Note: the following post has been updated since its original publication in 2011.
5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is an extremely flexible system. It is simple enough to teach quickly, but deep enough for a compelling experience. While previous editions relied heavily on the use of miniatures and battle maps, 5E runs just fine using the “theater of the mind” approach.
This is all well and good, but for those of us who enjoy a three dimensional representation of tactical combat, 5E can definitely support it. There’s nothing quite so fun as plunking an impressive mini like a dragon or giant down on a battlemap or Dwarven Forge setup, and surrounding it with minions like orcs or kobolds.
The problem is, miniatures for D&D can be very, very expensive. The 3.5/4E era miniatures are long out of print. The newer prepainted miniatures line, as well as the Attack Wing series, can be very pricey. Thankfully, there are some better values out there, if you know where to look.
This guide is intended to help new DMs create a good collection of miniatures without breaking the bank. The focus will be on minis that are first of all inexpensive, but secondly those that can fill many roles throughout your campaign.
The D&D Adventure Game Series is the first place to start for a budget-conscious miniatures collector. This game series provided some of the best miniatures value for the buck of any product. The games cost around $50-$60, and include 42 miniatures plus lots of useful dungeon tiles. At well less than 2 bucks per mini, that’s a good deal! The tradeoff, of course, is that the miniatures are not painted, though they are cast in colored plastic. They still look really nice on the table, and you can always paint them yourself later.
Adventure Series games include three copies of several monster types, as well as single miniatures that represent heroes and villains. There are a few larger minis in each set that are your basic “boss” monsters.
Groups of three:
- Skeletons – probably the most common opponents your PCs will face
- Zombies – not quite as common, but can stand in for ghouls, wights, other undead
- Wraiths – can be any ghostly undead
- Spiders – widely useful in a variety of settings: jungles, caves, forests, etc.
- Gargoyles – can represent many monsters, including demons or devils
- Wolves – very common in encounters, can also be hellhounds, blink dogs
- Kobolds – classic low level creatures, can be used as any small humanoid
- Blazing Skeletons – made of transparent plastic, a very neat effect
Singles: The zombie dragon and flesh golem are especially nice. The Dracolich is fantastic, probably the best miniature in any of these games. The Castle Ravenloft set should strongly be considered the best first purchase. There’s so much great stuff in it!
Groups of three:
- Kobolds – you can never have enough of these critters
- Orcs – most campaigns use orcs, and you get both ranged and melee versions
- Duergar – probably most useful as regular dwarves
- Cultists – highly useful for enemy mages and other spellcasters
- Legion Devils – can pass as tieflings
- Snakes – found in all sorts of settings, can represent many creatures
- Bears – moderately useful, can stand in for owlbears
Singles: The otyugh and rage drake look especially great. Of course you get a huge red dragon that is bound to scare the wits out of your players! This set is less useful for a standard campaign due to the inclusion of strange creatures like grells and gibbering mouthers.
Groups of three:
- Water Elementals – could be used as any goopy foe
- Hypnotic spirits – spectres, ghosts, etc.
- Goblins – classic foes, and you get six of them!
- Drow duelists – useful as generic fighters even outside the Underdark
- Trolls – great sculpts, and useful as many different large humanoids
Singles: All the singles are particularly good in this set. The drider is very impressive, as are the mind flayer and shadow dragon. The big draw (literally) is a balor, a truly impressive miniature. Strongly recommended as an early purchase, even more so if you think you might adventure in the Underdark someday.
Groups of Three:
- Gnolls – they are a bit large, but good generic beast-man types
- Bugbears and Hobgoblins – you never have enough humanoids
- Firebats – could represent any small winged creature
- Four different types of elemental cultists – good for generic humanlike foes
- Dopplegangers – appropriately, could be used as anything
- Troglodytes – could be lizard men or yuan-ti in a pinch
Singles: Again, a very strong selection of single miniatures. One of each type of elemental, each of which get plenty of mileage in most campaigns. The ettin could be any type of giant, and there’s another big ol’ dragon, this one actually sculpted in flight. This would be another good set to begin a collection with.
This set is probably the least useful for a generic campaign. Many of the miniatures are specific to the Tomb of Annihilation setting, like vegepygmies, batiri, and pterafolk. Even the generic miniatures like skeletons and zombies are jungle-themed. On the other hand, there are some highlights in the singles: Acererak is a great mini useful for any undead boss, and the four-armed gargoyle is quite intimidating. If you are running the Tomb of Annihilation campaign, you will likely rate this set much higher.
While the D&D Adventure Games are the best value for miniatures, there are several other more expensive but still reasonable options available. While I’d still begin with the D&D board games every time, sometimes you need a specific miniature to fill that hole in your collection.
Giants are a classic D&D monster, and this board game is full of them, with a few giant killer minis thrown in as a bonus. There are twelve giants, two each of hill, stone, frost, fire, cloud, and storm varieties. The regular version of the game has each type of giant molded in a different color plastic. The deluxe version has fully painted minis, and is at the time of this writing available for a reasonable premium.
The giant minis in this game would be especially valuable if you are running Against the Giants. This module is one of the most highly regarded adventures ever, and it was revamped for 5E in Tales from the Yawning Portal.
One of the better options available is the unpainted minis line going by the fun name Nolzur’s Marvelous Minatures. This is probably the best way to go if you are looking for a specific miniature, or you don’t have the budget for a board game with 40+ miniatures in it. There are tradeoffs: you will nearly always pay $3-$5 per mini, and the minis are all gray in color (though primered and ready to paint).
Another intriguing bundle comes from Origin Miniatures. The set includes 3 copies of 12 different miniatures. Orcs, skeletons, zombies, and more are each commonly used types of foes in D&D. You can represent many different types of monsters with these minis. The sculpts look a bit soft, but for the price (less than $1.50 per mini), it’s a good value. There’s even a foam-lined carrying case to protect them!
There are, of course, many other options out there. The key is to find minis that are generic enough to represent many specific types of creatures, or those that are very common in your campaign. It’s nice to have the perfect mini for every occasion, but you’ll be spending hundreds of dollars in a hurry if you take that route. Splurge and buy a $10 – $20 single every once in a while if you like, but spend most of your budget on generic bad guys, and you’ll have a larger, more useful collection that will serve your campaign needs well for a long time to come.
What’s the best way to transport all your minis, dice, books, and other supplies? Check out my suggestions for a “D&D Box”.
Do you want to try painting your cool new miniatures? Be sure to take a look at my guide for new painters.