Thursday, September 30, 2010

From Wargames to Roleplaying Games and Back Again

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.


  1. I use minis religiously. Granted, this wasn't the case when I first started playing: only after switching from 2e to 3e did we ever bother with grids and minis. By my group and I frankly regarded this new methodology as a godsend, because we had always previously been beset by the classic problems of positioning (e.g. who gets targeted by a fireball, etc.).

    Add to that the coincidental fact that around the same time we were switching from 2e to 3e, my preference in video games switched from "Final Fantasy" to "Shining Force", you'll understand something of why I love tactical/positional/mobile combat over purely abstract "Side A exchanging blows and spells with Side B" style combat.

    So how does one retain the sense of narrative (or more properly, cinematics) in combat? Here's what I do:

    1) I don't use actual miniature figurines. They're too visually stimulating. Simple markers (dice, bingo chips, checkers, and such) absolutely *force* players to imagine the scene.

    2) Even more importantly, I *never*, under *any* circumstances, let the players touch their own character mini during a battle. This is absolutely vital to keeping D&D from feeling like a board game. If the player can declare his action by moving his mini next to the enemy goblin mini and announcing, "I attack," all attempt at exciting combat is foredoomed to fail utterly.

    The rule at my table is thus: "Words only. No touchy. It, whatever 'it' is, only happens if you *say* that it's happening. If you move your mini, it doesn't happen, I put your mini back where it was, and you must describe your intended action in detail. In video game terms: the mins and battle-mat are the screen, I'm the CPU, and your words are the joypad and buttons. You can't just reach through the screen, pluck Mario up by the scruff and drop him on the ledge; use the proper interface device. In this case, it's your voice."

    That goes a long, long way to keeping the "role-playing" in role-playing game, even during a tactical combat.

  2. JD,

    You make some excellent points, thank you for taking the time to comment. I especially like the suggestion you made about the DM being the one who moves the minis. That’s a nice way to encourage players to describe what they’re going to do instead of just pushing game pieces around the table.

    I personally don’t like to use minis because I’ve never found a way to use them that doesn’t break immersion and make combat feel like a boardgame to me. That’s likely just a lack of imagination in my part. In my games from the 80s and 90s I always remember what my character was doing in combat, what the monsters were doing, what the scene looked like, etc. Now all I can remember is what the battlemat looked like and the position of the minis. I’m glad to hear that folks more creative than me have found a way to incorporate minis while retaining flavor and narrative.

    Still, I don’t lament the use of minis in games so much as I lament the lack of roleplaying and imagination in games. If a person can do both, excellent, more power to them!

  3. I too am torn by the idea of using minis. I love building dungeon tiles from hirst arts blocks, and painting and displaying miniatures, but I always recalled the most vivid combats to be the ones that were entirely narrative.

    I'm sure others had different experiences.

  4. "In hindsight, I see that book as almost a blueprint for how combat would work in fantasy RPGs post 2000."

    I completely agree. I remember when C&T came out. Flipping through it and seeing the pictures of the miniatures and the grids. "LAME!" thought I. We didn't use the minis rules, but we did implement the critical hit charts...which led to the death of my favorite character after a series of botched dice rolls. But that's another story.

    When 3e came out with its stronger minis-based focus, I was completely not surprised thanks to the "preview" afforded by Combat & Tactics.

    Needless to say, I'm not one to mix minis and RPGs. I've dabbled a bit, but I find them to be more trouble than they're worth and inevitably fall back on running narrative combats. Don't get me wrong; I adore miniatures as a hobby, but I prefer to keep my minis confined to wargaming, thanks.