Am I too tied to minis?

Back in philosophy grad school one of my profs used to chide people who did not show imagination when interpreting texts as being “wedding to the text” — tied so closely to the specifics of a work that you could not understand the wider application or meaning of an idea. She never accused me of being “wedded to a text” but now as a DM I have to wonder…am I wedded to my minis?

A big part of my motivation to run my own D&D campaign was that I wanted my figures to see some action. When my brother Tom was running the game, there was always a problem in that either he’d have to spend a lot of time searching through my minis to find the monsters he wanted to use, or else ask for a bunch of minis in advance which would be a bit of a spoiler. I’d suggested that he should also ask for “decoys” but it rarely worked out. A lot of the time he just used the same orc, skeleton, and troll minis over and over because he knew I had them and didn’t mind letting them stand in for whatever we were fighting.

As a DM now though, I occasionally find myself changing encounters because I realize I don’t have exactly the right minis painted, or too few of a certain type, and so on, and I think I’m being limited by the figures I have in a way I never would have expected. I even was a little mad about a comment to that effect Ken St. Andre left a while back. But the fact is if it weren’t for the minis I don’t know if I would have come back to D&D a few years ago and I certainly could have missed the OSR and blogging and the pure fun of the weekly game.

I’m not sure it’s a problem, per se, because the end result has generally been that I am getting to use whatever minis I feel like showing off and the desire to keep using different ones has helped inspire me to avoid repetitive encounters (although the morlocks and skeletons may be getting a little old!).

For now I guess I won’t worry about it because there has been some fun synergy between the minis and the game, either with minis giving me ideas (the pots and barrels) or the game inspiring me to make and/or paint minis (most recently, the larvae).

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Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 8:00 am  Comments (12)  
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  1. I think you might be noticing something, Mike. Minis mostly exist is a few generic forms. There are all kinds of men, and a relatively few sorts of generic fantasy types: elves, dwarves, skeletons, orcs, ogres, giants. There may even be a few beasts: dragons, griffins, etc. And they’re all cool. I’ll repeat that. They are all cool. And the time and effort and imagination that people put in painting them makes them even cooler.

    But, if your fantasy campaign is tied to the minis you have to put on a table, it is, imho, way too limitied. There are no froglin minis. No spider-eagles or spider-trolls. No scorpion-men. No harpies. No flying wolves. Probably no flying monkeys. Not much in the way of trolls. are there shoggoths? Deep Ones? (I suppose it’s possible thought I’ve never seen them.) No wall golems–in fact I’ve never seen a golem of any type. No blood bats. No lamias. No nagas. And heaven help you should you want to run a Barsoom campaign. What are you going to do for thoats, zitidars, kaldanes, great white apes, plant-men, banths, etc. etc etc?

    Role-playing does not need minis. I never use them. If I have to show party placement, I can always dig out some coins. I sometimes think that minis are there just to give D & D players something to look at while the game trudges forward until it’s finally their action phase again.

    Minis are intrinsically cool. They will never be important to my gaming. Your mileage obviously varies. To each their own.

    • Well, the fact of the matter is I have two lamias, two harpies, six or seven scorpion-men, seven flying apes (but they are based for wargaming), one big shoggoth, several nagas, four large bats plus a ton of halloween rings that will someday be more bats, a fairly large number of white apes/yetis/taers, not to mention Roman Imperial gorillas, etc. And I make minis for encounters, which is a little masochistic.

      For an example of where the minis are limiting me, two things have happened so far in the game: I lacked giant lizards (rolled diligently on the B/X table!) and replaced them with squigs. I planned to put a half-dozen small crocodiles in a swampy dungeon and on game day realized I didn’t have any painted, so I replaced them with giant ants. That sort of thing. In retrospect the encounters were more memorable for being something unique.

      Frankly they may be a crutch too. I don’t spend a lot of time describing things, I just plop down sometihng… “you see this.” I’ve played mini-less games and sometimes they are awesome and sometimes “meh.” I agree — not inherently important but subjectively for me, goodness yes.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with building adventures around a personal collection:

    a) You’ve probably purchased (or keep) minis that you think are particularly cool/inspiring/interesting, thus the collection reflects your own tastes and interests.

    b) Sometimes the creative well runs a little dry, and it can be convenient to make a ‘game’ out of writing adventures – select 3 minis from a bag and write around that selection – not a bad way to get the gears moving.

    Adding parameters to creativity can often overcome being overwhelmed by a universe of options.

    From a more ‘player’ perspective, I think setting up the battlemap/paper and pulling out the minis offers a nice ‘pseudo-ritual’ to get a session in gear.

    Minis function as ‘totems’, in a way, so I also feel it’s easier to partition off the ‘session’ and your character if you put the mini back in its box.

    The totemic functions could utilize coins, chips, etc., but I think there’s a psychological value in a player having ‘character on’ and ‘character off’ rituals of some kind.

    It may not be ‘Old School’ to write, but I don’t think I’d enjoy playing without minis – I have no problem visualizing things, but to follow someone speaking descriptions for a few hours would be very tiring for me. Minis and mats take on some of that workload with a kind of spatial ‘notation’.

    • In fact level two of the Telengard dungeon came about exactly that way: I have lately painted a mess of drow elves, driders, and spiders, and a bunch of lizard and snake-men and giant snakes, and so the two “factions” on level two are dark elves and snake men. I have a lot of Egyptian type figurs from anotherproject lying around and there will be an Egyptian level, etc. So yes, they spur the imagination too.

      There seems to be a bit of a fault line in the OSR regarding minis. Some people never use them, some people always do. The ass-hats say one way or the other is “correct.” It sounds like Ken & I agree that we just don’t have the same preference. Not that there’s anything wrong with that 🙂

  3. “As a DM now though, I occasionally find myself changing encounters because I realize I don’t have exactly the right minis painted, or too few of a certain type, and so on…”

    That’s not a problem. It’s an opportunity…to buy more minis!!!!

    • Or make them. Or at least to put a fire under my butt to finish some.

      • Exactly – or just get converting. If useability is more important than presentation you can blitz them and come back later to add detail. Modelling putties like greenstuff can work wonders.

  4. I just did a big battle with my group and, thinking it deserved something special, pulled out my box of minis. And I ended up not using any because, as atroll says, most of mine are orcs and elves. So I ended up with the scrabble tile characters facing endless waves of black, glass beads.

    I think 3D printing will change this. Imagine how fun it would be searching for just the right figure you want for an encounter, then printing them out the day of the session.

    • 3d printing will certainly shake things up. Will mini companies just sell designs to download? Will there be a way to keep you from printing more than so many copies? (probably not necessay at first while the process is rare & expensive but one day it will be cheap, like photocopying)

      When my brother was DMing D&D he used to sometimes challenge me (“Don’t have two cherub statues, do you?” and it was a little eerie how I almost always had whatever unlikely thing he came up with.)

      But for me 2/3 of the fun of minis is painting them, or rather having painted them.

  5. I have been known to use Generals Kenobi and Grievous to represent hobgoblins. I’ve also been known to fret so much over not having a wolf mini that I drove around town to three different game shops looking for one. Over the years, however, I’ve begun to really feel that minis (which I love to death) stunts my imagination and descriptive ability. I’m phasing them out of my game play to see how it works, and so far, I’m liking it. YMMV.

    – Ark

  6. You could also make a few standies out of paper with a paperclip base. For one of my early D&D games, one of the troupe drew each character and important NPC and made them into standies. Also works if you find an exact image of what you want but not a corresponding lead. (Having lost most of my lead in a breakup, I found it easier to make paperdolls than sink a bunch of money into more lead. Bills first. :P)

    • That’s not a bad idea. In the past we used a lot of the “Cardboard heroes” made by Steve Jackson games, and even counters going back to the Villains & Vigilantes and Boot Hill days. I think Type IV D&D is now going with flat counters, which looks crummy to me but is a very practical solution.


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