I have an infatuation with toy soldiers. I love assembly, customization, and conversion. In my middle-age I’m even developing an enjoyment of the hobby’s painting facet. I fantasize about who or what they may be in their world and what they may become in one of mine. They have inspired me to create narratives for as long as I can remember. I spend a chunk of my gamemastering preparation time working on miniatures. Many of which are simply single serving dioramas that will never see an encounter, but mean the world to me.
The roles we assume in the stories we tell were originally inspired by toy soldiers. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson wanted to explore the experiences of individual models on the table. Miniatures are an essential ingredient to the genesis of roleplaying games. Small monuments to escapism in a variety of genres and scales. Toy soldiers are art that evoke creative storytelling like any other sketch, sculpture, or painting. Which, coincidentally, are all three part of a miniature’s creation process at some stage.
They are also an engaging tool that aid immersion and provide context by illustrating encounters. They assist in dispute resolution regarding position, range, etc. Of course, miniatures are not necessary for the execution or enjoyment of any roleplaying game, but they do provide a measure for simulation. They can be can be helpful, and in my book, they very much abide by the Rule of Cool.
The miniature hobby is one of breadth and depth, but with a threefold barrier to entry: money, time, and fear. Toy soldiers are greedy little piglets who glut themselves on money and time. They will voraciously consume both if you don’t keep the hobby in check. I find the greater impediment to be fear. Miniatures can torment your confidence. You can become plagued by fear of ruining a model and squandering those other two very valuable resources you’ve committed. I sincerely wish I had better advice than get over it. Forgive the cliché, but like anything else it takes practice, and some people are naturally superior in talent. I struggled with getting over myself, but it is possible.
The miniature wing of the hobby is similar to cooking. Some people feel an urge to do it, and most people who do it want to share it. Some people are better at some aspects than others, and some people are more well-rounded. You may be a baker, an amateur pit master, or able to casually crush an entire holiday dinner. But not everybody becomes a chef, and even fewer people are internationally recognized for their skill. I see the same fierce challenge in both: knowing when to walk away from a dish.
The industry has taken some significant steps to belay the concerns of potential miniature hobbyists. Increasingly, products are becoming available that remove steps from toy soldier completion. Companies like Steamforged, Mantic and CMON (Cool Mini or Not) produce pre-assembled miniatures. Games Workshop’s Citadel Paint line has a range designed to drastically decrease the amount of time spent panting to a table-ready standard called Contrast Paints. Army Painter’s dip method allows for one-time instant shading, resulting in rapid mass production. While WizKids produces a large range of pre-assembled and pre-painted miniatures, and terrain, for Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. You can even get miniature spell effects.
3D printing and sculpting technology have combined to create a ground swell of digital business that sell downloadable files for personal printing. Titan-Forge Miniatures and Archvillain Games offer incredible models each month via Patreon. Some geniuses even provide extra parts for maximum customization or D&D 5th Edition modules and game statistics for their models. Don’t have a 3D printer? Places like Metal Oak Castings will print your files for you. If all that is too much hassle, go to Hero Forge online. You can design your own figure and they’ll print it, even in color.
It may appear as though Fantasy miniatures are the only option in toy soldiers. They are the largest option, and for good reason. Dungeons & Dragons is the best-selling roleplaying game in the world. Miniatures inspired it, and they have been associated with it from its beginning. Thankfully, the hobby swells indirectly to the world’s shrinking. Broad ranges of historical, pulp, steampunk, western, post-apocalyptic, and near endless sci-fi options exist. There are many genres available from all over the world. Okay, from all over Europe mainly. The English invented the miniature gaming hobby so its fanbase concentration makes sense.
We also have seemingly endless options online for tutorials. YouTube channels like Miniac and Squidmar lend a lot of painting experience to audiences for free. If you want to do your own terrain crafting, those channels are out there too. Black Magic Craft is my jam. Depending on how deeply you want to delve into the rabbit hole, you can make tiles, doors, shelves, and various accoutrement. You can build houses, rivers, and hills. You can fabricate terrain to fit any need.
If that’s all too rich, plenty of publishers sell die cut cardboard standees and acrylic standees. Inexpensive, neat looking, and easily stored. Grab a standard wet erase mat by Chessex from your FLGS and you’re golden.
One must assume the technology will continue to advance in quality while decreasing in price. Many STL files come pre-supported so they’re near idiot proof for the home printer. Someday you’ll be able to print large models at home, in a wide color spectrum, without unsightly filament lines. Better still, a day will come where 3D scanners are high quality and low cost, and 3D sculpting software is idiot proof. Custom conversions on an almost unimaginable level. Sploosh.
Even with the new conveniences and ever advancing technology I still prefer to throw on an album and tinker with my toy soldiers old school style. Green stuff, jeweler’s saw, pin vise, and Plasticard. Perhaps a little silicone mold making for extra conversion bits.
Working on miniatures brings me a sense of calm catharsis and simultaneously fuels creativity. They bring practicality to the roleplaying table, but one enveloped in artistry. I find they enrich my gaming experience, at the table and alone.