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 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.