In this month's exclusive interview, two of the designers of the Miniatures Handbook discuss the accessory that proves the best battles are fought in all three dimensions.
Wizards of the Coast: What was the initial goal behind the Miniatures Handbook? Did it spring from the pre-existing widespread use of miniatures in the game?
Jonathan Tweet: The Miniatures Handbook and the D&D Miniatures line in general developed because we saw that miniatures were a big part of the D&D roleplaying experience. We wanted to support players who use miniatures in their games, as well as create easy-to-use miniatures for players who would like to use miniatures but don't. In addition, we built on the experience Wizards has with competitive games. Our D&D miniatures are designed to work in a roleplaying game, but we've also created a head-to-head skirmish system for fighting fast, tactical battles with them. The Miniatures Handbook, like the miniatures themselves, supports both roleplaying and head-to-head wargaming.
Wizards: As members of the team behind the book, do you feel miniatures are already an indispensable part of the game?
Rob Heinsoo: Now that I can grab a handful of orcs and lizardfolk and pop them into the pocket of my jacket along with an umber hulk and an ogre, drive to my D&D game and pull the minis out of my jacket pocket when I need to put them on the table . . . these miniatures are indispensable in my D&D games.
Wizards: The Miniatures Handbook has new characters, spells, magic items, feats, and monsters. How do these relate to miniatures?
Jonathan: For the Miniatures Handbook, we created characters, creatures, and other elements that we wanted to see in the miniatures line. For example, we created a healer class, the warhulk prestige class, and the aspect of Demogorgon because we wanted to see those as miniatures. (Miniatures of the healer, warhulk, and aspect of Demogorgon are on their way.) But even for the DM or player who doesn't have the miniatures, the Miniatures Handbook is loaded with good stuff to add to a D&D campaign.
Rob: Not all the new stuff in the Miniatures Handbook will show up in miniatures right away. D&D has so many cool creatures, characters, and classes to make miniatures of that it will take many sets to fit in most of the material from the Miniatures Handbook.
Wizards: What are players going to find that's new? For instance, you have some very intriguing and terrifying new monsters in the aspects.
Jonathan: D&D players will find a lot of new stuff in the first few chapters of the book. In addition to the new classes and monsters already mentioned, there are new feats, spells, and magic items. Included among the feats are sudden metamagic feats, which let a spellcaster boost a few spells every day on the spot, without preparing them ahead of time. Spells include more conjurations, which are good against monsters with spell resistance. There are also a number of spells that require a "swift action" to cast. Basically, they're like spells that come "pre-quickened." There are new spells for everyone, including rangers, paladins, shadowdancers, and assassins. For instance, there's a 2nd-level spell for assassins and bards called "swift invisibility." It's an invisibility spell that takes "no time" to cast and makes you invisible for one round.
Wizards: Can you outline how the stat cards work?
Jonathan: Every D&D miniature comes with a stat card. One side has the creature's regular D&D statistics, and the other side has its streamlined statistics for use in the skirmish system. The Miniatures Handbook details how to use both sides of the stat card, and how to convert regular D&D scores into skirmish-system statistics.
The stat cards are designed to be compact but easy to use during play. You can even use the random dungeon rules and turn your cards into a system for generating random encounters.
Wizards: Also quite significant are the new rules for mass battles and skirmishes. What's the most fundamental difference in the rules between the two types of combat?
Jonathan: The skirmish rules are designed to be fast, with several miniatures in each warband. Skirmishes are played on a grid, so that players can move and place their creatures faster. Fast battles mean that it's easy to play several skirmishes, such as in a tournament. The mass battles rules are for the fun and spectacle of big battles, with lots of miniatures on each side. These battles take place on a tabletop with rulers to measure distance. Mass battles take longer to play out, so a full-scale mass battle is a major event.
Wizards: What sorts of playtests did you conduct for the two different sets of combat rules? What did you find most difficult to design as a result?
Jonathan: The mass battles rules draw on playtests that actually go back several years to when Wizards was working on a set of mass battles rules independent from D&D. Since then, Wizards bought Dungeons & Dragons, and those original ideas were incorporated into the mass battles rules in the Miniatures Handbook.
The skirmish rules are not only based on heavy playtesting devoted to this project, but also are informed by all the playtesting and player feedback from Chainmail. Chainmail was a skirmish game based on D&D, so a lot of what we learned with that game (both from our successes and from our mistakes) wound up pointing us in the right direction with the new skirmish rules.
For the mass battles rules, the big challenge was how to incorporate commanders into the system. Obviously, commanders are important for an army's success, but an individual commander has less direct effect on combat in a big battle game than in a skirmish. We developed a system that lets a commander lead "from the front" of a unit, which gives the unit advantages but puts the commander at risk. Alternatively, commanders can lead "from the rear," where they are safer but unable to contribute to combat.
The command rules were also the most challenging part of the skirmish system. While spells and combat derive directly from the D&D rules, the command rules are all new. Commanders had to be important enough that they would be key to your victory, but not so important that a player whose commander is killed has no chance of winning. Striking the right balance took a lot of playtesting.
Rob: We wanted the skirmish command system to be tactically interesting during play while staying simple. We tried several systems during playtesting and used the one we enjoyed the most, a system that allows basic command by line-of-sight and that gives commanders powerful commander effects that help followers within 6 squares of the commander. The resulting system makes it fairly easy to keep creatures under command, if you build your warband properly. But your opponent can complicate that by attacking your commander. And you won't get the full benefit of your commander's commander effect unless you keep the commander near the rest of your creatures, which increases your commander's risk.
Wizards: People have been asking for years for a mass battles system for D&D, and now it's here. What style of battle were you looking for as you designed it?
Jonathan: Our central goal was to be true to D&D. In a lot of ways, D&D is about heroes, monsters, and special abilities (including spells). So we built a solid system for units of mundane soldiers beating on each other, but we took pains to incorporate the key aspects of D&D game play as well. Heroic commanders bolster the troops that they lead. Mighty monsters, alone or in small groups, serve as shock troops. Wizards and clerics use spells to bring down the enemy and protect their own forces. While tight formations of regular troops play a key role, we wanted a D&D mass battle to look like D&D, with all the monsters, spells, and powerful characters that D&D players expect. The trick was balancing the rules so that powerful individuals contributed to an army's victory without dominating the battlefield.
Wizards: The art for this book is already becoming legendary -- particularly the sketch-to-photograph comparisons. Tell us a little about the art.
Jonathan: Putting art into the Miniatures Handbook was a joy. Original art is a major expense when we produce a D&D book, but with the Miniatures Handbook we were able to use loads of black-and-white concept sketches as well as color photos of the finished miniatures. And that's in addition to the numerous color diagrams and the original art we commissioned especially for the book. In fact, we had to tighten up the text a bit to make sure we had room for all that art.
For the record, the miniatures that we depict in the Miniatures Handbook are the real deal. They're basically what you get yourself when you pop open an expansion pack. We didn't touch them up or repaint them to make them look better. The actual miniatures are really that good.
Wizards: How are the concept sketches created in the first place?
Jonathan: Since this is a line of D&D miniatures, the concept sketches are drawn straight from D&D sources. For example, the images of iconic characters such as Vadania are well established. The concept sketch for the Vadania miniature in Harbinger is based on how she appears in various D&D books. Just as the creatures' statistics are drawn straight from D&D, their concepts sketches are too.
Rob: Most of our miniatures have more new concept work done on them than iconic characters like Vadania. For most miniatures, the pattern is that we write art suggestions and design game statistics to match the art suggestion. Occasionally the finished art inspires us to modify the stats.
With the Miniatures Handbook, we had a great opportunity to plant the images that we in turn wanted to use for miniatures. For example, what could be cooler than a miniature of a samurai in draconic armor? To provide for that miniature, we wrote up the dragon samurai prestige class for D&D and put it in the classes section of the MiniaturesHandbook. Once the dragon samurai became a D&D class, we were able to work up concept sketches based on the class description. Not only with classes but also with creatures, the Miniatures Handbook gave us a chance to create cool new things for D&D that we can now release as miniatures.
For some of the monsters, however, we let the artists have a lot of leeway. For example, we wanted a gaze-attack monster whose gaze attack wouldn't be as lethal as the basilisk's or medusa's gazes, and we wanted it to look really good. So we gave an artist a general description of the monster but let the artist envision and sketch it. When you give artists free rein, you can get some great images. That creature, the one-eyed nothic, is in turn getting made into a miniature for an upcoming set, and the monster makes a good addition to a DM's stable of creatures even without the miniature.
Wizards of the Coast: The Random Dungeon chapter that demonstrates how to use stat cards to generate random encounters is a stroke of genius. Who gets the credit for this innovation, and how did it play the first time it was tested?
Jonathan: The work we do in R&D is really a team effort. I came up with the system, but I wouldn't have done so without input from Mike Donais and others. The first dungeon along these lines was actually put together not using our stat cards but instead using monster tokens made out of glass beads, produced by a small company run by a friend of mine. We pulled beads out of a bag instead of drawing cards from a deck. The very first dungeon crawl we ran was pretty amazing, with lots of action, a sense of growing danger, and a climactic battle with the chief villain and a horde of minions. The PCs were all killed, but it was fun.
So for the Miniatures Handbook, we developed a similar system that uses D&D stat cards. That way, you have the stats you need in front of you as you play. When we played with beads, we used a really streamlined system for the monsters' stats. With cards, you can play full-on D&D with all the crunchy monster stats.
Personally, I've used the random dungeon system as a filler when my Wednesday night game group doesn't have a regular D&D session ready to go. One time we ran our D&D characters from a new campaign through the dungeon. It was a way to test the characters out, see how powerful they were, and get a better sense for how they could work together.