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

IMO crassly gamist is something where the game mechanic is out front and center. It's a mechanic that may well work but it's only a mechanic and doesn't have any kind of integration with the fiction.
You can spin it that way as hard as you like, you're still talking about a mechanic, and likely a game, that is probably strictly superior, as such.

"Integration with the fiction," for instance, is very much a function of the imagination and buy-in of the players (and/or GM, depending on where the game puts it's emphasis). In 5e, for instance, it'd be mainly on the DM's shoulders to make, say Second Wind make sense 'within the fiction,' while in 4e it was up to the player to describe whatever power he was using at the moment in a way that worked for his in-fiction conception of his character.

IMO a clever but unintegrated mechanic shouldn't be how the game runs all the time, though of course all games will have some rules like this, e.g., spell slots and the action economy being two examples. I clearly I have a lower tolerance for this than you do so for me, insofar as it is possible, things that are crassly gamist should be used sparingly.
Frankly, I question the validity of the concept, itself. RPGs are necesarily very abstract - unless you want to go into some steam tunnels with a sword and get yourself killed, anyway - that abstraction creates a disconnect between what you're doing at the table (including mechanics) and what you're imagining for the character. Resolving that disconnect is ultimately on you, because no game can close it.

I guess I never really encountered them put so boldly and baldly before 4E, so that's why I felt they were taken to an extreme. Of course you could run without them, but like much of 4E I felt they were an example of really putting the rules front and center.
Wish lists were not part of the rules, at all. They were a suggestion to the DM, one way of distributing magic items. Treasure parcels were part of those suggestions, too, and were just more of the same wealth/level guides as 3.x, FWIW.

I don't mind it conceptually. I just feel that it's an example of a seriously missed opportunity where something that could have been flavorful and interesting was instead left crassly gamist (as I defined it above).
Attunement just seems, to me, like another way in which magic is made 'special.' Maybe it could have been implemented better (like PF2 'resonance?' or like 13A magic item personalities & quirks), but I'm glad it was included in 5e.

They certainly can, though I do actually like a certain amount of make/buy. For instance, questing for magical ingredients can be a good source of side adventures so having some suggested systems helps the DM design such adventures
5e's very sketchy item-creation guidelines allow for that.

As inconsistent as it was, 1E assumed some item accumulation. For instance, monsters that required silver and eventually increasingly magical weapons to hit appeared as one leveled. But as I said, I don't think attunement itself is a bad idea. It's a decent idea that's poorly executed. Ditto concentration.
It did. 1e assumed item accumulatoin for balance, in fact, and weighted its random-treasure tables to get there. You were far more likely to get magical weapons than rod/staff/wands and the best/most-common magical weapons were (long) swords, meant mainly for the fighter who, without some powerful/distinctive items was bland, and out of the lowest levels, under-performing.

So clerics at your table may Counterspell?
Sounds like a reasonable thing for them to be able to do. "Your dark magic will avail you naught against my Faith!"
 

pemerton

Legend
In one game, the DM handed out a Moonblade which we recovered after killing a pretty nasty black dragon and literally nobody in the party could make effective use it. Yes, that was bad planning, but it's also emblematic of how too many balancing restrictions get in the way. (What he should have done was alter the item to be something we could actually benefit from because it was something plot-important.)
Ugh... wish lists. Talk about an idea that, in a small way, isn't bad but when taken to the extreme it was in 4E was crass gamist crap, IMO.
In my opinion and experience, the idea that the GM is meant to magically know what is "good for the game", but without ever talking to the players about what the shared imagined content of the game might be, leads to the worst sort of RPGing possible.
 

Sadras

Adventurer
Sounds like a reasonable thing for them to be able to do. "Your dark magic will avail you naught against my Faith!"
I imagine Glantrian wizards would certainly protest about that :p

I've always liked Comprehend Languages in the Cleric's list of spells (as per 3.x)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In my opinion and experience, the idea that the GM is meant to magically know what is "good for the game", but without ever talking to the players about what the shared imagined content of the game might be, leads to the worst sort of RPGing possible.
Part of the GM's role is that of - for lack of a better term - steward of her game; and as such it falls into her domain to at least aspire to know what is good for it. Trial, error and time will tell whether such aspiration is realized or not, with the obvious (though, it seems, sometimes forgotten) proviso that nobody is perfect.

And it falls to the player to have trust in that stewardship until and unless trial, error and time proves said trust misplaced; at which point it's time to find a new GM.

Lan-"steward until the rightful king should appear"-efan
 

pemerton

Legend
Heaven forfend that a GM should avoid placing a "meh" magic item by finding out directly what sorts of magic items might excite his/her players!
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
In my opinion and experience, the idea that the GM is meant to magically know what is "good for the game", but without ever talking to the players about what the shared imagined content of the game might be, leads to the worst sort of RPGing possible.
When you frame it as a magic ability, rather than what it really is (intuition and empathy), it sounds pretty ridiculous. Look, if you like wish lists, that is great, go to town. A lot of us didn't enjoy them (on either side fo the screen). As a player, I didn't like the experience of the world handing me all this stuff so that my character fit some kind of build or arc I had in mind. I much prefer to discover that over time through exploration of the world and the stuff the GM decides to throw at us. Sometimes that meant you got 'meh' items. Sometimes it meant you got great items. Sometimes it meant taking 'meh' and turning it into something cool.

From the GM and player side, I just strongly disliked the wishlist approach to play. When the game started becoming geared toward builds, it sucked a lot of fun from the game for me.

I'd much rather be in a game where we trust the GM to surprise us with stuff.
 
In my opinion and experience, the idea that the GM is meant to magically know what is "good for the game", but without ever talking to the players about what the shared imagined content of the game might be
But, I thought magical abilities got a free pass and were always acceptable explanations for anything?

Seriously, though, there is a style of DMing (and I say D rather than G for the obvious reason), in which maintaining a sense of mystery on the player side of the screen is paramont. What's best for the game in that style is something the DM must divine without collaborating (directly or openly) with the players. He can't just ask "what kind of game do you want" "what kind of enemies are you interested in" "what kind of magic item best fits your character" or anything like that. He shouldn't even take too-obvious hints. Because any sense on the player side that the DM has 'changed' his world (even though he's most likely making it up as he goes along so there's nothing to change) to cater to the PCs(players) breaks that sense of mystery and undermines the style.

leads to the worst sort of RPGing possible
And just because I can't think of an example of a worse sort of RPGing off the top of my head doesn't mean that it's the worst sort possible....
...I'm sure there's something.
 
From the GM and player side, I just strongly disliked the wishlist approach to play.
I'd much rather be in a game where we trust the GM to surprise us with stuff.
You totally know the style I'm talking about, above.

When the game started becoming geared toward builds, it sucked a lot of fun from the game for me.
OTOH, while I really appreciate the more DM-centric approach of 5e, I also quite enjoyed the 'geared towards builds' approach of 3.x ( as well as Hero, 4e, & many other non-D&D games out there).

;)
 

pemerton

Legend
Why do I hear the voice of a certain game show host when I read that?
Because only a Monty Haul game would have the PCs finding magic items that the players are keen to discover?

In a non-Monty Haul game, the only magic items will be Tridents of Fish Command and Potions of Delusion!
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Because only a Monty Haul game would have the PCs finding magic items that the players are keen to discover?

In a non-Monty Haul game, the only magic items will be Tridents of Fish Command and Potions of Delusion!
No, but having them hand you a wish list and giving it to them pretty much is. You said "discover". If they already know what they are getting it's not discovery. It's just giving them what they want for their build. It's one think if the story says they need to find "X" item to counter the big bad. It's another to fill out a shopping list. That, and crafting items to fill every slot is what drove me away from Pathfinder.

Items do not need to be useless or totally situational either, but they should be relevant to the place discovered, the story, or a mystery (minor or major). Figuring out a use for an item or even finding someone who wants it to swap for another item is interesting. Questing to find a legendary item is interesting. Just being handed the items is... not interesting. To me. All imho, of course.

*edit* Sorry if I'm getting snarky. I made the mistake of watching the news... I thought of eliminating this reply, but I think an apology is more honest.
 

pemerton

Legend
You said "discover". If they already know what they are getting it's not discovery.
My keys are lost somewhere in my house. I search high and low, eventually discovering them behind the couch.

Things can be discovered that were expected to be found somewhere, at some time.

It's just giving them what they want for their build. It's one think if the story says they need to find "X" item to counter the big bad. It's another to fill out a shopping list.
Who decided on "the story"? The GM?

What if the player is driving the story? What if the player's conception of his/her character is central to play?

Why is a need to find "X" more exciting when the GM decided who the "big bad" would be rather than the player?

Items do not need to be useless or totally situational either, but they should be relevant to the place discovered, the story, or a mystery (minor or major).

<snip>

Questing to find a legendary item is interesting. Just being handed the items is... not interesting.
There is confusion here. Players don't quest to find items. They sit at tables writing things down, rolling dice, and saying stuff. Some of the stuff they say or write might be a desire that their PCs find certain items.

PCs find items, sometimes by questing for them, sometimes by happenstance. There is no contradiction between questing to find an item, and it appearing on a player wishlist. The earliest discussion I know of this is in Gygax's DMG (the "item" in question is a paladin's warhorse).
 

R_Chance

Explorer
My keys are lost somewhere in my house. I search high and low, eventually discovering them behind the couch.

Things can be discovered that were expected to be found somewhere, at some time.
You found your keys. That's not discovery :)


Who decided on "the story"? The GM?

What if the player is driving the story? What if the player's conception of his/her character is central to play?
If the player has created the story then I'd ask why you need a DM? To administer the players story? I understand that players contribute to the world and story, but (imho) the DM has more input on that than any single player certainly. Ymmv.

The games I've plaid in are not driven by one players conception of his or her character. What about everybody else? Did every one else say "we're all about them"? I understand that different characters will shine at different moments in a game, Each may have a storyline in which they are more important. But the rest have to be happy too.

Why is a need to find "X" more exciting when the GM decided who the "big bad" would be rather than the player?
Mystery. A lack of perfect knowledge (for the players) and the need to discover what exactly is going on. Personally I enjoy watching them figure it out when I DM. I, and my players in short, find that exciting. Not so much (for the players) if they already know. Ymmv.


There is confusion here. Players don't quest to find items. They sit at tables writing things down, rolling dice, and saying stuff. Some of the stuff they say or write might be a desire that their PCs find certain items.

PCs find items, sometimes by questing for them, sometimes by happenstance. There is no contradiction between questing to find an item, and it appearing on a player wishlist. The earliest discussion I know of this is in Gygax's DMG (the "item" in question is a paladin's warhorse).
The PCs then. Hopefully the players imaginations extend beyond the table and dice. Gygax indicated the Paladin's horse could be the object of a quest if the DM desired in 1E iirc. In the original game the Paladin's horse was something that could be "obtained". He (the Paladin) could "choose to obtain a horse which was likewise gifted" (Greyhawk, page 9), there was no mention of how it was obtained. I don't have my 1E books near to hand (they are boxed up).

I suspect we play different types of games. We were all about exploration and discovery and that is still the style of game we play. That was more important than the characters in many ways. I suspect we are each happy with our own style. At least I hope we are :)

*edit* Spelling, how you vex me...
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
My keys are lost somewhere in my house. I search high and low, eventually discovering them behind the couch.

Things can be discovered that were expected to be found somewhere, at some time.
You find your keys, sure; but in process of looking you also discover an old photograph that you'd long thought destroyed had in fact slipped down behind the couch (thus, you find an unexpected thing of value to you). Also while down there you find something else*, 'meh' to you but of possibly great value to someone else (equivalent to finding a magic item in game that you'll probably end up selling).

* - I'm having a tough time thinking of an example of such an item for this silly metaphor - Bob's leather jacket that he thought someone stole from your party last summer, maybe? :)

There is confusion here. Players don't quest to find items. They sit at tables writing things down, rolling dice, and saying stuff. Some of the stuff they say or write might be a desire that their PCs find certain items.

PCs find items, sometimes by questing for them, sometimes by happenstance. There is no contradiction between questing to find an item, and it appearing on a player wishlist. The earliest discussion I know of this is in Gygax's DMG (the "item" in question is a paladin's warhorse).
The paladin's warhorse is an example that - pun intended - keeps getting trotted out in discussions like this, but it's a bad one; and here's why:

With the pally's horse, the game rules insist that it must be found. The whole quest thing is just a long-form version of having the thing magically appear next to the pally when she wakes up one morning - you quest, you find the horse...even if you don't want a flippin' horse to begin with!

A wishlist skips the quest part. You just keep playing, no matter what you're doing in the game world, and the items will eventually fall into your (PC's) lap. When they do, you'll know what they are and what they do...no mystery there, either.

A conventional item quest skips the auto-success part. It's just another adventure, with the usual attendant risks of failure or death or whatever. (and, IME, it's rare that the item in question is intended for the PCs to keep anyway - they're usually trying to find it for someone else). Further, unlike a pally's horse where it's well-known what it is and does even before the quest beings, with a typical item quest the PCs don't know much about the item until they find it and can play with it a bit, so at least there's that bit of mystery.

Also, in a wishlist situation the DM can still put items out there that aren't on anyone's list which might prove of greater interest than the wished-for items anyway.

Lanefan
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
OTOH, while I really appreciate the more DM-centric approach of 5e, I also quite enjoyed the 'geared towards builds' approach of 3.x ( as well as Hero, 4e, & many other non-D&D games out there).

;)
I was always quite torn over the whole build thing. On the one hand, simply because I ran 3E for so many years, and as a result, learned the ins and outs of builds, I came to appreciate it as a style of play in itself. For certain kinds of campaigns I found it worked well (I ran several 3E based wuxia campaigns for this reason). But on the other hand, it isn't what I usually look for in my core experience of D&D. When I think back to my experiences prior to that playing 1E and 2E, the build approach was such a different way of tackling the game and it led to an entirely different feel. I think there are two basic things I found different about it that changed things. The first is the books were much more written for the players rather than the GM and there was a baked in assumption that worked its way into the gaming culture over time, that if it was in the books, the players have access to it. Obviously this wasn't true across the board. But I encountered it a lot. And saw lots of instances where a campaign suddenly had to have strange monster-like races or dragon-like characters because there was a class, prestige class or race option for it. If you are more accustomed to the world being a coherent creation of the GM, that can actually be a little annoying. The other aspect was that in order to enjoy the game, you really had to know how to make a build and enjoy maximizing a given character's potential within the system. That isn't for everyone. In a group where folks all want that, it can work. In a group where people aren't interested in optimization, it can lead to lots of conflict and steer the game away from the stuff folks are interested in engaging.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
In my opinion and experience, the idea that the GM is meant to magically know what is "good for the game", but without ever talking to the players about what the shared imagined content of the game might be, leads to the worst sort of RPGing possible.
Note that in what you quoted I said "in a small way".

I don't have an in principle objection to the DM discussing things with the players off-line and things like items that seem to fit the PC are a good example of that, to some degree, but the player handing in a sheet with a long list of magic items... yeah, that's a bridge too far for me. Given the sheer number and general lack of distinctness of many 4E items, especially the ones in the early version of the game, wish lists or something like it were pretty much inevitable. I remember it as being one of the most tedious tasks as a player.

One way to handle this IC, though, is to have some means to exchange/sell/make magic items. This means an unwanted item can be turned into something else. I get why people who fear the excesses of CharOp and RAW wielded like a weapon like the plague don't want exchange/sell/make, but one thing is does a good job of is keeping things in character. Wish lists, by contrast, are totally out of character.
 

pemerton

Legend
A wishlist skips the quest part. You just keep playing, no matter what you're doing in the game world, and the items will eventually fall into your (PC's) lap. When they do, you'll know what they are and what they do...no mystery there, either.
Do you know this from our extensive experience of playing a game with wishlists?
 

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