Tabletop miniatures: it’s the little things

Beginner's guide, Miniatures, Role Playing, Strategy -

Tabletop miniatures: it’s the little things

Board games and role-playing games procure many benefits all while allowing us to spend quality time with friends and family. They can teach us many valuable skills as children and as adults: strategy, patience, math, logic, history, empathy and much more. They give us opportunity to connect through a shared interest, make new friends or learn more about them.

Sometimes we have time to indulge in these pastimes but no one to play with. Other hobbies can fill that gap. They exist to provide what some call “me time”. Reading, writing, running, gardening, painting are futile for some and necessary for others. Certain people like to look for additional hobbies that relate closely to their passion for games. Fun things that they can ultimately integrate into their gaming sessions. Things like painting small figurines with small brushes and lots of patience. It sounds challenging but it is also very relaxing!

Napoleonic tin men

Toy soldiersSmall toy soldiers have come quite a way since they first appeared. Gaining popularity in the 18th century, they really took off as a collecting hobby in the late 1800s when hollow casting allowed manufacturers to make them cheaper and lighter. By the 1960s, Napoleonic wargames gained in popularity and eventually led to the creation of tabletop role-playing.

By the early eighties, with the emergence of pen and paper role-playing games, specialized fantasy themed miniatures started to appear. They became an integral part of games such as Dungeons and Dragons, MERP or Runequest as players were not limited to using historical minis anymore. One did not have to pretend a 12th century bowman represented their elven ranger, you could now find a much closer representation of your character. Somehow, these 28mm high lead figurines made your connection to the fantasy world they lived in much stronger. It also made for more tactical encounters rather than needing to act them out in the theatre of the mind. This had always been a part of RPGs but players now had dedicated miniatures for their game which, in my opinion, helped tabletop games gain popularity.

Tabletop RPG miniatures

Turn based strategy

From a pure practical point of view, the use of tabletop miniatures helps the protagonists by giving them a visual representation of the events at hand. By using a map drawn on a grid, the strategy aspect of the game comes to the forefront, showing off its wargaming origins. The use of minis, as they are often called, is predominantly done for practical reasons, but a lot of role-playing sessions can and are played with them. It really depends on the play style of the group. Using them to play D&D is not, by any means, a requirement. Personally, I think it can help but there are other, cheaper ways to achieve what they were made for. You can use paper cutout figurines which can be found aplenty on the web. You can find some for free to print at home or others ready to use, printed on quality card. To get an idea of what is available, having a look at DriveThruRPG is a good place to start.

Once you consider using miniatures for your role-playing game of choice, you will also have to look at battle mats, game tiles or other more intricate systems to visually represent the places player characters will be adventuring and fighting in. This can be done very simply with just some paper and marker, more elaborately with various tiling systems or very extravagantly with gaming terrain such as the ones created by Dwarven Forge.

Insane tabletop terrain

Photo taken from Amazing tabletop terrain.

Miniature Games

Figurines are not only used in role-playing games or in Warhammer 40’000, a miniature based wargame that has been around since 1983. Some board games require their use as well, and these have seen a massive rise in popularity of late. Gloomhaven, Scythe and Kingdom Death: Monsters come to mind, all having seen the light of day thanks to very successful Kickstarter campaigns. A lot of modern boardgames are played with specifically designed pawns or meeples but these so called miniature games take it to a new level of detail and customization altogether. Current plastic molding techniques as well as 3D printing have opened up new worlds of possibilities to manufacturers. And while the miniatures come ready to use, no one is stopping you from doing what many tabletop players enjoy considerably: painting them!

Scale model building

Tyrrell P34Be it of toy soldiers, war-game pawns or RPG miniatures, painting is for many a hobby in itself, and rightly so. As kids, my brothers and I did a fair amount of scale model building , mostly cars and planes. My siblings, being older, were always building more advanced models such as this Tyrrell P34 by Tamiya, but by the time my passion for RPGs came along, I was ready to paint some figurines! I used the model making paints and brushes we had and got started!

Back then, miniatures were all made of metal (first lead later white metal alloys). The original sculpt used to make the mold was crafted by hand, resulting in figurines that did not have an extreme level of detail. The artistry behind it, however, was often astounding and gave them a lot of personality and flair. Companies like Citadel (Games Workshop’s model making division), Ral Partha and Grenadier stand out as manufacturers for the RPG miniature market in the time I started playing. There were many, many more of course, and even some, like Mithril, still exist to this day. As always, I am referring to what I have learned from my own experience.

Grenadier AD&D Catalogue 1980

Early sample catalogue page from the now defunct Grenadier.

If you want a good overview of what fantasy metal figurines looked like back then, have a look at this 1989 Ral Partha catalogue. It is quite representative of the era and, despite the market being very small at the time, the variety of what could be bought was quite extensive.

My first miniatures

With my savings in my wallet, I went to the local role-playing hobby shop with some gaming friends. This required us to bike five kilometres to the station and get on the train for a 50 km ride. Then it was another 15 minute walk to the store. A fun outing but it took a day of gaming out of our weekend and the cost of the commute was an additional incentive to come prepared. Which meant weeks of skimming through magazines to get an idea of what you would be looking for. Adventure modules and rulebooks could be found in another town closer to us but the holy grail of miniatures (and polyhedral dice) had to be sought out far away!

MERP, dice and miniatures

Back then I only purchased one set of Minis suitable for D&D and, a year or so later, two sets for West End Games’ Star Wars. I was into painting them as a hobby but I still devoted the majority of my free time to drawing and a whole bunch of other activities, indoors and outdoors.


Casus BelliThe only guidelines I had at my disposal were these pages from a friend’s magazine that I photocopied: an article dedicated to painting minis. Casus Belli has been THE main tabletop role-playing monthly publication in France since 1980. It has struggled for its survival on many occasions but has managed to remain active nonetheless even after a hiatus of 4 years in the mid 2000s. Unlike magazines like Dragon or Dungeon which were used by their owners to mostly promote Dungeons and Dragons, Casus Belli caters to all role-players and even the Wargaming crowd. It is chock full of news, reviews, articles and lots of adventure modules. To put it simply, it is, in my opinion, the absolute best RPG magazine I have come across. While I understand the difficulties of publishing a successful magazine of any kind in this day and age, it boggles my mind that there are no RPG magazines in the English language that I know of. I would love for one of you to prove me wrong, so drop me a line if that is the case!

Dipping my brushes and using what model making paint I had, I did what I could and I guess they turned out okay, all things considered. As an artist, it’s always hard not be hypercritical about your own work. But back then, I was like any teenager with artistic aspirations: enthusiastic about everything I pursued and I had not realized yet that it’s the journey that really matters.

As I said, I used the paints we already owned even though they were not ideal for metal. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing between a matte or glossy red, I was happy enough to have a red! In the end, it mattered little as the only varnish I had was glossy. By the time I purchased the Star Wars figurines, I had saved up to buy a matte varnish and a few more pots of paint so those ones ended up looking much better! I still struggled with details and lacked expertise but it didn’t stop me from trying and experimenting. I was winging it, thoroughly enjoying it and that was plenty a reason to keep going. 

Twenty Sided

Hiatus and the lonely road

Strangely enough, it was after finishing those two Star Wars sets that I stopped painting miniatures. My parents decided to relocate back to The Netherlands and tabletop gaming took a backseat in my life. There was a lot to adjust to and none of my new school mates played tabletop games. Most of the ones I had were in French and I simply couldn’t find a group of gamers. I had a lot on my hands and the opportunity to pursue studies in Design which was amazing. In the nineties, my RPG fix was satisfied by video games with notable highlights such as Sword of Vermillion on the Sega Megadrive/Genesis and Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation. It wasn’t until I started running D&D adventures for my kids that the idea of painting miniatures resurfaced. We were in town and close to a Games Workshop, a chain of stores selling exclusively their own wargaming products such as Warhammer. I figured my son and daughter would both enjoy seeing it and I just really wanted to look at what are indisputably some of the most gorgeous 28mm figurines available today. If you are looking for a great introduction to painting minis, go see these guys. Games Workshop stores can be found in most major cities across the globe. Their staff are super friendly and they will even teach you the basics for free and let you keep the miniature you practiced on.

Twenty Sided

Of course they will want you to become a steady customer but it’s all done in a very friendly manner and you are definitely not feeling pushed into committing to anything. Personally, I am not into wargames but I would consider going back if I needed Middle Earth figurines. They do make the most amazing tabletop strategy games based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Miniatures without borders

The other place to look if you need help is, of course, the Internet. Conducting my own investigative journey, I found many useful resources that you are welcome to check out. Just like with Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast and all the other manufacturers, I do not financially benefit in any way from mentioning any company or person. As always, I’m only sharing my experiences.

For very useful practical info, check out Black Magic Craft. Jeremy has great advice and resources on his website and his YouTube channel with a neat playlist about painting basics.

If you are looking for more advanced demos, watch Doctor Faust’s Painting Clinic. Be warned, this is mostly very advanced techniques performed by a professional miniatures painter (Yes, that most certainly is a thing).

Another inspiring video series is Geek & Sundry’s Painters Guild. It’s good fun to watch and has insightful tips and tricks.

To buy paints, washes, brushes and miniatures, go to your local hobby shop. They will have advice and hopefully a good variety on offer, and who knows what else you’ll see there to inspire you: a new rulebook, module, some new dice. Take your kids with you, turn it into a day out. Game stores are great, support them as much as you can!

Finally, if I could recommend one place to buy miniatures and paints online, it would have to be Miniature Market. They have great service, prices and variety.

Miniature painting essentials

Better prepared with better gear

My approach to rekindling my interest in this side hobby of RPGs could have gone many ways. Ultimately, I decided for the simplest approach. I thought of it as an opportune way of introducing my kids to something new that related to our shared passion for tabletop RPGs. Since our visit to Games Workshop, they had often asked about going back to paint a mini. I decided to turn it into a family activity!

Painting a dwarf cleric miniatureI was able to find miniatures that correspond exactly to their D&D characters and the two party NPCs I play in our campaign: a half-orc barbarian, an elf wizard, a dwarf cleric and a halfling rogue. Wizkids makes D&D as well as Pathfinder specific miniatures, making it easy and inexpensive. On top of that, I found a D&D miniature painting starter kit that perfectly fit the bill in terms of the range of colours we needed. I was not expecting much and was pleasantly surprised as the paints where from Army Painter, one of the better brands of miniature paints on the market (other notables are Vallejo and Citadel). Besides this kit of paints, I followed various pieces of advice I had gathered online and got some brushes, an X-acto knife, sticky tack, super glue, a few corks, green stuff and a Sta-wet palette. This was, I figured, the bare minimum to get started.

At first, I painted the figurine that came with the starter kit. Doing so gave me a good idea of what the paints were like and how I could apply what I had learnt from all those useful YouTube videos. Then I started painting with the kids. I guided them through the basics and let them do as much painting as they felt comfortable with. My son, who is ten, was happy with me taking over the finer detailing because he did want the miniature of his character to be as good looking as possible. It remained a collaborative effort and I made sure he was in charge at all times, only helping if he wanted me too. I left colour choices up to him, discussing option if necessary. The results were pretty fantastic. It was also very relaxing and fun.

This isn’t your father’s miniature painting

In terms of technicalities, I have so far noticed big differences with my minis painting of yore. For one, modern paints are unbelievably easier to mix, thin and apply, allowing various levels of opacity and finish. Washes provide a great mean of enhancing contrast, making details pop. As some painters put it, it’s like magic in a bottle. Secondly, contemporary plastic moulding techniques give us a level of detail that was simply not achievable with metal cast miniatures. Modern models look pretty great, they are more refined but they maybe lack a distinctive sense of personality that sculptors could give by hand carving them. The few that I found that have stuck to a more traditional and stylized look are the Citadel and Reaper figurines. This is probably due to their long history creating miniatures and having a definite house style. Ultimately, this is only a matter of taste.

Building the master for the mould using CG has another drawback: plastic miniatures can sometimes have areas that are very hard to access with a paint brush. But all in all, I was very pleased with what I got and how it worked out. Considering I was using entry level paints and figurines, that is saying a lot!

They certainly do not make them like they used to and in this case, it is maybe not a bad thing. While, artistically speaking, I find the charm and personality of hand sculpted metal minis more appealing, the detailed, dynamic and more realistic poses of modern plastic figurines have a lot going for them. From a price point as well, it makes the hobby more accessible. As always, certain manufacturers offer better quality and it can be hard to find something that fits your game if you are not playing a mainstream RPG. If you are really desperate to find a figurine that looks exactly how you imagine your character, then Hero Forge is the place for you. They specialize in 100% custom miniatures. That’s right. By using their online tool, you create a CG model of your characters and either download the file to use with your own 3D printer or you can have them print it for you with the latest and most precise printing techniques. If your pockets are really on fire, you can order it in steel or bronze!

Custom Art Adventures

What if I just want to paint?

RPG miniature paintingNot every game needs miniatures, nor do they systematically make the game better. Call of Cthulhu is one of the best RPGs ever made in my opinion and its combat system is very basic because, well, it doesn’t need it. Any players familiar with it or the world of H.P. Lovecraft will know that the main attraction to playing the game is its mystery and investigation aspect. If your character does own a hand gun, he’s more likely to miss his target the one time he needs it most! Pathfinder, on the other hand, is very reliant on combat so using miniatures, battle mats or terrain is pretty much a necessity.

Painting and collecting minis can also be a hobby on its own. The world of Warhammer with its very unique blend of science fiction and fantasy has some of the best quality miniatures you can find. The mythos of the game is so engrossing that it is appealing even if you don’t or never want to play any of the Games Workshop games. To put it simply, the pastime of painting RPG figurines is exactly like that of tin toy soldiers. One of my colleagues and best friends at my very first job has been painting Napoleonic soldiers for decades. Not to play Little Wars by H.G. Wells but because of an interest in that period of french history as well as the soothing, relaxing and satisfying aspect of this unique craft.

So much to choose from

Half-orc barbarian miniatureThe theme or line of figurines you decide to paint should be chosen according to your game of choice but it does not have to.  You could decide to just paint them without using them for anything. Like a lot of hobbies, this one is not exactly cheap but for the hours you get out of it, it is well worth it! I managed to get my family started on it for less than CAD 100.- and so far we have painted 3 miniatures and still have 1 to finish and 5 to do from scratch.

I hope this little insight into my first steps with modern day hobby painting has made you curious. My advice to get started would be to check all the useful links in this article, get out of the house and find a local game store, some of them even run miniature painting classes. A friend of mine went to one last week in Halifax and he loved it! Ask around and who knows what you’ll end up painting or what games you will discover. It doesn’t matter what game you fancy, what is important is why you play!



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