Minis In Sessions – 20 Tips (Tactical and Story)

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0537

A Brief Word From Johnn

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Minis In Sessions – 20 Tips (Tactical and Story)

Last year I held a contest for minis tips and lots of entries poured in. Out of your great ideas, five categories emerged.

We’ve already covered one of the categories, minis for frugal gamers, in issues #515 and #516:

This issue and next, we cover tips for using minis during game sessions. Some tips are about using minis effectively for grid-based combats. And some tips are for using minis to aid gameplay for any game system.

Minis In Sessions: Non-Tactical Gaming

1. Minis for story I

When a player selects a mini to represent his character, many times there is a distinctive non-weapon feature. I ask the player to give me an explanation of why it is there and why it is important to the character.

2. Minis for story II

Grab a random creature and pick one feature that stands out on the actual figure. Take that feature and try to work it into the plot.

This gives the creature a unique feature that might not be on the stat card or even in people’s perception of that creature.

For example:

If the mini has unique armor or weapons, where did they come from? Even a simple thing like a symbol or marking can signify something to add detail and depth to creature or enemy encounters.

3. Urban tracking I

Use minis to keep track of the party if it splits up during a city scene.

Urban tracking II: I like using the PCs’ minis on a city map during down time. That way, everyone can see what shops everyone else has gone to, who is already sleeping at the inn, and who they might bump into as they explore.

4. Use minis as non-combat dressing.

Swarms can be used for garbage on the floor. A fire elemental can be used for a torch or brazier.

5. A neat way to use minis is to actually put them into the game.

Perhaps a pedestal in the center of a room has miniatures sitting on it, and when PCs investigate they find that the miniatures look like them!

6. Use minis to represent objects such as statues or mannequins.

Minis such as elementals can be used to show terrain effects or impassable obstructions. Use minis to show corpses.

7. Minis are great to use as real life puzzle pieces.

For example:

A chess set, maze runner or classic peg jumping game. If you have enough duplicates you could set them up as a sudoku puzzle.

8. All the human-sized.

Minis that I almost never use are super useful for big crowds of bystanders, for when, say, the red dragon attacks the city and attempts to eat the populace. It gives the PCs a tangible thing to protect, or (sometimes) let enemies slaughter.

9. Give your players minis as visual reminders or rewards.

My party had a tendency to forget about their mounts on a regular basis until they needed to move to the next town.

To help solve this problem, instead of constantly asking them what they were going to do with their mounts, I gave them minis to keep for their own personal collection, provided the mount didn’t die or leave the party.

I’ve never had a party of PCs be more protective of a bunch of riding lizards in my life. Not only did the PCs name them and create unique personalities for each of them, but they risked their lives for these lizards on several occasions.

10. Perfection

Don’t worry about not having the right minis or maps for all your needs. In the end they are just a play aid. We are still role playing, so even if you just have a blank grid with numbers and coins for tokens it’ll work. Have fun and remember minis are supposed to add to the fun, not block it.

11. Loaner minis

DM at game stores, cons or public events? Pick up some common PC-type minis to loan to players who forget or don’t have a PC figure. To help ensure they make their way back to you, paint the base (even just a spot on the top and bottom should do). A shade of gray should keep from being distracting, yet serve you as a visual reminder at the end of the game session to get the mini back.

12. Try to be as tactile as possible with your maps and minis.

Use props that provide accurate representation of what’s going on in both form and scale.

It helps draw players into the immersion of the story, especially if they’re not particularly imaginative with their character actions. You might even foster some of their desire to start making their own games (it’s what happened to me)!

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Minis in Sessions: Flying and Invisible Minis

1. If you have characters or monster that fly, you can track their height with dice. Place a die next to the mini to indicate how many squares they are in the air. If the blue dragon is flying at 30 feet, place a die with the 6 facing up next to it.

2. To track invisible characters, we use a slotted mini base without the mini. We insert a clear straw into the slot to represent a character on the battlemat that is invisible.

3. Clear plastic film canisters work well to indicate minis that are flying or are otherwise above ground level. Remove the lid, turn upside down on the battlemat and put the mini on top.

If you need to note height you can use wet/dry erase markers to write elevation on the side of the canister.

If the opening is big enough, you can place the canister over other minis for situations where the elevated mini is directly above another. If you can’t find film canisters, craft stores will often carry plastic pill bottle containers used to hold tiny craft supplies.

4. Use deodorant caps, spray can caps and similar things to mount flying characters.

5. Use clear cases some dice come in as stands to put flying minis on. Some minis will also fit inside them, and we use that to represent invisibility.

6. To track successes and failures during skill challenges, I use a couple of minis in combination with the battlemat (or a simple piece of paper if I’m using fancier terrain at that moment). If they need 6 successes before 3 failures, I’ll draw 6 circles in one row, and 3 circles in another.

I have a “good” mini in the top row, and at every success, I move him over one circle. (I usually draw a happy face as the final circle in that row.)

I stick an evil mini on the failure row, and move him for every failure (a frowny face is the last circle in that row).

That provides all of us a simple visual of how well the challenge is going. It’s quite helpful if the challenge is spread out over a long time.

7. Whenever we order a pizza for delivery, they come with a 1.5″ round 3 legged stand that prevents the pizza box from crushing the food. The stand is big enough to hold a fig and a tiny d6 to indicate # of squares high it is flying.

8. For invisible or hidden creatures, we use clear plastic caps from drinking water bottles and place them over the top of the figure.

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Next issue, the rest of the minis in game sessions tips continue.

Get some cool tips on tactical minis use and getting help with condition tracking and marking.

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Reader Tip Request

Campaign Planning Tips

I’ve been reading your articles for several years and am somewhat of an amateur GM. I’ve run several short-term campaigns I’d intended to make long-term, and many of my friends in our circle have experienced the same issue.

I’m looking for any kind of campaign planning tips. I’ve looked at a fair amount of systems (still haven’t scratched the surface), and of them only the True20 system had any kind of campaign design supplement.

I’m just trying to grasp the basics of GMing, and would like a good overall resource. Even if you just recommend your version of ‘GMing for Dummies’.


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RPT Readers, campaign planning is a huge topic. You can help Chris by offering any advice you have for new GMs trying to plan a long-term campaign.

You can also help by offering any links to “GMing for Dummies” type sites, forum threads and publications you’ve got in your bookmarks.

Send your tips and links to [email protected]

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I Am the Entertainer, And I Know Just Where I Stand

From The Id DM

Republished with permission from

The players are at the table to win. The DM is at the table to entertain.

The statement above seems stark and cold, but – for me – it rings more true than false. I have often wondered about the role of the DM, and how Dungeons & Dragons is referred to commonly as a cooperative game.

I struggle with the cooperative definition, because I find that playing D&D is laden with competitive overtones. The role of the DM is quite complicated and in many ways – contradictory.

During any given session, I am engaged in the following:

  • ENCOURAGING players to develop their character by setting goals in the campaign world.
  • DETERRING players from achieving their stated goals with a litany of hazards and enemies.
  • REWARDING players for taking risks and engaging in creative storytelling and roleplaying.
  • PUNISHING players with penalties, including death, for taking risks and engaging in dangerous behaviors.
  • IMPROVISING to match player interests in the campaign world.
  • RAILROADING players to keep them (and the gaming session) on track in the campaign world.

In addition, the game features a major resource imbalance between DM and player away from the game table.

The DM spends time creating a quest and a set of challenges that must be overcome before the players can achieve the quest.

If the DM creates a challenge that is too difficult, then the game either stalls or the players die, which results in more work for the DM and players since new plot lines and characters need to be built.

The DM is responsible for creating challenges that are properly balanced for the players.

The players are there to win. The DM is there to entertain.

Below, I discuss how I have executed the mental gymnastics to ensure my own happiness as a DM while running a campaign during the past two years.

I present how my chosen profession – psychologist – grants me an intriguing perspective on facilitating a roleplaying game like D&D, and contemplate why the bulk of hand-wringing about editions, rule sets and “the future” of the product(s) is conducted primarily by DMs and not players.

Emphasize the Players, Not Myself

One of the more difficult challenges I faced in my early years of training to become a psychologist was the habit of relating the client’s experience to something in my own life.

The technical term for this is self-disclosure, and refers to any time the therapist discloses something about his or her personal life or personal reactions to a client.

It may sound innocuous, but self-disclosure can be a major factor in therapy in terms of creating a situation that is helpful or harmful to the client.

The unique thing about a therapeutic relationship is that the client does not have to worry about my problems. The counseling session is all about the client, and whether or not I’m in the middle of an emotional crisis is not important.

The client does not have to inquire about my day, ask about how I’m feeling or be concerned with how my holidays have been so far this season.

The client is encouraged to be selfish in therapy. It’s their time to talk about themself without any need to “return the favor” to the person they are speaking to at the moment.

Think about this the next time you are listening to someone talk about their day (i.e., friend, partner, family member). There comes a time when you want to turn the tables and talk about what your day was like.

We get frustrated when someone “never listens” and “always just talks about themselves.” We have expectations for this type of communication that sound something like the following, “I’ll listen to you for a while, then you’ll listen to me.”

When there is an imbalance in the communication, it becomes uncomfortable. There is a built-in give and-take when people seek help from friends and family.

A client does not have to worry about this give-and-take in therapy. This is what I mean by the client is encouraged to be selfish.

How does this relate to being a DM? Glad you asked!

I take on a similar mindset when I’m in the DM role. I’ve mentioned before that the DM is a player in the game, but I think that statement is too nebulous.

It’s like saying the umpire in a baseball game is a player. The umpire is on the field and effects the outcome of the game, but he’s not a player. Not really.

And when I get together with my group to sit around the table for D&D, I am a player. But not really.

I see my role as an entertainer, and that is probably why I have not killed any of the PCs yet (although we came -3 hit points away from a negative-bloodied PC death recently).

The players are invested in their characters, and it’s my job to put those characters into situations where they can shine. The DM should be selfless in this regard. The game is not about the DM; it’s about the players.

Strangely, this mindset has helped me process the imbalance and contradictory nature of the DM role. I have evaluated the factors that are fulfilling to me when preparing and running gaming sessions.

The following list is not exhaustive, but I achieve my enjoyment when:

  • Players respond in a way I anticipated and carry out a great moment in the gaming world.
  • Players do something unexpected that makes the adventure even better than anticipated.
  • Each member of the party is involved and highlighted throughout the campaign.
  • Players interact with each other or an NPC I created in a meaningful way to further a story.
  • Players debate about the next course of action and have to wrestle with ethics and morality.
  • Players become slightly panicked and quiet when a combat encounter is unfolding poorly.
  • My decisions and actions increase the enjoyment of each player at the table.

Much like when I’m functioning in my role as a psychologist, my satisfaction while DMing is linked to the success of another person.

I gain satisfaction with “a job well done” when the other person shines. It’s not about me. If a therapy session – or gaming session – became about me, then problems would develop quickly.

The client would not get what they need from the relationship, and players would not be as satisfied with the gaming sessions.

The players are there to win. The DM is there to entertain.

Are You Entertained?!

It seems the majority of voices lamenting changes to D&D are from DMs, and given what I discussed above – that is perfectly logical.

To a player, the rules set the table for the gaming experience, and the primary goal becomes learning how to exploit the rules and system to the player’s (and party’s) benefit.

Why wouldn’t a player optimize their PC to become as effective as possible in the gaming world according to the established rules?

A player does not need to be concerned with rule changes and game balance as much as the DM (unless, of course, when the player’s powers are nerfed).

“A new edition? WHAT?!”

Since the DM is the person responsible for ensuring each player is entertained and appropriately challenged, changes to the rules and the game matter a great deal.

For example, a macro-level change to 4th Edition D&D is the amount of damage monsters inflict through attacks. Monsters published early in the life of 4th Edition became too weak as the players advanced in level, and no longer posed a significant threat to many players.

Once the imbalance was noted, updated monsters were released that increased the threat level to the players. Before the updated monsters, DMs were concerned that appropriate challenges could not be built according to the rules –players were steam rolling through combat encounters.

A great deal of commentary and discussion about this topic continues to this day because it’s the DM’s responsibility to create balanced encounters that are entertaining and challenging.

The players simply show up and kill things!

As speculation mounts about a possible new edition of D&D, I believe most of the worry and doubt is generated from DMs. And why? Because DMs are the individuals who have to learn the new rules, run the game, and effectively challenge and entertain the players.

A new gaming system is a minor adjustment for players, but it’s a major adjustment to DMs as they have to spend more time learning the rules and balancing the game to effectively meet player needs.

It raises an odd contradiction about the development of gaming systems. The game is seemingly designed to enhance the enjoyment of the players, but the person that spends the most time with the game is the DM.

Perhaps this is where the cooperative term comes into play – the DM cooperates by taking on the duty of entertaining the players.

The players are there to win. The DM is there to entertain.

Final Thoughts

  • To be very clear, this post is not railing against players. I play twice a month in a 4th Edition campaign and whatever I wrote about players above applies to me as well.

I’m not saying, “DMs are awesome, players suck!” Not at all. The game needs both at the table to be successful.

  • Think about what makes you happy as a DM. Where do you derive enjoyment from the experience?

If you find yourself trying to win, then form a definition of what it means to “win.” Determine if that definition of “winning” is feasible with your gaming group.

  • You might wildly disagree with the notion that DMs are at the table to entertain. Perhaps you find this idea rudimentary.

Fantastic, I hope you tell me why! I’m still learning my way behind the screen, but this approach makes sense to me and gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

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Read more thoughts about D&D and DMing at: The Id DM