Two weeks ago, u/LibraryLass posted the Average Fantasy Bestiary on the r/rpg subreddit. It’s a fantastic resource: a survey of 50 well known fantasy RPGs, with popular fantasy monsters listed based on ubiquity. Do have a look.
This got me thinking: could we use the Average Fantasy Bestiary to generate a shopping list for starting your mini collection?
Before we get there, it’s worth saying that buying minis can be expensive, and that’s not taking into account the paint, the brushes, and the storage solutions. Building a collection is going to take time.
If you want a decent number of useful miniatures at a reasonable price, I highly recommend the D&D adventure games. There have been six so far: Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, Legend of Drizzt, Temple of Elemental Evil, Tomb of Annihilation, and most recently, Dungeon of the Mad Mage. (There’s another game called Against the Giants, but the minis are the wrong scale for D&D.) Each box gets you about 40 plastic minis (unpainted), and if you buy the game second hand, you’re looking at about £1 per mini ($1.50/€1.20). The games themselves aren’t bad, either!
I purchased the Castle Ravenloft game on eBay a few weeks ago, and the minis are great. So far, I’ve painted the gargoyles, giant spiders, kobolds, skeletons, ghouls, wolves, wraiths – even a dracolich! And I still have loads to go – all for $50.
Another good place is to go is the Blacklist Games Kickstarters. I haven’t seen Fantasy Series 1 yet (curse you, Covid!) but the value for money was extraordinary: 200 miniatures for $65. Fantasy Series 2 wrapped up a few months ago, and given how successful it was, I’m sure there will be another Kickstarter next year, too.
If mini-painting isn’t your thing (I have a post on this), or you’re worried about how you’re going to store them, you could use cardboard minis or make your own tokens. It’s a bit time-consuming, but it’s considerably cheaper. There are a few good guides online for how to do it.
Finally, there’s always another option: theatre of the mind! Ditching the grid is anathema to some players, but if you’ve never done it before, give it a try. You have a multi-million-dollar SFX team at your disposal, and all you need is your imagination. Besides, relying on a grid for every encounter comes with its own problems, and I don’t recommend it, personally.
I’m going to work through u/LibraryLass’s list, but I’m also going to factor in the approximate number of miniatures you are likely to use.
To some extent, this is completely subjective. There’s nothing to stop you throwing a whole family of dragons against a party, for example, or a solo zombie. But in general, there are some monsters that work better in mobs, and some that you can expect to encounter alone.
Do I have a methodology here? Sort of. As a starting point, I read the stat block in the 5th-edition Monster Manual (or an equivalent, if it’s Volo’s Guide to Monsters or what have you). Sometimes there is some flavour text about monster ecology; I’ll go with this first. If the creature is legendary (eg, beholders), I tend to assume that you won’t encounter more than one at a time (although they might have minions, of course).
If the flavour text doesn’t help me, I’m going to look at previous editions. The 3rd-edition Monster Manual had an ‘organization’ line for almost every monster, and the system reference document is freely available online. The AD&D Monstrous Manual had something similar, should I need it.
If previous editions don’t help: I make a judgement call. You can disagree with me, if you like. I won’t mind.
Of course, if the ’monster’ is a real-life animal, I will look to real-world ecology for a sense of how it lives and behaves. Wolves live in packs, for example, whereas bears are solitary. It’s a fantasy world, though, so feel free to break the rules, obviously!
I’m also going to provide a few product links here. Again, this is driven by my own personal feelings about what looks good and what’s cost effective. It’s worth pointing out that these are not affiliate links or paid promotions, and there will be many products that I haven’t actually purchcased myself – I just think they look good. Caveat emptor.
With all that . . .
Don’t start with monsters: start with your player characters. These are the minis you are going to field time and time again. It’s enormously satisfying to have a miniature that looks exactly as you imagine them. I’m going to assume five minis here, but your group might be bigger or smaller.
If you want to go bespoke, I highly recommend HeroForge. But it’s not cheap. For most groups, the exceptional range from WizKids will provide what you need.
After your PCs, you probably want some low-level critters. Maybe they’re a cliché, but goblins are a good place to start. The MM says that they gather in large – ‘sometimes overwhelming’ – numbers, so let’s pick up at least ten (two for each character). Goblins could work for any other small-sized humanoid, such as kobolds, deep gnomes, derro, grungs, and xvarts.
This is where the WizKids blister packs are going to get expensive, however – and repetitive. For the best prices, you will want to buy in bulk. Mantic Games do some cool goblin warbands where you get about 20 goblins for £20. You can also get six Reaper goblins for less than £5. Steamforged Games do a pack of 20 miniatures as part of their Epic Encounters range, although I’ve seen some complaints about the base size for these minis. Apparently, they don’t fit inside your typical inch-square grid, which is odd.
After goblins, let’s get some undead. u/LibraryLass lists ghouls, skeletons, and zombies in the purple tier. I would go for something fleshy here since they double up for other kinds of undead more easily. Skeletons will always look like skeletons, whereas zombies could pass for ghouls, wights, even mummies or vampires (in a pinch). Here, too, you want a fair few.
Mantic Games do a reasonably priced undead regiment, and Games Workshop do some fun minis as part of their Age of Sigmar game at roughly £1 per mini. For a mix, you might want to try the Frostgrave Undead Encounters box, which gives you a mix of skeletons, ghouls, and zombies. You can also get a ton of undead (like, 50, 60 minis) if you buy the Zombicide: Black Plague board game. This is getting a bit pricier, though: around £70+.
Let’s say you get ten goblins, ten undead, and five player characters. Assuming £2 per mini, that’s about £50, probably a bit more than that – but you have a solid foundation to work with.
At some point, you are going to want a dragon. It’s half the name of the game, after all.
You’re spoilt for choice here. One of my lockdown projects was painting the ten dragons from Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures. You can see most of them on my Instagram. If I had to pick one, I would go with the red (because it’s iconic) or the green (because it features in Lost Mine of Phandelver). But pick whatever colour you like, frankly.
Looking at u/LibraryLass’s list, fiends (demons and devils) come up time and time again, but I would maybe hold off on these to start with as they tend to have high Challenge Ratings. If you do want to pick up a fiend, I would recommend either something very small – an imp, a quasit – or very big (something Balrog-esque, like the totally unrelated and definitely-not-at-all-copyright-infringing balor).
What else? Spiders come up a lot. 5e D&D has giant spiders, which are large, and giant wolf spiders, which are medium. In real life, wolf spiders tend to be solitary predators, and given the low CR, they are not going to be challenging for long, so get a small colony of large-sized spiders (four or five). The WizKids spiders are perhaps on the expensive side – about £5 each – so you might be able to find cheaper alternatives elsewhere.
Wolves are useful, too, especially if you’re doing a gothic campaign like Curse of Strahd. A pack of wolves circling the adventurers’ camp is a great wilderness encounter. In real life, a pack is around five to ten wolves, so pick up a handful at least.
You might also want a troll. Again, though, these are quite a high CR, so maybe just get one or two for now. The WizKids troll is reasonably priced and has the advantage of looking exactly like the troll in the Monster Manual.
That’s more or less everything in the top tier of u/LibraryLass’s list. What would I recommend to fill out the top 50?
A bear. In real life, bears are generally solitary, so you only need one. If it’s an animal companion, make it a black bear (medium sized). If it’s an arctic campaign like Rime of the Frostmaiden, get a polar bear. Otherwise, get a brown bear.
An ogre. A classic low-level giant. How many? Maybe one or two for now, and a few more later.
A vampire. If you’re playing Curse of Strahd, a good vampire mini is almost essential, and the WizKids vampire is clearly modelled on Strahd.
For the last ten minis, I would go with some kind of medium-sized humanoid – whatever best fits your campaign. If in doubt, orcs and lizardfolk are both good. As with the goblins, it will be cheaper to buy in bulk, and this will probably guarantee a bigger variety, too. Ideally you want some archers, some champions, a shaman or two, and an obvious ‘boss’ character.
That’s it for this week. Tune in next week for Part 2, and a special celebration post . . .
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