My Love Affair With Minions

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 25, 2011

It started innocently enough. At first just one and then another. Before I knew it minions had invaded my encounters. It was so easy to just add one more. I’ve considered counselling to help me deal with my problem. The last encounter I ran my players through had 23 minions in it. I’m afraid I’ve gone too far. I’m not sure I can reconcile my love affair with minions.

I worry my players may hold the excess amount of minions they face against me. That they may grow bored with encounters as they realize that they have less and less cause to roll damage dice. Worse, I fear they all may recreate their characters and come back as controllers.

Perhaps I’ve overstated things, blowing my problem out of perspective. However, I do enjoy including minions in my encounter design. They provide the players with the opportunity to feel heroic and force them to think tactically about combat. As I’ve incorporated minions into my encounters I’ve realized that there is a right way and a wrong way to use minions. This has resulted in the development of ground rules or guidelines in how I use my minions.

Know Thy Minions

The first step in effective minion implementation is knowing their role within the encounter. This will factor into the other decisions you will make about the minion. Minions can take on one of several key roles during a combat encounter:

  • Fodder for the Kill – You are providing your players with the opportunity to kill multiple opponents with no real threat to themselves. This encounter is all about your players having fun while expending a minimal amount of resources.
  • Tactical Considerations – Your minions are there to provide flanking bonuses to your main combatants, occupy certain squares or force your players to think twice about certain actions.
  • Synergy Bonuses – Your minion may grant a certain bonus that another monster can benefit from. As an example in a recent encounter the minions did necrotic damage and granted vulnerable 5 necrotic. The main opponents in the fight also did necrotic damage, making clearing out the minions a higher priority than it might be otherwise.

Knowing what you want your minions to do during an encounter will effect the type of minion you select and how you will place them on the map.

Minion Variety

I am a big fan of minions in almost every combat. Care does need to be taken to mix up the type of minions that you employ. A solid mix of ranged and melee minions is needed. It keeps your players on their toes, constantly guessing as to what foe is a greater threat. Of course the threat of a minion is relative to the situation.

If you are constantly using melee minions you may find that you run out of tactical positions to place your enemies. If your minions are always ranged attackers you may find yourself with some frustrated players. A good mix keeps the players on their toes and allows them to feel superior when they dramatically reduce the amount of minions and therefore enemies that they are facing.

Minion Deployment

If a minion is the first enemy your players see, chances are it will also be the first enemy your players kill. You’ve now handed your players some very easy experience and wasted any benefit the minion might have provided in combat. Your pacing during combat in terms of how your minions are presented will go a long way in determining how effective your minions are.

I am a big fan of introducing minions in waves. As I’ve mentioned I like to use a lot of minions in my encounters, if all of the minions are present during the first round your players may become overwhelmed very easily. They may get the wrong idea about your design intentions for the encounter and decide that flight is the best option when the encounter is actually very winnable. By introducing your minions in waves you give the players the choice of dealing with them in small numbers or becoming overwhelmed by sheer numbers within a few rounds. Of course a capable controller can likely handle any number of minions, parties without a controller could be in for a more difficult time.

Minions were one of my favourite additions to 4e. They allow the players to feel more heroic at times and they provide the DM with more creative options for encounter design.

What are some memorable situations you have had with minions? What dynamic combat encounters have you designed or participated in?

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1 Jacob Dieffenbach February 25, 2011 at 10:43 am

While I, too, love minions (after all, I loved in 3.5 having low-level monsters that could be killed in one or two hits…nevermind, we had a wizard and a cleric, that’s one hit), I’d have to say my favorite type of enemy is a minion-spawner.

There are some classics, like, an alarm bell which takes a round of rocking before it starts ringing (being a heavy bell) so if you see a goblin start rocking it, you have to kill him before the alarm bell starts summoning minion reinforcements. And if the bell starts ringing, bells can take a long time to stop ringing, so you have to spend a round stopping the bell.

Or, the party interrupts a necromancer, and the rogue spots a large magic apparatus for creating undead, that WOULD be used by the bad guys against the PCs, but the rogue decides to mess with the magic and use it against the bad guys.

Or simply summoning minions is part of a standard monster’s power, like an ooze or that one dragon or a necromancer. But no matter who does it, it adds a lot of dynamic interesting stuff to the battle! Double fun if you make the necromancer nothing BUT a summoner, and when the party tromps his army he surrenders.

While a lone solo monster or a necromancer with a couple thugs summoning minions might not be too threatening, after a couple rounds of not being interrupted while creating the things they’ll become a sizable threat (with no boost to XP!). Or, if the field is littered with minions, summoning new ones already feels like a massive threat since it slows down the progress in killing the minions off.

* *

Doing the math for them to make sure they’re balanced is rather easy (because even if I’m all about creative new ways to hurt the players, I’m also about doing it balanced). Just multiply the average damage of a standard attack of any given level by 0.375 (3/8) and that’s the average damage a minion spawned on the summoner’s turn will deal before it dies. Then, just take the standard ‘area of effect’ damage value and divide it by that average damage, and that’s how many minions can be spawned by the summoner as a standard action (or, halve that value and make it a minor action).

Explanatory math to follow.

A minion does half the damage of a standard attack. So, at level 6, a minion deals 6 damage (2d6 + 5 average 12 half 6). I’m using my own revised “Creating a Monster” sheets which combine all previous data and errata, so numbers in the DMG II might differ.

Anyway. So a level 6 minion deals 6 damage on a hit. But, they only hit 50% of the time (3 effective damage), and have a 50% chance of dying each round (I’m assuming they’re attacked each round with a 50% hit chance with one ‘freebie’ attack from them before player initiative since they act on their summoner’s initiative) which means they simply get a 50% boost to effective damage (according to my math, they might die before they get a second attack, or they might end up having four of five attacks, but assuming they act on the summoner’s initiative that averages out to a 1.5x boost to damage, 1.0 without the freebie attack) so that’s 4.5 damage. 4.5 is 3/4 of 6 damage, or 3/8 of 2d6 + 5 damage.

So if I were creating a level 6 necromancer, I’d have one of his standard actions be Raise Undead, where he summons skeleton minions and they immediately attack on his initiative and future turns. Average area damage for level 6 is 1d8 + 6, and 10.5 / 4.5 is 2.33, so his summoning ability will summon two level 6 skeleton minions as a standard action. Or, since he will want to use his standard action for attacks and his move actions for running away, he’ll probably only get one minor action per round, thus I might set him up with a minor action summon minion ability.

2 Dixon Trimline February 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

Big, big fan of minions right here, oh yes. It’s one of those rare mechanics that I love as both player and DM. I recently ran a game that was fat-loaded with minions, and one of the players stated unequivocally, “I am DEFINITELY going to start using more minions in my games. They are FUN!”

As I use XP to build my encounters, I have taken to heart advice from Dave Noonan when he suggested minions should account for 1/10 of a standard monster, not 1/4. Having tested that out, I can report the math works wonderfully. Please sir, may I have more minions?

3 Tourq February 25, 2011 at 11:58 am

I have gotten great use out of minions, especially after tweaking them a bit to keep my players on their toes (two-hit minions are a great surprise!).

4 Alphastream February 25, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I used to really not like minions. I now use them frequently in my home campaign. They can really be a nice bolster to an encounter, rounding it out. They do a good job of telling story (zombie minions coming through floorboards, for example, or guards responding to an alarm).

Late 2010 I ran a combat with 72 or so minions, in waves, including the PCs getting to command some of them. I was fully prepared for it to be a disaster, but it ended up being one of our most fun encounters and really communicated the story (chaotic battle in Raam, in Dark Sun).

5 froth February 25, 2011 at 12:37 pm

i love minions but disagree that they dont pose a threat to pcs. they can be quite deadly. i run groups of the same monsters at the same initiative and if you roll hot with a ton of them you can really punish players (which i like)

6 Debora February 25, 2011 at 1:38 pm

In the WoD game that I’m serializing in my Tuesday Tales column over at IoM, my character did NOT start out as a warrior type (she was all about the reasonable discussions), but the GM really wanted to take her in that direction. Minions were his tool of choice in this endeavor. He just kept throwing them at her in one form or another until she finally got over her aversion to killing stuff and embraced the dark side.

Actually, this week’s chapter marks the first time she ever took the initiative and started killing minions as an offensive tactic rather than in self-defense. The pavestones ran red with minion blood that night. Check it out!

7 onedtwelve February 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm

I don’t use minions enough in my currently running campaign. I recently ran a boss battle that lasted an entire session and it was probably the first time I’d used so many minions in a single session. They were placed in for a variety of reasons: to help the boss run away, to redirect damage away from the boss, to give the boss an easier chance to hit the PCs. I recently created an interesting minion that would mark the PCs and run away, so they would either have to chase this little guy around and kill him or face a significant penalty to their attack rolls (he granted a -5 instead of a -2 but that’s about all he could do).

I like the idea of a minion spawner; I think I’ll implement it into my next session and see how that goes.

8 Wimwick February 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm

@ Jacob Dieffenbach
The Minion Spawner is a great concept. A while back Ameron ran us through an encounter where a portal was summoning 1d4 minions per round. The minions had a high movement and had a fly speed. The portal was on the other side of the battle map, with difficult terrain and other obstacles and enemies in the way. It was a very memorable encounter.

@ Dixon Trimline
I agree the 1/10 is the way to go. Otherwise minions just don’t add enough to the encounter, there simply aren’t enough of them involved in the fight.

@ Tourq
Two hit minions are fun. Playing with player expectations is also fun. I like to keep them on their toes.

@ Alphastream
The story aspect of minions is often overlooked. Not every enemy should be the equal of a player character. Minions allow for this consideration and add to the danger element as well.

@ froth
By no means do I mean minions don’t pose a threat, but sometimes they can be used to reinforce just how awesome characters are. Not every encounter should be an absolute grinding slugfest.

@ Debora
I’ll have to check the entry out. As Alphastream mentioned minions are great for telling stories.

@ onedtwelve
You need to start using more minions! Once you do, you will never go back. Not ever!

9 Swordgleam February 25, 2011 at 7:16 pm

The fun thing about minions is that while one hit kills them, you do have to hit them. Ranged minions aren’t much less of a threat than full-grown ranged monsters – at least, not if your party is incompetent at range like my former 4e group.

10 Andrew February 25, 2011 at 10:30 pm

I ran an adventure at GenCon Indy last year where the players had to defend the wizard from an endless horde of vampire spawn while he finished a ritual. At one point I had over 100 minions in play.

11 Andrew February 25, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Also, I use a rule I call “Resillient Minions” where they have resist 5/tier to all damage (except for specific weaknesses like radiant for undead). This way, the PCs still have to deal a minimal ammount of damage to take out a minion, but the DM doesn’t have to keep track of any hp or “two-hit” information.

12 Sunyaku February 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm

@Andrew – That’s a nifty idea I hadn’t heard before.

I think my favorite minions of late were the blowgun lizards in the last season of encounters. They were in three of the 20 sessions, for anyone who was counting. Knocking players unconscious with a critical hit that only did a small amount of static damage was hilarious. 😀

13 Evalis March 8, 2011 at 4:23 pm

@onetwelved That is an awful ability to provide your minions as it is remarkably unfair (-5 is pretty much an auto-miss) and is against the spirit of the games mechanics. Defenders are required to maintain melee distance with their targets to continue to gain the benefit of the mark as it would otherwise expire at the end of their next turn. For the fighter this means swinging at the enemy (hit or miss), or for the paladin ending adjacent to the enemy. I’m uncertain what mechanics the other defenders play by but I do not doubt they are similar, especially since they explicitly changed the paladins mark to include the ‘must engage’ text during the beta because of specifically this type of exploit.

Your monsters fleeing halfway across the map does not fit in the spirit of how marks are supposed to work.

14 Johann May 27, 2011 at 8:21 pm

I, on the other hand, really detest minions. Minions, to me, seem like just a dumb way to massage the player’s egoes, and they ultimately fail at that too. An enemy that you can beat with little effort is simply not an engaging enemy to defeat. I remember once when I played as a Swordmage, and I basically wasted my encounter power against a lowly minion. It felt awful.

While I am just about to begin my path as a DM, I am quite sure that I will use minions very sparringly, if at all. Death shouldn’t come cheap for the enemies, and if it does, then it should come cheap for the PCs as well! But then again, I’m a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay fan.

15 LordOcampo October 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Most of my players love minions, particularly, those who enjoy getting their hands on easy EXP. Varian, a lvl 4 Human Warlock, usually loots minions with equipment and has managed to amass large quantities of gp just by selling LOTS of minion loot.

They have learned to fear minions, nevertheless, as I use them to provide stronger monsters with combat advantage whenever possible. As for being addicted to minion use, I haven’t fallen on that one yet.

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