Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mobile DM'ing Equipment - Minis vs. Card Tokens

Image copyright 2011 by Kelvin Green

I got some great comments on my recent post about possibly investing in minis for Con / public game play. One of the ideas that got suggested was that rather than going for 3D minis at all, I could simply use card tokens (like that pictured above) on my new battle mat instead.

There do seem to be a number of advantages in going this route:

- card tokens are surely cheaper than 3D minis, yes?

- card tokens travel easily and take up far less space than minis

- Kelvin has some here for free download

- At least in theory, one could prevail upon (or literally hire out) artists from the OSR blogosphere (Hi Kelvin!) to create custom tokens for specific monsters and PC types (e.g., rodians) one needs

Is this line of thinking blasphemy, as Christian suggests?

As a counterpoint, here is EGG on the subject of minis:


The special figures cast for ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS add color to play and make refereeing far easier. Each player might be required to furnish painted figures representing his or her player character and all henchmen and/or hirelings included in the game session. Such distinctively painted figures enable you to immediately recognize each individual involved. Figures can be placed so as to show their order of march, i.e., which characters are in the lead, which are in the middle, and which are bringing up the rear. Furthermore, players are more readily able to visualize their array and plan actions while seeing the reason for your restrictions on their actions. Monster figures are likewise most helpful, as many things become instantly apparent when a party is arrayed and their monster opponent(s) placed. Furnishing such monsters is probably best undertaken as a joint effort, the whole group contributing towards the purchase of such figurines on a regular basis. Be very careful to purchase castings which are in scale! Out of scale monsters are virtually worthless in many cases. As a rule of thumb, HO scale is 25 mm = 1 actual inch = 6’ in scale height or length or breadth.

Figure bases are necessarily broad in order to assure that the figures will stand in the proper position and not constantly be falling over. Because of this, it is usually necessary to use a ground scale twice that of the actual scale for HO, and squares of about 1 actual inch per side are suggested. Each ground scale inch can then be used to equal 3% linear feet, so a 10’ wide scale corridor is 3 actual inches in width and shown as 3 separate squares. This allows depiction of the typical array of three figures abreast, and also enables easy handling of such figures when they are moved. While you may not find it convenient to actually use such figures and floor plans to handle routine dungeon movement, having sheets of squares for encounter area depiction will probably be quite helpful. If you do so, be certain to remember that ground scale differs from figure scale, and when dealing with length, two man-sized figures per square is quite possible, as the space is actually 6 scale feet with respect to length. This is meaningful when attacking a snake, dragon, etc. if characters are able to attack the creature’s body length. With respect to basically bipedal, erect opponents, scale will not be a factor.

Details of preparation and painting of miniature figures for the game are not germane to this work. Your hobby supplier will have an assortment of small brushes and paints for such purposes, and you may inquire there as to the best techniques of painting.

Dungeon Master's Guide pp. 10-11

Any thoughts anyone?


  1. A 1-meter or 1-yard square is interesting. Shadowrun does that, or did at least in 1E and 2E. The shift from 2 abreast to 3 abreast changes the party order dramatically. Now you need a third frontline fighter, or else the Cleric gets pressed into that role.

    Later a minimum 5' space for PCs becomes required. It happens definitely in 3E D&D, probably earlier. Certainly in the Eye of the Beholder games you have 2 people per rank, both for monsters and PCs.

    Although, in the Gold Box games (Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, etc) while the 3D map was assumed to be 10' squares, when converted to a battle map for an isometric style top-down fight the corridors became 6 squares wide as I recall. Holding a passage and preventing monsters from slipping around to the M-U became impossible.

    I think the 2 abreast model came in fairly early and totally grabbed hold, with a few exceptions. I hear occasionally of a 3-meter pole for example.

  2. As to your actual post topic, I have stand-up paper minis, double-sided, that you print, cut out into rectangles, fold, glue together, then cut the outlines, then black-marker the edges. You can fit about 30 comfortably in a letter size envelope.

    Or you can use figurines for PCs (this works especially well with pregens or when you roll up a character because you like the figure) and some other tokens for monsters. I like using six-sided dice for monsters. The number on the die can mean the monster's number (if there are 6 of them or fewer) or the number of monsters in the square (for very small ones, or for mass combat). The die color can have some effect too: green dice for orcs and goblins, white dice for skeletons, etc. Recently I had Magmen attack the PCs, and they killed a bunch with Cone of Cold, and I decided that the cold dead Magmen would change from a red die to a black die as they became statues instead of lava monsters. There was much concern over the hallway becoming choked, especially as the Magmen could flow around the statues, and some statues were carried off by Magmen in the rear to be plopped into lava and recovered. Visually it worked very well with red and black dice.

    I got a baggie of 100 small assorted d6s for Christmas last year. I use them for tiny monsters and familiars.

    If you have a bunch of d8s you can use those too. I could see a field of green d6s for goblins, and brown or yellow d12s for ogres. That would totally work for me. I don't need the figures for the monsters.

    The main reason why I don't use figures for monsters is that you never have enough of the right ones, unless you plan ahead and buy them or else the PCs never fight things that you have no figure for. Or you go for substitutions, such as "okay guys this ogre is a carrion crawler, and these goblins and giant rats" etc. That's really unsatisfying.

    If you go with dice, the players must imagine the monster and how terrible it is. If the monster is a figurine on the table it becomes much less terrifying. There is some visual appeal to figures, and plopping down a vampire can be fun, but is it really worth $5 for the mini and half an hour to paint it?

    People like to see their characters on the table. That really does help. Enemy leaders too. But in general, I don't bother with lots of figures because that's not what I'm into as a hobby. Figurines are really a second hobby, and if you love that, you'll probably have a larger collection to draw from and the expense, effort to transport, and time spent on them are offset by the fun you have with them.

  3. Proper miniatures are the way to go but in the meantime: dice, counters and stand-ups are just fine. One Monk Miniatures do a nice range of stand-ups (they were free but I think he's charging for them again now). However, he does have a free section featuring designs submitted by his forumites.

    Another option is to pick up a used Dragon Quest board game which came with a set of 96 card stand-ups that cover a good range of D&D monsters and characters.

    1 Yard/Metre per 1" square is ideal for miniatures because of the space the bases take up. When I use a projected gameboard I often zoom in even more than that so there's space for say 20 giant rats figures in a 10x10 room.

  4. Thanks for the suggestions about scale! And I admit that I am feeling in my heart that despite the immediate appeal of the card stand-ups, perhaps, as Peter says, "proper miniatures are the way to go." That damn Otherworld miniatures set (link below) keeps calling to me. . . .