The Point of Departure: Pt. 2

Part One of The Point of Departure, was about how memories of things that happen in games are real memories, and also, that these memories are the only real things about the games we play. Part two is about the titular “Point of Departure” and specifically what miniatures represent in that departure.

Before I start though, I loved Games Workshop’s Necromunda, and I’ve done some “real” war gaming too, which I really enjoyed. That’s not what I’m talking about here, although those experiences are part of why I feel like I do about what miniatures represent. I’m also not saying anything about relative goodness only that the use of miniatures, or not, marks a distinct division in the type of experience you get from a roleplaying game.

So, no burying the lead, the point of departure is the point of view of your character. To me games that explicitly encourage the use of miniatures and tiles to accurately represent action create a fundamentally different experience to those that don’t. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you’ll have to read on.

At the most basic level, when you represent yourself with a miniature, your point of view (POV) changes from first person, to third person. The focus shifts to the miniatures which represent the players like a piece in a game on a squared board.

For example, a miniature is in an 80’ hallway either delineated with different coloured squares that the walls or perhaps with carefully crafted pieces of wall. They move their allotted number of squares per turn down the corridor until they come close enough for the GM to place the ogre figure into the round room at the end.

For comparison, try this, imagine you’re a fighter, you’re in a dark, damp corridor, the smell of rotting flesh being carried to you on a frigid breeze. Waving your guttering torch around you see the bodies of several humanoids pinned to the wall, their flesh rotting away from their bloated bodies. As you advance into the cavern you first hear, then see, and then smell the ogre. Covered in filthy rags, it’s oblivious to you as it gnaws on the rotten leg of one of their victims.

In the second instance I suspect that most people would have viewed that scene in the first person, as if they were there. In the absence of any information to the contrary, we generally put ourselves into a story as if everything was happening from our POV. Films put a camera in as close to a first person view as possible to draw the audience in and evoke the emotions or reactions of the protagonists.

In roleplaying games, using a first person POV accentuates these aspects of gameplay while a third person POV miniature using game emphasises the importance of location and spatial accuracy at some cost to those things. That’s not to say with miniatures you can’t adorn the scene with words but there is a narrative and mechanical focus on the exact maneuvering of your piece through the map.

Secondly, using a miniature and carefully tracking their movement, to determine attacks of opportunity and other special rules, turns a combat into a puzzle. The emphasis is on fitting the abilities of the participants pieces together optimally and in making the “right” moves to overcome that obstacle or challenge. Players can, theoretically, do what they want but the expectation is that they will make the correct move to help solve the puzzle.

Third person POV has distinct advantages in this respect. Considering the example above, with a third person POV things are accurately represented, there can be no argument about when a bow may be deployed or about what exactly each player is doing and where they are when the ogre inevitably notices their presence. Any discussions about how close “close” is are unnecessary as everyone can see based on the squares where they are.

When combat is an obstacle though the combat is about overcoming that obstacle as quickly and efficiently as possible. I would argue that that is, fundamentally, different to a game where a combat is about a group of individuals dramatically engaging in the most interesting things they can think of during combat. The combat itself is a scene to be explored rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

In essence, games that emphasise miniatures, optimal play (and characters) and are a series of wargame battles on a singular scale are like the original Dungeons & Dragons was intended it to be. In fact, a quote by Gary Gygax himself gets to the nub of the difference I’m talking about,

“…Personification and acting are replacing action of the more direct and forceful type – be it sword swinging or spell casting … Before this trend goes too far it is time to consider what the typical role-playing game is all about.

First it is important to remember that ‘role-playing’ is a modification of the word ‘game’. We are dealing with a game which is based on role-playing but it is first and foremost a game… To put undue stress on mere role-playing puts the cart before the horse.

To use Gygax’s analogy, a game primarily focused on miniatures and movement and accuracy is doing it “right” by emphasizing the game component. That’s not to say he was opposed to roleplaying or theatrical aspects of the hobby as some people have suggested over the years, but he would, or at least the 1985 version of himself, have seen narrative driven games as lacking the essential “game” element.

Reframing the point of departure in this context means to recognize that for some games roleplaying is the “horse” and for others the game is the “horse”.  There is plenty of scope to fall somewhere along that line but this is a fundamental difference, a difference symbolized by the use of miniatures.