D&D Miniatures - Which to Get and Why
So, one way or another tabletop adventuring is calling your name. You’ve got a playgroup and your brand-new character sheets. You’re absolutely sure you’ve got everything you need, but when you show up, everybody else pulls out their individualized miniatures. Does your gnome artificer need a miniature? If so, where should you get one? Grab a fresh hunk of pewter and some acrylic paints as we go through everything you need to know about D&D miniatures.
Theater of the Mind
The first thing about minis you need to figure out whether you’re a player or a DM is if you’re going to use them at all. Many playgroups get on just fine entirely without them, using what’s called “The Theater of the Mind”. Essentially, you don’t need to physically place and move miniatures if you simply keep track of characters and their relative distance.
Theater of the mind gameplay can save a lot of time setting things up, since you don’t need to bother drawing anything out. DMs that rely more on roleplaying as a driving force will usually use theater of the mind quite often, as it helps to speed past the combat to the next bit of roleplay.
It’s not without its faults though. Theater of the mind gameplay can easily get confused and lead to arguments, and it should really be reserved for encounters that will either be over quickly, or that involve very few combatants or environmental factors. Once the DM is keeping track of multiple area effects and half a dozen enemies, it should really be placed out physically to keep everybody on the same page.
Fundamentally, you don’t actually need anything fancy for your games. Professionally painted miniatures and dungeon features can make for unforgettable games, but they can devastate your wallet as well. If you’re looking for the bare bones, you can get everything you really need for about, eh, $10. Simply grab a bag of glass beads. You’ll often see these sold in craft stores, sometimes dollar stores, or occasionally they get sold as aquarium substrate. You’ll want to get as many different colors and styles as possible, which is why I linked up a grab bag there.
All you actually need for a game of D&D is markers that can clearly indicate the positions of each creature, and that can be differentiated from each other. These little cheap beads do that nicely, and are about as budget friendly as they come. You can even find larger versions to represent large sized miniatures (though I never found any for huge and above).
I actually really recommend getting some of these even if you also plan on getting real miniatures. It can be impossible to predict sometimes what minis you’ll need and how many you’ll need. It’s nice to have some glass tokens to put down when your druid suddenly summons half a dozen pixies.
As a DM especially, it can be daunting trying to upgrade from beads and tokens to actual miniatures. Unless you’re boring and have your players fight the same few monsters over and over, you’ll likely end up needing hundreds of miniatures if you’re trying to get a fully realized miniature for each and every monster.
Pawn collections are a good middle ground. Essentially, you get a bunch of miniature stands and a stack of cardstock with monster punchouts that can slot in and out of your stands. Bam, instant miniature collection. Many of the 5th edition books also released corresponding pawn collections, as did most of the pathfinder books, like this one. Be careful to read the fine print though, for whatever reason some of them sell the stands separately so make sure you end up with both pawns and stands.
If you’re feeling a bit crafty and have access to a good printer, you can even make your own pawns. You’ll still need to buy/make the stands, but I highly recommend the Printable Heroes line. It’s completely free (though please help support the guy’s Patreon), you just need cardstock and a printer that can handle cardstock.
Pawns aren’t without their downsides though, or their lack of sides really. Being essentially featureless from 2 sides, means that at least somebody around the table usually sees your cool mini as a blank white edge. This makes the minis easy to mix up if you’re not careful, and more than once in our games it has led players to grievous error as they act as if friends were foes or vice versa.
If you’ve spent any time at all in comic shops you should have seen at least a few of these. Most pre-painted miniatures made specifically for D&D (or Pathfinder) tend to be simple molds with durable plastic and hit or miss painting quality. But they do provide you with an actual factual miniature to represent your characters or monsters. There’s a million and a half different sets and products like this, but they generally fall into either sets or blind boxes.
When I say sets I mean products like these that are usually in blister pack form with some central theme or an adventure they were made for. If you’re a player and you spot a set that just so happens to have a dwarven wizard miniature that just perfectly matches your next character, go for it. If you’re lucky (or your character is cut from a somewhat standard cloth) these sets are a perfect and relatively cheap way to get a real miniature for your character. Sadly though, most often you’ll get stuck with something that’s at best somewhat close to the character in your head. As a DM these sets rarely contain monsters, but can be an excellent way to flesh out potential NPCs.
When I say blind boxes, I mean products like these that contain a random assortment of pre-painted miniatures from a particular set. I’ve seen players open a bunch of these (they’re not that cheap) hoping for a particular mini for their character and it’s not worth it. I do recommend them for DMs though. For the price (usually around $15) you get a large or huge creature and 3 medium to small ones. It’s not a bad way to build up a variety of creatures for a decent price, and even if you don’t have the exact mini for a monster, you should have something close.
Keep in mind though, you’re buying pre-painted to save the time and cost of painting them yourself. The pre-painted miniatures are never going to look as nice as something hand painted by an expert, pre-painted humanoid faces especially tend to be best viewed from a distance...
Most comic shops worth their salt have a wall dedicated to little pewter and resin miniatures dangling from hooks in their blister packs. This is the option with some of the most customization options, and also takes the most work. There’s a few companies that do this sort of thing, but the most prominent one and the one I’d recommend the most is Reaper. Their catalog isn’t infinite, but if you’re looking for something crazy like a gnome ranger riding their giant insect animal companion they probably have it, case in point.
The other brand worth mentioning is Wizkids. A lot of what they do is the pre-painted stuff, but they also have quite a few resin miniatures with very nice sculpts and often clear plastic “magical” components. Their Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Miniatures line is made up of sets like “human wizards” or “dwarven clerics” that should give you some good options for most standard character builds.
If you’ve painted miniatures before and you’re used to this sort of hobby work, then all of this is a no-brainer. If you’re staring at a couple chunks of pewter and trying to figure out what to do next, it’s going to take some work.
Starting off, you’ll need to clean and assemble your mini and you can find a good explanation of that in this video.
Painting miniatures is a skill that takes years to properly master, but everybody has got to start somewhere. I’ve found a video that goes over the fundamentals with new painters and a small budget in mind.
Alternatively, you can commission a painter to do all this for you. There are countless studios online that do this sort of work, though they’re usually prohibitively expensive. Instead, try asking around your local shops, often you’ll be able to find a local hobbyist willing to do a D&D miniature for a decent cost, varying with their skill level and how detailed you want your mini.
If you’ve scoured the blister pack catalogs and still can’t find the ratfolk cyborg on motorcycle miniature you’ve been dreaming of, you may want to try Hero Forge. Essentially, they have a bunch of high-quality 3D printers and a lot of parts to CG models. They have an intuitive system that lets you pick and choose exactly what you want your miniature to be. They then print up the result and ship it out to you.
It’s a lot more expensive than a mini you can pick up from the local shop (expect to pay between $30 and $50 bucks) but you really can’t get a better degree of customization. You’ll still be presented with the problems of an unpainted miniature, but it’ll be perfect for your character. They’re also working on a colored print system that would be absolutely astounding, but that’s still in testing.
This isn’t a conventional approach, but personally as a DM I’ve adopted my own method of creating my own D&D tokens. I, like many other nerds, have a vast collection of old Magic the Gathering cards. Many of which are absolutely worthless commons and tokens with wonderful art simply collecting dust. Make sure the cards you use aren’t worth anything (I don’t want to be an accomplice to the nerd sacrilege of destroying valuable cards) but otherwise simply pick out character art that you like. Then to free that poor languishing artwork, you’ll simply need a 25 mm hole punch, and some 25mm laser-cut wooden slugs.
Take the hole punch and pop out the art that you’d like to turn into D&D tokens. Superglue them to the slugs and then spray the whole thing with a nice glossy clear coat. These tokens are durable, very easy to store, and are absolutely dirt cheap, assuming you’ve got some disposable cards stored somewhere. I recommend building up a set of monsters and a variety of characters, then make sure you have some extra wooden slugs to make specific characters or monsters when they come up in future games. You can also create large sized creatures in this way with a 40 mm hole punch and similarly sized slugs, but sadly MTG artwork isn’t large enough for huge and above.
If I’m being honest, these tokens have a lot of the same problems as pawn collections do. Flat tokens can sometimes mean players have to stare over the map to see what’s going on. However, I love the ability to make special tokens for my player’s new characters without much notice, and it’s an incredibly cheap way to build up a miniature set.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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