D&D Miniatures07/29/2003

Miniatures in Role-Playing

The new D&D miniatures from Wizards of the Coast are perfect matches for the new D&D v3.5 rules. The revised Player's Handbook states that "The Dungeons & Dragons game is a game of imagination, but it is also a game of tactics and strategy. Miniatures and a battle grid provide the best way to visualize the action. The game assumes the use of miniatures and a battle grid, and the rules are written from this perspective."

Those two sentences might seem innocuous to someone who's used miniatures for years, but they represent a change in thinking from earlier editions of the game.

Like most tools, the new D&D miniatures are delightful when used properly but they can also be misused. Let's look at the do's and don'ts of role-playing with miniature figures, starting with the simplest do's.

Marching Order

Many encounters happen during travel, whether it's marching from town to the Mountains of Mystery or creeping through a dungeon corridor. The placement of the characters is often critical when an ambush is sprung. During periods of movement, it helps to arrange the character's figures on the table in a simple line (what the military calls a column), one or two figures wide, showing who's in front, who's in back, and who's cozily protected in the middle. Physical spacing isn't important, only sequence. Even this simple application can eliminate confusion and arguments.

Battle Mats

The next step up from a simple marching order is to use a battle mat. This is a sheet of paper or vinyl, usually about 2 x 3 feet, marked off in a grid of 1-inch squares or hexes. Paper mats are best if laminated. The DM can then use erasable markers to draw the battle site on the map, sketching in walls, stairs, columns, pits, etc., as needed. When the battle is over the marker sketch is wiped away and figures placed back in their marching order. Battle mats are inexpensive, easy to carry and store, and infinitely reusable. Whether yours is attractive or not depends on your skill when drawing with a marker.

Dungeon Mats

The dungeon mat is like a battle mat except it has a dungeon layout printed on it. A reduced-size dungeon mat was printed at the back of the D&D 3.0 PHB, and a full-size dungeon mat (with a battle mat on the reverse side) is included in the v3.5 DMG. The dungeon mat shows typical corridors, walls, and rooms with no doors or other features indicated. When an encounter occurs, the DM picks a section of the dungeon mat that resembles the encounter locale. It can be a room of the same size, a corridor with a bend, or whatever matches. The correlation doesn't need to be perfect. Then, either by sketching with an erasable marker, placing flat tokens or tiles, or adding 3D accessories, the DM fills in the missing details of doors, stairs, pits, traps, or what-have-you. A dungeon mat is usually more attractive than a plain battle mat, and using one can lighten the DM's workload because the walls and corridors are already in place -- there's less sketching to be done and fewer opportunities for mistakes. Gaming magazines often include dungeon mats of various locales as free giveaways. Over the course of a few years, a wide-ranging collection can be assembled for little cost.

Dungeon Tiles

Dungeon tiles are similar to dungeon mats, except smaller. They are typically printed in color on sturdy cardstock. Each card represents a room, a section of corridor, a cave, or some other enclosed space. Often there are additional tiles showing pits, furniture, stairs, fires, debris, and other obstacles or items of interest that can be positioned on the larger tiles to fill in the details -- no sketching with markers required. Dungeon tiles are attractive and are more flexible than mats. The DM isn't limited to the arrangement of rooms and corridors printed on the dungeon mat or constrained by the size of a battle mat. The dungeon is laid out tile by tile as characters explore it, and it can twist, turn, branch, and grow as crazily as the DM wishes (and table space allows). It can even change behind the characters -- just pick up one room or corridor and replace it with another. Many manufacturers have sold dungeon tile sets over the years. Alternatively, if you have dungeon mapping software for your computer and a color printer, or a set of markers and a pad of graph paper, you can make your own dungeon tiles inexpensively. You can even draw on them during the game and throw them away afterward (in the recycling bin, of course). For more durable homemade tiles, either print them on cardstock from a business supply store or copy center, use spray glue to mount them on poster board, or stick them onto thin, self-adhesive floor tiles before cutting them out.

3D Accessories

The ultimate in miniature environments is a 3D setup. You can buy these pre-made in modular form or make your own from Styrofoam, card, floor tiles, rain gutters, or other odds and ends you'll find around the house or at the hardware store. The only limitation is your imagination and your budget. Building 3D dungeons and towns can easily become a hobby all its own.

The Pitfalls

Having stated all this, it remains to point out that just as there are right ways to incorporate miniatures into your D&D games, there are also wrong ways. D&D is a game of imagination. Focusing too much attention on miniatures or on a beautiful scale dungeon detracts from imagination. A 10-foot-tall ogre can be pretty frightening in your imagination. That same ogre isn't threatening at all when it only occupies an inch and a half on the table.

Likewise, miniatures should be used when they're needed, which isn't 100 percent of the time. Every action a character performs need not be reflected by shuffling around the figures. The worst example of this is when a player announces, "I'm checking out that chest in the corner" and then "walks" his miniature across the battle mat and leans it over the chest as if the miniature itself needed a better look. Real offenders in this category won't lift their hand from the miniature, as if it were a chess piece and they're considering taking back its move. Normal, noncombat movements within a room or other setting don't call for adjusting the miniatures. Constant fiddling with the toys turns D&D into a glorified board game, which is a step down. Everyone can update his or her position when the DM asks, "Where is everybody?"

In short, use miniature figures to keep track of confusing situations, plot better tactics, and resolve questions about who's standing where. Don't let them take the game out of your imagination. Then the game will become a richer experience for everyone.

See photos of the upcoming miniatures in our special preview gallery!
Be sure to check regularly for updates.

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