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.
“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.
Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.