What Do You Use For Miniatures?

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 £1 (US$2) in inch square base form, a Small creature £0.50 (US$1), and a Large creature anything up to £10 (US$20). For larger minis, you’re looking at US$40 (£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 (£15/$30 for ten orcs, £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.

Comments (18)

Omnius (November 27th, 2007)

After one of our players returns from AIT in a few weeks, I plan on getting everyone to chip in on a nice DLP Projector and a good ~30” screen.

I’d like to hook it up to a laptop and project the battle map onto the screen, and give everyone either a laser pointer or a traditional extending metal model. This will make the battle map easier for everyone to see, remove the need for ugly miniatures (we can’t paint), get rid of the problem of knocking minis over or disturbing the map, and best of all, we can look at an accurate battle map without having to print out a new detailed color map for every battle, or have to look back and forth constantly.

bobologic (November 27th, 2007)

Here are some quick randomly generated thoughts,

Try using graph paper, a pencil, and your imagination. That will save you lots of money. It’s the original way DnD was played, back in 1978 when I started.

I blame this on computer games and short attention spans.

Wake up people, open your mind and use your intellect.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Do you remember the old TSR catch phrase? “Products of YOUR Imaginationâ€?

Otherwise give up dice and paper RPGs and play X-Box or PS2 games; they require no thought or effort, just participation.

If you like miniatures try micro armor, I recommend Panzer Tracks. Or a good Napoleonic era game with 100’s of figurines per player. Bring your own tape measure.

If you like markers, tiles or “chits’ play Squad Leader. There are more published scenarios for that game than there were real calendar weeks during WW2.

Oh I almost forgot my parting shots:
1.) DDO sucked, still sucks, and will always suck!
2.) Grayhawk and Blackmoor rule.
3.) Ebberon was a good concept, but it was just a half hearted effort, so it sucks!
4.) And where are our promised master’s tools? That’s the only software DnD needs.
5.) Were is the CD for the awesome character generator for 3.5?? Will 4.0 have one??

Jo Nemo (November 27th, 2007)

I use old school RPG maker sprites (I make them) then blow them up on a page-designing program like Adobe Pagemaker, and then print them out on little triangle papers.

unique_stephen (November 27th, 2007)

Awesome post, I can see that I will be cutting out little cards over the weekend.

thanks much

Chris (November 28th, 2007)

For hordes of mook monsters, I like to use small snacks - jellies in different colours are ideal. When you kill a monster, you get to eat it!

norm (November 28th, 2007)

Other great sources for miniratures.

Your players, esp if they are collectors, they probably have many dupes, give them some xp or or other benny if they donate them to you.

ebay, buy common/uncommon “lots” that collectors dump for cheap. $.25-.33 for D&D minis.

ebay, buy cases/”lots”/collections of minis from other mini games esp “failed” ones.
Here is my experiences.
Mage Knights, they are *really* cheap. Most are lesser quality paint job and detail compared to D&D minis. many can be used as is for large, 2” sq, creatures, others you will have to rebase, which is easier than it looks. Sharp knife, superglue gel, and some 1” bases. I get round ones from local hobby shop. Mage knights has some interesting figures, dragons, living balista, mounted figures. All the monstrous humaniods, undead, lizard like humanoids, snakes, some animals, plus lots of elemental and plant looking things.

Dreamblade, just bought 2 cases of these cheap. They are good for chaos/muntant/scary type monsters, but not so great for general fantasy types. they come on big bases correct size for large, 2” sq, figures but looks like not as easy to rebase as MK.

When you buy cases of boosters off ebay they are typically cheaper than retail and you can turn around and ebay some of the rares you don’t want to recoup some of your costs. I’m doing this currently with the Dreamblades.

Finally, I’ve not seen it yet but all these minis are gonna start turning up in thrift stores and garage sales as moms clean out their “off to college” children’s room.

I’m surprised you didn’t mention “counters”, lots of free and commercial products offer these. print them out on card stock or laminate/glue them to thicker cardboard. I use them for summoned creatures, familiars, animal companions and creatures that typically occupy space with others such as insect swarms and mounts.

Patrick (November 28th, 2007)

A good way to go is to use card tokens. They’re flat, but so’s most people’s battle-mat, so that’s not such a big loss. Ask each player to provide you with an image of his/her character. With Photoshop or what-have-you, make a 1-inch circular portrait for that character. Print it on paper and, if desired, stick it on some cardstock. Do the same for NPCs and monsters on size-appropriate tokens.

1. You can write on them if you won’t need it again or don’t mind making more. Mark off hit points, like previously said.

2. You can show exactly what the creature looks like. Even more precise than having the mini. If one orc is different from the others, use a different image.

3. Have a big envelope full of human NPC faces. Everyone the PCs meet gets one. The PCs never know that the character’s “not important” because he just gets a penny standing in for him.

4. Be really elaborate and obsessive (notorious DM trait). Make a nice border. If the PCs are knowledgeable about the monster, use some cool text and label it. Finally get some use out of all those Elfworld and DeviantArt accounts you keep bookmarking.

Nigel (November 28th, 2007)

"Miniatures, or ‘minis’, are a fantastic tool that can enhance any combat-based Dungeons & Dragons game."

For a long time I was in the same boat where I thought that miniatures brought this awesome dynamic to combat. With how the rules have been changed in 3rd edition, miniatures really let you flesh out exactly how your combats look from a bird’s eye view. They let you employ serious tactics, allow the players to come up with complex plans involving their feats and skills to tackle truly difficult challenges and vast hordes of monsters at once. The enhancement to combat that miniatures provide was invaluable to the new “tactical” D&D found in the books today.

But quite honestly, I hate miniatures and have completely stopped using them. I have three major problems with them: 1. They slow down combat, 2. They turn combat into a game of rule-finesse and tactics and 3. They take the player out of the game and make combat into this sort of board game rather than this imagined, fast-paced intense experience.

Let’s explore this for a moment:

1. There are so many rules in 3.5, rules that really do cover just about every situation, that giving everyone a map and miniatures brings out all the rules. It seems like the organization of the miniatures on the map would speed things up, but in my games it doesn’t. If you give a player all of the options, they’re going to explore them, and being able to see everything going on as you look down from above gives you a lot of options.

2. Combat is chaotic. There’s nothing wrong with employing some tactics in your combat, but when you can see everything that’s going on from an outside perspective, you have the opportunity to be a lot more tactical than combat should normally allow. This isn’t an MMORPG, despite Wizards’ every effort to make it one. We don’t need a top-down view that we can meticulously plot initiative order, who’s healing, who’s buffing, who’s going to be the meat shield, who’s casting what dastardly spells from behind the lines, what specific shadow the rogue is hiding in, the number of feet away an enemy is, the exact number of enemies you can catch with a fireball or chain lightning, or any of the other overly-detailed crap that miniature-based combat brings about. This is combat, and combat is chaotic. Your character has SIX SECONDS to decide the best course of action AND ACT. There’s no time for intense calculation on any front.

3. D&D is not an MMORPG, and it shouldn’t be played like one. Imagine it. Their shrieks and screams send chills up and down your spine. The enemy army looks almost undead, their blackened armor hanging from their bodies like ruined, blood-drenched rags. You can see their pale skin shining under it in the moonlight. They keep shouting their battle cries in their dark tongue, and you’re almost glad you can’t understand their language. All at once, they begin to charge down the hills from every direction around. You take another quick glance around. You’re certain you came with several hundred men, but watching what seems like an endless sea of dark soldiers descend upon you has a funny way of making several hundred men seem like nary a couple dozen. You’re on the front line, and as you tighten the grip on your sword and raise your shield, your men do the same and prepare themselves for death. In an instant, the horde crashes against the lines, and you begin to fight for your life.
Now, from this point on, combat should be centered on your character and your character alone. How far can you see in combat? How many enemies can you see? Imagine the intense combat scenes in Braveheart or any other movie with similar scenes all being shot from above instead of down in the field. When you throw a scenario out there like the example above, you’re getting your players into character. Combat should stay in character. When you build up a battle and then rip your characters out of it, forcing them to “watchâ€? the whole thing from a bird’s eye view, no amount of descriptive flavor or detail you can provide about the combat will be able to overcome the fact that they can see everything right there on the table in front of them. Starcraft, Warcraft, Command & Conquer… top-down tactical games like this are fun when you’re managing the whole army, but you’re not managing anything in D&D, you’re the Space Marine, you’re the Orc, you’re driving the Mammoth Tank.
I used to run every combat with miniatures, but it took a long time to figure out what was slowly making our games less fun. We narrowed it down to this after a long time and we ripped it from our sessions and they’ve been 100% better since. We run everything relatively, leaving it up to the DM to set the pace, decide what does and doesn’t happen, and decide how things are going. Yes, it’s always EASIER to just throw some figurines down on a battle map to describe where everything’s at, and yes it ensures everyone sees the same thing, but that’s not what a game based on our imagination and creativity is about. So what if Klint thought the Orc was over to his left when he was actually right in front of him? Maybe he moved? Combat in real life doesn’t go in “turnsâ€? anyway, it all happens at once. Who cares if you can’t calculate who all will be in the blast radius of your fireball? If you’re throwing balls of fiore around in the battlefield, chances are good someone you care about could get hurt. Play it safe and overthrow the thing.
Sorry, this is a longer rant than I wanted to throw out there, but I’m really passionate about removing miniatures from D&D. It’s a two front attack on people who actually enjoy pen-and-paper gaming and don’t need it to play like a tactical MMORPG. One the one front, they’re using it to be able to get by with rules that cover everything. It also makes it easier to simplify the rules if everything is done on (and played like) a board game. On the second front, they’re attacking your wallets. Not only do they stick it to you with books that cost over $40 a piece, but now you’re required to drop hundreds (thousands, for some people I know) on miniatures to keep up with the board game.

Down with miniatures, I say! :)

freyar (November 29th, 2007)

Hmm, this has turned into a debate about whether minis are good or not. Back to the original topic, I enjoy sculpting my own minis (simple designs, mind you!) out of modeling clay. I use Crayola’s Model Magic because it is clean and dries quickly. Then I just paint over it with acrylic paints. I also made a bunch of generic “counters” in the same way. Works well for me, and I don’t have to worry about finding exactly what I want in a store (or worse, a randomized box).

Dirtycajun (November 30th, 2007)

As it turns out Starburst are the correct size for most battlemats. Need a huge creature? Tape 9 of em together. Besides being able to write on them for numbers or various colors being the defining attribute the player gets to eat them when they kill the creature. This leads to interesting player matches as everyone guns for the red or pink ones… those elusive pink ones…

Zordran (January 18th, 2008)

The reusable tiles are a great idea. I have very few miniatures: besides a few PCs, I have a wizard, a cleric, a troll, two hellhounds, several goblins, and a few random animals, so anything Large size is either a troll or a hellhound, and anything larger gets… weird. MY art skills are extremely limited, and I had one fight that was an evil cleric and his two skeletal hydras, and the hydras I just drew on the battlemat on the spot with a marker, and their big bubble bodies and round heads on long necks ended up looking like wildflowers.

Besides that, I found that I like the tactical element (as a recovering rules lawyer) of the battlemat, but I forget to give descriptions because, duh, it’s right there! What are you, blind? The tiles sound like a happy medium (and relatively cheap at that).

Sandrinnad (January 31st, 2008)

Each player has a personal miniature no bigger than an eraser (lego guy, rubber dinosaur, actual miniature, whatever they prefer) but other than that it’s pretty much whatever’s to hand. Mostly we just use them to indicate marching order and general combat position. Sometimes they just hang out while we get on with the gaming :)

Titus (March 23rd, 2008)

I’ve been dming for 8 years. and What i’ve always used is lego. I have tonnes of the old midevil castle sets from the 80s, and tonnes of others that I got through the years. Lay down some flat green bases, build your dungeon areas on the go. Takes a lil setup time when you are playing but my pcs love it. Lego guys make decent miniatures and the actual D&D minis are pretty much spot on for scale with the lego guys. Its what I had kickin around, and it works great.

Anthony (April 3rd, 2008)

Number 8: Nigel…

I never thought of it that way. I really like having the players play from their own persective. There is an orc to your right, your pal on the left is looking bad and arrows keep pelting everyone from somewhere ahead…

That is far more exciting than the map. If you all don’t believe how lame it can get, check out this mini’s demo from wizards of the coast: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/mini_demo/DNDMinis.asp

It is far more like chess than roleplaying.

But if you take that thought too far, you could even argue that dice take you out of the roleplaying mindset, and there are in fact players who don’t bother with dice. Bizzare.

Anyway, even if I follow Nigel’s advice, I would still need a battle map so I could apply the rules correctly and let each player know what they see from their perspective.

Also, if they see the relative size of a dragon to their own token, it can help in the roleplaying too.

If I follow Nigel’s thoughts, I might use my pc to monitor where people are, or a map w/ minis behind my DM screen.

I created a word document and created ovals to match the sizes and printed them out. I used lots of similar and different colors, so there are 10 red ones, I can use those if there are 10 orcs, but there are a few of other colors. I can use those for an Orc Leader or Archers. Etc. It would be great to cut up a thin whiteboard and use that to track HP, but then the players would know how many they have. I prefer to say, wow, you did 10 points of damage, but it doesn’t look like that took a lot out of him!

Remember POGS? I want a set of cheap multicolored POGS like I described above made commercially. I bet those would sell!

KasraKhan (July 19th, 2008)

Sometimes I do away with miniatures entirely, especially in a chase scene, or in moving ships or mounts. Its not the same moving one horse 10 squares and then moving the next horse 8, it happens all the same time!

And yes, I am bizarre. I have done away with dice in moments where I don’t want PCs to worry about hit points. I don’t want them to know exactly how close to death they are. I don’t want them to fret about the Balor’s vorpal sword. I want their decisions and nothing else to carry the day. It also adds flavor to dice combat as well, the PCs get used to describing how they attack rather than “Full attack on the ogre”. Sometimes I reward strategic thinking with +1-3 bonuses on attack or damage, but they don’t know when I do.

Back to the topic at hand, I use “blots”. If anyone is familiar with pokemon damage counters, the glass beands - that’s what I’m talking about. Different colors for different mobs, unique colors for PCs. Decorate fish tank stones work just as well. It keeps the players knowing where they are, but forces the imagination. All miniatures should be are placeholders, not the character. The character is in the sheet and the guy who plays it.

Here’s a breakdown:
Blots for small and medium
Put a blot on the point of intersection of 4 squares for large.
Huge are MTG cards.
Garguantuans take the form of a dice or deck box.
Colossal combatants normally don’t enter the map, and these encounters are almost always fought without miniatures. The map ceases to matter when fighting a Red Wyrm.

These are all items I owned anyway, so cost effectiveness is perfect. I use various colored and sided dice for land features, and although it is confusing at first, I have been running with my players for quite a while, and they know what a green d6 means.

Josh (January 30th, 2009)

I typically use a very large cutting mat with a piece of Plexiglas over it, then I make 1 inch laminated squares, so I can write on the squares with dry erase markers, and sketch up a map right on the tabletop over the cutting board. Perfect battle grid. My players, if they can’t afford miniatures, just get the counters or tokens that magic players love to use so much. Each player has to have a different color for ID purposes, though.

Nick (June 6th, 2009)

Our DM decided to use a basic lego mat with small cylinders that only take up one circle, in order to represent a person on a five foot square with the eight accessible sides around them. Each person picks their color, then the enemies are typically black or brown cylinders. It’s really quite handy, if you happen to have the cylinders that is. =]

Jonathan Drain (December 8th, 2009)

I have a new article up on this topic at Kobold Quarterly: Fistful of Lead: All the Monsters on a Budget.

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