Roleplaying with Miniatures


Assertion: miniatures don’t kill roleplaying.

Since D&D third edition came out, and really probably since somewhat before that, people have been claiming that miniature-based RPG combat kills roleplaying because you can’t roleplay while you’re shoving miniatures around a battle map. This drives me absolutely nuts, on account of how I’ve been roleplaying during miniatures combat since I started playing Champions with the estimable Carl Rigney and crew. On the other hand, it would be somewhat foolish of me to deny that putting a tiny plastic figure on a square grid often deactivates the roleplaying portion of a gaming group.

This is the post where I explain everything.

Here’s why minatures fuck up our roleplaying. Actually, let’s be precise: here’s why strongly tactical combat systems mess up our roleplaying. If you’re anything like me, and if a tactical combat system appeals to you, you’re going to get into the tactics. You’re going to want to think about the optimal choice, and you’re going to want to use your resources effectively, and you’re going to want to do the right things to win the fight.

Thus, a combat becomes an exercise in what you the player think you the character should do at any given point. The question of the character’s desires tends to fall by the wayside, since those desires do not affect the tactical situation in any way.

Making the right tactical decision improves the chances of survival for both your character and the other characters in the game. That makes the other players happy. You get the satisfaction of beating the GM, which is also kind of fun. The frame changes from whatever it was before (telling a story, exploring the world, whatever) to winning the fight.

Yup. Miniatures fuck up roleplaying.

Here’s how miniatures make your roleplaying experience better.

This is, by the by, tricky. I think that it’s as much a skill as anything else you do while roleplaying. I mean, roleplaying itself is a skill. Roleplaying flashbacks effectively, that’s a skill. Roleplaying in such a way as to accentuate another character’s spotlight time is a skill. Roleplaying the Shadow in Wraith is definitely a skill. Roleplaying in an Amber campaign full of player character conflict is a skill (and if you don’t get that one right the campaign will have problems, oh yeah).

But like most roleplaying skills, nobody’s written a tutorial for roleplaying with minis. (I am willing to expand on what you’re about to read for inclusion in your roleplaying book for very reasonable rates. Or just steal this post, actually, if you wanna.)

Also it’s not for everyone, any more than playing Wraith or Amber or Prime Time Adventures is for everyone. If you read this and you say “but I don’t like tactical combat because I just hate tactics,” then this technique is not something you should even worry about. I’m not saying this is the one true way, I’m saying that it’s a way to do things. Miniatures don’t have to suck all the roleplaying out of the room. That’s all.

OK, first I’ll explain how to do it; then I’ll explain what you get out of it. This is not just a cute fun theory thing to do; there is a humungous benefit to this technique that can improve your roleplaying as a whole. I’m saying it’ll make the non-combat bits better as well, if this is the kind of thing you dig.

Step one: make sure everyone at the table knows what you are going to do. That’s huge, because you probably have a social contract that involves trying to win fights. You’re not going to be tactically perfect any more. You can’t be: as I just noted, being tactically ideal conflicts with prioritizing your character’s desires. So if you do this without warning people, you will piss them off.

Step two: get into a combat.

Step three: think about the combat just the same way you always have. Don’t try and turn off your brain. You like your brain, if you’re anything like me, and tactical analysis is fun. Or if it’s not, don’t worry about it — I assume you’re getting something out of it if you’re playing a game with heavy tactics, but what do I know? All I’m saying is that I can’t stop caring about tactics in this sort of game, so I don’t try.

Step four: make your character do whatever your character would do. Fuck tactics. If your character wants to blow off the big bad because the guy he loves is at the other side of the room getting eaten by a basilisk, charge across the room and take opportunity attacks and save his lover’s ass. When in doubt, do the less tactically advantageous thing. Get used to screwing up, you big damn hero. Heros screw up all the time!

Step five: explain why it’s happening, out loud, to the other players. Let them read your character’s mind a bit, even if that’s not normally the kind of thing you do. They need to know why your character just did that, and they need to believe it’s a character decision.

Step six: apologize to the other players and maybe to the GM because possibly the GM set up that encounter with the idea that the players wouldn’t make their characters do unwise things. Remind them that you talked about this earlier. Tune your play as needed to keep the group happy. I am assuming you play with these people because you like them, so don’t be a dick.

Step seven: keep refining your technique. Find the sweet spot for the group. Just keep thinking hard about step four, and keep doing step five, and get used to filtering the tactics through your character’s senses.

It’s maybe pretty obvious at this point what you get out of this, but I’ll go over it just in case. You are not doing this just so you can smugly say “look at me roleplay.” I mean, sure, you’re being more immersive and all that, but that’s not why you’re doing it…

Oh, yeah. I’m a pretty immersive player. If you’re doing it for the narrative, though, you can do all the same stuff. Just in step four, instead of focusing on what your character would do, focus on what’s best for the story. When I talk about being immersive or filtering through your character’s senses, replace my words with priorities that concern you. I’m pretty sure this all still works.

End digression; back to the point. You are not doing this to make a point or to be macho. You do it because it gives your character’s actions gigantic power.

Every time you make a choice and everyone knows it’s not the optimal choice, you set up a contrast: you’re creating a discontinuity. You’re calling attention to the choice, precisely because it is not the expected choice in the framework. The framework of a tactical combat system will always call for tactics, by definition, so the suboptimal choices will always stand out to a degree.

That emphasizes the importance of your character’s reasons for making such a choice. It is a big enough deal for her that you the player are happy to sacrifice efficiency for the cause. That is absolutely one hundred percent noticeable.

And yes, this is tricky, because it also looks a lot like asshole play where you’re blowing off everyone else’s goals — winning the fight — for the sake of your own cheap amusement. The bit where you let everyone at the table read your character’s mind? Very, very important to avoid looking like you’re being a dick.

Eventually you can turn that knob down, because your friends will come to understand and trust you. I don’t think you ever turn it off all the way, though. Maybe you wind up revealing the reasons for your character’s actions through roleplay later? But you want people to nod and say “Oh, yeah, I /get/ it! We didn’t know, but Threk was mad in love with Cvein and he couldn’t bear to see that basilisk do that thing! COOL!”

Give your choices power. Give your roleplaying power. When your character makes a sacrifice, that is a cool moment, and every single tactical combat can be full of little sacrifices. Each one of those sacrifices helps define who your character is and what she cares about. It’s an amazing technique and it’s a hard technique and I wish more roleplaying books taught it. I don’t think everyone will want to do it but I do think it’d be nice if people knew the option was there.


13 Responses to “Roleplaying with Miniatures”

  1. Len Says:

    It’s important the GM somehow conveys to the players at some point that if they make a non-optimal choice it won’t be seen as an attempt to cheat or as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to dash the player on the rocks of the scenario as written.

    The decision to not try to do exactly the tactically perfect thing can make a player feel very vulnerable, especially, as you have noted, when the other players might be sitting there going “Okay, what is asshole doing over there messing up the plan?”

    I go back and forth trying to figure out how “Jump on something’s head-ish” I do or don’t want to be with Hargan, but I know at least that if an idea occurs to me that seems really fun/crazy/unlikely/cinematic, I’m not instantly angering the GM or committing suicide and gettng my teammates punished for it as well.

    • Bryant Says:

      Yes yes yes.

      Page 42 in the 4e DMG is a sort of subtle expression of how the GM should give permission for wacky stuff, and in fact encourage it. But since it’s in the GM book, not enough players see it.

  2. pdunwin Says:

    Sounds good. The DM who has his enemies focus on a particular character or make other tactically questionable choices might also consider revealing some “thoughts.”

    • Bryant Says:

      Agreed. Or even the DM who’s making optimal choices which appear to pick on a given player. When I focus fire on the healer, I like to note why the monsters figured out how to do it. You can do this handily with monsters by having them yell orders at each other.

  3. Richard Says:

    Great post, particularly relevant to 4e games.

  4. Alexander Williams Says:

    It’s interesting you bring this up, because I just stumbled into a veritable nest or hive of games designed from the other side, from wargames moved into RPG territory.

    That link goes to their page for All Things Zombie, the “end of the world scenario” system / core, and they also do a game called Warrior Heroes. Both of them focus on the actions of Stars (PC) characters with NPC support folk, and the enemies are largely guided by a mix of roleplay and structured random-seeded response tables.

    I’ve been having a great time tinkering with ATZ, playing out resource recon scenarios, figuring out ways to model other kinds of zombies. And with the full support of tracking if you have enough stuff to maintain your group’s position, their food, etc.

    I just found it interesting to discover someone else was looking in this direction.

  5. Key Our Cars » Blog Archive » Roleplaying Says:

    […] Roleplaying Pen and Paper Add comments Roll or Role? I found this post, actually from Mike Mearl’s Twits, and really wanted to make sure it gets as broadspread an audience as possible so I’m reposting it in part here and if you want to read the whole thing please follow the link. […]

  6. Gnome Rodeo: The Garden of Gnomish Delights - Gnome Stew, the Game Mastering Blog Says:

    […] Roleplaying with Miniatures: Fascinating discussion on Claw/Claw/Peck, seen via Mike Mearls’ Twitter feed. […]

  7. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e « Claw/Claw/Peck Says:

    […] But the thing is, FFG also makes Descent: Journeys into Darkness. And from what little info I’m seeing so far this is looking like Descent with some rpg elements added on. And in my book, that’s a good thing because Descent is freaking fantastic and adding RP stuff to it can only be a Good Thing. For a more well written rebuttal of the “minis kill roleplaying” crap, see Bryant’s piece here. […]

  8. Capt_Poco Says:

    Nice post. I thought the unnecessary gay love thing gave it that extra something. Speaking of which, many roleplaying systems do incorporate what you are talking about into the ruleset. Spirit of the Century, for example, has a mechanic where you write down the things that are important to your character (like “Big Gay Love For Big Gay Svein”) when you build them. The ruleset recommends five of these “Aspects”, but there’s no reason why you can’t add more. When an aspect makes the in-game situation harder (dropping everything to save Svein), the player is allowed one +2 bonus to a roll made in that situation (or the option to re-roll a single bad roll). These “bonus points” are called Fate points. Everyone starts out with five. If a situation is made easier because of one of your aspects (you encounter a troll who admires big gay humans) then you have to give up one of these Fate points in order to “activate” your aspect (aka, the troll gives you a hug rather than a face full of digestive acid). Basically, these rules codify all of the stuff you were talking about, and make sure that even the tactically minded players will participate a little in the story, sometimes.

    • Bryant Says:

      The… oh, pronouns. I know; once we start using gay relationships in RPG examples, surely the sanctity of traditional RPG relationships will be in severe danger, right?

      As it happens, I’ve played in a Spirit of the Century campaign, a Prime Time Adventures campaign, a Sorcerer campaign, a Mountain Witch one-shot, a few My Life With Master games, &c. I have some passing familiarity with the indie RPG field. Don’t freak out, but I’m both a tactically minded player and a story-oriented player, which is sort of the point of this post, no? Yes.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Having run and played in SotC games, I believe the Aspects system is really the only decent thing in the game, and even that just ends up boiling down to “spend a hero point to get +2 to your roll” if a player isn’t interested in engaging with the role-play angle. As for compels, it’s a lazy system crutch for a GM who can’t be bothered to actually set up compelling difficult emotional choices for his/her players. There’s no mechanical bit needed for that, just some effort to make the players actually care about the characters and the consequences of their actions.

  9. Natterings» Blog Archive » Hit me again! Says:

    […] to make it worthwhile.  This is heavily informed by the aforementioned boyfriend’s brilliant “Roleplaying with Miniatures” article, especially this:  “Step four: make your character do whatever your character would […]

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