Minions on the Table

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.

A Nice Spread

Monsters can lose a battle before it begins if they have bad tactical positions. This is even truer with minions. Even if we assume, narratively, that your minions have no way to know they’re little competition for the characters, the creatures have a reason to seize tactical advantages. Beasts do so by instinct and natural ability, and smarter creatures do so through cunning, inclination, and planning.

Consider where the minions might want to be on the battlefield, just like you would for a monster of similar role. Assuming the monster has the ability to choose its lair or the fight’s locale, you can even build the encounter area to accommodate such a minion group’s terrain needs. Any artillery monster, as an example, seeks favorable terrain that allows it to shoot without direct melee confrontation. They favor high or protected places, such as a ledge or a window, that are hard to get to.

Speaking of hard to get to, movement modes can obviate the need for specific terrain while allowing a minion longevity and some narrative coolness. A movement mode—burrow, climb, fly, or swim—can allow minions to have the run of the combat zone. Skirmisher or lurker minions, or those designed for a specific narrative effect, might even be able to disengage with little risk, and then return to battle when they choose to. Such movement modes also make it easy to fill an encounter area that seemed empty when the characters entered. (Ambush!) The arrival of new monsters during the ongoing fight is also easily explained. In the previous articles I talked about myconid gas spores and kruthiks, both of which can use specialized movement modes to appear in combat from unusual angles.

When designing a space for your minions, take cues from cinematic video games, especially high-action games such as Borderlands. In Borderlands, some creatures (skags) emerge from burrows to join the fight, while others (spiderants) emerge from the soil in ambush. (It’s easy to see kruthiks as spiderants.) Still others (rakk) dive in for a flyby attack, then retreat. You often encounter an interesting array of creatures, weak to strong, that have varying powers despite physical similarities.

Consider that what’s good for the characters is also good for the monsters. Terrain powers add to a combat encounter interesting effects that the characters can exploit. A minion or group of minions might become particularly effective if they try to make use of the terrain powers, too. It’s all fair if everyone has an equal chance to use the terrain. When the kobold miners push the fiery brazier over on the characters, the players might just start to value terrain powers more. Just be sure to adjust the difficulty if it seems likely a terrain power might really favor the monsters.

Ingredients List

Food labels normally tell you what you’re eating so you can make informed dietary decisions. Gamist transparency is the same. It’s telling the players what the characters are facing so smart choices can be made. It’s called gamist because it’s more about the mechanical side of the game than the narrative side. It’s called transparency because the players are allowed to see through the game’s narrative reality, or what the characters might know, into the mechanical reality.

Transparency is a controversial subject. Some DMs prefer to tell the players everything, even if doing so requires giving out metagame knowledge—information the characters can’t really know. Such a DM allows players to act on this metagame knowledge. The DM justifiably assumes the characters are way more competent and informed than the players, so giving the players a little gamist leeway is harmless. Other DMs are stricter. They provide only information the characters have a way of really knowing, allowing knowledge and perceptual skill checks to expand the available data. As with other aspects of the game, the “right” way is what works best for you and your players.

Let’s face the facts. Minion, like any other role, is a game term the characters don’t know in a narrative or in-game sense. The characters can, however, sense whether an opponent looks less competent, poorly armed, or less prepared for battle. A fighter should easily notice that the fighting technique of an opponent is amateurish. An arcanist might note that the arcane power in a magical creature is weak, just like a cleric could be able to sense that an undead minion’s ties to the Shadowfell are tenuous. A ranger surely knows whether an individual beast is too feeble to be much of threat to the characters.

I favor some generosity in the realm of transparency. Sometimes I assume the battle-hardened characters can just tell when a creature is a minion. Other times, I use passive knowledge to determine what the players know. Every once in a while, I require an actual check or wait for the players to ask for such a check. (This is most true when the minions are considerably higher in level than the characters.) I have called for a check when a player is about to use an encounter or daily power on a minion. My inconsistency on this subject is due to conflicting desires, unique situations, and differing narrative needs in a given encounter. I prefer for the players to be able to use their resources as wisely as possible, but I also want to minimize the use of metagame knowledge. It can be an immersion killer. A decent level of immersion is required for me to have fun as a DM.

Robert Howard—a friend, player in my game, fine DM, and master of Pen & Paper Games—has a different perspective. He sees at least some of his minions as fully competent monsters that the characters can’t tell from the mechanically superior counterparts. The characters just happen, in cinematic fashion, to take out some of the fully competent monsters with one shot. Robert is using such minions to create an illusion of the characters’ badassery. To a character in such an encounter, he or she just took out a dangerous opponent in a single, gruesome blow. My difficulty with this tack is that the players see through it too easily; the mechanical reality is usually apparent.

Matters of Personal Taste

The point of all this is that minions, along with the other monsters, can be used in a variety of ways. You can create countless game experiences and stories by carefully employing minions, by manipulating their mechanics, and by engineering the encounter—XP budget to terrain—to accommodate them. You can even control transparency in varied ways, like Robert and I do. The process is more art than science, so experiment and have fun. You are the (evil?) mastermind and these minions are all yours.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.
Dragon illustration appears in
Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips.

9 thoughts on “Minions on the Table

  1. 4e assumes transparency in a lot of places. They specifically say to clue players in with threatening reach, and that a creature that is marked knows something bad will happen if they attack somebody else.
    But I play transparency as a two-edged sword. Generally monsters know that the hirelings/summoned creatures/etc of the party are less of a threat. I vary this depending on the specifics, vermin and oozes don’t get the benefit of this, but a genius wizard villain often has a good idea of anything the see the PC’s do.


  2. @Sarah I think the trick is to imagine that a 7th level minion is like a 3rd level standard–the game just abstracts the attack and damage into a single roll, so that once you hit the AC, it means you’ve hit them enough that they fall.

    One of the issues with keeping minions secret is that it’s so obvious when you take out a minion. If it died in one attack, it was a mook. Standard monsters generally require at least 2-3 hits (unless your party is amazingly optimized). With the game’s standard math, it’s never possible to “lucky one-shot” a creature that isn’t a minion, so the difference is really obvious. Doing the half-hp/double damage trick might help make the difference between downing a minion and downing a standard less obvious.

    Maybe the right solution for keeping minions hidden is really hiding when you’ve damaged them or not. Maybe say that anything within 4 points of its AC is a hit, and just collect and discard the damage roll. Then when the player hits the actual AC, it’s like they finally finished off the creature. Of course that’s still kind of awkward…

    This is why I’ll always tell my players when they are dealing with mooks, though a mook can either be a minion or a Level-5 standard with half HP ;p


  3. Minions often present a narrative issue for me too. For a bunch of very low level goblin minions, it’s easy to describe them as amateurs, not well-trained or poorly equipped. But as they get higher in level, that explanation feels like it defies the logic of the game. How could a 7th level goblin minion be described that way? Maybe they have equipment above their skills? Or they went through a ritual or other process that made them into a better [something] while exposing a critical weakness? (Suddenly I have the idea of a ritual happening during combat that buffs lower level minions. They can try to kill the minions as they are or weaken the ritual. While it’s more difficult for the DM to run, it might be fun.)

    Normally, I’m very transparent about minions although I may change that soon. My players are comfortable enough with 4e game mechanics that they should have plenty of tools to pick out the minions without me telling them and it’s one way for me to increase the difficulty of the game to correspond to their level of knowledge. (Eep, that sounds a bit like difficulty settings in video games.)


  4. I find the transparency argument about minions kind of silly. Terms like “rabble” and “cannon fodder” were coined for a reason. Militia units and armies full of green recruits have always been taken lightly. In martial arts movies the little guy who runs forward with a single knife is a mook, but the hulk with twin machetes isn’t. We, as denizens of the 21st century (it’s weird to write that, after 20th century being the standard for so long), may not easily pick the battle-hardened foes out of a sea of medieval wannabes, but their medieval warrior peers could probably have done it with eyes closed. Size, age, demeanor, equipment, insignia, movement, positioning — all are clues to the status and likely abilities of the creature.

    If you don’t like the term “minion” you can say “This one and this one appear to be worthy opponents. The rest are mere followers, to be swept aside by the slightest breeze from your blade’s approach.” If you wish to introduce an element of true ambiguity, such as a leader pretending to be a minion or vice-versa, you can allow a Perception, Insight, Streetwise or monster knowledge check to determine whether the PC is taken in by the ruse.


  5. Yay! Jared Von Hindman’s picture of my spider-vomiting vampire dragon shows up again! That was an awesome fight with minion swarms that showed up every time the vampire breathed. The swarms could only be killed with area attacks but rarely were close enough to one another to be hit with a single area attack. They also did like 30 damage to anyone who started adjacent to them. Good times.


  6. I too am a big fan of lurker and skirmisher minions, and try to employ terrain and positioning to keep them alive. I’ll have to try burrowing ones… love the idea of minions popping out of the ground!

    I hear what you’re saying about minion transparency, and I’ll have to think about that. I tend not to let PCs know about minions at all, and I laugh maniacally (only inside tho) when a Character blows an encounter power to mulch one. I do let Characters use their Monster Knowledge to identify them, but humorously (for me anyways), they often forget in the heat of battle and just start laying waste to anything in front of them. I shrug and watch them expend their powers on something that could just as easily die with a basic attack.


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