29 Minis Tips For The Frugal Gamer

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0515

A Brief Word from Hannah

Hannah Lipsky from Chaotic Shiny Productions hosts this week’s Brief Word. Thanks Hannah!

Tabletop with the LARPers

I recently got shanghaied into an unusual Mage: The Ascension game with friends. The thing that makes this group different is that, unlike most gamers I know, everyone in this group got their start LARPing (Live Action Roleplaying) before moving to tabletop.

There are a few obvious differences. For one, they dress up as their characters. Not much – a leather jacket, or a trench coat and a crucifix – but enough to give you a better mental image of who they’re playing. I thought it was a bit overboard at first, but now I’m really enjoying it. When the outfits go on, it’s game time.

While the in-character clothes might not be for everybody, they do have one LARPer tradition I think nearly every group could benefit from. It’s as simple as it is powerful – they hold up a hand with crossed fingers while talking out of character.

This has two immediate benefits. One, you never again have to worry about an out of character joke getting mixed up with actual actions. Two, it severely cuts down on table- talk. Since you need to take an extra action to talk out of character, and everything you say is in character by default, you’re more likely to react in character. Instead of, “I ask him where the guards went,” you find yourself saying, “You! Tell me where the guards went!”

I know that encouraging roleplaying and cutting down on extraneous chatter are perennial favourite topics among DMs. Next time you’re wondering how to accomplish both at your table, try giving the LARPer method a try.

Mule Catapults and Precarious Ropeways

Low-tech Magazine is something of a strike back at our culture’s obsession with cutting-edge technology. But it’s also a great resource for gaming ideas.

A recent article on the history of using ropeways for transport – both human and cargo – has me itching to include a ropeway in my game. Preferably in a fight scene.

One recent links roundup had an image of what I only assume was a mule with a portable catapult on its back. (And if that’s not what it was, don’t tell me – I like my way better.) Who can’t imagine villagers loading that as fast as they can while trying to hold off a charging ogre?

If you’re running anything from ancient world to steampunk,

I’d suggest taking a look: How to Make Wind Power Sustainable Again.

29 Minis Tips For The Frugal Gamer

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.
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use Google Documents for Campaign Organization

From Bob Nolan

I like to use Google Documents to upload character sheets and to track notes with during my RPG session.

In addition to providing to a great way to store information, Google Documents allows you to send information back and forth to specific characters using the discussion pane on the right hand side of all documents.

Furthermore, you can share with your players a document that is editable by anyone who opens the document.

Multiple people can edit documents at the same time as well, so two players and a GM can be creating or working on a journal or PC at the same time.

I can send a note to one character who is investigating a crypt while talking to the other characters who are trying to pry a stone from the wall, for example.

If an affect changes a character stat, I can put a note immediately on that player’s sheet without alerting the rest of the party to a danger, threat, or even a benefit – especially if it’s a secret!

It also helps for the group to keep a log of their activity – reports, notes, and journals that they can all share.

You can also use Google Draw in Documents to share a map, such as a house.

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Spy Tips: Blind Communication

From Logan Horsford

Blind communication protects the identity of the message sender. This offers the perfect tool for villains in your campaigns.

Here are a few blind communication methods:

Dead letter drop

I make a chalk mark on a building that you go by on the way to work. That means, “you have a package at the usual place.” You go to the usual place (some place that people wouldn’t normally mess with) and grab your package.

One time pads

You have a pad and I have a pad. The pad tells what the code is. This method is pretty much unbreakable.

Note, this is not the letter replacement code that GMs are fond of using. I’m talking about real codes that are only used once. Then that page is destroyed and it is time for the next page.

Never would any self-respecting spy use a simple a=b code. If you are truly desperate, you might use a=c, b=d, but that is not how most codes work. Instead, use a group of letters.

Example: AAB DUU V93; or it could be written as AABDUUV93. It just depends on how they do it.

The decoder goes through with a pencil and scores between the letters just to make it easy. Each of the groupings is either a letter, word or phrase. AAB might mean “eliminate”. DUU is “the”. V93 is “PCs”.

See why cracking codes is pretty rough? Now, let’s move it up a step. Nulls are codes they toss in that according to the code book are “null”, which means “ignore this – we put it in to mess with the enemy”. There could be a lot of null codes.

This is why cryptography is a hard, involved field. None of this “e is the most common letter of the alphabet, let’s start there” stuff. Null might be their most common symbol.

Code book

Ever wonder why so many political assassins own a copy of Catcher in the Rye? That book was even brought up in the movie Conspiracy Theory. One of the thoughts is that is used for book codes.

For example, I might get you a code (either via mail, phone, dead letter drop, etc.). The code would read 113, 18. 42, 8. That means you go to page 113, word 18 and write down that word. Then page 42, word eight. And so on.

Unless you know what book we’re using, it is pretty much unbreakable. If you want to do some work, you could actually assemble a book code, then have the PCs find the list of numbers.

Later, have them find the book and give the PCs a copy of the book. Ensure they suspect it’s a book code or have someone who knows about espionage tell them.

If you want to go for the bonus round, have them intercept that message before it gets to the bad guy. On one of the pages that they were referencing a message, they may notice a faint pencil dot under a different word. Then they can go through the book, find and unjumble the other words. That’s the bonus message.

Make sure both messages are very important though, or the players will lynch you because they just spent a couple hours in decryption.

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Demonstrate Character Heights

From Loren Lassiter

Use a blank wall, preferably in sight of the table, to mark the characters’ relative heights.

It’s a great way for everyone to truly picture how tall their characters are – and how they size up next to their co-adventurers.

We use the wall behind the DM to affix signs that include the characters’ names written in a font and color style that sort of represents their personalities (e.g. gothic lettering and fiery glowing colors for our former demon paladin of Heironious).

This also makes it easy to point at a spot on the wall and say, “your opponent is *that* tall.”

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Tips for Naval Battles

From Mark of the Pixie

Age of Sail Battles

My general rule is to go with whatever the players suggest. The description is however they want to describe it, but the mechanics stay as normal.

So, if they declare they are going to “cross the T of the other ship and broadside its mainsail,” I say, “OK, you can try.” They make a normal roll (or card draw) to determine if their tactics work.

If it works, I say so. If it fails, I tell them it has failed and ask them what is most likely to have caused this. “The bastard must have put down his sea anchor!” I have no idea if it makes sense, but the PCs can hardly complain.

I do not give bonuses or penalties unless I understand what is going on. Their raw stats should do fine.

Space Battles

I try to spread the ship’s functions between the PCs as evenly as I can.

  • Pilot / Gunner – Is the minimum; pilot handles maneuvering and dodging, gunner handles shooting at stuff.
  • Engineering – Handles generating and distributing power; they can add their successes to either pilot or guns as needed, or patch systems to reduce penalty from damage.
  • Tactics – Handles tactics and larger scale; they can use successes to add to pilot or guns, or save them for later to represent their forward planning.
  • Comms – Adds electronic warfare, signaling, jamming, sensors readings, faking sensor readings and so on.

Beyond this you start breaking up the tasks. This gives more people more roles, but runs the risk of giving each person less to do (boredom risk). For example:

  • Pilot can break into navigation (maneuvering) and helm (dodging)
  • Gunner breaks into different weapons (lasers, missiles, etc.) or different areas of the ship (fore, aft, above, below, etc.).
  • Engineering breaks into subsystems such as engines, weapons, shields.
  • Comms also breaks into duties: offensive, defensive, sensors, hacking (each system is separate, and a successful hack does not give you the whole ship).

Boarding parties (and repair crew) can get bored in the early battle, as the ships are not within range to board and are not yet damaged. It may help to have them take secondary roles in case they are not needed.

Deploying fighters is another great way to get PCs into the action. They can be tasked with offence, defense, interference, seek and destroy and special missions.

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Turn Terrain into A Monster

From Mark of the Pixie

Sometimes I will start up a terrain (i.e. the swamp of nightmare) as a monster to make travel interesting.

Over the hours, days or weeks it will harass the PCs with its attacks (swarms of insects, thorns) and use its special abilities against them (bog pits, gas fires, nightmares, paranoia).

It is mindless, and the rounds are normally hours or days, but it puts the conflict for survival into a familiar form.

PCs might need to defend with wilderness skills, and there is no way to attack or injure the swamp.

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Three Quick Equipment Tips

From Mark of the Pixie


I don’t sweat the little stuff. Characters have signature items (gear they have paid XP for), wealth (a bonus they can use to get little stuff as needed, see below) and possibly a few personal items (which may give a +1 or +2 bonus to one thing). Otherwise, I don’t bother recording or tracking it and just use common sense.

This works fine, but I have few dungeon haul games, and treasure is rarely the point of a game. Some of my games the PCs have not picked up new gear in several years of regular play. It’s a very different approach to most D&D style games.


I don’t bother to track supplies. I may say, “If you are going to cross the desert you will need more supplies,” or “After six days at sea, the supplies in your life-raft are running low,” but I don’t bother to specify quantities of food or water. It’s a motivator, but exact details are not important.

In tight situations, the successes on a PC’s survival roll or hunting roll gives how many people they can feed that day.


I handle this backwards.

Characters can buy the ability Wealth, which gives them a bonus +2 to put into any items once a game. It must be reasonable, available from shops and able to have been with them all along (“Where were you keeping the 16′ ladder?”).

A character can spend Wealth over the course of each session, either all at once or in bits as they need it.

For example, I could spend +2 wealth to get a sword that is +1 attack, +1 defense (total=+2) that lasts the rest of the session, or I could get +1 dagger and later buy climbing gear +1. At the end of the session anything bought with Wealth goes away.

It is highly abstracted, but it means I do not need to track coins, regular equipment or other minor stuff. Just Signature items (stuff bought with XP) and current Wealth bonus. If the PCs find a big treasure haul, I give them a big one-off bonus to Wealth (which carries over games until they have spent it all).

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Johnn Four’s GM Guide Books

In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:

NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

Free preview: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/npceprev

Filling the Empty Chair

How to find great gamers fast and easy online with my list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites. Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area. And attract the best players with my tips and advice on how to create the right kind of ads.


Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, plus several generators and tables: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/taverns

 Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.


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One More Tip

How to Handle Pursuit Adventures?

From Johnn Four

I received the following interesting request from a reader about how to handle a campaign where the PCs are the prey.

Below is the reader’s request, and then after that I add my tips.

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Hi Johnn,

I really enjoy both Roleplaying Tips and Campaign Mastery – thanks for presenting such well thought out ideas to GMs everywhere!

I’m running a sci-fi game at the minute, and in a previous adventure the leader of the PCs was told his chief rival had sent someone after him. Someone with double his resources and known for tracking and destroying starships.

By the end of their current adventure, their pursuer (or an agent thereof) is likely to have found the PCs, at which point the theme becomes, “Hunt, or be hunted.” This puts control squarely in the PCs’ hands. They either come up with a way to overcome a superior foe, or they come up with a way to flee a relentless enemy.

I’m aware I can’t plan for every contingency either option presents, and I have a few ideas of my own (at minimum, how the adversary will keep finding them in the vastness of space), but I could use some help.

How do you and others handle pursuit-style adventures? What can I do to enhance the mood and evoke fear and paranoia? What obstacles can I put in the PCs’ path? What can I put in their path that they can use to even the odds?

Many thanks, and keep up the good work!

– Richard Coulson

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Hi Richard,

One thing you can do is put yourself in the players’ shoes. What would you do if you were them? You can better envision this by listing out what info and clues they have available. Too often we GMs assume the PCs have more info than they do, and players can only act on what they know or think they know. The chief clue types are locations, NPCs and items.

Once you have some ideas of potential PC actions, you can use these to plan ahead. And if the PCs do not make your anticipated choices, then you have game material ready to steer them towards.

Paranoia Will Destroy Ya

For paranoia, first try to abstract the hunter’s resources down two levels. You’ve already got one level – his agents.

For the second level, figure out what the agents can do without getting involved directly. Agents of agents, informants of agents, technology of agents. What do the agents need to get the job done?

Thus, you’ll end up with:

Tier 1: Villain

Tier 2: Agents

Tier 3: Agents’ resources

Focus On the Tier 3 Encounters

Next, implement the third tier in various encounters. This gives you two buffers – one for the agents and two for the villain.

It will also allow you to stretch things out. This way, as the PCs clear out the third tier, there are still a lot of gaming options. If you just went head-on with encounters with agents, the adventure would be over quickly because once the agents are finished all that is left is the villain.

Once you have the third tier figured out, introduce it to the PCs via encounters. Perhaps an agent’s agent and the PCs are on the same quest for a piece of tech. In another encounter, an informant gets caught. In another encounter, a PC’s bank account or employment records get hacked.

The paranoia part comes in when the PCs learn about connections to the villain before, during or after encounters. Normal encounters become scary, dramatic or exciting once the PCs learn of the connection.

Be sure to leave clues or bread crumbs the PCs can use to track things back to an awareness of links to the villain.

Further, paranoia comes from being watched, hampered or manipulated by the villain (preferably via tier 2 and 3 encounters). Generate encounters around those three themes (spied on, hindered and manipulated) and be sure the PCs know the villain is linked.

Hope this helps.



Comments from the blog: How to Handle Pursuit Adventures.

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From josh

If I were the GM in a situation like this, I may use the opportunity to introduce a new and interesting NPC.

You could have a type of rogue/assassin/spy character come out of the woodwork who claims to secretly be on the same side as the PCs.

This NPC could inform the PCs that they are in danger, they are being followed, and their enemy is powerful.

However, perhaps this NPC has a plan for escaping that would involve the PCs going along without really knowing whether or not to trust this NPC.

Is the NPC actually an agent of the enemy? Is he a friend? Make her a hot girl with flirtatious tendencies, and you will especially have all of the guys in your group wanting to believe her. Just some ideas here, lol.

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From Richard

A couple of thoughts:

Tracking someone in the vastness of space should be near- impossible. Just like tracking someone through a crowded mall is very difficult.

The easiest way to hunt is not to follow your prey, but to go where you can expect them to eventually show up, and then you will have the advantage. Crocodiles wait by the shore. Lions wait by the watering hole.

If the PCs commit to disappearing entirely, then it is as effective as destroying them entirely.

So, I’d start sending them plot-hooks, requiring them to go to locations that could be predictable:

  • A parent is stricken with an illness.
  • A brother needs you to co-sign some loan documents.
  • Your Starfleet class is having a reunion!

Even target other PCs who may be just as likely to have the clout to move the family. And the bounty hunter is there waiting for them at one of them….

Or, just the make NPC ruthless and above consequences. Have them killing everyone, or destroying everything the PCs hold dear or have ever met. This, I believe is how the Empire deals with hunting the droids in Star Wars, isn’t it?

The strategy is to emotionally unbalance the prey, so they become focused on confronting and finding you, making your work a lot easier.

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