D&D minis discontinued

April 5th, 2011

The announcement that Wizards of the Coast was discontinuing their line of pre-painted minis really came as a shock.  WotC had just released Lords of Madness, with much bragging of their new computerized sculpting system that allowed them to make better more intricate minis than ever before.  And then quietly, almost a footnote in the monthly updates, Wizards announced no more miniatures.  Their official reasoning was the failing economy and something about prices in China.  WotC, for those unfamiliar, is a subsidiary of Hasbro.  Hasbro is one of the largest toy makers in the world.  Among Hasbro’s more popular toys are Star Wars, GI Joes and Transformers.  I find it inconceivable that with the plastic making abilities Hasbro has at its disposal, that WotC couldn’t figure out how to sell a box of 6 plastic miniatures for $22.  Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on all this, I’m prepared to write a post that isn’t full of inane gibbering and name calling.

Wizards has yet to offer up any official replacement for the miniatures line.  Looking at their most recent products their de facto answer seems to be cardboard tokens, as found in the reprinted Red Box and the Monster Vault box.  D&D has for the most part always been based around miniatures, it’s part of the Gygaxian legacy of codifying D&D.  If you can represent the combat in physical space, you can apply standardized rules that apply to each player.  While the need for physical miniatures has waxed and waned with different revisions, they have always been useful.  Fourth edition relies completely on the use of a gridded board with something to represent monsters and heroes.  It is very poor timing to concentrate on the miniature combat side of the game while removing the future availability of those miniatures.  New players and DMs without a stocked collection of miniatures are not lost, however.  There is a very solid aftermarket for minis.  eBay is an excellent source for both individual minis and collections that former players are parting with.

This vibrant aftermarket should have been an example to Wizards on how players and DMs want to consume minis.  Wizards is best known for one thing: Magic cards.  Some cards in magic are much more powerful than others.  There is a whole rating system for rarity, and along with rarity comes powerfulness in the game.  They use this power/rarity system to build demand for their product.  By selling a randomized pack of cards, you have a chance of getting the rare card you want.  But to do so you must buy the whole pack which includes a bunch of common less powerful cards.  This works because people want those powerful cards for the decks they will build.  This same theory does not apply to miniatures.  As a DM you need the minis that represent the characters and monsters in your adventures.  There is no concept of a powerful miniature for a D&D adventure, they have no inherent stats, they are what the DM makes them.  In fact, I would argue that the more common miniatures are the most useful.  Kobolds, goblins, wolves, all the enemies you expect to encounter, especially early on, are all common miniatures.  The rarer miniatures are the least desirable from a DM standpoint as those you would have to tailor your adventure to include (things like a Gelatinous Cube, Glabrezu, Drow Cleric of Lloth).  Supply and demand would seem to indicate that the prices would be reversed, but these miniatures still appeal to collectors and there are so many more of the common miniatures, the supply can more than meet the demand.  The loser in this system is the poor DM who wants a Glabrezu in his campaign, but has to spend $40 to get it.  This backward system was undoubtedly spawned from the collector card system, but reinforced by the short time when D&D marketed the miniatures as their own tabletop game, separate from the D&D RPG.  In this game miniatures did have rarity and power, so they forced the miniatures into the CCG marketing system.  That game died off some time ago, but the broken model continued.

There are numerous ways to market miniatures to make them more appealing to DMs.  This will blow some corporate minds out there, but retailers already know this one:  sell them individually.  Another great idea is to sell them in useful groups.  All WotC needs to do is flip through the Monster Manuals and look at the basic Encounter Groups that are listed for the common monsters.  Sell a package with 2 goblin sharpshooters, 4 goblin warriors and 4 goblin cutters.  Now that is a useful bundle of minis.  You could even market larger bundles, like the group of Kobolds and a young white dragon needed for the built-in adventure at the end of the original DMG.  You could charge a lot more for a coherent, useful set of monsters than you can a random bundle of nonsense. Following on from there sell a pre-packaged adventure along with the minis.  I read once that someone from WotC said this wasn’t possible because it takes too long to make minis.  This was either a blatant lie to dodge the question or zero thought was put into it.  They already have nearly any miniature model you could need.  Just reprint some of the old ones.  This is what they do for the miniatures in Wrath of Ashardalon, so clearly they can still make them.  Even if for some crazy reason they wanted to make a new set of miniatures, all you have to do is plan ahead.  Don’t release the adventure until the minis are completed. It’s worth noting that Wizards did attempt something like this.  They sold pre-painted visible miniatures. Why didn’t it work?  Because they were sold as a collection of similar heroes (i.e. All martial power or all arcane).  Once again the typical player would only want one in the package of three, so  they were still were not getting the message, but at least it was closer.

Hanlon’s Razor states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”  So while I want to attribute the end of miniatures to stupidity, I can’t help but notice it’s coinciding with the age of D&D’s Virtual Table.  I feel a cold miserly hand on my shoulder, ushering me to a digital replacement for not just miniatures, but the entire table, the entire game.  No longer will we gather with friends around a table to socialize and play, instead we will all login to our virtual D&D accounts and play and speak through voice chat and digital exchanges.  That is not and has never been what D&D is about.  Once you’re at the computer you may as well let the computer be the DM and by then you’re playing a shoddy replacement for World of Warcraft.  Today they move us from miniatures to cardboard tokens, tomorrow from token to virtual tokens.  Source books will follow with encrypted locked down watermarked PDFs that you cannot copy, paste or view from more than one machine.

While I will miss future miniatures, I have a nice collection now and if I need just the right one or group to fill out my adventure, I know I can go to aftermarket sellers who actually understand how consumerism works and pick my lot of minis.

April 5th, 2011
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