Thursday, October 16, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The original "Studded Plate" columns, Part 1

A few years ago, I wrote three articles for, a website created by Matt Timmins to share his reviews of gaming products and editorials about his experiences as a GM and player. I recently discovered that, sadly, his site no longer exists. However, from the beginning, Matt had encouraged me to repost my articles to other sites if I started contributing to another review site or started my own blog. Now that I've decided to do exactly that, I'd like to share those original "Studded Plate" columns with you.

Studded Plate #1: LEGO Minifigures as RPG Miniatures

[Originally written and posted to in November 2012]
I was introduced to D&D in middle school 30 years ago, and have been playing RPGs regularly ever since. I’ve never had an abundance of disposable income, so I’ve had to make some hard choices about how to invest in my hobbies—which games to buy, how many supplements to buy, whether to buy more miniatures or dice, and so on. At one point, I had the opportunity to purchase a friend’s metal miniatures collection for a fraction of its value, and did so. But I never had the patience to sit and paint (or repaint) them, in spite of having a lifelong passion for art (and an art degree). I’d much rather spend that time playing the games, or making some original art in other media. Likewise, I’d rather spend my money on game books or my other interests than try to accumulate a meaningful collection of expensive minis.
One of those other interests is LEGO toys. I received my first set of blocks when I was five, and have never stopped collecting them and building my own creations (or MOCs, as fans call them). My passion for these toys has even led me to take a part-time job in the local LEGO Store. But the reason that I’m mentioning this other hobby in a column for a gaming site is my discovery that LEGO minifigures are a perfectly satisfactory substitute for traditional wargaming miniatures—or, in my case, a vastly superior one.
The birth of this idea occurred over a decade ago, when I shared an apartment with three friends who were all avid gamers. One of them, the DM for our D&D group, constantly struggled with his lack of miniatures. He made do with a handful of traditional minis and whatever small plastic toys and pawns he could scrounge. We players had difficulty keeping track of which marker represented which PC or NPC, so I decided to do something about it. I had the collection of metal minis that I mentioned above, but they wouldn’t solve the problem unless I painted them. However, I did have my LEGO collection, which heavily favored the Castle and Star Wars themes. I assembled minifigures to represent the party, and attached them to small plates (2x2 or 2x3 studs) to keep them upright. They were only vague approximations of what our heroes looked like, but with appropriate weapons, armor, cloaks, and headgear, we had no problems telling apart the wizard, paladin, druid, and so on.
My solution went over well with the group, so I refined the party minis as the campaign continued. Before long, I started using minifigures for the PCs in the games that I ran, and as my collection grew, I expanded the idea to include many of the NPCs and monsters the PCs encountered. In the years since that first game, other GMs I’ve played with have adopted the idea, too.
By using minifigures, I could make one of my expensive hobbies do double duty, and I eventually sold off all of my metal miniatures. Since then, I have purchased a small selection of prepainted plastic D&D Miniatures, but only cheap, common, used ones that I knew I would use in my games. I also have a large collection of plastic animals and monsters, cardboard counters, and other markers, but as much as possible, I use LEGO minifigures, or minifigure-scale models that I’ve built from scratch.
In the past several years, the variety of minifigures available has increased dramatically, with the Harry Potter, Pharaoh’s Quest, and Ninjago themes becoming some of the best sources for fantasy creatures, characters, and accessories. The Castle/Kingdoms theme introduced dwarf minifigures and “trolls” that look like D&D orcs or goblins. More recently, the collectible Minifigures series provided us with our first Tolkien-esque elf. This summer, the new LEGO Lord of the Rings sets delved into one of the sources that directly inspired Dungeons & Dragons, providing elves, dwarves, and hobbits, as well as orcs and other monsters. The Hobbit sets coming out this month [November 2012] will further expand this selection of characters and creatures.
So which LEGO sets provide the best bang for the buck when it comes to potential D&D miniatures? There are too many LEGO themes to discuss in just one short column, so I’ll just focus on The Lord of the Rings sets here, in order of increasing size and cost.
Gandalf Arrives ($13) contains two minifigures (Gandalf and Frodo) and a horse. Unless you want Gandalf (who is also available as a key-chain) and one of the new horses (which have posable back legs so that they can rear), this set has limited interest as a source of RPG minis.
Shelob Attacks ($20) includes Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Shelob herself. I consider this set a must-have for Shelob alone, who is the largest and most impressive giant spider the LEGO Group has yet produced. (Both versions of Harry Potter’s Aragog pale in comparison, and the arachnids in the upcoming Escape from Mirkwood Spiders set are much smaller.) Even if you don’t need a giant spider miniature, the three minifigures are excellent, and Shelob’s body contains a good supply of hinges, claws, and other pieces for building your own articulated creatures.
Uruk-Hai Army ($30) includes Eomer and his horse, a Rohan soldier, and four Uruk-Hai. Of the seven sets in this theme, this one offers the most minifigures for its size, and is thus an ideal set for DMs who want orc figures.
The Orc Forge ($40) contains an Uruk-Hai, Lurtz (the Uruk commander), and two Mordor orcs. This set provides more variety among its orcs than the Uruk-Hai army does. However, this is the point at which these sets begin to include larger scenes to build, which make them rather expensive if all you want is minifigures. I acquired the previous three sets as soon as they were released, and the Orc Forge sometime later when I decided I needed a better selection of orcs.
Attack on Weathertop ($60) includes Aragorn, Frodo, Merry, and two Ringwraiths, one of which is mounted. I don’t yet own this set myself, but the Ringwraiths are ideal minis for any number of shadowy undead villains.
The Mines of Moria ($80) contains six minifigures (Pippin, Gimli, Legolas, Boromir, and two Moria orcs) as well as a Cave Troll. I purchased this set primarily for the characters, particularly Legolas, the orcs, and the troll, but the set itself is a well-designed bit of dungeon scenery for any DMs who wish to use LEGO elements to build more than just character miniatures. It also includes a generous assortment of minifigure accessories—weapons, tools, and treasure.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep ($130) is the largest set, with eight minifigures (Gimli, Theoden, Aragorn, Haldir, and four Uruks), a horse, and a large castle scene. This set is beautiful, but is well out of my price range at the moment.
For DMs who simply want the minifigures without any other LEGO elements, I heartily recommend checking out This site is not affiliated with the LEGO Group, but is a place for fans and collectors to buy and sell LEGO products. Complete sets as well as individual parts and minifigures are available at reasonable prices, without the blatant gouging of auction sites like eBay. Naturally, you’ll pay more for a rare set or piece, or for a minifigure that was only released as part of a large set. For example, you can buy Frodo (from Gandalf Arrives) for just over $2, while Haldir (from Helm’s Deep) starts at $11. (For a price comparison, retail prices for the collectible Minifigures series are $3 each, and Build-A-Mini packs are $10 for 3 figures.)
As you can see, there are many options available even just within one theme. Add in some more past and present themes, and the variety of potential miniatures increases rapidly. I hope my discussion here inspires some of you to try experimenting with LEGO RPG miniatures as I have!
If our distinguished editor feels that there is enough interest, I may do a similar review of The Hobbit sets after I’ve acquired and built a few of them myself. I may also delve further into my experiences as a builder of LEGO miniatures and the techniques I’ve used.
Footnote: I maintain a gallery at ( ) which contains photos of the hundreds of minifigures and minifigure-scale models I’ve collected or built for use as RPG miniatures. The following folders provide the most relevant examples: Corasgrove, Freeport, and the Misc-Monsters subfolder of Miscellaneous. One warning, though: The site is moderated, so whenever I add more pictures to my gallery, those updated folders unfortunately become unavailable to the public until they pass review. If you come across such a message, please check back in a few days, and I apologize for any inconvenience.

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