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.
D&D Board Game: Castle Ravenloft
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!
D&D Board Game: Wrath of Ashardalon
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.
D&D Board Game: Legend of Drizzt
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.
D&D Board Game Temple of Elemental Evil
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.
D&D Board Game Tomb of Annihilation
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).
Origin Miniatures Enemy Minions Battle Pack
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.
Nice. I love the miniatures. From my experience the best and most cost effective way to start is to buy an unopened case of minis from ebay. Savage Encounters & Lords of Madness cases can be found for around $100 bucks on ebay. Sure you’ll get some dupes, but dupes are necessary too. One case will get you a real good start, then buy individual pieces, like you said, to flesh out your collection.
Here’s one of my favourite value buys on Troll & Toad:
For $1.99 you get a skeletal cyclops who works great as a bone golem and various other large undead.
A live cyclops is nearly as cheap at $2.49, though not quite as flexible:
And there’s one frost giant left at $2.99:
When I ordered I picked up 3 frost giants, 2 cyclops & 2 cyclops skeletons, so blame me for the scarcity. 🙂
Oh, and the frost titan is currently $4.99 – http://www.trollandtoad.com/p278448.html – I didn’t buy it as I suspect I’d not be using it.
Thanks for the comments! I understand that buying a case is a good value as far as cost per mini goes; however, you might end up with bunches of odd commons that you have little use for. I’d rather buy both board games and get minis that I know I’ll be using.
Great deal on that skeletal cyclops; I am definitely going to add one of those to my next order. Might do another post like this soon, before the minis get more and more difficult to obtain.
Nice article. Just found your blog and have been really enjoying it as I catch up on some of the older posts. If you have time/are looking for topics, I’d love to read a review on the original monster vault and Cairn of the Winter King, similar to the one you did on Threats to Nentir Vale.
My 2 cents on affordable minis:
I’ve found most sites have pretty good deals on the Spirit Folk Fighter which is a fairly generic-looking “guy with a sword” mini that can fill in for a lot of things. Currently under $1 on Gamehollow, but only a few left.
Spirit Folk Fighter: http://www.gamehollow.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=6448
The Gold Dwarf Soldier and Dwarf raider are also typically affordable if you’re in need of dwarves.
Gold Dwarf Soldier: http://www.gamehollow.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=6448
Dwarf Raider (also under $1): http://danddminis.com/Dwarf_Raider
Thanks for reading the blog! I might do a full review of the Monster Vault someday, but I’ve already written about Cairn of the Winter King, though less as a review and more as a reflection. Check it and other Essentials adventures out here.
Very nice choices on the minis; I will definitely be on the lookout for those!
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New To The Blog.. So I’m sorry for replying to a older post.. but thought I’d share what I do..
I’m using “Mage Knight” mini’s… 🙂 I have a friend that gave me 2 copy paper boxes full of this little babies… so I’m using them in the DnD Games.. they look great and work great.. only downsize to them, is they are a tad bit bigger then the DnD Mini’s, but my players don’t seem to mind at all!
I know this kinda goes against the whole spirit of the thread, but personally I don’t shell out for minis.
I went down to my local craft store and picked up some small 1/2″ diameter spools, elmers glue, and some beads.
Glue the beads to the top, maybe use special ones for PC’s and BAM: All the figurines you could possibly need under $10.
I also bought a Larger 1″ Spool for bigger Monsters, and a 3″ Cube (dubbed by my players the cube of death) for when I need to depict eldrich monstrosities.
I just cast a simple suggestion spell, and suddenly they believe my bits and pieces of wood and plastic are whatever I tell them they are. That can be a whole lot more scary than any actual figurines they see. Imagination is our greatest weapon as DMs.
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Need miniatures? Get the Adventure series games- Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, Legend of Drizzt. Each of these boardgames come with 40+ sculpts. Even one of these sets would be enough for any campaign. Add the random dungeon floor tiles, counters,Serious value here.
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For Humans, Goblins and Hobgoblins I use LotR minitures from GW. You can get them very cheap from ebay (in comparison to the current prices for D&D and Pathfinder miniatures). Numenor makes good Iron Circle soldiers. Also Rohan miniatures should be useful for more usual raiders. I found the idea in another blog where the writer used Mordor Orks as Hobgoblins. At least Hobgoblin/Goblin Shamans can be made by some simple conversion if you have some left over bits from other tabletop games.
Great article. What are your thoughts on 3D printers now that they are dropping in price, becoming more common and having people share entire ranges of their 3D models for free online?
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