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Cheap Alternatives to Miniatures

posted Monday, September 6th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceNone of the Above

I was researching cheap alternatives to miniatures again and got some interesting results.

In 2007 I calculated from the RttToEE miniatures list that a twenty level campaign will use approximately 540 different miniatures.

In 4E you have thirty levels but fewer encounters per level, so 20 levels in 3E has as many encounters as 26 levels in 4E. That works out to 623 different miniatures over two years, and as D&D 4E uses more monsters per encounter you’ll often need duplicates.

Supposing each has an average of four, minis cost an average of $2.50, and you can use another mini as a stand-in half the time, you’re looking at 1,246 minis costing $3,000+ over two years or $30 per game session, most of which is footed by the DM.

Since miniatures are not optional like in 3E, this means the “proper” to play D&D is both more difficult and more expensive than its competitors: video games including WoW and and other RPGs including 3E.

In a search for alternatives I rediscovered Newbie DM’s post on “minis” made from Gametable/MapTools type pogs, printed out and affixed to metal penny washers. I’ve found 25mm washers for £1.82 per hundred, and a 25mm hole-punch for £5. At this price, your 1,246 minis will cost £30/$50 in penny washers and no more than £30/$50 in glue, printer ink and paper. This is so much more affordable that I’m surprised every D&D group isn’t doing it already.

I also discovered a German boardgame website selling coloured 25mm wooden discs for 13 eurocents / 16 US cents, about a quarter of the price of Alea Tools’ magnetic discs which are popular for tracking status effects in 4E.


  1. Pseckler

    September 6th, 2010

    1) I find miniatures in 4e to be as optional in 4e as they are in 3e.

    2) You only use stand-ins half the time? For example, I use the same orcs I’ve had since 2002 for orcs, hobgoblins, bandits or whatever medium humanoids show up.

    3) Recently I got into Caesar Miniatures.. they make a historical line of 1/72nd plastic minis (like those plastic army men, kinda, but smaller) that come 30+ to a box for $10. And recently they came out with boxes for fantasy – so they have an undead box, a box of orcs, box o’ goblins, (etc). 35 miniatures for 10 or 11$ is a great deal.

    Do a google search for Caesar miniatures. I was shocked at how little they cost.

  2. Wally

    September 6th, 2010

    I guess I’m lucky that I have lots of miniatures due to wargaming over the years. I do like the washer with printing idea as well as Caesar Miniatures though. I think everything has to do with your budget and what you feel you really need.

  3. The Hopeless Gamer

    September 6th, 2010

  4. Xerosided

    September 6th, 2010

    My group switched to NewbieDM’s tokens immediately after his tutorial went up. They’re so much cheaper and easier to manage than minis, and the trade-off of having a tangible, three-dimensional representation of your combat is that you can feasibly make a token to represent each monster, with no stand-ins or repeats.

    Through experience, we found that we preferred the metal washers to the wooden craft discs, as they were heavier and neater and not as prone to shift and fly all over the board on a whim.

    Also, we found that making double-sided tokens for each monster was impractical in the long-term, given the short life-span of your typical D&D monster.

    Instead, we use one side for a monster from encounter A, and the other side for a monster from encounter B or C, and then we use 1-inch squares of brightly colored foam paper (easily available at craft stores) to represent the various status effects, including bloodied. PC tokens are still double-sided, however.

  5. Randolph

    September 6th, 2010

    Newbie DMs token tutorial was outstanding and my group loves the tokens and the endless variety of pictures that can be used to represent monsters. They also find having their character portrait on the token as opposed to a generic class miniature gives them a sense of attachment to both the token and the combat they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. Tokens have improved the immersion in our campaign.

  6. karmakamikaze

    September 7th, 2010

    I’ve never used real “tokens” for D&D. I’ve sometimes used stand-ins, coins, pieces of paper, dice, etc. But that’s only if combat gets a litle complex or muddled for any of the players, just to keep track of where everyone is.

    Never bought minis. Never really plan on it, as cool as they actually seem.

  7. BlueWolf

    September 7th, 2010

    I use Lego people for miniatures and I have found that this works great for my group.

  8. mike

    September 7th, 2010

    Something I’ve started doing in a similar Lego vein is to use a 1×1 brick as a medium creature or PC/NPC (adding a little gem on top and changing color allows players to know who they are, with red being the default enemy color). The grid I’m using is 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch, so if the creature is larger, i can make a larger mini, filling up the space that the creature would fill.

  9. TashaG

    September 7th, 2010

    I have played with many different things used as playing pieces. I always get the best feeling of immersion from having decent miniatures. A good cheap substitute is Cardboard Standups (Steve Jackson Game’s Cardboard Heroes were the first).

    http://www.pigames.net/store/default.php?cPath=27 Precis Intermedia’s Disposable Heroes are a nicely priced alternative. They have a version that allows unlimited printing of only the mini you want to use.

    Also, I have found that Ebay is a great source of those plastic D&D minis. Many of the types of monsters that you encounter in large groups (ie Goblins and Kobolds) are common in the sets and can be purchased for around a $ 0.25US which is incredibly cheap. Heck if you look around you might be able to find damaged or roughly used miniatures there that include the more rare pieces for little money as RPers don’t generally care about the stupid cards.

    So even if you don’t have a huge budget you can get a nice set of miniatures for pennies and have nice looking combats you players will thank you for.


  10. Brandan Landgraff

    September 8th, 2010

    One advantage JD leaves out of his assessment of the washers is how much more convenient they are for the DM on the move than traditional minis or many other forms of stand-ins. I’ve got two toolboxes full of regular minis, which can make for a pretty hefty bit of space requirement if I decide to travel to do some DMing out of town–whether for friends or at a convention. The washer tokens, on the other hand, stack quite neatly and can be packed high volume into a relatively small container, leaving me that much lighter in the luggage department. Plus if I happen to lose some at a con table, or under the couch, it’s far less to be concerned about…

  11. Marshall

    September 10th, 2010

    I second the use of stand-ups or “flats”. A great place that you can get them for free is http://www.onemonk.com . Instead of printing on card stock I print on regular paper, then laminate them for durability. They have a ton of different bases that you can make or you can buy a bunch of standee bases from places like http://www.em4miniatures.com/ or I believe the above mentioned Precis Intermedia has some for sale as well. Since they store flat you can bring a ton to the game table in a small container and if one gets lost or damaged just print another.

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