Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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Using Miniatures in Games

Maybe it’s been because of all the starships I’ve been painting, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of miniatures in tabletop games. When are they useful? When are they not? Are they even necessary for RPGs?

After all, RPGs grew out of Wargaming, when Gygax and others developed the framework for Dungeons and Dragons 1e out of Chainmail.

Well, let’s examine what miniatures are meant to be in order to determine their purpose.

  • Firstly, miniatures are playing pieces. They are a physical representation of something imaginary, and as such can be quite necessary (especially in Wargames). Sometimes it becomes very important to know a miniature’s facing, their numbers, allegiance, and general capabilities at a glance.
  • Secondly, and more abstractly, miniatures are a visual reference for characters and objects. This sounds very similar to the previous point, but where the previous point is more about literal positioning, this is more about having something which exists in the world of the players which stands in for something which exists only in our heads. This is especially helpful for players with aphantasia, who have great difficulty seeing pictures in their heads.

So when are miniatures necessary?

Well, in wargaming, that’s the whole point! It’s all about the use of miniatures to create massive spectacles and simulate action, all through the use of stand-ins.

And if you aren’t using actual miniatures for wargaming, then you are still using rules meant for miniatures, and therefore are still using them somehow (even if it is only through mathematical representation).

The only problem with games which require miniatures for play is that there comes a point where… perhaps one can have too many miniatures. And this is coming from me (I’ll be posting my fleet soon, once the last few ships are done…).

“You think we brought enough troops, commander?”

So what about RPGs?

RPGs have not required miniatures in order to play them for decades now. Sure, there are rules which imply the use of them (movement ratings, flanking rules, cover systems, etc.; the old DNA of wargaming still hanging around). But on the whole, they do not require their use.

And, even more so than wargaming, RPGs can suffer from “do I have too many?” Does one really need seven mimics? Twenty halflings?? Eighty half-orc adventurers???

Mega-dungeons are great, but there comes a point where the equipment to create something that feels authentic becomes too cumbersome to even run a game with any degree of freedom.

So if miniatures can be actively detrimental to game flow, where’s their use? What if your table doesn’t even use miniatures for combat, preferring to do only theater of the mind?

Well, there’s still one of the two core tenants left, if mechanics and flow fail:

They’re pretty, and serve as an artistic reminder of what things look like. Even if you have just a miniature of your character next to your dice while you play, it is still affecting gameplay. You have a visual and physical reference for something which is easy to forget only exists in the dream-space of the human mind.

And they make for fun dioramas in a pinch!

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

2 thoughts on “Using Miniatures in Games

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