I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Does D&D require miniatures? (3e versus 4e versus 5e)

This is another internet discussion that I've decide to turn into a post (here is the last one). Since it has come up again and again, it may interest other people.

Case in point: does D&D require miniatures?

Well, in practice, you already know the answer: NO, it doesn't. After all, it is your game, and you can play it any way you want to. It's been that way from the beginning; supposedly, Gygax himself didn't use minis, but Arneson did. It is all up to you. Heck, I have even played without dice at one time or another. On the other hand, I cannot honestly say that D&D is MEANT to be played without dice. What about minis?

Personally, I love miniatures and, even though I don't often use them in my games, I think they are quite fun when I do. Unfortunately, 4e (among other editions) got so much flak for being heavily grid-based when it was released that you can hardly talk about the subject without being accused of edition-warring.

Hopefully, the reader will know where I'm coming from. I enjoy analyzing different versions of D&D but also finding stuff from every edition to use in my games (and yes, that certainly includes 4e).

This is what a cone REALLY looks like! Source.
I say that because last time I linked to this post where I said (albeit passingly): "Remember, in 4e you moved "X squares" per round and miniatures where mandatory, RAW", I was immediately accused of taking a swing at 4e for no reason, because 4e explicitly says miniatures are optional (unlike 3e, for example). Other people said that 5e ALSO requires miniatures because everything is divided in 5-foot segments (which, supposedly, is the exact same thing as squares, albeit with a different unit) so pointing this difference between 4e and 5e was undoubtedly a sign of 4e-hate.

Go figure.

In any case, I've decided to check. Here it goes, straight from the horse's mouth:

  • The 3.5 PHB does mention minis and grids among the things "you need to play".
  • The 4e PHB, on the other hand, explicitly says minis and grids are useful, but not necessary.
  • The 5e PHB says lists "playing on a grid", with "miniatures or other tokens", is a variant (i.e, an optional rule).

Yup, that is all folks, now we can all go home.


In my opinion, this is a case of "show, don't tell". The 4e PHB TELLS you minis aren't needed, but what does it show? The first mention of miniatures says (emphasis mine in all quotations but the "position is everything" expression, below):

"While the D&D game uses dice and miniatures, the action takes place in your imagination" 

Then we get to page 9 and indeed miniatures are indeed only "useful", but:

"Each player needs a miniature to represent his or her character, and the DM needs minis for monsters";
"Combat in D&D plays out on a grid of 1-inch squares".

In seems that it could go either way... until we get to the combat chapter:

When a combat encounter starts, it’s time to turn your attention to the battle grid. The combat rules assume that you use D&D Dungeon Tiles, a poster map, a gridded white board, or an erasable, gridded mat to show the area where a battle takes place. The rules also assume that you use D&D Miniatures to represent the adventurers and the enemies they face.
A combat encounter can be played without such visual representations, but there are good reasons to use them.
* Position is everything. With a battle grid, you can easily determine whether your character can see a monster, whether the monster has cover, and whether you flank the monster.

That is not all. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and 4e is full of pictures of minis and grids. Every explanation about combat (flanking, line of sight, blast, burst, etc.) is tied to the grid in ways that could hardly make sense without it. See the definition of wall, for one:

Wall: A wall fills a specified number of contiguous squares within range, starting from an origin square. Each square of the wall must share a side—not just a corner—with at least one other square of the wall, but a square can share no more than two sides with other squares in the wall (this limitation does not apply when stacking squares on top of each other). You can shape the wall however you like within those limitations. A solid wall, such as a wall of ice, cannot be created in occupied squares.

5e, on the other hand, gives you precious little tools to play around with a grid. You have 5-foot increments to make it easier, but these would work with hexes, rulers, or anything else. Flanking is optional. Pictures of minis and grids can be found in the DMG, but they are side by side with pictures of hexes and rules for adjudicating areas of effect without minis.

The designers of 5e made clear that miniatures are optional, not only by saying they are, but specially by not assuming minis and grids while describing combat. Show, don't tell. You can argue that they haven't succeeded (well, I think they have, but IMMV), but you can hardly say the book assumes miniatures are required, specially when comparing it to 4e and Pathfinder.

In short, while it is certainly possible to play 4e without minis, the fact that many people assume 4e uses miniatures is not a coincidence.

But what about 3e?

I cannot pretend to be an expert on 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder. It has been a while since I've played and, to be honest, I thought D&D was needlessly complicated at the time (and I was playing GURPS! Honestly!).

But - 3.5e clearly say minis are mandatory. Not only that, the combat examples are explicitly modeled around a grid, with plenty of top-down pictures of minis. How come so many people were displeased with 4e for requiring minis at the time?

I am not quite sure. I would surely appreciate some input from 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder players about the subject! But let me offer you a hunch.

I think 3e, like 5e, was designed to let you decide if you want to use minis or not, but while 5e makes minis optional, 3e makes NOT using then an optional rule.

Don't take my word for it; see what Monte Cook has to say about the subject:

However, I've certainly gamed a lot more in my life without miniatures than with them. It was one of my goals in designing 3rd Edition to make it playable without miniatures.
However, I've seen many people say that it's not possible. Even, apparently, the people working on the new revision of D&D. 

So 3.5/Pathfinder is probably more aimed at grids than 3.0. Again, I'm really no expert. Still, there seems to be some important differences between 3e and 4e.

Look at the Pathfinder rules for minis and grids:

You can count diagonally across a square, but remember that every second diagonal counts as 2 squares of distance. If the far edge of a square is within the spell’s area, anything within that square is within the spell’s area. If the spell’s area only touches the near edge of a square, however, anything within that square is unaffected by the spell.

How does a circle looks in a Pathfinder grid? According to this SRD, it looks like this:

Or this:

Yeah, okay, these aren't prefect circles... But they are clearly trying to fit the concept of a circle in a square grid. Many people disliked that; one could even say they were quite literally trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. But this made sense for many players - myself included. The fiction indicated a circle - the grid was just an imperfect  tool to portray that.

4e does things in a different way: the grid comes first. Moving across a square field diagonally takes the same time as crossing it from one side to another. A fireball has the shape of a square... or maybe even a CUBE. Here is an interesting post about 4e movement, etc., with lots of cool tricks you can use on a grid. And here is how it illustrates the 4e fireball:

Doesn't look like a circle at all, but it is easier to calculate and faster to draw.

In short, using a grid in 4e is simpler than using one in 3e. But using hexes or grid-less combat probably makes more sense in 3e, and 5e is probably better suited if you're not using minis at all. Remember, though, that you might like any of these editions for completely different reason that have NOTHING to do with minis and grids!

This is not that different from the "tripping gelatinous cubes" question. It is a matter of focus. It is also not black and white, but distinct shades of gray. 3e is focused on grids, 4e is even more, and 5e a lot less.

It is easy to say every aspect of the game is optional, but the assumptions aren't quite the same, and pretending that they are is really not helpful when trying to find the perfect game for your group. Compare 13th Ages's "Combat is dynamic and fluid, so miniatures can’t really represent where a character ‘really is" to 4e's "Position is everything: With a battle grid, you can easily determine whether your character can see a monster, whether the monster has cover, and whether you flank the monster". There is a clear difference.

Some games are made to be played one way or another; how you play them is up to you, but that doesn't change the nature of the rules.

As always, this is a matter of taste. "Always use miniatures" and "never use miniatures" are both valid options, but "use miniatures sometimes" is also a cool choice if that is what you're looking for (I know that I am).

To be honest, I also like hexes, grid-less combat with minis (Warhammer style!) and theater of the mind! Everything goes in my games; it all depends on the situation, really.

Or try this! It works really well!
What about you?  Do you play 3e or 4e without minis? Do you think there is a difference at all? Or do you prefer playing out your combat in a different way? Let me know in the comments!

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