As most of you know, I got rid of all my miniatures some time ago. When I returned to D&D, I wanted to rebuild my collection but prices and perceptions are now greatly skewed from what they were 30 years ago. If money was no object, I would buy every mini on reaper.com and a few other select high-quality sites. However, as I am now part of the penny-pinching set, I need to look at some alternatives.
Start by identifying which minis are the most important.
Right off the bat, I make a distinction between monster miniatures and PC miniatures. It’s nice to have a mini for every monster you want to run. But in practice, I really have never used monster minis. If the party runs into 20 skeletons and you place 20 skeleton miniatures on the board, it is rather complicated indicating which one you are referring to. Instead, I place one mini out there, to show players what it looks like, and fill in the rest with dice. I use a number of different color sets of six-sided dice. We then refer to monsters as Red2 or Black4. It’s convenient, speeds up combat, and doesn’t require a bunch of expensive miniatures. As I can afford it, I will add one mini of each monster but that’s probably it.
Miniatures for characters is an entirely different situation. Every player wants a mini that looks like her character. If you are running a Dwarf Fighter with a Battleaxe, you are not going to want to use a miniature of a Hobbit Thief with a Dagger. Technically, all you need is something that distinguishes one character from another, but players bond with their characters and take miniature selection very seriously.
Who Supplies Them
You can, of course, require each player to provide her own miniature. This is probably the most logical approach.
However, many players tend to drag their heels when it comes to doing this sort of prep work. And new players won’t know that they need one in advance or even where to go. When you start a new campaign, the players won’t know in advance what type of character they will be creating so they won’t know what kind of mini they will need. In an existing campaign, sometimes a player will forget to bring her mini along to a game. There are all sorts of issues that just make it impractical for players to supply their own minis all the time.
You may find a way to make it work, but in our circle it has always been the job of the DM to stock a selection of miniatures for players to choose from.
How Many Do You Need?
Some DMs allow a great many races and classes. Every combination of those could easily amount to hundreds of minis. That doesn’t even take into account different weapons, gear, or gender. Plus, you may have more than one player at a time that wants to run the same combination of race and class. Accommodating all the options may run into thousands of minis. That might be nice to have but who could afford them at $5+ per and where would you store them if you had them?
Realistically, all classes are offshoots of one of the four core classes (Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard). My game only allows five races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling). That’s 20 combinations. Double that to have one male and one female. Double that again to have a tiny bit of weapon selection. That’s 80 miniatures. Far better than thousands but even at $5 each (a modest price for high quality minis), that’s $400.
If I had it to spare, I would go that route. But I don’t. Even if I did, I would still have quite a chore ahead of me.
Many minis require some assembly. I don’t want them to flop around in their base so they need to be glued. I also like the extra weight of a coin or metal slug on the bottom. Plus I think they look far better with at least a base coat. That’s a lot of work without even thinking about actually painting each piece.
What’s the Alternative?
It turns out that there are a great many alternatives to spending a fortune, and investing a ton of time, to build a collection of miniatures.
Low Quality Miniatures
The most direct alternative is to lower your requirements. I prefer high-quality professional miniatures with a great deal of detail. But there are also some very inexpensive miniatures out there. Some aren’t too bad but most are very poor quality with deformed faces and vague blobs indicating gear. Not the prettiest alternative but if you can pick up a hundred or so at 25 cents apiece, it may be worth considering. You can also find deals on eBay occasionally.
Go to toy stores, dollar stores, and garage sales. There are kid’s toys all around you that will make wonderful miniatures. Army men are just the right size and hold paint well. A small knife and some patience can turn a machine gun into a sword. I have seen bags of skeletons and zombies of the same size. Best of all, these toys are priced cheap! You can often find a whole bag of minis for a couple of dollars.
Build Your Own Miniatures
Many D&D stores, as well as most arts and crafts outlets, have wire that can be used to make frames and clay that can be used to attach to the frame and mold into whatever miniature you want. I’ve heard from a number of folks that have gone this route, and are very happy with their results, even though they claim they have no artistic talent.
Tokens have become a very popular alternative to miniatures. In its most basic form, a token can simply be a colored poker chip or other item that is different from those used by the other players.
However, when the term “token” is used, most people think of something a bit more stylized. The most common tokens involve a paper portrait of the character or monster taped to a heavy backing. A round wooden disk or metal slug makes a great backing. These can be easily found at most crafts stores or hardware stores. A 1″ diameter, 1/8″ to 1/4″ high backing usually works best. You can also find 1″ round paper punches at most crafts stores. You can use the punch to cut out the picture you want to affix to the backing. Tape or glue both work well to attach the picture. Some people put the same image on both sides of the backing and then add a red border to one of them. That way you can flip the token to the side with the red border to indicate that the character is bloodied.
Another cheap alternative is to create paper stand-up miniatures. They are simply a paper cutout, with the image of the monster or character on one or both sides and tabs on the bottom to affix to a weighed base, such as a penny, to help it stand up. You can find some free samples of printable miniatures at onemonk.com. There are a number of other sites as well. Some are free, others have a small fee. Once you see the basic idea though, you should be able to make your own as well.
With cheap computers and widespread internet access, many groups are playing remotely with software (Maptools, etc) that lets them share maps and type comments to each other. Combine this with Voice over IP software (such as Teamspeak, Ventrillo, or Skype) and remote players can all talk to each other as well. With a virtual game table, where everyone plays remotely, you don’t need physical miniatures.
What many DMs overlook is the option to use the same Virtual Gaming tools when the players are all physically at the same place. The DM can create a detailed dungeon and display it, with portions hidden with fog of war, on a monitor or flat screen TV. A projector can be used, either top down onto the table, or bottom up onto a clear table. Physical miniatures could be used or virtual minis could be added in the same program. Characters can describe their movement and have the DM update positions in the program, or a simple light pen could be used with a sensor to allow players to manually move their own players within the virtual world. Here is a video of a top-down version with physical miniatures and another of a bottom-up version using virtual minis and a light pen.
I like high-quality, lead miniatures. As I can afford it, I will work towards building my collection back up. In the meantime, though, the various alternatives listed above will fill in nicely. Since my group has grown apart, geographically, we will probably start running some virtual games to see how it goes. Once I’m in a more permanent location, I would love to build a bottom-up, lightpen-driven, virtual system for when we are together but I will almost certainly still use some physical miniatures with it as well.
It’s up to each group to figure out what’s best for them. But there are lots of options now so even those on a tight budget can come up with something that works.