The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Minis

I have a bone to pick with gamers who complain that Wizard’s is gouging them by forcing all players to buy miniatures. There is a part of me that hates any time people talk as though they are being forced to buy a luxury good, but this is far more than that. I get riled up because those who decry that they are being forced to buy minis claim that is impossible to play 3.x and/or 4E without minis. I take huge exception to this because I have played 3.x to death, and spent a whole year playing weekly 4E sessions and out of a few hundred sessions of 3.x and about 50 sessions of 4E, there were only two sessions that there were ever any miniatures (a guest DM brought them; and he was horrified we normally played without them)

So for the benefit of pocketbooks everywhere I give to you 5 alternatives to standard miniatures; I have played them all extensively and can recommend them all.

1. Imagination
As shocking as it may sound, it is completely possible to have a combat with no physical representation of the participants and environment. That 3.x and 4E do everything in 5′ increments doesn’t mean you have to. Having two combatants standing 7′ apart doesn’t cause the rule system to break down, it just means that one of them needs to move 2′ before they can reach each other. Instead of combatants threatening every adjacent square, they threaten 5′ in every direction. You don’t even need to make a house rules document for how rules get changed by removing the grid because its just common sense.


  • Games generally move faster.
  • Players are not distracted by the miniatures and focus more on what the DM is saying.
  • Players don’t know exactly how far away things are; this can be more realistic.


  • The DM will need to be more descriptive of the environment and the enemies.
  • The DM may need to warn the players when they are about to give up tactical advantages, such as attack of opportunities.
  • Some times there will be confusion about what a layout is, what a monster is doing, or what a player is doing.

2. White Board
This is one of my favourite techniques as it incorporates most of the advantages of pure imagination, while adding some clarity to the relative locations of things. Basically this involves having a white board, large or small, in a location everyone can see it. When combat erupts the DM makes a quick sketch of the situation (using letters or symbols to represent participants). The DM continually adjusts the sketch as the battle progresses.


  • Games generally move faster.
  • Players are not distracted by the miniature; focus more on what the DM is saying.
  • Players don’t know exactly how far away things are; this can be more realistic.


  • The symbols can get confusing at times, especially if there are a lot of different creatures to be tracked.
  • The symbols can sometimes give the players hints that the DM had not intended.
  • The players can become too focused on the white board (in the same way that can happen with minis).

3. Virtual Minis
This works really well if you play in a room with a tv. Just hook up a laptop to the tv and you can use one of the virtual mini programs that are available. (many are free)


  • This method is very flexible; depending on the program you choose and the options you pick, you have a lot of choices in terms of look, feel, price, and features.
  • If you pick the right program, and perhaps invest enough time, you can make this very visually appealing.
  • It is possible to do things with a computer program that you just can’t do with real minis.


  • It is very easy to lose many hours of prep time to making your maps and virtual minis look “just right”. (that’s why I stopped doing this)
  • The worst aspects of minis are all a part of doing this, and some are magnified by the players not being right next to the map.

4. Paper Minis
I came up with this as a way of emulating the virtual mini program we had been using. Basically, make your minis out of 1 inch diameter circles of paper with a penny taped to the back to add weight. Custom images can easily be generated on computers then cut to the appropriate size.


  • It is very easy, and cheap, to make a mini of anything you need; you never need to have a mini stand in for something else.


  • As this really is just another form of minis, it comes with all the disadvantages of using them.

This is only a good idea if you already have lots of LEGO onhand; if you have to buy it LEGO can be much more expensive than minis. To make this work its best mount each LEGO man on a 4×4 thin base. The base is his 5′ x 5′ square.


  • LEGO is cool!


  • Hard to make non-humanoid creatures be both to scale and visually appealing; virtually impossible to make good looking short humanoids.
  • LEGO can really distract gamers from the game.

Those are five different solutions I’ve used over the years. If anyone has others please let me know.

I’d also like to add that I don’t actually have anything against minis; they’re just not for me. What I have something against though is people who pretend that Wizards is putting a gun to their head and demanding their wallet – that pisses me off.


September 24, 2010 - Posted by | 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , ,


  1. I played a 4e game once without minis. The DM houseruled/simplified the combat to be more quick and abstract like old school D&D. I felt it was a huge improvement to the 4e play experience, actually. I think most 4e players would have their minds blown by this, however – I don’t get the impression houseruling and individualistic play styles are part of the 4e culture.

    Comment by cyclopeatron | September 24, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] 5, 2010 by middleagedm Let me explain, I am not one of those cats that the RED DM talks about that flies into a nerd-rage at the idea that WoTC has somehow bamboozled them into […]

    Pingback by F-You Expensive Minis « The Middle-Aged DM | October 5, 2010 | Reply

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