Diminutive representations of warriors, wizards, and monsters have been, in one form or another, part of fantasy gaming since the dawn of the hobby. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was an avid wargame player and often supplemented the miniatures provided with his store-bought games with inexpensive toys (such as a now-famous set of rubber dinosaurs that inspired such iconic beasts as the Rust Monster and Owlbear) or made his own. In the mid-1970s, fantasy-miniature manufacturers began to spring up, making it far easier for gamers to procure the creatures they needed for their pencil-and-paper quests.
Strictly speaking, miniatures are not an indispensable element of role-playing games (RPGs). The Game Master (or Dungeon Master if you're talking in D&D terms) is responsible for describing the players' environments, so it's entirely reasonable to play a game completely within the framework of interactive storytelling. However, to avoid confusion, visuals are often provided. These can take many forms. The most common is a map, typically drawn on standard graph paper, with each square corresponding to a span of distance, such as five feet. Some game designers prefer to use hexagons (or “hexes”) instead because they more accurately represent the ways in which a character can interact with its surroundings. In games such as Metagaming Concepts' The Fantasy Trip or SPI's Citadel of Blood and Deathmaze (the latter two, while excellent, are only RPGs in the loosest sense of the term, but the principle’s the same), punch-out cardboard “counters” are used either to designate player and adversary positioning or to construct dungeons. But for those who are seeking an arguably richer gaming experience and are willing to shell out the extra cash, miniatures are always an option.
In the early days, companies such as Ral Partha and Citadel cast creatures in lead and pewter. Today, minis of this nature are produced by Reaper, Iron Wind Metals, et al. One of the potential drawbacks of metal miniatures is that they need to be painted, unless you're okay with your figures' looking vaguely silver-ish. For some, this has become a hobby unto itself and is, in fact, a frequent point of pride for players of games such as Warhammer (the Games Workshop magazine White Dwarf is essentially a showcase of miniature painting). During the 1980s, Ral Partha obtained a license from TSR to produce miniatures to be used with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and these high-quality figures are still prized by collectors.
In the current market, the majority of miniatures are rendered in plastic and are pre-painted. In 2003, Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), which had acquired TSR's assets in the wake of its bankruptcy, began manufacturing miniatures of this kind for D&D and continued to do so until 2010. Twenty-one sets were released, including both player-characters (humans, elves, dwaves, halflings, et cetera), monsters, and occasional “dungeon dressing,” i.e. pieces such as statues, portals, and sarcophagi.
Adopting the booster-pack model of its own wildly successful collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, WoTC originally packaged eight random figures of varying rarities in each box.
These miniatures are convenient for players because they can be used right out of the box. While the primary purpose of the miniatures was that they be used in the RPG, the first seventeen sets included a card for each figure that could be used in a two-player tabletop skirmish game that pitted bands of minis against each other. The game proved fairly popular for a few years, with gaming shops hosting weekly tournaments with prizes provided by WoTC. In 2008, with the release of the fifteenth set, “Dungeons of Dread,” the skirmish rules were changed to reflect the impending release of the fourth edition of D&D. Unfortunately, because of this a significant number of players decided to abandon the game.
WoTC gradually converted all of the old sets over to the new rules free of charge, but by then the damage had been done. After the seventeenth set came out that autumn, the company announced that it was no longer going to support the skirmish game and that it had decided to restructure the line. One of the major changes was that heroes and monsters were now going to be released in different sets, ostensibly so that players would have an easier time getting figures to represent their characters. The player-character sets would be non-random, while the monster sets would include one visible figure. Additionally, the figure count for the monster boosters was reduced from eight to five (the heroes came three to a pack).
These turned out to be a disastrous decisions. Players were irritated by the reduction in figure count, and the new sculpts and paint jobs, particularly those of the heroes, left a lot to be desired. Moreover, not all of the visible minis in the boosters were equally desirable, and players wouldn't buy a set with a visible they didn't want. Stores refused to order more boosters because they couldn't sell what they had. By the time the third set in this format came out, WoTC knew that the end was near. The company only released one more set, 2010's “Lords of Madness,” which was, again, “blind” and included six figures per booster. It did go out on a high note, though, as the quality was excellent.
In 2011, WizKids, the manufacturer of the Heroclix and Mage Knight miniatures games, began producing figures for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. To make a long story short, Pathfinder is a fantasy RPG published by Paizo that is based on D&D’s 3.5-edition rules. This seems odd, but it was made possible by WoTC’s Open Game License, which essentially permitted anyone who wanted to use the rule sets of any of their games, including the ones it acquired from TSR. It seems foolish in hindsight, but at the time it was designed to kickstart a resurgence in tabletop RPGs, which were quickly losing players to online games such as World of Warcraft. In any event, the Pathfinder minis have proven, through twenty-four sets of various sizes (some as few as two, others as many as 55), to be of superb quality. In 2014, WoTC gave WizKids a license to produce D&D minis. So far there have been ten sets, again of varying sizes. As a whole, these minis have been excellent, as well, though the figure count has, unfortunately, been reduced again, to four per booster.
While it’s strange that the miniatures for two rival games are made by the same company, it does effectively guarantee that both lines will adhere to a high standard, as I can imagine that there is some healthy competition between the designers going on. (The Pathfinder minis do tend to look a bit better, it must be said.)
Fortunately, those who still enjoy the D&D skirmish game have not been left out in the cold. When WoTC stopped making cards, they gave a free license to a group calling itself the DDM Guild, allowing it to design stats for the forthcoming releases. When WizKids took over, it was permitted to continue. It’s hard to find skirmish players these days, but for the hardcore fans it’s still one of the greatest games around.
There are, of course, dozens of miniatures companies not mentioned here. These are just the one with which I am most familiar. If you’re interested in RPGs and their ilk, miniatures can make great additions to your fantasy worlds. Unfortunately, they have become considerably more expensive in the last decade or so, but you can find bargains on eBay if you’re looking for singles or multi-figure lots.