[minis+] The Dungeon World Guide as a tool for Freeform Minis Combat

edited January 2013 in Story Games
Hey, it's been a while since I started any [Miniatures+] threads, so I thought I'd drop one down for conversation.

In the past in those kinds of threads, I've noticed a bit of confusion when I talk about miniatures use, especially when I talk about the way I recommend getting away from the fiddly rules most folks seem to associate with the use of miniatures in games.

It turns out that something called The Dungeon World Guide has really covered the approach I'm talking about better than I could. The guide starts talking about running combats around page 10 of the pdf, and gives us this quote:
"Forget what you know about how RPGs work for a minute. Imagine that you're that little kid again, picking up the box with the dragon on it, and you have no preconceptions about combat rounds or initiative or anything. How would you narrate combat?

It probably wouldn’t be a grid-based, turn-by-turn thing; you’ve got board games for that.

You’d probably make it more like the fantasy novels that you read, a series of fast-paced exchanges that jump from one tense scene to another, following the main characters through the fray.

That’s how Dungeon World does it."
What follows the quote are more detailed, mechanics related examples specific to DW. Go ahead and read them, even though I'm not going to specifically talk about those game mechanics.

I want to talk about the approach.

Even though DW isn't a minis using game, when I talk about minis use, the style in that guide is what I'm talking about.

All that cool, chaotic, back and forth stuff? You can approach minis use in games the exact same way, and the benefits non-minis using play gets from that approach apply equally well to gaming that does use minis.

Mind blown, right?

It even has some other implications, if you squint, for minis using play.

Notice how the DW G doesn't use exact measures for stuff, instead just describing and detailing as the fiction leads?

You can use that in minis gaming too. In fact, it can be really useful, especially for someone like me who wants to do what I'd call The Big Table Layout Game. You know, where you want to take whatever play surface you have available and make it represent a big sprawling layout representing kind of a huge area: a whole village, a ginormo dungeon, a big countryside with various locations, whatever.

It's more like what you see miniatures wargamers do at the FLGS than the style of laying out an encounter location, playing a bit, then setting up follow-up encounter locations.

Here's the thing: We aren't war gamers, and that means we can do things a bit different when we approach that minis-using stuff with the mentality of those DW gamers.

First, we can say "Screw Exact Mechanics-Related Scale!!!"

Woot! That's terribly liberating right there!

With war gaming, exact distances related to how far our little lead warriors are allowed to move or shoot or whatever are terribly important. With this other style, that isn't so much true, and it means we can mix'n'match scale a bit.

What becomes important are, well, fictionally important areas and how the minis interact there and how they interact with the terrain at a specific time/scene.

So maybe that ruined castle is just represented by a few broke columns or a room or two, and over on the other side of the table we have a throne room and a couple of buildings that represent that metropolis in another province (because those are the parts we'll be interacting with), and somewhere between them, we have a mountain pass with some rocks and trees that represent that vast wild land that seperates the two areas mentioned.

More than that, it doesn't matter that each of those areas is only 1.5' x 1.5' physically, or that there are other areas that do all kinds of fuzzy scaling out on that table. Maybe there's a cool mansion somewhere that's 2' x 3' where all kinds of action takes place and a little campsite only 6" in diameter out there too. Or a pirate ship that's big enough to physically move miniatures around on that looks rather large compared to the orc village.

It doesn't matter, because we're applying roleplaying game ideas like scene cutting/scene framing/scene setting techniques that we wouldn't think twice about in a non-minis using game to minis-use.

It allows us to lead with the fiction. The exact range of a bow isn't as important as the fact that rushing a guy with a bow could get you pin-cushioned before you get there. We don't even need to be particularly consistent from area to area or game session to game session with those fiddly kinds of scaling issues.

Nuff soapbox babbling on my part for now.

Reactions? comments?


  • There are people who LOVE to paint minis. There are plenty of old-style minis games that allow them to show off their work. But Dungeon World might give them a whole nother opportunity to flash their stuff. How about you write a DW adventure for a local Games Workshop fan with a totally bitchin' Dwarf Army?
  • I love the idea of playing this way, and I want to start incorporating more physical representations into my DW games.
  • Also, by relaxing the war game influence, you can additionally not worry about having a 1:1 representation of the fiction on the table (e.g. these three orc minis represent a dozen that are in the village center with you).

    I think Dungeon World and similar games are going to be where the minis from the Reaper Bones kickstarter will be used in our house.
  • Well, yes!

    I have always done minis gaming/combat this way. If we use figures or minis, it's just to create a sketch of the fictional space, almost never to count squares and distances.

    And thinking back to how you probably used your toys as a child to reenact a battle is not a bad analogy for that at all!
  • epweissengruber: Hmm. A dwarf army. Tricky.

    Howabout...the dwarves are the opposition? An eenormous battle has ended with the dwarves successful. But among their loot from the battle is a Maguffin that they aren't aware of the significance of and won't give up voluntarily for some reason. Go get it. Most of the army is currently strung out all over the countryside near the battle site. Some of them ( for whatever reason) are aware of what the maguffin is, and are intent on owning it themselves, although the bulk of the army isn't aware of it. The PCs are yet another interested party that needs to slip in, steal the thing, and get out without causing the whole army to come after them and creating an international incident. Naturally, some reason prevents the PCs from simply approaching the dwarflord about all of this and just asking for the thing.

    dylanix: Yep, you can play with scales in all sorts of ways. The Reaper Bones KS was what got me thinking about all of this.

    That's another way too of bringing in and leading and referencing the fiction. Not sure how well it fits with DW, but I advocate seriously looking at the miniatures when you're creating fiction about them. I actually advocate looking at them first and then creating the fiction, rather than creating a character, then hunting after a mini. Gear, expression, general appearance, pose- all that stuff is fodder for creativity, too.

    Paul_T: Right, that's exactly where I'm coming from.

    Mease19: I don't have the love of Lego that other folks do, but those new fantasy lego sets certainly offer some really nice possibilities for stuff like this.
  • That's another way too of bringing in and leading and referencing the fiction. Not sure how well it fits with DW, but I advocate seriously looking at the miniatures when you're creating fiction about them. I actually advocate looking at them first and then creating the fiction, rather than creating a character, then hunting after a mini. Gear, expression, general appearance, pose- all that stuff is fodder for creativity, too.
    That's a fantastic way to work with the minis, but this, to me, hits on the hardest part of beginning to use physical representations (minis, terrain, printed maps, etc.). For what you have, you have a great visual to launch fiction from. You're limited, however, to the material at hand. So how bad is it when your game has moved in a direction that you don't have the resources to represent?

    This has burned me in the past, and it might be less of a problem with this more abstract mode of playing with the visuals. Any notions on how to surmount this?
  • dylanix: The only ways that truly work involve stacking the deck in your favor in terms of your play group.

    IOW, stack it with minis fans, or likely minis fans. Things flow much easier that way.

    After that, my strongest suggestions are:
    Work with what you've got first and base initial story stuff around that. Use the monsters and figures you have available, and don't feel like you have to build a model-railroad layout quality table to get up and running.

    You can add bits and bobs and even very cool stuff later, but try to re-use stuff a bit too. You can borrow stuff as well. Most FLGSes that sell minis have terrain and table space that they'll let players borrow for an evening of play at the shop. If you're thinking about running minis-using games, see what they have that sparks your interest.

    If you're lost for what to acquire first, buy some civilians/non-combatants. Other minis lovers may have monsters and character types already handy, or be willing, over the long haul, to buy a few here and there as they start to groove on minis use. Civilian minis tend to be forgotten, but all kinds of fun quirky stuff happens because of those. C3PO and R2D2 get in all sorts of trouble. So does Bilbo. Having your much put-upon valet aong makes for hilarity.

    You aren't a minis war gamer, so don't be afraid to incorporate non-war game miniature toys. A toy dragon might be vastly cheaper than a "proper" war game one, so hit the toy shop. A number of weird monsters fron D&D are rumored to have been created because someone had cheap plastic cereal box toys handy. Use that stuff too.

    Does that help?

    tl;dr version:
    Start simple with what you've got, base the fiction on that, then become enormous pack-rats collectively over the long haul.
  • This is vaguely the sort of things I've aimed for in Ghost City Raiders...you don't need minis to play, and you don't need terrain...but the sensibility of miniature battlegames is directly a part of the game. If you've got minis, all the better, they might enhance your play experience. But the terrain elements are defined in an abstract manner by a layout of cards on the table with different cards representing different types of terrain and modifying the rules in specific ways according to the scenario being played through (some characters gain advantages in specific card locations also).

    Some of the scenarios specifically ask the players to describe the locations their characters are exploring, but there's no reason why you couldn't do this with every scenario in the game.

    I've found that this has confused a few potential players who think that the card layout is more of a distraction compared to their usual paradigm of miniatures and terrain elements...but it's not meant to be a distraction, it's meant to be a tool to springboard the imagination...a springboard that anyone could have access to.
  • Vulpinoid:
    I really need to set down at some point and look over your new game.

    The one thing that I think helps ( and may be a more useful answer to some parts of dylanix's questions) is that it really helps if you can find a way to convey that the core important thing is to remember how you played imaginatively with toys as a kid as a preliminary to everything else.

    Now, conveying that to the players who are likely coming from a background of games that have their own traditions is a bit tricky, as noted in the quote from the DWG.

    With my own continued puttering with trying to write out these cooncepts of play, the only conclusion I've come to is that you just plain need to lead by example until other folks mentally touch base with their kidplay memories. That area is a hayloft? Set it on fire! Grab a pitchfork to use. Stampede some horses. Make someone slip on a big pile of manure. Jump out of the loft and onto someone's head like Captain Kirk. That kind of thing.

    Dylanix, I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to use your question as an example, mostly becaause I just made a mental connection of my own when thinking about this.

    Dylanix asked a very reasonable gamer kind of question: What do I do when my gameplay has gone beyond what I'm starting with?
    Pretty straight forward, right? After all, part of the benefit of verbal gaming is that you can do all kinds of things just by expending descriptive language.

    How do kids play the kind of stuff I'm getting at though? What does that imply?

    Well mostly, kids start with what they know and work from there. It might be action figures from a movie, it might be little people and dolls that have some visual touchpoint that gives hints to what they are (doctor, family, soldier). Throw them together with some other stuff, and we inherently make some mental connections.

    And kids will use that stuff over and over, re-using it in new combinations and expanding and refining the fiction they're collectively creating. And they'll expand it a bit at a time. Joey shows up one afternoon with some new action figures or someone builds a fort/house from spare cardboard and everyone is suddenly adding even more fictional stuff.

    So right there is part of the answer dylanix: You start with what you have, re-use it, and slowly expand and refine. Kids don't tend to make quite the same kinds of jumps away from the main original concept as quickly as gamers might. So, one possibilty is to go with that concept. Plan ahead for some stuff that's re-usable in multiple configurations and work towards a playstyle where the fiction supports repeated use of things. OTOH, when people begin to bring new stuff, figure out how to work that in.

    The other thing is physical issues related to playing with thse toys. I realized something about that too.

    When I played with toys as a kid, one important part of conceptualizing space was based on how we, the real people, moved in space. If a location was important, a focus of where action took place, generally we'd all gather around it in a circle and move our people in and on it. If some other part of the play space was further away in-fiction, it would also be further away physically. We'd need to get up and move and reposition ourselves to gather around that. The more we, the players, needed to reposition to use the new location, the further it was away. Even within a single location, something further away than was easy to reach clearly also suggested time and effort was needed for the little people to get across it or interact with stuff on the other side of it.

    And that ties in to what I meant about playing with scale in a more freeform, less fiddly wargamey sense and how that works a bit like scene framing/setting/cutting. A locationis best thought of in physical terms based on how people can gather around it, and how much they can move the little people in it rather than issues of scale to figure ratios. And, in a way, what you're going to do with it that particular session.

    That can change session to session. Kids don't worry about that, and neither should you.


    Session 1: You build a big countryside on the table. A village here, a ruin there, a little chunk of forest, hills in the background, a stream running somewhere along it. Cool beans.

    Session 2: Everybody was having fun in the village last time. This time, the village takes up the whole table. Maybe you add some buildings or details, maybe you expand a couple key buildings to be easier to use and physically bigger to work with the insides of them. Fictionally, it's the same exact village. Physically, you're refining and detailing a bit.

    Session 3: Hey, the woods neear the village are dark and mysterious. Let's go see what is out there! In session one, you abbreviated the physical layout of the woods. It only took up a little physcal space on the tabletop. This time, the village is just represented by two little buildings on the corner of the table. The rest of the table is all sorts of stuff related to the woods. There are mysterious caves and ponds nd hills and trees and glens all over the place. Maybe some paths through it. And naturally, the inhabitants of the woods become more important. Fictionally, it's the same woods and the same village. You're doing the same thing as in Session 2, but you're shifting the focus.

    You can go on and on like that, using what you have,slowly adding physical bits to expand possibilities for fictional inspiration, for a really long time. Even if you're mostly interested in dungeon-bashing/wilderness bashing, a few key items can be re-used with very little effort. Starting off, really some colored construction paper cut and drawn on goes amazingly far if you just don't have a big budget. Likewise, simple building made from cardboard do wonders for using the imaination with minis, and that's even before you become a truly absurd miniatures head with a whole mountain of unfinished projects ( said as I look in the mirror...)
  • I'm interested in hearing more about the possibilities of this line of thinking. One thing that occurs to me is that Dungeon World already has a principle that the players should "make maps, and leave blanks". Is this a case of that, or is there something else at work here?
  • Ya know, that as a principle would probably work great with a tabletop set up. et the thing out, then let players describe and refine what the stuff actually is.
  • I'm glad my guide has inspired such a cool idea; this is a really awesome take on the concept and I'm really psyched to see what you're doing with it. It totally never occurred to me to apply those ideas to a miniatures game, but this is super interesting.
  • I think it's cool that DW fans are thinking about minis use. I hope it goes beyoond that a bit though, and other folks used to primarily verbal based rpgs will find the comparisons I'm making useful too.
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