Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Minion rules

One of my favourite things about combat in D&D 4E is the existence of minion monsters. These little guys add a new dimension to encounter composition: we are no longer constrained to skirmishes between roughly equivalent groups, or straightforward boss fights. Rather, we can have the PCs face dozens of foes at a time, in battles of epic (though not necessarily Epic) scale. However, as much as I like the basic concept of minions, I can’t help but notice that their implementation doesn’t get everything right.

The point of minions is to be fragile. That is the tradeoff they present: lots of monsters which don’t hit quite as hard, and die like flies. In principle, having PCs slaughtering them with ease should be a feature, not a bug. However, the way this is handled in 4E can only be classified as, well... overkill. Area attacks are bad enough, but at least they take some commitment, and are not 100% reliable.What is really troubling is the interaction of minions with sources of automatic damage (mostly daily attacks like Rain of Steel or Wall of Fire, but also present in class features like Flurry of Blows), which most parties have in enough numbers to guarantee that, in any encounter featuring lots of minions, it is extremely rare to have any of them survive past turn 2.

The bottom line is that minions are not threatening, as monsters. It’s not just a matter of XP cost: more often than not, adding more of them to a fight only causes them to die in droves after managing to make just one attack (if any), unless you are fighting in huge open spaces, and the minions in question have ranged attacks. Recent monster design technology tries to mitigate this with tricks like death triggers, which are nice enough, but ultimately, the only reliable way to have minions impacting a fight past turn three is to have them enter the fight past turn three. In fact, I have found relative success with staged groups of minions in my encounters. Also, you can just add one or two minions to an otherwise normal fight in the hopes that they escape PC attention long enough to survive the dreaded first rounds - I have found that this often works. Nevertheless, the problem remains that you can’t just have a group of minions make up a significant part of an encounter, and expect it to work. This needs to change.

After a lot of trial and error, I came up with the following house rule, which has addressed most problems with minions in my games:

Whenever a minion takes damage that is not the result of a hitting attack, if it is not prone, it can make a saving throw. If the saving throw succeeds, the minion is knocked prone and the damage is negated.

What does this do? The rule is intended to tone down the most egregious minion-wiping methods, without rendering them completely useless, while leaving fair minion-killing powers intact. That is to say, it gives a minion a chance to survive a Rain of Steel, Flurry of Blows, or pre-errata Flaming Sphere, to name some of the most common examples, but doesn’t stop tamer stuff like Cleave. Autodamage remains a very useful tool against minions, since it still provides a 45% chance of killing, and 55% of proning - and multiple instances should kill just fine, as prone minions can’t benefit from the save. Missed attacks are unaffected, since they still deal no damage to minions.

Applying this rule in my Trollhaunt campaign took some time to get used to (particularly for the monk player), but I can say that it had quite a positive effect in many minion-heavy encounters. Attacks that would have single-handedly destroyed the enemy hordes now left a few survivors to counterattack. A few heroic minions were even able to survive until the later stages of an encounter, more of an annoyance than a threat, but one that contributed to make the fight more exciting - we even joked about promoting a particularly persistent troglodyte minion soldier to standard status, after its prolonged combat experience.

As far as I can tell, this rule only negatively affects attacks that were on the abusive side against minions, with one remarkable exception: the Wizard’s Magic Missile. This power has already suffered enough from errata, and is the perfect attack to allow guaranteed minion slaying, so I would add the following line to it:

“Special: Any minion targeted by this attack is automatically reduced to 0 hit points”.


  1. One solution I've toyed with implementing in my game is somewhat simpler, so I'll suggest it here:

    All minions have 2 HP. All damage dealt to a minion is reduced to 1. Remove the ability "missed attacks never damage a minion."

    PCs (esp wizards) could still get their damage on a miss, their auto-damage effects, etc, without the extra step of prone, saving throws, etc. Just simply "bloody" the minion at one hit, remove it at two. Most minions would still go quickly, but would get a chance to, say, move into flanking position to help the brute out and make an attack while they're at it.

    I haven't implemented it simply because the party I'm running has relatively little in the realm of control powers, so minions have been able to perform decently, as long as (1) they tend to come in substantial sizes (at least 3 for every 2 PCs) and (2) often introduce at different points during a fight.

  2. Every DM has its own minion rule ;) My rule is:

    Minion Damage Threshold:
    10 + half level (+5 in paragon tier, +15 in epic).
    When a unbloodied minion takes damage below its damage threshold it is only bloodied, but not killed. A bloodied minion is killed by any damage.

    Remove "missed attacks never damage a minion".

  3. I personally use normal minion rules, but have "spawning" minions. So you have a standard or an elite "portal" (a doorway, a gate, or just some general commanding troops) that causes minions to enter into combat each round. If the party doesn't lay on anti-minion tactics, they can quickly become overwhelmed, but if they do, then they can keep the minions at bay-but that diverts resources from the primary contenders.

  4. How do you deal with Draconic Arrogance? Or has it never come up?

  5. @JoeThomas: Your rule is simpler, indeed. However, it has the consequence of actually making minions tougher to kill than standard monsters, relative to their XP cost. I didn't talk about this in detail in the article, so I'll explain below.

    Minions are costed so that 1 minion = 1/4 of a standard monster. It usually takes around 3-4 hits from regular attacks to kill a standard, and under normal rules, 4 hits will kill 4 minions. So in that sense, minions are as resilient to attacks as their equivalent XP in standard monsters.

    On the other hand, if we look at their offensive abilities, a minion tends to deal half as much damage as a normal monsters - so 4 minions attack as 2 standard monsters. This might look as an unfair advantage in favor of minions, but for the fact that they lose attacks with each hit: a bloodied standard monster deals damage just as well as one with full HP, but a group of 4 minions is reduced to half the normal attacks after 2 hits. Because of this, we can expect minions to deal roughly the same amount of damage as their equivalent XP in standard monsters before being defeated.

    Of course, this assumes that PCs are playing fair, and spending actual attacks on minions. What happens most of the time is that some auto-damage effect gets dropped, and the minions fall like flies, breaking all these assumptions of minion survivability, and reducing these monsters to mere decoration. My ruling tries to mitigate this trick (autodamage) and force PCs to play fair again, so that the minion math can work properly. Still, one crucial point of this idea is having normal attacks always kill a minion.

    So, what happens when you don't do so? Against 'unfair' auto-damaging attacks, your solution works pretty much like mine: death in 2 attacks (though mine presents more variance, averages a slightly lower number of attacks, and gives the prone condition as consolation for not killing a minion). But when a PC actually goes and spends a decent attack on a minion, it has the same result: there's 50% of the minion left. Going over the monster math discussed above, this means that minions are twice as difficult to kill as regular monsters with standard attacks! This makes them much more cost-effective, compared to other monsters. Even worse, it strongly encourages players to load up on autodamage effects, rather than waste regular attacks on the minions. If your only concern is to make the little buggers more survivable, I guess this works, but I don't really like the side effects it brings to the table.

    @Skwid: I haven't seen Draconic Arrogance in play, but in this context, I would treat this as an independent damage triggered, not directly caused by a hit (i.e. the minion gets a save). That said, I'm having a hard time thinking of examples of a DA trigger that isn't the result of a hitting, damaging attack (which would have killed the minion anyways) - does such a thing come up often?

  6. I like this, but I would only use it for start-of-minion's-turn automatic damage, otherwise it creates a lot of weird effects - 55% chance to survive any fall, for instance!

  7. I didn't write the rule with that specific scenario in mind, but note that most falling minions would end up prone when taking the damage - so they'd get no save to survive.

  8. @Perico Nice breakdown. Makes total sense why you went with a more detailed fix. I should have added above that I tend to figure things out better through watching them "playtested" (if I can be so grandiose) than on paper, and since I haven't tried implementing any minion fix, I haven't seen how it works out.
    I have to say, I don't seem to have nearly as min/maxing a group as many 4E folks do, which I think alters how a lot of 4E's glitches show up at our table. Not to say that they don't, or that I can "get away with" a simpler fix than a problem deserves, just that the problem manifests differently. So, for instance, I'll bet my players wouldn't min/max their characters for minion-killing according to my house rules, but would instead end up feeling mildly frustrated at how tough minions are to kill. It'd still be a damper on fun, but of a different sort.
    Hmm. Maybe I could apply this rule to some minions? Like the elite version of a minion?

  9. The problem with Joe and Gutzumerken's solutions are that minions have hitpoints. I thought that the point of minions is that there is no need to track anything for the DM (except their initiative order). They are miniatures and when they get hit they die. This makes them simple to manage in bulk. I do like Perico's solution because Prone can be represented with the miniature as well and therefore preserves the simplicity of minions, while mitigating the exploits. Nice work. I'll give it a try.