by Mike Shea on 6 August 2012
Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the first on a six-part series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:
Ever since D&D game out forty years ago, players and DMs have often used some sort of miniature to represent their characters or monsters. Back then it was often lead or pewter war game miniatures, sometimes painted and sometimes not. The use of miniatures has evolved in the four decades since, but even today there is no perfect solution for representing monsters and characters at the table. We have a wide range of options, from no cost at all to thousands of dollars, but none of these options are perfect.
Groups don't actually need to use anything to represent monsters or characters in Dungeons & Dragons. We can use a gameplay style known as the "theater of the mind". When running D&D in the theater of the mind, the DM describes the situation, clarifies it from the questions of the players, listens to what the players want their characters to do, and describes the outcome. It is the same for combat as it is for exploration or roleplay.
No matter which of the paths we take or products we buy for D&D miniatures, we'll always make tradeoffs. Sometimes it's money, sometimes it's time, sometimes it's physical space, sometimes it's the flexibility of our game. Even if we spend thousands of dollars on miniatures, as some veteran DMs have, finding the right miniature can take too long to make it useful when running a game. No matter how many miniatures we own, we still will not have exactly the right one or exactly the right number for every battle. While no perfect solution exists, we can mix and match a few ideas together to design our own personal best-case solution for representing characters and monsters in combat.
As mentioned, we can describe combat and use the occasional paper sketch to help players visualize what is going on. This method is fast, free, and doesn't break the flow of the game from scene to scene.
Running combat in the theater of the mind means we can run any sort of battle we want. With a zero cost comes infinite flexibility. We can run a battle atop a massive titan's skull surrounded by a thousand screaming ghouls if we want to. We can run a ship battle in the depths of the astral sea fighting against a pair of githyanki warships. Whatever sort of battle we can imagine, we can run. Even if we do choose to use miniatures, keeping this gameplay style in our toolkit gives us the option when we want it.
Combat in the theater of the mind isn't for everyone. When battles get complicated, some representation of the characters and monsters helps. We can start by representing them with whatever we have on hand. Game pieces from other games, dice, coins, glass beads, LEGOs, and a any roughly one-inch-square object can serve as tokens for characters and monsters. This is a fine option when starting to play D&D that may serve you well for your entire D&D career. Even if you do end up getting more miniatures and better representations, keeping some generic tokens on hand can help set up an improvised battle and save you a lot of time.
Some crafty DMs learned how to print paper versions their own miniatures either as tokens or as stand-ups. This is a low-cost solution but does take time to build them out. Enrique Bertran, the Newbie DM, wrote a popular guide to making tokens with print-outs, a one-inch hole punch, a washer, and some glue. More recently he posted a great trick of making one token per monster type and then using generic tokens to represent the rest of those monsters. These hand-made tokens are a wonderful and scalable solution that won't break the bank.
The folks over at Alea Tools have a wonderful suggestion for making tokens out of old Magic the Gathering cards. They suggest punching out the card art you like with a one-inch punch, and sticking adhesive one-inch epoxy stickers to the top to make it feel like a hard plastic token. I spent a weekend making about one hundred such tokens and the look and feel great. The epoxy stickers, originally designed for bottle cap necklaces, work just as well on printed artwork like in NewbieDM's solution above. The one-inch punch and epoxy stickers can make just about anything into a great usable D&D token for pennies. A few generic tokens made this way can also augment our miniatures collection by representing additional monsters whose miniatures we don't own.
Many other creators have published PDFs of tokens and stand-up paper miniatures. Trash Mob Minis and Printable Heroes are two such creators. These print-out miniatures require your time and the right equipment, which can get expensive if you don't already have it, but offer a nice pocketbook-friendly solution that gives you the exact type and number of miniatures you want.
For those who would rather save time and are willing to spend more money, we come to cardboard pawns. The most popular of these are the Pathfinder Pawns Bestiary collection which offers a large number of cardboard stand-up monster tokens for a low price. Though designed for Pathfinder, these tokens work just as well for D&D.
Other producers like Arcknight Games have come up with flat plastic miniatures that cost more but, in my opinion, look much better on a table and pack light since they're considerably flatter than cardboard stand-ups (full disclosure, I have a curated set of Flat Plastic Miniatures available through Arcknight Games).
These flat stand-up miniatures are a great way to build a large collection of monster representations without breaking the bank.
We now come to the large topic of plastic miniatures which come both painted and unpainted. Pre-painted miniatures often come in random booster boxes while specific unpainted miniatures can usually be purchased in non-random blister packs. Some sets of individual painted miniatures exist for heroes which is a great way to build up a small collection of hero miniatures without resorting to random selections.
Unpainted miniatures can be used as-is or painted. Painting miniatures, of course, adds the cost of paints, brushes, and other painting accessories on top of the time it takes to paint them. Painting miniatures is a fun hobby all on its own but it isn't for everyone. Backing the occasional Kickstarter by Reaper for unpainted "Bones" miniatures is one way to get a large collection of miniatures for a relatively low cost-per-mini.
Pre-painted plastic miniatures are, by far, the most common solution. Wizards of the Coast and their partner, WizKids, released thousands of miniatures over the past fifteen years. They've almost always been in randomly assorted packs but the price per miniature has changed dramatically over the years, and not in the direction we'd hope for. DMs collecting for many years might have large collections but building one today costs more than it did ten to fifteen years ago. If random boosters aren't your bag, you can buy miniatures on the secondary market but the cost per mini will be about $3 to $4 per mini on the low-end. Miniatures for our heroes and boss monsters might be worth it but it's probably not worth getting a warband of twelve orcs together for $36.
The world of tokens, stand-ups, and miniatures continually changes. New ideas, like printable paper stand-up miniatures, pop up quickly and become very popular while older solutions like cardboard tokens or cheap pre-painted miniatures tend to fall out of production. Sometimes one can buy cardboard stand-ups easily and other times they're out of print and selling for four times the cost. This all points to the same core truth of miniatures: no miniature solution is perfect.
If you thought miniatures were the end of the D&D money sink, you are mistaken. The top of the line D&D accessories include 3D terrain to go with all of those miniatures. These fantasy terrain arrangements look absolutely stunning, showing off full three-dimensional maps and areas including dungeons, cities, towns, and castles. The most popular vendor for these accessories is the venerable Dwarven Forge and their creator Stefan Pokorny. These are the setups that everyone drools over on Pinterest and Twitter. Matt Mercer uses Dwarven Forge on Critical Role.
The costs for these elements of terrain are as high as the sets are beautiful. A table-sized representation of a complicated castle or dungeon can run thousands of dollars.
There is also a hidden cost with this terrain. The time to set up such an arrangement leaves little flexibility for the game to go anywhere else. If you set up a castle, the characters are definitely going to that castle. Likewise, the terrain takes up a lot of space to store and time to set up. I am a huge fan of Dwarven Forge and own many sets myself, but it is not a requirement to run a great D&D game.
For now, admire the pictures people put on the web but stick to your blank battle-mat for a lightweight, cost-effective, and flexible alternative.
Given the imperfection of the D&D miniature market, I have no clear solution but a few recommendations.
First of all, even if we don't use it all the time, running combat using the "theater of the mind" offers us infinite flexibility and no cost. Even if we do have a collection of miniatures, we don't have to use them all the time. Keeping this style of play in our DM toolbox keeps our game fast and flexible.
Players love to have nice miniatures for their characters. Character miniatures can show their marching order when heading down a hallway, who is on watch, and a variety of other non-combat situations on top of their obvious representation in combat. They're also just plain fun to play with. Investing in a good set of character miniatures, either as full miniatures or stand-up tokens, can help bring the characters to life.
As far as monsters go, sticking with cheap representations of monsters with whatever objects you have on hand is just fine. Hand-made tokens are fast, flexible, easy to transport, and cheap. Plastic and card-board stand-up miniatures give us a large collection of monsters for a reasonable cost. Painted or unpainted miniatures look great at the table but the costs are high. Choose which ever of these options best fits your budget and the type of game you want to run.
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