On Collecting Miniatures

You will occasionally see people like me banging on about all the miniatures we have and how they really, really enhance our Dungeons & Dragons experiences. Then you look at your own collection of three miniatures and a bunch of chess pieces and wonder how other people ever got their miniature collections.

Here’s the truth: Miniature collecting is expensive. Most likely financially – most miniatures cost a significant amount – but miniatures can also cost you time, even if you don’t pay that much for them. That’s because the cheaper miniatures typically need to be painted, which is a terribly time-consuming affair.

I occasionally get asked why I don’t just buy cheaper Reaper miniatures and paint them instead of buying the WizKids random lines. Well, the truth is I have backed all three Bones Kickstarters. I have hundreds of unpainted miniatures. I don’t have time to paint them. When you work full-time and run three sessions of D&D a week, in addition to occasionally blogging and writing D&D adventures, you don’t have much time left over. “Time is Money”, as Benjamin Franklin said. The time I save by not painting the miniatures myself is worth more to me than the extra money I spend.

For those of you who have more time than I have, then by all means, paint your miniatures! They’ll look awesome and I’ll be jealous.

At present, there are three major ways of getting (cheaper) miniatures for use in D&D.

The first is to buy the WizKids lines of D&D Icons and Pathfinder Battles. Yes, though the Pathfinder line has a different design aesthetic, the minis are perfectly useable in D&D games. These miniatures are pre-painted but come in blind packaging so you don’t know exactly what 4 miniatures you’ll be getting in each box. This infuriates a lot of people, who like to know what miniatures they’re getting. One of the ways to get around this is to buy in bulk. A case of D&D Icons (that’s 32 boosters, all packed together) will possibly give you a full set or quite close to it, with about 1 of each rare, 2-3 of each uncommon and 3-4 of each common miniature. The exact numbers vary by release, and some sets have too many miniatures to all appear in a case. Buying a case costs a lot of money, though.

The second is to buy the miniatures from the WizKids lines of D&D Icons and Pathfinder Battles… but from resellers who have opened the boxes and are now selling individual miniatures. Due to the way the rarity system works with reselling, this means the common miniatures are cheaper (often much cheaper than you’d expect) and the rare miniatures can be terribly expensive. So, it’s great for building an army of orcs or goblins, and not that great for getting a beholder.

The third is to buy Reaper Bones. The cheapest way is in one of their Kickstarters, although the gap between the Kickstarter and fulfillment has reached a point where I’m not sure that it’s feasible to do another one. Their third Kickstarter took my money 19 months ago, and still hasn’t delivered the miniatures, although it’s likely they’ll arrive in the next couple of months (6+ months late). You can also buy individual miniatures for quite low prices. However, you’ll have to paint them yourself.

An Orc from Reaper Bones sells for US$2.79 from their webstore. A prepainted Orc from one of the older D&D Minis lines sells for about US$2.50-$3.50 at Miniatures Market. A Beholder? $30.

There are other places to get miniatures. Occasionally a company does a Kickstarter that give you a nice lot of miniatures at a reasonable price. Reaper and other companies also have lines of metal miniatures, although I find them an absolute pain to assemble, paint and transport, especially the last. And then there’s Games Workshop, which have a particular disadvantage for use in D&D by being of the wrong scale compared to all the other miniatures. And they’re expensive and you need to paint them. (But the quality of the miniatures is very high).

By a curious twist of fate, I was in exactly the right place at the right time when the D&D Miniatures first started getting produced in 2003. At that time, a pack of eight random minis cost US$10 – it went up to US$13 after a few months. So, I was able to pick up a lot of miniatures quite cheaply at these lower costs. Unfortunately, shortly after the line began, the price of oil sky-rocketed. This had two effects on the miniatures’ cost. One, plastics are made from oil, so that obviously had a direct effect on the price. The other part is the shipping costs. Taken together, they meant the days of really cheap minis were behind us. (In 2002, oil was $23 per barrel. In 2005, it had doubled. From 2008-2014, it sat around $80-$90 per barrel).

One question that continually pops up is why the WizKids lines use blind packaging. Why don’t they sell them individually so you know what you’re getting? Well, the reason relates to how many miniatures D&D potentially has, and the cost of producing miniatures that are less popular than other miniatures. The overall effect is to reduce the cost of the miniatures. Back in 2003, I coined a law (Merric’s Law of Miniatures) to describe the phenomenon, which I restate here: Non-Random Packaging, Cheap Prices, and a Large Range of Figures: Choose two. If you’d like a fuller discussion of why they do random miniatures, let me know.

As for my advice to the beginning miniature collector: Be patient. Gaining a good D&D miniatures collection takes a lot of time and money. It’s quite fine to proxy the miniatures you don’t have yet. Just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into; it will take a lot of money and/or time.

Alternative options, such as the Pathfinder Pawns, are perfectly legitimate and much more affordable.

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3 Responses to On Collecting Miniatures

  1. alphastream says:

    One of the dirty secrets is that no DM, no matter how large a collection they have, has every mini they need for every battle. In fact, even with a huge collection, you will often not have what you need for a 4-hour adventure, and have to swap in something similar.

    Guess what? If you just have a couple of boxes, you would be in a similar boat. And, that’s my main advice. Pick up a few boxes and have fun, and don’t worry about getting more unless you enjoy it and have the money. If you want minis for typical battles (orcs, undead, goblins, drow), consider finding a box or two of the old Dungeon Command game. You get a game and a bunch of minis at a decent price, all very useful minis for typical adventures.

  2. Lee says:

    “If you’d like a fuller discussion of why they do random miniatures, let me know.”
    +1 please!

  3. Shakar says:

    “If you’d like a fuller discussion of why they do random miniatures, let me know”
    +1 please pretty please with a beholder on top.

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