Miniatures offer plenty of visual appear, but the task of collecting enough figures for play can seem overwhelming. Fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder include hundreds of monsters, and then most encounters require duplicates.
Despite all the possible monsters, you can add miniatures to many encounters by collecting figures for a few, common foes. For the price of grand, expensive figures like Tiamat and Orcus, you can collect enough cheap figures to power about a third of your encounters.
Unless you want to adopt a new hobby painting miniatures, I suggest building your collection with plastic, pre-painted miniatures.
Instead of opening random boxes, buy your collection as singles on the secondary market. The secondary vendors open cases to chase rares that command high prices, then they sell the dull commons at reasonable prices. You may never play that pricey chimera or balor, but that kobold will see plenty of time on the table.
A few types of enemies appear very frequently in fantasy adventures, so you can fill lots of encounters with just a few figures. The most-played figures represent evil humans and a few low-level foes. In “11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I offered a list that included many of these. For this post, I present an updated list of the most useful types of miniatures.
The most useful figure of all can appear as a thug or bandit in countless encounters. These types typically carry a simple bludgeon. My favorite tough guy appeared as the Human Thug in the Harbinger miniatures set. The thug’s shiny, expensive armor doesn’t suit a ruffian with a club, but until someone makes a bandit who spends less time polishing, I’ll keep packing these figures with my dice.
Not every criminal element favors blunt-force trauma. For thieves and assassins who prefer knives, I like the Human Rogue. Perfect for an encounter it a dark alley.
As soon as the adventure reaches the water, the thugs become pirates. For years I relied on the Cloudreaver for the swabbies and the Defiant Rake for commanders. The Pathfinder Skull & Shackles miniature set brought and abundance of pirate riches. Pirates appear so often that all these figures find a role on the table.
Every tyrant and corrupt official needs guards to keep power, so PCs will tangle with soldiers almost as often as thugs. In fourth edition, the typical guard wielded a halberd, making the Human Town Guard a fit. For a sword-wielding version, I favor the Watch Officer.
Wise soldiers shoot from the walls, so I wish some figures looked like a uniformed guard aiming a ranged weapon. The Cleric of Syreth fits best; he just seems a bit too fancy. The Human Ranger also fits, although he seems a bit too woodsy.
Skeletons and Zombies
In the early days of dungeon adventures, no one worried about how dungeon dwellers reached food or water or an exit. Now if you stock a room with a dragon who is too big for the doors, you will lose your game master’s card—after your players stop laughing at you. This leads dungeon builders to fill rooms with creatures that survive on nothing.
Skeletons and zombies make a perfect threat for a sealed dungeon, so they appear constantly. The Harbinger set included my favorite zombie. Its posture suggests a shambling gait and its exposed gut looks suitably gruesome.
The skeletons guarding some ancient crypt shouldn’t sport polished armor, so I like the unarmored, Boneshard Skeleton. Skeletal Archers balance encounters with ranged attackers.
To dungeon designers, elementals and undead provide the same advantage: Neither type needs food. Elementals appear frequently because they pair interesting attacks with evocative flavor, plus they work at many power levels.
The first medium-sized elemental figures came molded in opaque plastic. The earth elemental looks like a brown Thing. Although the water and fire elementals hardly look wet or fiery, they’re recognizable. The slate-gray air elemental looks like a melting fish-man. It ranks as the worst D&D miniature ever.
Later, the Heroscape game redid these air, fire, and water elementals in translucent plastic. Three of these figures became favorites. No other water elemental looks as wet; no other fire elemental as hot. Sadly, cloudy plastic fails to redeem the melting fish-man. The Heroscape bases are too big to fit a 1 inch squares, so I snapped the figures off and glued them on smaller bases. Alas, Heroscape ended production years ago.
For medium elementals, look to the Pathfinder Battles Shattered Star miniature set. The fifth-edition Monster Manual only presents stats for large elementals. The Pathfinder elementals stand tall enough to double as large, or buy large figures in the Elemental Evil set.
Ideally, I want a medium air elemental that looks like a whirlwind and can double as a spell effect. The Shardstorm Vortex comes close except for the dirty wash representing shards of stone.
In a fantasy game world, rats, snakes, and spiders make a common foe. Dungeon designers can add them without food-chain questions. Unlike charismatic beasts like wolves, no players want to befriend them.
So far, no rat figure earns my endorsement. The D&D miniatures line hasn’t produced a rat that looks much like a rat. Meanwhile, the Pathfinder Dire Rat towers over halflings and goblins.
The Pathfinder line produced my favorite serpent, the Venomous Snake. For spiders, I like the Deathjump Spider despite its budget paint scheme. The Wolf Spider offers more color.
How do you tell the difference between a ghoul and a wight? To me, they all look like angry dead things. One figure can fit ghouls, wights, and similar creatures. My favorite angry dead thing appeared as the Terror Wight. The Castle Ravenloft board game even made this sculpt a zombie, so it can play hungry or angry.
How do you spot the difference between a ghost, wraith, phantom, specter, apparition, haunt, or other incorporeal undead? You flip the miniature and read the base. My favorite phantom is the Lurking Wraith figure, which ranks as the absolute best D&D miniature figure ever produced. Not only does the translucent figure look great, but it works in numerous encounters at every level. Plus, the sculptor gave the figure a neutral expression, so it can appear as a friendly ghost without provoking an immediate attack.
Plenty of miniature sets feature lichs and other evil wizards, but more adventures include evil spellcasters that rank below dark lord. I want them to look evil, but without skeletal faces, crowns, and so on. So I like how the Grim Necromancer looks nasty without appearing poised to explain his plan to kill you all. Bwa-ha-ha-ha.
After Horde of the Dragon Queen and Princes of the Apacolypse, I’m ready for a 5-year break from evil cults. Nonetheless, someone has to join the ritual to free the demon god. Plus cultist figures can double as wicked spellcasters. The detail painted on the face of the Blood of Vol Cultist caught my eye. Someone at the factory should have gone to art school.
Not every evil mastermind goes to wizard school, so adventures often feature black-knight types. According to an online retailer, the Dread Guard ranks as the most popular figure in the Archfiends set.
Goblins and Kobolds
Most D&D games get played at the lower levels, which tend to limit DMs to pitting players against goblins or kobolds. For instance, the 4E and 5E introductory adventures featured goblins, while Horde of the Dragon Queen opted for kobolds. I suggest stocking both races of evil humanoids, and getting a mix of ranged and melee figures. They’re cheap. Pathfinder GMs should select the game’s distinctive goblins. For D&D, the Goblin Sharpshooter and Goblin Cutter look best. I like the Kobold Slinger, but I have yet to see a definitive kobold melee figure.
In “11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I listed 3 figures that no longer seem to rate as essential.
I wrote: I love to toy with players’ metagame expectations. Every D&D player knows that statues invariably come to life and attack-at least when they have a miniature on the map. So whenever a statue appears on a map, I drop a statue or gargoyle figure on top of it. Inevitably, the players edge nervously around the potential hazard. It never ceases to amuse me. Does that make me a mean DM?
In practice, animated statures appear less often than players fear, and most come in large size. On the other hand, gargoyles see nearly enough play to merit a place on the list of most useful figures.
I wrote: I always carry a few miniatures suitable for player characters that I can loan out. Players borrow this Elf Warmage more than any other figure. Plus, she often finds work as a patron, bystander, or fey villain.
I still loan out the Elf Warmage and other figures for PCs, but I limited this post to foes.
With the end of the Dragon Queen storyline, I expect drakes to see much less play. However, the Tyranny of Dragons set offers a Guard Drake that looks imposing. Earlier drakes looked like a pet for the Flintstones.