Some people love using miniatures in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons because they provide a visual representation of where things are on the table. Others dislike them because they can take up space or get knocked over easily if you’re not careful. In this latter, the “theater of the mind” is where all the story happens and needs to stay.
Many would argue that it depends. There are pros and cons to using miniatures in RPG campaigns. The debate rages on…miniatures appear to be the standard in modern DnD games and other RPGs, e.g., Pathfinder, Starfinder, and more. Of course, in this post-Covid19 age, who is to say that miniatures are useful anymore.
Oh, why am I making this so complicated? I think it’s because it’s fun water cooler talk, or the type of conversation you have over coffee late at night in a diner, or when there’s nothing to watch on TV… or when a group of people with free time can’t decide what to do next.
This is that conversation: Are miniatures actually better than pen, paper and a good DM who can describe what’s happening to their players? Think Critical Role the show.
In this blog post, I talk about some of both sides of arguments for and against using miniature figurines in your tabletop RPG campaign!
Miniatures or Not?
Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons aren’t played in a vacuum. Players and GMs at the table need to work together to achieve the best possible results. So, before you can decide how much or little to use miniatures in your campaign, you’ll want to understand what makes each person at the table tick.
Do the players at the table even like miniatures? Do your players or fellow gamers have a good imagination and can follow along in their heads what is happening? Is your DM even capable of managing a battle encounter without a physical map with tokens, minis, etc., whilst telling a story?
All these questions and their answers help determine whether miniatures are required. At the outset, I will say that using miniatures makes things easy. It makes story telling a bit easier, because you can show where things are to your players in space and time. You and your players don’t need to hear what’s going on — you can see what is happening!
Miniatures, I think, make the game flow much more organically.
The Problem with Miniatures in RPG Games
However, miniatures take up space, and can be knocked over easily if people aren’t careful. They collect dust in between sessions of play. And they can be expensive — especially when you start buying metal or pewter miniatures (the most cost effective) or you buy resin mini’s (which are much cheaper than metal, but you still have to clean them off and paint them).
Most of all, miniatures can (and will) break a sense of immersion at the table. Nobody needs all of their imagination to play and feel the game move. In fact, when you use miniatures, you have ZERO choice about what you’re seeing and experiencing. Where the miniatures are, is where YOU are.
RELATED: PAINTING MINIATURES, FUN OR NOT?
You can’t keep your eyes on what is happening in your head because you need to look down at the board — the tabletop — to see where everyone is, what they are doing, and how the terrain affects them. This isn’t a bad thing.
It is just different from how we all used to play RPGs back in the old days (when we played on grids drawn on graph paper like true geeks). I would date these times around the 80’s and early-90’s.
Think Stranger Things, and the nostalgia of that TV series. Sure they (we) used minis back in those days; but they didn’t have the weight miniatures have now. We RELY on miniatures in today’s games, don’t we? Well, at least most of us mainstream players do at least.
Technical Reasons for Using Miniatures
Is there anything wrong with using miniatures? Well, I think that depends on your players and what game system they are using. For instance, if you run anything on a grid system (and even some that are not), miniatures are the way to go. Your battle maps should have enough space for 1 or more minis per character or monster at the table.
If your standard combat map is 5 feet by 5 feet, then that’s 25 square feet on the game grid. That’s a lot of space your players are creating with just this one map. They have to describe what they are doing, where they are going, and what they’re trying to do in that space.
Something often forgotten about tabletop RPGs is that the most important thing you need remember when playing one is this: EVERYTHING HAPPENS IN THE PLAYERS’ MINDS. They have to be able to imagine it, and they have to put a lot of trust in the Dungeon Master (or GM) telling them what their character is going through during any given situation.
This means that your players have entrusted you with not only roleplaying their characters, but also playing their enemies. And everything is happening inside the player’s heads. This takes trust on both sides of the table — both yours and your players’.
When using miniatures in your game, you can’t break immersion by requiring each player to hold a miniature of their own PC or NPC. When you’re using miniatures, you do not need to stop the game to look at a sheet of paper to tell everyone what your PC or NPC is doing (unless your players want that). Instead, the GM can simply place any number of miniatures on the table as an indication of where their PCs and NPCs are in relation to one another.
This is very helpful in the heat of battles, or when PCs want to negotiate with NPCs. It can also be helpful during times of rest so that they don’t have to do a lot of extra bookkeeping .
Nowhere does it say you MUST play using miniatures. But if your players like them and you like running games as skillfully as you can, then why not? If that means buying a lot of miniatures , then go ahead. Your players will thank you for it.
When Miniatures are a Good Thing
So the question is, do you actually need to use miniatures in your game at all times? The answer is no. But it can be a good thing if you want to communicate what’s going on with the battle-map more effectively without needing PCs or NPCs to remember everything they need to be doing for their turn in combat.
When Miniatures are a Hard Pass
Using miniatures also might not be the best thing to do in your game. Not everyone playing the RPG cares about miniatures, since they might not think of what’s going on in their head when it comes to imagination . It also takes game time away from roleplaying, and slows down combat.
Some people find participating in battles by simply writing out numbers for hit points (HP) and damage taken (DT) to be more accurate and easier than using tokens and such. Players would rather have the DM describe what is going on than “see” it happening. There’s a sense of immersion that a good story teller can evoke when there’s only their voice and nothing else; kind of like reading a great story in a novel.
So you might even want to try the “no-miniature” method. You can still place markers onto your battle map if you need to, but it doesn’t have to look like some sort of war game simulation.
You can go as minimal as you want with the way your tabletop is set up. But keep in mind that it’s all about how much time and effort you put into your game.
Okay, One More Thing: What About Virtual Tabletop Games?
In this day and age, where everyone is still socially distancing or hesitant to gather in-person around a table, the remote TTRPG has risen to the forefront. Ah, technology.
Do we consider the digital medium a kind of “miniature” where tangible (but digital) pieces get moved around? Perhaps this is not ideal, but we may not have a choice, depending on who we play with and where we live.
And, I suppose here’s where my experience dwindles. Roll20 is an online service, which I’ve played with for games of DnD. There are other simulation environments, too, though I’ve not tried them. Of course, there’s also the popular Zoom teleconference avenue, which I find fascinating only for the fact that you can see your fellow gamers through the webcam and the DM must get creative with their storytelling toolset, e.g., theater of the mind, drawings held up to the camera, or employ the shared screen option. I have never played any TTRPG games via Zoom without some visual representation.
But, I think that although virtual tabletops are great for TTRPGs, I continue to keep in mind that this is a different proposition than playing an RPG face-to-face. We lose the social experience of casual banter that feels natural when we are physically around our party — never-mind the absence of miniatures.
In this arena of post-Covid19 gameplay, I do not have a lot of insight or much additional thoughts. Rather, I only have a question to pose to our amazing community: What do you think about virtual TTRPG gaming? If you’re already a virtual TTRPG gamer because Covid19 forced you to separate physically, do you foresee yourself shelving this digital tool in favor of going back to real tables (with or without minis)?
I’ll admit that the question of using miniatures or not began on Reddit (not by me) that I like commenting on, but wanted to expand my thoughts. Ultimately, it was a great question because for many of us there’s a nostalgia of a time when DnD and other RPGs (well there weren’t too many back then) were played purely with pen/pencil and paper. Miniatures weren’t even a true consideration in the rulesets. Stories and the engagement with characters, conflicts, etc., all played out entirely in the minds and imagination of the players. Did we lose something by including miniatures in our games? I’m honestly not sure.
In the end, it’s certainly up to you and your game group if miniatures are included. Minis are definitely the more popular way to go. If your players think they are good for immersion and roleplaying, it’s obviously going to be the way forward. Of course, when it comes to the “fun” of any game, who you play with matters most. For example, a DM who can’t tell a good story or allow flexibility in how a game is played with their participants is going to have a lot of problems. On the other hand, a DM who can orate a narrative is worth their weight in gold whether or not they need or use miniatures at all.
If you have questions or comments on something I didn’t think about, feel free to let me know in the comments section!