Early Versions of D&D were NOT Tactical Combat Minis Games

For some reason, a small number of very vocal people on the Net are pushing the idea that early versions of Dungeons & Dragons stressed tactical combat and used miniatures and battlemats. I suspect this is being done to try to counter arguments that WOTC editions of D&D, particularly the new fourth edition, are more of a tactical minis game than a roleplaying game.

Whether Fourth Edition is more of a tactical minis game than a roleplaying game is debatable. What is not debatable is that early editions of TSR D&D handled combat very abstractly and did not need miniatures or battlemats to play — even though the game evolved out of the fantasy supplement to a set of medieval miniatures rules. Very few people used miniatures at all in the early years — there were not even any for sale until a couple of years after the publication of Original D&D. Once they became available, most players did not use them in combat, at most they used them to show their party’s marching order.

Miniatures (or counters to replace them) were not written into the rules — other than occasional mentions how they added visual appeal or could be useful to show where characters and monsters were in combat — until the Player’s Option books were published for “revised” second edition AD&D. There had been D&D-based mass combat miniatures games (Swords & Spells for OD&D, Battlesystem for AD&D), but these were for fighting out battles between armies, not for use in normal roleplaying encounters. Some players who loved detailed, tactical combat adapted such games for individual combat and used those system in place of the normal abstract D&D combat system, but this was unusual.

The rules to early versions of D&D do not support the idea that minis were suggested, let alone required, for combat. Not only is the combat systems used in OD&D, AD&D 1E, B/X D&D, and BECMI D&D very abstract, but those rules and the examples of play therein seldom even mention minis. Here are some examples from the 1970s.

Here is a link to a description of a sample OD&D combat from a FAQ originally published in TSR’s The Strategic Review newsletter in 1975.

From a column by Gary Gygax in The Dragon #15 (June 1978):

For about two years D&D was played without benefit of any visual aids by the majority of enthusiasts. They held literally that it was a paper and pencil game, and if some particular situation arose which demanded more than verbalization, they would draw or place dice as tokens in order to picture the conditions. In 1976 a movement began among D&Ders to portray characters with actual miniature figurines.

From the Holmes Basic Set’s description of the game:

The Dungeon Master designs the dungeons and makes careful maps on graph paper. The players do not know where anything is located in the dungeons until the game begins and they enter the first passage or room. They create their own map as they explore. While only paper and pencil need be used, it is possible for the characters of each player to be represented by miniature lead figures which can be purchased inexpensively from hobby stores or directly from TSR Hobbies. The results of combat, magic spells, monster attacks, etc., are resolved by rolling special polyhedral 20-sided dice which come with this game.

Later in the book, the author explains why OD&D used inches for distance instead of feet or yards. Note that is only says wargames were used to using these measures, not that they used minis to fight out D&D combats.

Since DUNGEONS & DRAGONS was originally written for wargamers who are used to miniature figures, distances are often given in inches. Inches can be converted to feet by multiplying by ten: 1 inch = 10 feet, 2 inches = 20 feet, etc. This scales the movement appropriately for maneuvering the figures on the top of a gaming table.

My personal experience starting in 1975 was: no miniatures, but as DM I did sometimes sketch the positions of stuff in battle on a blank sheet of paper. I did buy a copy of Chainmail when I bought my brown box set of D&D because it was mentioned in the D&D booklets, but then quickly discovered it was not actually needed as the alternative system in the D&D rule books was better and in the rule books (i.e. one less book to look stuff up in). I played with and knew of over 20 different area groups in 1975-1978 era and only one used Chainmail for combat. Most did not even own a single copy of the Chainmail rules between their players.

By 1977, my group was using miniatures to track the “standard marching order” of characters. However, the miniatures were not used in combat at all. Heck, they were only moved when the marching order of the characters made a permanent change. We had tracked marching order on a piece of paper, but one of the best miniatures painters in the area (he was a Napoleonics gamer) joined my game in early 1977 and had this beautifully painted miniature for his character. He offered to paint a figure for all the regulars if they would buy the figure and give him a couple of bucks for his materials. Everyone took him up on it.

When Melee and Wizard came out from Metagaming, most players in my group liked them and enjoyed playing them while waiting for people to arrive or at other odd intervals. So we decided to try using them to fight out combats in the game. That lasted for one game session. After that experience, we decided that using those tactical games for combat made combat too time-consuming and made the entire session too focused on combat. We went back to D&D’s abstract but fast combats. While we enjoyed playing tactical skirmish games as independent games, turning RPG combat into a tactical skirmish game was not the way we wanted to go.

Early versions of D&D were not designed for detailed tactical combat nor did they need minis and battlemats to use their combat rules. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply incorrect.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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JimLotFP
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… and Gygax never used minis for D&D back in the day, that straight from the mouth of one of his players.

Alexis
Guest

By and large I must agree with you. Yes, the game rules, very abstract. But I do remember that we scratched out positions and movements on a piece of paper, arrows to point where this character was moving to, or the relationships between combat foes, even though we had no miniatures to represent those things. As I remember, we hailed the appearance of miniatures because it made all those chicken scratches unnecessary. You can’t help that at some level the combat HAS to have a certain degree of orientation involved…even if it is just to argue that the thief really… Read more »

Randall
Guest

Alexis said: There is room for an amalgamation of tactics, even in the early game, for the DM who wants to play it that way. I certainly would not argue that there isn’t nor that some groups probably used house rules with for more detailed tactical combat even back in the OD&D days. However, the argument being made by a few vocal people who are upset that those who do not like the new fourth edition of D&D — because they say it plays like a tactical skirmish minis game — is that this very crunchy tactical subsystem (that requires… Read more »

Stuart
Guest

My friends and I got into D&D from a background in Choose-Your-Own-Adventures and Fighting Fantasy books. We say D&D as being something like that but with nearly unlimited choices, and a game world that reacted to our decisions.

I collected and painted minis, but we didn’t use them in our D&D games.

Alexis
Guest

Randall,

There has been a considerable rewriting of history, and you’re absolutely right about it being BS. Chalk it up to one more effort from the phonies in the present using someone else’s conception to justify their marketed crap.

Greyhawk Grognard
Guest

I was actually going to make a very similar post on my own blog, because I’ve encountered this self-same argument from folks in various places when I argue that the new 4E, with its emphasis on combat and miniatures, is a further departure from the original theme of the game. You saved me the trouble of doing so, and masterfully, and I will be pointing folks to this post in some conversations I’ve been having in various fora online.

Joe

Matthew James Stanham
Guest

I have come across the self same claims over the years, and I don’t think it is newly associated with 4e. I think it’s about people trying to pigeon hole D&D as something in order to construct it; the purpose is to show why other games are different or better.

My response now is to say that D&D is an adventure game about exploration.

Randall
Guest

Matthew,

I agree, originally D&D was “an adventure game about exploration.” However, to hear the people trying to claim 4E is just like OD&D, OD&D was a tactical combat wargame. It’s a hilarious claim, but the folks making these claims are convincing some people. Heck, one person making this argument thought Dungeon Geomorphs were a type of battlemat and tried to make the case that since these geomorph sets were really being pushed in some ads in the late 1970s, D&D had to have been designed to require minis and battlemats.

Hadrian
Guest

I have fond memories of playing Basic way back in the day and the idea of miniatures never entered our minds. When I started playing D&D again many years later (3.5), I felt it just wasn’t as much fun because of the clunky miniatures based combat. The battle scenes were a lot more tedious and a hell of a lot less cinematic.

McClaud
Guest

What’s interesting is even when presented with this evidence, there are players trying to prove the contrary by saying that it’s intuitive that a dice-based system like D&D had to come from a tactical combat simulator. Again, spin is how you sell the game. Spin it right, and you pull in the crowd who have been clamoring to shut off the “imaginative” side of D&D because that’s too hard for most players. Stick to miniature combat with exacting rules, they chant, because that makes it easier for me to niggle details that piss off the DM to no end. 4th… Read more »

Matthew James Stanham
Guest

Randall, Sounds amusing, but unsurprising. It is the same thing they say about D20/3e projected backwards onto AD&D, BD&D and ultimately to OD&D. In my experience, such claims mainly focus on the fact that the majority of the game rules of D&D are directly related to combat. This is usually contrasted with games that have complex task resolution for non combat events to demonstrate that “all D&D is good for is dungeon crawling and hack and slash.” Mind, it is worth bearing in mind that some traditional gamers do consider AD&D 1e to be best played with miniatures and accurate… Read more »

UWS guy
Guest

So what did all those war gamers do? Just quit wargaming for exploration adventures? Even though dungeon and wilderness adventures kind of assumed the use of Chainmail I the wilderness sections?

Did all those wargamers just disappear?

louis
Guest

No, they didn't just disappear some used the chain mail rules and many choose not too.

The Barbarian
Guest

Huh? I tend to remember using a lot of Ral Partha miniatures back in the Greyhawk days. Those miniatures were too small (20mm) for Warhammer and too big for other wargames that used 10mm and 15mm minis. There were some combat rules in the AD&D that really only clearly came into play if you were using miniatures. (They could come into play without but you might get some player/DM disagreement about who faced what.)

GamerDude
Guest

Love your arrogance, but you missed a point in your own quoted material: There weren't miniatures readily available, yet the rules mentioned and gave guidelines for using miniatures in the game. How people did or did not use them has no bearing on how the game was written or designed