Minions: Full Disclosure

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 26, 2012

Is the DM obligated to tell the players that monsters are minions? I never do. Players don’t treat minions like they do other monsters. They don’t see them as threatening. And why should they, after all a minion only has 1 hit point and will fall with any hit that inflicts damage. In my mind the minion was one of the best additions to 4e D&D.

DMs can throw lots of monsters at the heroes, and as long as a bunch of them are minions then the PCs will just mow through them. They still have to target and hit them, but if a hit is scored the monster falls. There are, of course, some variations and exceptions to traditional minions – some minions explode when killed, some get a final attack and others still will rise from the dead to fight again after they’ve been killed once. Here at Dungeon’s Master we’ve introduced two-hit minions that, as the name implies, need to be hit twice to finally kill them. Regardless of what kind of minion you’re facing the commonality is that it doesn’t make a difference if you deal 1 point of damage or 100 points of damage with a single hit, you just have to hit them.

Minions are great and I encourage DMs to use them regularly, but DMs need to be careful how and when they reveal that some monsters are minions. As soon as player know that some for their opponents are minions they use this meta-knowledge to influence their PCs’ actions. For this reason I never disclose the fact that monsters are minions. I let the players discover this fact when their characters do. And if they make some poor assumptions I rarely correct them.

Keeping the secret

It’s important to note that distinction between minions and non-minions is a concept for players rather than PCs. The PCs, in-game, should see every monster as dangerous. As long as the players don’t know that some of the monsters are minions they take the fight more seriously. They don’t know which monsters can withstand a hit and which ones are simply there to pump up the enemy’s numbers.

I don’t like to use the term minion when describing my monsters. I envision minions as young, or inexperienced, or poorly equipped, or wounded. They may be lesser version of real monsters but they’re not sub-par – an important distinction. They’re still pose real danger to the PCs and should be afforded some respect. When DMs announce at the beginning of combat that “they’re minions” you cut their legs out from under them before the PCs even have the chance to.

Monster knowledge checks are designed to give players some insight about what their character might already know about the opponents they’re facing. I never reveal whether or not monsters are minions no matter how high the monster knowledge check is. There are a few notable exceptions. If a bigger monster is usually accompanied by minions, that’s something I would reveal. If a non-minion monster has the ability to come back to life as a minion, I will in this instance reveal that the second generation monster is soft and only requires minimal damage to drop a second time.

By not revealing that some monsters are minions you help the player stay in character. After all, the PCs don’t know that the monsters in front of them are minions. Yet when players know this they act accordingly, often contrary to what their characters would reasonably do in that situation. So until thy truly discover that they only need to hit some monsters once to drop them, treat every creature as dangerous and the PCs are more likely to do so as well.

Not fair!

The two biggest pet peeves common to D&D players everywhere are rolling a 20 out of combat “What a waste of a natural 20!” and expending a really potent power on a lowly minion “I can’t believe I used my daily on a minion.” I know the feeling and I sympathize. However, I don’t think it’s right that you should pull punches if you have no reasonable way of knowing that a lesser attack would still get the job done. Better to kill the monsters and do 20 damage more than necessary than leave him standing with only 1 hit point because you thought your at-will would be sufficient.

Some kind DMs will not-so-subtly caution players before they expend a really big power against a minion, “Are you sure you want to use that encounter power? Perhaps an at-will would be better?” I’ll admit that I’ve done this from time to time, especially if I think the PC and the party may not survive a fight if they don’t put their best powers to their maximum efficiency. However, this is not my common practice. When I’m a player I may not like using a big power on a lowly minion, but I’ve done it. Since most powers have secondary effects, targeting minions with them will often increases the likelihood of triggering the other actions dependent on a hit (since minions will often have lower defenses than their non-minion allies).

Some powers, especially ones that inflict additional damage (like sneak dice or power strike) specifically say that you can decided whether or not to add the extra damage until after the initial attack is resolved. Basically if it’s a minions and the attack would have killed the monster with sneak dice you don’t have to expend it. A lot of players I know roll all their damage dice along with the attack dice. In my mind this is a commitment to using the extra damage. In most cases it won’t matter since the next time the PC makes an attack will be on his next turn at which time the extra power is available again. However, if it was an encounter power (like power strike) or if they get another attack from an action point, opportunity attack, or Warlord power, I would provide full disclosure and let them know that the extra dice were not needed and therefore are still in their bag of tricks (I’m not completely heartless).

In some cases the PCs may assume that minions are in fact regular monsters. When this happens DMs should keep up the illusion. This is more likely to happen at lower levels and actually did in a recent D&D Encounters session I was running. The first two heroes to attack both happen to target minions. The first attacker (a Rogue) scored a crit and with sneak dice did almost 30 damage. The second attacker (a Fighter) hit and rolled the maximum damage which was around 20 hit points. The players knew from previous encounters that these monsters usually had about 20 hit points and assumed these minions were in fact regular monsters. I let them continue the encounter with this (incorrect) assumption and it made for a much more defensive battle because the players felt that the superior numbers they faced could actually kill them. Had they realized that half of the remaining monsters were minions they would have likely charged headlong into melee showing no fear of lowly minions.

How to spot minions?

For players with crafty DMs who, like me, don’t reveal which monsters are minions there are a few relatively easy ways to figure out who’s who on the battlefield – aside from the obvious 1 hit point. However, all of them require that you pay attention. This is a really good reason to not zone out when your turn’s over.

  • Minis – Most DMs will use the same mini for similar types of monsters. For example the soldiers are represented by the minis with blue capes, the brutes by the minis with spears, and the minions with the goblin minis. Although it provides the players with meta knowledge about who’s who, it makes thing a lot easier and certainly makes combat go faster. Once minions are identified, everyone knows that similar minis are minions.
  • Damage – Minions usually do set damage where as all other monsters roll for damage. If monsters seem to always do the exact same damage and the DM isn’t rolling it’s usually safe to assume they’re minions. But don’t assume this is always true. Sometimes I pre-roll all my monster damage to speed things up during game play so don’t just assume that if the DM isn’t rolling damage the monsters are minions. Pay attention to the numbers. If they’re not the same these may not be minions. Likewise minions generally don’t hit that hard so if you’re expecting around 5 damage and you hear numbers like 14 than alarm bells should go off immediately. On the flip side I usually roll minions damage mainly because I don’t want to reveal that the monster is a minion. Again look at the output and make the call accordingly. If some monsters are rolling 2d6+5 and then the next one does 1d4+1 it’s likely he’s a minion.
  • Tactics – Minions are soft. As a DM I hate it when the minions are all killed before they even get to attack. As such I have them attack in waves or from behind cover. Players need to watch the monsters tactics carefully. If a few monsters seem to be avoided melee or acting more cautions than other monsters there’s usually a reason for it. Even if you haven’t hit them and they haven’t hit you, how the monsters behave can often shine a huge spotlight on which ones are minions (and can’t afford to get hit) vs. which ones are normal monsters (and can take a serious pounding).

Minions have purpose

Regardless of whether or not the DM reveals to the players that some of the monsters are minions or not, they need to remember that minions have an actual purpose in D&D. They’re monsters that are supposed to fall quickly and easily. When the PCs mow through a whole lot of minions it makes them feel powerful and heroic. The minions should present some danger, but they should not be the highlight or focal point of most combat encounters. They’re filler intended to present PCs with long odds only to fall like Stormtroopers as soon as they take a single hit. So even if DMs disguise minions and try to keep these vulnerable monsters from the initial melee, at the end of the day they’re really just filler. Use them and let players enjoy the thrill of killing hoards of monsters.

When you use minions do you reveal that they’re minions? Do you roll damage or just use the set damage provided in the stat block? Do you find that players are more likely to be reckless if they know that they’re facing minions and not “real” monsters?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Philo Pharynx June 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm

One tactic I’ve used is to use minions that are higher level than the party by 4-5 levels. Because they are hard to hit it disguises their minion-ness. Other explanations for minioness are that they are shadows of the original monsters or illusions or summonings.

2 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm

@Philo Pharynx
I’ve done minions that are +4 or more levels to make them tougher but it really eats away at the XP budget. More often I go the other way and make them -4 or more levels below the party. This lets me get a whole lot more of them for the same XP budget. It also lets me hold a few back to assist other monsters. They can perform Heal checks to trigger second wind or aid defenses. Just because the players don’t use Aid Another doesn’t mean that my monsters won’t.

3 Shane June 26, 2012 at 3:36 pm

The biggest problem I encountered with not telling my players that some monsters were minions, is that there are player character powers, usually paragon path or epic destiny abilities, that have special effects against minions. One that my players had, for example, allowed him to walk through minions’ spaces as if they were not there and did not provoke opportunity attacks.

As long as your player characters don’t possess any minion-centric powers, keeping their type a secret is fine. Once that factor is introduced, it deprives them of mechanical advantages that they are essentially paying for.

4 Vern June 26, 2012 at 11:24 pm

In the early WotC podcasts where Chris Perkins DM’s for those crazy web cartoonists he clearly identifies monsters as minions. I followed his lead in all my games since and I think it works well.

5 Sunyaku June 27, 2012 at 1:25 am

I like to use different figs for each monster, so that minions are not usually obvious.

I also like to dice as if the minions were rolling for damage, just to keep players guessing in the first round or two.

Sometimes I even give minions small amounts of hit points, effectively making them “two hit” minions for leaders, defenders, and even some controllers.

On one occasion I used a big scary orc skeleton figure as a skeleton minion, and the players were more intimidated by the minion than by the normal monsters! It’s fascinating how first round tactics can revolve around assumptions of what monsters are minions.

6 Liam Gallagher June 27, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Minnons are great to play with. If you’re not too worried about Xp budgets and feel like you have a good feel for what the party can stand up to you can alter them in all sorts of intersting ways that will cause your players to really scratch their heads and force them to think carefully about a combat, instead of just switching to their normal methods and relying on old habits.

7 ramanan June 28, 2012 at 11:01 am

If I ran a 4E game I wouldn’t reveal a person is a minion or not. It feels like meta-gaming. I’m sure players could figure out what’s up when the monsters they hit are dropping in one hit.

8 Victor Von Dave June 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm

I never tell my players whether something is a minion or not but if they figure it out I don’t get mad. After all, in comics and movies minions are usually pretty easy for the heroes to figure out (your Stormtrooper example is perfect), and in a different context hero dialogue could even be considered meta-gamey – you know, stuff like “hold off the guards for me while I go tackle the six-fingered man”.

9 Sean_Mc July 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm

My players LOVE doing knowledge checks on everything in sight. An easy DC gets you the monster name and type, so I rarely have to worry about whether or not to hide it from them.

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