I just commented over at Grognardia about using figures for gaming. I'm re-posting some of that material here.
Okay, so most RPGs use metal minis, which I love and I have far too many of. As a result, I'm big on being thrifty when it comes to stocking the monster lair--at least in comparison to what you typically pay for figures. For instance, an unpainted metal miniature of a dragon can be pretty steep.
So about a year ago, I began finding "bargains" by looking for toy figures that could double as miniatures in games. This is not new--I'm certainly not the first to do this. But I have founds some that suit my tastes and instead of plopping down $40 for an unpainted dragon, I found nice $12-$20 ones that are nicely sculpted, usually really well painted, and are way cheaper.
There are two toy companies that I've found to meet those three criteria: Papo and Safari Toys. (Papo is a French company from what I can tell that has no proper website, sorry.) *UPDATE: Papo DOES have a website!
Figures range from $3 and up. Apart from monsters, I found some reasonably-priced figures for around $4 or $5.
Now most of the figures in both lines are in the 3 and 3/4 range--your typical action figure (Star Wars, GI Joes, etc.) scale. But with some creativity you can use some creatures to great effect by making them look larger in comparison with most 1:25 or 1:28 gaming miniatures.
I have figures from both Papo and Safari and they each offer products adaptable to gaming. The downside is Papo isn't sold in the Twin Cities as much as it used to be. In fact, the two places I used to get them from have dropped them from their inventories in favor of Schleigh figures.
Schleigh is another company that's been taking over the medieval knight market. They have highly detailed figures with even better paint jobs, but their cost per figure-is much higher -$8-$15!!--and they don't offer a really diverse selection of beasties. Schleighs are becoming like a bad penny, turning up at every Target and crafty-kids toy store. While they deserve props for their animals, dinosaurs, and wild west lines (of which Papo and Safari have similar themes) they also hold the Smurf license. Admirable, yes, but that's another story for another time.
For my money, the Papo figures are much more imaginative because they offer many more fantasy monsters. Case in point: the Papo dwarf makes a great Fire Giant!
(That's a Reaper pre-painted plastic next to him for scale.)
Schilling* makes quite the dapper cyclops...
Papo makes the dragon at the beginning of this post. Safari Toys makes a plucky hydra.
Safari is nice because they make the Carnegie Collection which is their line of realistically detailed dinos and animals. Named for the famous entrepreneur and philanthropist who funded libraries and museums, no doubt.
So the reason that I love using these in games because even if they get up to to $20, their paint jobs are usually equal to or better than D&D minis, which often look blotchy to me, and the sculpts are still very detailed without getting bent or misshapen (a common occurrence with D&D figs). Metal minis, as I said before, cannot realistically compete. Painting and preparing metal miniatures is an entirely different pursuit that can become a hobby in, and of itself.
Other options for highly detailed baddies include Spawn creator Todd McFarlane's dragons series. However, some of those are hit or miss as far as durability or they are a little cheesy. Plus it's the guy who created Spawn and I'm not about to reward him for that. As a result I only have one or two of these guys. The rest are too over-the-top for my tastes with dragons clutching crystal balls and shit.
Anyway, just a little insight into keeping some extra cash in your pocket while getting some really great figures for your games. Ultimately, the cheapest option is to not buy anything--but who wants to do that?!
Note: Since the lighting is not great, I linked all pics to full-sized versions via Imageshack so you can at least see details. Your browser should give you a magnifying glass with a "+" so you can zoom in.
*UPDATE: Shout out to Back in '81, for catching that the cyclops is not a Papo figure. I didn't do my homework apparently! He's actually called "cyclopes" and is part of Schilling's Greek mythology line. I also made a few tweaks throughout this post, including adding some links and tidying up a bit. :)