The use of miniatures in D&D has changed considerably through the editions… and yet in some ways, it hasn't changed at all.
A lot gets made in some circles about how D&D started out as a miniatures game. That makes for a nice piece of mythology, but it's not entirely true. In the earliest of days, the underlying combat rules derived from Chainmail, which was a set of rules for fighting tabletop battles with miniatures. The combat rules that were lifted from that game, however, were mostly just hit probabilities based on weapons and armor types. The earliest printed versions of the D&D rules have almost no discussion about how miniatures should be moved around on the table. Maybe that's because the authors assumed everyone reading those rules would already be wargamers who were familiar with the ins and outs of maneuvering lead figures through tabletop battles, but it seems unlikely. Here's what the original, folio-sized set had to say about miniatures in 1974:
It is relatively simple to set up a fantasy campaign, and better still, it will cost almost nothing. In fact you will not even need miniature figures, although their occasional employment is recommended for real spectacle when battles are fought. (Men & Magic, page 3)
The use of paper, pencil and map boards are standard. Miniature figures can be added if the players have them available and so desire, but miniatures are not required, only esthetically pleasing; similarly, unit counters can be employed — with or without figures — although by themselves the bits of cardboard lack the eye-appeal of the varied and brightly painted miniature figures. (Men & Magic, page 5)
In fairness, the same book also refers to D&D as "miniatures rules," but in an odd context. It's part of a discussion on campaign building rather than tactical combat:
That is, (the rules) cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. (Men & Magic, page 4)
The recommended equipment list suggested owning a copy of Chainmail, the miniatures rules which provided the core of the original combat system. Many players found the Chainmail-based system incomprehensibly vague, with definitions such as a 2nd-level Fighting Man's fighting capability being equal to "2 Men +1." Fortunately, deciphering Chainmail's arcane combat rules wasn't required, because D&D included the Alternative Combat System. Players of any edition of D&D would recognize this as the game's characteristic, roll-1d20-to-hit combat. Beyond that, the only real nod to the use of miniatures in the game is the movement speed of monsters and creatures, which were specified by how many inches they could move on the table rather than squares or feet per round.
In fact, the separation of D&D from its wargaming roots is what truly set D&D apart, made it stand out from the crowd, and grabbed players' attention. Plenty of games involved few or no pieces -- party games like 20 questions and charades, or dice games like craps -- but tabletop games used pieces of one kind or another, even if they were just colored pawns or checkers.
Still, whether they were required or not, there's no denying that miniature figures have always been associated with D&D.
The Basic set published in 1981 (the one in the red box with a cover painting by Erol Otus) stated:
This game, unlike others, does not use a playing board or actual playing pieces. All that is needed to play are these rules, the dice included in this set, pencil and paper, graph paper, and imagination. The game may be more exciting if miniature lead figures of the characters and monsters are used, but the game can be played without such aids. (page B3)
MINIATURE FIGURES: D&D adventures are more interesting to play when figures are used. Metal miniatures (about 15 to 25 millimeters high) are often used, for they can be easily painted to look like real dungeon adventurers. Many excellent figures are designed specially for fantasy role playing games. These are available from TSR or from local hobby stores. If metal miniatures cost more than the players want to spend, many companies make inexpensive packs of plastic figures. These are not specifically made for fantasy role playing, but can easily be adapted for it. Inexpensive plastic monsters of many sizes are also available in local stores. (page B61)
Since there were no concrete rules on how miniatures were to be used, what exactly were players to do with them? Their #1 use was in setting out the "marching order".
FIGURES: If miniature figures are used to represent the characters, the players should choose figures which look like their characters, and should make sure that the DM knows which miniatures represent which characters. The miniature figures should be lined up in the same order as the marching order. When special situations occur, the players should change the position of their figures as they desire. File cards with names on them, pawns, and other markers may be used instead of miniatures, or the marching order may simply be written on a piece of paper. (page B19)
The notion of the marching order hasn't been seen much since Basic D&D and original AD&D. It's important in dungeon-style adventures, where characters are typically moving through narrow corridors that force them to advance in single or double file and where it's difficult to swap positions in the middle of a fight. In those situations, knowing who's first or last in line can be crucial when a trap is sprung or a monster attacks. A scale floor plan or dungeon tile isn't needed. The figures are just lined up on the table in the proper order and rearranged only when someone shifts position in the column.
Was there a place for miniatures beyond the marching order? Yes … a vague one.
USING FIGURES: Miniature figures are useful during combat for both the DM and the players, so that they may "see" what is happening. If miniatures are not being used, the DM should draw on a piece of paper, or use something (dice work nicely) to represent the characters in place of miniature figures. (page B26)
SCALE MOVEMENT: If miniature figures are used, the actual movement of the characters can be represented at the scale of one inch equals ten feet. A movement rate of 60' per turn would mean that a miniature figure would move 6 inches in that turn. Scale movement is useful for moving the figures on a playing surface (such as a table). (page B19)
Although some sort of scale representation of the dungeon is implied, there's no specific mention of dungeon tiles or floor plans. Many gamers simply used the table top, with no grid, and estimated movement distances by eye. In most cases, how far a miniature could move in a round depended less on the character's movement speed than on how far he could go before running into a wall, an enemy, or some other impassable obstacle in the tight, crowded chambers of dungeons and abandoned castles.
That doesn't mean tactical grids weren't in use. Even in 1981, people were thinking ahead to the days of erasable battle mats:
PLAYING SURFACE: Combats are easy to keep track of when large sheets of graph paper, covered with plexiglass or transparent adhesive plastic (contact paper) are used to put the figures on. The best sheets for this use have 1" squares, and the scale of 1" = 5' should be used when moving the figures. With water-based markers or grease pencils, an entire room or battle can be drawn in just a few seconds. When the battle is over, the board may be wiped off, leaving it ready for the next combat. Dominoes or plastic building blocks can also be used to outline walls and corridors. When using figures, the DM should make sure that a solid table top is used, so the figures won't fall over when the table is bumped. (page B61)
The "Orc's Lair" set of official AD&D miniatures ("The Solid Gold Line") from Grenadier Models, Inc., ca. 1981. This box included nine different orc figures. (courtesy of Thom Beckman)
That last sentence was an important piece of advice in days when metal miniatures came with bases barely wider than the figures' feet. Unless they were glued to squares of cardboard, coins, or washers, they could tumble at the slightest nudge.
Miniatures received a bit more inclusion in the original DMG, which had this to say about miniatures (page 10):
The special figures cast for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons add color to play and make refereeing far easier. Each player might be required to furnish painted figures representing his or her player character and all henchmen and/or hirelings included in the game session. Such distinctively painted figures enable you to immediately recognize each individual involved. Figures can be placed so as to show their order of march, i.e., which characters are in the lead, which are in the middle, and which are bringing up the rear. Furthermore, players are more readily able to visualize their array and plan actions while seeing the reason for your restrictions on their actions. Monster figures are likewise most helpful, as many things become instantly apparent when a party is arrayed and their monster opponent(s) placed.
The manuals still assumed that players were familiar with miniatures games and would fill in many blanks on their own. The question of ground scale vs. figure scale was particularly involved.
Be very careful to purchase castings which are in scale! … As a rule of thumb, HO scale is 25mm = 1 actual inch = 6' in scale height or length or breadth. … Figure bases are necessarily broad in order to assure that the figures will stand in the proper position and not constantly be falling over. Because of this, it is usually necessary to use a ground scale twice that of the actual scale for HO, and squares of about 1 actual inch per side are suggested. Each ground scale inch can then be used to equal 3 1/3 linear feet, so a 10' wide scale corridor is 3 actual inches in width and shown as 3 separate squares. … Be certain to remember that ground scale differs from figure scale, and when dealing with length, two man-sized figures per square is quite possible, as the space is actually 6 scale feet with respect to length. This is meaningful when attacking a snake, dragon, etc., if characters are able to attack the creature's body length. With respect to basically bipedal, erect opponents, scale will not be a factor.
In other words, a 1-inch square on your battle map represents 3 1/3 feet from side to side -- about the space needed for a warrior fighting with a shield and spear, thrusting sword, or weapon that is swung overhead. This is twice what it would be in actual HO scale (the approximate scale of 25mm miniatures), where a 1-inch square on the tabletop represents 6 feet. As noted, that doesn't matter when you're fighting other creatures that stand and fight the way you do. The difference between figure scale and ground scale becomes critical when fighting a creature that stretches out on the floor, such as a snakelike dragon, because the dragon's snaky body is sculpted at a scale of 1 inch = 6 feet, not 1 inch = 3 1/3 feet. The answer is to mentally adjust the ground scale, crowd 1.8 human-sized figures into a 1-inch square, and … problem solved! If the giant snake is accompanied by a squad of 11-foot-tall ogres -- well, maybe it's best to just not go there.
This doesn't even tap the questions that arose when the action left the dungeon and headed outdoors, where all ranges and movement distances (but not spell areas of effect) were tripled by converting scale measurements from feet to yards. If your dungeon battles used a ground scale of 1 inch = 3 1/3 feet, then your outdoor battles would use a ground scale of 1 inch = 3 1/3 yards, or 10 feet. But then, what did the Players Handbook mean when it stated on page 39 that "Outdoors, 1" equals 10 yards. Indoors, 1" equals 10 feet." That statement implied that the standard underground scale was 1 inch = 10 feet, not the 1 inch = 6 feet which would be true HO scale or the 1 inch = 3 1/3 feet that the DMG promoted for tactical encounters.
The explanation is that the statement on page 39 of the PHB referred to scale inches as they were used on the ranged weapon table and in spell descriptions. Those scale inches were different from the HO scale inches of the figures and the ground scale inches discussed in the DMG.
If you're confused, you're in good company.
The sizes of "25mm" miniatures has slowly but steadily crept upward since the early days. Shown are three otyughs -- the first from TSR's AD&D line ca. 1983, the second from WotC's Chainmail line ca. 2002, and the third from WotC's D&D Miniatures pre-painted plastic line ca. 2007. (courtesy of Steve Winter and Stephen Radney-MacFarland)
When 2nd Edition AD&D
arrived in 1989, most of that confusion was eliminated. The game dispensed with "scale inches" entirely. Move distances, ranges, and areas of effect were described in "real world" feet and yards. Players who used miniatures with a gridded battle mat needed to mentally convert all those distances to grid squares. Most of the distances were divisible by 10, however, so if you used a grid scale of 1 square = 5 or 10 feet, the math was quick and easy.
Miniatures in general were played down in 2nd Edition to a greater extent than in any other edition. Their only mention came on page 10 of the Player's Handbook, which stated:
Miniature figures are handy for keeping track of where everyone is in a confusing situation like a battle. These can be as elaborate or simple as you like. Some players use miniature lead or pewter figures painted to resemble their characters. Plastic soldiers, chess pieces, boardgame pawns, dice, or bits of paper can work just as well.
Miniatures rose to prominence again in 3rd Edition. Ranges and movements were standardized to mesh with a 5-feet-per-square grid. Movement, line of sight, and areas of effect were defined in terms of that grid. There were even diagrams showing how everything worked together! For the first time in (at that point) the over 25-year history of D&D, people who wanted to use miniatures in their games were provided with movement and combat rules that were written with miniatures in mind. It's no coincidence that the Chainmail name was resurrected for both a line of miniature figures and a set of miniatures battle rules to accompany 3rd Edition. With the introduction of the current line of pre-painted plastic D&D figures, attractive, properly-scaled miniatures are finally within reach of every D&D player and DM, regardless of their painting abilities or math skills. Even better, 4th Edition incorporates miniatures into D&D combat in ways that make using them not just easy but enormously fun.
About the Author
Steve Winter has wasted approximately three-fifths of his moderately long life, and the entirety of his professional career, in service to D&D in one form or another. The rest of the time was invested blissfully staring at clouds, playing tag, reading comics, and painting miniatures.