Using Minis Vs. Theatre of the Mind in your Dungeons & Dragons 5e Game

When I first began playing Dungeons & Dragons (way back before the interwebs, in the 80’s) I never used minis. Sure… During complicated encounters, I might draw locations on paper, or use dice just to keep track of where everyone was, but for the most part, I just used my imagination. Not because I had anything against minis (they were, and still are, AWESOME), honestly, it was because minis weren’t as readily available, they didn’t come pre-painted, and they were expensive as hell! I was a kid, and I didn’t have the money to shell out the cash for a set of pewter Ral Partha miniatures, so I made due with what I had.

Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures
D&D miniatures are now available in a variety of materials, finishes, and price points.

Flash forward to today when Dungeons & Dragons miniatures are readily available in a wide variety of materials, finishes, and price points. It is relatively easy to find pre-painted, unpainted, plastic and metal minis as singles, in kits, and in bricks to fit almost any budget or campaign with a simple Google search. Trust me, I know… I’ve purchased over 300 pre-painted minis in the last year. (Even some of those cool Ral Partha metal minis I could never afford… I’ll let you know how that painting project turns out)

Having played with and without minis I can say that I enjoy both styles. Neither is better… They’re just different. It comes down to preference, and being aware of the pros and cons of each, and how they fit your Dm’ing and playing style.

Theatre of the mind style play in Dungeons & Dragons: This style of play (as the name implies) happens completely in the minds and imagination of the players and DM. It relies heavily on descriptive narration, shared vision, and some sacrifice of certain game mechanics (specifically as they relate to distances, area, and true spatial representation) for the sake of story telling, and smooth game play. Needless to say, this style of play is not for everyone (read rules lawyers), and it takes some time to get right, but this style of play (when done right) can be a truly satisfying experience. I think it can actually enrich the game play, as it really requires both DM and players to visualise what is happening in their own minds, both must rely more on the picture in their head, than the placement of minis on the table.

These are the pros to Theatre of the mind style play in Dungeons & Dragons as I see them:

  • Theatre of the mind style play is, of course, the most affordable option. All you need to sit down to play is the core rulebooks set and some dice. Honestly, if you’re just starting out you can probably get away with the basic Dungeons and Dragons 5e Basic rules set and some pre-populated characters available for free from WOTC.
  • Theatre of the mind style play not only encourages but often demands complete game immersion (especially during combat encounters). Both DM and player must really visualize what is happening at all times. Some of the most exciting encounters I have ever experienced have been achieved through this style of play.
  • Theatre of the mind style play frees the DM and players alike to be more creative. As great as minis are they can tend to ground players (especially new players) in reality. They focus on what is mechanically probable, on area, and distance in a physical world, as opposed to what is possible in a fantasy world. This is Dungeons & Dragons, almost anything should be possible (not easy, but possible). It is up to the DM to determine the difficulty, and the dice to determine the outcome, but the options should be as limitless as the players’ imagination.

These are the cons to Theatre of the mind style play in Dungeons & Dragons as I see them:

  • Theatre of the mind style play can lead to some confusing situations which may bog your game down. Let’s face it, it is easier to draw up a quick map, assign a distance of 5′ per square, and place minis appropriately to track the movement and actions of both players and monsters than it is to describe everything. Theatre of the mind style play can lead to some confusing situations for sure. Spell areas of effect, marching order, distances for ranged weapons can all be challenging (especially for new players) and will require more attention, concentration, and creativity for everyone.
  • Theatre of the mind style play requires a great deal of trust and communication from all involved. The lack of minis means there is no physical representation of where characters are in regards to monsters, this can lead to disagreements and misunderstandings. “My character was nowhere near them!”, “How can that be I was in the back row!”, etc. These types of situation are all but non-existent when all can clearly see the placement of minis.
  • Theatre of the mind style play lacks the cool 3D factor of minis and terrain. A well-painted mini, an awesome 3D terrain set up, these things can really add to the wow factor of the game. Pulling out the miniature representation of your BBEG and placing it on the table is a very cool moment and something that is lost in Theatre of the mind style play.

Using miniatures in your Dungeons & Dragons game: Using miniatures in your Dungeons and Dragons game is fairly straightforward. It relies heavily on the use of battle mats, terrain maps, and 3D terrain boards to depict and track the movements, actions and placement of the player characters and monsters during gameplay, and more specifically during encounters. It is fairly easy to understand for all players (including new players) and adds a physical reality to your game. If you are unfamiliar with the rules regarding the usage of minis in your game there is a short overview in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg 250-252).

These are the pros to using miniatures in your Dungeons & Dragons game as I see them:

  • The use of miniatures in your game makes it easier for all involved to know exactly where their character is in relation to the monsters on the board at all times (this is especially helpful in combat encounters). There is virtually no confusion related to spell areas of effect, marching order, distances for ranged weapons or any other action. Spatial representation is clear for all to see.
  • The use of miniatures can make it easier for new players to get the feel for the game. Often times new players have a hard time visualizing movement, actions, and distances in their head. They have never played a game that occurs entirely in their imagination, and it can be hard to grasp that concept. Miniature representations of their characters and foes can make it easier for them to relate.
  • Miniatures are just cool! They add a tactile and visual element to the game. I love minis. I love collecting minis, painting minis, displaying minis. And, as stated earlier there is no better moment in the game than watching your players reactions as you pull out the miniature representation of your BBEG and place it on the table.

These are the cons to using miniatures in your Dungeons & Dragons game as I see them:

  • Although you can find relatively inexpensive minis these days, they are still an expense. Especially if you are looking for just the right miniature, or set of miniatures for your campaign. One or two zombies will be relatively cheap… A horde of undead soldiers? Probably not. Not to mention the cost of battle mats, terrain maps etc. If you use minis to represent every player, NPC, and monster in your game, be prepared to pay for it.
  • Using Dungeons & Dragons miniatures usually requires some artistic ability on your part. If you’re trying to save some money, you’ll probably end up painting them yourself, and even if you use them unpainted, or buy them pre-painted you’re still going to have to draw some terrain maps or create some cool 3D terrain boards. Mind you, this can be fun. But it does require a bit of work on your part, and if you have no artistic ability at all, could be quite a bit of work.
  • Using Dungeons & Dragons miniatures can lead to lazy gameplay. It is easier to rely on the placement of minis on the table to represent gameplay than it is to describe actions, encounters, and movement through descriptive narration. The game can tend to delve down into a board game, as opposed to a role playing game (especially in combat).

So? Which style of play do I prefer?

I know this is a cop out… But I prefer a combination of both. I love miniatures. I use them all of the time, however, I try very hard to not use them as a crutch. They make it easy for me to track movement and space, but I try very hard to never let them represent the scene, for that I rely on narration. Miniatures are a tool, they are not the game, I think that is the important thing to remember. Like most things in life, balance is key.

How about you? Do you use miniatures in your Dungeons & Dragons game? Do you rely entirely on Theatre of the mind style play? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Let me know in the comments below.

P.S. Don’t forget to follow  on Twitter in July to be entered to win a new copy of “Elminster’s Forgotten Realms” Details here –> Time for a Roll Stats Giveaway!

4 thoughts on “Using Minis Vs. Theatre of the Mind in your Dungeons & Dragons 5e Game

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  1. We tend to the theater ofthe mind, but it can lead to problems involving the how and why spells work, where people are in relation to each other and monsters. I do the impromptu maps a lot. As we haven’t done much in the way of traditional dungeon crawling, these are usually large battlefields.

    I used to love using minis when we would get into fights in Space:1889, but havong the minis cme out shifted the thinking from role playing to a more tactical/boardgame mentality. They’re also heavy to lug about, and I don’t like carrying a bunch of crap. I can run D&D from my iPad alone, hanks to the excellent Game Master 5 app, which is especially handy if I’m running to game on my motorcycle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the key is always balance. There is a place for both styles, in fact, I prefer a combination of both. I use miniatures all of the time. Players love them, they add a tactile element to the game. However, I try very hard to not use them as a crutch. They make it easy for me to track movement and space, but I try not to let them represent the scene. Nothing beats great narration for making a scene memorable, and real in your players’ minds.

      BTW I use the Game Master 5 app as well! I freaking love it!

      Like

  2. I tend to run as a mixture of both, though instead of minis I use my set of the 4e monster tokens (carrying all the hardbacks back and forth is enough workout for me thank you).

    I agree sometimes the use of the minis and map does devolve into a boardgame style play but some of the groups I play with prefer that while others are happy to spend an entire session just using TotM. Guess it all comes down to DM and Player preference.

    Liked by 1 person

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