The question arises because some commenters at File770 brought up that minis were unnecessary, and one pointed out that to his kids “Old School” meant “that the game not be bogged down in setting up miniatures/toy soldiers or taking long breaks in the action to consult the rules”.
I’m all for games that don’t require taking long breaks to consult the rules, but I’m also wary of simplifying play by discarding them altogether.
So, can you play Dungeons & Dragons without minis? Of course you can, but it would be akin to playing Monopoly without dice; players would choose which space they landed on to buy whichever property they wanted unless the banker capriciously says otherwise.
I’ve played several RPGs where minis weren’t used for encounters. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But in the case of Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s rules assume that you’re using miniature. You have to toss out a significant chunk of the game’s mechanics to get away with not using them, because suddenly movement rates, weapon and spell ranges and areas of effect become completely arbitrary, left to the DM to decide whether or not a person is where they say they are or doing what they say they’re doing. In a way, this is incredibly unfair to players, each of whom may have a different mental picture of what’s going on in a given encounter. When you have minis out, everyone knows exactly where they are in relation to each other, their opponents and physical obstacles in the environment.
I’m not saying that people who aren’t using miniatures are bad gamers or their games are bad or unfun – I’ve had great fun games in that didn’t use minis – but I will say that they’re playing it wrong. Because when you’re not playing by following the rules, how else can you describe it?
Seriously, though, if you’re running a game or playing in a game, just try it sometime. You’ll be surprised at how much more exciting and involved your encounters can be when everyone shares the same view of the combat situation.