You might not know me, but if you're buying D&D minis, pretty soon you're going to see a lot of my work -- the War of the Dragon Queen set that releases in July. If you're not buying Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures, you must have superhuman resistance to the power of cool. That's an interesting super power, but you might consider hanging some kryptonite around your neck so you don't miss out on all the fun that's coming your way.
In this series of articles, Steve Schubert and I will give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to make Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures. There's so much to write about that we're starting with a broad overview of what we do. This article describes the designer's parts of the process. Next, Steve will give you a rundown of what he and the development team do. After that, you can look forward to seeing us deal with topics in more detail.
The Process of Design
A lot of things happen before a designer starts work on a set of Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures, but design starts with the set's theme.
Design Step 1: Set Theme
Every set starts with an idea for its theme. Having a basic theme like dragons, undead, drow, or some other topic central to D&D provides a jumping-off point for the set's name and what kinds of things go into it. With input from Steve and our managers, the basic idea evolves into a more specific concept.
A set with a dragons theme became War of the Dragon Queen. Why? Well, what's more cool than a set with a few dragons in it? A set with Tiamat, a dracolich, some of Tiamat's spawn, and more dragons -- that's what.
Design Step 2: Initial Set Composition and Art Order
The set's theme and name provide a guiding principle for what miniatures should be included in the set, but it's likely only a dozen to a score of miniatures will be directly tied to that theme. Deciding what miniatures are in a set is a balancing act between the needs of long-time buyers and people new to minis, classic D&D monsters and new creations, and the needs of the various factions. In addition, I have to consider how many pieces must be assembled to make individual miniatures, how many paint steps those miniatures require, how many Large miniatures are in the set and in each faction, and what miniatures were covered in the past. The primary concern, of course, is making a cool set of minis that people will love -- while also saving some cool ideas for later so that people will love the sets that follow, too.
From that process comes an art order for 65 to 75 miniatures -- more than can be included in the set. We commission more miniatures than the set requires because problems in the sketch and sculpting phases can cause figures to be scrapped. In addition, development might reveal that some special abilities, spells, or commander effects are better saved for later -- which usually means that the related miniature must wait as well.
Design Step 3: Design the Miniatures' Stats
After the art order is in the art director's hands, I work on creating the miniatures' skirmish statistics. That begins with the complete D&D statistics and an idea about the central thrust of the creature or character. The concept evolves from there.
A direct translation of monster to miniature rarely occurs because the RPG and skirmish rules are different. The skirmish game has different needs from the RPG. I also try to design rules themes into sets, creating interesting interplay between miniatures within factions and across factions.
Skirmish stat design never happens in a vacuum -- I look closely at the minis that came before to inform my design. The developers are consulted regularly to keep them apprised of the crazy things I'm trying and to get their help with crafting rules that achieve a specific effect without unintended consequences.
Just as a host of factors influenced which miniatures got into the art order, many different things need to be considered when designing an individual miniature's statistics. When it's all finished, I pass the set off to the development team.
Design Step 4: Everything Else
After a week or two of participating in development meetings, I leave the development team to their work and start doing the toughest part of minis design -- helping to make the miniatures look right. The art order is only the first step in a long process of working with the art director to perfect the appearance of every miniature. Other tasks are left to do, such as creating an art order for the boxes and writing the text for the rules sheet, but making miniatures look as cool as possible becomes top priority. Deciding how the figures should be equipped, posed, and painted is a tough job, but someone has to do it -- and woo-hoo, it's me!
Of course, there's more to making miniatures than what I've described above. Our Legal Department must check trademarks, freelance artists draw sketches, sculptors work from the sketches to create sculpts, packaging must be designed and produced, marketing efforts have to be organized, paint masters must be created and paint steps figured from there -- the list of tasks goes on and on.
Later articles will deal with the parts of this process that we know are likely to be of interest to you -- how rarity is decided, how we arrive at point costs, and so on. Instead of us guessing what you'd like to hear about, why not drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know. While you're at it, feel free to give us suggestions for miniatures you'd like to see.
About the Author
Besides working on miniatures, Matthew Sernett was lead designer for Spell Compendium, Tome of Magic, Hellspike Prison, and the new Dungeons & Dragons Basic Game. He also contributed work to Tome of Battle, Player's Handbook II, Complete Mage, Complete Scoundrel, and a big project for the Forgotten Realms he can't talk about yet. Before that, Matthew did a fair amount of freelancing for Wizards of the Coast and was Editor in Chief of Dragon.