posted Tuesday, November 27th 2007 by
Dungeon Mastering Advice
Miniatures, or ‘minis’, are a fantastic tool that can enhance any combat-based Dungeons & Dragons game. In theory, they’re almost necessary for the game, with long-time Dungeon Masters owning huge collections of monsters. In practice, however, it’s not always feasible to own a complete set. Aside from the limits of what’s available to buy, few Dungeon Masters have the pockets deep enough to buy every single miniature they are likely to need, and many forgo the use of minis entirely.
A quick Google suggests that a Medium sized creature costs about Â£1 (US$2) in inch square base form, a Small creature Â£0.50 (US$1), and a Large creature anything up to Â£10 (US$20). For larger minis, you’re looking at US$40 (Â£20) for a gargantuan black dragon (4 inch base) and $74.99 for the colossal red dragon (6 inch base). These are prices for the official D&D miniatures line, prepainted, and plastic – expect to pay more than this for metal miniatures. Warhammer miniatures are a ready source, but somewhat limited in variety, and more expensive (Â£15/$30 for ten orcs, Â£33/$66 for fifteen). In either case, generic miniatures are often cheaper, but come unpainted and the selection available can be unpredictable.
The only real issue with miniatures is the sheer number required. The RttToEE miniatures list suggests that the average campaign will need approximately 27 miniatures per level: that’s two per encounter, or 540 over the course of a twenty-level campaign. This isn’t even counting multiples: at an arbitrary estimate of double, you may need over one thousand miniatures to complete a twenty-level campaign, many of which will cost a premium and only be used once. Even then, many monsters (including those published in monster books) don’t even have minis available to buy. This brings us to the topic of miniature stand-ins.
Straightforwardly, a “stand-in” is anything you use in place of a miniature. It’s effectively impossible to always have the right miniatures, but there are a variety of options open to you depending on your budget, some of which can replace miniatures completely. Follow the link to after the jump, where I’m examining a list of options for quality and cost-effectiveness.
Other Miniatures: By re-decorating or simply re-using existing miniatures, you can often find a reasonable stand-in. For example, an orc can become a zombie (perhaps it’s an orc zombie?), or an ogre can easily stand in for an ogre mage. In either case, a quick repaint or a few modifications can go a long way to preserving authenticity. The fewer miniatures you have, however, the harder this is. Eventually you end up replacing dragons with ogres or oozes with skeletons, and the whole thing begins to get silly.
Cost-effectiveness: High, but you still need to own enough miniatures for this to work reliably.
Quality: Medium to high, depending on the completeness of your miniatures collection.
Home-made Miniatures: If you can’t find a miniature you want, make your own! This is particularly feasible with simple creatures – Sean K Reynolds’ gelatinous cube mini is a good example of this. Especially for rare creatures which you’re only going to face once, a single miniature can be created from plaster of Paris or similar poured into a hand-made mould. It doesn’t necessarily need to be durable if it’s only going to be used once. There are entire websites such as Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture dedicated to this topic.
Cost-effectiveness: Medium. Arts and crafts materials usually work out to be quite cheap if you use them a lot.
Quality: Medium, depending largely on your art talent and what minis you’re making.
Nearby objects: I have fond memories of a D&D campaign where, at one point, we fought a Large red dragon represented by a fishing rod spool. Other popular miniature alternatives include dice, small boxes, chess pieces and units from other games.
Cost-effectiveness: Very high. It costs you nothing since you’re simply using nearby objects.
Quality: Low. It’s just not the same when you’re fighting a box of dice.
Tiles: An interesting idea I’ve been working with lately is the use of glazed bathroom mosaic tiles in place of miniatures. Simply write or draw on the tiles with a board marker or other non-permanent pen. An advantage to this approach is that you can annotate the tiles with information such as current hit points and status, which will be immediately visible to all players. You can also buy ready-made printed tiles, but these often cost something in the realm of real miniatures.
Cost-effectiveness: High. You still have to buy the tiles, but they’re inexpensive and re-usable.
Quality: Medium. It’s very practical, but it lacks the appearance of the real thing.
Card stand-ups: One of the best ideas I’ve heard (from a commenter on an earlier post) is the use of printed card stand-ups. Take any picture of the creature (many of these available for free at Wizards of the Coast site or D20SRD.org), print it twice onto paper (flip one horizontally), stick these to each side of a piece of card and stand it vertically on a base. The result is a perfectly serviceable stand-up representation of a creature that doesn’t look too out of place on the board with real minis. You can also simply print off flat tokens, but I think the stand-ups are worth the extra effort.
Cost-effectiveness: High. It’s just printed paper stuck to card.
Quality: Medium to high. It’s flat, but it’s a fully stand-up representation of a creature.