Minions Are Spice

(c) 2010 Chris Sims

A minion is a tiny onion used for flavor, especially in soups. That’s what my father told me when I was a kid. Even then, though, the D&D game had imparted enough for me to see the lie and the humor. In fact, if analyzed closely, this quip from dear ol’ dad, and my assimilation of it, might explain a lot about me. Talk about analysis paralysis.

But that’s not why we’re here, all thoughts about narcissism and social media aside. No, this isn’t about me. It’s about our D&D games and the cute little minions in them. Dad’s pun is right about D&D minions. They are, in fact, for flavor, especially in the best and tastiest soups.

D&D encounters are metaphorical soups of mayhem and roleplaying, escapism and illusion, bloodshed and heroics. Like spices change the flavor of food, minions change the flavor of encounters. Used well, they enhance consumption and digestion. Employed poorly, they can make the experience a little off or worse. It’s all about perception and taste.

Simple or Complex Tastes

In its most basic form, a minion is a zing in the player’s perception. A character zaps, punches, slashes, or whatevers a minion in the face, and the minion goes down. Splat! The character strikes a badass pose, the player smiles, and the encounter continues. Minion mission accomplished . . . to an extent.

Minions are also meant to deal characters damage and to balance an encounter. Dungeon Master’s Guide says so. That book tells you what a minion of a given level is worth in your encounter XP budget. It even gives you exact numbers of minions to use at different tiers. This stuff is basic information, general guidelines such as an amateur cook might find in book such as How to Boil Water.

That’s fine. Dungeon Master’s Guide is the basic DMing book for the 4e D&D game. Minions were brand new D&D technology when that book came out. You have to start with the basics.

The basics start to fail, in food and in gaming, when your tastes outstrip them. Sophisticated DMs and sharp players need refined ways to use and encounter minions. Common are the cries that minions die too quickly or are otherwise ineffective.

I agree, to a point. Minions can disappear quickly, and they might do so without so much as a whimper from their enemies. But if you have minions that started the battle still on the battlefield at the beginning of a normal encounter’s third round, then your minions have probably done their job. However, if you’re really feeling like minions aren’t pulling their weight, as I sometimes do, then it’s time to roll up your DMing sleeves and use a little more strategy.

Layering Flavor

Minions, like spices, combine with other encounter elements to create a whole that is very different from its parts. They provide two basic illusions in the game. The first illusion is that aforementioned burst of “my character is awesome” minions can impart to the player, especially when the character is a controller who clears the field. Second is the illusion of the heroic few against the hordes of evil (or whatever). Add minions to battles not only to emphasize these illusions, these flavors, but also to change player tactical decisions and encounter pacing.

In any encounter, you have to decide how you want the minions to perform. What taste are they supposed to leave in each player’s mouth? When cooking, you could just throw all the ingredients together in a bowl, stir them up, and cook them. Haphazard mixing rarely works out well. You concoct carefully, based on what you’re trying to make. In encounter design, your intentions determine the amount, placement, and timing of minions.

Add minions to an encounter deliberately, not by some by-the-book formulation. How few or how many you use should depend on the encounter’s an story’s needs. If your war campaign calls for troops of goblin conscripts, more minions might be better. Fighting in kobold mines might call for a few kobold miners in every clash.

Chunks of spice can be good or bad, depending on the flavor you’re looking for. Clump minions together at the start of the encounter only if you want the wizard to blow them all up quickly. (Although I might be repeating the obvious, it’s perfectly valid to add minions to some encounters just to make the players feel cool or smart.) Otherwise, you can probably think of plenty of good and fair reasons for minions to be dispersed or even out of sight when combat begins. Then you can reward careful tactical play or good skill use.

Similarly, based on the creatures’ intelligence and self-confidence, use tactics with minions. If the minions see everyone who starts a turn adjacent to the fighter becomes hamburger thanks to that awesome stance the fighter has, then maybe they’ll avoid the fighter. Or maybe they’ll rush in and die. Again, it depends on what you, the head chef, want the taste to be. In this example, you can have the best of both worlds by forcing the fighter to chase down those minions he wants to make into chum. You could even make that a poor tactical decision . . . .

I like to disperse my minions by adding them to an encounter after it starts, like one might add salt and pepper to a dish after it’s cooking or cooked. You might do the same. As long as the appearance of new monsters makes sense, and the XP reward is on the money, the players won’t mind. Another way to add minions is to have a creature that summons or creates them intermittently. Heck, you can even “cheat” by adding minions on the fly to turn up the heat on an encounter that seems too easy. New monsters change the pace of any combat, making it more exciting, especially if those monsters can’t last too long.

Full Flavor

Late in playtesting the 4e D&D game, I ran a few encounters using kruthik minions to reinforce the bug-hunt feel I was looking for. A conclusion I came to then was that minions should not actually be part of an encounter’s main challenge unless the DM wants an encounter that’s slightly easier than the XP budget suggests. When used conscientiously, such a tack is another fine tactic in encounter design, but it’s neither obvious nor spelled out in any D&D rulebook.

When I created my bug-hunt encounters, I wanted the minions to create harder encounters. I used tactics I have already explained, especially adding on minions as the fight progressed. (“Just when you thought the fight was in hand, more kruthiks pour out of these tiny holes! Bwahahaha!”) Another scheme I used was to put most of or all the kruthik minions in what I call “the gap.”

The gap is that magical zone between the XP budget total for one level and the XP total that pushes the encounter level to the next highest one. If you build a solid encounter of the level you’re shooting for, use one or more of the strategies I’ve already mentioned, and then place the minions in the gap, you might find your minions work out a little better. Even if the minions don’t last long enough to suit you, the encounter should still challenge the characters.

Where does black dragon breath come from!Savoring It

In my campaign, the characters recently fought myconids. Myconid gas spore minions spontaneously popped out of surrounding mushroom terrain througho ut the fight. This pacing changed the dynamic of the battle in a few ways. The spores showed up from unexpected angles. A few times, one thwarted a player’s preplanned tactics for a round. Once the players figured out that killing the death-bursting spores could be bad, the characters started looking for ways to be far away from a spore when it died and exploded.

The result was I was after is what I got. Gas spores added a weird flavor to the fungal rumble. They mixed it up and made the whole scene more fun. To me, fun is the point of an encounter. Fun can come from the challenge, the scene and story, or both. I like both.

Admittedly, though, the gas spores had one advantage over typical minions. The death burst added a level of threat some minions lack. It’s true that some minions are harder to use effectively because they lack effective mechanical advantages. Numerous older minions deal too little damage, as well. These facts can become more problematic as level increases.

Next time, I’ll talk about tinkering with minions and their environment on a mechanical level. We’ll see if we can make them not only more effective, but also more fun for you and your players. I’ll also touch a little more on illusions minions can create in the game, as well as issues related to gamist transparency.

Comments

  1. Solid ideas here.

    I often will include minions in a fight with a tough enemy. Not only does it make him seem more important story wise (“Hey look at the guy? He can call a small army to his side.”), but my players will often opt to devout at least some PCs to clearing minions first. That means the monster with high damage, or cool powers gets a couple of turns where he’s far less engaged than he should be.

  2. This post has inspired me to create an encounter/skill challenge based primarily around minions. Need to do some number crunching to come up with a proper balance and a way to account for the variable number of PC’s in a party. Thanks!

  3. Seth White says:

    Minions make for good camo and roadblocks too. I think a minion’s best use is to confuse the players so they don’t know in the first round or so who the skirmishers/soldiers are and who are the minions. This gives the bad guys time to get into position so the soldiers can protect their controller/artillery effectively. Minions also force players to test an enemy before using an encounter power. I like that myconid encounter — that sounds fun. I really like using minions, especially ones with cool death effects. The rupture demon is a favorite.

  4. Michelle says:

    Our DM likes to give us encounters while we are camped in the woods while traveling. I’ve found there is a lot of tension added when, at the point where it looks like we have the attackers under control, another wave comes in out of the trees. That wave is usually mostly minions, but maybe the real boss of the fight is still out there too. Minions = more fog of war = more tension.

  5. Really interesting post, thanks! So clarification question for you. You say the following:

    “If you build a solid encounter of the level you’re shooting for, use one or more of the strategies I’ve already mentioned, and then place the minions in the gap, you might find your minions work out a little better.”

    So, are you saying that if you are planning say a level 3 encounter, you would spend the XP budget on all non-minion creatures and then buy enough minions to make it a level 4 encounter? Or are you saying you spend the XP budget to build a solid 3rd level encounter with non minions, then tack a few minions on top of that (but not go so far as to make it up to the next level encounter) in order to get the right challenge and flavor for the encounter?

    Another question for you: When you DM, do you inform your players that certain creatures are minions, and if so, how? Do you state outright “These four are minions”? Do you try to tell the PCs using in-world explanations only: “These four aren’t well armored and don’t look as tough as the others”? Or do you just not say at all? Or some combination. I’ve tried to hint to my players that some of the enemies are minions without outright telling them, but a lot of times it seems to go over their heads.

  6. AethanBear says:

    Great article, and I intend to try building some encounters as you suggest. As a humorous note, we often refer to minions as scallions…mini-onions. ;)

  7. Skipper Pickle says:

    In tonight’s episode, I’m going to pull a reversal. I’m going to give the PCs some minions that they have to keep alive. (They’ll shanghai a cartload of Bloodreaver abductees and try to escape with them while mounted hobgoblins chase after them shooting wildly at the cart. I’ve got a mechanic set up to let the PCs attempt to shield the slaves-to-be from harm while the cart gets away.)

    @Michelle: I like the idea of minions as fog-of-war generators. Very helpful.

  8. Great post, as always.

    I like your culinary analogy, so fitting. With monsters/traps as meat and terrain feature as sides :)

    Minions are really a hit or miss if you aren’t careful. Yet after 2 years, I still feel their potential has not been fully tapped. I’d so see minions that combine into standard monsters or Elite monsters collapsing into many minions upon their deaths.

    That being said, I distinctively recalled using one of those exploding minions that ended up blowing up my whole battle map through a chain reaction…
    :)

  9. @Seth and Michelle: Using minions to create intended game “illusions” something I want to write more about. Sounds like you both have some neat experiences in that regard.

    @Brian, kingworks, Skipper: Nice!

    @Kato: The latter–don’t go all the way to the next level, just fill as much of the gap as you can. Also, I’m in favor of transparency, usually in a narrative style, but a pal of mine has made me see a broader spectrum of possibilities. More to come on that.

    @ChattyDM: Yeah, to me minions are like solos in some ways. They’re new tech, so getting them right is going to show the evolutionary process of game design.

  10. “I distinctively recalled using one of those exploding minions that ended up blowing up my whole battle map through a chain reaction…”

    Priceless.

  11. Back in March I did a guest post on Dungeonmastering.com’s blog covering this same topic. We have a lot of the same ideas, in fact. I even mention the ‘splody minion action you describe. I really like minions as part of encounter design, but I totally agree that they need to be an augment to the encounter; if used as a support leg to stand the encounter upon, they are less than ideal.

    http://www.dungeonmastering.com/tools-resources/how-to-make-more-of-your-minions

  12. super rats says:

    I tend to not understand the minions suck position. If anything I try not to over-use them because they shred.

    Whenever I want to make an encounter brutal, I pour on the minions to take advantage of a nasty aura or buff a leader or controller monster gives. Minions can spam leader/controller buffs and effects. It poses an actual interesting decision, withstand the shredding by the minions or take down the leader that’s filling them up with gas? They can also help spam racial things, like gnolls get damage bonuses when they swarm someone. Tough to do reliably without minions.

    There’s just so much you can do with them. I try not to use them too often as the fights with lots of minions tend to be the most dangerous. It’s win-win IMO. I get to tighten the screws early on by minion spam and then the players can quickly deal with the problem, moving to phase two of a combat encounter.

    If I’m just adding 2-4 minions to fill up the XP budget I don’t bother laming up the encounter with 2 minions. Minions should come in number and/or waves.

  13. @super rats: Cool. It sounds like you know some nice techniques for minion use.

  14. What do you think about 2 hit minions?

  15. @D:

    I throw 2-hit minions in the fight all the time. The players never know if it’s a minion or a “pseudo minion.”

    It’s great.

    -Tourq

  16. Great post. My favorite way to use minions is as tactical road blocks. I like to put a striker or controller in the back in a fortified position like a tower. Then I spread minions out to slow the PCs from getting to the baddies in the back.

  17. I love the metaphor. Lots of times I’m running on a clock – my session isn’t long enough for more than one full-fledge encounter. One of my favorite practices when I want to throw out a quick “teaser encounter” that isn’t too long is to re-skin one minion about five levels above PC level, and use it as a solo encounter halfway through the session.

    The disadvantage is that it dies quickly, or may be difficult to hit without assisting. You have to strike a balance. But the interesting result is that the enemy is hard to hit, but easy to kill once you do. It’s a different challenge than a lot of players are used to. Once they’re intrigued by the story surrounding the minion-teaser, you can pull out the real guns in a full-fledge encounter at the end of the session. It also helps the players feel like they accomplished more. It’s hard to do more than one solid encounter in a couple hours, especially if you want to have decent rising action.

    Theoretically, you could do this two or three times (not too much) in a full-day session to make players feel even more accomplished. It helps pass along the earliest levels too, if that’s not your favorite part of the game.

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