatures weren’t required in a Q&A session on ENWorld:

I don't usually employ miniatures in my RPG play. We ceased that when we moved from CHAINMAIL Fantasy to D&D. I have nothing against the use of miniatures, but they are generally impractical for long and free-wheeling campaign play where the scene and opponents can vary wildly in the course of but an hour. The GW folks use them a lot, but they are fighting set-piece battles as is usual with miniatures gaming. I don't believe that fantasy miniatures are good or bad for FRPGs in general. If the GM sets up gaming sessions based on their use, the resulting play is great from my standpoint. It is mainly a matter of having the painted figures and a big tabletop to play on.

So if the game didn’t actually require miniatures and Gygax didn’t use them, where did the idea of miniatures as a requirement happen? For that, we have to look to later editions.

Pleading the Fifth

Jennifer Grouling Cover explains the complicated relationship gamers had with miniatures &D in The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games:

The lack of a visual element may make spatial immersion more difficult to achieve in D&D than in more visually oriented games; however, this type of immersion is still important to the game. Without the visual component to TRPGs, players may have difficulty picturing the exact setting that the DM lays out. Wizards of the Coast's market survey shows that in 2000, 56 percent of gaming groups used miniatures to solve this dilemma…Because D& D combat rules often offer suggestions as to what you can or cannot do at certain distances, these battle maps help players visualize the scene and decide on their actions…Even though some gamers may get more interested in the visual representation of space by painting and designing scenery such as miniature castles, these tools exist more for showing spatial relationships than for immersing players visually.

In essence, Third Edition rules that involved distances seemed to encourage grid-based combat and miniature use. But the rise of Fourth Edition formalized grid-based combat, which in turn required some sort of miniature representation. Joshua Aslan Smith summed it up on StackRPGExchange:

The whole of 4th edition ruleset by and large is devoted to the balance and intricacies of tactical, grid-based combat. There are exceptions, such as rules for skill challenges and other Role Play aspects of the game (vs. roll play). To both maximize the benefits of 4th edition and actually run it correctly you need to run combats on a grid of 1" squares. Every single player attack and ability is based around this precept.

This meant players were looking at the table instead of each other, as per Crawford’s comment:

Part of that is possible because you can now play D&D and look at people’s faces. It’s people looking at each other, laughing together, storytelling together, and that’s really what we were striving for.

It wasn’t until Fifth Edition that “theater of the mind” play was reintroduced, where grids, miniatures, and terrain are unnecessary. This style of play never truly went away, but had the least emphasis and support in Fourth Edition.

Did the removal of miniatures as a requirement truly allow D&D to flourish online? Charlie Hall on Polygon explains that the ingredients for D&D to be fun to watch as well as to play have always been there:

Turns out, the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons was designed to be extremely light and easy to play. Several Polygon staff have spent time with the system, and in our experience it's been a breeze to teach, even to newbies. That's because D&D's 5th edition is all about giving control back to the Dungeon Master. If you want to play a game of D&D that doesn't require a map, that is all theater of the mind, you can do that with Skype. Or with Curse. Or with Google Hangout. Or with Facetime. Basically, if you can hear the voice of another human being you can play D&D. You don't even need dice. That's because Dungeons & Dragons, and other role-playing games that came after it, are all about storytelling. The rules are a fun way to arbitrate disputes, the maps and miniatures are awful pretty and the books are filled with amazing art and delicious lore. But Wizards of the Coast just wants you to play, that's why the latest version of the starter rules is available for free.

D&D’s always been about telling a good story. The difference is that now that our attention – and the camera or microphone – can be focused on each other instead of the table.

“What 5th edition has done the best,” according to game designer Kate Welch, “is that idea of it being the theatre of the mind and the imagination, and to put the emphasis on the story and the world that is being created by the players.” That’s the kind of “drama people want to see,” both in their own adventures and on their screens.

If the numbers are any indication, that makes D&D a lot more fun to watch.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

TerraDave

5ever
How can this article not mention 3.5? Or painted plastic?

Anyways…as anyone who looked at a copy of Dragon or went into a game store in the 80s would know, people still used minis for D&D. But a lot of people played without them.

D&D rules where in fact very precise about distance and area in combat, and by 2E you could buy wet and dry erase grids at cons and lots of fantasy minis where available. (Warhammer was huge.) Later 2E supplements began giving more tactical options and mentioned using grids.

For 3.0 designers always claimed they where following what gamers where already doing in practice. The 2000 survey is telling. That’s very early in the edition, and in fact, it doesn’t require minis, and makes some concessions to not using them. But minis and grids are mentioned.

And then WotC figured out how to make pre-painted minis affordable. These where launched together with 3.5, which in the name of clarity focused primarily on using minis and a grid. In general, the .5 edition tried to specify all sorts of niggling things (e.g. how big is a bugbear rogues shortsword). And conveniently, sales of pre-painted minis boomed, people bought those things by the case.

4E followed the logic of 3.5, and booming mini sales, to double down on the focus on tactical mini combat. And shortly thereafter they shut down mini production! It turns out that costs where getting too high and the market was saturated (and the mini game they created to compete with Warhammer never took off.)

Enter 2018. Fantasy minis are as available as ever, including a big second-hand market in pre-painted singles and some very high profile kick starters. Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds combine online play with virtual tokens, which is probably very novice friendly. Its easy to play 5e with minis, largely because it is more streamlined.

But sure, I do think that 5E lends itself to a more free wheeling style. It does have greater clarity then AD&D and less fiddle faddle then 3 or 4 . But maybe its just a better game overall.
 
No doubt that removes no minis reduced barrier to entry. However I have to say that I prefer minis in play and table play to full theatre of mind.
 

aco175

Adventurer
I recently went to a convention and played one of the games with no minis and the 3 of us that normally play together found it confusing and not as enjoyable. The fights were only a few rounds in 5e, so maybe that is something, but overall we continue to play with minis.
 
I recently went to a convention and played one of the games with no minis and the 3 of us that normally play together found it confusing and not as enjoyable. The fights were only a few rounds in 5e, so maybe that is something, but overall we continue to play with minis.
RLTW
 

vpuigdoller

Explorer
My friends and I play online using roll20 and we do use maps and tokens but we didnt before when we played in person. We tried it theater when we switched but was very confusing for majority of the group. I have heard from other groups that when they switched to online gaming they had to start using maps and tokens as well too idk.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
While 3(.5)E didn't require miniatures, it was the most popular edition since the 80s. 5E still needs a lot of sales to catch up to that. But as the results of the 2000 research indicate, around half the people use miniatures, going either way exclusively excludes half your player base.

But blaming minis for the 4E failure is far too shortsighted, 4E had more problems then that. We quite often used minis in combat, especially when I was DM I would often get some impressive looking minis to the table. But sometimes using minis on a grid wasn't what was required of the scene, so we could work without. Our group liked using minis since Basic D&D (boxed sets with poster maps for minis) and AD&D 2E, it had for many fond memories of games that lead to D&D for them (HeroQuest)... I found 4E a very strong technical game, but it utterly lacked in style (motivation to play), something 2E, 3E, Pathfinder and 5E has more then enough of. If anything, the combat was designed for a group like mine, but it completely lacked soul.
 

Jester David

Adventurer
I find this interesting, as I raised this point on the Paizo forums regarding Pathfinder 2 and making that game more friendly to play without minis. And there was surprising pushback.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
There is no denying that 5e is hugely successful, and it is one of the best iterations of the game system since it's original inception almost half a century ago. And while one could argue that less emphasis, or reliance, on costly, and often time-consuming supplemental components could attribute to that overall success, I daresay it is not. With the exception of 4e, which I'll get into in a minute, no other edition has ever really embraced the idea that miniatures and grids were required to play. This article even says as much. So if that is the case, why weren't those other editions reaching these epic proportions of wealth and prosperity as this edition?

Obviously, there are other factors involved. Coming off the heels of a less popular edition and a splintered community, 5e is the "classic Coke" to 4e's "new Coke". Old fans who may have lapsed during the short tenure of the new product returned in droves to see the old formula reinstated and better than ever. Coupled with the advantage of technology, streaming and social culture, slower product release, and a dozen other minor points, it is the "perfect storm" for the "perfect" edition.

The point is, however, that minis are as irrelevant (or relevant) as they ever were. They are not a feature of the game, but an indulgence for collectors, enthusiasts, and many who crave that visual stimulus and instant gratification. Let's face it, some of us don't have the luxury or talent to dream everything we say. Blockbuster special effects movies will always draw more audiences than less visually stimulating films, or the books they're based on.

That said, was the opposite true for 4e? Did the reliance of minis cause it to fail? Again, there are always more factors involved. But let me direct your attention somewhere that seems to be completely ignored in this discussin: Paizo, Pathfinder, and Pawns.

Many consider Paizo to be the underdog, but Pathfinder is as relevant to any discussion of D&D as D&D itself. Based on 3/3.5e rules, which began leaning towards a bigger push for miniature usage later in it's run, Paizo eventually came up with an affordable solution with heavy cardboard stock punch out "minis", Pawns. Visually less appealing than fully painted 3D models of every monster, the cardboard solution gave players a practical solution for acquiring all the various figures needed for a typical encounter without having to spend hundreds of dollars attempting to acquire the precise figures found in randomized sets. And what better way to support their own line of products, like their popular Adventure Paths, than with a full set of figures available in one purchase? And then there's the Battlemaps... you can see where this going.

In this case, I don't see removing miniatures as the saving grace for this edition. Miniatures and grids are as relevant and irrelevant at the table as they always were. 4e appealed mostly to those who enjoyed a more tactical style of game, and Pathfinder 2e appears to be heading in that direction. But PF2 may succeed where 4e failed because of how they market their miniature/grid-based accessories--a lower cost point for a quality product, and access to the components you need for an entire product rather than a randomized model to force consumers to spend constantly on acquisition instead of enjoyment.
 

cmad1977

Adventurer
I only use minis when it’s really important. Mostly don’t need them but occasionally they’re useful.
Even on Roll20 I don’t use tokens for every fight.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
I think people whine way too much about minis. Literally anything can be a mini. I've used pewter minis, I've used plastic minis, I've used LEGO minifigs, I've used dice, I've used pennies. This isn't like World of Warcraft where you need to actually create your character in order to play. Also: Almost every D&Der I know loves minis! People complaining about a $5 mini being a barrier to entry to a game whose player-facing book is $50 and a standard set of dice is another $5-$15 is just silly.

But I've heard these complaints for years. And if WOTC thinks the non-requirement of minis is the "saving grace" of this edition, or even one of many, I think they're kidding themselves.
 

Aenghus

Explorer
Some players feel constrained by minis and a map and others feel in the dark without them. There are a lot of factors including how visually oriented the participants are vs how well theatre of the mind play works for them.

Myself, I'm visually oriented and theatre of the mind play doesn't work well for me. I haven't bought a single 5e product and am still playing 4e.
 

TerraDave

5ever
I find this interesting, as I raised this point on the Paizo forums regarding Pathfinder 2 and making that game more friendly to play without minis. And there was surprising pushback.
They know they have to preserve their niche of appealing to the more hardcore, tactical player. Its ironic, as that space overlaps with 4e...but they are probably right in assuming minis as the default.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
For us it always involved miniatures (and still does), but then we went straight from playing miniature games to D&D. TSR made its living selling miniature rules. The fact that there is less mention of miniatures in the original game has to do with the assumption that players would have / use Chainmail. It saved pages in the product, and either sold another TSR product or saved customers from essentially buying the same material twice. An alternative system was provided for combat of course, involving a 20 sided die (or more likely chits back in the day). We liked the alternative method and by the time the Greyhawk supplement came out in 1975 I think it was pretty much the standard method. Still, miniatures were a big part of our games and, judging by advertising in The Strategic Review and The Dragon that was typical. I miss collecting and painting miniatures, but when you have limited time and a large collection its hard to justify more. Especially to the wife :)

What is really odd, is sitting here while people discuss the history of something that is still so current in your life...
 
Back in the 80s, I was a DM for BECMI D&D. I never understood how miniatures would be useful, or even what the rules would be to use them. We occasionally put down some sort of jury-rigged tokens to mark marching order, and that was it. When I saw advertisements for miniatures, I thought they looked cool, and I even bought like two or three, but they were just nice little "D&D statues" to me. At the most, I just used it as a symbol of marching order. That's just the way we rolled.
 
No. I've played since '81, mostly without miniatures. We used none for 1e or 2e. The rules set could have been used for minis, but the flavor of the game didn't require them (more on this in a moment). When 3e (and especially 3.5 and/or Pathfinder later) landed, miniatures contributed to the way the game played, but also to the expense. My groups used them mostly, which is ironic since we never did before. We won't speak of 4e (World of Wardungeons & Dragons).

Amusingly, my group now exclusively uses maps and minis for 5e. The reality is that software like Roll20 has made maps and minis very affordable and easy to use. Many of the bookkeeping tasks of the DM can be folded in to the map and minis (tracking initiative, hps, etc), making it a net positive.

Also, if you look at the way the game has changed, the flavor has moved towards class customization (whereas in the earlier editions, the class was the customization!). Many of the newer features of the game work better when you can see the relative positions of the combatants (who is within 5', how many enemies are in a 20' cube, etc.). Before, we fudged it. Digital tools now mean a clearer picture, which adds to the utility of the modern flavor of 5e.
 
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AmerginLiath

Visitor
Having played since the late eighties, it wasn’t until well into 3.5 that I ever played with miniatures with a grid. That’s not to say that games before that didn’t involve drawing a quick map on scratch paper with Xs and arrows that looked like a coach’s play sheet, nor does it mean players didn’t buy and paint minis of their characters (we liked to bring them to games and set them up in marching order). But using a full grid and full set of miniatures always felt alien whenever myself or others would try it because it felt so constraining, so literally boxing us in.

I keep commenting on the difference between generation and edition in gaming, and I think this is one of those. The notion of using digital tools to further enunciate where everything is in the dungeon — so a player can’t creatively tell the DM he’s reaching for the torch sconce after he’s been disarmed (the DM having never mentioned a torch sconce, just commented on torch light) because everything is mapped out graphically — isn’t a plus to those of us who played D&D on long car rides and the like.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Our crew has used minis since day 1, long before I got involved. We also use a grid for mapping things out, but we're nowhere near as married to it as 3e-4e seem to expect.

Non-minis (or non-visual) gaming just lends itself to ceaseless arguments about who and-or what is where in relation to everyone/thing else.
 

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