More pseudo-Shakespeare to start a post...I guess when you're a super popular playwright with a ton of work under your belt, it's bound to happen that people quote your stuff, usually wildly out of context. Fortunately for me, both times have been sort of appropriate. I guess all the education paid off; here I thought I killed those brain cells with beer. ANYWAY so minis. This isn't specifically about minis, but physical tokens of all sorts. Original D&D has its roots in wargaming, so it makes sense that miniatures were typically part of the game. As time went on, the role and necessity of using minis decreased, with some games calling them crutches to true roleplaying (which is fucking patently absurd, but whatever). First of all, I don't think minis were ever necessary to play D&D, but they were extremely useful. Even when D&D moved away from purely combat-oriented pursuits, miniatures were still a physical reminder that it was just a game. Conversely, and almost paradoxically, miniatures helped immerse players because it allowed players to identify with their characters in a different way. Visual stimuli affect minds differently than verbal stimuli, and having both only enhances the overall experience.
I don't think we should consider miniatures a holdover from battle maps and position-based combat systems, but simply a method in which the game itself was made more fun. I'll admit I have zero ability to paint minis, but some of my friends are pretty good. It's always cool to show up to a game with a well painted mini, isn't it? Plus, as a DM, sometimes I want an important combat played out with minis; there is a lot less room for argument regarding stuff like who can be hit and if a dragon's breath will reach a character. They're also fun to look at, and play with when you get bored during a game. Which leads into...
Dice are nothing more than a physical token themselves. I've tried to use electronic rollers during games, and quite frankly, they aren't nearly as fun. In fact, they seem to suck out all the fun. Online games and Skype games, there's not much you can do about it, but if I have the option, physical dice all the time. It's a satisfying experience to roll the dice, using jedi powers to alter the outcome. Gamers have unlucky dice or dice that are only used for certain rolls, etc. I have some dice I always use for Cure spells whenever I play a Cleric. Obviously, there's no real rationale behind this besides the fun factor. Why do some people always have to be the boot or hat in Monopoly? They could use any piece, or even a quarter or belly button lint, yet not using their favorite piece diminishes the experience.
By extension, I think this is the main reason I don't like PDFs. Books provide a tactile, auditory, optical and olfactory experience, all in one. I suppose you could taste them, too, but I prefer to avoid such things. PDFs essentially have one path to convey information, which is probably why they irritate me. There's nothing quite like hearing the creak of an old book, smelling the musty insides, perusing its contents under a dim light, feeling the texture of the well-worn pages within. My Macbook Pro has a nice, brushed aluminum outside, but it's not quite the same. For as much as Old School gamers bitch about computer games taking over, why do they seemingly ignore the physical aspects of the game itself? Board games are cool as hell, especially ones with great art. I always thought Candyland was the coolest game when I was really young, simply because of the bright colors and candy artwork. It's probably the same reason I like to browse the AD&D PHB every so often.
I wouldn't say I'm a strong proponent for minis when gaming, but I do think they add quite a bit to the overall fun factor. And not just minis: anything physical that adds to the game. I don't like props, I think those are kitschy, but what about pragmatic things like spell cards? I remember a guy I used to play with in high school who had a box of index cards. On each card was the name and description of a spell his Magic-User could cast. Basic information that made opening the book unnecessary. Whenever the party rested, he'd open the box and pull out all the spells his character memorized, arranged in front of him on the table. When a spell was cast, he'd put it back in the box. I always thought this system was great because much like an analog tachometer on a motorcycle, there was zero information that had to be processed consciously. He could look down and know exactly what his character's capability to cast spells was at any time. Plus, it was convenient for the DM: he'd simply hand him the card and specify the target. The act of putting the spell on a card made that spell just a little more real than if he had simply said he cast it. I don't mean real in the Dark Dungeons sense, but more like the "it's actually having an effect in the game". I think things like this need to be a part of rpgs more than not. I'm not advocating showing up dressed in fucking chainmail to your next session, but maybe bringing a mini or two and some special dice would make the game a bit more fun.