I have a friend that really wanted to try his hand at running an RPG rather than always playing. One evening, our gaming group convened as our friend began to take us on an urban adventure in a big fantasy city. The party was tasked with exploring an abandoned warehouse, but as with most adventures, most buildings are rarely unoccupied. We entered with our torches high when suddenly, a loud squeak penetrated the silence. From the darkness, we were ambushed by a pack of wild, hungry, dire…
Being a first-time game master, our friend did not own any miniatures for his first combat and utilized what he had. He was embarrassed, but we thought it was hilarious. “I’m attacking the green M&M!” became an enduring memory for our group. However, our friend was so intent on painting a specific scene and providing immersion for his players, he felt the lack of appropriate miniatures killed the mood he was striving for. It didn’t hurt our enjoyment of the game, but he still had a valid point.
Like it or not, miniatures have become a growing component of the roleplaying genre over the last several years. Most games choose not to embrace the use of figurines, but the major systems (Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons) have leaned heavily on their use to ease the strain of visualizing their complex combat rules.
Personally, my preferred play style is without miniatures. When I run any RPG, I prefer to focus on story and characters over combat. However, I frequently act as Game Master for my group of friends playing Pathfinder. Within this crew, a handful have a difficult time visualizing combat without figurines on a map, and so I began my descent down the dark, filthy hole known as miniature collecting. For the group of system masters that I run for, having figures on the table has helped moved our tactical combat situations along nicely.
Unfortunately, you may have already discovered that collecting minis can be expensive. Thankfully, I made it out the other side (mostly) intact. And if you’re looking to amass your own collection, here are some helpful tips to get the most out of your money.
Unpainted miniatures are the standard form of figures on the market. If you are creative and talented (I’m not!), unpainted miniatures can be a fun way to customize your own figures as you wish. Reaper Miniatures has an iron grip on the unpainted minis production at the moment, and in years past, was an expensive method to acquiring new pieces. Metal minis are the most popular, but can quickly become a burden on one’s wallet, especially if you have to outsource the paint job. But in the hands of a excellent painter, the results are often mind-blowing.
Thanks to Kickstarter, Reaper has released a new line of miniatures called Bones which use a plastic mold instead of solid metal. They are still unpainted and require extra work, but on a whole, they are much cheaper to purchase in large quantities. If you need rats, undead hordes, or even unique-looking characters, there are many options to choose from. Reaper even has a neat Figure Finder search on their website too, making it simple to find the exact mini that you desire.
Another interesting place to hunt for figures are tactical miniature games. Games like Malifaux, Anima Tactics, and Warhammer have some incredibly unique models that can blend in any fantasy locale, though for games like Warhammer, it can be difficult to purchase single minis without plunking down cash for an entire army. Many tactical games like Warhammer 40K and Warmachine/Hordes feature great sci-fi themed minis for those flavors of adventures. Smaller companies have put out miniatures for years as well, so there are a lot of options to choose from when buying unpainted minis.
If you are concerned about purchasing metal figures over the plastic variety, be cautious when buying new sets for tactical war games. Most have transitioned away from metal and are releasing only plastic-molded figures now, as it is cheaper and faster to produce. If you really want metal figures, double-check the box before making your purchase. Also, if you are new to the miniature scene, some unpainted minis come in pieces that need to be bolted together using very tiny screws. You may want to commission a veteran painter if you feel uncertain about your skill in handling small drills.
If you do some digging, you can often find collections of old metal or even lead fantasy miniatures for sale on eBay or other markets. This is a great and cheap way to start building your initial collection, granted you’re willing to invest your own time and money to get them painted.
The idea of purchasing figures that are already painted is one that exploded in the early 2000’s. The miniatures wargame Mage Knight included painted plastic figures on rotating bases, which are used to keep track of that unit’s combat statistics. The game’s publisher WizKids took that idea and expanded it into a new system known as Clix. Many different variations of the Clix system were created, resulting in a plethora of themed miniature designs ranging from generic fantasy and sci-fi to licenses such as Lord of the Rings, Marvel, DC, Street Fighter and more.
Finding bundles of old Clix miniatures is fairly easy on the marketplace. However, some people have an issue with reappropriating Clix figures with tabletop RPGs, notably with their bases. Most combat grids contain 1″x1″ squares, while Clix bases are a bit wider than that. They are still completely functional, but if you are concerned about aesthetics on the game board, be warned.
In 2003, Wizards of the Coast released their own miniatures wargame simply known as the Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game. While being a separate game, these miniatures were also highly sought after by D&D Dungeon Masters everywhere. The Miniatures Game line featured numerous monsters ripped straight from the RPG, adding a level of immersion to the game system’s combat that was previously unavailable. The company supported their minis line with a slew of additional releases until it was ultimately scrapped in 2011. While booster boxes are incredibly difficult to find now, individual miniatures are very common on eBay or other online marketplaces as well as local gaming conventions, usually for a good price.
Within the last couple of years, Paizo Publishing stepped in to fill the void left by Wizards of the Coast and released their own prepainted miniatures line, Pathfinder Battles. Once again sculpted by WizKids, these figures maintain the 1″ bases established by D&D instead of using the large Clix bottoms. The miniatures are generally excellent quality, though a bit more fragile than the ones produced by Wizards.
It looks as if Paizo will be supporting their new minis line for a long time, which should keep collectors very happy. The downside is that Pathfinder Battles boxes are more expensive than their predecessors, at least if you’re purchasing them new. On the market, they are a bit more reasonable, but still expect to pay a bit more for them compared to their old D&D counterparts.
For those on a tighter budget but have more time on their hands, paper miniatures might be a more appealing alternative. There are numerous sources online to print out your miniatures, allowing one freedom to choose which type of paper or card stock to print on. Most of these range from free to ridiculously cheap, and even major publishers like Paizo offer their own brand of do-it-yourself paper minis for Pathfinder.
And if you’re really into DIY projects, you could always buy yourself a button maker and create different size buttons to use as tokens on your game map. There are scores of free or cheap monster tokens available to print online with a quick Google search. If you’re crafty, your options are limitless.
Speaking of Paizo, the publisher also released their own line of miniatures printed on high quality cardboard. The Pathfinder Pawns line is an inexpensive yet still gorgeous substitute for actual figures. In fact, I often prefer the Pawns over plastic miniatures as the Pawn art is typically ripped straight from their source material. For only $40, you can have an entire Bestiary worth of fantasy creatures at your disposal in your games. And the best part is that the Pawn sets include different size bases, ranging from 1″, 2″ and 3″ in diameter. I highly recommend the Pathfinder Pawns if you’re looking for a large amount of inexpensive miniatures without the need to use your own printer.
Though they’re not paper, another cheap alternative are pre-printed tokens. Wizards of the Coast released character and monster buttons for D&D 4th Edition but have been out of print for some time, though they are simple to find in large sets on eBay.
Where do I keep my horde?
Amassing legions of miniatures is thrilling; finding a solution for storage is not so much. It’s not only challenging to find a way to keep your collection from consuming your desk and counter space, but organizing them into categories can be even more daunting. After all, if you’re going to own a huge variety of figurines, you want to be able to quickly find the ones you need for any given situation.
Personally, I find that fishing bait and tackle boxes are a great and cheap method to organize a growing collection. Mine is similar to a portable dresser; it has four bait trays that slide out from the front of the box, and each tray is organized by monster type. Many tackle boxes also include a large compartment on top, designed to store snacks and fishing tools, but instead repurposed to house my bigger minis. Tackle boxes are also easy to transport, for those that possibly run games outside of their own home. I’ve had pleasant experiences with Plano boxes in the past, so I’m willing to give them a solid recommendation.
Tupperware can also be used as an affordable and clean system of organization. You can purchase the exact container sizes you need based on how you wish to organize, and they are easy to label and store on shelves or wherever. Just make sure you don’t accidentally stick your goblin army tupperware in the microwave when you mistake it for leftovers.
As you can tell, there are many options available for Game Masters looking to spice up their tables. As I mentioned earlier, this list is not comprehensive or definitive. There are a plethora of options for your games, and as the Game Master, you are free to utilize whatever you desire. And if you know of other great substitutes or ideas for collecting miniatures, please share them in the comments below!
But remember, miniatures are always optional, and in the hands of a capable storyteller, nothing beats some good old-fashioned imagination.