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DnD Minis On a Budget

by Jae

Minis for your Dungeons and Dragons sessions can be expensive, but they don’t have to be. Even though the latest and greatest models could cost you an arm and a leg, you can easily get passable stand-ins for less than you think. The trade off is that more affordable substitutes often require a little more time to look battle ready than professions minis might.

Miniature Quality, Quantity, and Price

When you buy miniature figures for your DnD session you’re likely getting them for a specific reason. When we buy them ourselves we tend to buy them for certain campaign types, sessions we run often, or as bulk enemies we use all the time. It feels really good to have exactly the right miniature for your session, but this is one way cost sneaks into your mini collection.

Miniatures, like most art or hobby purchases, come in varying qualities and prices are often set based on this. Reaper Miniatures makes some of our favorite minis and they’re really good quality. The minis are reliable and we can get very specific minis in a flat grey that we know will take up primer and paint well. The only downside is that you’ll end up paying quite a bit of money if you were to outfit your whole campaign.

Now, most Reaper minis are by no means expensive on the grand scale of miniatures. They’re plastic and made to be affordable, but they are also made in small quantities and model specific, which makes them more expensive than non-hobby minis you can find online. Let’s look at some comparable non-hobby miniatures you can buy in bulk and compare them to reaper minis of the same type.

Let’s say you’re running a necromancer campaign. You’re going to need a lot of skeletons. Just boatloads of them. So let’s look at the tried and true Reaper miniatures (that we actually use) and see what you’ll pay and what you’ll get:

We’re looking at the Reaper RM77017 77017: Skeletal Swordsmen which is a three pack of skeletons that can be bought online for around $7. They’re nothing fancy, but they’re consistent. These are what we use for our campaigns when skeletons are afoot.

Let’s say you want 100 skeletons of all different types and poses. Well, Reaper certainly has them. They all cost about $7 a pack of three so you’re looking at $231 for 100 skeleton minis! That’s a chunk of change. To be fair, 100 minis is a lot, but let’s look at a non-hobby competitor for this.

This bulk 100 Piece Skeleton Army, sold on Amazon, is around $20. There are 6 different types of skeletons in the set, each with different weapons. They are roughly the same size as the Reaper minis, but are slightly larger and bulkier. If you were to buy these instead you’d have your 100 skeletons for a tenth of price!

So what’s the catch? Quality. When you get something like this the quality is variable. They might be exactly what you need, but you’re taking a gamble. We can be nearly certain that a handful of these miniatures will be bent or misshapen from transit and will never stand up properly. There might be some mold lines that need cleaning up. And we can’t say the plastic will take well to primer or paint. 

However, if you’re willing to gamble and you’re already going to spend a ton of time cleaning and painting minis, this could be a huge savings for you. We’ve never encountered a plastic that could not be primed. We’ve heard stories of bad plastics, but most issues can be solved with some washing and light scrubbing before the minis get a two-coat priming applied to them.

So is the bulk option as good as the professional hobby miniatures? No, it’s not. But is it passable for price? Yes, definitely.

The Skeleton Army is not alone among types of non-hobby miniatures you can buy in bulk. You can also pick up this 60 Piece Medieval Soldiers Military Figures set. Again, the figures are a little big, but if you need bulk guards, they’re under $20 and can be cleaned up with a bit of work. 

There’s also things like the Dragon Knight Action Figure sets, which list the dragons as “dinosaurs” and are clearly some bulk manufacturing company printing out cheap toys. The set comes with 30 pieces and the dragons are poseable and painted.

All the reviews are people talking about buying these for DnD, cleaning them up, and repairing them. That set is also under $20. In comparison, a full dragon from a hobbyist miniature company would cost you $50 at least and can get very expensive as you move up the tiers.

Turning Cheap Miniatures into Quality Ones

The real secret to making mini that look good is elbow grease. It’s all the hard work you put in that makes a model look amazing. There’s no cheap way to get around this. If you want to pay for professionally painted minis, even if the mini in question starts off as a cheap plastic toy, you’ll likely spend $50+ just for a single paint job.

The good thing is that you don’t have to break the bank to make awesome looking miniatures if you’re willing to spend some time on them. Painting and modeling minis, like everything in DnD, takes practice. So the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

In fact, we highly recommend you do your practice painting on these bulk, low-quality miniatures first. If you can make a cheap dollar store skeleton look like a professional made hobbyist miniature then you can make the amazing quality miniatures you buy later really shine.

The process for painting is something you’ll have to learn and you’ll want to spend a little bit of cash on some better paints. Spending $100 on paints once will last you for a ridiculously long time, and it’s a solid investment if you plan on cleaning up and painting several hundred miniatures over many many hours. 

If you’re new to mini painting we highly recommend Reaper Miniatures 08906 Learn to Paint Kit Core Skills, Master Series Paint Box Set. It comes with everything you need to learn to paint minis that look amazing. It comes with quality figures, brushes, paints and an excellent step by step guide book that focuses on developing your core skills necessary for painting great looking miniatures.

If you’re just looking to buy some paints and start learning then we recommend The Army Painter Dungeons and Dragons Official Paint Line Adventurer’s Paint Set, which has a great starter set of paints at a reasonable price. Reaper also has a starter set at a comparable price, but the colors are slightly narrower in their scope.

Once you have your paints, you can learn a lot about painting miniatures on YouTube. We really like the videos put out by Black Magic Craft, specifically his video on painting minis for beginners.

No matter what path you take to learning painting, you’re going to actually need to spend time painting. We have boxes of unpainted miniatures sitting around that desperately need to get done.

But painting takes time and if you’re picky (like we are) you can easily get frustrated while trying to get everything perfect. All we can say is that if you’re starting with cheap miniatures, don’t stress out about your first attempts at getting them to look the way you want. It’s better to get in the practice than it is to fuss over a single piece for weeks.

Things That Make a Huge Difference

Professionals will tell you that you can use cheap paints and still get great miniatures out of them. In our experience, that’s only true for professionals. It takes a lot of time to learn how to work with paints. Using cheap paints will lead to lower quality minis if you’re not a great painter or at least understand how different types of paints need to be worked with.

These are the things that make a difference when you’re cleaning up minis that you bought on a budget. Let’s look at the essentials you need to keep in mind:

  1. Prime your Minis. If you don’t, you’ll fight with your paints the whole time.
  2. Use a painting handle and these other game changing mini painting tools.
  3. Use paints made for miniatures. They don’t have to be brand name, but they should be for miniatures.
  4. Use quality brushes. A good set of mini brushes is often under $10, but it makes a big difference.
  5. Examine your pieces. Learn from mistakes and successes!
  6. Learn to use washes and dry brushing. This is the easiest way to make bad mini paintings look good with very little skill required.

These might seem like really basic tips, and that’s because they are. The things that make the biggest difference when working on miniatures are the really simple things.

Don’t Buy, Make

Beyond painting cheap models what can you do to make your min budget go further? You can make your own!

This idea sounds crazy at first, but if you have a bit of tenacity you can create some crazy things out of otherwise basic parts. That 100 piece skeleton army from early can be turned into a bone golem with some cutting and gluing. Want to make a gelatinous cube? Hot glue comes in green. What about an earth elemental made out of XPS foam?

You can make some amazing things if you’re willing to put the time in and craft them. There’s way too many crafting techniques to cover in this article, but they’re not hard to find. Once you learn a few basic principles you can make almost anything you can think of for your DnD game.

Minis Don’t Have to Cost A Fortune

This article has been all about budget minis for your game, but the trade off is in what you pay in time and effort. The reason really nice minis cost a lot is because you’re paying for manufacturing quality and detail you just won’t get in super cheap bulk packs. 

All that being said, the quality of the miniature does not stop you from making things that look good for your game. Low quality cheap minis can always be cleaned up to look great if you can spend time painting and crafting. So don’t let cost stop you from making your players fight 100 skeletons, the minis can be cheaper than you think.

Happy DMing!

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