For more than five years, one man has been creating 3D models of every single monster in Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition, and giving away those digital files for free, so people with 3D printers can make them at home.
Miguel Zavala’s art project consists of more than 1,900 digital files, and he has nearly 3,000 paying subscribers supporting his work on Patreon. Polygon talked with Zavala about his work, and how (for the most part) he’s been able to avoid the ire of D&D’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast.
Zavala says he studied 3D modeling in college, but after a stint in the advertising industry he left it all behind. That’s until five years ago, when his wife inspired him to make a hobby of creating digital models for his own 3D printer. After getting a good response on Reddit, he started taking commissions for custom figures. Eventually that income became enough to pay the rent, he quit his day job to work at 3D modeling full time.
“I’ve made almost 2,000 models so far” Zavala said, “covering all of the D&D books all the way up to [Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes]. It’s just been a hell of a ride.”
The income from his Patreon, where Zavala still does loads of custom commissions for his patrons and other D&D-adjacent work, now covers well more than just his rent. He also sells printed models of some of his minis online, but says the income from those is nominal at best.
Is the publisher of D&D OK with this? Zavala says it is, now that he’s made some changes to his process.
Five years ago, Zavala says, Wizards actually cracked down on his project. All of his models were pulled offline for a time. That’s because he was using another online platform to host them, and the fine print on that website stated that the platform holder would automatically assume rights to his creations. Wizards didn’t like that, so Zavala switched over to Shapeways, which has different rules for creators, and he was allowed to resume his work.
“I reached out to them,” Zavala said, “and very honestly, it was just like, ‘Hey, I’m not trying to compete with you guys. I’m not trying to do anything like that. It’s just some people don’t have access to game stores, and some folks like to have a little extra creative balance in their games, and I make these things available for free.’ [...] Once they understood that I wasn’t trying to make an easy buck off of this, they immediately opened up.”
Portions of D&D content are available to the public through the Open-Gaming License set up by Wizards. The publisher also has a formal policy on fan-created content. Zavala says he’s careful to follow those rules. All of the files themselves are available for free, and certain monsters — like named characters from D&D lore and other items that fall outside of the OGL — are only available as free digital downloads. You can find them all spread out across two different accounts on Shapeways. The first is called The DM Workshop, and the second is his own personal account.
“Wizards has been in contact with Miguel ‘mz4250’ Zavala,” a spokesperson at Wizards confirmed for Polygon. “He does nice sculpts, and we appreciate the creativity he brings to the hobby! As long as he’s following our Fan Policy and our [Open Game License], we don’t take issue with what he’s doing. D&D always encourages storytellers and creators to share what they are making with the community.”
Wizards has its own officially licensed lines of pre-painted miniatures, which are sold primarily in collectible blind boxes. There’s also a smaller line of unpainted miniatures, but only about 30 models are currently being produced. While they’re all very durable and high quality, there’s really nothing like the variety that Zavala’s free files can offer.
Part of the reason that his work has become so popular is because 3D printers have improved and become cheaper over the last few years. For at-home builds of single miniatures, Zavala recommends something like the Elegoo Mars or the Anycubic Photon, both of which you can find on Amazon for around $250. Zavala isn’t the only one doing work like this either. Other 3D modelers he recommends for D&D minis include Mia Kay and Duncan “Shadow” Luca.
“I’m just going to continue improving my skills and, as the technology changes, I’ll adapt with that,” Zavala says. He’s spending lots of time converting his digital library into new file types that will be useful in virtual reality and augmented reality applications to come.
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