A Brave New World of Custom 3D Printed Miniatures

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In my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons days I had maybe a couple dozen miniatures. Characters were represented by the closest miniature facsimile we could find, and those Lord of the Rings “Elan Merch” sculpt orcs represented most of our foes.

Image of miniatures from the 1980's
These Elan Merchandise ‘Lord of the Rings’ miniatures represent the majority of my collection in the 1980’s. The orcs in the background were used to represent most every foe in our ‘D&D’ games. They still sport their original paint jobs. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Nowadays the number and availability of miniatures (available from sources such as Reaper Miniatures, Games Workshop, and many others) is staggering, their quality breathtaking. The range of options is also legion: unpainted metal, unpainted resins that need assembly, unpainted polymer like Reaper Bones, and pre-painted plastic like Wizkids miniatures with D&D and Pathfinder specific lines. However, even with all of these options, a player is still either trying to find a miniature that somewhat matches his mind’s-eye view of his character, or modeling the character after a miniature that is found first, thus stifling individual creativity.

Enter custom 3D printed miniatures. Mounted Heroes, Customizable 3D Printed Miniatures is currently running a Kickstarter that allows customers to model their characters by picking stance, armor, weapon, and other equipment, as well as the option to pick a steed. One could create the same character posed in battle on the ground, as well as a matching mounted version of the figure. An early version of their online customization tool is available for immediate use to see where they are going with it.

Custom 3D miniature creation tool
The tool allows users to select various components of their characters. Screenshot from Customizable 3D Printed Tabletop Miniatures Kickstarter.

Another company, Hero Forge Custom Miniatures, with a tool developed from an earlier successful Kickstarter is completed and currently providing customized miniatures. This existing tool is also available for use right now. Hero Forge currently has more options for character customization than the demo tool from “Mounted Heroes,” and has slightly cheaper miniatures, but currently no option for a steed. The two sites also generate models that have different artistic styles.

There is one significant disadvantage to these custom 3D printed miniatures: expense.

My primary use for miniatures is in role playing games. In tabletop RPGs there are just a couple main needs. The gamemaster needs many mooks, of many different types. A dozen goblins, an army of orcs, and swarms of rats, for instance. For these, the gamemaster needs a cheap source. Duplicate figures is not a problem for this need. Another gamemaster need is the climactic-battle-big-bad such as the evil lich king, ancient red dragon, or demon lord. But even for these unique creatures the gamemaster does not want to spend a fortune as, unless it’s going to be a recurring villain, the mini is likely to be eliminated by the heroes in just a few rounds of play. Traditional miniatures, and especially pre-painted plastic miniatures, satisfy these needs very well and cheaply. Well, as cheap as it gets in the land of miniatures!

On the other hand, there is the player. A player may have the same character for an entire campaign spanning years. The player’s character is very personal, and he or she has an image of what the character looks like. With traditional miniatures players are stuck with what exists, or what can be modified with great patience and skill. This is where these custom 3D prints come in.

One can create any of millions of different combinations of characters, varying race, gender, equipment, stance, and even the stand it is on. A player could even purchase new versions of the character in new equipment as the character progresses in power. Or, as is the case with the current Mounted Heroes Kickstarter, on and off a mount.

Each custom miniature ranges from three-times to many-times the cost of a traditional miniatures. But again, for a piece that is going to be used for dozens if not hundreds of hours of play, this is not such a bad deal.

There are currently two primary materials used in the printing process. One is a strong and flexible plastic, a low-detail, but durable material, and the other is Frosted Extreme Detail (or FXD), a high-detail but fragile material. I own some FXD, high detail, Hero Forge prints, and I can attest to their being brittle. For display the FXD high-detail is perfect. If players are careful the FXD is also acceptable for table-top play. Though with books, dice, or arm-sweeping removal of figures from the table, breakage is possible. The breaks are “clean” and easily glued, but still a hassle. My kids often play with my plastic pre-painted miniatures. These fragile figures are not appropriate for that. I do not currently own any of the lower-detail, high-durability miniatures, but that’s because, from what I have seen online, I prefer the look and the detail of the high-quality material.

Materials used for 3D Printing
The material on the left is high-detail, but brittle while the material on the right is more durable, but lacks the detail. Image from Customizable 3D Printed Miniatures Kickstarter.
Frosted Extreme Detail miniature
An actual Frosted Extreme Detail miniature from Hero Forge, designed by my twelve-year old son to represent one of his ‘Pathfinder’ characters. It has been painted white so the details are more evident. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

The Custom 3D printed miniature market is in its infancy, and projects like this Kickstarter are trailblazing our way into the future. Check it out; right now the Mounted Heroes Customizable 3D Printed Miniatures Kickstarter is the only reasonably accessible way of generating just the character you want both mounted and on foot. But also continue to watch this industry; prices will drop, and companies like Reaper Miniatures will likely get involved in custom figures. Any sculptor with eyes to the future is likely expanding their skill set to incorporate digital tools. Soon buyers will be able to buy the digital files and print their character at home, and more and more tools will be created for designing those files. It’s a brave new world in the miniatures industry.

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