Lately the use of minis in roleplaying games has been on my mind. When I first began playing in the mid 80s we just didn’t use them in the game. We engaged in what I call “narrative combat.” The DM would vividly describe the scene, the position of the monsters, etc., answering the players questions when necessary. The combat was more like a movie reel in our heads and less like a game of chess. Oh sure, sometimes we’d buy a Ral Partha mini or two if they resembled our characters, but apart from perhaps showing marching order when entering a dungeon they had no real use in our games. They were there for flavor or fun but not much else…and we liked it that way.
It seems to me now that the most dominant games on the market today, namely D&D 4e and Pathfinder, require minis for combat. I’m sure there are plenty of people who find ways to work around it if they find that style of combat distasteful, but the systems themselves seemingly necessitate them (with attacks of opportunity, 5 foot steps, flanking bonuses, etc.). The element I find disheartening is listening to players as they engage in those styles of play. In the games I’ve observed at my FLGS, gone is any sense of narrative. The focus is completely on the battlemat and game mechanics. It used to be “I stumble backward fumbling with my pouch to retrieve my spell components, trying to stay out of the path of the charging orc.” Now it’s “I five foot step here [pointing at the battlemat] so our fighter can get the flanking bonus and I cast defensively.” I’m afraid the roleplaying has turned into boardgaming/wargaming.
The people I’ve spoken with who are sympathetic to the OSR generally blame D&D 3e. However, I think the preoccupation with elaborate tactics requiring minis in D&D goes back a bit further, to AD&D 2e. Specifically, to the Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics book. I bought it when it first came out in the 90s but after going through the book once it sat on my shelf unused (and still does). In hindsight, I see that book as almost a blueprint for how combat would work in fantasy RPGs post 2000.
I’m quite sure there is a way to use minis, and minis-oriented combat, while retaining descriptive combat. Like most things in the game, it requires a capable DM. Sadly, it seems to me, the newer systems almost seem to assume that the DM is an incompetent schlub so they add in more and more rules/mechanics to make up for his/her inability/lack of creativity.