On Wednesday, thumb a friend put forth a general question, re: Pathfinder and minis. Was it required? He claimed that a lot of the presentation of the Pathfinder material was leading him to believe that the game was intended to be played with minis.
Originally, tabletop RPGs weren’t so designed. They were all played in the “theater of the mind”, where players were expected to visualize the action. I remember Back in My Day(tm), we didn’t even care for distance or movement rules, except where it would really screw us up or provided noticeable benefit. The GM would simply keep track of rough estimates of who’s in range of whom and if a player wanted to hide, they’d ask if there was something to hide behind. The GM decided that there was or there wasn’t, and if the player said that they were hiding behind that object, it was so. Otherwise, they were out in the open. It was a lot more cinematic in that regard, because each player had a vision of his or her own scenario in mind, and the game was more personal.
Minis were in the realm of wargaming, where position and quantity are everything. But then computer games showed up, and suddenly everyone wanted visuals. Taking a cue from both wargmaing and video games, RPGs started pumping out official minis because people seemed to like the idea of replicating the idea of known space and relation in their tabletop games. This lead to an industry where mini creators were producing not only characters, but obstacles and terrain and accouterments meant to litter the field with everything that players used to simply imagine.
Are we poorer for using minis? Yes and no. Minis make the game literal. There’s no ambiguity to what we see, and while that’s great for cleaving to the rules, it also limits us in what we can accomplish in a game that’s really about the “suspension of disbelief”. Minis also make things difficult for the GM. He needs to come up with maps that are to-scale, and not only needs to keep track of where the players are, but where the NPCs are. If the game uses minis only for combat (no one can sanely use minis in an entire city, for example), then the immersion comes to a screeching halt when the game transitions from an RP situation to a combat situation, notifying the players that there’s a fight coming up. On the other hand, minis bring tactical elements to the game. It lets players know their limits and exploit their strengths, and to use the unambiguous terrain to their advantage. When using a virtual tabletop software solution to play over the Internet, a lot of the burden placed on the GM is alleviated by the software itself. Playing with minis gives players something to look at other than each other.
Minis are a matter of choice. The purpose of an RPG is to engage the imagination, and the decision to use minis or not is merely a matter of where you want to put the needle along that scale. If you want to have the visual aides, to adhere to the rules as faithfully as possible, then minis might be the best option. If you want to be able to improvise or not be bound or limited by the materials you’ve bought or made, then relying on imaginative description is the best option.
The one thing that I think any new GMs need to understand is that no RPG system is absolute or complete. You pay big bucks for a thick and glossy rule book, but the game is ultimately played with a sheet of paper, a pencil, and some dice. Much hay has been made about the “modularity” of the new D&D 5E system which will allow you to pick and choose the rules you want to use in your game. That’s pretty fantastic, but it’s nothing new; with an RPG, you’re always free to pick and choose the rules you want to use or not use, to follow the rules to the letter, or fudge them for convenience. How you play is totally up to you, the players and the GM in agreement, and there’s no “right way” to play.