In many pen and paper role playing games, combat will break out. On occasion, the fight will remain in the theater of the mind. Sometimes the combat will spill out onto the table. But when the miniatures hit the table the question is: what does that look like, what does the battlefield look like, and why are miniatures used?
Miniatures, or models, are representations of the characters in physical form. A miniature can be as abstract or as representative as you’d like. At its most crude, a miniature can range from a circle on a whiteboard, to a penny, to a bottle cap. A cheap, yet more representative, alternative would be a picture of the character or a cardboard token on a stand. And finally, a 3D model of plastic, resin, or metal can be used to represent your character. These can be found at most hobby stores. They come either painted and unpainted. There are also websites that can be used to design your character from head to toe and have it 3D printed in miniature form.
Once you have the characters, you need a stage for them to fight on. This comes in almost as many different forms as the models themselves. A whiteboard is a cheap and simple option for keeping track of where the combatants are on a battlefield. More common is a mat that can be written on with wet erase markers with a grid printed on it. For added immersion there are a variety of tabletop terrain options. Cardboard tiles with terrain features printed on them can make the combat more immersive. For maximum immersion, some DMs use model terrain. There are also websites that you can purchase modular walls and floor pieces as well as miniature furniture to create a to-scale replica of the dungeon that the players can use to play on.
But if role playing games are supposed to take place in the imagination, why do you need miniatures? Ultimately you don’t, but some games are designed around the idea that miniatures would be used to clarify things like combat. For instance, Dungeons and Dragons got its start as a war game. This means that much of its rules are rooted in the idea that a table of miniatures will be used as an integral part of the game. Things like the weapon ranges being written in feet and the rules of engaging in melee combat are all predicated on a game played on a grid of 1 inch squares representing 5 feet in the game. Dungeons and Dragons predecessors still have their roots in a game that uses miniatures and grids but some opted for more of a storytelling approach. In a storytelling game like Exalted or Fate, the precise position of characters is less important and thus the need for miniatures is less.
Miniatures can be a great way to visualize not only a battlefield but the look of a character or the enemies. There is a weight to placing a dragon on the table and the players are able to really soak in the size difference between themselves and the enemy they are facing. On the other hand it can help the players be proud of the sheer number of orcs they were able to defeat when they see the pile of mini’s sitting next to the Dungeon Master screen. Whether it is a quick sketch on a piece of paper or a fully modeled dungeon, complete with mini stalagmites and LED fires, miniatures help clarify characters position and help immerse players in the game.