More Than Just Minions

by Sterling on April 20, 2009

Killing minions feels good. So good in fact players do weird things in order to kill minions. Controllers who normally hide behind the defenders will charge with wild abandon to unleash a close blast spell if they believe they can drop more than one minion on their turn. Likewise, strikers will move into the thick of a group of enemies they don’t consider a threat to get their shots in on some easy minion fodder.

Here are a few fun things you can do to exploit the PC’s perceptions of minions.

What’s in a name?

If the PCs underestimate minions, why not trick them into thinking non-minion mobs are in fact minions?

Dictionary.com defines minion as “a servile follower or subordinate of a person in power.” Notice it doesn’t say “NPC with 1 hp”? Play with their understanding of the term minion.

This setup pits the PCs against one leader, two brutes and four skirmishers.

“The adventurers walk into a seedy bar looking for Captain Bill. Captain Bill is accompanied by 6 burly, strong-armed sailors.”

The adventure may describe the scene like this, but you have license to alter the description as you see fit and make it more misleading.

“The adventurers walk into a seedy bar looking for Captain Bill. Captain Bill is accompanied by 6 of his burly, strong-armed minions.”

The PCs hear the word “…minions” and start drooling over the prospect of killing multiple mobs in a single round, not realizing that these aren’t the minions as they understand the word.

Another variation of this is seen if you use any type of mapping software that displays token names. Our group uses Maptools which is a fabulous system. PCs can mouse over every token and see its name. Naming a token Minion or even Rabble will elicit a different response from your players then naming a token Sailor.

Two-hit minions

A common PC assumption is that minions must have only 1 hp. By the rules this is technically true, but as DMs we have license to think outside of the dice bag. I’d encourage you to use what I call two-hit minions. Instead of using 8 regular minions I’ll commonly use 4 or 5 two-hit minions in their place. Critical hits will kill a two-hit minion outright otherwise a two-hit minion will take two hits to kill, regardless of damage. If you are feeling generous, you can even make the minion bloodied after it takes one hit. Since two-hit minions aren’t in the Monster Manual, you will confound many PCs into thinking these are non-minion NPCs.

The minion that isn’t

I like to give the occasional skirmisher training in Bluff. When that skirmisher takes 1 or more hit points of damage I make a secret roll against the PC’s passive Perception or Insight. If the skirmisher succeeds, that PC thinks he’s just killed a minion. When the skirmisher stands up it gains combat advantage against him. If the roll fails, the skirmisher is now prone.

Set damage amounts

Ever noticed that minions usually have set damage numbers on a hit? They don’t usually roll damage? Well, the PCs have noticed that too.

Next time your non-minion monster hits a PC, just rhyme out a damage figure without rolling it. “The attack hits for 4 damage.” The PCs will likely assume that the lack of rolling damage means it is a minion.

Now to be fair to the PCs, pick a damage amount in the lower half of the possible damage range, or consider even minimum damage. Minions are supposed to be less tough than non-minions.

Minions in numbers

This doesn’t require much explanation. Most PCs look at an encounter and the more NPCs in the encounter the more minions they assume are there.

“There are 15 NPCs in the next room, at least 10 of them have to be minions.”

Feel free to build an encounter to appear easy or even below the party’s level if the NPCs were in fact minions. In actuality build a hard encounter, PC level + up to 4 levels, because more NPCs really only means more danger.

Final Thoughts

So why do mess I with PCs like this? Spite? Anger over the PCs using knowledge they aren’t supposed to have? No, or at least mostly no.

Role-playing games are supposed to be fun. First and foremost as a DM you are providing entertainment for the PCs and yourself. Having something happen while playing that is counter to the expectations of the PCs can provide that entertainment for everyone. It’s like a twist in the plot line the PCs didn’t see coming and it makes them think on their feet, re-evaluating a situation they saw as predictable.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ameron April 20, 2009 at 7:34 am

I’d like to welcome Sterling to the Dungeon’s Master team. This is his first article and we’re look forward to reading more great posts from him in the coming weeks.

2 Mike Shea April 20, 2009 at 8:50 am

These are some really excellent tips. At Paragon and above, I’ve had a hard time making minions something other than window dressings. They just get bowled over like paper. I’m hoping we see some new templates for minions, elites, and solos in the next DMG to help fix some of these problems.

I’ve used a concept called “tough minions” in my game. Minions are knocked prone instead of killed. When hit while prone, they die like normal. This way I still don’t have to track hitpoints and it takes some coordination to fully kill a minion. Sustained area damage is still a problem.

Another interesting idea is to give minions a death save. If they are dropped, they get a free save to see if they’re still alive. This gives them a little bit more of a chance and gives the players a “oh man, they keep getting up!” panic attack.

I think the key to these ideas, like this article states, is to shake it up. Try different things to keep your players off balance and continually evolving.

Sometimes, however, you want to give them 30 or 40 minions they can blow up just to feel powerful. Slayer-type players love this. Don’t take it away completely.

3 Ameron April 21, 2009 at 7:48 am

@Mike Shea

Our group has had limited experience with play above Heroic tier, so I don’t know how well minions hold up in Paragon or Epic tiers of play. But your comment seems to be consistent with what I’ve been reading on the blogs.

I like the idea of giving minions a death save. It eliminates the “fire and forget” mentality that seems to be prevalent when fighting minions.

4 TheMainEvent April 21, 2009 at 9:18 am

I have to disagree with one major premise here. It’s one thing to have NPCs deceive PCs or have game mechanics mislead them. First, there are NPCs out to trick PCs, so there’s nothing wrong with those duplicitous fellows actually succeeding. Its not the DM, its the character tricking other characters. Secondly, the player’s characters aren’t privy to the mechanics of D&D, so if you want to alter the mechanics and the players blithely assume that these mechanics automatically reflect certain other rules part and parcel, this is also fair game. I’m not sure I’d do these things often, but they seem fine to do if you like.

However, describing encounters in a way purposely to mislead the PCs while wearing a DM hat just erodes trust between players and DMs. Omission and deception when you’re describing the world to the PCs is a cheap trick. The players have no one but the DM to narrate events and when you do so in a manner for the purpose of meta game trickery it frustrates players, and rightly so. In those moments where events are being described the DM really needs to be objective or else the characters won’t trust his accounts.

5 Ameron April 21, 2009 at 11:00 am

@TheMainEvent
I think what we need to be more clear about is that these “tricks” are intended for situations where PCs use their out-of-game knowledge about the mechanics of minions to influence their in-game decisions making.

I agree that if the DM is doing this just to mess with the PCs then it’s not cool. The game shouldn’t be viewed as the DM vs the PCs. The PCs need to trust the DM to provide accurate information so they can make informed decisions. Deliberately misleading them will absolutely ruin the gaming experience and probably cause out-of-game conflicts. Good feedback. Thank you.

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