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The Case For Maps And Minis

The face of The Enemy apparentlyI’m not sure when the serious backlash against using maps and miniatures in your game began. I suspect that it found root first when 3rd Edition D&D made tactical, grid-based combat into the norm rather than the exception, then the dislike of maps and minis blossomed into full flower with 4th Edition D&D where it was very difficult to even play the game without a map. It’s possible that the hatred originated somewhere else, but given that D&D is still the biggest, and arguably the most divisive, name in tabletop gaming it’s a pretty safe bet that the origins are there. Regardless of where it came from, the virulent hatred for maps and minis, along with the barely concealed contempt that a fair few players and GMs have for the people who use or like them, has left me feeling more than a little frustrated and annoyed. There are some reactionary elements in the gaming community as a whole (to say nothing of the D&D community) that are so focused on the One True Way to play RPGs that they belittle, deride, and ostracize others who don’t follow along exactly. Without ever considering the reasons why the people who disagree who may feel that way. While this increasing One True Way-ism in gaming is a problem in general, I want to start by talking about maps, minis, and why they aren’t the Devil’s Tools that a vocal group of gamers make them out to be.

This Brain Is My Brain. There Are Many like it, But This Is My Own.
Maps and minis often get ripped because there’s this nebulous idea that the people who use them just are too lazy or stupid to use their imaginations. If only these people would reach out and engage in the “theatre of the mind’s eye” (a term which I absolutely hate, btw, for being smug and pretentious), they would find that they don’t need or even want to use maps or miniatures. To these people, maps and miniatures are an obstacle, a mechanical construct getting in the way of what they feel is the real RPG experience. To be fair, in some cases this might actually be true. People who are new to gaming, as well as people who aren’t invested in a campaign, might just use what’s laid out in front of them as their gaming reality instead of letting their imagination get heavily involved.

However, for all that some people might use maps and minis as a substitute for imagination, there are other people who use it to augment their imagination. A map or a miniature can give your imagination a stepping off point, a place to start which you can then use to make what you’re mentally picturing in your head all the better. A map doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, replace a good description from a GM as to what your characters are seeing, but it can make it easier for you the player to understand what the GM means as he or she points things out to you. A miniature can be an amazing visual shortcut, keeping a game running faster by keeping the GM from needing to describe or point out every possible bit of information about an encounter. Further, it can make it easier for a GM to do the describing in the first place by becoming a visual reminder of all the elements in a particular room or environment. Which leads to my next point…

It’s all fun and games with spatial relations until someone gets hurt
One of the other reasons that so many people want minis and maps is that not everybody perceives things in the same way. There are players and GMs who might have a hard time wrapping their mind around what’s being described and who process things much better when presented with a visual or audio element. Even a really well done verbal description from the GM might not be enough for some players, especially in the midst of a hectic combat or in a very “busy” environment.

I’m one of those people who really wants to have a map in a game. Appropriate minis aren’t always necessary and it doesn’t have to definitely be a tactical grid, but I don’t always process descriptions from a GM the same way that other players do. Sometimes something about a description messes up my spatial relations and I’m completely confused about what thing is where, who did what, and what is going on. For me a map, even one that just shows relational distances between characters, npcs, and objects, is an extremely helpful piece of kit to have at the gaming table. It helps me focus on the important events better and frees up some of my concentration to actually use my imagination rather than having to be hung up on wondering if I’m interpreting what people are saying correctly.

I Am Not My Character
Why was this sort of thing okay then but not okay now? The dislike for maps is not even just about a tactical map for combat either. I have seen people who go so far with their hatred of maps and minis as to forbid players to make their own area maps or to hide mapmaking behind rolling dice to see how well your character remembers what they saw. I’ve even seen people say that characters who are mapmaking should be punished by making them easier to surprise or have penalties to initiative. The argument is always that of “realism”. It’s not realistic for characters to be able to have a detailed map, they say. It’s not realistic for characters to be able to have perfect recall of an environment, they say. Well, what do I have to say to that?

You’re already playing a game that could include elves, wizards, magic, cyborgs, eldritch horrors, faster than light travel, or laser swords. Realism packed up a while ago and only comes by to visit now.

When realism gets in the way of fun in a tabletop game, realism should be what gives way. I am not my character and expecting me, the player, to be able to remember things the way my character does and in the same fashion is IMO absolutely ridiculous. My character may have gone through these rooms, passages, or hallways a few minutes or hours ago and should have a reasonably decent recollection of how they relate to one another. However, me the player may find that days, weeks, or months has passed since I last thought about them and I might not be able to remember a damned thing. Allowing players to have a map, even if they have to make it themselves and deal with the inaccuracies, is not going to break a game or suck all the enjoyment out of it. If such a simple thing as a map does ruin your game, I might suggest that you take a step back and reevaluate exactly how seriously you’re taking a game.

Don’t Blame The Tool, Blame The Tool Who Is Using It
Maps and miniatures are like any other object in the tabletop gaming toolbox. They might be used for evil, to replace the use of imagination and to teach players and GMs alike to be lazy and apathetic. Or they might be used for good, to help players better immerse themselves in the gaming world, augment their imaginations, or help them keep up with the action taking place in front of them. The same could be said of props, music, video, or other things brought to the gaming table. What is being used should be less important than how it’s used. If you don’t enjoy maps or any kind and miniatures aren’t your favorite thing in the world, you aren’t necessarily wrong to feel that way. Everybody is entitled to enjoy some things more than others. However, it’s important to remember that not everybody is going to agree and if you take a really hardline stance against things like maps or minis to the point of disallowing them completely or punishing people for using them, you might find that you are actively taking away from someone else’s enjoyment of a game. If you really want to bring them around to your preferred way of gaming, lead by positive example and make people want to try things your way. Don’t condemn, mock, and belittle what other people prefer, lest you drive them away from your style completely.


WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.

13 Responses to “The Case For Maps And Minis”

  • My spatial awareness is atrocious. Without maps and minis, my semi-intelligent-to-intelligent NPCs/monsters/whathaveyou would be horrible tacticians.

    You know who has two thumbs and loves maps and minis? This guy right here.

    (I suppose that doesn’t go over so well when you can’t point to yourself.)

  • we always used minis (well, buttons) and graph paper, even for 1e. gygax spells out the rules pretty clearly. i always find it insulting when certain players try to take swipes at minis and maps; it just shows their complete and total ignorance of the game and its history.

  • I have a hard time with games that run without any visual references whatsoever. I find theater-of-the-mind combat to be very difficult to follow (I end up just saying “I attack whoever is closest” and never have a good idea of what is going on) but I think it can be equally frustrating during exploration. As visual creatures, I think concrete representations of the world we are exploring helps to form the mental picture the GM is striving for, not take away from it.

    I also think that maps, tokens, minis, etc. help assure that everyone at the table has a similar picture in their head of what’s going on, making it more of a shared experience instead of a half dozen different ones. I think some GMs also tend to forget that although they probably have a picture-perfect image of everything in their head, the players have to rely on what the GM says to build this picture for themselves, and therefore it is invariably incomplete.

    Ultimately, though, people should just play however they want to play, and spend less time worrying about how other people play.

  • If I were smug and pretentious, then I would reference Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and how maps and minis are like the tiny things dancing in front of the fire casting shadows on the wall; whereas (only us pretentious types use whereas) the true Philosopher escapes the cave and see things for how they really are (Theatre of the Mind). But when We (note the royal pronoun) go back into the cave to teach all of you slaves manacled to your minis and shadows, to free you from your shackles, how do you reward Us? With death.

    Now that’s smug and pretentious!

  • Don’t Blame The Tool, Blame The Tool Who Is Using It

    Yup, that’s kind of why we stopped using maps. There was always one chap a game who would spend twice as long – if not longer – than anyone else, optimizing what they could do with regards to where they stand and what ranges things have and ganging up bonuses and etc etc. they would often even tell other players what to do to get the biggest bonus regardless of an in game reason to do it.

    I know that this could very well happen without a map and mini set up, but it always seem to be worse, sometimes with gamers who love playing everything in the mind, getting bogged down with worries about diagonal movement, and countless other things that get in the way of just telling a story.

  • Yup, I’m another that has always used maps, since our games in 2e, and cannot handle DnD without them. I’m a visual learner, and really need to see what’s in the mind of others for anything tactical. As a DM, no matter how many words I say or write (for online games), I will always miss something vital without a map. And as a player, I simply don’t find myself fully understanding the DM’s ideas as well if they don’t lean forward and draw a line or two on the map.

    So, totally in agreement: keep maps available, and down with the “theatre of the mind” being forced over everyone :)


  • I’m been playing D&D with maps and mini’s for 35 years.

    I remember getting the GRENADIER AD&D boxsets as a kid.

    Might as well take the dice away.

  • Ultimately, I think the way that maps and minis used to be okay (and in fact are the basis for the entire game), but are now EVIL AND WRONG is one of the biggest reasons that the attitude torques me off.

    I understand that some people take it too far, but there are always people in RPGs who take things too far. Munchkins take optimization too far. Some people make roleplaying into their own persona high school drama department. So for me, this increasing hate of minis and maps reads as much like Edition Warring as it does anything else.

  • […] Musings makes a case for using maps and minis in D&D Next. I certainly love minis and maps, and have also used theater of the mind, but […]

  • If using Maps and Miniatures in one’s game is wrong…then I don’t ever wanna be right:)

  • While 4e has this focus on grids and minis, my players and I never felt we depended on them to enjoy the game.

    On the other hand, at time of launch the backlash was based on the fact that Wizards of the Coast was producing its own line of miniatures and would most likely profit from forcing the game edition to work with them. Nowadays, funny thing is that most players and DMs get their minis from the Pathfinder line, since those are way better.

    Question: may I translate this article to Spanish and post it on our FB community page?

  • Sure, translate away. Just link back here is all I ask.

  • […] PC, NPC, and monster position it helps solidify this imaginary space we’re playing in. Wolf Samurai @ RPG Musings offers some intriguing thoughts on the topic and whether actual minis and maps make us use our imaginations […]