Eenie, Meennie, Mini

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 20, 2011

I wasn’t a fan of minis until 4e came along. The introduction of very tactical combat made the conversion easy. I enjoy the different perspective that a large mini represents on the battlefield, how lines of sight might be affected and how the battle in general unfolds. Of course it has also led to several members of the Dungeon’s Master team to develop rather large collections of minis. Which is all to my benefit as a player and DM.

One of the questions I’m constantly debating is whether to use a mini that matches the monster they player’s are fighting. Now let me clear up that last statement. If the players are fighting a dragon, a beholder or a giant I use the appropriate mini. The dragon might not be the right colour, thought that’s usually not a problem, but the mini at least represents the monster.

Where I’m less specific is with humanoid combatants. My half-orc’s might look like humans, and my minotaurs might look like elves. As long as I have a mini on the table I’m usually satisfied.

Where this philosophy runs into trouble is when the players aren’t paying attention or when I do a poor job at describing the scene. The question I often ask myself is should I use different mini’s in different fights when they represent different monsters. In a recent combat I was using a humanoid with a sword who had a power that slid the players. In the very next combat I used the same mini, only this time it represented a minion. This was a distinct and purposeful choice. I wanted to test the assumptions of my players and see how closely they were paying attention. What I wonder is whether it is a fair tactic to employ against my players or not?

There are ultimately three factors that need to be considered when you are selecting your mini’s. The level of description you as the DM are providing, how closely your players are paying attention and playing with player assumptions. How these three factors play out will determine the level of fairness that appears evident. Of course if you have the correct mini for a particular monster, you’ll likely want to use it and not something else.

Describing Your Mini’s

Certain mini’s don’t require a great deal of guesswork by the players to determine what they are fighting. When you drop a dragon on the table they know what’s at stake. Furthermore the size of the dragon allows them to guess at the difficulty.

As the DM you have a principal duty to describe the scene to your players. You are the only one who can tell them what they see, hear, smell, taste and touch. You are literally the embodiement of their senses. If you don’t describe it, it didn’t happen. So when you are using a generic mini of a human knight, except it should be a half-orc with an axe but you don’t have that mini, you need to provide that information to the players. Otherwise they assume they are fighting a human knight and will make assumptions based on that visual knowledge.

In other words if you don’t describe it right, you as the DM will be cheating not only your players, but yourself. After all you designed the encounter. To not describe it accurately is unfair and detracts from the gaming experience of everyone involved. The depth of your description is up to you. Some are content with stating that the mini is an orc, wielding an axe, dressed in hide armour. Some may describe the same mini as a bloodthirsty orc savage from the Mror Holds, he brandishes an axe with a notch on the shaft for every foe he has beheaded, his ragged hide armour is sewn together from various animal skins. Same monster, different description. Which you use is up to you, it’s just important that you provide one.

Pay Attention Players!

I don’t recall the last time every player at my table was paying attention to me or the battle all at the same time. Some were busy researching the power they wanted to use and was there a particular way to exploit it versus this opponent. Others were chatting amongst themselves, still others were surfing the internet. I can’t make my players pay attention 100% of the time. One player tunes in on his turn, quickly picks a power, rolls to hit, moves if necessary and then ends his turn. He promptly tunes out again. It’s annoying that he tunes out, but I will give him credit for the speed in which he completes his turn.

I don’t believe as the DM it’s my job to babysit my players. As a result I’m not going to ring a bell or put my hand up for silence so that I can describe the scene. The game that is transpiring should be reasonably apparent to everyone and as a result I describe the action and monsters when appropriate. If a player isn’t paying attention, well I just consider that a roll of 1 on his Perception check. This isn’t to say I won’t re-describe the monster or situation when asked. Though it’s annoying to repeat myself, it’s also unfair to tell the player no.

My request of players is simple – pay attention! It sounds easy, but it doesn’t always work. That’s ok, because you can use your players lack of focus or attention against them.

Playing With Assumptions

You know the old expression – never assume it makes an ass out of you and me. Well players like to assume and they are creatures of habit. If you know one or several of your players aren’t paying the attention when they should, reuse a mini. Make sure to describe it and differentiate it from the previous encounter as normal. Your players that are paying attention will reap the benefit. Those that aren’t will make an incorrect assumption.

Of course those not paying attention will eventually realize their error of their ways. However, this might not happen before they make a key tactical error or use a daily power when an at-will should have sufficed. It might not seem fair, but you did describe the scene before hand. You can’t control whether your player took the information in or not.

How do you select the minis that you use in your game? Do you always try to use an accurate mini to depict the scene? Do you insist on buying new minis or are you content to use and reuse minis from your existing collection?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Toldain July 20, 2011 at 9:47 am

In a recent combat I was using a humanoid with a sword who had a power that slid the players. In the very next combat I used the same mini, only this time it represented a minion. This was a distinct and purposeful choice. I wanted to test the assumptions of my players and see how closely they were paying attention. What I wonder is whether it is a fair tactic to employ against my players or not?

I wouldn’t have done that. The game is not about how much they pay attention to me. If my BBEG is trying to fool them, then I will try to fool them, in the game. But out of the game, we are cooperating to do something fun. I don’t want to mess that up.

2 Megan July 20, 2011 at 10:08 am

My DM has the official set of monster tokens. They’re basically double-sided pogs, and the back generally (though not always) has a red ring around it to indicate bloodied.

There has been some reuse of monsters, we’ve fought some of the same tokens multiple times, so it always comes down to everybody listening to the DM description.

One amusing side-effect: not all of the tokens have the same portrait on both sides, so occasionally we’ll be fighting a skeleton that “turns into a rat” when it’s bloodied.

3 Naz July 20, 2011 at 10:39 am

I tend to agree with Toldain, in that while I do reuse mini’s, especially those of the humanoid variety, I rarely try and make the party remember what a particular mini was capable of in a previous fight.

On of the biggest challenges I get with humanoid mini’s is that my players don’t always pay attention to who is and isn’t a “Bad” guy. I’ve had an especially hard time in encounters where there may be 2 or more NPC town guards or such, and the party, usually the controller, will look at their tactical options and read these good NPC’s as enemies. I have a rather large group though, and so I’m not always privy to thier plans until they enact them, and then we have to go through the whole, “That isn’t and enemy, its one of the palace guards”, which inevitably slows down combat.

One potential work around, that I know many people don’t like, but which I have found makes our combats a bit quicker. I have several of the recent monster tokens that WoTC has come out with. I use these now to represent most minions, and I use the blank “minion” markers to represent most NPC’s. This has eliminated much of the confusion, and while yes it puts a big red X on minions (I will still every now and then surprise them by changing this formula up) I don’t mind the trade off that much. It also has allowed me to hold back my Mini’s too represent the more important enemies/bosses and such, a big help now that New Mini’s only come as part of a Board Game set, or by hunting one’s I don’t have down on the internet.

A good article Wimwick! Keep them coming!

4 Amradorn July 20, 2011 at 11:25 am

I try never to use the same mini to represent different creatures within the same night. To me that is just adding a level of unnecessary confusion.

5 barbiomalefico July 20, 2011 at 11:27 am

I don’t have enough minis for any moster so i use the one who fit best. Now with the release of monster vault i started using token and i think they are better than miniatures. I can bring them with me more easilly and i get a huge quantity of it.

6 shimmertook July 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm

It’s only a matter of time before a player learns whether a creature is a minion or not. I don’t believe it is worth your time or effort to attempt subterfuge of that fact unless, as you mentioned, that’s a tactic of a more powerful enemy.

Two things I would say: 1/ Describe a creature *before* you put down the mini, and while describing make sure to look your players in the eyes. It’s a simple little thing, but if they’re talking, on a device or something, staring at them will more politely inform them that what you’re saying is important. Then, after description, place the mini down and recap in five words the dude with your finger on him. 2/ A very quick “way I run the table” talk with your players might be all you need to set the parameters. Keep it short and precise, something like “Guys, I want to keep things moving efficiently at the table, so I’m going to describe the creatures once and pretty quickly, so listen up or move forward.” If the players honestly didn’t hear you or want a recap, give them just that, no extra fluff, just the five word summary, or maybe a bit more if they rolled well on knowledge checks.

It’s unfortunately, but at the end of the day the players are probably more interested in what the monsters can do rather than what they look like. My opinion would be to use a mini with a whip, spiked chain or flail if they have sliding powers, a monster with a big maul if they do more damage, and armor and shields for soldiery types.

7 Kilsek July 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm

One of the things that compounds the miniature visual vs. monster description is what I see as a major flaw in monster layouts in 4e: the lack of consistent, detailed, written physical descriptions.

Older editions of D&D are rife with these glorious details to help paint an image of both classic and bizarre monsters, whether directly inspired by real-world mythology or otherwise.

While Monster Vault does an absolutely outstanding job of offering expanded *lore* and thus inspires a lot of adventure possibilities, it still doesn’t address the lack of consistent physical descriptions of monsters.

Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, I get that, especially in this increasingly digital day and age. But the richly detailed exposition and description you see in some of your favorite fantasy novels can be just as powerful – not just in a novel, but in any roleplaying or storytelling game.

8 Wimwick July 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm

@ Everyone
Some great comments. Thanks to everyone who participated in the discussion. To be clear I’ve only used the same mini in subsequent fights that way once, mainly as an experiment.

I think there is a general consensus that using the same mini to represent different monsters is a bad choice by the DM.

9 Sunyaku July 20, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I love minis– but I have realized that when I have minis that are exactly the creatures I want, I tend to embellish less and let the figures speak for themselves. Unfortunately, I do not think this bad habit makes the game any better… and I do the same thing with pre-made maps. Dramatic, detailed, descriptions of the opponents and scenery are an important aspect of the game.

10 Chet July 22, 2011 at 5:49 pm

(These caps below aren’t for yelling. It’s for clarity : )

Here’s something interesting. As far as PUBLISHED ADVENTURE DESCRIPTIONS go to aid visuals. The first RETAIL printing of 4e H1 KEEP ON THE SHADOWFELL (drum roll) DOES HAVE MONSTER DESCRIPTIONS at the bottom of the stat block. Even for Kobolds. In the UPDATED REPRINT, which I think is the PDF version that could be downloaded from wizards.com, EQUIPMENT is listed instead, as we’ve come to expect. This was the first material published for 4e as far as I know. It came with Quick Start rules, Pre-gen characters, and a fold out map to get you running. No tokens nor Minis.

The Monster Manuals have flavor text and DC Lore checks and encounter groups, which the Monster Vault leaves out or has less of.

The convenient descriptions in the following examples from H1 give nice groundwork for DM’s to fill in with more flavor on the spot. I wish they would have continued it. There’s always enough room for minimal equipment monsters carry.

A1: Kobold Ambush (Retail. Doesn’t appear in Update which has Equipment entry instead)
KOBOLD SKIRMISHER Description: “This nimble reptilian figure has brown-red scales, wears dark leather armor, and grasps a spear and light shield.
KOBOLD DRAGONSHIELDS ”These red-scaled reptilians each carry a short sword and use what looks like a dragon scale as a shield.“
KOBOLD WYRMPRIEST ”This reptilian humanoid wears a bone mask carved to resemble a dragon’s head. The creature also carries a spear and wears crimson colored hide armor.“ (not fancy but helpful to differentiate their roles without giving too much away)

On the Road: Kobold Brigands encounter
A2: Kobold Lair Outside (Retail and Updated).
KOBOLD MINIONS have no description. They have EQUIPMENT instead! But the text reads PERCEPTION CHECK DC 13 ”The sound of many voices is just audible over the din of the waterfall. DC 15 Several kobolds are visible through the trees.“
The SKIRMISHERS stat block is repeated.
The SKIRMISHER is replaced by a KOBOLD SLINK in the Update.
Side note: The Minions stat block is above the Slinger in the Update, which is the reverse order of the Retail printing.

BALGRON THE FAT ”This fat goblin wears leather armor that bulges from his weight. He has thick, knotty fingers, cruel eyes, and a terrible disposition. He carries a club, a crossbow, and 20 bolts.“ (Hey a combo! and with more flavor to differentiate him)

”GELATINOUS CUBE “This creature looks like a glistening, almost invisible membrane filling a corridor or small chamber. On close examination, a faint cloudiness seems to hover in the air behind the membrane; this is the substance of the gelatinous cube. Tiny bits of undigested matter lie suspended in the creature’s quivering bulk.” (More ‘flavorful description’ than the Monster Manuals, which is a different way of saying ‘be careful how this silent killer is approached’ compared to most creatures. The expensive after-market Mini is awesome)

OCHRE JELLY “This crimson colored mass of undulating jelly oozes forward with menacing intentions.” (no brain but intentions? run don’t walk!)

KRUTHIK are described in the READ ALOUD TEXT, NOT in the stat block “All resemble six-limbed reptiles with insectlike traits. Silvery chitinous plates cover their bodies and short tails, and each has four limbs that end in scythelike claws. The creatures have two smaller limbs, which have finer digits close to the body. The head is vaguely reptilian, and the lower jaw is a toothed plate flanked by serrated mandibles.” (down and dirty but detailed for a unique creature you don’t run into often. Says nothing about it’s disposition.)

KALAREL, SCION OF ORCUS “Clad in scale armor, Kalarel makes a formidable figure. Despite his pale flesh and gaunt cheeks, he moves with strength and vitality. His eyes are glazed with a fanaticism.” (Short and sweet. The boss)

Whew! I think I got that copying and pasting right. As is proper, all text is © 2008 Wizards of the Coast.

Condudrum in gameplay. Those are good descriptions that balance visuals with imagination. Not as creative as WIMWICK’s example but helpful groundwork.

However, a very visual person might think, ‘well hey, WHERE’S the mini or token that MATCHES that description?!’ It’s a weird balance between imagination and looking at a tactical battle mat, illustrated maps or tiles that begs miniatures, tokens, handmade stand-ups etc.

I also wish the Monster Manuals & Vault had Phonetic Spellings for some monsters. There’s some weird monsters!

I own minis and have played the skirmish game with battle maps and tiles. I’ll chime in later. But it’s a topic I had been thinking about for a while. Which is why I took the time to post this : ) (And to give back in thanks for great info and insight from everyone else). For a visual person like a graphic designer who admires strong visuals combined with good descriptions for an accuracy that’s closer than not, it’s a tough nut to crack.

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