Monday, July 15, 2013

Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades

So, anyone who plays D&D with me will confirm that I am all about the minis. Not in the I-have-talent, I-like-to-paint-tiny-things, doesn't-this-look-awesome sense, heaven knows, but in the if-the-party-is-being-attacked-by-bears-I'd-like-some-bears-on-the-board-please way. In the I've-got-like-400-pre-painted-minis way. Yeah, it's a little crazy.

one box of many

I guess my theory goes like this: the minis have two purposes: to arbitrate combat and to add to the texture of the game. It is in the second purpose that that an extensive collection of minis comes in handy. Any sort of tokens can be laid on a grid to establish how far apart or close together two characters are; helping to establish the mood and atmosphere is where a large collection of minis comes in. When the DM reaches behind the screen and lays out the monster that has surprised the party, that the players can immediately see that it is an owlbear or a cyclops or an ettin actually adds to the flow of the story-telling, which is the most important part of the game.

Since it is impossible to have every mini for every situation, it becomes more important to not be wrong than to be right. That is, you might not have the exact mini, but have one that's close enough that it doesn't actually pull players out of the moment. For example, using a giant snake in place of a giant bear makes it hard to keep the scene straight in a player's mind; using a badger instead of a boar is less jarring. It may not be perfect, but close can be pretty good. Look at how this works.

Here's a scene that would be pretty typical of a game I run. Let's say a party of three, a male half-orc rogue, a female human cleric, and a female dwarf fighter are entering a confrontation with three gnolls and a wolf.  It might look something like this:

It's not perfect, but it's close. Some details are off, and the gnolls may actually have falchions instead of spears, but nothing is going to take a player out of the instance.

But, obviously, it is only possible to get this right most of the time if you have a large collection of minis (or if you buy new specific minis for every campaign, ultimately winding up with a large collection). Compare that to this, an all too common situation:

Well, maybe I've never actually seen someone use railroad workers for gnolls, but you get the point. You would keep wanting the cleric to talk like Wesley Snipes, or getting confused and thinking the gnolls are attacking with shovels. The minis just aren't close enough to the characters to keep from distracting from the storytelling rather than adding to it. Way too easy to happen - unless you have a crazy supply of minis.

And if you have no minis at all, you wind up with this:

And nobody wants that.

But it's a Sisyphean task: no matter how many minis a DM collects, there's always going to be a scenario for which there is nothing close in the collection. Which leads me to my alternate plan:

This approach certainly meets the objective of clarifying spatial relationships to administer combat, and while it may not add to the texture of the game it will not detract from it either. The minis here are presentational, not representational. With just a few variables - perhaps color, size, and height - you could establish a collection of generic minis to stage any encounter with clarity and without distraction. In fact, the argument could be made that this technique would actually aid the storytelling element of the game, since the only representation of the different characters would remain in the players' imaginations, without any outside influences at all.


Don't be surprised if you see a big lot of minis for sale on eBay sometime soon.

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