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.

D&D Trivia Archive May 2010

On Twitter, I give out little tidbits about D&D history as I know it or experienced it. This means I might not always be right, but at least it’s interesting.  You can challenge me on twitter or by email.

Here’s the May 2010 D&D trivia archive.

  • Even the greatest DMs, such as Monte Cook, fail to keep it all straight sometimes. Ask him, and he’ll tell ya. Relax and enjoy.
  • My understanding–D&D R&D DMs identify minions as such in some way. The assumption: skilled combatants can identify mooks.
  • Minions had higher HP, near PC at-will damage, at one stage. Development shaped the 1-HP minion for easier tracking.
  • D&D trivia tells us that trolls always follow string because they know every string ends in meat.
  • D&D trivia also tells us you can only make chewing gum from troll flesh. Tastes like chicken.
  • My defiling design for Dark Sun was meant to be as (or more) tempting as the force’s dark side. Hope the final version still is.
  • The convention previews of Dark Sun might not be the final version. The books are just wrapping up preprint production.
  • I helped make the crazy D&D editing test @loganbonner took to hire on at WotC, and I helped evaluate those tests.
  • When @loganbonner started, I was happy a new person (like me!) entered the industry. Weird we both got laid off the same day.
  • Aside: @gregbilsland is another new game-industry person.
  • Eric Holmes, the author of the the first D&D “blue box” basic set, passed away on 3/20 at age 80.
  • 3e Monster CRs (as much art as science) are still in 4e. The design team just decided to use “level” as the 4e word.
  • Level was the default for anything related to level for powers, items, and monsters. Smart choice IMO, and one I wasn’t part of.
  • The powers of 4e were in the earliest playtest I was in (early 2006?), but I wasn’t there at the beginning.
  • Powers evolved from Heinsoo crazy (6d12? Really?) to the versions you see today. The early mandate was to push limits on design.
  • FYI, Heinsoo crazy refers to wild-man designer Rob Heinsoo, and his sort of design crazy ain’t a bad thing in early stages.
  • The Ki power source was going to be home for classes such as the ninja, samurai, and so on. Then @aquelajames and others realized we were about to isolate those classes.
  • The team decided that the monk, samurai, ninja, and so on, could occupy neat spaces in other power sources, such as the psi monk.
  • Or that it’s possible that those classes already exist. @aquelajames didn’t want another Oriental Adventures.
  • I doubt you’ll see a whole book just about Eastern fighting techniques. It’ll be integrated with a D&D spin.
  • Monsters evolved to be simple to run and easy to design for flavor. R&D intentionally ditched the PC-like 3e design framework.
  • It’s a mistake to rely on play feedback only from extremely sharp players. They outperform normal players, skewing perceptions.
  • The initial 4e Monster Manual draft had more fluff. It was cut, I guess, to fit more stats. But monster powers alone are often evocative.
  • I’ve had players attest to the evocativeness of monster powers. One even asked me to tone down the evil critters.
  • Each good player power was similarly designed to tell its story with mechanics and brief flavor. Is it enough fluff? IMO, yes.
  • Many D&D R&Ders boggled at brand policy, but D&D and MtG worlds are kept strictly apart. Lorwyn campaign for D&D? Made of win!
  • 3e D&D crit confirmation rolls had obscure mathematical reasons, but we R&Ders and players saw it as post-crit denial. No fun.
  • 4e was also built to better control PC and monster crit ranges.
  • A discussion was had in D&D R&D whether the revenant would be a bloodline, like the dhampyr by @brianrjames. I still think so.
  • The view that won out, based on desire to do revenant minis, was that the revenant should be a unique Medium race.
  • The D&D world is not our world. Some aesthetic choices were made based on that idea. Take the assassin. The invoker, too.