Another week and another game master tip on The Mary Sue from Wil Wheaton, this time one that is talking about the use of maps and miniatures. On this occasion though, I do want to engage in a bit of “snobbery” and note that I disagree with their description that DnD was run “without miniatures”. In fact, Dungeons and Dragons was born from a miniatures based wargame called chainmail and using models was not really unusual at all. Indeed, when I started playing and then running 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons I always used miniatures, so the idea there is some “pure” state of DnD that didn’t use these things doesn’t fly to me.
The thing with maps and models is time. Building maps, painting (or finding) suitable models and similar are time investments you make as a GM before the game to save time during the game. In my Dungeons and Dragons 5E game I routinely used models (tokens) and maps. This was because I ran complex encounters where detailed positing and spacing mattered considerably. Even in the roleplaying systems I run that aren’t inherently tactical in nature, like Trail of Cthulhu, I will often use maps at the very least to provide context to players. The most recent Night’s Black Agents session I ran used a map of both the restaurant and the surrounding area, which gave the players a good idea of how to plan their operation. Did I need a physically drawn map to do that? No, but it does help immensely in giving everyone a fair idea where everything is.
Essentially when I decide to make a map of something I think about two things now: 1) What purpose in the narrative does this scene have and how long are my players going to be in here? Is it a reoccurring location? 2) How complex is this location? Does it have a lot of routes in and out? Is an important combat or other scene happening here that a map helps visualize for the players? Generally speaking, if it’s just a transitional scene where the PCs are asking a few questions, doing some investigating or similar, then it’s probably not worth a map. If it’s a big area, with multiple approaches, complex security, a detailed fight or it’s important enough to reoccur multiple times – then it probably deserves a map of some kind.
As for miniatures, those are just ways to represent players or monsters in a clear and “At a glance way”. Generally I’ll go for these things if I feel I need to make a combat very complex or get precise with where players have to be. To keep my time and effort low, I’ll generally use a collection of small tokens (like what you see in my DnD play reports) or failing that I just use different colored dice. Whatever I happen to have on hand and clearly identifies the PCs from various enemies. The only thing that matters is if the different tokens, dice or even string/erasers are immediately clear to everyone what happens to be what. Honestly, this is getting into more “Full Training Day” post territory, but do check out what Wil has to say. There shall certainly be more on this topic on the guild later!