Minions of Differing Flavors

Last time, I talked about how minions spice up encounters and what they’re meant to do in the D&D game. But, just like the epicure needs new and exciting experiences, numerous DMs among us need new ways to mix it up with minions. This is especially true if you feel your minions disappear too quickly to be interesting or seem to be no added challenge. I’m going to attempt to, as an infamous chef might say, help you to kick it up a notch . . . sometimes.

I already suggested that you take some care in using minions to create a specific flavor when you’re brewing up encounters. You can take it a step further by creating or altering minions. Several methods can be used to change minion effectiveness and flavor. Used cleverly and in the right amount, these schemes can make minions a tastier addition to some encounters.

Spice to Taste

Let me reemphasize the use of minions as a form of encounter pacing and narrative flow. When you design an encounter, you can make up storyline reasons why the minions show up in intervals—or show up, then disappear. then show up again. When you design the pacing this way, only a portion of the minions is on the battlefield at one time. The characters can kill only what’s there at the time. The arrival of new combatants changes the course of the encounter.

As an aside, I never roll initiative for new minions. They appear and go on the same initiative count as the initial minions in the encounter did. Doing this keeps the game rolling. (I actually rarely roll initiative for any monster, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In my Gen Con Dark Sun game, as an example, the characters were the fuel for an evil ritual in which a dray (dragonborn) sorcerer was turning himself into a kaisharga (lich). They were far from alone in this predicament, but they were the only individuals with the fortitude and influence of other forces to awaken during the ritual. Each round, the ritual dealt damage to the characters, and some of the other unfortunates being used for arcane fodder died. A defiled spirit, like a weak wraith, rose from the remains of each NPC who perished. These minions, appearing two or three per round, harried the characters as they tried to unravel the ritual. In fact, the minions caused some nail biting, since the defiled spirits were in a position to take out a character or two who had to choose between attacking the minions and continuing to oppose the ongoing ritual.

Long Live the Flavor

If minion survival is a goal, it’s fair to carefully fiddle with what keeps a minion alive and in the battle. At the heroic tier, you might need to be cautious with such tinkering. At higher levels, minor survivability changes to minions rarely matter much. Just make sure the narrative quality of a minion fits with its longevity.

What happens if you change “HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion” to “HP 1; this minion takes damages only when hit by an attack”? You’ve just eliminated automatic damage, such as from rain of steel, and attacks that require no attack rolls, such as the new magic missile, from possible damage sources for this minion. Hazardous terrain effects that require no attack roll can’t take this minion out, either. That’s good for some minions, as long as you mean to remove the effects of some powers, such as cleave, when making such a change.

Again, use these techniques with care, avoiding thwarting character abilities just because you can. Single encounters with unusual creatures are fine. Repeatedly being faced with monsters who are immune to aspects of your powers is frustrating.

That’s why traditional immunities aren’t great options for normal monster design. They can thwart a character too much, and they can eliminate certain character themes as viable builds. However, immunity to a damage type or two can work well for minions. Resistance does little for minions, since only 1 damage has to make it through. A fire minion with fire immunity makes perfect sense, though. Fire never deals enough damage to kill such a creature, but it still takes only one solid hit with another damage type to kill it.

You can make it so that one solid hit isn’t enough to kill some minions. Two-hit minions come in various forms. Insubstantial, like most resistances, does little for a minion. However, it’s easy to imagine an insubstantial minion being allowed a saving throw against taking damage from an attack once per encounter. In fact, the fell taint drone from Dragon 367 does just that. I’ve also made minions I wanted to appear tough or heavily armored, such as dwarf militia warriors, that receive a saving throw against the first hit. The narrative tells the players and characters why the minion is hard to kill.

No hard-to-kill minion discussion is complete without mentioning zombies. To me, zombie minions are almost required to give any horde of shambling corpses the right feel. Further, as my players know, I like for zombies to get up again after they seem dead. Some of my regular-monster zombies rise again as low-hit-point monsters, and others reanimate as minions. Zombie minions can also be two-hit wonders, because they might stand back up on their next turn if not dealt with appropriately. It works even better if you make the ability to rise again unpredictable. You can probably think of reasons for non-undead minions to behave similarly—elementals, demons, primal spirits and so on.

Savor the Subtle

Minions are meant to deal damage and worry the characters enough to change party tactics. Consider, though, the countless ways a minion might deal its damage. It need not have an attack to do its dirty work.

Like a warlord granting the barbarian an extra attack, a minion can simply stand around and benefit the stronger creatures in the fight. I’m not talking about resorting to Aid Another, although that can be cool in an all-out kobold free-for-all. What I mean is a minion that provides openings, hinders enemies, and/or damages characters just because it’s there.

Imagine a minion that has an aura to make enemies vulnerable to other damage, less effective at defense, or something else insidious. It might deal automatic damage—what’s good for the players is good for the DM—impose a condition, or alter terrain around it. The players will want those minions gone, believe me. All the better if you decide to add new ones over the course of the encounter.

The fire sinks from Seekers of the Ashen Crown are this type of minion. They don’t attack. Instead, a fire sink moseys up to you and eliminates your resistances to fire. Then it burns you if you end your turn next to it. Hello Ms. Tiefling, it’s time to get out of the kitchen or taste the heat. New experiences are fun, no?

Consider the Aftertaste

Speaking of tasting the bitterly unexpected, I’m no fan of gotcha powers on monsters. You know the ones. When the boneshard skeleton blows up all over the whole party, that’s a gotcha power. Such powers are the worst when they have large areas, like the boneshard skeleton’s boneshard burst. A close burst 1 allows the characters to pull out forced movement powers to move the foe away before the gotcha power goes off. Close burst 3, though? Not interesting, so no thanks.

For minions, however, I don’t mind gotcha powers so much. If a minion does something funky and fun when it dies, and it makes sense for the creature’s nature, that’s fine with me. Even so, minions don’t need to be too gotcha to be effective. I still favor small areas and powers that require attack rolls, or powers that affect the minion’s allies for a time.

A myconid gas spore (from Underdark) is much more fun if its spore burst is small enough that pushing the creature 1 square away saves you and your buddy from the damage. Then it becomes a tactical puzzle rather than a situation that no amount of careful play can help. Making the players interested and wiling to adapt is the point. That’s why I changed the spore burst to close burst 1 for my game. The players started pushing the spores around rather than shrugging and taking the original burst-3 spore burst.

In this vein, I also like powers such as Monster Manual 2‘s rupture demon’s demonic infestation, at least in spirit. A minion that dies, and then it gives its buddy a few hit points and more melee effectiveness? Nice! More, please. What I dislike about the power is its duration. I’d rather see a bigger damage boost, like the rupture demon’s normal damage, for 1 round. The cumulative, whole-encounter effect is too much.

What I’m saying with all this is: Rather than increasing a minion’s survivability, consider giving it some aftereffect, like those above, when it dies. Once again, make sure you’re creating a fun experience rather than a frustrating one. Watch the area on exploding minions and the duration of lingering effects. What’s amusing or tactically exciting for a round might become tedious in the long run. Play it out in your head or even with a grid and minis to see if your imagined effect is really what you’ll see in play.

A Third Course

I’ve reached the limit for this article’s digestibility, methinks. A few elements remain on environment and narrative roles (illusions) for minions. It looks like I’ll have to give all that to you next time.

For now, share some of your minion ideas in the comments. Let’s see what we can stir up.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Comments

  1. very good article 🙂
    thank you!

  2. Really nice illustrations, and a great article!

  3. Cool ideas! 🙂

  4. Jim Hopper says:

    Nice article. I always enjoy revisiting a mechanic or archetype that I too often take for granted.

  5. Chris Sims = Master of Minions. Just sayin’.

    Great stuff. Don’t be surprised if you see some interesting minions on a certain site you know with a tip of the hat to the master.

    color me inspired. Thanks!

  6. I’ve done two basic things to make “two-hit” minions that seemed to work:

    1. Let minions benefit from temp HP. This was mostly for the kobold minions working with the kobold shaman. To make things simple I didn’t track their HPs, instead I used a simple logic structure, either:
    – Damage >= [HP + temp HP] = dead minion
    – Damage < [HP + temp HP] = minion bloodied, one more hit kills
    This keeps bookkeeping to zero (we use tokens to mark bloodied condition) and also makes things a little more logical ("Why don't minions ever get bloodied?" Well now they do sometimes).

    2. It's a different game, but in my Star Wars Saga game I use a similar logic for 11HP stormtroopers. Either they are killed outright, or they are "threshold'd" (similar to bloodied) and one more hit kills them. As the groups gone up in levels I raise the bar. Now 22HP veteran stormtroopers are two-hit minions now too. And the stormtroopers can attack and die in hordes, just like they're supposed to.

  7. Siliconwolf says:

    Great article, I nodded at a lot as I try to do these kind of things with minions all the time. I like to think when my players will want to take minions out, first, last, somewhere in between based on what effects the minions have both alive and when destroyed. I don’t always do detrimental effects, sometimes I look at what buffs to PCs a minions might give as well. I got the idea based on reading the Bullywug’s healing on a crit. I took that concept and decided some minions would always give a boost on being destroyed, like a +2 minion bonus to attack until the end of the attacker’s next turn. Suddenly taking out groups of minions isn’t as beneficial, and possibly going back and forth between the big bad and a minion to get that bonus is the best way. Minions can really bring a lot of interesting choices and tactics to combats when they are more then a to hit roll.

  8. I took a different approach to multi-hit minions in my last session. The party was going up against a Far Realm cult, and most of the cultists were minions. These minions had resist 10 all (the party was 8th level, so this was still pretty significant for most of the party), meaning that, occasionally when you hit one, it wouldn’t die. The first time it happened, it surprised the party a little bit, and they adjusted their tactics accordingly, sending the strikers to deal with the minions instead of the dragonborn fighter (there is no controller in the party) to simply breathe his low-damage fire breath on them. There was another wrinkle in the minions, too, a trick that made the encounter a bit easier once discovered: if you killed the cult leader, the minions’ resist went away. It was, effectively, a corrupt blessing that he was bestowing upon them, and if he wasn’t around, they were just regular people again, they lost their Far Realm taint. It wound up being a really good encounter.

    Another encounter that I haven’t used yet (or even statted up) is one I like to call “Exploding Goblins”. The idea is that there are a bunch of goblin minions that attack the party in waves, and they have explosive barrels strapped to their backs. When they die, they explode, and this will trigger a chain reaction if other goblins are within the burst radius. To make matters more complicated, there are archers a short distance away, commanding the goblins and firing flaming arrows at them, blowing them up when they get into the right position. The trick is to kill the archers (who are mind-controlling the goblins), but you have to get past all the exploding goblins to do so.

  9. Good post Chris, as usual.

    I actually had a good experience using minions with a “gotcha” in my campaign. It was a sort of “solo” battle, where the party came across a fell taint that had escaped them earlier in their career (it was actually from the Chaos Scar adventure “A Chance Encounter” that I stuck in as a sidetrek.)

    Anyway, by the time they came across it, it had grown and was more powerful. The first time they hit it the thing spawned off 5 miniature versions of itself. It spawned another 5 when it was bloodied as well.

    The minions didn’t do much at all. Well, except psionically stealing 3HP on a hit and transferring them back to the “mother.” The players quickly realized something was up when they saw the big one get a bit rejuvenated every time one of the PCs was hit. (The key is to be honest with players, even if you mask it in descriptive diction rather than outright prose.)

    They obviously made a concerted effort to remove the “leeches” from the battle as quickly as possible. However, when they killed one it exploded with psychic energy that hit for 5 damage in a burst 1. Again, the group worked intelligently and the wizard got a chance to really be a controller by pushing them away and area blasting them, while the rest of the party got out of the blast area, a lot like you talked about.

    It was one of the most rewarding encounters I’ve run in the entire campaign thus far.

  10. NthDegree256 says:

    Here’s a few ideas that have worked well in my group’s experimentation.

    1. “Elite Minions” – minions that take 2 hits to kill instead of 1. Now, the benefit of a normal minion is that you don’t have to track its HP – all of that information is “stored” on the battlemap in the form of a binary “is there a minion mini there, or not?” However, as Theo pointed out above, if you already use some sort of token to mark the Bloodied condition, then you can still push all of the HP info onto the battlemap – elite minions that take a hit become bloodied, and bloodied elite minions that take a hit become dead. No additional tracking required!

    This was a favorite technique of the DM’s for the paragon tier campaign we played through last year – we were laying down enough auto-damage zones and burst effects that normal minions would be hard pressed to get within range of us before dying.

    2. Minion Squads. This is one I came up with just a few days ago and used effectively in a session the other night. As a general rule, minions aren’t supposed to have encounter or recharge powers, because of the nightmarish overhead of trying to remember who has used what. I got around that by giving encounter and recharge powers to the minion group as a whole, and deciding that they all shared access to a single pool of these powers; any one minion could use them, but once they did, it was gone for every minion until it recharged.

    This worked great – it let me have a fight consist almost entirely of minions of the same type, and still let them lay down a nice variety of effects without trying to remember “okay, ninja 4 used his poisoned blade, but 3, 5, 6, and 7 haven’t… but which one was 4 again?”

    3. Minion Aid. This is a variation on your “Savor the Subtle” entry and was inspired by something from Star Wars: Saga Edition.

    There is a feat in Saga Edition that is mostly intended for enemy mooks to take. I don’t remember the name of the feat, but the effect is that it allows them to automatically succeed on Aid Another. The real purpose of this feat is to let you throw increasingly large squads of stormtroopers at your players as they level up without forcing you to roll dozens of attacks on your turn; at higher levels you can just say “And then four of the stormtroopers turn to fire at you – 3 of them Aid Another as they fill the hall with blaster fire, and the fourth makes his attack at a +6…”

    In keeping with this, you can give minions an action called “Team Assault” or something that just burns their standard action to give an ally a +attack/+damage buff, no roll needed. It saves time on the minion’s turn by collapsing several small attacks into one big one.

  11. They were far from alone in this predicament, but they were the only individuals with the fortitude and influence of other forces to awaken during the ritual.

    Wow, that beats “you meet in a tavern” all to hell. Wish I could’ve found your game.

  12. Wow, that beats “you meet in a tavern” all to hell. Wish I could’ve found your game.
    The funny thing is, technically we did all meet in a tavern, though. 🙂
    Well… “at” one. We went to a tavern to investigate the place, and ended up being captured. Then woke up during the ritual. It was a great game. 🙂

    I had been playing around with minions for the past while. The version I had started using in my game was to give minions 1/4 of the hit points of a standard monster of their role/level, and remove “a missed attack never damages a minion”. So, a Goblin Cutter (level 1 minion skirmisher) would have 7 hit points, compared to 29 for a Goblin Warrior (level 1 skirmisher). In most cases, it still means they go down in one hit, but some of them hang in there. A Hobgoblin Warrior (level 8 minion) would have 21 hp, compared to the 87 that a similar 8th level non-minion soldier would have. I have to admit that the idea hasn’t been thoroughly playtested, though. “Elite” minions are a more simple and elegant way of doing it, though.

    There was an interesting mechanic used during the Dark Sun arenas at GenCon, where a minion takes their damage, and they are effectively dead, but they don’t actually fall over until the end of their NEXT turn. So, they get a full turn of actions after they are “dead”, then immediately fall over once they have completed those actions.

  13. Nice series on minions. I am building a big bad for when the PCs are at the cusp of epic that will spawn 2 types of minions: 1) imprisoned souls, and 2) actual undead bodies that are trapped within.

    The souls will actually posses the PCs on an attack vs Will. Once possessed, the PC will gain vulnerable necrotic 15 (which the baddie excels at). When the Baddie recalls the possessing soul, it will do some psychic damage on the way out. Then the Baddie will do it’s necrotic attacks without fear of PC resistance. The souls act like the Assassin’s shroud.

    The Undead bodies will ooze out of the Baddie and have an aura, that will do necrotic damage if the PC ends their turn adjacent to it. When the Undead bodies are destroyed, the Baddie will gain the soul Shard with which it can recharge the power to spawn another possessing soul.

    The Baddie has powers that deal cold, necrotic, and psychic damage and these minions traits will help make it more effective. Since higher level PCs usually have good resistances (esp vs necrotic) this helps even the odds a bit.

    What the Baddie and minions are eventually named is yet to be determined, but your articles are helping to make an otherwise hack-n-slash fight potentially more interesting.

  14. “Once again, make sure you’re creating a fun experience rather than a frustrating one.”

    So true. I’ve run into this problem on more than one occasion. You have to remember why you’re making changes – for the benefit of the whole group/session.

  15. Rossvegas says:

    I used a version of the Elite Minions during a recent game. They had 20 HP and/or took two hits. So one hit equaled bloodied and a second killed them (similar to the comment from NthDegree256 above) but if a single attack did 20 or more damage it killed them outright. Not sure that system makes a lot of sense but it worked great for the game.

  16. The elite minion idea is cool because you don’t have to track those hit points; they’re relevant only as a measure of whether the minion dies in one hit. Tracking hit points on minions is crazy talk.

  17. nightspaladin says:

    There is a simple way to create Elite minions in the rules without much fuss. In the MB give them a power like the following:

    Hardy – Encounter
    Immediate Reaction: When Minion would take damage from a hit, ignore that damage. Minion is considered bloodied for purposes of all effects.

    Simple reaction. It ignore the first hit, making them bloodied and since they can only use it once per combat, the second hit kills them like normal.

  18. yukonhorror says:

    an idea I came across and have adapted to my games is the concept of a henchman. I bit tougher than a minion, but retains the “flavor”.

    It is basically a “template” I add to minions:

    Instead of 1 hp, the henchman has hp 1/2 normal level monster of that role (with the same constitution). So a lvl 5 henchman soldier with a 13 con would have 31 hp.

    All defenses, atks, special abilities, dam, the same as the minion.

    Exp is half of a normal creature of that level

    The last bit is complicated, but only to a point. Henchmen do take dam from a miss, but never go below 0 on a miss. Henchmen are never considered bloodied. IF the player rolls either a natural 18+ on the attack or max dam on the dam roll (as if he rolled a crit), the henchmen dies instantly, independent of how many hp he had left.

    In a sense, this gives the flavor of a minion, but gives him a bit more staying power than a minion.

  19. Minions with a “gotcha” are OK in that the point of such a power is that it “gets ya” once, and then sets the tone for the rest of the fight. You get a tactical decision-making moment all about avoiding the gotcha or sucking it up.
    As long as it’s not too potent, and as long as you can do something about it before it’s too late — either with Push powers, or by discovering it with ranged attacks — that’s cool for me.

    My other minion idea comes from ‘Monsters Have Feelings Too’ thinking.* They can’t KNOW they’re minions or they’d never come out from behind their mommas’ skirts. So if there’s something weirdly subjective about the nature of minions, why not make them weirdly subjective in application? The minion goes down with one hit, but if you miss it, that defines it as an opponent with a bit of gumption. Maybe instead of 2 Soldiers and 6 minions you have 8 minions, but if any of them is ever missed y an attack, that is taken to mean they must have been a soldier all along.

    Or, for the more timorous, by the approach introduced in Chris’ article, maybe it just makes them a two-hit minion. Thanks for that idea, I will definitely use it!

    Cheers,
    –Os.

    * White Dwarf magazine, about #34. Yes I’m a Brit, and yes I’m that old.

Trackbacks

  1. […] amazing Dungeons & Dragons blogs out there, but one of my favorites has recently run two articles written by one of my favorite authors, Chris Sims (an editor and game designer known for work on […]

  2. […] In my last miniony article, I wrote about tinkering with minions mechanically to come to the flavor you really want from them. Now it’s time for your minions to meet the consumers, your players. A lot off cooks say that a big part of the experience with food is presentation. It’s the same with encounters in general and minions in specific. The tastiest minions might fail if you give them poor table presence. […]

  3. […] Minions of Differing Flavours (Chris Sims) […]