Miniatures, Maps, and Visual Aids

Hello everyone, today I bring a requested topic from one of my readers. The topic, “To what degree do you think figures and map quality factor into player immersion?” Thanks to Rody for posing such an interesting question! For the sake of clarity I am going to presume map quality refers to dungeon tiles and other things of that nature to represent encounter areas

As with most things D&D, miniatures and maps effects on player immersion varies from group to group. However, over the years I have developed thoughts on visual aides during D&D.

Like many gamers, I really enjoy well painted miniature, and enjoy painting miniatures a lot. Here are a couple miniatures I have actually painted.

Despite my enjoyment of miniatures, I do not actually like using them in D&D, nor do I use dungeon tiles. I have a a few reasons for this.

Extra Work and Cost to the DM

Gathering miniatures and encounter tiles can be a lot of extra work on the DM, not to mention a potentially expensive addition cost. As a DM I would rather put my time towards planning a session then painting monsters and preparing dungeon tiles.

In my experience it is the rare group that will have every member painting their own character’s miniatures. If miniatures are not being painted then I see even less of a reason to use them in a session.

During the actual game session DMs have to keep track of a LOT of information and notes, miniatures and tiles are just an additional thing for the person already doing the most work.

Dungeon Tile

Over Emphasis on Miniature Position and tile Compostion

In my experience, once miniatures and map tiles are brought into a game, there are a few effects. Players often became more focused on the map tiles and miniature position, then my verbal descriptions. For example, a play would be fiddling with a miniature, looking at the enemy miniatures placed, or looking at the map tiles, they then miss the description the DM gives, causing confusion when a detail not on the map tiles or miniatures comes into play, such as a fallen down tree not pictured, or hidden enemies popping up. 

I have found that by using tiles and miniatures, D&D begins to feel closer to a board game, and so players started to treat it as such. They want exact details, with a consistency to the board. For example, often when I move creatures I am dealing in abstract distances, they charge forward, and look to be in range for a charge this turn, or the creature pop out of the bushes several hundred feet to the right. With a grid map; however, players want exact distances, since they can see the distance represented in feet. Rather then moving my monsters forward roughly about right, they notice if one goblin moves 1 square further then the other.

This also means, that when I want to slightly fudge distances to allow players to do really neat ideas it becomes much harder, I can’t just say, oh yeah the goblins are clustered together for that Sleep spell, because on the map it is clear they aren’t.

Miniature Actions vs Descriptive Actions

With a mapped encounter and miniatures, I also have found that the descriptive nature of combat takes a side seat to the miniature movement. I found players to say, “Okay I move here, then attack, oh miss, ok your turn.” Where as without the visual tiles and miniatures they have described their actions more.

To answer Rody’s original question, in my opinion, verbal description, vocal tone, and body language should always take prime seat for player immersion, while using as minimal visual elements as possible. My favorite visual tool is actually a dry erase board, with a couple different color dry erase markers.

dry erase board

This tool is simple enough that it will never replace verbal description in the player’s attention; however, it is clear enough to help clarify encounters, especially complicated ones. As an additional plus, it is cheap! I would highly recommend giving this a try to any DM reading.

This is not to say I am completely opposed to the use of miniatures and map tiles. I think for dungeon crawls especially, miniatures and map tiles work well. DMs can spend less time describing the shape of a room, and more time describing the contents. The boundaries of a dungeons, by its very nature, is also more restrictive then the wilderness, lending itself better to this method.

There are a couple of other visual aids which I think can help immersion and general game play. One thing I have done in the past, is assign player’s poker chips to represent their health, when they take damage, chips are taken away. This gave a visual cue to other players how hurt someone was, and gave a physical representation of taking damage.

I also really like handing out notes, letters, and maps, some of which I blot with wet tea bags, or singe the edges, to give the illusion of age. I think this helps create a more immersive experience, as the players have physical representations of things their characters have, which are relatively easy to create.

Well, Rody, hopefully that answered your question. I would love to hear your, or other reader’s comments. Do you use miniatures and dungeon tiles? What are your thoughts on D&D visual aides?

As always I am interested to hear what topics readers would like to hear about, feel free to put requests in the comments.

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7 thoughts on “Miniatures, Maps, and Visual Aids

  1. Jake, I recently added a new tool to our game that fits in here. We’ve moved away from minis and tiles and all that long time ago and our games are SO MUCH SMOOTHER without them. Anyway, to the tool. I went to Lowes (big box home store) and got a sheet of 5/8″ plywood and then over the top I put a sheet of melamine painted hardboard. The setup cost about $40 and it gives me a 4×8′ table THAT YOU CAN DRAW ON with dry erase markers. It’s awesome. I can illustrate right on the table when I need to quickly show diagrams or what not, players write their hit points, spell slots, etc directly on the table in front of them, etc. We’ve only been using it for a few sessions and are still learning the ins and outs but so far I love it.

    We’re playing tonight actually. I’ll try to remember to take a picture for you of the table in use!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Joe, how have your players responded to the reduction of using minis? When I first did it players resisted slightly, but then got used to it and have overall enjoyed it now.

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  2. I agree whole-heartedly. I like to only break out minis for combat purposes.

    We play almost exclusively online now, which I hate. We use a tool which is really fabulous, called MapTools, and you can spend so much time making beautiful intricately accurate maps with fog of war that reveals on a character’s movement etc. so each player only sees what their vision should see….but it’s a TON of work for the GM. I kinda like it, I mean like every girl ever I’ve been designing castles on grid paper since I could pick up a pencil, but it cannot reasonably be done for every map and I’ll play the Sims to satisfy that itch.

    Then, MapTools has an extensive library of embellishments from a spilt mug on the floor to full table arrangements, that bush, barrel, podium, pool, even a cloud of smoke etc. anything you can create an image of. However, you might not find the exact style you’re looking for. For example, one of my games was in a sandstone pyramid, and had torches…but the torches looked like standard dungeon wall torches when I wanted more of a sconce kind of look. And these pictures paint the visuals for the players, and make me less likely to describe a room, letting it talk for me…it’s a whole mess of distraction that leads to expectations and disappointment.

    Rob Lesher has used Map tools the best way, even if his drawings are as good as they are in wet erase on a mat. He uses a wacom tablet to draw handdrawn maps in maptools, and we have character tokens, but that’s it. It’s perfect. Mapping is fun, but reasonably if it’s not your full time job, markers and minis for combat only feel like the best tools imho.

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  3. Thanks for the comment Ashley! The prep work for the DM is definitely a consideration for using various mapping tools. I personally hate drawing maps, but I have been trying to integrate a few more map visuals into my games, because I see the value for the players.

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