My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
This week, I’m tackling miniatures.
A Very Brief Look at Very Small Figures
Almost continuously since the mid-70s, D&D has featured an official line of miniature figures for fighters, dwarves, beholders, zombies, and almost everything in between. After all, Dungeons & Dragons sprang from the miniatures wargaming scene of the early 1970s. Yet while miniatures have always existed in some form with the game, not all gamers have embraced them. For every DM who owns shelf upon shelf of plastic and metal miniatures, there are others who absolutely refuse to let them hit the table.
“Miniatures help us visualize the action and keep everything sorted,” a minis user will tell you.
“Miniatures limit the imagination and compete with the DM’s description,” the anti-minis DM counter.
Complicating matters, the official rules for D&D have varied over the years in how they treat miniatures. In earlier editions, miniatures primarily served to indicate marching order. The price and limited range of metal minis made collecting every monster you planned to throw into an adventure daunting. Some groups used dice, bottle caps, or other markers in their place (including, quite famously dime store toys—which is how the rust monster, bulette, and owlbear originated), but many groups simply relied on the DM’s narration and description to set the scene. It wasn’t until 3.5 that miniatures were an assumed part of a DM’s equipment. 4th Edition still lists minis as an optional component, but the combat rules are clearly written with the assumption that you’ll use them.
It’s easy to suppose that this transformation took place solely in concert with rise of the pre-painted D&D miniatures line. That’s only half the story, though. A game that assumes the use of miniatures undergoes an important, though subtle, change in its design. In a recent design team meeting, we summarized that point with the following statement:
The battle grid and miniatures can either help the DM resolve rules issues, or serve as an independent rules resolution system.
In more practical terms, a player asks: “Does this orc have cover?” Then, does the DM decide if the orc has cover, or do the rules for cover use the grid and relative position of miniatures to make that decision? In the first case, the DM learns a rule and applies it based on his or her understanding of the situation. In the second, the DM doesn’t have any say in the matter. The rule provides a definitive answer.
The best example of this comes from the transition from 3rd Edition to 3.5. In 3rd Edition, the Player’s Handbook provides a table of modifiers and an illustration that give an increasing bonus to a creature’s AC and Reflex save based on how much of its body is concealed by cover. From the standpoint of miniatures use, the DM decides if the pillar between you and the target orc covers half the orc, a quarter of it, or whatever. The DM interprets what’s on the grid (or the image in his mind in the absence of minis) to make a call.
In comparison, 3.5 requires a DM or player to draw imaginary lines from the attacker’s square to the target’s square. If one of those lines crosses through an object, the target has cover. Cover provides a flat defense bonus, while a DM has the option of doubling the bonus based on the situation. For instance, an orc lurking behind an arrow slit receives the superior bonus. In either case, there’s no rule for making the call without miniatures. You need minis (or a house rule) to determine cover.
The argument in favor of the 3.5/4th Edition approach (4th Edition uses the same design philosophy) is that everyone at the table easily and clearly understands how cover and similar rules work. A player doesn’t need to ask the DM if a creature has cover. He draws the imaginary lines and fires away with the appropriate modifier. This makes things easier for the DM, because he doesn’t have to learn as many rules.
The counter is that the rule is more complex than it needs to be, because it has to create a foolproof method for determining cover without the use of common sense or description. When players can control rules, there’s a natural tendency to find ways to break them. In contrast, with the DM serving as impartial referee, you can write a simple rule that’s easy to learn and easy to apply. You don’t have to worry about strange corner cases because the DM—as part of making the judgment call required to determine cover—can simple cast aside absurd results.
I definitely fall into the second camp as both DM and player. As a player, I’m lazy. I’d rather just ask the DM if there’s cover and be done with it. As a DM, I’d rather learn a simple method that doesn’t require me to draw lines, mess with the grid, or otherwise break out of the action’s flow. Ironically, I like using miniatures, but I much prefer rules as tools rather than rules as arbiters.
Your Turn to Weigh In
Now we’ve come to the part of the column where I turn things over to you. At the end of the day, do you want the grid to answer questions or do you want the DM to make a call based on the rules? Does the 3.0 or 3.5/4 approach work better for you? Does my opinion paint me as an idiot or a genius, or something in the middle?
The 3rd Edition of D&D had rules for cover that required the DM to apply a rule to a situation using his or her judgment and common sense. The 3.5 update (and 4th Edition) created a hard and fast rule for determining cover that removed the DM’s judgment.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.