Maps Good, Figs Bad?

Posted by on Mar 1, 2012 in Question, RPGs | 19 Comments

This discontinuity in arguments about RPGs fascinates me: miniatures-based situations get in the way of RP and narrative, apparently, while games encouraging players to draw frequent maps and diagrams do not. What is it about molded plastic figures or the precision of measured spaces that clogs the gears of narrative?

I ask as someone who did not use miniatures in any RPG capacity until D&D3.x and has found plenty of fuel and clarity for both narrative and roleplay in games with and without miniatures. Why is a map okay until we set miniatures on it?


  1. Mearls
    March 1, 2012

    Drama requires uncertainty. Too often, miniatures undermine that by making things too clear. For instance: characters want to flee a monster. Counting squares reveals that flight is automatic.

    Another example: Character moves down narrow hallway. Monster emerges from the shadows. Player draws imaginary lines between squares and argues that there’s no way by the rules that the monster could hide in that spot.

    OTOH, minis are great when the uncertainty rests in within areas they don’t mess with.

  2. Sean Preston
    March 1, 2012

    As someone who often runs scenarios with greatly varied locales, having miniatures and maps to represent the entirety of the milieu would result in a lot of labor without a good return.

    Back when the family had a hobby shop, in the early days, we used miniatures a lot, and I had more time to devote to them. This was fun, but the adventures were largely dungeon crawls and I, like the others, spent as much time on prepping maps and minis (if not more) than the adventure itself.

    In my more recent experience, I’ve found a number of games where people use miniatures the scenario either becomes centered around one key spot or there is a break in the flow while the GM breaks down and sets up new terrain. Alternately, I see a shift where people view games more strategically and tactically than they might if they just use their mind’s eye. Recently, I was a guest at Genghis Con in Denver and I was one of the few Savage Worlds game masters to not use miniatures. The response and feedback on my games was strong. Many of the players stated they typically use miniatures and using their mind’s eyes required them to focus more carefully on narrative elements and make them more fully engaged in the entire experience.

    I do sketch out some rough maps to enable people to share mind space about what is where relatively. This is typically when combats can be complicated or positions are important. Even then, I note a subtle shift in focus as a lot more questions largely inconsequential often arise, such as where is the lamp post. Is there a garbage can in the alley, and so on. Questions of more tactical import. (And it’s okay for this to happen, as it’s usually in combat or potential combat situations.)

    Ultimately, I say it’s why there is more than one flavor of ice cream. Each person has their own thing. For me, I’d rather devote my time to working on an engaging scenario and some other interesting bits than miniatures and assorted accouterments (such as terrain and the like). I do appreciate the labor and hard work from well done miniatures. They are just not for me.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    March 1, 2012

    Right on, Mearls, good answer. Miniatures should work for us, not the other way around. I’ve never seen them as exact instruments—they’re more specific than a verbal description or a map but they’re not necessarily precise. A lot can happen in a five-foot square.

    Good point about miniatures shifting perspectives, Sean. I use minis almost exclusively in fantasy melees, not in any of the various other games I run, but I don’t use them in every combat. They’re tools, usable in several ways. I just ran a whole dungeon crawl on Saturday without minis, for example, and only once did we have a situation where I would’ve brought out a battlemat — lots of other tools are out there for understanding spatial relationships and character blocking (in the theatrical sense) during play. I use all of them that I can get my hands on.

    Any tool can become a crutch if relied on too much, of course. Still, miniatures haven’t seemed to disrupt my players’ ability to get into their characters’ POV. I figure it’s part of the job of the GM to deliver both clarity and a visceral experience at the table (or around the living room, or whatever). Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

  4. Will Hindmarch
    March 1, 2012

    Also, there’s this, which gets at the heart of it for me, Sean: “For me, I’d rather devote my time to working on an engaging scenario and some other interesting bits than miniatures and assorted accouterments (such as terrain and the like).”

    That’s a tricky and false dichotomy, I say.

    I’ve never had to sacrifice “an engaging scenario” for the miniatures. I don’t build terrain (though I’ve used store-bought pillars and steps and stuff) and I don’t grant the premise that designing a play space for miniatures is necessarily at odds with designing an engaging scenario. I’ve had scenarios engage players because of the game space — be it a map or a battlemat or a place existing only in verbal description — and that’s exactly the dichotomy I don’t understand. It’s like saying that level design comes at the expense of great gameplay or dialogue options or sound design, etc.. Ideally, a game should be firing on all those cylinders, shouldn’t it?

    Maybe I’ve been unusual in that I don’t let miniatures prohibit or undermine other parts of play, but I don’t feel unusual when I do it. 🙂

  5. Sean Preston
    March 1, 2012

    Certainly, you’ll concede we all have finite amounts of time within which to build a scenario. We can spend that most valuable of resources however we like, be it on the adventure, the time to purchase, procure, prepare miniatures, or even designing handouts and character sheets (which I like to do).

    Perhaps it comes from my background of growing up in a hobby shop and having virtually unlimited access to precisely the miniatures (or what-have-you) needed to accurately reinforce a particular creature. My older brothers were a bit draconian about miniatures (now that I reflect upon it), so perhaps there is a rebellious streak to it as well.

    I will grant that it is not an either or proposition and a number of folks handle using all aids and accessories with great aplomb. Perhaps I’ve been unfortunate to be in too many games over the years (back in my hobby shop days) where the folks who prepared fine miniatures were often locking in scenario design. I’ve played in some games run by some fine folks (both in and out of the industry) who are fluidly able to produce a miniature with a fine flourish and never miss a beat with their narrative. I respect and admire such individuals. Sounds like you are one of them and it could be me who is the minority (like someone who is tone deaf).

    I’ll grant you all of that mind space, yet I cannot elevate miniatures to the level of a cylinder (as doing so makes it feel oh so very necessary). I can certainly see miniatures as chrome on the engine, a nice embellishment, yet one which does not improve the overall performance of the ride.

    I don’t say live in a cave and use a candle and rocks to game. I enjoy the variance and styles of different players. The gaming world would be an altogether different environment without all the amazing eye candy to come along, and I love to see how my friends integrate it into their games.

    You bring up some interesting points (ones I’ve never really thought about addressing with my mini-centric gaming friends) and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for challenging my perceptions about the usage of miniatures. I know I’m overwhelmingly in the minority, so you’re not unusual at all. As such, I’m prone to give a quick, simple soundbite when I’m conventions (as I led off with in my earlier post). This topic was a thorn snagging on the corner of my thoughts, so I couldn’t help but chime in.

    I’d like to close with one question and hit me as a new gamer who just fell off the back of the cabbage truck. How do you integrate miniatures into your game play/scenario design?

  6. Marcus Burggraf
    March 1, 2012

    I have always been using maps and figures. When I started gaming I spent a lot of time with tactical games like Warhammer or Battletech and a player in my 4 man party is tactical gamer. When I was younger I spent days on creating full color maps with intriguing details. They added a lot as players started to discover things on the map relevant to the adventure I did not have to describe because they where right on the map. Everyone had their own pewter figurine for their character.
    Nowadays I do not have as much time and usually only use a chessex battlemap with wet erase markers to quickly sketch out the battle area. I only use paper trifolds but still create customized enemy tokens with Heromachine. The simplicity and a bit abstract nature of the map makes it possible to still have a lot of room for descriptions and imagination but at least we all have a common frame of reference. I am lucky that I never had much issues with players metagaming the battlemat too. They know the maps are an abstract representation, nothing more. I am also not much of a scenarios designer and it sounds like I am in the minority today but my games usually are pure random rolls and winging it or using published adventures. I can´t remember the last time I actually designed a scenario completely myself. That is not to mean that my own stories have not developed out of a published adventure but these then fall under the winging it part.

    I agree completely though that there is a “break” in the game when the mat comes out and I draw the scenery. The game suddenly becomes tactical and moves away from the narrative. But this is the scene my tactical player can really shine in and the others at least enjoy it, besides one that really would love to play pure storytelling. But he has a lot of opportunity to shine during NPC encounters and dialogs. I only consider it fair other qualities are also valuable during play.

    For me maps and miniatures belong to the RPG experience as it allows a different kind of player to become engaged in the game who otherwise might be left out. And I will freely admit that it also helps me a lot as I have trouble communicating tactical situations clearly to my players. Besides this I enjoy the tactical part very much and of course my games reflect that. As others have said, different tools for different preferences.

    However reading the comments about map and figure less gaming made me wonder if I maybe let my storyteller qualities whither a bit. Maybe using maps and figures is the reason I have problems to describe tactical situations in the first place. interesting and a bit worrying. Intriguing topic and I love to read the experiences and opinions of others, thank you all for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Adam
    March 1, 2012

    I think the drawing of maps just gives the players a common visual/imaginative environment in which to play. Basically it creates a common space, so that when people are imagining, they are imagining more-or-less the same thing. Miniatures on a grid, by contrast, create a tactical play space, where distances, ranges, movement, etc, are all detailed precisely.

    If I hand draw a map of the Hardholder’s compound in Apocalypse World, I’m just telling my players that the water tower is roughly here — and that there is a water tower — and that the fence is jagged-edged. If I put that onto a grid map, then I am defining how many move actions it takes to move from one end of the compound to the other, and what the penalties are to shoot across them. The first one is a narrative constraint — though it’s potentially the creation of narrative opportunity, because it gives the players things to interact with in creative ways. The second is a mechanical limitation.

    That’s not to say that minis are bad. I’m a primarily narrative, character-interaction player, but I quite enjoy tactical combat. It’s why I like D&D4e, the way my group plays it. We play two hours of essentially freeform, character-driven RP, and then two hours of hard-crunch tactical combat. This is possible because in the non-tactical environment, 4e’s rules are largely silent.

    Further, in a tactical environment, where everything is measured and defined, there’s still a lot of room for narrative creativity, so long as the GM is willing to go off-book. The guy who runs our D&D games is amazing for this: “I want to push the water tower over.” “OK.”

    Conclusion? I’m not sure. Sorry. I’m a bit drunk.

  8. Will Hindmarch
    March 2, 2012

    Great comments, y’all. Thanks for coming by and writing.

    Point of clarification, because there’s an assumptive leap being made there: a grid map doesn’t indicate how many move actions it takes to get somewhere or impose shooting penalties. A game with fixed movement speeds or built-in penalty lists has the potential to do that, grid or not. Context-sensitive movement and penalties that react to narrative inputs can get around those mechanisms. I know this for a fact, having drawn grid maps in games without defined movement rates and relying on context-sensitive details or ability tests to determine movement speeds from turn to turn, based on circumstances that either arise from details in the environment or input details into the environment (and thus potentially the narrative).

    Put another way, a map with a miniature on it doesn’t actually enforce any special rules. That’s still the GM and the players doing that. The presence of the map or the miniature seems to be hotwiring discussions and decisions that should still be had and made by the humans at the table. The miniatures are prompting people to make assumptions about how play works but those assumptions can’t be made—or prevented—without the human input.

    That example of the water tower is great to me, Adam. Any time I draw an X on a map indicating a PC’s position, I could put a miniature down (or a scrap of paper, or whatever) instead without automagically importing movement speeds or other mechanics into AW. Likewise, having miniatures doesn’t mean I can’t bring the water tower down, as it were — that’s still a matter of level or environment design not its expression. I always tried to make all of my D&D4 environments heavily interactive, just as I make all of my RPG environments as interactive as possible.

    For sure, stopping to draw minis-scale maps or otherwise produce play materials can interrupt momentum or flow. That’s a great subject for a whole other post, I think, as is the question of how to integrate miniatures into scenario design. Those are big, rich topics, but you’re all welcome to speak on them here, if you like.

    To me, miniatures (like maps) are tools, useful for getting players on the same page, good for transitioning to tactically rich situations or clarifying complex environments—and other uses besides—but they don’t possess any authority or power that we do not pour into them. A craftsperson shouldn’t blame his tools, I was told. Miniatures are not essential or superior, by any means, in my opinion, but the use of them does not undermine roleplay or narrative unless you surrender your decisions to them based on assumptions you’ve bestowed on them.

    All of that is, yeah, a long way of saying I’m still thinking about all of this. 🙂

    Edit: So please do continue to set me straight on this. I’m not trying to be obtuse. I’d love to hear more on this!

  9. Sean Preston
    March 2, 2012

    Yes, I did drop a big, broad topic into your lap and walk away, so I’ll leave that be and return to the original topic of maps good/figs bad. I mulled this over last night while I was (in a rare instance) playing in a Savage Worlds game run by one of my buddies. Miniatures were not used at all, but he did sketch out a grouping of buildings as we were playing in a spy game and were trying to sneak about. This helped contextualize things for us. When we got into combat (with some auto droids and later some minion types), he jotted down initial positions. This does aid myself and others and I realized my buddy has adopted a style I use when I run games–abstracting the environment to create a common space. This frees up some mental overhead allowing one to devise reactions. Something far more important to the players than the GM, regardless of system. The GM knows the environmental play space well in advance and can mentally relegate to a secondary or tertiary position whereas it’s new data to the players who have to use the given information, figure out their characters response, and react accordingly.
    Now rather than make player/GM interactions sound like data packets flitting back and forth any more than I already have, I’ll conclude maps are often more important to the player than the GM (for the aforementioned reasons).
    After the game’s conclusion, I brought up this topic and invited my crew’s input. One thing which came up right away was the zones used in FATE (pick your flavor, they all have them). When we went through some FATE games awhile back, everyone enjoyed the ease of zones. It was a happy balance between hyper-detailed maps and no maps whatsoever. This, in turn, prompted me to bring up my first recollection of zones in RPGS which were found (for me at least, if there are earlier instances, feel free to point them out) in the old yellow box Marvel Game (where they were called areas).
    All this being said, I think the reason there is a tonal shift in play when minis are brought out is due to a number of factors, but I’ll distill it down to its essence. Many RPG players also play board games and miniature games and something in our minds shift over to a different mode, kinda like when a normally upstanding citizen loads up Call of Duty MWX and becomes a profanity-spewing killing machine.

    True, our accessories are talismans imbued with as much power as we grant them and, no, I don’t think miniatures shall steal our souls. I’ll note the game Feng Shui had a huge impact on me (all those many years ago) and my play style. I ran a Judge Dredd campaign using those rules and many of the tips on running games and adventure structure are with me to this day (such as inviting players to help define the environment) as is one of my older brother’s DMing style where he pretty much let anyone try anything (creating dynamic play) regardless of the rules set. In other words, even with minis on the table (in the rare instances when I use them), I’ve never let them dictate what is seen through the mind’s eye.

    P.S. I did point folks here from my site yesterday in the hopes of getting some additional insights on this topic.

  10. Buzz
    March 2, 2012

    I think that often when people say that miniatures and maps get in the way of “roleplaying”, what they are *really* saying is: “I don’t like engaging with this game’s combat mechanics, and would rather be spending time focusing on The Story™ an talking in-character.” If you look at the kind of groups who play, say, D&D or Pathfinder but extoll the virtues of sessions where “We didn’t roll dice all night!”, you’ll find that this is the sentiment that’s really being expressed.

    Basically, I think it’s the result of agenda clash. They are using mechanics that don’t support what they want out of the play experience.

    If you give them a system (e.g., FATE) where the minis and map represent, say, a debate and the participants’ ideological stances, you may well hear them singing a different tune. (That, or they don’t enjoy engaging with mechanics at all, and are happiest in freeform/consensus style play.)

  11. Queex
    March 4, 2012

    For me, it’s not so much that they ‘get in the way’ of RP so much as they’re a little appendix that adds little to the game. I’d rather put the effort in elsewhere. But then, I say the same about maps. The tactical possibilities that open up using figs are interesting, but you inevitably end up closing down other suggestions in the process.

    Plus, few people I game with have appropriate miniatures. It takes a large library of them on hand to fit everything you might need, and often a substitute is hilariously inappropriate.

  12. Buzz
    March 4, 2012

    I think it’s hard to talk about this outside of a specific context. I.e., Adds little to *what* game?

    I mean, do maps and minions get int he way of roleplaying when you play D&D 4e? I dunno; I’d argue that replaying gets in the way of the maps and minis with that game.

  13. Will Hindmarch
    March 4, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and POV, y’all!

    It absolutely is hard to talk about this in general—it’s a bit of a straw man, on my part—so I’d love to hear further, specific examples on the subject. We’ve heard about how bringing out miniatures shifts people into a stricter, more tactical mindset, for example. My argument is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

    Certainly, a richly tactical environment with measurable distances and lots of metrics make it so that optimal and suboptimal decisions can be easily (perhaps unfortunately) measured and judged. I, for one, sometimes make suboptimal decisions when playing monsters and NPCs and PCs alike in the spirit of doing portraying the character. As a GM, I reward such choices socially and creatively—just by saying, “That’s awesome!” or “I can totally see your character doing that,” or whatever—and I find it suits my play just fine.

    This is awkward for me because I tend to be a proponent of people pursuing what’s fun for them and if minis get in the way of that, I should shut the hell up. But I think there’s fun to be had that some people are missing out on because they’re letting miniatures bring baggage to the table that they don’t have to.

    I have a pretty modest selection of miniatures cobbled together from a myriad of different games and sets. I am pretty comfortable saying “This armored mech represents the hulking ogre” and ignoring the disparity. We paint over everything in our mind’s eyes. Works for me, at any rate.

  14. Reverance Pavane
    March 7, 2012

    I like tactical miniatures games. Like The Fantasy Trip, for example. The provide a different dimension to the game. Tabletop miniature skirmish wargaming rules (man-to-man scale) are also quite fun. In fact my go-to game for Western roleplaying is a set of tabletop wargame rules (Once Upon A Time In The West) that were detailed enough in characterisation to be a set of RPG rules (although far too rules heavy for most RP gamers mainly because wargames rules are intentionally written tighter than RP games because of the innate competition bias in any such set of rules). Role-playing definitely exists in those games, and may take a large part of the game, but they are not role-playing games.

    The difference is fairly fundamental, and it is essentially in the imagery you have of you. In a tactical skirmish game, the “you” that you are identifying with is that miniature on the mapboard. It’s something quite distinct from the physical “you.” Some people can project and identify with that miniature, in which case role-playing is little imposition.

    Traditional role-playing, you retain focus on you, as does everyone else. It is naturally easier to identify with the character you are playing and for other players to identify you with the character. You naturally fall into a first person narrative, telling your (the character’s) story. [This close identification can raise problems with Out of Character and In Character statements.]

    If you go further along the continuum into LARP and Jeep-form style, both use mechanisms that essentially focus on you becoming the character, either physically or psychologically. The identification is actually close enough that it can be a lot easier to step on player neuroses.

    A lot of gamers are unhappy with the tactical games in play because they feel detached from what is happening. The God-Mode overview of what is happening also tends to alienate the events happening on the board from what is happening to you. Thus you pull less emotional resonance into the situation – unless you can project empathy into what is happening to those little bits of plastic or metal (or in my case cardboard). I think that is why the more narratively concerned role-players don’t feel they are getting the same experience when the miniatures come out. [Because, in a sense, they are not – thye are experiencing it at one remove.]

    As a gamemaster I have one additional problem with battleboards/miniature use. It requires preparation and forethought (if only to have the miniatures available). A lot of my games are sandbox, and so I have absolutely no idea where my players are going to take me. I can dangle hooks and lower bait, but sometimes they head off and do the most unexpected things. [I’m not here for the players to listen to my story; I’m doing all this because I want to hear their story.] Not only would using miniatures increase the time it takes me to prepare for a session, it might very well be wasted time. This however is a purely logistics problem, separate from people’s like or dislike of the technique.

    Still, on the other hand a tactical skirmish game is still quite fun. And I’m just as able to curse someone for shooting me in the back on the tabletop as in a role-playing game.

  15. Jeb
    March 7, 2012

    Drama also calls for flexibility. When a player asks “Can I reach the monster?” With a grid the answer is count it out. Whereas, with a narrative description or more general map, the GM can have the discretion to say “Yes,” “No,” or “No, but you can reach cover and then get to him next turn.” The zones used in Fate are probably the best compromise that I’ve seen between narrative flexibility and grids, but the zones seem a little crude and could be refined further.

    The other problem with minis and figs is the break in the narrative. The PCs approach a room and prepare to ambush their adversaries only to have the GM stop, get up, and ask people to move their books, dice, and character sheets while she draws out the room and everyone places their figs. Many minutes can then pass between a player saying “I step into the room” and the next described event.

    Drawing a map can also change the players’ approach to the scene. A roleplaying encounter with a merchant can immediately shift into preparing for combat simply by putting a map on the table.

    Grids also seem to discourage stealth. This effect may be a combination of the narrative break and the shift to a combat paradigm. Generally, stealth is what the PCs do to prepare for combat or in an attempt to avoid combat. Putting out the grid can push the PCs toward combat. My experience has been that there is a large overlap between grid-loving GMs and stealth-hating GMs.

  16. Eric Hanson
    March 17, 2012

    I have found that if a GM is strong on narrative, then they will always be strong on narrative regardless of miniatures and maps. Mini’s are an easy scapegoat, a strawman essentially, where the GM and group have a lack of strong narrative.

    I have seen groups make Clue and the Great Dalmuti into a roleplaying experience, with great narrative. It required imagination and a desire to create a story vs simply play through a pre-planned path.

    I do agree with some of the other comments that a map and mini’s can drag the game in a tactical direction, but at the end of the day, if the game is lacking story/narrative/roleplaying, it isn’t the map and it isn’t what is on the map. There are ways to use maps/minis without breaking narrative (many options, but he obvious is to not break out a map until initiative is rolled).

    I think games like Vampire and WFRP 3rd ed. are an interesting direction in that they take combat up a level of abstraction.

  17. Hvorfor kart, spør Will Hindmarch – Imagonem
    March 19, 2012

    […] hvorfor ikke miniatyrfigurer også? Diskusjonen på Gameplaywright, som du kan klikke deg til her, er leseverdig, men spørsmålet har minst ett opplagt […]

  18. Rickard
    March 29, 2012

    Figs and maps makes the players point out what already exists instead of make up that doesn’t exist. Figs point out more then maps; maps can sometimes be pretty abstract. I think the whole question is asked from the wrong perspective. It should be more about what you want from, for example, a battle scene. Is it a tactical situation or do you want something else out of it? For example, an answer to a moral question.

    For the record, I use neither. I still enjoy maps and figs as a player, for example in games like D&D4, but I don’t use them when I’m a game master. Haven’t used them for years. Instead, I’m letting everybody contribute to the environment. I describe the surroundings in a few words, like “dusty library” or “noisy tavern” and then leaves it to the players to fill the environment with more stuff. I don’t challenge my players to come up with tactical solutions. I challenge them to come up with creative solutions. No, I’m not talking about using the skill Cake Bakery to sneak past a guard or that a player describes how she can sneak past the guard, because there are bushes that she can hide behind. I do appreciate descriptions like that, but I’m talking about situations like “Your hands are tied behind you back and the fuse is lit to the bomb. How are you going to solve this?” or “You are thrown out of the tower. Describe how you manage to survive”.

    Funny thing is, I’ve noticed that during battles, that the players stops describing what they are doing after 5-7 dice rolls to instead point out the results. So even dice (or cards or whatever) steals focus from the player’s creativity.

  19. Delf
    April 8, 2012

    I think the system is a major factor in whether to use figs or not. I can’t imagine playing 4e without them, with distance and speed being such important tactical elements. I understand how using them can be detrimental. Visual elements on the table can be a crutch and distract players from imagining the setting. Also, a grid allows players to easily measure distances between components and plan rounds in advance. On the other hand, it takes the ambiguity out of distances and prevents potential disagreements on distances and consequently, potential actions (e.g. whether or not a character is in range to fire a weapon). A compromise I’ve been considering is to play with figs but no grid, as in mini wargaming. It would necessitate measuring distances, but I think could add an element of reality. Measurements would only be allowed after actions are declared. Imagine playing combat in 4e: you move your human fighter 6″ towards a monster in the first round, leaving an undetermined distance between them. The fighter then needs to decide in the second round whether he’s close enough to charge and attack the monster, or if he’ll come up short and leave himself vulnerable to a counter-charge. I think I may try this the next time I run a game.


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