29 Minis Tips For The Frugal Gamer

Dragon mini
Photo courtesy of Nicolás Sanguinetti

Late last year RPT ran a contest for tips about minis and battlemats, with prizes graciously supplied by Gator Games. Response was tremendous!

Below is part one of a new series that presents the awesome tips RPT readers submitted for the contest. Part one and two will cover tips aimed at gamers on a budget. The other parts will focus on tips about:

  • Modding minis
  • Using minis better or more creatively in-game
  • Storage and organization
  • Battlemats – usage and substitutes

Minis Tips For Gamers On A Budget

  1. I use numbered tiles for my bad guys. The NPC marked #1 is always the leader of the group (if there is a leader). I typically have only one or two stat blocks for all the NPCs in my bad guy party. I reference the stat blocks during combat. On a sheet of scrap paper I just write the numbers #1 through #5, and beside those numbers record things such as HP, current penalties, current bonuses, and conditions until the NPC dies.
  2. Use minis and playdough to make casting molds for more playdough minis. Press the mini face down in a 3 inch thick brick of play-dough (or clay) then repeat on another brick with the back of the mini. Let the bricks dry (or bake’em in an oven) to create simple molds you can stick play-dough in, press together, and “clone” a destructible goblin army pretty much for free.
  3. Don’t be afraid to mix miniatures and paper counters and chits to maximize your spending dollars.
  4. Search thrift stores and second hand shops for old board games. Mine them for pieces to use for minis and table dressings.
  5. Don’t be afraid to shop around for bargains with miniatures. There are dozens of instances of people getting out of the hobby and you can get fantastic deals on large quantities. Better yet, sell the ones you have no use for after getting them.
  6. Keep up to date with Borders coupons. They can make buying the official D&D miniatures much cheaper with as much as 40% off coupons such as this one.
  7. Buy mixed lots of Heroclix, Mageknight, Dreamblade or Horrorclix on eBay. Break off the bottoms and super glue onto plastic or wooden circles.
  8. Use 1″ washers as tokens. Cut or punch out a picture of a monster and glue it to a washer. Easy way to get 46 kobolds.
  9. I have a tub of multi-colored craft clay (the kind that never dries out). When I need a set of faceless goons, I just make little balls of clay. If I have multiple types of goons, I use different colors. We can even etch numbers in with a pencil so I can keep track of which goblin has taken which damage. If I have a major villain, I’ll make a crude figure. Why have an elegant, painted mini if you’re going to kill him in the near future and never see him again? The absolute best part is the squishing. The player whose character kills a creature gets to physically squish the ball of clay with a vehemence proportionate to how frustrating the NPC was.
  10. When starting a mini collection, you can buy inexpensive singles (less than $1.00 each) to stand in for a variety of monster types, then expand your collection over time.
  11. Who needs minis – use paper! Find or create a template of the right size, then use your favorite graphics program to create your own custom minis. Just google the type of character you want and resize and paste that into the paper template. Then trifold and glue or tape. This allows players to use whatever exact photo they might want for their PC. For example, this pic.
  12. I collect bottle tops and caps from milk and soda. They come in a variety of colours and sizes, making them useful stand-ins for just about anything.
  13. Toy soldiers. A few hundred of them are $2-$5 at most stores, and work well as faceless minions in large scale battles, especially in modern day and sci-fi settings. A little model knife work will also quickly trim off the rifles and modern gear if one feels picky or creative for fantasy. As a plus, they can be used to hone painting techniques and style before working on a valued mini.
  14. Now that my son is older and no longer into Pokemon and the other kid-friendly CCGs, I’ve been digging into and removing all the little PVC figures that he’s collected and that seem RPG compatible. It’s a nice, fast way to fill out those battles when you don’t have a lot of the same type of monster.
  15. Star Wars minis crossovers. I keep a handful of Star Wars miniatures for use in my D&D games. Certain ones can pass well as D&D figures. Mon Motha in her white dress and Grand Mof Tarkin in his uniform are my go-to figures for noble woman and elder unarmed human.
  16. Print tokens to represent enemy NPCs. One useful tool can be found here.
  17. All my NPCs are nothing more than 1″ wooden discs with numbers written on them (typically numbered 1 through 5). The flip side (opposite the numbered side) has a big black “X” written on it. An NPC still alive lies with grid number side up. Dead NPCs get flipped over with the black X facing up.
  18. We use standard 30 mm plastic bases for small and medium sized characters, and 50 mm plastic bases for large characters. We built an Adobe Illustrator round template where we put character illustrations. Grey border for player characters, black border for enemies, and red border for elite and solo enemies. We print and glue the round pieces on the plastic bases.For monsters, we put a small area in the template where we can print the number (Orc #5) or names (Orc Chief Bar’khul). We use plastic transparent bases from hovering vehicles in Warhammer 40k for flying or jumping characters. We also use bingo tokens and painted bases.The painted bases are for permanent or semi-permanent effects forced on the characters (Warlock’s curse, Bloodied) and put them under the character’s token. The bingo tokens are put on the character’s token, and can mean a short-spanned effect (warrior’s mark, ongoing damage, etc.). We store bases and tokens in rolls for quarters and coins.
  19. I supplement my miniatures collection with cheap plastic dinosaurs you can get in toy sections or as party favors in other store sections. They’re typically small enough so all four feet fit in a 1″ square on the combat board, and they make great, generic, random encounter monsters that aren’t easily identified by meta-gaming players.
  20. Buy minis that are versatile and can be used for many concepts. Troglodyte minis can be used for lizardfolk, for example. There are many different human minis, so have a few for fighters, casters, clerics, scouts and you’ll have all your roles covered for any fight using humans. Now you’re spending less money and saving space in your minis container.
  21. The pre-painted D&D halfling miniatures make great stand-ins for children.
  22. To represent carts while gaming, we have used packs of playing cards, Altoids mint tins and packs of cigs.
  23. Wine corks work great for pillars and pedestals and work great with Dungeon Tiles as well.
  24. As a guy with very few minis, I often reuse the same minis over and over. My players have come to hate the fighter with the blue cloak (whom they have dubbed Captain Blue Cape) and will attack him no matter what he represents. I often place this mini in the most strategically advantageous location on the battle map. If the PCs want to kill him they have to do it on his terms.
  25. I don’t have a whole lot of miniatures, so I often use the wrong thing for the wrong person. But what my players care most about is having that one miniature that looks like their character. You can burn piles of money hoping you get something close, but it’s easier to drop 7 bucks online and get 5 or 6 minis that look similar to what the people you know like to play.If they change, drop another 75 cents and you’ve got their old mini as an NPC and the new mini for them. Unfortunately, this means you’ll end up with a lot of hero type minis.
  26. Go to a hobby shop and get different colored square or hex pieces of glass (they fit perfectly for the map) and use the different colors to represent effects – marked, prone, ongoing damage – much cheaper than a similar product out there.
  27. For horses, we take thicker paper like 3×5 cards or the cardboard backing from comic books and cut them down to 1″x2″ then hand draw a picture of a horse on it. Place your mini on the paper mini and now he’s ready to ride! You don’t have to worry about the mounted figs falling over like when you use mounted metal miniatures.
  28. Grab circular stickers such as what you use to label stuff at a garage sale. Write the names of the monsters on them, and apply them to quarters. You might feel apprehensive about wasting perfectly good coins, but the stickers can be removed easily, and 25 cent miniatures are the cheapest ones you’ll find. Bonus: different colored stickers can make it easy to distinguish monsters. “I attack the orange kobold!
  29. Glass markers. Go to a craft store and get a 2 pound bag of colored glass beads for $2.99. It’s about hundred of them. Way cheaper than getting 2 dozen glass beads from a gaming company.
  • http://www.psychohistorian.org Auke Slotegraaf

    #27 reminded me: For horses, we use little blocks of wood. Rectangular in shape (about the volume of a thumb, I’d guess ;) these work nicely as the rider’s mini can be placed on top of the block to indicate when they’re on horseback.
    The wooden block upended, with the mini atop, can also be used to show a levitating/flying character.

  • http://www.deadworldstudios.co.uk Ben Halbert

    Due to limited table space I normally sketch basic combat maps on a magnetic white board which I can hold up to players.

    I have also acquired a load of ‘white board material’ magnets that are 1-2″ in diameter. Since I can write on them with a white board pen I normally write an initial (character initials for a PC or known NPC generally) or something like B1, B2, B3 for Brute 1, 2, 3 – etc.

    Added benefit is I can indicate injuries – I just do dashes around the edge of the magnet every time they take a ‘wound’, the more dashes the more hagard looking the target is.

    Players have actually complimented the board as holding/propping it up is apparently easier for them to see that it would be on the table (if they’re slouched back on the sofa using a clipboard anyway).

  • Mark

    You can buy some cheap terrain at Petco’s fish department.

    Also for larger Dragons why would anyone drop down 50+ bucks for the D&D dragon when you can buy a McFarlane Dragon series toy for a fraction of the cost? You can purchase these on Ebay for as little as 5-10 dollars and they look much better.

    -M

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  • Ross

    I found some very small gingerbread man cookie cutters, and I mean about an inch and a half tall. A bit of experimentation proved that I could bake gingerbread men that size without burning them by reducing the baking time. Small squares of gingerbread for bases, a bit of royal icing to stick it together and put a bit of trim on, and you’ve got edible miniatures. The scale is bigger than most miniatures, but it’s not too bad, and it’s relatively easy to cut out larger custom monsters like dragons. Easy to make a large pile of them, and goofy enough to try once.

    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      Haha. A tasty tip!

  • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

    RPT reader Tony Budden emailed me the following advice. Thanks Tony!

    Hi Johnn,

    Firstly a big thanks to you and all your contributors. Being a GM is can be a lonely existence, and roleplaying tips is a wonderful place to come and see that you’re not alone.

    I, like many GMs, have few other gaming contacts apart from the group that I am the regular GM for, so I seldom get to mull over my ideas and problems with other GMs.

    And there are lots of things that you obviously can’t discuss with your players in detail. A quick look through the RP tips back catalogue will usually find an article or two that is relevant to whatever is causing me a headache, and is one of my favourite resources for GMing.

    Keep on doing what you’re doing – its an excellent body of work.

    I’d like to add something to the cheap minis thread. I do enjoy collecting and painting minis, so my collection isn’t small. However, it’s not often that even with hundreds of figures to choose from that I have a figure that is right for any particular NPC or monster.

    Using something similar is always possible: that villager figure will do as a zombie, or the gargoyle makes a good generic winged humanoid, but there are times when you want something better than a stand-in. None of us have unlimited funds (if you do, can I please join your group?), so you do need to prioritise where you spend your money.

    I suspect the priorities are similar for most groups.
    Firstly, most players like having a figure for their character that looks cool and is accurate to their idea of their PC. Two choices here – spread the cost (and the time and effort) by getting your players to supply their own figures for their PCs. I find this helps players identify with their characters as well.

    For those GMs (like me) with players who haven’t got either the talent, time, or inclination to find and paint their own figure, then I do it for them. And if you’re on a budget you could ask the player to share the cost with you.

    The next most important figures are those for major NPCs. Choose wisely here – if you spend a lot of time and effort finding, converting and painting an expensive figure for an NPC that you plan to be a major factor in the game and the players come along and kill it in the first session you’re not going to be happy!

    But if the NPC is the powerful baddy boss, or a patron of the party it is a good feeling to have a figure that looks exactly right – simply revealing the figure to the party provokes a reaction (oh no, not HER again! to quote one of my players)

    Finally there are the campaign specific figures that you might well be wise investing more of your money in. I run a Mongoose Runequest game, which features a fair amount of interaction with Gloranthan style Trolls and Trollkin.

    Try finding ANY figures for those, let alone the number and variety that I would prefer for my game. The same applies to other games that will feature a lot of interaction with non-generic types of NPCs – Githyanki, Drow, Ancient Greeks, Mycomids, Zombies, Cowboys etc etc. We all have our favourites.

    I would advocate buying a small bunch of these figures, and then you can fill out your encounters with other generic minis. Even one mini is enough to give your players some idea of what they are confronting (“they’re all dressed like this one”).

    With my trollkin figure problem I bought a set of small plastic figures and converted them to look like what I wanted. A bit of milliput and paint works wonders.

    Sets of plastic wargames figures (Perry Miniatures and Wargames Factory as well as many others make excellent boxed sets) have the benefit of being cheap and are easily customised. For a small expenditure you can get a set of around 30 goons that actually look like what they represent.

    One thing to add – its nice to have the minis you need, but roleplaying games are games of imagination. Given a good description and a gripping encounter that bunch of Lego and a couple of dice work just as well as even the most beautifully painted figure!

  • http://www.deadworldstudios.co.uk Ben Halbert

    As an addendum to my previous post – for Christmas I ordered custom lego pieces from the lego website and a few more obscure ones from ebay and actually made a lego minifig of each of the heroes for them to use in combat.

    I need to give them magnetic bases to work better with the magnetic whiteboard I think.

  • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

    These are great tips, folks. Thanks very much. I’m compiling them and will release them in bulk in the future.

  • Tasha

    Don’t forget paper minis from both Steve Jackson games (Cardboard heroes) or by Precis Intermedia Disposable Heroes line. With the DH line you can print out as many of one type of figure that you like. You can use a penny to weight them down or buy the special stands.

    Also there are many companies on DriveThruRPG that sell PDFs of paper minis. Most of them are very inexpensive.

    Also many websites have free paper minis that can be downloaded and printed. With some judicious Google searching I have been able to find just about anything I was looking for.

    With the many many inexpensive ways to get good looking painted figures, there’s really no reason to use old standins like Pawns, discs, coins and other things that look nothing like what is being battled.

  • http://zodiac-ffrpg.wikidot.com/start Chris ‘Frogg’ B.

    For the artistic GMs/Players out there, I use Sculpey (oil based modeling clay) for creating figures and mold/craft them into the figure I desire to make. I find the best tools for crafting Sculpey is the Sculpey Modeling Clay tools, or a variety of jury rig tools like X-ato knifes, toothpicks, pipe cleaner with the fuzz burned off, and a few of tidbits. The pipecleaner without the fuzz works good for making arrow shafts and works wonders as a base stem of a Moogle’s ‘pompom’.

  • GM

    I was just looking for paper D&D mini/map printouts and found some map printouts for D&D at http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/fpm/archive . They have ones for castles, inns, and other buildings useful for fantasy RPGs.

  • David

    On the rare occasion that I use minis I bring out the few toys that I played with as a kid: LEGOs! Get a flat LEGO surface, build up any structure you might need, deck out the locals, and boom, instant game! The best part is that the set up is just as fun as the actual gaming.

    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      Legos are great. Tricky sometimes for to-scale combat systems, but great for freeform.

      Do you have any of the special sets? I have a couple fantasy ones, but have not used them yet.

      • David

        Most of the legos that I have were purchased in bulk, though I do have the minis and the equipment to deck them out separated from the rest of the bricks. And for my personal DM style, almost all enemies are humans/oids so scale has never been a problem.

    • Lee

      I’ve used LEGO minifigs on occasion for RPGs and miniature games such as Song of Blades & Heroes. LEGO just got the Lord of the Rings license and the Orcs and Uruk-hai look amazing. Definitely a plus if you’re running a game for younger players.