Category Archives: Miniatures

Use a White Paint Pen to Label Miniatures

I suspect most folks organize their miniatures by category. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains this approach, along with recommendations for storage options. I organize by set, and then use a resource like MinisCollector to find the figures I need. But unlike the older Wizards of the Coast miniatures, the newer WizKids miniatures lack any label that reveals their set. To help organize these figures, I write the set’s initials on the bases using a white, fine-tipped Sharpie paint pen.

Bonus tips: Use a white paint pen to label your wall-wart power blocks so you know what device they power. Also, if you become a famous artist and need to sign your glossy prints, the paint pen works beautifully.

Building a miniature collection on a budget from the most useful figures

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.

Not all miniatures paint as quickly as these slimes from Reaper

Not all miniatures paint as quickly as these slimes from Reaper

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.


Human Thug - Harbinger 47

Human Thug – Harbinger 47

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.


Human Rogue - Heroes and Monsters 16

Human Rogue – Heroes and Monsters 16

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.

Cloudreaver - War of the Dragon Queen 44

Cloudreaver – War of the Dragon Queen 44

Defiant Rake - Dungeons of Dread 43

Defiant Rake – Dungeons of Dread 43

Pirate Smuggler - Skull & Shackles 14

Pirate Smuggler – Skull & Shackles 14

Pirate Sailor - Skull & Shackles 13

Pirate Sailor – Skull & Shackles 13

Tessa Fairwind - Skull & Shackles 24

Tessa Fairwind – Skull & Shackles 24

Arronax Endymion - Skull & Shackles 27

Arronax Endymion – Skull & Shackles 27


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.

Human Town Guard - Lords of Madness 22

Human Town Guard – Lords of Madness 22

Watch Officer - Heroes & Monsters 9

Watch Officer – Heroes & Monsters 9

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.

Cleric of Syreth - War of the Dragon Queen 3

Cleric of Syreth – War of the Dragon Queen 3

Human Ranger - Heroes and Monsters 17

Human Ranger – Heroes and Monsters 17

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.

Zombie - Harbinger 58

Zombie –
Harbinger 58

Boneshard Skeleton - Desert of Desolation 39

Boneshard Skeleton – Desert of Desolation 39

Skeletal Archer - Angelfire 50

Skeletal Archer –
Angelfire 50


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.

Earth Elemental - Heroscape

Earth Elemental –

Medium Air Elemental - Dragoneye 23

Medium Air Elemental – Dragoneye 23

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.

Water Elemental - Heroscape

Water Elemental – Heroscape

Fire Elemental - Heroscape

Fire Elemental – Heroscape

Air Elemental - Heroscape

Air Elemental –

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.

Air Elemental - Shattered Star 10

Medium Air Elemental – Shattered Star 10

Medium Water Elemental - Shattered Star 15

Medium Water Elemental – Shattered Star 15

Fire Elemental - Elemental Evil 28

Fire Elemental (large) – Elemental Evil 28

Shardstorm Vortex - Savage Encounters 32

Shardstorm Vortex – Savage Encounters 32

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.

Dungeon Vermin

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.

Diseased Dire Rat - War of the Dragon Queen 28

Diseased Dire Rat – War of the Dragon Queen 28

Venomous Snake - Heroes & Monsters 14

Venomous Snake – Heroes & Monsters 14

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.

Deathjump Spider - Dungeons of Dread 54

Deathjump Spider – Dungeons of Dread 54

Wolf Spider - Elemental Evil 8

Wolf Spider –
Elemental Evil 8

Corporeal Undead

Terror Wight - War Drums 41

Terror Wight – War Drums 41

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.

Incorporeal Undead

Lurking Wraith - Against the Giants 51

Lurking Wraith – Against the Giants 51

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.

Evil Spellcaster

Grim Necromancer - Deathknell 36

Grim Necromancer – Deathknell 36

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.

Doomdreamer - Legendary Evils 11

Doomdreamer – Legendary Evils 11

Cultist of the Dragon - Archfiends 48

Cultist of the Dragon – Archfiends 48

Blood of Vol Cultist - Blood War 29

Blood of Vol Cultist – Blood War 29

Black Knight

Dread Guard - Archfiends 31

Dread Guard – Archfiends 31

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.

Goblin Cutter - Legendary Evils 23

Goblin Cutter – Legendary Evils 23

Goblin Sharpshooter - Dangerous Delves 22

Goblin Sharpshooter – Dangerous Delves 22

Kobold Slinger - Lords of Madness 27

Kobold Slinger – Lords of Madness 27

Inessential figures

In “11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I listed 3 figures that no longer seem to rate as essential.

Animated statue

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.

Animated Statue - Desert of Desolation 2

Animated Statue – Desert of Desolation 2

Earth Element Gargoyle - Blood War 48

Earth Element Gargoyle – Blood War 48

Gargoyle - Dragoneye 52

Gargoyle –
Dragoneye 52

Elf Warmage

Elf Warmage - Blood War 5

Elf Warmage – Blood War 5

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.

Guard Drake

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.

Guard Drake - Tyranny of Dragons 22

Guard Drake – Tyranny of Dragons 22

Guard Drake - Demonweb 48

Guard Drake –
Demonweb 48

Dungeon master’s tools and miniatures update

In this post, I offer additions to my dungeon master’s tools, notes on miniatures, and some tavern decor.

Gaming Paper

In October 2013, when I presented my photo guide to dungeon master’s tools, I still ran fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which meant the combat encounters typically featured poster maps or dungeon tiles. Fifth edition’s quicker, more numerous fights mean I’m sketching most encounters on a grid. In addition to using dry- and wet-erase battle maps, I sometimes draw dungeons on Gaming Paper. This paper resembles gift wrap, except rather than balloons or Santas, it features a 1-inch square or hex pattern. Unlike erasable maps, the paper offers permanency, so you can store and pack the maps without rubbing marks away. Plus, you can draw a bunch of maps before a game without running out of flip-mat.

Drawing a dungeon as it's explored on gaming paper

Gaming paper can reveal a dungeon as it’s explored

Giants, size, and miniatures

Fifth edition changed giants from large size, as in third and fourth, to huge size. I approve. Giants needed a boost over ogres and trolls. The stone and frost giant miniatures in the Tyranny of Dragons compare in size to earlier huge figures, such as the titans in the old D&D miniature line. Despite the growth, the new giants continue to use large-size bases, probably so the figures fit in the retail box. The 5E designers seem to fear that the size change will enrage collectors of giant figures on undersized bases, so the Dungeon Master’s Guide states, “If the miniature you use for a monster takes up an amount of space different from what’s on the table, that’s fine, but treat the monster as it’s official size for all other rules.”

Large storm giant and huge frost giant, both on large, 2" by 2"  bases

Large storm giant and huge frost giant, both on large, 2″ by 2″ bases

Do not accept this compromise. For fifth edition, set giant figures on huge-size, 3-inch bases so these monsters take the proper amount of space on the battle map. I’ve used the large-to-huge expansion rings that came in the old Monster Vault, but this only saves me the five minutes needed to cut 3-inch disks from cardboard.

Attack wing flying miniatures

Every time a new line of randomly packaged miniatures reaches stores, gamers protest the random assortments. Many people insist on buying exactly the figures they need and believe that the blind packages prevent them from getting what they want. But they can avoid the random packs by getting figures as singles from internet resellers. If you want common figures rather than the splashy rares, then singles come cheaper. When a new set arrives, I typically buy some boxes to start a collection, then buy singles to fill gaps and to get groups of useful figures.

The D&D Attack Wing Starter Set includes 3 dragons

The D&D Attack Wing Starter Set includes 3 dragons

For Tyranny of Dragons, I wound up short some of the flying dragon figures. The dragons look great, but I balked at their steep prices as singles. So the Attack Wing Miniatures Game Starter Set seemed like an ideal purchase. The box packs 3 dragon figures like the ones from the Tyranny of Dragons miniature set. These would cost much more as singles. Plus the box includes the game.

Attack Wing Red and Tyranny of Dragons dragon

Attack Wing red dragon on its short post compared to Tyranny of Dragons green dragon

The drawback: The Attack Wing versions only fit atop shorter posts intended to work with the game’s bases—bases too big for D&D’s one-inch grid. The good news: The short posts fit the Tyranny of Dragons bases. Your players will only notice how cool the Attack Wing dragons look, not that they fly an inch closer to the table.

Update: The Attack Wing posts fit together to create extensions. You can use the extensions to show a creature’s altitude. This makes the Attack Wing figures more versatile than the ordinary miniatures.

Spell Cards

When I first saw pictures of Game Force Nine’s fifth-edition Spellbook Cards, the cards seemed like a strained effort to find something to sell for the new edition. After all, friendly neighborhood game stores everywhere still have fourth-edition power cards gathering dust, marked 50% to 75% off.

D&D Spellbook Cards - Arcane

D&D Spellbook Cards – Arcane

My assessment changed. I plan order the Spellbook Cards at my FLGS. My new outlook stems from my post on not hoarding spells, the new players at my D&D Encounters table, and my wish to avoid total party kills. Battles keep turning against players, while their spellcasters choose cantrips over the spells that could win victory.

In fourth edition, complete power descriptions appeared every character sheet, so players never failed to use their dailies and encounter powers. Now the spell descriptions stay locked in the Player’s Handbook. Players skip their unfamiliar spells and spam Firebolt.

I plan to hand new spellcasters a few spell cards that can help them tap their character’s potential. I hope to avoid dead characters and reduce the need to coach from behind the DM screen.

The cards may help me too. I will pull spell cards for enemy casters and clip them to my DM screen. No more pausing the action so I can search for a spell description.

Dungeon Decor

I collect miniature figures for unarmed non-player character, from royalty to beggars. Setting them on the map helps set the scene in a tavern, street, or throne room, plus the figures discourage players who tend to think every NPC with a miniature represents an enemy to fight. In addition to miniatures for non-combatants, I’m enchanted by miniature-scale props that sit on a battle map and make the game more vivid.

Tavern Dugeon Decor

Tavern Dungeon Decor

The Kickstarter for the Dungeon Decor Tavern set suits me perfectly. I added on to my pledge for extra tables and chairs. Players often move their characters over tables and chairs printed on a map as if they present no more obstacle than a rug. Your armored dwarf is not so light on his feet. If my next bar brawl includes 3-D tables and chairs, I’m certain the players will treat them as terrain rather than as a colorful pattern.

A quick look at the Tyranny of Dragons miniatures

The last prepainted Dungeons & Dragons miniature set, Lords of Madness, reached stores in 2010. Since then, I have grown eager for a new source of plastic miniatures. The Pathfinder miniatures line included some good figures, but they come mixed with lots of characters and monsters unique to their adventure paths.

So the release of the new Icons of the Realms Tyranny of Dragons collectible miniatures excited me. This set of 44 miniatures comes in boxes of 4 randomly-assorted miniatures that retail for $15. The price continues a decade of steep increases. In 2003, Harbinger boosters only cost $9.99 for 8 figures. My desperation for new plastic helps overcome the sting of paying so much per figure.

Don’t complain about the random assortment. If you want to buy specific figures from the sets, plenty of vendors sell them individually. Unless you crave the splashy rares, and the excitement of cracking a box, you get a better deal buying singles.

The set’s big draw comes from dragons and other flying creatures posed in flight atop clear plastic pillars. In the past, only a few bats and stirges received this treatment.

Pegasus - Tyranny of Dragons (large uncommon)

Pegasus – Tyranny of Dragons (large-sized uncommon)

Harpie - Tyranny of Dragons (medium rare)

Harpie – Tyranny of Dragons (medium-sized rare)

If you handicap your dragons by making them fight on the ground, then the new flying dragons won’t suit you. Plenty of grounded dragons have appeared already, and you can still buy them from resellers. I’m eager to pit some players against a green dragon just so I can swap figures when the creature takes off. Yes, I know this is a shameful indulgence.

Green dragons - 2008 D&D Starter Set vs. new flyer

Green dragons – 2008 D&D Starter Set vs. new flying  green

The set’s other splashy feature comes from invisible character miniatures molded from translucent plastic. Most rare figures feature a lot of costly, painted details. To WizKids, these invisible rares must seem like an ideal combination of zero painting (cheap!) with the sort of collectability that entices buyers. Did the idea for these minis start as a board-room joke about selling empty boxes full of “invisible” figures? If you buy singles, don’t complain. Premium figures like these make the others more affordable, because resellers can charge $30 for an invisible Drizzt, and then use the profit to offset the cost of all the ordinary figures they opened to find him.

Invisible Human Female Ranger and Drizzt

Invisible Human Female Ranger and Drizzt

The Red Wizard may rate as my favorite figure. I love the magical fire sculpted from translucent plastic around his hands. Too bad this guy arrived too late represent some of the enemies in Dead in Thay.

Red Wizard - Tyranny of Dragons

Red Wizard – Tyranny of Dragons

The Rock Gnome Female Wizard and Stout Heart Halfling Female Bard rank as the set’s two most welcome additions to my collection. Past D&D miniatures sets presented gnomes and halflings with the same proportions as humans, making the figures look like tiny humans—15mm-scale mistakes. None of these figures satisfied me. The new gnome and halfling look good.

micro-human Lidda, Halfling Rogue from Harbinger (2003) flanked by a new Gnome and Wizard

micro-human Lidda, Halfling Rogue from Harbinger (2003) flanked by a new Gnome and halfling

Apparently, miniature sculptors cannot agree on what a wyvern looks like. The new set’s flying wyvern looks puny compared to the specimen from the Pathfinder Battles Savage Star set, and emaciated compared to the one in the 2004 Aberrations set.

Pathfinder, Tyranny, and Aberrations Wyverns

Pathfinder, Tyranny, and Aberrations Wyverns

In the things-that-bother-nobody-but-me department, I continue to be annoyed by miniatures that seem out of scale. This set’s offense comes from the Orog, a new candidate for the worlds largest medium-sized creature. Check out this oversized orc posed next to the undersized Storm Giant from Against the Giants and the new Frost Giant figure.

Orog, Storm Giant, and Frost Giant

Orog, Storm Giant, and Frost Giant

You will need these to read the writing on  the bases

You will need these to read the writing on the miniatures’ bases

An ideal set of random miniatures matches the rarity of figures to the number game masters will probably need. Goblins and skeletons can be common because you can always use more. Dragons and mind flayers can be rare, because you probably just need one. Mostly, this set aligns rarity with usefulness. The flying bases push the rarity of some flyers higher than they should be. I would be happy with several flying gargoyles, but I have yet to open a single one of these rares. Also, as much as I like the Gnome Wizard and Halfling Bard, I only need one of either common figure.

I have opened 3 uncommon green dragons, but no uncommon shadow dragons, 3 uncommon frost giants, but no uncommon stone giants. This means it is time to stop buying random boxes and turn to buying singles from resellers to fill out my collection.

The most useful Pathfinder Battles miniatures for any fantasy game

A year or so ago, I posted my list of the 11 most useful types of miniatures. This list remains one of the most popular posts on this site. However, since that post, those old D&D miniature figures have continued to grow scarcer and their secondary-market prices higher. This summer, WizKids will sell a new line of pre-painted, plastic Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, so we will finally see some new D&D figures to buy.

After the end of the last D&D miniatures line, Paizo and WizKids entered the market with their Pathfinder Battles line. These sets focus on figures unique to Pathfinder and the game’s adventure paths, producing many creatures and personalities that cannot come from anywhere else. Because I don’t run the adventure paths, the Pathfinder line includes too many figures that I won’t use, so I seldom buy the randomized boxes.

Still, the Pathfinder Battles line does include figures useful to any game master, so I’ve cherry-picked many figures on the secondary market. For an excellent gallery of Pathfinder Battles figures, refer to

Chimera Pathfinder Battles miniature
Succubus Pathfinder Battles miniature
Lich Pathfinder Battles miniature

The Heroes & Monsters set ranks as most useful set of random miniatures ever released by any vendor. The commons seem torn from my list of most useful miniatures. The rares feature cool and iconic monsters from the Chimera to the Succubus, plus the best Lich ever.

Watch Officer Pathfinder Battles miniature
Watch Guard Pathfinder Battles miniature
Rogue Pathfinder Battles miniature

I stocked up on the Watch Officer and Watch Guard, the Human Rogue, the Gargoyle, and the Mummy. I like that the Skeleton omits the shining armor found on most of the D&D skeletons—shining armor seems like an odd accessory for bones rising from a graveyard or crypt.

Gargoyle Pathfinder Battles miniature
Mummy Pathfinder Battles miniature

Skull & Shackles ranks as my second-favorite Pathfinder set for one reason: pirates. If I update my list of most useful miniatures, pirates will leap ahead of some other types.

Pirate Sailor Pathfinder Battles miniature
Pirate Smuggler Pathfinder Battles miniature
Tessa Fairwind Pathfinder Battles miniature

I’ve purchased at least one copy of every pirate in Skull & Shackles. Plus, I love the Bloodbug (pronounced “stirge”).

Bloodbug Pathfinder Battles miniature
Wererat Pathfinder Battles miniature

Urban adventures always seem to include wererats, so the Wererat figure will also get a lot of time on the table. I like the sharks too, but you know my hang-ups about underwater adventures. Use them for Arduin air sharks.

Earth Elemental Pathfinder Battles miniature
Air Elemental Pathfinder Battles miniature

Third place goes to Shattered Star for a full range of elementals ready for heavy rotation at any game table.

Fire Elemental Pathfinder Battles miniature
Water Elemental Pathfinder Battles miniature

I also like the Tower Girl as a PC, the Cleric of Zon-Kuthon as an undead mastermind, and Sheila Heidmarch as a non-fighting noble.

Tower Girl Pathfinder Battles miniature
Cleric of Xon-Kuthon Pathfinder Battles miniature
Shiela Heidmarch Pathfinder Battles miniature

The new Reign of Winter set includes some good animal companions and familiars, such as the Owl, Falcon, and Goat. No player has yet chosen a spirit goat companion for their PC, but I hope to see one soon.

The new D&D miniatures line should add these figures that have never been done before

Drizzt Do'Urden D&D Miniature

Drizzt Do’Urden D&D Miniature

Last week, Wizards of the Coast announced a deal with WizKids to produce pre-painted, plastic miniatures for Dungeons & Dragons. These new figures will accompany the D&D Next release this summer. As with the Pathfinder Battles miniatures, also from WizKids, the line will include both blind, randomly-assorted boosters and visible starter packs. The visible Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Heroes starter packs include 6-figures priced at $19.95, and will reach stores in July.  In August, the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Miniatures: Set One Boosters go on sale. These packs will include 4 figures drawn from a set of around 54 figures, likely priced at $15.99. The same sculptors who do HeroClix and Pathfinder Battles will sculpt the D&D line, so the quality will rank just as high. The sample photos show Drizzt Do’Urden as one upcoming figure.

I loved the original D&D miniatures, so when rising costs forced WotC out of the miniatures market, I felt dismayed. No alternatives suited me as well. I have boxes full of Reaper Bones, and while I’ve painted a few, I’m not ready to make painting another hobby. The Pathfinder Battles line boasts quality, pre-painted figures, but the line includes too many figures specific to the adventure paths and to the Pathfinder bestiary.

If I had the ear of someone planning a D&D miniature release, I would give my list of useful miniatures that have never appeared in plastic.

  • cave fisher wind-upCave fisher – I realize that this odd monster seems like it would hardly see use as a miniature, but I keep running published adventures that include cave fishers. Obviously, adventure authors fancy cave fishers because of their interesting mode of attack and because they can fit logically into the caverns where adventures happen.

  • Pixie – When Heroes of the Feywild added pixies as an available race, they became a surprisingly popular choice at my tables. But no pixie figures exist. We need a tiny pixie on a clear plastic flight stand similar to all the bats, birds, and stirges in earlier sets.

  • City guard with crossbow – I listed city guards among my 11 most useful types of miniatures, but none of the available figures hold a bow. Just about every type of humanoid needs to be represented with more figures with bows.

  • Medium displacer beast – Many folks love complimenting their character with pets, and in fourth edition, the displacer beast ranks as a most popular choice. Too bad no medium-sized displacer beast figure exists.

  • Mushroom – Towards the end of the original run of D&D plastic miniatures, each set seemed to include an inanimate object such as a ballista, treasure chest, or magic portal. I want to see this theme continued with a giant mushroom ready to be added to my collection of dungeon decor.

    Update: A mushroom figure escaped my notice. Thanks Shawn!

  • Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur's Gate

    Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur’s Gate

  • Dark-skinned, armored fighter – When I ran Murder in Baldur’s Gate, I looked for a figure to represent the brown-skinned Ulder Ravengard, but I discovered that nothing suitable existed.

  • Translucent green slime – Another monster that adds easily to an encounter, I want a green slime miniature sculpted from translucent plastic.

  • Goblin spellcaster – Every low-level D&D adventure includes a battle with goblins or kobolds–encounters that typically include a shaman or spellcaster of some sort. Kobolds have spellcaster figures, but no suitable goblin exists.

What figure would you like to see?

Photo guide to dungeon master’s tools

Update: Read my bigger, updated New photo guide to dungeon master’s tools.

As a dungeon master or game master, you can run a fun game with almost no gear, just a couple of dice, a pen, and some note paper.  I prefer to operate on the other end of the spectrum, with a full array of miniatures, markers, and props. This guide takes a tour through the tools in my DM’s kit. You do not need any of this equipment, but I suspect you will see some items to add to your  case.

On the game table

On the game table

Compartment case

Most of my essential gear fits into a translucent-plastic, compartment case. Removable dividers make the compartments’ size adjustable. As visible in the photo, I half-filled some of the compartments with foam rectangles. This prevents miniatures from banging around and makes small items easy to reach. When I need space for a larger miniature, I pluck out the foam for extra room. When I travel light, I only need this case and a battlemap for a game.

Deep compartment case

Deep compartment case

Dungeon master’s screen

I typically use a DM screen. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I filled the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I needed most at the table. Stuff the players’ side with your favorite fantasy art.

I have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen.

You can learn why I choose to use a screen and download my fourth-edition inserts in “Dungeon master’s screen.”

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Behind the dungeon master’s screen


I always carry a blank battlemap. The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

When I use folded poster maps, I typically make the map lay flat by covering it with a Lexan Polycarbonate Sheet—the sort of material used for storm windows. The Lexan sheets cost more than Acrylic, but they resist cracking. By using wet-erase markers, you can write on these sheets and then erase. Purchase these sheets from your local home-improvement store for under $20.

Battle map under plexiglas

Battle map under Lexan

When I use Dungeon Tiles, I arrange them on sheets of non-slip drawer liners, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep the loose tiles in place. These lightweight liners easily roll up for transport.

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

Shelf lines keep tiles in place


Removable mounting putty

Removable mounting putty

For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the Removable Adhesive Putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

For more one dungeon tiles, see my “complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets” and “complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles.”

I transport my maps and Lexan sheet in a inexpensive, artist’s portfolio case.

Rolling in a box

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

For reasons explained in “Rolling in a box,” I always make die rolls in full view of the players. To keep my dice corralled, I roll into a clear, plastic box purchased from a craft store. The box packs easily, takes little space on the table, and never hides the outcome of a roll.

Status markers

Alea tools magnetic markers in case

Alea Tools magnetic markers in case

Plenty of folks use cheap or free methods for tracking status effects on the battlemap. When I started with fourth edition, I twisted pipe cleaners into rings and tried using the rings as markers, but this approach fell short. At best, only I knew what status corresponded to a particular color. By the time everyone else adds their bottle-cap rings, tiny rubber bands, and other refuse to the battle, the miniatures look like Christmas trees and no one knows what’s going on. Ultimately I invested in a set of Alea Tools magnetic status markers. You can mark the edges of these markers with adhesive labels so everyone can read the status names. The markers cling in place, and a storage case makes organization easy. When I lack miniatures for a game, I use my numbered markers as tokens.

Numbered alea markers

Numbered and labeled Alea markers

When Dungeons & Dragons Next supplants fourth edition and eliminates much of the need for markers, I will miss them. However, I’ll always use the numbered markers to tell one identical monster figure from another on the battlefield.

Plastic markers

Colored marking dots

Colored marking dots

Colored plastic disks provide any easy way to mark the location of things like a key, a magical glyph, or a wall of fire on the battlemap. Because the disks lay flat, miniatures will sit on top of them. I purchased my set from a convention vendor. You can also buy plastic counters online.

Sometimes, I use these dots to resolve area-effect attacks that target a large number of figures. I lay a colored disk by each figure, then roll attack dice in colors matching the disks.

Colored dice and marker dots

Colored dice and marker dots

The colors link the attack rolls to the figures, so I can roll a handful of dice once to resolve all the attacks.

This method works best when I’m playing, because I can set my disks without interrupting other business at the table. As a judge, I typically just ask a player to point out targets for individual rolls.

Marking zones and areas of effect

To designate zones and areas of effect on the battlemap, I use three types of markers:

  • 3×3 colored transparencies.  I keep a set of transparent, colored sheets clipped to the inside of my DM screen. Whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners. You can purchase the transparencies from American Science and Surplus.

    Area of effect markers

    Blue transparency and yellow boundary markers

  • Boundary markers. These plastic angles mark the four corners of square areas. The boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories come cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.
  • Area-of-Effect Templates. For third-edition D&D and descendents like Pathfinder, I recommend the wire templates from Steel Sqwire. Frugal gamers can bend and snip templates almost as nice from coat hangers.

    Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

    Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

For more, see “Marking Zones and Areas in Fourth Edition D&D.”

Line-of-sight indicator

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

A line-of-sight indicator reels out a string that you can stretch between figures on the battlemap to see if obstacles block the line. The string is spring loaded, so it draws back automatically like a tape measure. Paizo sells these, but office supply stores and Amazon offers the same item as a retractable badge holder.

Initiative tents

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

You can find more advice and my printable initiative tents at “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Pens, clips, and scissors

Obviously, your DM kit requires regular pens and pencils as well as wet- or dry-erase pens suitable for your battle map. I bring clips so I can affix maps and pictures to my DM screen in the players’ view. Any convention DM must carry scissors to cut apart certificates and player hand outs.

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Post-it flags enable me to affix reminders to my initiative tents, so I can remember when conditions lift, and when the purple worm will burst from the floor.

Poker chips

Poker chips

Poker chips

I give players poker chips to represent action points. Different colored chips can also account for magical talismans, blessed elixirs, keys, and other items players must collect or use during the course of an adventure.


As I confessed in “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures.

My DM case always includes an assortment of two types of miniatures:

  • Bystanders and civilians. As I wrote in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads,” miniature figures for unarmed civilians can serve as bystanders to be protected as moving obstacles. Civilian figures can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s Bones lines.

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

  • Animal companions. Fourth edition made various types of animal companions more playable than any previous edition. In my experience, pets resonate for some players, and they collect as many the rules allow. However, players of pets rarely bring figures for their entourage, so I bring an assortment to lend. Now if only some vendor would create a medium-sized figure for the runaway most popular animal companion—the displacer beast.

    Animal companion miniatures

    Animal companion miniatures

For a list of other miniatures that I keep close at hand, see “The 11 most useful types of miniatures.”

To avoid the expense of miniatures, you can substitute tokens, Alea markers, or candy—tell players, “If you kill it, you eat it.”

Flight stands

Miniature flight platform

Miniature flight platform

The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories offer a way to mark airborne figures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform. Pack the stands carefully, because they snap easily.


Potion vial prop

Potion vial prop

I carry a couple of corked glass vials from American Science and Surplus. While completely unnecessary, I find them enchanting and I sometimes use them as prop potions.

Dungeon decor

While completely inessential, I pack some miniature dungeon decor to add to the battlemap. Figures such as chests, statues, and altars can add three-dimensional flavor to the battlemap, while calling attention to important features. Ballistas appear in enough adventures to make a figure useful. The photo below features items from more recent D&D miniature sets and from Legendary Realms. Reaper’s Bones line also includes some unpainted decor.

Dungeon decor

Dungeon decor

Running and playing Lair Assult: Into the Pit of Madness

On March 17, 2013, I ran Into the Pit of Madness, the final entry in the Lair Assault program. This challenge’s outcome remained in doubt until the final die rolls—a perfect balance. The party came within a round of defeating the Essence of Evil, and the players all seemed to enjoy the session.  As with Kill the Wizard, the challenge divides the party, randomly placing individuals in smaller challenges. I liked this design in Kill the Wizard, and welcomed the encore.

More than any other Lair Assault, Into the Pit of Madness seems to demand multiple plays for the players to learn enough to succeed. At my table, one player had read the challenge in his role of backup dungeon master, so with my consent, he nudged the players toward a winning course. The knowledge helped, but the players hardly brought an optimized party. As usual for fourth edition, an optimal party would consist of four strikers and a healer. (I’m kidding, of course. The optimal healer should multiclass into a striker class.)

Essence of Evil

For Kill the Wizard, a homemade Drowslayer figure inspired me to make a Drowslayer of my ownInto the Pit of Madness features a showdown with another unique enemy called the Essence of Evil, a creature without any available miniature.  I failed to step up and make an Essence of my own, but Wendy and Curtis, the creators of that first Drowslayer, topped themselves. Check out this picture from of the Essence of Evil and an adjacent Babau.

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

They sculpted the Essence of Evil from Sculpey  oven bake clay and painted it in arterial red, malevolent black, and bruise purple.

Artifacts in the character builder

One of my tables in the last Lair Assault, Temple of the Sky God, succeeded in some measure thanks to a stockpile of multiple Sun’s Slivers,  “a powerful artifact of pure sunlight” that serves as a MacGuffin in the epic-level Winter of the Witch adventure in Dungeon.  Even when you select the Lair Assault option, the character builder offers Sun’s Silvers, and possibly other artifacts, as legal, zero-cost items. They’re free; take two!  Are the players ingenious for stocking up on Sun’s Slivers prior to the Lair Assault? Is a DM abusing authority by forbidding players from equipping their characters with artifacts? I’ve run for players who would probably answer yes to both questions.

Sun's Sliver in the character builder

In practice, I do not examine the character sheets, so I have no idea what equipment the players use.  When I ran Temple of the Sky God for a team equipped with Sun’s Slivers, the party still came close to failing, and everyone had fun, so I call it a success. I leave it for the players to decide whether the cleverly equipped characters diminish the challenge.  Still, I fault the character builder’s programmers for overlooking these shenanigans.

For DMs: Ruling the portal

When I ran Into the Pit of Madness and the characters reached the antechamber, a wizard easily made the 28-or-higher arcana check on the portal. The party included three characters well capable of hitting a 28 arcana DC. I reread the portal’s description on page 12 once again. “If a character with a check result of 28 or higher can see another creature moving through the portal, that character can choose the creature’s destination.” Does this mean that if someone in the party makes an Arcana check of 28 or higher, then everyone except the arcanist can short circuit the nodes and jump directly to the Black Cist? This interpretation seemed to invalidate so much of the challenge that I could not believe that it matched author’s intent. Did I miss something?

Incredulous and reluctant to skip the meat of the challenge, I exercised what may have been an abuse of my DM’s authority. I ran the portals as follows:

With a minor action, a character trained in arcana who sees a portal may establish control over the portal. When that character sees another character pass through the portal, then the controller may, as a free action, attempt to route the passing character to a specific destination. For this attempt, make an arcana check.

  • On a result of 28 or higher, the passing character travels to a node selected by the controller. Otherwise, roll randomly to determine the destination.
  • On a result of 23 or higher, the controller can discern the destination of the passing character.

Each time a character enters a portal, the controller must make a separate check. No more than one character may exercise control over a portal at once.

I allowed similar checks for the portals in the nodes; I’m not a monster.  With the characters at my table, this proved to be a fun and challenging approach to the portals.

Before miniature sculptors used computer-aided design

Is it just me, or did Dungeons & Dragons miniatures grow over time?

Ghoul (Harbinger 2003) and Ravenous Ghoul (Desert of Desolation 2007)

Troll (Harbinger 2003), Troll Slasher (Angelfire 2005), Bladerager Troll (Dangerous Delves 2009), and War Troll (Legendary Evils 2009)

Sometimes I run across miniatures that do not fit the scale.

Yuan-Ti Champion of Zahir (large), Gargoyle (medium), Magma Hurler (medium), and Flesh Golem (large)

Next: Spells that can ruin adventures

Update on elemental miniatures and 3D battle maps

In the 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures, I lamented the lack of translucent miniatures for fire, water, and air elementals. I have discovered that the early Dungeons & Dragons miniatures sculpts for the medium-sized elementals reappeared in a HeroScape set called Fury of the Primordials.  Unlike the original, opaque versions of these figures, the new versions come in translucent plastic. This makes the fire and water elementals look terrific, and the air elemental now looks like an air elemental rather than an angry, melting fish. 

In addition to the three, translucent figures, the set includes an earth elemental figure, and a Wyvern figure, which once appeared in the Aberrations set in a form that now costs about $16 when purchased individually.

For D&D players, the HeroScape miniatures suffer from oddly-sized bases. The medium bases span a bit more than an inch, making them a bit too big for the squares on the battle map. Large figures like the Wyvern have peanut-shaped bases unsuited to D&D. The Heroscape to DDM re-base guide describes a simple procedure to re-base the figures.

Unfortunately, Hasbro dropped the HeroScape line in 2010 and the Fury of Primordials set is long out of print. Most online vendors sell the packs at well above the original retail price, but I managed to find a few still offering the set at a good price. As of this post, some bargains remain available.

Also in that my top 11 list, I called out the Lurking Wraith as the best D&D miniature ever, and hoped a painted version would reappear in the Dungeon Command Curse of Undeath set. The set has arrived and, rather than including another version of Lurking Wraith, the set includes a translucent version of the Cursed Spirit renamed the Hypnotic Spirit. I’m happy to have the new figure, but it cannot unseat the Lurking Wraith as my favorite. I prefer the original Lurking Wraith’s shadow gray over the ectoplasmic blue of the Hypnotic Spirit. Plus the enigmatic Lurking Wraith works as a neutral ghostly figure, while the Hypnotic Spirit’s malevolence limits it to being a threat. Nonetheless, if you want to plunder Dungeon Command sets for figures to use in D&D play, the Curse of Undeath set ranks as the best assortment yet.

In solving the limitations of battle maps, I looked for better methods of presenting 3D battles. When I posted my question to the EN World and to Wizards’ D&D forums, I received a number of interesting suggestions. The Combat Tiers system from Tinkered Tactics ranks as my favorite.

Next: Before miniature sculptors used computer-aided design