getting started with miniatures and terrain

Getting Started With DnD Miniatures and Terrain

Adding miniatures and terrain to your game might seem like a daunting task when you’re first starting out in Dungeons and Dragons. A brand new DM might have just dropped over $100 on the core rule books and miniatures might seem like a huge expense to add on top of that. While miniatures are certainly not a required part of the game and can cost a pretty penny, they are one of the things that will enhance your game and improve complex combat encounters. So if you’re just starting to think about adding miniatures to your game, let us guide you through the process to making it both easy and more affordable.

Before the Very First Miniatures

It might seem weird that you need anything before you start purchasing minis, but we don’t recommend you jump into things too fast. Working on miniatures can be a very long and slow process. It’s a hobby that takes time, patience, and some amount of determination. So, before we even get a single mini on the field, let’s talk about what you should buy first.

Essential Game Aids to Buy Before Miniatures

Get yourself a battle mat before anything else. We recommend getting a reversible Chessex battle mat and some wet erase markers to use on them. We cannot overstate the importance of this tool in your DMing arsenal. If you’re thinking about getting into miniatures the battle mat opens up the door to make the best use of them. By using wet erase markers on a battle mat you can create a whole host of scenarios and run all sorts of combat encounters, traps, dungeons, or puzzles. Our first battle mat (which we still use to this day) has lasted for 7 years and was a huge step up from the printed sheets and hand drawn grids we used before.

Get a DM Screen

It might seem weird to suggest a DM screen when we’re talking about minis, but you want to keep your encounters a surprise for your players and a DM screen makes this easy. We tend to stage our minis behind the screen in groups for each encounter we expect to run to make things as quick and easy as possible.

The First Miniatures You Should Get

Our recommendation here is based solely on function. If you’re really interested in painting minis or going for a cool, custom set, you can skip ahead. If we’re being honest though, the first minis you get should get you functionality before anything else. We recommend a full set of 2d miniatures and stands for this purpose. Paper minis, as they are sometimes called, are just a printed image on paper, cardboard, or wood that fits into a simple 2d stand and represent tokens for monsters, players, and various other props. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, as some people really prefer 3d minis, but you cannot deny their functionality or low cost.

2d miniatures can be bought in large quantities and as various sets, which can help you get a lot of pieces for your game without breaking the bank. They’re perfect for beginners in the hobby as well as budget conscious gamers. The pieces also typically come with many duplicates so you will never be short on the monsters you need most. If you’re more crafty than most then you can even find print-and-play 2d miniatures online that will only cost you the supplies necessary to print them.

Moving into 3D Miniatures for DnD

The very first 3d miniatures you should get for you games are ones that represent each player character. You might have your players get their own minis, craft them on Hero Forge, or you could pick out ones yourself. The important thing here is that you’ll be starting with a small number of miniatures that will see play in every single session.

It might be tempting to get into miniatures with a huge Kickstarter or a massive starter set. But if you’re just starting out there is little chance you will use most of the miniatures in the set you purchase, and there is an even grater chance you will put that box on a shelf and forget about it for years. Trust us, we know from experience! Start small and only get the first few miniatures you need.

Find One Miniature You Absolutely Love

We’ve focused on the basics for your game up to this point. Get the functional stuff first. Battle mat, core set of tokens, a couple miniatures you’ll use every game. Now we’re moving into the point where we ask you to see if you actually like working with miniatures by telling you to find a mini you love.

The point of this is to choose a mini for the sake of the mini and get it ready for play. You should try to paint this mini. You should really work on this one and take the time to get it the way you want it. Now, if it is the first mini you paint and the first one you try new techniques on, it may not come out amazing. But you will be able to decide if you want to do this for more miniatures in the future.

The test of miniatures is more about deciding how far you want to go into the hobby. We have plenty of miniatures that we use that are not painted. We just don’t have the time to paint every single miniature we own, but we also still use them to a fair degree. We know what we like to work on and what we don’t. Additionally, we have found that making terrain is an easier and more functional hobby for us than detailed painting, so we make better choices about which parts of the game to spend our time on.

The process will be the same for you. Get a model, try some things out, and decide how much further you want to go.

As a final note on this, it’s okay for your first model to look like a pile of hot garbage. Painting is hard and takes time to learn how to do properly. What you’re checking out here is not your painting skill, but rather if you like painting. This is important because it is often much, much harder to get better at something you hate than it is to get better at something you enjoy doing.

Paints, Primers, Sculpt Tools, and More

We jumped around a bit here coming to paints in this section, but we wanted to underscore the importance of the first model before you dive headlong into buying every color of paint under the sun. When you’re starting out you want to get a simple, dark gray miniature primer, a handful of staple colors for paint, and a simple set of basic brushes.

If you want to get better paints initially start with some Vallejo paints. They’re more expensive, but if you stick with the hobby they are going to be some of the best paints you can get. If you’re not looking to spend as much and still want decent paints, Army Painter has great starter sets and Citadel Paint (the traditional War Hammer paints of choice) are also a fine place to start.

We highly recommend only getting what you need to start. The starter sets are a great entry point, especially the Army Painter ones, which are perfect for new painters in both price and quality. But if you only need a few colors for your first model, a whole set might be overkill. If you like the hobby you will buy more paint, but if you don’t you’ll quickly end up with a box full of unused paints that sit in a cabinet forever.

More Paints, Advanced Tools, and Next Steps

If you find you like painting your minis and making them more detailed your next step is to get into your painting and model making techniques. Here is where you’ll start learning about advanced tools, basing material, model customization, and more. For each of these topics we highly recommend you do some research to ease into it.

You’ll likely pick up some washes before long to jazz up your minis. You might buy a larger, softer brush to learn dry brushing. Grass tufts and flock can make your mini bases look great. Green Stuff and other sculpting agents can help you customize your favorites. These quickly become advanced, but if you’re starting out you’ll likely want to push into one or two advanced topics pretty quickly.

Just make sure you ease into the hobby. It can grow to massive proportions quickly!

Terrain and Why It’s Last

Working with terrain in DnD is not necessarily as hard as painting miniatures, but there is good reason for it to be the last thing we cover when getting started. Terrain in Dungeons and Dragons is more about what you will use and how you will use it. It takes up a lot of space. Not all of it will be used often or even frequently. You’ll also need a lot of specialized tools to start doing more advanced terrain.

Even our budget dungeon tiles, if you start from scratch with no tools, can cost you over $50 to make. Terrain is an expensive part of the hobby and while it is very cool, it is a completely separate set of skills and will require a considerable investment to make it work for most sessions of your DnD game.

When you do get started with terrain we recommend a kit, like the Army Painter’s Dungeons and Caverns box set. This gets you some basic tools, primers, and paints as well as enough material to make your first few dungeons entirely from scratch.

If you want to go more modular there are a ton of ways you can make dungeon tiles, terrain tiles, and even whole battle boards for DnD. But keep in mind that each has their own set of steps and are not something you’ll do overnight.

For us the best terrain to start with was modular dungeon tiles with magnetic clips. We built most of them out of scrap styrofoam and designed them to be able to assemble into thousands of different dungeon combinations. If you don’t do as much dungeon crawling as our groups do then you might be better served getting into battle mat scatter or other types of multipurpose props first. It all depends on what you will use and we recommend you think about what you want before you dive too deep into it.

Miniatures and Terrain Are a Great Addition to Any Game

We absolutely love working with miniatures and terrain for our DnD games, but we’ve come into the hobby slowly over many years. If you’re a beginner, you can go as fast or as slow as you like. But we solidly recommend you focus on function first. Get the essentials knocked out before you dive headlong into massive piles of minis. Get a feel for what you’ll use before you buy a million supplies. And most importantly, focus on minis and terrain that will make your game better. We hope you enjoy getting more into your table top hobby and take it one step at a time.

Check out our other articles on Miniatures and Terrain for DnD.

As always, Happy DMing!

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