A question from the blog-topics backlog which I’d now like to throw out to the readership: If you have ever played a combat-oriented tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, did you ever actually use miniatures on a grid, as the rulebooks generally assume of their players, with each square representing a 10’-by-10’ area? Or did the combat, as with the rest of the gameplay, stick to an entirely verbal format?
It’s been a long time since my last paper-and-pencil D&D session, but I’ve dabbled amidst perhaps a dozen different RPG groups since first discovering them way back in high school, in various locations up and down the American east coast. In precisely zero of these groups did the players ever move character-representative pawns around on a grid, treating them as a literal tactical representation of the battle. At most the GM might occasionally doodle out an abstract visual-aid snapshot of a particular battle setup, just as a visual aid:
OK, this is the cave [draws blob on paper]… here’s where you all came in, and there’s that mysterious light [writes MYSTERIOUS LIGHT down in one corner of the blob]. The goblins are coming at you from this tunnel over here. You have initiative, right? What’s your first action?
That sort of thing. And from there, everyone sort of co-wrote the resulting combat choreography, with the GM generally allowing any action that didn’t seem to stretch the limits of a character’s ability. A character couldn’t bound across the huge cave in a single move (unless magically propelled), but they could probably move to rearrange themselves relative to anyone else in the party, or run to cover. At no point in any such game I played did the action ever stop while we checked whether a character, given their height, dexterity, encumbrance, and so on, moved the sufficient number of feet per round to cover the distance between their current position and that stalagmite over there. And that’s to say nothing about missile weapons or area-effecting spells; generally, if the GM said you could see it, you could shoot it. (Or be shot by it.)
And yet, the games’ thick manuals always provided copious rules that seemed to assume that this number-crunching mode was the only way to play. To the best of my knowledge, this has remained true in D&D all the way up through its most recent fourth edition: just flip through any Player’s Handbook and observe all the words and diagrams given to describing the precise square-footage of fireball spells, varying by caster level, or the grid-footprint of white versus black dragon breath.
Any tabletop RPG group I have actually seen in action would just take these numbers as cues, suggestions of relative scale and feasibility. A GM would thus know that a black dragon’s stream of acid-breath would toast fewer targets than a white dragon’s wide cone of blasted frost, and narrate the results accordingly. They would not lay down a straightedge to determine which players, exactly, the dragon has line-of-sight on; they would instead build on the story so far to come up with an answer that just makes good dramatic (or fight-choreographic) sense.
Therefore, a hypothesis emerges from my very limited experience: the encoding of miniatures-combat rules into tabletop RPG rulebooks turns them into an odd sort of genetic carrier, allowing concepts seeded by wargamers in the 1970s to express themselves as videogames with perfect and infinitely patient computerized arbiters many years later. But the tabletop rules must exist first, an interim, crysalis form serving to entice a quite particular subgroup of unsatisfied players to adapt them into the digital formats that they strive to evolve into. Only then can these games, freed from the control of impatient human GMs, proceed to revel in their own rules’ arithmetic, right down to the fractional movement modifiers inherent in a character after they drop an extra electrum piece in their belt pouch.
(Granted, sometimes these combat RPGs will instead evolve into amazing duck-billed tabletop slugfests like Descent. This is because life is vast and beautiful.)