Ah minions, such a good idea, in theory! A chump who costs a fraction of the XP of a normal guy, goes down with one hit (like some many of those thugs in movies), good for flanking, chipping away at the player’s hit points, and generally making a battle feel more “epic”.
Unfortunately, minions suffer from a fatal flaw. They’re too easy to kill. This may seem like a silly statement considering they’re supposed to be one hit point chumps, but countless sessions of all the minions dying in the first round of combat has hammered the point home. Anyone who has played with minions past level 5 or so knows that they suck and are pathetically easy to kill. The original design philosophy, as I understand it, is that if a player has to spend their turn to kill a minion, then the minion has done its job. Sounds good to me! Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, even at lower levels:
Let’s take a look at 1st level powers that often nullify the “one turn/one kill” principle:
Minion Killing Powers
At-Wills: The bread and butter of heroic level heroes!
Cleave (fighter): Deal damage to a normal guy and kill the minion right next to them.
Twin Strike (ranger): Kill 1-2 minions with one standard action.
Scorching Burst (wizard): Kill 1-9 minions with one standard action.
Thunderwave (wizard): Kill 1-9 minions with one standard action and push their useless carcasses off a cliff or something.
Encounters: You might say an encounter power is a not uncostly price to pay to kill a handful of minions. You’d not only be wrong (it’s rare to kill or even bloody a normal healthy monster with 1 encounter power yet killing 2-4 minions is often relatively easy) but you’d also be missing the point that you can target one or more minions and/or normal monsters with these level 1 powers:
Divine Glow (cleric): Kill 1-9 minions and give 1-9 allies a +2 power bonus to attack rolls!
Dire Wolverine Strike (ranger): Kill 1-8 minions.
Burning Hands (wizard): Kill 1-25 minions.
Daily: Breaking out a daily to kill some minions is a big use of resources; of course, as usual, minions are just collateral damage when most of these powers come out, killed as an after thought.
Spray of Arrows (ranger): Kill 1-9 minions that just happen to be grouped with your real targets.
Swirling Leaves of Steel (ranger): Kill 1-8 minions.
Blinding Barrage (rogue): Kill 1-9 minions while blinding and damaging your real enemies.
Flaming Sphere (wizard): Perhaps the most obnoxious minion killer out there. Use a move action to sit this thing next to doomed minions and watch them explode into fire when they start their turn. It’s amusing in a kind of macabre way to imagine what goes through a minions head when he sees the flaming sphere mosey over to him. He’s not dead yet, but the end is all but inevitable. He racks his brain trying to remember if any of his allies have slide or shift powers that can save him from harms way; if they do will they bother using them on a pathetic creature like him; will they go before he’s had a chance to act (and thus die) anyway?
The powers included above are only 1st level powers from the players handbook; there are countless others in other source books and the problem just gets worse at higher levels. I’ve run games with no controllers, the classic minion killers, and the group barely blinked at groups of 8-12 minions, using various encounter powers to quickly dispatch them.
The fact that players see a need to dispatch minions quickly does perhaps speak to their danger in combat; an army of extra flankers who can dish out small bits of damage, if left unchecked, is a force to be reckoned with, but they are simply way to easy to kill. Aside from your standard close burst and blast, you’ve also got to contend with automatic damage, which can come from a number of sources. Even 1 HP of damage is enough to rip apart every minion in range.
I’ve basically resigned myself to the fact that when I include a group of minions in an encounter, I’m just throwing some free XP at my players, and I usually don’t officially count their XP towards my judge of the difficulty of an encounter.
I’ll be going over Paul’s proposed solutions to make minions have more bite and then moving onto my own solutions and ideas for how to handle these pesky and interesting 4th edition critters.
More minions is kind of a solution to make minions more powerful, and I’ve used this solution in a sense. My feeling is that I’m probably going to give the players the same XP for each minion anyway, since I don’t really care about throwing free XP to players, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to up minion numbers, even though I don’t think it gets to the principle problem: who cares how many minions are clumped together when I do an attack that targets all of them or unleash a blast of auto damage; they’ll die just the same.
The double damage on a 20 sounds fun, and I’d probably be up for trying it. It’s depressing as is to roll a 20 AND… still do 4 damage.
As for the minimum threshold… my question is why bother setting one? If the idea is to nerf auto damage, then just say that auto damage only bloodies minions. I’m a little dubious about this because I think the main appeal of powers like cleave is that they do kill minions outright. Cleave is a pretty lame power if it just bloodies a minion. And while fixing auto damage, this doesn’t answer the second half of the problem which is blast and bursts. These powers are a little more “fair” since you are making an attack roll, but I’ve seen combats where 5 or 6 minions were killed by one burst. That’s like one and a half guys killed outright by one power!
More Damaging Minions
I can see some appeal in this, but it doesn’t address my main problem with minions, which is that they are too easy to kill. I’m actually kind of okay with their damage output.
One of my proposed solutions to make minions more challenging and interesting is that when you buy a group of minions, you’re really buying the ability to introduce minions every round of the battle. So say when you buy 4 minions, you’re really buying the ability to roll 1d4 and have those minions appear (either running in from doors or being summoned or rising from the dead) each round. This helps in two ways: it means you’re throwing a lot MORE minions at the players, and it guarantees that there will be minions in the entire battle, not just the first round. It also stops minions from being too clumped together early in the battle, making for easy kills of 4-5 minions, and instead forces players to kill them 1-3 minions at a time.
I have a fun encounter (I hope!) planned where I plan to have 1d4 skeletons rise from the dead every round to attack the heroes. They’ll get XP for each minion they kill (so im kind of breaking this rule in one sense, but as I’ve said I’m not worried about giving out too much XP) and the skeletons won’t stop rising until all the main monsters are dead (they’re wearing pendants that give the place an unholy aura, allowing for the resurrection). I think this should put minions in the correct place, as a nuisance that need to be held off every round, but definitely taking a backseat to the real threats.
A related thing I’ve tried out that I believe some new monsters in the MM2 and Dragon Magazine have been doing is to give one or more monsters an ability to be able to summon minions as a minor or move action. So this way, the minion becomes an extension of the monsters power and not a threat unto itself. I’ll leave it up to the individual DMs judgement how to give out XP in these situations (either by working it into the CR of the monster or by just giving out XP per minion killed).
There aren’t a ton of ranged minions out there, but when I’ve used them I’ve found them a lot more effective than melee minions. The reason is simple: ranged minions can stand away from other monsters and plink enemies from a relatively safe distance, while melee minions have to come in close and clump together to be a threat. Thus, it’s a lot harder to target and kill a group of spread out ranged minions, while a simple close burst 1 is often enough to take out a hoard of melee guys.
My favored solutions leave the minion mechanics as is, but allow for a lot more minions to join the battle throughout the combat (not just at the beginning), and favor ranged minions over melee for survivability. I still give out XP for each minion, but don’t weigh the minions as much when calculating EL for an encounter.
I think this keeps minions a threat, while keeping with the thematic principles that make minions appealing in the first place (easy to kill, easy to keep track of, make battles feel more epic).