Miniatures: The Mini-Mes of Tabletop Roleplaying Games

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Miniatures have been part of Dungeons & Dragons since before it began. In fact, D&D started as a miniatures game! It’s true! Originally it was a fantasy miniature wargame written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson called Chainmail. Eventually spells and heroes were added and a way for those heroes to improve and it became the basic D&D of the mid 1970s, which has evolved into the game we all know today. Miniature war gaming goes back to at least 1913 when H.G. Wells published a book called Little Wars. They were his rules for playing miniature wargames. This post is going to be about miniatures, but not a history per se and not a how to or anything. This column is about what it was like for a preteen to discover miniatures via D&D and how the tabletop roleplaying game, miniatures and kid grew up together. There will be a bit of history in this piece so my primary sources are DnD Lead (a great resource for the early stuff) and Lost Minis Wiki, which has a lot more pictures and not as much history. Those sources are listed at the end. Yes, grad school has made me paranoid about citations.

D&D miniatures roleplaying game
A shrine dedicated to retired miniatures and dice from the writer’s college days. [Photo by Sophie Lynn]

Miniatures for roleplaying games and more

As you’re probably tired of reading I started playing D&D in 1978. I was 12 at the time and still very, I guess, naive. My world was pretty much a two mile radius from my home. To get D&D I had to go to nearby Phoenixville. Now, I’d built a lot of models as a kid, especially military models. I like to think I was good at it but as none of those models survive, I can’t say. With those models came small soldiers such as tank commanders, pilots and such.

One day my Dungeon Master Dr. Dave showed me something he found at a store in King of Prussia: D&D miniatures! They were by Heritage Models and were a pack of orcs made in lead. To see them now they are so very crude but to us they were amazing! Eventually Dave and I were buying more miniatures, painting them and using them for D&D. Of course, we needed models for our characters. And monsters!

Ral Partha miniatures roleplaying game High Elf with Sword
The High Elf from Ral Partha was a popular miniature back in the day.

In 1980, Grenadier models (from southeast Pennsylvania!) started releasing official licensed D&D miniatures. I could actually get monsters from the game, including some of the exotic monsters! I managed to use my Burger King money to buy most that were available and still have most of them. By then I’d also discovered Ral Partha and Minifigs as well. Everybody who played D&D seemed to have miniatures, and mostly the same ones too. Everyone had High Elf With Sword and at least one of the Grenadier Wraiths. All this said while the sculpts look a little crude now, with patience and skill a painter can still do an amazing job with them.

Now armed with miniatures, combat became more tactical. We didn’t have to imagine where the monsters or our characters were, we could see them on the table. With college I pretty much stopped playing the first couple of years but occasionally visited a game store to buy a blister of miniatures or two. After I transferred to Penn State where Dr. Dave was I started playing again — and I brought miniatures. Those miniatures are now in a display I made right after graduation, retired along with the dice I used. Yes, I’m sentimental.

I kept playing and picking up miniatures when I wanted one for a particular game. Then, in August 1991 I started working for Chessex game distributors and learned about a lot of miniatures lines. Since Chessex gave a very generous employee discount I also bought a lot of miniatures. I became, I thought, pretty good at painting them as well. (I also worked freelance for TSR during this time.)

In 1993, a kid in New York contracted lead poisoning, from which he eventually recovered. The story went around he was a gamer and like most gamers had lead miniatures. He also lived right next door to a State Police gun range and would collect the bullets after hours. The parents, wanting a pay day, wanted to sue somebody. So, lead bullets or lead miniatures — fight the NRA or a niche hobby? They went after the hobby. New York banned lead miniatures. Most manufacturers switched over too other alloys, mostly tin, zinc and antimony, which were lead free but far more poisonous if eaten. Oh, and more expensive. However, no one ever became ill from them (duh) and metal miniatures are made of various combinations of these alloys to this day. This isn’t a bad thing as, after decades, old lead miniatures improperly stored can develop lead rot which eventually reduces the miniature to powder. Miniature collectors learned this the hard way.

In October 1994 I started work for Games Workshop, a UK firm specializing in miniatures and miniature games like Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. Their miniatures were state of the art and by working there I learned how miniatures were made. I then learned miniature sculptors were handcuffed by the technology of their time. For example the Grenadier Beholder’s eyestalks were flat to the orb because they couldn’t do multipiece casting that delicate cheaply enough to make the piece affordable. Games Workshop didn’t care about such trivia — they wanted the best miniatures that could be made, so affordable? Meh. They were much higher priced than the other brands and arguably almost always better. GW also employed amazing sculptors as well.

Also GW employed amazing artists to paint miniatures for promo pictures. GW hired hobbyists in most positions, many of whom were incredibly talented miniature painters. I thought I was good when I came to GW but next to these guys (and they were all guys) I was crap. However, we all shared best practices and tips with each other as well as shaming each other for poorly painted pieces so my painting skills vastly improved. As I said many times I’m no Trent Nighman (to me, the best miniature painter in the world, and a friend) but I get by. In 2003 my time at GW ended because my position was eliminated. I was also burned out from painting so many models for events such as Games Day I didn’t pick up a paint brush again to paint a miniature for 13 years. I also sold most of the pieces I had — my painted ones bringing a nice price.

Over time other companies figured out the ways of GW manufacturing, even hiring away some of their sculptors. Other artists who’d been working on miniatures for a long time were able to express themselves better with new techniques becoming available. These days 3D printing has made cheap and incredibly detailed miniatures a reality. Who know what tomorrow may bring? Prepainted miniatures? Heritage tried this back in the late ’70s. WizKids are doing a far better job after years of experience with their HeroClix lines. However, despite my 13 year abstinence from painting miniatures I still prefer painting my own. I started again when I painted a piece for a friend a couple of years ago.

D&D beholder miniature
Grenadier’s beholder miniature from 1980, WizKids more modern beholder miniature and a painted version of the Grenadier sculpt by Steve Dean.

Calling all miniature painters

These days, online D&D (yay, isolation!) doesn’t require miniatures — just place markers that come in many varieties, point and click. I guess I’m old fashioned. I prefer to play roleplaying games face to face and with miniatures. Someday soon perhaps I will again. My current game is online with people in Maine, Michigan, Philly and here in State College. Hard to use miniatures in this game.

I learned a great many tips and tricks over the decades of painting miniatures. The best was given to me by my GW co-worker and painter extraordinaire Joe Sleboda:

“Choose a paint line [brand] and stick to it as much as possible. You’ll quickly learn how to thin it for various effects, and it’ll never surprise you.”

He was absolutely right and you’ll find your painting skills improve markedly after sorting out a favorite brand.

Still, I’m painting again. Right now I’m working on painting my Heroquest miniatures. They’re easy and can be done as fancy or basic as I wish. However, they must be painted. If nothing else my time at GW made me a stickler for that. Our rule was that unpainted models got a -1 to hit and a lot of ridicule. I want my miniatures games painted, preferably by me. Perhaps someday I’ll finish the set, and maybe even take pictures.

Do you paint miniatures? Let’s see them! Put them in the comments!

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