Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D for short) is primarily a game of imagination. Most of the events in the game take place on the theatre stage of your mind and in the imaginary scenes that are created together with the Dungeon Master (DM) and the other players. Typically, the DM describes something – a vault, a castle entrance or a drawbridge – and the players explain how their respective characters interact with the surroundings. Likewise, non-player characters, sound effects, dialogue, magic phenomena and so on are all described by the DM in words.
Wise heroes travel armed
However, while much of a D&D adventure can be about social interactions between players and, for example, cranky town guards controlled by the DM, or the exploration of vast woods and haunted ruins, combat is a big and central part of the game. This has been the case since the game was invented, and much of its extensive rules are all about various ways to defeat enemies in battle.
As combat is the most technical and detailed aspect of the rules and the gameplay, it’s no wonder that many turn to graphic aids to visualise it. Whether the adventurers are brawling in a tavern or charging a mountain-sized dragon, visual aids can clarify exactly where the characters are positioned and what the surroundings look like. This is very useful for determining what actions the characters want (and can) take in battles, figure out the distances between characters and monsters, and how they can make a hasty exit if everything goes wrong!
How to visualise wizards and warrior
The representation of characters, monsters, and objects can be done in many different ways. Typically, movement and distances during combat in D&D is measured using a grid in which each square represents 5 by 5 feet. There are also hexagonal grids, which can be useful for more accurate diagonal movement, but this articles won’t delve into this.
When using a classic grid that features squares, the simplest and oldest method is to use a squared paper, mark the walls or other important features, and simply draw and erase all creatures as they move around the map. It’s quick and cheap – but also visually bland and sometimes confusing, as there’s only so much that the non-artists among us can do with a regular pencil.
Another common method that’s popular for the visualisation of battles is to use a paper with larger grids, and then deploy ready-made or homemade markers that represent the various participants in a battle. These markers are easy to move around and remove, and usually make for less confusion than pencilled symbols. However, they are also light and can easily end up scattered, and also not very appealing to look at as top-down views of fantasy characters are less than ideal.
The role of miniatures in roleplaying
Enter the most inspiring way to represent a grand hero: the miniature! Standing only an inch or so tall, miniatures really make characters come alive when it’s time to set the scene – literally! – for a tense battle. Because they’re detailed and three-dimensional, miniatures are easy to tell apart from one another, and as they have some weight to them, they won’t rattle around the map if someone accidentally bumps into the gaming table.
But best of all, miniatures give form to imagination, and they look good. It’s a very special feeling to bring out one’s character’s miniature and place alongside those of the other members of your adventuring party.
Similarly, if you’re the DM, there’s nothing quite like surprising the players (and their characters!) by patiently waiting for the group to arrange their miniatures, and then finally presenting the monster’s model – and reveal exactly how terrifying their foe is.
The lay of the land (or dungeon)
When using miniatures in a D&D battle, you need a map with a grid large enough to accommodate the bases of the miniatures. Most commonly, this type of grid has squares that are one inch wide and tall (so an inch on the map would represent a distance of 5 feet in the game). You can get lots of blank paper with this kind of grid at low costs online or in large stationery shops, but if you have access to a printer, you can of course print it yourself.
However, if you really want to make the most of your miniatures, look no further than battle maps! These are full-colour maps with different types of terrain painted on them, and
they come in a huge variety of sizes, materials, and styles. They can also be found either with or without grids, in case you prefer not to have any squares on them. A quick search online will list lots of resources, from freely downloadable maps that can be printed on a colour printer to sets of physical laminated maps (which are great as one can write on them with a whiteboard pen). There are also lots of subscription-based services as well as creators with Patreons out there who offer beautiful battle maps.
An additional benefit of miniatures is that they are useful for more than just representing one’s character in a battle. For example, practically all miniatures are made in grey plastic and sold exactly like that. But there’s no reason to let your character’s model look as if it had been petrified by an enemy’s flesh to stone when you bring it to a game. Painting miniatures is a hobby in itself, and it’s been around for many decades in other fantasy tabletop games, most prominently the Warhammer settings by Games Workshop, and it’s only recently that D&D players have taken up the paintbrushes and joined the fray.
This means that fortunately for those who want to add a dash of colour and flair to their miniatures, there’s a wealth of colours and other equipment on the market that are ideal for this, including fabulous pre-made props, buildings, and much more. There’s also a large number of great guides available on YouTube, with expert tips and step-by-step tutorials for painting and customising miniatures.
Similarly, collecting D&D miniatures is lots of fun too! Just like dice sets, groups of models look tremendously good on a bookshelf, especially if they’re well painted and presented alongside carefully chosen and arranged scenography. Collections of miniatures are especially good for DMs as they provide a range of options when a situation – such as, for example, an impromptu fight in a shady inn, or an unforeseen attempt to waylay an NPC – calls for a specific type of miniature to enter the battle map.
Where to get them
For those interested in buying a miniature, the obvious starting place is the Internet, and Wizards of the Coast, the makers of D&D, has a range specifically designed for the game. But there are thousands of other options, too. For those who absolutely want to buy them online, a simple search for fantasy miniatures will take you to hundreds upon hundreds of sites that sell them. However, don’t forget your local roleplaying game shops – most of them are likely to have miniatures in stock.
And it’s possible to build your own character almost from scratch, with custom options for its appearance and equipment, and have it delivered to your doorstep! Among these vendors, Heroforge has been around for a long time, but there are other options too. What’s more, there are regularly crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter for new models, which often look spectacular and are offered at great prices.
This article wouldn’t be complete without a mention of a route taken by many who are serious about D&D miniatures: using a 3D-printer to make your own. 3D-printers are expensive, but they have become vastly more affordable in recent years, and they don’t use up nearly as much space as they did ten years ago.
These days, it’s perfectly possible to fit a capable printer on your desk and churn out miniatures are a small percentage of the cost in retails store. There is a setup cost and a learning curve, but after that it’s full steam ahead.
Better still, there are also many online shops that sell the digital files on which 3D-printed miniatures are based, so there’s a massive variety to models to choose from.