101 Days of D&D: miniatures vs. counters vs. air

Miniatures are one of the iconic accoutrements of RPGs. First, the “funny” dice, then maybe lots of books, then minis. Minis may be #2 and books #3. Not sure, nor does it matter. Minis are iconic, which is weird, because I’ve been playing off and on for twenty-something years, but I’ve only started using minis since playing D&D 3.5. I had — and painted — a small handful way back in my roleplaying career, but the prospect of getting enough of them to use in all my games was just too expensive then (when I was in junior high). I never got back into them when I could afford it.

But, now I’m playing a lot of D&D again, and D&D 3.5 is a game with combat that’s pretty tactical in nature and is designed to be played with miniatures. I’ve done it both ways now, and I really prefer playing with minis. It makes things like Attacks of Opportunity and dealing with reach so much easier to deal with. Sure, you can play just fine without them, but I think it enhances the tactical nature of D&D combat.

While I like minis, I don’t have the time or patience to paint metal minis (and I don’t really want to spend the money, either), and the way WOTC markets the plastic minis is a pain in the ass for us roleplayers. If they’d market them individually, I’d get the plastic ones. However, I’m too short of time (or too lazy, more likely) to hunt down singles or trade for the ones I need. I’m lucky that one of the players in my game is also a D&D Minis player, and we usually play at his house. So, I can just use his minis (and I usually do). I don’t, however, own any miniatures or counters or a battlemat.


I’ve been thinking about what to do about the minis situation. I’d really like to have something of my own to use in our weekly games (and other games as well), but I hadn’t really sat down and looked at all my options until this week.

Since you can’t (affordably) get pre-painted metal miniatures (and I’m too lazy to paint them myself), and the pre-painted plastic minis aren’t marketed in a way that’s convenient for us roleplayers, I’ve decided to go with counters.

Counters, on the other hand, are cheap and useful. If you have something like Fiery Dragon’s Counter Collection Digital (nearly a 1000 different counters), a ream of cardstock, and an ink-jet printer, you can print out all the ones you need for a session and not have to do any substitutions like you might have to with plastic minis. They’re also a lot easier to store and transport.

So, I’m going with counters (specifically the Fiery Dragon Counter Collection Digital, mentioned above). I’ve used a few I’ve gotten from other sources and samples, and I think counters rule.

Of course, once you pick your counters/minis, you need a field to play them on: a battle mat. I’ve played on the vinyl battlemats, and I’m not impressed. I think every one I’ve played on had some sort of “memorial” feature due to someone using dry erase instead of wet erase markers on it. That and they’re expensive and ungainly to transport and store. So, that leaves pretty much two options: Tact Tiles and the Flip Mat. Both are cool in different ways. I’ve got a set of Tact Tiles on my Christmas list, but I’ve already ordered a Flip Mat since they’re inexpensive and über-portable.

In addition to mats and counters, I’ve found one other cool related accessory: Fiery Dragon’s Battle Box. The quick-reference cards are worth the price alone, but you also get some spell effect overlay counters, some optional rules, and a single d20 (not sure why, but there it is).

So, there’s the physical landscape. More on the other stuff coming this week.

[NOTE: I started this last week, but we played our weekly session last night sans minis and I REALLY wished I’d had them. I’m addicted.]

2 thoughts on “101 Days of D&D: miniatures vs. counters vs. air”

  1. I have used miniatures or counters almost since day one. I got some miniatures for Christmas within 3 months of starting to game. Of course I had been doing miniatures wargaming before that so the leap wasn’t a big one at all for me. In fact, I was not interested in D&D until I realized that it did involve maps and maybe even miniatures.

    In the early days, we used chess boards, and the MIT folks used dominoes to delineate walls.

    In the end though, I actually prefer counters for the same reasons stated above. And I had a preference for counters before the easy existence of counters with artwork. Here are some other reasons I like counters:

    – You can customize them to YOUR PC. You can either draw your own portrait, or, since in college we used little 1/2″ counters, you could draw some symbolic art.

    – You can put your character’s name on them (no more trying to remember which figure is who – hopefully everyone learns character names at least).

    – When the character goes down, you can flip the counter over.

    – When there’s a pig pile of people in the same hex or square, you can stack counters.

    – Horse counters work great (I use them even with miniatures).

    Now one thing that was nice with my just finished Arcana Evolved game was miniatures for the PCs and counters for the monsters. Makes it easy to pick out the PCs.

    For monsters, I have several sets of numbered counters (green 1-10, blue 1-10, white 1-20, brown 1-50) that makes it real handy and can differentiate several types of monsters. To make sorting easy, each decade past the first has a special symbol on it so you flip the brown counters upside down and put the 10 triangles together, the 10 squares together, etc.

    I loved Yaquinto’s Swashbuckler game for it’s counters (nice big fat 3/4″ counters with 16 characters with names). They also had treasure chests, furniture, mugs, swords, etc. I also got some nice counters depicting various creatures when our college games club took 3 battle worn copies of Titan and made 2 complete games with a small stash of spare counters for each game. I’ve also got a handfull of counters from various other games that I keep with my stash. Oh, another thing that was great for counters was the D&D Battlesystem which came with a huge collection of counters. A few modules came out subsequently that also came with counters (B10 Night’s Dark Secret is a personal favorite).

    In Cold Iron, I used to make a counter for each character’s pack (I’ll have to do that again) so when you wanted to know where your healing potions were you could find them (in Cold Iron, most folks drop their packs in combat).

    The one interesting thing is I’ve always used a camp fire miniature (a little campfire than came with a 1:35 scale tank model).

    With the little 1/2″ counters, I use a little 2.5″x4″x1.5″ double sided fishing tackle box. On one side, it has a bunch of 1/2″x1.2″ compartments that easily hold 10 counters. On the other side are 3 larger compartments that easily hold the PC counters and horse counters and such.

    I make spell templates using a clear plastic sheet because then you can see through them. If you have a thick wallet, the Squire templates would be nice (you could probably also make your own).

    Counter Collection Digital is definitely great, of course it doesn’t have every single monster known to man, but it’s got a good enough selection. It’s also nice since you can re-size counters.

    My mavorite battlemat is a Crystal Mat which is a clear sheet of vinyl (actually thinner than the usual battlemats). Sadly I wasn’t into square games when they were available so I only have a hex one (lucky I’m now playing Cold Iron which uses a hex grid). I like the battlemats, but I’ve been using them since before whiteboards became available. One thing I dislike about white boards is how easily they smudge.

    Oh, and one last fun thing, since I’ve used customized counters, I have a little bag of memory lane. Every once in a while, I look through the counters and remember some of the old characters.

    Of course I have a few fond memories of miniatures. One of my favorite memories is the time several players came over to my house (we usually played at MIT when I was in high school). They were going to free this island. I set up a table and just started placing miniatures, a few trees from my model railroad. We spent a whole game session in one big huge battle as they fought just about every single miniature I had. Painting was also lots of fun (but I just don’t have time anymore).


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