I played quite a bit of 3e when it came out. All sorts of games and campaigns, some better than others. I remember having to really take minis seriously when I ran The Banewarrens. If you don’t know, it’s an awesome adventure by Monte Cook, and it asks a lot from the DM as it kind of assumes you really really know what you’re doing with the whole game. It was also quite high level for me, I’d rarely played in double digit levels before. Also, bear in mind my minis collection was largely Warhammer based, and that doesn’t give you a whole lot of monsters to choose from. Plenty of rank and file soldiery, but not so mantybugbears, behirs or beholders.
In fact it was the behir that brought me back to the grid, that and a large Chessex battlemat. I remember GenCon UK, going to the toilet and seeing half a dozen grown men washing big floppy squares of vinyl under the taps, with their fingertips all smudged green and red from hastily erased marker scrawls. I was fascinated but decided aginst inquiring then and there, I mean, it was the gents you know?
So the behir. In 3e monsters could often have rectangular bases, and the behir was a 2×4 if I recall correctly. I really needed one for an upcoming encounter and I thought I’d draw one out onto card. I flipped open the MM and made a sketch of the beast onto some cereal packet card. That evening I had it propped up behind my screen ready for action. The players had been using some counters to represent themselves for a while, and had put up with me using a motley collection of kobolds to represent everything from a barkeep, to a treasure chest, anything but an actual kobold. When I described the slithering advance of the behir and followed it up with my homemade mini, everyone leaned forward in their chairs. There was even a little ripple of applause. What really did it though was the encounter itself, all of a sudden the players came a bit more alive. We had flanking, we had jumping onto the beasts back, we had sliding underneath it, all sorts of actions and maneuvers. We’d always had such things happen in our games, but we’d never been so easily able to eyeball the scene and have it just there, right there in front of everyone, all of us on exactly the same tactical page.
When WotC started the prepaints I was skeptical. They weren’t as good as the paint jobs I could do, and they were a significant expense compared to my home made counters. What turned me onto them was the ease of storage. Anyone who has ever kept metal minis will know how fragile those things are. Any decent storage solution tends to be expensive in itself, and then you still have to be careful on the table. With the prepaints, you could toss them into a shoebox and forget about them for the week. Any bent parts could be bent right back. You could overpaint them if you wanted (I didn’t, they were absolutely fine from a couple of feet away). Best of all, they looked exactly right. The trolls were D&D trolls, not someone elses version of them. The dragons were the right colours and sizes. The bases were round and black, so they looked great on any surface. Did I mention you could just drop them onto the table without damaging them? There was a skirmish game you could play with them too, but I tried it once and never went back. My minis were for roleplaying with, nothing else.
Over time my collection has grown. It’s not massive, not by any reckoning. I pay near full price for my boosters and don’t get too involved with the secondary market. I still have to use ‘counts as’ models regularly. But when the right combination of minis and dungeon tiles is there, we all have to pause for a minute so I can take a picture of the scene. I still get ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and that, for me, is what D&D is all about, that sense of wonder between friends.
Now, it’s true that the imagination is a wonderful thing, and that some people can find it stilted when confronted with a grid and minis. First up, my players aren’t like that, they actually get a level of inspiration from good props. Secondly, I think it’s worth that potential loss of immersion if there are concurrent gains in clarity, and I think there are. Four of my 5 players went out and bought their own mini to represent their characters, three of them were painted up and they look stunning. That’s a level of involvement that games without minis have to get in other ways. I was delighted to see my players buy into the game that way.
These days, I wouldn’t want to play without them. Even when I run one offs at Cons, I make sure my minis and maps are exactly right, and that effort is always rewarded. If I were to play online, I know that’s one of the things I would miss most from the tabletop experience. When I’m offered the chance to play in other systems, I often find myself wondering whether or not I’ll have a chance to use minis. If the answer is no, then I’m afraid I tend to have second thoughts about the whole idea.