Truth to tell, I have grown terribly weary of D&D “edition wars,” and hesitate to contribute thereto. I prefer a “game and let game” attitude: each gaming group should play whatever games it enjoys, and should not criticize other groups for holding different preferences. However, I also confess my status as basically a 4e fanboy, having been won over from my initial skepticism by the enormous fun I have playing this system. I therefore bristle when I hear or read certain criticisms of 4e, and often feel compelled to offer a corrective perspective. (Hey, that rhymed! Should I play a bard?) One of the claims that absolutely gets my goat goes something like this: “4e emphasizes miniatures so much more than earlier editions that it turns D&D combat into a tactical miniatures game.” The grain of truth contained within this claim belies the bigger picture: D&D rules as written have always encouraged strict tracking of tactical positioning and have always encouraged the use of miniatures for that purpose.
It should be immediately evident to anyone who knows both systems that 4e is no more of a tactical miniatures game than 3.5e was. Except for some difference in terminology and a simplified approach to zones (4e has only squares, in contrast to 3.5e’s circles and cones) and diagonal measurements, 3.5e and 4e are fundamentally the same with regard to tactical positioning. Creature size, movement, squeezing, flanking, line of sight, line of effect—all these concepts are basically the same in 4e as they were in 3.5e. For example, the positioning of the figures, lines, and corner in the line of sight diagram on p. 139 of the 3.5e PH are precisely the same as in the corresponding diagram on p. 274 of the 4e PH and p. 107 of the Rules Compendium. 4e does offer players and monsters a bit more control over their own positioning than 3.5e did (with all the shift, push, pull, and slide effects in powers), but the basic rules as such really aren’t that much different. So let’s aside 3.5 and go all the way back to the beginning.
In the original D&D booklets of 1974—which were already starting to become something of a collector’s item by the time I started playing with the blue box (Holmes edition, before there ever was a “red box”) in 1978, the very subtitle of the game was “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.” This subtitle appeared on all three core booklets (Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) as well as the first four supplements; supplement 5, Swords and Spells, bore the subtitle “Fantastic Miniatures Rules on a 1:10/1:1 Scale.” This edition of D&D assumed that you would be using Chainmail rules for melee combat.
Unfortunately, I don’t have easy access to a copy of the old blue rulebook by J. Eric Holmes from which I first learned to play in 1978, but we quickly moved on to AD&D anyway. My first purchase for AD&D was the Player’s Handbook; my second was a box of 20 official D&D miniatures manufactured by Grenadier. This sort of purchase was strongly encouraged by Gary Gygax in the AD&D rulebooks, after all, through an emphasis on tactical positioning:
Organize your party by showing which characters are where. Show marching order for a 10′ passage, a 20′ passage, door openings, etc. … Miniature figures are a great aid here. The DM will usually require a marching order to be drawn on a piece of paper if figures are not at hand.
— AD&D PH, p. 106
Assign formations for the group—10′ corridor, 20′ corridor, door opening, and any other formation which your party might commonly assume. It is always a wise idea to have the very short characters in the front rank, elves and dwarves to the flanks, and at least one sturdy fighter in the rear if the party is sufficiently large. Draw these formations out on paper (possibly your referee will require copies for reference), identifying each character carefully. The leader who is to make decisions and give directions for the party must be in the front rank, or in the second rank if he or she is tall compared to the characters before.
— AD&D PH, p. 109
The special figures cast for ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS add color to play and make refereeing far easier. each player might be required to furnish painted figures representing his or her player character and all henchmen and/or hirelings included in the game session. Such distinctively painted figures enable you to immediately recognize each individual involved. Figures can be placed so as to show their order of march, i.e., which characters are in the lead, which are in the middle, and which are bringing up the rear. Furthermore, players are more readily able to visualize their array and plan actions while seeing the reason for your restrictions on their actions. Monster figures are likewise most helpful, as many things become instantly apparent when a party is arrayed and their monster opponent(s) placed. Furnishing such monsters is probably best undertaken as a joint effort, the whole group contributing towards the purchase of such figurines on a regular basis. Be very careful to purchase castings which are in scale! Out of scale monsters are virtually worthless in many cases. As a rule of thumb, HO scale is 25 mm = 1 actual inch = 6′ in scale height or length or breadth. … While you may not find it convenient to actually use such figures and floor plans to handle routine dungeon movement, having sheets of squares for encounter area depiction will probably be quite helpful.
— AD&D DMG, p. 10
Note that Gygax endorses DMs requiring players to supply painted miniatures for PCs, hirelings, and henchmen, and encourages the use of a common fund for buying monsters! Note too that the approach Gygyax suggests here is essentially the approach taken by Wizards of the Coast in 4e through their use of poster maps and encounter areas that DMs can easily build using Dungeon Tiles. Speaking of Dungeon Tiles and such, let’s turn the page:
Miniature figures used to represent characters and monsters add color and life to the game. They also make the task of refereeing action, particularly combat, easier too! In combination with a gridded surface, such as the DUNGEON FLOORPLANS (to be published by TSR in the near future), these miniatures will add a whole new dimension to your playing enjoyment. It is suggested that you urge your players to provide painted figures representing their characters, henchmen, and hirelings involved in play. The monsters can be furnished by you—possibly purchased through collection of small fees levied on each playing session. The OFFICIAL ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS miniature figures will be released by Grenadier Models, POB 305, Springfield, PA 19064, about November 1979. These figures are the only ones which comply in all respects to AD&D specifications and the AD&D MONSTER MANUAL. Contact Grenadier for an up-to-date listing of available figures. Other approved lines of fantasy figures APPROVED FOR USE WITH ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS will be offered by select manufacturers. Always look for the name, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, and the TSR approval mark before purchasing figures for your campaign. … Again, a word of warning. Many products might purport to be satisfactory for use with ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, but only those noted as OFFICIAL or Authorized AD&D items should be accepted. Do not settle for substitutes or second-rate material in your campaign; ask for approved AD&D products only!
— AD&D DMG, p. 11
Not only does Gygax here instruct AD&D DMs to “urge” the use of miniature figures, he even encourages AD&D DMs to charge entry fees for the express purpose of buying more miniatures! And the DM shouldn’t buy just any old miniatures, but only TSR-approved miniatures. Did you catch the reference to Dungeon Floorplans, one of the TSR precursors to today’s Dungeon Tiles? The version that ended up being published by Games Workshop was similar to today’s Dungeon Tiles, except that you had to cut the sheets apart yourself into whatever shape you wanted. TSR also took a stab at preprinted cardstock miniatures and scenery with accessory AC 3, 3-D Dragon Tiles featuring The Revenge of Rusak, in 1985.
Folks, “old school” D&D does not mean “without miniatures.” D&D assumed the use of miniatures from the very beginning. AD&D offered some alternatives, and TSR occasionally took a stab at offering cheap alternatives in the form of preprinted cardstock standees (in my opinion, they did a better job of this with Marvel Super Heroes, but that’s neither here nor there). D&D 3.5e gave characters more ways to interact with the grid, and 4e provided even more options, but both stand squarely in the grand tradition of D&D stretching back over 35 years.