Need miniatures for your D&D game? Explore these options

 

Almost anything can be used to represent monsters on the battle mat. Here, the Dungeon Divas have put Lego bricks to good use.

Almost anything can be used to represent monsters on the battle mat. Here, the Dungeon Divas have put Lego bricks to good use.

It is theoretically possible for the fourth edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons game to be played without a battle map and miniatures, but the vast majority of 4e games employ miniatures as playing aids. There are numerous sources for miniatures – or objects that can effectively serve as miniatures – but their cost effectiveness and availability vary widely, so penny-wise Dungeon Masters (DMs) must carefully compare the needs of their games against the limitations of their budgets.

The list of options for obtaining miniatures presented below is by no means all-inclusive, but it does highlight some of the most common sources for these playing aids, along with this writer’s subjective comparisons of relative cost, durability and utility. 

Wizards of the Coast D&D Miniatures

Wizards of the Coast has been kind enough to release pre-painted, appropriately-scaled figures representing official 4e D&D monsters and heroes. These carry significant benefits: the monsters are representations of monsters from the rule books or modules, or are new “official” monsters; cards, printed with game statistics, are provided with all miniatures; the miniatures are pre-painted, so no time or material investment is required before play; and the rubberized plastic used to make the minis is nigh indestructible.

Unfortunately, the drawbacks of the D&D Miniatures line are almost as significant. The detail on these soft plastic figures isn’t particularly high, and the factory paint work, while improving over the earliest sets, is still far below the ability of a painter just beginning the mini-painting hobby.

Apart from “teaser” figures visible through the packaging, these figures are randomly packaged, making it difficult to easily amass a group of similar creatures for an encounter. For example, the current set, Dangerous Delves, offers five miniatures (including one large-sized mini) for $14.99 U.S., for an average of $3 per randomly selected miniature.

If a DM’s goal is to get five matching, common miniatures – like skeletons or kobolds – several boxes must be purchased. The scarcity of certain uncommon or rare figures compounds the problem. While figure rarity boosts sales for WotC, a DM would statistically need to buy several additional boxes to get several matching uncommon or rare figures.

Third party sellers, such as trollandtoad.com, sell individual minis, as well as pre-sorted groups and lots. Their efforts mitigate the cost factor somewhat, but their efforts are not formally part of the WoTC product offering. Additional lots can be found at online auction Web sites.

Reaper Legendary Encounters

Reaper, a company best known for metal miniatures, released a line of pre-painted plastic miniatures last year. Called Legendary Encounters, the line offers a selection of standard fantasy foes, such as orcs and skeletons, for $2.49 to 5.99 per figure. These figures are comparable in price and quality to the D&D minis, but the problems presented by random packaging are avoided. The drawback here is a severely limited selection of only 23 figures, but a DM looking for those figure types will find these to be a reasonably-priced and convenient option.

Pewter or Lead Miniatures

Given that the Chainmail rules that eventually spawned the D&D game were firmly rooted in the tabletop wargaming hobby, it wasn’t surprising to see the use of lead figures for role-playing games in the early days of D&D. At present, lead figures of the 1970s have largely given way to less toxic pewter pieces. While pewter is more expensive than lead – averaging $4 to $6 U.S. for a single, unpainted figure – pewter is less prone to bending and breaking and holds detail better than lead. In response to rapidly rising pewter costs, some figure companies, including Reaper, have re-introduced lead-based alloy lines to reduce price, but the practice is far from widespread and selection is again limited.

The primary advantages of metal miniatures are knowing exactly what minis are being purchased (i.e., no randomized packaging) and relatively high durability. The disadvantages are a high cost per figure, their unpainted condition – a particularly hazardous state for lead figures – and the time and material investment for DMs who want to use painted figures. The heavier weight of metal figures can make paint chip off, even if protective varnishes are applied, so painted metal figures should be handled as gently as possible.

Online auction sites can play a role in obtaining metal miniatures, also, particularly when someone decides to sell a box of old, lead miniatures. Often, with a bit of cleaning up and repainting, these figures can become fine additions to any DM’s collection for a very reasonable cost.

Paper Minitures

Paper miniatures – slips of paper or card stock printed with different views of characters or monsters – are among the least expensive ways to represent combatants on a battle map. Whether they lay flat, token-like, or if they fold tent-card style into an upright position, paper minis can be obtained at little or no cost, and require very little preparation time. The Great RPG Swindle posted a listing of sites where many such figures can be downloaded free, and sites such as RPGnow or  DriveThruRPG offer very inexpensive downloads, often translating to as little as 50 cents U.S. per figure.

The obvious drawback of using paper figures is durability. Even card stock figures will wear out well before a plastic or metal piece, and a beverage spilled across the gaming table will ruin paper figures almost instantly and permanently. Other hazards unique to paper minis include sneezes and ceiling fans, both of which will indiscriminately scatter combatants far from their all but irrecoverable original positions. 

Games Workshop Warhammer Fantasy Minatures

Games Workshop, producers of the Warhammer Fantasy war game, produce a line of high-quality plastic miniatures. Some of the Warhammer army types match standard fantasy RPG foes: orcs, goblins, elves, giants, zombies and barbarians. Typically, these miniatures are sold in units of 10 to 20 figures, priced at an average of $1.50 to $2 U.S. per figure.

The models come unassembled, with heads, limbs, weapons, legs and torsos molded on a sprue, in much the same manner as the plastic car and plane models. This condition which is both a blessing and a curse.

The unassembled figures are a blessing, in that a DM may select different weaponry and poses for different figures. For example, this writer bought a unit of Warhammer goblins. The package included 20 goblin torsos, but separate sets of arms sufficient for 20 archers and 20 spearmen, along with special arms for champion and musician types. Two sets of goblin legs were also provided: standing infantry and bow-legged cavalry (to be mounted on a unit of wolves, which can be purchased separately). While Warhammer players need to make homogenous units – all spearmen or all archers, for example – a DM using these figures for D&D is under no such obligation. This writer used the various options to create nine archers, nine spearmen, and two leader-types.

The unassembled condition is also a curse, in that the amount of preparation time required to use these figures is exponentially higher. All figure parts need to be trimmed of flash, glued together, and based at minimum, and painting time can be considerable.

Warhammer miniatures are made of a more brittle plastic than D&D miniatures or Reaper’s Legendary Encounters figures. This brittleness allows them to hold a higher level of detail than their rubbery counterparts – as good as metal figures, in some cases – but these figures can break if stepped on or handled roughly. The plastic is still light enough, however, that paint is less likely to chip off from a dropped plastic figure than a dropped metal one.

Improvised and Scavenged Miniatures

Although there is no exact science to obtaining them, miniatures can be modified or improvised from a variety of non-RPG sources. Board games with fantasy themes often have playing pieces that can be used as miniatures, model railroading materials can be used for some types of terrain, craft stores have an array of miniature objects, and even coins, poker chips or aquarium beads can represent heroes or monsters on the battlefield.

The Dungeon Divas are, in this writer’s estimation, the masters of this practice: their post about using Legos as D&D props is positively inspired, and reviewing their blog shows the numerous ways they use household materials to represent game elements.

The relative cost of improvised miniatures is usually low, although the quality varies with the amount of stuff laying about the house.

Have you found other sources of miniatures or terrain appropriate for use with D&D? If so, please consider posting a comment to this post.

About these ads

28 comments on “Need miniatures for your D&D game? Explore these options

  1. Jeremy Southard says:

    I have used PopularCollections.com for some time now. They have a pretty good selection of singles but I think their prices can be a bit high at times. I tend to sort by price and see which ones they have in stock for under $1 USD each before making a purchase. I’ve made several orders with them when looking for specific miniature types.

    I did recently order a case from them – 96 random miniatures from the WotC Unhallowed set for $99, pretty much fit my $1/mini standard and I was just looking for more…not a specific type of monster. Unfortunately, it took them almost 1 month to even let me know they were out of stock and another month to trade my purchase for a different case (Demonweb).

    I do recommend them for the purchase of singles though, just steer clear of buying cases from them.

  2. wickedmurph says:

    Go digital with a program like Maptools. You can make all the digital minis and tokens you want, and play with a projector. I use it for my online game and love it.

    For tabletop 4e I break out my ancient box of minis, and scavenge for friend’s old Warhammer armies, or used tokens from boardgames.

    Buying Warhammer armies on eBay is possible, and can give you a lot of nicely-painted, thematic minis for less price and investment than buying them together.

    • Alric says:

      Another good suggestion. Thank you, Murph.

    • krevyl says:

      I usually use digital tools such as Maptool too, cuts down on costs and it’s really efficient. (I connect the computer to the television so the whole group can see the map.)

      • Philo Pharynx says:

        One of my groups switched to maptools when we encountered a different hazard than we were used to – the terrible toddler. Since we all have laptops it makes things much easier to handle.

      • Alric says:

        I know, Philo – a toddler has taken up residence in our realm, too. And they move to quickly for you to get a good look at them before they make off with your minis.

      • Alric says:

        Connecting to the TV is inspired – especially if you have a large screen. I’ll need to investigate this Maptool thing…

  3. Zzarchov says:

    Poker chips with paper images glued over the center creates nice and useable tokens, I only use miniatures for ship combat however so I tend to use fewer at once, may lead to less congestion.

    • Alric says:

      Hadn’t thought of adding poker chips for durability on paper tokens. I bet steel washers would work, too. That combines some of the durability of metal products with the low cost of paper minis – thank you for the great advice.

  4. kaeosdad says:

    play doh!!! I’m telling you guys, this shit works miracles. or modelling clay, playdohs cheaper tho

    • Alric says:

      Indeed. And when you’re done, you can always run a quick game of Clay-O-Rama, arguably the finest Play-Doh game ever created! :)

  5. dungeondiva says:

    Thanks for the kind words. Our DM, Michelle, is amazing with the props. The Soul Tree prop is one of the coolest. Here’s the link:http://dungeon-divas.com/?p=1418 Sometimes I hate when the Leog people tower over my handpainted mini, but you roll with the punches.

  6. Jeremy Southard says:

    Alric – did you ever look into MapTools?

    I didn’t think of mentioning it with my post as I was only thinking of where to buy miniatures. My group is moving to combining MapTools with the miniatures. I have the design plans for a table that will have the image projected from MapTools up onto a frosted plexiglass top with the 1″ grid. The maps will be colorful and vibrant the DM can take full advantage of the MapTools features all the while still using regular minis and 3d pieces (trees, doors, ect…) on the map as well.

    • Alric says:

      Hi Jeremy,

      I’ve not yet tried MapTools myself – emerging from Grognard-ness has been a slow process for me – but your suggestion about combining an electronic projection with 3d tabletop minis is very creative. Please let me know when you get that setup implemented; I’d love to see it.

  7. Michelle says:

    I have a large plastic bin that holds a lot of found objects. Anytime I find something that could be something else, it goes in the box. Computer parts have become boats, glass icicles have become magic wands, my husband’s engineering homework has become indecipherable magic writing, and so on. There’s also a lot of raw materials: clay, pipe cleaners, felt, rocks, beads.

    As a quilter, it’s part of my general philosophy to save scraps for re-use. It’s also a lot of fun to re-imagine things that were once used for another purpose.

    The new sets in the LEGO Castle line are really great. The LEGO siege engine in the photo for this post, I bought special. It actually shoots! And it comes with a huge troll. It took some research to determine statistics for it, and that was part of the fun.

    When prepping for a game, the building of props is an essential step. Sometimes, it’s the first step. While I build, I use the time to think about the session, villian strategies, plot scenarios, so it doesn’t really take away from my prep time.

    One important rule I have too: Just because it’s a prop, doesn’t mean it’s anything important to the storyline. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s not.

    • Alric says:

      Your work is a fine example of thinking outside the box – even if it all comes out of a box. Thank you for visiting my blog.

      • Michelle says:

        Thinking outside the box…with things in a box…I actually laughed outloud…and scared my cat…

        Coming to Portland soon? I work in a science museum and would love to set stuff on fire for you…

      • Alric says:

        Thank you for the invite – I’m all the way over in New York, so I’m not sure how soon I’ll get out there, but if we ever plan a trip to the west coast, I’ll be certain to Email you.

  8. Malimar says:

    I’ve had great success buying random Mage Knight minis (from Troll and Toad, mostly), which tend to be similar in scale and quality to D&D minis, but cheaper. They come on large Heroclix-style bases, but they break off these bases very easily and can then be glued to more appropriately-sized bases.

    Heroclix minis work, too, though they’re not always as easy to find a use for in a fantasy setting. Dreamblade minis, too, though T&T has been out of stock on them for awhile, and they’re molded to their bases so cutting them off is a harder process, and they’re a noticeably larger scale than the average D&D mini.

    (More details on can be found at http://luduscarcerum.blogspot.com/2011/06/adventures-in-rebasing.html for the interested.)

    Just found this post googling for information on whether Warhammer minis are similarly useful. Seems like they might be; I might give them a try if I decide there’s anything I want a bunch of very similar minis to represent.

    • Alric says:

      I can’t believe that I never thought to include Mage Knight people. That’s an embarrassing omission, but at least you’ve been kind enough to present it here. Thank you.

      And thanks for reading!

  9. james says:

    for hoards i use army men. They do not look right, but they can be found at the dollar store for a bag of about 50, they can also be found in several colors (green, grey, blue, red) without much trouble.

  10. Adam says:

    I always look at the toys offered in kids meals at fast food joints especially when a big fantasy movie is out. If you have or know little kids all you have to do is wait until they get bored with them or the parents step on them one too many times and want to throw them out than snatch them up. If not they usually sell them for a dollar or so if they have the one you I have picked up several monsters and even a few props and map platforms like this over the years.

  11. Thomas says:

    Liked the blog!
    Another thing you can try is to find a local miniature club. They usualy have plenty of scenery you can use, players that might be interested in joining your campaigns and most importantly: people that have collected miniatures for years!
    I recently started collecting miniatures as a DM and now one of them offered me his collection of D&D mini’s at a reasonable price since he’s no longer using them. Just make some friends and ask around, you’ll be surprised what’s out there.
    Also for scenery: check out terraclips form Wyrd (especially the latest line) it’s breathtaking!

  12. Sha says:

    As a returning D&Der, I’m looking into DMing once more. Back in high school we played D&D 2.0 and didn’t use minis. Heck, we barely used a map! But now, 32, those I game with often times have buckets full of minis. I suppose I could ask to use theirs, but I find even their massive collections to be lacking.

    I’ve started looking into paper minis. Printed on cardstock, then glued together, cut close to the edges, and anchored down to a metal washer, these paper minis give you everything!

    1) They’re light weight, especially if you utlize velrcro and put velcro on the metal washer and on the bottom of the mini. Granted, this requires velcro and velcro isnt always super cheap, but its cheaper than any other option and gives you space optimization.

    2) Cheap, and they get cheaper the more you make. Here’s where they beat anything else. Want 30 goblins for your adventure? Print them!

    3) Customizable! Want a custom monster but cant find a fitting mini? With a little work in Photoshop, you could easily create/import/edit ANYTHING into a suitable mini. Ta-da.

    4) Replacable. Some clumsy oaf spills his Pepsi? Looks like you need to print off and make a few more. That sucks. But what about that same clumsy oaf DROPPING his pepsi can? Paper minis bend, but plastic/pewter might just break. You can repair them, but re-printing is better! Also, if you gave your paper minis a quick spray of clear matte spray paint, you can effectively water / smear / grim protect them, at least partially!

    I know people have their own opinions, and some think paper minis are lame. Maybe so, but they are the only medium that most of us can afford (not being millionaires) that will give us the ability to have the range and number of needed minis, to include brand new creatures designed by the DM, fit to scale and printed out just in time for that big adventure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s