by Mike Shea on 16 March 2020
What to use to represent characters and monsters when running combat in D&D is a constant and continual conversation among D&D enthusiasts. Some swear by the need for a large collection of pre-painted miniatures. Others, myself included, claim you can run large elaborate battles with nothing but a quick diagram on a sheet of paper and some good narrative. From these conversations come a few valuable insights:
Miniatures are awesome but come with some big drawbacks. First, miniatures are expensive. Some lucky folks, myself included, bought a lot of miniatures when they were cheap; sometimes as little as fifty cents a miniature. Today even unpainted miniatures are about two to four bucks a piece. Second, you never seem to have all the miniatures you need. There's always some encounter you want to run that has some number of creatures outside of the miniatures you have. Third, organizing, sorting, and pulling the miniatures for any given encounter takes time. Because of this, its hard to improvise encounters when they come up if you have to quickly sort through your large collection of miniatures to represent.
These problems often limit the stories we can tell. We don't run that cool encounter the way we want because we want to use the minis we have. Maybe we end up railroading characters towards particular encounters, or even force combat when some roleplaying would have worked, because we have our minis already prepared for a situation. Adding the time to pick out potential miniatures means we might have to spend less time on other more important aspects of our game.
Yet we still want some form of representation for characters and monsters to help everyone see how things are oriented in battle. Some people use legos, some use Starbursts, some use dice, some use whatever miniatures they have on hand regardless of whether the model fits or not.
Today I offer another alternative. [Lazy monster tokens].
If you'd prefer, you can watch this ten minute Youtube video on crafting lazy monster tokens.
The following concept isn't new and I'm not the one who invented it. DMs have been building tokens like this for decades and there are many variants. This is the method I've found to be the easiest to do with the least amount of equipment needed that offers the most universal set of monster tokens for our D&D game.
Here's the material you'll need (with links to Amazon):
The hole punch, epoxy stickers, magnets, and glue stick will run about $30.
Here's how you build the tokens:
Once done you'll have a set of twenty tokens: six adventurer tokens and fourteen monster tokens. The monster tokens can represent humanoids, monsters, undead, and spellcasters with the skulls filling in for anything weird. The crowned skulls and dragon heads represent boss monsters. The adventurer tokens represent characters who aren't represented as miniatures (more on this in a moment).
These lightweight tokens are the perfect companion for your DM kit on the go. With the materials above you can build two sets, one for your home kit and one for a kit on the go. Or you can give your extra set to another friendly DM. Mix the tokens together with a Pathfinder Flip Mat and you have a perfect solution for visualizing combat in D&D for under $40.
These tokens save you both time and money. You don't have to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars building a collection of miniatures that is perpetually incomplete. You don't have to spend time organizing, sorting, selecting, and preparing miniatures ahead of time. You'll be prepared to run any battle that happens to come up in your game without any need to prep tokens or miniatures ahead of time.
These monster tokens work well for the wide range of creatures the characters may fight but the characters are far more important. It may be worth it to invest in nice miniatures for player characters. There are lots of ways to do this. The players may buy miniatures representing their characters themselves. You might decide to pick up a collection of character-focused miniatures. You might get them 3d printed.
Another cheaper alternative is to ask players for an image online of their character that you then scale, print, trim, punch, and turn into a token using the same steps above for making monster tokens. Discarded magic cards at your local game shop also have excellent artwork you can cut, punch, and turn into a token for a character or unique boss token.
Doing something special for character miniatures or tokens is worth the investment. The characters are the most important part of the story and its worth giving them a good representation.
If you're running single-session games and don't know what characters will be in the game, the "adventurer" tokens in the PDF can serve as character tokens.
There are a few ways to represent large monsters using such tokens. Some DMs prefer to keep a few 2" miniature bases handy. You can also get 2" wooden disks at a local hobby store. Put your 1" token on top of the disk and now it's a large monster.
Another lazier way, which I obviously prefer, is to say "this is a large monster" and treat it accordingly. If you're playing on a flip mat, you can place it in the center of four squares and draw a circle around it.
If you want to get fancy, you can use 2" magnets, a 2" hole punch, and 2" epoxy stickers but I haven't tried that and they didn't review as well on Amazon.
You don't have to use these tokens in place of miniatures you may already have. These monster tokens can augment your existing miniatures collection. Like me, you may already have a huge investment in pre-painted miniatures. Keep these tokens on hand when you either don't have the time to pull out the minis you need or don't have the actual minis to represent the creatures in a fight. If you have one of a creature but needed more, you can use one miniature to represent the type of monster and tokens to represent the additional monsters.
Likewise, as mentioned, nice pre-painted character miniatures and maybe boss miniatures work well side-by-side with these monster tokens.
There are many alternative ways to build tokens like this. You can use this token builder to put a ring around the token and choose your own art. I chose not to do that for these tokens because they look good as-is but some like the ring.
My friend Enrique Bertran, the Newbie DM, has a different approach for tokens that works well for him. With his method you have one representative monster token and then a set of generic number tokens to represent the rest of them. Different colored rings represent different types of monsters.
Having a small set of universal monster tokens fits well with the philosophy of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Being able to use these tokens in just about any situation means you always have the tools on hand to tell any story that comes up in the game. It reduces your prep time, keeps your costs down, and gives you what you need to improvise at the table. Even if you have a substantial miniatures collection, a set of tokens like these can help fill in the blanks when you need it.
Stay nimble and let epic stories unfold at your table.