In tabletop gaming, miniatures are tiny figures of the players’ characters, NPC’s, and monsters, cast in plastic or pewter, and are available at most hobby and game shops. They come in a variety of sizes from ultra-tiny 2mm, to 54mm, or larger for boss monsters, and can be purchased painted or unpainted. If you’ve ever joined a game that utilized miniatures and table maps, you’ll already be familiar with how much they add to the game.
Miniatures offer the average player a clear tactical view of the battlefield, without which anything more complicated than a pistol duel becomes a game of chess without the board. Miniatures also give the players an icon to associate their assumed personality with. Describe to the group an underground vault with the potential threat of roaming zombies, and the players mill about aimlessly until a fight breaks out. Put miniatures in a claustrophobic cardboard labyrinth, and suddenly they’re aligning themselves behind the beefiest pewter character on the table.
After you’ve had your first taste of gaming with miniatures you might decide you want to play another character– something other than Generic Knight #87. You might draft a stats sheet for a space marine. Or a tech hacker. Or a time-traveling wizard. Or Gary Busey.
The good news is, whatever class you’ve dreamed up, someone online has made a miniature for it. If you’re anything like me you’ll start innocently enough, shopping around for unique-looking figures for next week’s session. Later you’ll find yourself planning your next character around that badass hellknight you ran across at the shop, even though you haven’t gotten around to painting the legless beggar you bought last week.
It is here I must warn you of the slick precipice you tread. Escalating your habits from casual miniature owner to Lord of Tiny Hoards is just a credit card away. And god help you if you plan on running a game with miniatures, because every creature capable of having their skull harvested for sport by the players must be represented on the table in some way. And if you succumb to the urge of buying every fantasy army available at the hobby shop you may find yourself drunk with power, capable of fielding unholy battalions at the snap of your fingers, or conjuring horrors so great the players shrink upon seeing it.
So in anticipation of you becoming a pewter sniffing warlord like me, here are 6 Tips to help you save money while feeding your addiction, and hopefully filling out your battle-box. (Warning, each of these tips requires some skill at painting miniatures, which can only be improved by painting miniatures. So go sick.)
1) Buy used miniatures at garage sales and eBay.
The world is full of other peoples’ failures and shame. As the responsible GM/DM that you are, it’s up to you to delude yourself into believing you can succeed where others have met swift, soul-crushing defeat. Look for used, poorly painted miniatures at Goodwill, garage sales, and second-hand stores. Or if you’re impatient, haunt eBay for bulk collections from gamers who are hanging up their D20’s for good.
For used pewter miniatures it’s easy enough to sand off old paint off with a wire brush, or the equivalent dremel head. Plastic can be soaked in Dawn soap and water to break down the paint. This even works on some oil-based varieties.
2) Buy plastic over pewter.
Some of the older companies that produce pewter miniatures have started re-releasing their figures in plastic. There are pro’s and con’s to choosing plastic over pewter, the foremost being the price tag attached to each figure.
Plastic: Can cost 45% to 15% of the pewter version. Bulk, self-assembled armies usually have the best value. It’s lighter than pewter, and can hold paint just as well if spray primer is used. The only downside to plastic is it’s far less forgiving if your model comes with faults, cracks, or bends. With some damaged miniatures it’s possible to heat the plastic with a candle and bend it back into shape, or remold/fill it using greenstuff (modeling putty) But as a general rule with plastic miniatures, what you see is what you get.
Pewter: Durable and forgiving, pewter can be sanded, filed, and bent into shape. I’ve never bought a figure with a straight sword (not a pun) but that doesn’t matter since it can be manipulated with bare fingers. There is also a greater variety of pewter figures available, since plastic molds are more expensive for factories to set up. Reaper, for example, has only recently extender their plastic line. The biggest drawback to buying pewter is of course the cost. A new out-of-the-box squad of 8 figures can set you back $40–$60 USD.
3) Scratch-build shamelessly, but know your limits.
There are many, many scratch-build (home-made) miniatures forums available online. Some include how-to instructions that are detailed and easy to follow. Other forums are filled with braggarts who want to show off their finished product and make the rest of us feel inadequate. Whichever helps you the most, it’s worth taking a look at. You may not be able to carve a barbarian seductress in 28mm scale from raw clay, but anyone can squeeze epoxy glue into a gelatinous cube.
Also remember that most players are very forgiving about tabletop props. I’ve found that well-painted children’s toys like tiny lions, insects, and snakes make perfect monsters, and can be bought cheap from party stores and novelty magazines.
4) Use a mixture of tokens and miniatures.
Minions and NPC’s can be represented on the table with less detail than the players’ characters. Minions are meant to be slain and forgotten. This means cardboard chits with the word “Minion” works fine. Black office clips can be used as stands to hold up card-stock cutouts of cyber-gangsters and orcs. Or if you want to get fancy, there are plenty of pre-printed monster tokens available on Ebay or Amazon, as well as plastic button-style tokens. All of these will help flesh out the bestiary you call upon to ravage the players, without ravaging your bank account first.
5) RoboCop your damaged miniatures.
There is no such thing as a destroyed miniature. Did your goblin warriors warp when you left them next to the radiator? Paint them brown and add wire tendrils and tiny leaves, and you have earth elementals. Did your space-knight get chewed up by the dog? Take apart a cheap egg-timer from the kitchen department at the dollar-store or Walmart, and use the small plastic gears to turn him into a steam-powered clockwork horror. There are ways to augment damaged and worn miniatures. Even if that means collecting their heads until you have enough tiny skulls to mound into a warmonger’s throne.
6) Limit yourself to miniatures that will get a lot of play.
I know it’s tempting to buy the miniature of a woman hanging on a spit-roast (seriously, why does this exist?). You may even have the perfect campaign for her to make her debut as the damsel. But you should always ask yourself, how often will this miniature make it to the table? I see a lot of custom vehicles and scratch-built terrain that suffer from this problem too. Sure the demonic disco ball looks cool, but honestly, can you use it more than once or twice without straining credulity?
I would suggest instead of dropping your cash on a rarely-used monster or set piece, consider buying the 4-pack of townsfolk. Or a squad of generic cyber-police. Or a variety pack of humanoid NPC gangsters, tribals, or warriors. If you’re a player in another GM’s game, feel free to make your miniature stand out–to be big and flashy and display your best workmanship. But if you’re raising an army of darkness to sweep over the lands, economy and efficiency are the rule of thumb.