The use of 25mm miniatures has always been kept to a minimum as far as my own gaming experience goes both when dungeon mastering and as player in Basic and Advanced D&D. The focus was always on the role-playing itself, with the needs of tactical combat being minimal and either waved away as unnecessary or else rules were made up on the spot as needed. Typically the few miniatures we had were to display a marching order. Rarely they were also used when a peculiar room or set of circumstances required us to state exactly what the characters' positions were. We didn't use battlemats or graph paper. I really suspect now that a lot of our use of miniatures was simply due to thinking that they were cool looking. The fact that the boxes they came in were labeled as not suitable for young children (due to the lead content) probably only made us want to use them more.
My favorites were the old Grenadiers, made for TSR, that came in yellow rectangular boxes with fantasy art on the front. I could never afford one of the larger box sets Grenadier offered, but our characters almost never got to the high levels necessary to battle the rarer monsters found in them anyway. The other brands I liked were Ral Partha, which was decent, and Citadel was fine if the others weren't available. I don't know if I'd feel that way now if I had a lot to review, but that's how I felt then for whatever reason.
Now that I've started playing and am planning to play more, I wondered if I should acquire some miniatures again. I bought some of the old figures I had as a kid on eBay partly out of nostalgia (ok, probably more than was necessary!) and partly because I thought they might be good to have on hand for future sessions. When my eight year old future player Josiah was over visiting one day, he saw the figures and was immediately intrigued. We'd talked a little before about playing some Labyrinth Lord, and even though he didn't fully know what the game was about, the fact that these figures were somehow involved made him even more interested.
I did end up printing out some graph paper and laying some clear acrylic over the top of it on our game table to serve as a visual aid in our first adventure. I had some dry erase markers, and they worked great on the acrylic sheet, wiping off easily with newspaper.
I'm glad I set that up, because for our first session, I think Josiah was very pleased to see a lot of miniatures. I think it was helpful for both new players to have something visual to focus on, being totally unfamiliar with the game. Though we haven't even used them inside a dungeon yet, having them in a town setting was still handy for introducing them as pieces to help the the players visualize their surroundings.
I've begun considering that I might need yet more of these, given Josiah's reaction to them, but I'm reluctant to invest heavily. I've found two solutions to this so far (aside from just outright not using them). One is Discount Hobby's Mega-Mini's, from whom I've ordered a few metal miniature samples. I'll post pictures and give a short review once they arrive. The other is Chessex's gaming stones. I remember using dice or other small objects in place of missing figures for NPCs and monsters, and these gaming stones will work nicely - they're cheap (a few bucks for a couple dozen), you can choose various colors (I bought some white for use as skeletons for example, and some green for goblins), and they fit my homemade battlemap's squares nicely. For now, I foresee using these along with more specific metal figures (representing the goblin chief or shaman, for example) as a compromise.
It may very well turn out that we dispense with figures entirely as we move forward. If we do, it'll be because they only slow down game play and enjoyment, so that'll be fine. I'll still have them for use with later editions of the game, should I ever decide to try them out (Paizo's 3.5 based Pathfinder 2nd edition has gone to the printer's after all). I can't imagine ever playing the newest version of D&D, but the use of miniatures in 4th edition seems mandatory and I'll have some if need be.
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