It might seem odd, but the common miniatures are often the hardest part of a Dungeon & Dragons Miniatures set to get right. Commons look simple, but that simplicity creates restrictions that significantly affect their design.
The answers to the following questions inform the decision to make a miniature a common:
- Is it Medium or smaller?
- Can it be done as one piece?
- How many deco ops will it need?
- Will players be happy having a dozen of the miniatures?
We don't want to make Large commons. Larges take more paint and plastic to make. If we did a large common, it wouldn't look as cool as our large rares and uncommons, and we'd probably have to make other minis in the set look less cool to make up for the extra resources spent on the large common.
Small or Tiny commons are OK, but their small size makes it harder for the sculptors to get their details right and makes painting them more troublesome. Of course, we do make Tiny and Small miniatures, but you'll note that most sets might have just a few, and they're often uncommons.
Most common miniatures should be made of a single piece of plastic. This helps us to keep costs down and paint them better. In production terms, each part of a multipart miniature has a separate mold and its own paint process before being glued together. Thus, each is treated like a separate mini for the purposes of production costs and how much of the total number of deco ops we can apply to all the commons. Rares and uncommons are allowed more paint steps than commons, thus they can be made in multiple pieces and still look good. If a common has multiple pieces, it requires more molds and plastic than normal for commons. To make up for that, some commons get less paint than they normally would.
D&D miniatures aren't painted the way you'd paint a miniature at home. Many of the same principles apply (layering, washes, drybrushing), but the process is broken down into numerous steps for assembly-line style production by many painters.
'Deco ops' is shorthand for decoration operations. Deco ops are the language in which the breakdown of the painting process is discussed. In another article I'll explain deco ops a little more, but suffice it to say that all the common miniatures in a set are supposed to average a certain number of ops. If a common requires a lot of colors to make it look good, or requires a lot of the same color in many separate spots, it means another common must be very simple. Because set composition is in flux throughout the development and art processes, it's best to aim for the average ops per mini rather than planning to put a lot of ops on one mini and hoping that another requires very few.
Having a Dozen
If you’re trying to collect the whole set by buying cases (like many of us do), you might get a dozen of a single common mini from a set. Yet it’s more likely that if you buy a lot of boosters, you’ll have maybe six or eight of a single common. We want you to be happy when that happens, and hopefully you don’t mind having a dozen of a single common if you’re buying cases.
There are many miniatures that most D&D players would like to have six or eight of, but we have to look ahead to what other commons will be produced and the needs of people who are new to buying miniatures. That’s why you’ll see orcs, goblins, or skeletons appear in just about every other set. We don’t want someone who is new to D&D minis to fail to get miniatures that are core to RPG play, and having half a dozen orcs of several different appearances is likely to be inoffensive or welcomed by long-time buyers.
Similarly, we don't want to produce a common that people will dislike having a dozen of. If you're happy having six or eight of a particular type of miniature and never want more, that miniature is better as an uncommon or rare. That way, you can collect a half dozen if you want to, or you can get a few and be happy when a different set presents a new sculpt of the same type of creature.
Rolling With the Punches
Getting the right answers to those questions gives us a good theoretical place to start with commons, but what creatures actually become the commons in a set depends a great deal on how the sketches, sculpts, and deco ops work out. If a common can't be sculpted in one piece as we thought and can't be altered so it can, we often either elevate it to an uncommon or simply don't produce it. That common must then be replaced with another common that's waiting in the wings or a one-piece miniature that was meant to be an uncommon. Because there's some guess work involved in figuring out which miniatures will work out and which won't, we don't often have a miniature of the same faction and point cost waiting in the wings. That means that when a few commons get scratched off the list, the overall composition of the set gets thrown off. The ideal setup doesn't always survive contact with reality -- that's why you might wind up with a couple handfuls of Celestial Badgers or Taers). We're always learning and improving our processes so that every set can turn out better than the last.
If you have a great idea for a common miniature, send us a note. What miniature do you need more of in your game?
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 Forgotten Realms that 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.