For some reason, a small number of very vocal people on the Net are pushing the idea that early versions of Dungeons & Dragons stressed tactical combat and used miniatures and battlemats. I suspect this is being done to try to counter arguments that WOTC editions of D&D, particularly the new fourth edition, are more of a tactical minis game than a roleplaying game.
Whether Fourth Edition is more of a tactical minis game than a roleplaying game is debatable. What is not debatable is that early editions of TSR D&D handled combat very abstractly and did not need miniatures or battlemats to play — even though the game evolved out of the fantasy supplement to a set of medieval miniatures rules. Very few people used miniatures at all in the early years — there were not even any for sale until a couple of years after the publication of Original D&D. Once they became available, most players did not use them in combat, at most they used them to show their party’s marching order.
Miniatures (or counters to replace them) were not written into the rules — other than occasional mentions how they added visual appeal or could be useful to show where characters and monsters were in combat — until the Player’s Option books were published for “revised” second edition AD&D. There had been D&D-based mass combat miniatures games (Swords & Spells for OD&D, Battlesystem for AD&D), but these were for fighting out battles between armies, not for use in normal roleplaying encounters. Some players who loved detailed, tactical combat adapted such games for individual combat and used those system in place of the normal abstract D&D combat system, but this was unusual.
The rules to early versions of D&D do not support the idea that minis were suggested, let alone required, for combat. Not only is the combat systems used in OD&D, AD&D 1E, B/X D&D, and BECMI D&D very abstract, but those rules and the examples of play therein seldom even mention minis. Here are some examples from the 1970s.
Here is a link to a description of a sample OD&D combat from a FAQ originally published in TSR’s The Strategic Review newsletter in 1975.
From a column by Gary Gygax in The Dragon #15 (June 1978):
For about two years D&D was played without benefit of any visual aids by the majority of enthusiasts. They held literally that it was a paper and pencil game, and if some particular situation arose which demanded more than verbalization, they would draw or place dice as tokens in order to picture the conditions. In 1976 a movement began among D&Ders to portray characters with actual miniature figurines.
From the Holmes Basic Set’s description of the game:
The Dungeon Master designs the dungeons and makes careful maps on graph paper. The players do not know where anything is located in the dungeons until the game begins and they enter the first passage or room. They create their own map as they explore. While only paper and pencil need be used, it is possible for the characters of each player to be represented by miniature lead figures which can be purchased inexpensively from hobby stores or directly from TSR Hobbies. The results of combat, magic spells, monster attacks, etc., are resolved by rolling special polyhedral 20-sided dice which come with this game.
Later in the book, the author explains why OD&D used inches for distance instead of feet or yards. Note that is only says wargames were used to using these measures, not that they used minis to fight out D&D combats.
Since DUNGEONS & DRAGONS was originally written for wargamers who are used to miniature figures, distances are often given in inches. Inches can be converted to feet by multiplying by ten: 1 inch = 10 feet, 2 inches = 20 feet, etc. This scales the movement appropriately for maneuvering the figures on the top of a gaming table.
My personal experience starting in 1975 was: no miniatures, but as DM I did sometimes sketch the positions of stuff in battle on a blank sheet of paper. I did buy a copy of Chainmail when I bought my brown box set of D&D because it was mentioned in the D&D booklets, but then quickly discovered it was not actually needed as the alternative system in the D&D rule books was better and in the rule books (i.e. one less book to look stuff up in). I played with and knew of over 20 different area groups in 1975-1978 era and only one used Chainmail for combat. Most did not even own a single copy of the Chainmail rules between their players.
By 1977, my group was using miniatures to track the “standard marching order” of characters. However, the miniatures were not used in combat at all. Heck, they were only moved when the marching order of the characters made a permanent change. We had tracked marching order on a piece of paper, but one of the best miniatures painters in the area (he was a Napoleonics gamer) joined my game in early 1977 and had this beautifully painted miniature for his character. He offered to paint a figure for all the regulars if they would buy the figure and give him a couple of bucks for his materials. Everyone took him up on it.
When Melee and Wizard came out from Metagaming, most players in my group liked them and enjoyed playing them while waiting for people to arrive or at other odd intervals. So we decided to try using them to fight out combats in the game. That lasted for one game session. After that experience, we decided that using those tactical games for combat made combat too time-consuming and made the entire session too focused on combat. We went back to D&D’s abstract but fast combats. While we enjoyed playing tactical skirmish games as independent games, turning RPG combat into a tactical skirmish game was not the way we wanted to go.
Early versions of D&D were not designed for detailed tactical combat nor did they need minis and battlemats to use their combat rules. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply incorrect.