[minis+] Want more story options? Buy more civilians!

edited April 2012 in Story Games

This is my next thread of what will hopefully be a series of positive minded threads about using ministaures with tabletop SGs/RPGs.

I started one a while ago about finding the starting by finding the story in the miniatures. That is, using the actual look of the minis and the combination of miinis for inspiration for fiction starters.

In this thread, i'd like to talk about what I consider to be an overlooked aspect of using minis with gaming: The importance of civilians, regular joes, and other sorts of non-combatants as inspiration in games.

Mosy commonly, when we trot out the minis for use with gaming, there's pretty much one reason: We're gonna git dwn to the killin' !

No big shock there. RPGs have their roots in miniatures wargamaing. many times people who are using minis in their games have some kind of background in that type of gaming, and very often any particular mnis collection they might start off using is probably doing double duty from a wargaming collection. After all, why not use what you aready have access to, right?

Even if the players aren't playing a wargame regularly, even made-for-RPG type miniatures tend towards the combatty. they're adventurers and their foes, various monsters, alien threats, and just generally action/combat oriented stuff.

That stuff is great fun. We know it is because the tradition of using miinis for that kind of thing has been with us for well over a century, just as gamers ( and goes back even further).

Thing is, that all kind of creates a feedback loop of limitation: Own only combatty minis->only use them for combat/action-> Own only combatty minis, and around and around.

Toy soldiers and their pals have never been the only sort of toy representations of people/critters/animals/characters. Whether plushies, or dolls, or Breyer horses or smurfs and Homies, there are plenty of other sorts of people representing toys that imaginative kids have used and played with and created more kinds of stories than simple combat encounters and wars.

When you start adding non-combatant minis to your collection of gaming minis, you start t open back up the option of drawing on that other imaginative play tradition.

It's the same tradition HG Wells is talking about in "Floor Games". Look that book up online. It's the companion volume to his better known toy soldier gaming book "Little Wars".

If all you end up doing with minis is using them for combat encounters, or all you are doing is battle games, civilians/non-combatants seem like kind of a drag. You might pop them out once in a great while as kidnap victims or innnocent bystanders or angry mobs or whatever. Still, given that everyone lives with their own personal restrictions of time/money budgets, it almost always seems like an unecessary distraction from collecting and prettying up your maincollection, and people regularly skip buying any.

Please don't. Please consider getting yourself some core non-combatants for your preferred genre.

Merely having little representations of characters ( and do look for ones that have some individualityto them) that aren't first and foremost soldiers or other martial/fighty tyopes immediately offers the possibility of more talkiness, more adventure in the non-combat sense, and even more factionalism in play. It starts to imply a greater world, and one where not everything is a problem easily resolved by the sword or pistol.

There's another reason though, and perhaps this one will most appeal to the real lead-heads reading this: It's an excuse to buy and paint up stuff really outside of your usual collection, from those weird little companies you've probably seen ads for but skipped as you busily collecting the onsters for the next session or so down the road.

Ask me some questions!

I've been given the advice before that a good thread isn't just a satement or rant, it's an opening for getting other folks to interact. So go ahead and hit me with questions you might have on this topic, or examplesof play you've had doing something similar, or ideas you might want to explore in this kind of minis use and collecting and we'll get the coversation going.


  • We did this all the time in Champions, though not with minis, per sé. We'd typically use M&Ms or gummy bears for civilians and bystanders. Collateral damage was eaten on the spot, of course.

    More seriously, while the notion is solid from a creativity-inducing space, I don't think "out-of-combat, NPC-engaging" play commonly calls for maps and minis. I mean, would we move minis around a town map while getting supplies for the next mission/dungeon or doing interviews in DitV, as if we're playing an analog CRPG? That seems like a lot of handling for very little color; and further, it seems to hamstring the use of pure imagination during such encounters. I'm not igging the idea... but I'm not seeing the ROI, either (and, for quality, well-painted minis, the "I" is high!).
  • I loved the old Grenadier set of "Hirelings". Not exactly non-combatants, but having these guys on the battlefield reminded us to keep them alive so that we could get our loot to town!
  • I agree, this seems a key idea. I've see some good bystander collections based around supers gaming in terms of paper printouts/standups that you can get on drivethrurpg.
  • edited April 2012
    I'm loving these series of posts! I love the fiddly material nature of using minis, and not just for combat representation, but for inspiration and the simple fun of having something to pick up and play with.

    Regarding handling time, as people fiddle with the miniatures during "non-miniature necessary" times (e.g., getting supplies): Before I'd fully embraced the use of miniatures for all sorts of uses, I had the experience of very occasionally getting frustrated with people "over-handling" their miniatures (always wanting to spin them to face whoever was talking, for example, if all the minis were in a group at the middle of the table). What I came to realize, though, was that this handling actually helped the couple of players that I have in mind to be better engaged with the fiction. Before we started playing "fast and loose" with minis (in this case, using minis but not a battlemat, and allowing free positioning and play with minis, etc.), these players, who were long-time members of our group, were present and involved but were often somewhat distracted drawing character portraits or so forth-- but fiddling with the minis, but their own report, actually helped them participate (attention-wise) in the fiction better than they had before. Did this mean that things (very rarely) got bogged down for a few minutes in "unnecessary" fiddling with minis? Yes, but the trade-off was worth it: the rest of us just took a deep breath on those occasions when we thought they were overly focused on miniatures play, for it was clearly adding to their fun playing (which also added to our fun! Hooray for social play!). And, after the rest of us loosened up a bit, we started to find more joy in it, as well.

    After this experience, I started encouraging this style of play with a few new players who I was introducing to table-top role-play for the first time, and it worked like a charm. In particular, I have one friend who had tried to play with us in the past (in a couple of games which didn't use minis at all for any reason), and he had a hard time engaging and participating. When we approached it from the minis-based angle, though, it seemed to just click for him. He later said that all of the pressure of having to imagine what was going on was causing him anxiety (of the performance sort, I believe) and causing him to draw a blank. Miniatures somehow broke that wide open-- he was able to better visualize who was who, where the were, get the aesthetics of the story down-- and if this required him to move his mini (and ours!) around like little avatars when he was in what most of us would called a merely verbally descriptive mode, then so be it! [Edit: That is, "pure imagination" wasn't doing it for him, but he is an incredible player so long as he has some play aids like miniatures, handouts, etc. to prime the pump and make things vivid for him; just reminds me of how different all our psychological preferences are, and how "pure imagination" is incredible rich and vivid for some of us, while for others vividness can come from other different sources. Keeping this in mind has definitely made me a better GM.)

    Those experiences, more than anything else, compelled me to buy (at least a few) civilian minis-- suddenly I needed minis for situations other than combat, and--once I had them-- we ended up using them all the time in other scenes, and it has worked for us very well. One problem we've encountered, though, is finding civvie minis without any sort of weapons-- you'd be surprised at the number of business suit minis there are, but they are almost always packing guns. Also, one problem we've encountered with civvies is that you really need a wide range of minis to have even one or two that might be applicable for a certain sphere (finding a good, ex., mechanic mini is actually not easy, even though having one or two would have been really useful on multiple occasions!). Any thoughts about either of these problems?
  • edited April 2012
    Oh, also, these are great (and there are some other civvies on the site, too): http://wargamesfoundry.com/other_ranges/single_packs/civilian/
  • Buying and painting civilian figures in the 25mm scale can be a costly endeavor. I've focused on only two periods - Medieval and Modern (1820's to now). I have used them some but in the long run I'm not certain I'll do a lot with them. The terrain is just too big. With 15mm on the other hand, a more generic civilian stand works fine. You know you are viewing them from a distance so at least I don't have an expectation that a figure will stand out as an individual. The Bosnian game I recently wrote up was in 15mm. I've used the same figs in modern and sci fi games. The terrain is a lot easier to make and move so it is a winner in my book.

    If there are as many civilians as soldiers the soldiers can ignore them but when the civilians outnumber the soldiers you can see how rock throwing can defeat the better armed. Once there are that many figures the story can also diverge from the soldiers altogether and go into petty bickering, love triangles, etc.

    After all can a soldier really use their gun in most civil situations? If they can't (without becoming murderers) then they are really no more powerful than civilians anyway.

    But for a question: How do you use the civilians on the board? Their presense and movement has to be meaningful. If changing the figures facing is meaningful then that is good.
  • Wow, some good stuff for discussion!

    Stephen, I very much appreciate you chiming in and talking about your positive experiences with minis use, including cvillians/non-combatants/not-obvious combatants. I also empathize with your frustration about not being able to easily find non-combatty civilian figures. It definitley takes some pokking around to find that sort of thing.

    If you need ones for a specific genre, post again and I'll try to dig up some possible resources for you.

    Matrixgamer: Yep,minis cost money. I work on a bluecollar budget, but minis accumulation/pack-rattery does tend to be my main hobby iinterest, so that mitigates budget limitations a bit for me. I do still use mostly 25/28mm minis though. I will try to start another thread soon talking about some real world -budget considerations and how to stretch those hobby dollars further as part of this series.

    I see where you're coming from on your concerns, and truthfully some of the stuff I'm going to get at eventually has to do with just plain using the whole minis and "world" collection a bit differentlly from what you're talking about.

    One big obvious difference in the way I'm trying to explore using minis is frankly just plain building a big table layout to explore/interact with/ build fiction through play on from the jump. Like really make that a core central activity.

    Si yes, in a very real way, i don't necessarily encourage people to do the more common approach of laying out the minis for no real reason, or clearing the table and moving all kinds of stuff around for just a fight scene. I realize that's commonly how things are approached in RPGs, but my own approach (not in activity necessarily, ut in physical game space set up) is really closer to the kind of thing you see with miniatures wargamers: that big table space stuffed with models represents a small area of universe we interact on and with.

    To get back to some real ancient basics, the style of play I'm getting at really has its roots in the style of imaginative play I did with toys as a kid, and which HG Wells recounts in Floor Games. It's really about building an imaginative place and peopling it and interacting with it, using the toys as inspiration. it isn't so much about a tactical mission at all at its core ( although let's be realistic too. Given the sorts of models available, there's gonna be some action almost inevitably.

    One mental shift I encourage you to try on that may give you a little bit better idea of where I'm coming from: The non-combatants aren't scenery, they're characters, and they may well end up being characters that the players are going to use themselves, rather than just being pawns for the GM to move around. Just like in a number of story games where players can often briefly take on roles other than those of main characters, the kind of playstyle I'm talking about also allows for this kind of thing.

  • The Magic Number 20

    As advice, if you decide to get some civilians because you want to open up some possibilities for storylines of non-combatty ( or in addition to combatty stuff), you'll want about 20 minis.

    I didn't completely pick that number at random. For a number of genres that exist out there that have civilain type minis available, they very often have packs of them in about that number. Those also tend to be fairly inexpensive ( in minis buying terms, anyway).
    When a twenty pack isn't available, often smaller blisters exist in a minis range that has smaller themed groups of minis available, often 3-5 to a pack.

    Twenty civilian (or non combatant characters) gives you a whole range of stuff to work into play in terms of scenario ideas and personalities, and frankly doing double duty for those times you just plain need some zombies or angry crowds or a spare line of stuff at the back of that orc rading party to bulk out the numbers for a few seconds before the heroes go through them like a buzz saw.

    That first group of twenty minis should usually be "the village people". Not the old 70s band, but just the core of citizen archetypes for whatever community exists in genre that your heroes and villains circle around in their activities.

    After you have that group, any further purchase of civvies/noncombatants can slow down quite a bit, with you picking up stuff here and there as you see fit and get some inspiration. You'll probably buy them in smaller numbers anyway at that point, which makes it easier to get them painted and spiffed up nicely.

    When you do buy civvies, look at them as potential characters, and choose packs that have variety and probably a fair bit of differences in imaginary demographics. lots of merchants of course, but upper crust and impoverished, young and old, and maybe a few pieces that could double as the less-combatty sort of main character.

    Later add-ons can be a bit more specific, and might even include animals or specialists especially as companion type characters. C'mon, who doesn't love Nick and Nora Charles' little dog Asta from the Thin Man series? ( and yes, a company does make that mini: It's in a Copplestone 1920/1930s detectivespack, along with TinTin and Nick Charles).

    How many do you eventually want? The sky is the limit. I own a rather embarassing amount of non-combatants for several different eras/genres.

  • I think I got you now, Robert.

    Which makes me think of Lego/PlaySkool/etc. Might be a LOT cheaper to use Lego or PlayMobil than actual minis and terrain and such.


    And WOW... Playmobil has gone buck wild, since last I noticed them:
    Playmobil: Knights... but check out the left navigation's slew of options!
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: David ArtmanI think I got you now, Robert.

    Which makes me think of Lego/PlaySkool/etc. Might be a LOT cheaper to use Lego or PlayMobil than actual minis and terrain...

    I didn't really have those kinds of building toys as a kid, so some of the charm is lost on me. Certainly though I'd imagine folks with decent LEGO collections and a fondness for them could do all of this same kind of thing with those toys on a really nice big scale, and have a great deal of flexibilty besides.

    As for cost? I dunno, probably about the same, although spent differently is my best guess.
  • My 14 year old nephew has a HUGE selection of Schleich, and last time we were playing BX D&D with my Brother he got all excited with a particularly heated scene involving an argument with the king and his servants and the adventurers in the kitchens late after a revel. He rushed back to his room and dragged out his massive box of minis and grabbed a 'king' mini and gave it to me, along with assorted folks for the menial staff.

    'There you go', he proudly inferred, meaning that I suddenly had all my dolls representing my character interest in this scene in front of me, just as he and his dad had their iterations (D&D minis) in front of them. No battlemap, no combat, just a tactile imaginative toy. It was awesome.
  • Noofy, you and Stephen P are zooming way ahead of where I was going with my plans for these threads, and frankly you're zooming on in a really interesting direction.

    After those posts, I'm feeling a wee bit silly that I felt such a big need to start with a series of preliminary ground work posts building up towards the stuff you're talking about.

    Folks, if y'all are interested, we can skip some of these preliminary stage posts where I natter on about the practicalities of budgets and collecting and we can jump ahead instead to talking a bit more about what Stephen P and Noofy are talking about, and get tothe nitty gritty of what I'm interested in, which is mostly what I'm calling Imaginative Miniatures Play ( because really, the shortened version is IMP, and that tickles me...).

    If folks are interested, I can start a new thread going right to the point of discussing how we can take some unformed miniatures play, combine it with tools from proper games, and turn it towards being yet another form of minis game by adopting/formalizing sets of techniques. Because, really, that's what I'm after, along with celebrating and sharing how much fun that kind of imaginative play can be, and talking about how we can introduce that kind of toys/minis play into the greater story games family.
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