A “Small” Problem

This should be the last guest post for a while.  I’m finally getting all caught up with work and my home life. Lou M. aka Alio the Fool a friend from twitter and a contributing author over at RPGmusings.com was kind enough to offer his thoughts on using minis to help create encounters, enjoy!


I’m home from work today because my wife is really sick and she can’t possibly take care of the kids. What does that mean? D&D planning bonus time!

As I grabbed my supplies this morning, I looked down at the bags of minis I already prepped for the dungeon I’m planning. If you care, I’m running a “Kill Bargle 4E” delve. It’s using the level 1 map from the original BECMI set, and the rest is maps I made using GridMapper (you can find my tutorial on using it here:  http://www.rpgmusings.com/2010/06/using-gridmapper-for-rpg-maps/ )

As I looked at the minis, all sorted into individual zip lock bags, I recalled how yesterday I planned a relatively weak encounter utilizing 3 Imp Assassins that will face the 5-member level 5 party. Why only 3? Am I being a Sissy DM, as @TheAngryDM would say? Actually, no. My “Bargle’s Manor” is a mid-heroic tier attempt at being a Tomb of Horrors. I want it to be difficult. So why is this encounter so weak? The simple answer is: I didn’t have enough miniatures to fill out the encounter.

Originally I had sort of handwaved it away and didn’t think about it again. However, I started reading @JaredVonHindman’s latest article on the D&D website, and came across the following tidbit:

ProTip: Want to have some fun? Start using a criminally inappropriate miniature for your character and see how it subtly sneaks into your DM’s thinking. I used a Disney Princess I got in a cereal box as my gnoll barbarian for ages, and I feel guilty for how many times the DM, while getting into the mindset of the monster, decided I didn’t look too threatening and decided to attack someone else. Truth be told, I think that’s why I wrote this article . . . to tap into how visual style affects combat. Of course, you could go the extreme route and just use the “Fallen Villager” miniature. I mean, what monster is going to attack a guy who’s obviously already dead?”

Well, that’s interesting advice for a player, or even a DM (as I was actually using a stirge mini to signify an imp.) By interesting I mean, “That is really irritating and ‘off’ considering the game.” Now, I’m a more “modern” player/DM. I like minis in my game. I like the gridded combat and its structure. Besides my mother attempting to run the original “Kill Bargle” adventure in the old “Red Box” Basic edition for my brothers and me, I have never played D&D without a grid. I’m generally a fan of D&D 4E’s approach to combat, and I adore my minis collection (watching my 3 year old play with some of them yesterday while I was planning brought a big ol’ Kool-Aid smile to my face) so I love the opportunity to use them.

Except when I don’t have enough of the one I need. I only collect official Wizards of the Coast D&D Miniatures. I don’t paint, so most other manufacturers don’t serve my needs enough. I do have a few Reaper pre-paints and I use some old HeroQuest system unpainted hard-plastic figures, but that’s about it. When I’m planning encounters, I tend to only use monsters who are represented (at least reasonably, such as the stirge/imp) by the miniatures I can actually place on the table. The reason being, when I put those little plastic baddies on the table, I don’t look to “fool” the players. I’m trying to give them a proper representation of the monsters they’re actually facing. I don’t know about anyone else, but this is the one case where I “get” the “4E ruins role-playing” argument. If the mini doesn’t closely represent the monster being faced, it seems to become hard to visualize the actual encounter.

Now I’ve never truly bought into the whole “4E isn’t role-playing, it’s roll-playing!” argument. Role-playing doesn’t need rules to execute. How do I know? Well, I played out D&D adventures in my head for years as I sat with previous edition D&D books and no one willing to sit at a table with me. 4E is a battle system. It presents a structure by which you can run encounters involving combat and also includes a skill challenge system to help with heroic acts that you choose not to simply voice act. You can play the entire game without a grid and minis if you truly want, though I don’t see why you’d spend so much money on 4E books just to do that when you can probably get older books or other systems more cheaply that were specifically designed without grids in mind.

4E does use minis, and it really is “right” to do so. The system expects it. Besides, who doesn’t like to play with toys? I’m a mid-30s father of 3 and I love my little plastic armies. That said, when I run out of the minis I need for an encounter I often feel like that’s it, either stop including monsters or find minis of monsters that logically work with the ones already in place. Generally I have had enough of what I need. I played the official D&D Minis game for a few years before one of the guys at the store I played at convinced me to join his 4E group. I collected boatloads of goblins, kobolds, and other low-level “common” fodder. Now that we’re moving ahead in levels though, I’m starting to see my collection become a bit deficient for my needs. I have a lot of miniatures. By a lot I mean I’m on Greenpeace’s Most Wanted list for environmental damage. Still, I’ve found myself increasingly lacking enough minis to round out my encounters the way I’d like to.

So while D&D 4E doesn’t ruin “role-playing” the “roll-playing” sometimes does. Combats are fun, but I’d really like more of a “yeah I can see the 10 imps in my head even though I have 2 imps, 3 goblins, 4 arbalesters, and a stirge on the table” feeling in my game. Granted, a big part of that is my players and me failing to visualize ourselves due to laziness, but at the same time, the focus on miniature representation does lead to that laziness.

I’m curious to know how other DMs approach encounter-building. Do you plan what monsters you want your players to face, then do your best to fill in minis where necessary? Do you do what I do and stat out based on the minis you have to present? Do you perhaps use some sort of counters, such as coins, paper representations, etc.? Do you, your players, or all of you have trouble visualizing while in-combat? Talk back to me in the comments.

6 Responses to “A “Small” Problem”
  1. Kato says:

    Yea, this is a real annoyance for me as well. I really *want* to have minis representing each of the creatures in an encounter, but it’s rarely feasible. I often sub in similar looking minis, with the caveat “Oh, and this guy, he’s exactly like these guys.”

    I think a lot of DM’s have been clamoring for WotC to let us by individual, visible minis (and, even better, packs of them grouped by type or whatever) yet these cries seem to fall on deaf ears. With the miniatures game abandoned, there’s very little reason to continue on with the random booster pack model (except that, I suspect, they are counting on people buying lots of random packs in order to get what they actually want, inflating the mini sales). WotC in general has supported the community very well, so I’m surprised that this is one place where they don’t seem to listen to needs of the community. Don’t the WotC employees run into these very problems themselves when planning encounters?

    • AlioTheFool says:

      @Kato, I hear that same call all the time, and I always have to respond with the same thing. What people want just isn’t feasable. In the D&D Minis game there was a player who came up with a law to explain it. It is: Merric’s Law of Miniatures: Non-Random Packaging, Cheap Prices, and a Large Range of Figures: Choose two. I’ve seen it amended to include pre-painted in place of the large range.

      Basically, you can’t possibly have all three. If you want pre-painted minis, and I certainly do, and you want them as cheap as possible, and I certainly do, then you can’t have them in a non-random package. It’s just not possible.

      You have to look at it like this. Every DM says “Yeah, I’d definitely buy a pack of skeleton archers or goblin cutters!” But how many packs of those archers or cutters would any DM buy? 1, maybe 2, 3 tops. As opposed to buying a case of boosters to get the same number of common skeletons.

      I know. It bites. But WotC would lose a ton of money on the deal, and I doubt anyone wants that. Look at Orcus. He’s a limited print run, and he’s ludicrously expensive. If he weren’t attractive enough to be a shelf item he would be completely unsold.

      This is why every single D&D DM who utilizes minis should support the Heroscape game. Granted, it still refers back to the law, since there are only 5 minis in the blister package and they’re not very cheap, but if WotC can make a legitimate income on those boosters, maybe they’ll expand the line. That’s my hope, at least.

  2. Brian Engard says:

    I have a small collection of minis, but help if I’m going to let that limit my encounter building! Truth to be told, I mostly use counters. I print my own, using art cribbed from a Google image search and some card stock. If it’s a counter I might reuse a lot, I’ll mount it on foam board for extra weight and durability. I still use minis, but I mainly reserve them for big fights with dramatic enemies, like a beholder or a dragon. Most of the time, it helps to keep the battlefield from getting too busy I’d confusing, too.

  3. wickedmurph says:

    Couple of things you could do. First, use paper cut-outs – they sell lots of good packs and they are dirt cheap compared to regular minis.

    Second, do what I do – I have a 32-inch flatscreen with a VGA port – I run Maptools on my laptop. You can easily create all kinds of tokens, make really amazing and sprawling maps, and generally do lots of things, like fog of war or line of site, that you can’t do on a tabletop.

    But it feels a leetle different and takes some getting used to.

  4. Otarsus says:

    I keep my encounters populated with exactly what creatures I want. If I don’t have the minis available, I create paper standees and tokens. They take some prep time to get ready (mostly in searching for images, because the process of making them is takes only a few minutes), but are comparable to minis when used for combat.

    Paper standees are the least durable but are the cheapest to create (just print, cut, and fold in half to stand like a sandwich board). They keep the illusion of 3-D combat better than tokens.

    Tokens are very good at representing Bloodied/Unbloodied creature states (two images on reverse sides). When I’m really ahead, I like using tokens for minions and having their equipment printed on the reverse. It saves me time of repeating what they were carrying when it comes time to divvy loot.

    Dice are the absolute least representative, and can be difficult to track damage with in combat. Best saved for minions.

  5. AlioTheFool says:

    Interesting that I see people (on Twitter too) say they use tokens. I guess that is probably because so many people have more experience with previous editions than myself. I’m a plasticrackdict.

    @wickedmurph, man I’d love to have a flat-screen to use for gaming, but I don’t even have one in my living room!

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