Miniatures existed before D&D ever came about. After all, D&D grew out of military war games that were reenacted with miniatures. As soon as Gary Gygax wrote the fantasy supplement to chainmail, there was a need for fantasy miniatures that, fortunately, was quickly filled.
As early as 1976, fantasy miniatures began appearing in game shops. Shortly after I was introduced to D&D, I discovered Gandalf’s Den (a local gaming shop catering exclusively to D&D and related fantasy role-playing games), located in the Olde World Centre (a renaissance-themed group of shops in downtown Corvallis). It’s a shame that we no longer have anything remotely similar to that wonderful shop. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but they must have stocked every imaginable rpg product and accessory (and at a time when the hobby was still in its infancy).
Today, WotC offers miniatures that are typically lightweight, pre-painted, plastic collectables that you buy sight unseen and hope the package contains minis you need to finish your collection. Well, actually that’s not quite true. Even with this marketing scheme, WotC determined that their minis line wasn’t profitable enough so it was discontinued a few months (?) ago.
There are still a few companies (like Reaper) that do still produce high quality metal miniatures. But these miniatures are only found in blister packs where it’s hard to really see what you are buying and often times the miniature is in numerous pieces that have to be cleaned up with an exacto knife and glued together. That’s not exactly a hardship, but it takes a lot of the fun out of it.
When it was all new to me, I’d go to Gandalf’s Den and look at their miniatures. They were on display, like tiny works of art, where you could pick them up and get a real look at them. It felt more like picking out chocolates in a candy store. The quality may have been a bit more questionable back then but the experience, for me anyway, more than made up for it. It was much more personal which made the miniatures more special.
After a while, boxed sets started appearing. Grenadier released small boxes containing ten miniatures. Unlike WotC’s sets, these boxes clearly showed what each box contained, and the boxes could be opened (this was before shrink wrap) so the miniatures could still be taken out and handled. Each box was lined with foam and had separate compartments for each piece. The care provided for them echoed the respect that was given miniatures back then. They weren’t just tokens to be used in a game but loving friends that helped you capture the feeling of mystery and intrigue as you prepared for your next excursion into the unknown.
For years, similar shops were common and miniatures still held prominent displays, often dominating the scene when you walked into a store. Glass cases started appearing but still at a central location that showed them off well. Even those that locked their displays would happily open them up for you so you could examine each miniature carefully. Painting miniatures grew into an art form and I started seeing professionally painted miniatures popping up in stores as well. These of course were individually painted works of art, painted by other hobbyists, not the mass-produced, impersonal pieces you might find today.
During those early years, I built up quite a collection. When miniatures moved from on top of the counter to shelves under the counter, they became less visible (as well as less mysterious or special) and I spent less time looking at them. When blister packs started to dominate the scene, I stopped buying miniatures altogether. The quality had certainly increased. Sculptors had improved their techniques tremendously, and formulas for combining metals had been perfected allowing more detail to be achieved. In many ways, miniatures were now far superior to the ones in my collection. But I had little interest in these new pieces. They just didn’t contain the magic that I saw in the ones from the early days of the hobby.
A Moment of Stupidity
A few years ago, I sold off or gave away much of what I wasn’t using. I held numerous garage sales and got rid of a lot of junk. Unfortunately, this was during a time when I hadn’t played D&D for some years and didn’t expect to again. I gave away all my books and modules, boxed sets, notes, home-made dungeons, dice, etc. Apparently, my miniatures went into one of my garage sales, never to be seen again.
Later, when I became interested in D&D again, my friends, whom I had given my books and such to, were nice enough to offer them back to me. But the miniatures were gone for good. I’ve picked up a few here and there since then. WotC minis are ridiculously overpriced, poor quality, collectibles and I have no interest in them whatsoever. Reaper has amazing quality miniatures but, imo, they are a bit pricey for what they are (this is in part due to the industry shift from lead to tin and the high tin prices). More than the prices, the packaging, lack of fixed bases, and need for assembly all keep me from getting excited about them. There are other manufacturers as well but not only do they all use blister packs and display them in places where you have to stretch or kneel to see them (which isn’t as easy as it was 30 years ago), they just don’t hold the magic of the ones I grew up with.
Ebay regularly has tons of old miniatures. I’ve looked a number of times over the past couple of years and I can always find a lot of 50 or so miniatures selling for 50 cents to a dollar a piece. Unfortunately, these people don’t seem to have any experience taking pictures of such small items. There is no detail and I can’t clearly see what they are trying to sell so I haven’t ever gotten any that way.
It’s a shame there isn’t a way to look up a model number for exactly what I want and do an ebay search for just the miniatures that I’d like to have. How do you do a search for “a bald male human cleric with long robes and holding up a holy symbol”? Even if you could, imagine doing that for a hundred or so individual miniatures.
Add to that the fact that the more specific the search, the more ridiculous the price will be. Although an average price of $0.50 – $1.00 per item is common for large lots, individual pieces often have insane prices attached to them. I think we can thank WotC and their collectibles for that <grrr>. I’ve seen people asking as much for an individual piece as others ask for a lot of 20 that even contains that same individual piece. The fact that I don’t have any money (and finding even a little now and then to spend on a hobby is extremely difficult) makes the whole process all the more frustrating.
The amount of time required to locate the miniatures I want, at a reasonable price, is more than I want to tackle so I just haven’t pursued doing so yet in hopes that eventually I’ll hear about a better way to rebuild my collection.
Now I have!
I mentioned earlier that Grenadier Models Inc. released boxed sets of miniatures in the early 80s. I actually had forgotten about these kits, and the name of the company that produced them, until yesterday when I ran across dndlead.com, a website dedicated to honoring the artistry of metal miniatures. They have wonderfully clear pictures of those Grenadier boxed sets, and the miniatures they contain. Most of my collection came from these sets. I instantly recognized the boxes but, as I had removed the miniatures and moved them to other storage cases, had completely forgotten about them. Seeing the images of the miniatures though was like a reunion with old friends. It’s been a while since I’ve been hit with such nostalgia.
Pouring over their site was exciting. It recaptured much of the feelings of wonder that I felt when the hobby was new. More than that though, I now had a method of looking more specifically for what I wanted. I had a manufacturer and model numbers (for the various sets) and detailed pictures of what I wanted. It will take a while to locate reasonably priced sets but my search is feeling much more doable now.
Since these are sets, I’m hoping to avoid the problems with individual pieces being so overpriced on ebay. As a collectible, the entire set would need to be intact and in good condition (including the box and lining). Since I’m only concerned with the miniatures, I can search out sets with damaged boxes and probably (crosses fingers) will be able to find some good deals. I’m hoping to scrape together $100 by New Years and start looking sometime in January.
Here are pictures of the Grenadier boxed sets (taken from the dndlead.com site). Each box also contained a sheet listing what was included in the box, as well as pictures of the pieces. In some cases, an image of the actual miniatures is included below as well. Thank the wonderful people at dndlead.com for these fantastic images!
Click each image below for a full size version.