Miniatures have been a central element in tabletop gaming for hundreds of years. But when I came back to tabletop gaming a few years ago, the $1 metal men I loved in the 70s and 80s were gone. They’d been replaced by little plastic dudes costing $5, $10, or sometimes much more. If I was going to get back into roleplaying games, I needed an alternative, and the alternative I found was printable cardstock miniatures. Let me tell you why I think cardstock miniatures are great!
The most obvious advantage of cardstock miniatures over plastic figures is cost. The cheapest plastic minis cost about $3, and are made of plastic so bendy that it’s hard to keep paint from flaking off them. Higher quality figures start at about $6 for a player-character model, and go up from there. To build an army for wargames, or a collection to populate a typical D&D campaign, you’ll spend hundreds of dollars on figures. Paint, glue, brushes, clippers, and files can easily run you another $100. The up-front cost for miniatures gaming can easily run over $500.
Cardstock miniatures cost pennies apiece. If you’re buying commercial sets—most likely through RPGNow or DriveThruRPG—you’ll pay $2 or $3 for a set of 6 to 12 unique top-quality miniatures. Most publishers include several color variants of each miniature, so you can print 30 or 40 different miniatures from a single $3 set. And you can print however many you need. If you need 12 orcs, print one sheet. If you need 24 orcs, print two sheets. If you’re fielding an army for Kings of War, print a half dozen sheets, and make some hordes! You’re only out $3, no matter how many times you print the set.
And if $3 is too rich for your blood, there are hundreds of cardstock miniatures available for free. I’ll show you where to find hundreds of free cardstock miniatures, but two good places to start are RPGNow/DTRPG and OneMonk.com. At DTRPG, several prolific cardstock miniature artists offer sample sets for free or for “Pay What You Want.” To find the free stuff at OneMonk.com, just click “Downloads” on the top menu bar.
If you’re using 3D miniatures, you’ve got to anticipate which miniatures you need days or even weeks ahead. If you have a good local game shop, and you’re looking for common models for a popular game, you might find what you need nearby. But if you need an obscure monster or PC, you’ll have to order it online and wait for days. And once it gets there, you have to file, assemble, prime and paint it. That’s another another three evenings of work, with a day of drying time between steps. If you’re not planning at least two weeks ahead, you’re probably not going to have the 3D minis you need for game night.
With cardstock minis, 24 hours is more than enough. Need a band of trolls for tomorrow night’s adventure? Ten minutes of browsing on DTRPG will turn up several good choices. Pick one and download it. You can print and assemble a page of minis in 20 minutes. Give the glue twenty minutes to set. Then you can finish out each figure in five or ten minutes, depending on how tightly you like to trim. If you’re in a hurry, you can get a cardstock miniature off the internet and onto your game table in about an hour.
Storage and Portability
3D miniatures take a lot of room to store. If you want to protect the paint job, you’ll need to find a way to store and carry them so they don’t bounce around and rub against one another. If you’re fancy, that means hard-sided cases with compartmented foam inserts—which only adds to the expense of owning miniatures. If you’re less fancy, you could individually wrap your minis in bubble wrap and pack them into shoeboxes, but to play with them, you’d have to unwrap them and find a place for your boxes and bubble wrap while you play. And then you’ve got to wrap each one up again when the game’s over. And as your collection grows, you have to keep expanding the shelf-space you’re dedicating to storing your minis between games.
Cardstock minis are (usually) flat, and aren’t likely to damage one another in storage or transit. They can be packed in envelopes, baggies, or small tuck boxes. A binder with fifty sheets of card sleeves will neatly hold and organize thousands of cardstock miniatures. You’d need an entire shelving unit to hold a few hundred painted plastic figures, and a suitcase to carry a handful of them to a game session.
On the game table, your minis look exactly as good as the paint you put on them. If you’re a pro-quality painter with lots of free time, you can make a great-looking 3D army. But if you’re an ordinary gamer, with limited time, tools, talent and patience for painting, your minis aren’t likely to look like the photos on the Games Workshop website.
With cardstock miniatures, every figure on your table looks like the original artist painted it…because he did!
Using free, open-source software, it’s easy to modify your cardstock miniatures in ways you never could with 3D minis. Without any artistic talent at all, you can scale them to be larger or smaller, and flip them left-to-right. I’ve taken a single giant spider figure from OkumArts’ Dark Elves set, and made spider figures for my table as small as a beagle and as large as a school bus. With a little more effort and image-manipulation skill, you can easily change the color scheme of any miniature as well. Working from a single wolf figure from the Lycanthrope Theme Pack from Trash Mob Minis, I made eight different color patterns in each of three different sizes, including dire wolves as big as horses, ordinary gray wolves about the size of a man, and coyotes no bigger than a medium-sized dog, which can also serve as cubs for the larger wolves.
There are more different 3D miniatures on the market than cardstock miniatures, but you can’t own them all. No matter how rich you are, you can’t afford them all. And no matter how retired you are, you don’t have time to paint them all, even if you had space to store them. But thousands of table-ready cardstock figures fit in one binder that you can carry wherever you game. And even though I have thousands of unique cardstock minis myself, I doubt I’ve spent over $100 to collect them. With cardstock minis, it’s not only possible to own every miniature you’ll ever need, you can take them anywhere!
With some basic Photoshop or GIMP work, you can turn any image you find online into a cardstock miniature. There are several demonstrations of this process on YouTube, and I’ll add my own tutorials as well.
Not yet convinced that cardstock miniatures are great?
Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll share my opinions and experiences collecting and playing with cardstock miniatures. I’ll show you how to print them out with the brightest colors and sharpest detail possible, and how assemble them to look professional while standing up to heavy use. I’ll share the tools and techniques I use to recoloring and mod cardstock minis, and how I store and organize them efficiently. I’ll help you find the best free figures available online, and I’ll point you toward the best paid sets by the finest artists working in the field. And I’ll try to answer your questions about cardstock figures, or find someone smarter than me who can.
Give me a few posts, and I’ll convince you cardstock minis are a great alternative to pewter and plastic models for tabletop gaming!