To Mini or not to Mini?

Skeletons from the Pathfinder Battles pre-painted set

I came to role playing through a family member of mine.  He never gave me a game but he did give me the urge to be curious about the games that were out there.  I was around eleven when I bought a board game (Steve Jackson’s Car Wars) and inside it’s little plastic case there was a card to mail in so you received a catalogue once every season of all sorts of board games and role playing games from Milsims Games.  Here in Australia this is actually a pretty common story for those of us who grew up in the 80’s.  I was soon buying RPG’s and playing my favourites like Super Squadron, the James Bond RPG and a bunch of others.  Although I came to this genre of gaming after playing such a visual and representative game as Car Wars I never had the thought of using miniatures to represent situations in my RPG sessions.

As I have previously mentioned in posts I generally run games as the GM/DM and very rarely play.  This perhaps was not precisely true when I first started, but I did GM before I played and I have racked up many, many more hours running games than playing in them.  I have to say that the idea of using miniatures in a game was introduced to me as a bit of an alien concept about a decade after I had started gaming.  I had been invited to play in a game of 2nd Ed. AD&D with a guy that was relatively new to our social circle.  I made up a half-orc fighter and showed up for the game.  One of our early encounters was against a crew of skeletons and as if on cue he bought out miniatures to represent the skeletons and some generic figures to represent us.  I did not know what to make of it.  In fact, it was not even the first combat of the game but we had not used them before then!  I was shocked, but not wanting to ruin the game I used the figures, which was quick to get the hang of, and saw through the rest of the game.

More from the Pathfinder Battles set

The guy who had run the game was a great artist and it was one of his hobbies to paint miniatures.  His passion for miniatures in fact inspired me to take up painting them also and we spent a good deal of time playing table top war games the like of Warhammer and others similar to it.  As time has passed through my gaming career more and more modern RPG’s have begun to mesh the use of miniatures with their core mechanics and I have to ask, is it better for the game or does it take away from it?

Take for example 4th Edition DnD.  We trialled it for a good deal of time (probably around a year in total) and our verdict was that DnD had been turned into a table top beer and pretzels game with a light smattering of storytelling.  The core mechanics in nearly every character class are a menu of powers or abilities that reflect what your character can do on the map.  This intrinsic core mechanic means you must have a map or the player feels like they are not getting the most out of their character.  You can’t have a random encounter in this game without having to lay out some map tiles or a grid and running the encounter through by moving miniatures or representative markers.  Many of the old gamers who still look down their nose at me because I never played first edition AD&D say that 4th Edition is a returning to where the game started, which apparently was a hybrid table top game and RPG.  I have owned the 1st ed. books of AD&D and I do not recall such a major focus on it but that does not mean it is not true.

More proof of this history can be found in popular culture.  Think of the movie E.T. directed by the Steven Spielberg.   The kids of the house are sitting at the table drinking their soda’s having a game of AD&D (or at least something similar).  In the movie they have a full on set of scenery set up and they are using miniatures to represent the game and the encounters they meet.  It may be the way that the game was first envisaged and played but it certainly is not the way that I first played the game.  I started gaming reading, as you do, the “What is a roleplaying game?” section that was so popular in game books prior to the late nineties.  For those of us old timers who are still gaming you will remember the familiar wording of such sections and possibly even rue the removal of such treatises in todays games.

It was in this section that the explanation came out that a RPG was a game you played with paper and dice but where the real action occurred in your own mind.  You would imagine worlds filled with dragons, or superheroes, or where you were the world’s top espionage agent (and more depending on the games you liked).  The dice and paper (and in some games you did not even use dice) were simply there to represent the randomness of situations (dice) and the abilities of your particular persona in the game universe (the paper or character sheet).  The final element you needed was one person who would act as an impartial referee and make sure the game world rules and experience were consistent and one or more players to inhabit that world.  So, I had never role played before and the first game I ran I was the GM.  I took those words to heart and the game began with no props, no maps (apart from my notes), no markers to represent the players or their foes.  All that we had was the power of description and imaginations.

I played a decade in this manner without having an RPG session that used miniatures.  Sure I played the Mechwarrior RPG and as a part of that we had some games of Battletech with our characters, but we never really mixed the two, so it was like a table top game and later when we role played the results of those table top games were referenced.  They were kept completely separate and the story would come when we did not have to move the figures around.

Some images from a doomed Serpent Skull encounter
Here we see worshipping serpent folk

Today my gaming group uses miniatures all the time.  I have boxes of miniatures, pre-painted plastics, lead painted and unpainted, official Pathfinder minis, some DnD minis and bunches of Star Wars minis as well.  Pathfinder has integrated the use of maps and miniatures into their combat system.  Certainly not to the same degree as DnD but it is there and the mechanics support this.  Once we began the Rise of the Runelords adventure path my mate who is running it made the choice to run part of a battle on a map and then switch to a more description based set up where the action occurred in our heads.  It was at this point that I thought about how lazy I had become relying on miniatures rather than my descriptions to run a game.  The very next game I threw the map away for a combat or two and how my players moaned.  The encounters were minor but one player in particular believed that the poor result of the battle was down to there not being a map to help him visualise, not the fact that he rolled poorly all night.

So I softened my approach somewhat.  I told my players that sometimes I would not make a map for battles but most of the time they would have something.  However I also told them that the grid layout that is so much a part of the mechanic was gone.  they would use measuring tape and move in whatever direction they wanted, regardless of where the square on the flip mat was located.  I did this because the mechanic of moving diagonally along squares was slowing the game awfully and we would get bogged on how far they could actually move in a diagonal, and was this the second diagonal move or not etc?  It has been about three or four months now since we have started using the measuring tape and things are going pretty well.  All the players are fairly well use to it and things run a lot quicker in combat when you don’t have to plan a move on the grid, you just do it with the tape.  I have backed off from running combat without a map as it tends to cause confusion (for no good reason) from my older players who I have gamed with for years.

And here is where two of the players get captured and
handed over to a Rakshasa while I wonder what they were

The bonus for using miniatures is of course everyone can see where they actually are and how they relate to the scene at hand.  However scale can be a problem and players that use longbows get only about a round in most circumstances to fire an arrow because there is not enough space on tables to represent long distance encounters.  The last two photos in this post show a scene from one of my games from the Serpent Skull adventure path.  I decided that when they hit the centre of the city Saventh-Yhi and they made the ziggurat there they would see the serpentfolk in the area gathered to pay homage to their god.  So in the first image it shows the masses of serpent folk gathered before the ziggurat.  I enjoyed using miniatures here as it showed the pure number of the horde and generally should have acted as a warning.  The four miniatures on the white portion of the board were our heroes.  Up until this point they had only faced serpentfolk one on one and each time had been close battles so surely they would not want to face around forty of them.

Well, the second image tells the tale as they went in with the idea that they would wipe them out.  This is one of the reasons that miniatures can be detrimental to a game.  Had I described the massive throng before the ziggurat gathered to hear their “God” speak perhaps they would have retreated (maybe not) but I made a map and put the miniatures down.  One of the players later told me the only reason that they attacked is because I put the miniatures and map down and I only do that when they are about to have a battle.  So my advice here is if you are going to use miniatures, make sure you mix it up.  Make sure that every time you pull the map out that it does not necessarily mean combat.  It seemed to the players that they had a chance just because I laid the map out when in fact I was trying to display the opposite.  Two of the party were captured in this encounter which led to a very tense and close rescue from a particularly nasty customer.  The whole encounter scarred the monk and cavalier for life.

The cavalier Seleca astride her now dead horse Binky…

Miniatures traditionally were little lead men that you purchased and painted yourself.  This meant a fairly hefty outlay in specialist paints and brushes but the miniatures were reasonably priced.  However, painting them is time consuming.  For example, the miniature you see here represents my daughter’s cavalier and it took me roughly 4 hours to paint and flock (flock means putting the grass on).  Sure, it is a biggish miniature due to the horse but you can easily spend this amount of time painting a miniature. Especially if it is one of the main protagonists of your story.  I have painted a miniature for each of my players and there is no miniature in the world that looks as good as a hand painted lead miniature.  You see, there are now such a thing as pre-painted plastic miniatures.  If you look to the top of this blog you will see some examples of the Pathfinder Battles collection.  These are very good quality plastic pre painted miniatures, but if you compare them side by side with the party of lead hand painted miniatures below you will see a good quality plastic pre-paint is similar only to an average quality lead painted miniature.

With lead miniatures though you will often have to do paint
touch ups as the paint will chip with heavy use.

There are two issues with the pre-painted plastics though.  Firstly you will find that these miniatures are nearly always packaged as random collectible miniatures.  Why is this a problem?  It means that you do not know what you are getting until you open the package and to do that you need to buy them.  This means that you may spend loads of money on these miniatures and not get the ones you want.  I bought a case of the Pathfinder Battles miniatures (and am very happy with them) but ended up with only one zombie.  One.  Common miniature apparently.  So I bought another brick from a local company and got no more zombies.  In the end I bought a special battles miniature pack that came with an evil cleric and a gargoyle to get the zombies I wanted.    The second problem is they are relatively expensive to buy.  For the amount of miniatures in one pack, take for example the DnD random sets where you get 5 miniatures and they retail in a local gaming store for $40 Australian.  That is around $8 for an average painted miniature.  This however is attractive if you can’t be bothered painting the lead ones.

Luckily I have come across an alternative which is far more cost effective but still time consuming.  The paper mini’s made by our friendly folk at Paizo who make Pathfinder.  I am running the serpent skull adventure path and for each of the 6 modules that is in that adventure path they have produced a set of paper minis that contains every miniature that appears in the body of the main adventure.  They are correct scale and you purchase them as a PDF file for between $2 and $6 Australian for the COMPLETE set.  You print them out, cut them out, stick them together and you have all your minis for the game!  The standards of the illustrations vary from set to set but this is by far the cheapest way to get your miniatures.

Paper miniatures from the “Thousand Fangs Below” set
of the Serpent Skull adventure path

I know that all of you are not going to be running the adventure paths though.  Some will create their own adventures and they need varying miniatures for their games and there are no paper minis that cover what you want.  Well, for Pathfinder Paizo have also released a box of card-stock miniatures that you slot into plastic bases.  The main box comes with some bases but it appears that future sets will expect you to have the bases already.  This “Bestiary Box” comes complete with a card stock miniature for every creature in the Bestiary book.  They do not have a variety of different variants of the creatures but if there is a main page for the creature you want then there is at least one mini for it.  The two other bestiary books released as core books in Pathfinder do not as yet have these mini’s but I am sure they will come.  I picked this up directly from Paizo at around $32 Australian and I also bought the Rise of the Runelords set that cost about $18.  So these are good quality images that you can use straight from the box and are also easy to store.

A clay and iron golem chilling out with a wraith from
the Pathfinder Bestiary Box 

So, miniatures in RPG’s yes or no?  Well, I think that they are a handy tool that are fraught with issues. They are certainly here to stay though.  I use them regularly now which is something I never imagined I would be doing when I got into the hobby.  It does produce a consistent view for all the players of exactly where things are and what they can see and can’t.  It can be an expensive thing to do or time consuming and cheap.  These are just a few of the things that you need to weigh up before you even put your first mini on the table.  For me they are here to stay.  It adds a different visual and tactile element to the game that I now enjoy.  I love watching the faces of my players as I lay down a miniature that  is huge or of a well known deadly creature.  It adds panic to the players and their characters, which is the way it should be!

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