His laughter resonates and shakes the cavern walls as his shadow casts across the valley floor. He is silhouetted by the bright light behind him, but his motions are clear as he raises his arms that grip the staff you have traveled so far to obtain. But the staff will not come easy. Arrows begin flying from your peripherals while numerous small sinkholes appear throughout the floor, quickly filled with Chilopodas who click their mandibles with high pitched sounds. Wish as much as you will to destroy your sworn enemy you will have to fight your way to him. Do not take his minions lightly.
For years I have struggled often with creating rich, engaging battles for my PCs that offer a challenge to them. Typically I can never go by the book (by whatever book I happen to be using) as players will find ways of making their characters a bit more superior to an equal stat monster or group of monsters. Although one system may feel confident that four typical PCs are an average match with one monster of the same “level,” when it comes down to it, there is one monster versus a minimum of four attacks. It simply won’t add up no matter how good you are at running combat.
There was one feature in 4th edition D&D that I was impressed with: minions. The concept has been around much longer than when the books were released, of course. Typically a main villain would not/should not be alone in a final showdown with the PCs because, once again, 4 against 1 is not a fair fight no matter what the creature is. But up until the concept of implementing a 1 hit point system into a creature, GMs usually would simply pick lower “level” creatures. These prove to be pointless as the lower you go the harder it is to hit the PCs. At the same time, the statistical concept of the minion in 4th edition D&D is too weak as well. The critters might be able to land a hit with their bonuses, but their damage is insignificant. PCs would be able to ignore their attacks and focus on the main event.
Personally I make it harder for the players when I run games unless they are completely new to RPGs. And one would say I am entirely unfair as well because I only adjust the hit points when making a minion. In Pathfinder, a Cyclops would be a CR5 with 65 hit points and have two attacks with his greataxe at a +11 and +6 for 3D6+7 points of damage and an AC of 19. This is an average fight for four 5th level PCs supposedly, though I highly doubt the one Cyclops would last more than 2 rounds with 4 players. However, if I were to include with that one Cyclops, 4 or 6 Cyclops, each with only 1 hit point but otherwise the same creature, then the battle becomes a bit more serious for the players. They now face 5-7 creatures of CR5, which sounds overwhelming, but at level 5, many of the fighter classes have around a +5 bonus on their rolls to attack plus any magical items, etc. Hitting an AC 19 isn’t too hard for PCs of that level. And, of course, a hit means autokill on the minions.
Meanwhile the numerous Cyclops have a better than average chance of hitting the PCs. Each would have a +11 followed by a +6 to hit their AC, and by 5th level the fighters are probably well into their 20s. If a GM is rolling poorly, his odds of landing a couple of hits increases greatly with 5-7 rolls compared to using the 1 Cyclops with, say, 4 or 5 creatures around CR 2. And if the GM is on a roll that night, well the PCs are in for a fierce battle that might include healing for the night afterwards. Again, the goal here is to approach a combat encounter with a significant challenge for the players so that they aren’t too confident with each fight. Give them some doubt from time to time in order to keep them humble. Without this approach, there is potential of the players steamrolling through the game, which kills the excitement and tension.
To further point out my unfairness, I don’t award full XP for minions (as is the same rules in 4th edition). Those minions in the book are significantly weaker than mine, and as a result, don’t yield the same reward. My creatures are the exact power level as their standard counterparts, but because they go down automatically with a successful hit, they aren’t around long enough to really have a chance for significant party damage. They may make it through one round, but generally they are all gone by the end of the second round. I only award a quarter of the value of XP for that character. This is true for any reward system in an RPG.
In the end, minions are meant to be time killers. They allow GMs to bring out the big guns of the villain and unleash what they are made of. Quite a number of really nasty creatures have multiple special abilities, many of which never see the light of day because they are sometimes downed too soon. Again, pitting the one villain against four or five PCs isn’t going to let your BBEG last very long. The minions are merely there to buy you one or two good rounds before the PCs start chipping away at the villain. But without their full stats, they just won’t demand the attention of the players.
And this is very true for monsters. Creatures of intelligence or animal instinct will often ignore those they feel are not a threat until that target begins to threaten them. So bring about the attention of the other players and split their focus up to multiple targets. Keep in mind that with 1 hit point, those with multiple attacks or abilities/spells that can dish out damage to multiple targets will wipe out clusters of minions with one shot. So spread them out. If you are using mini’s or keeping track of distance, place your ranged minions either right at the maximum range for the PCs to make their move and attack in one round, or be devious and put them 5 feet beyond. Separate the minions by more than 10 feet so none of the melee attackers can wipe everything out in one swing. However, it is perfectly fine to cluster groups of minions together if you have multiple clusters. Treat each area of minions as a separate encounter. A PC moves to one spot and vanquishes the minions there before moving to the next area to kill those. That way you can give the players who love slaughtering through dozens of “weak” enemies like in the movies, but at the same time you are causing them to use up their action so the BBEG can attack.
I have even thrown nothing but minions at a party for an encounter. I just throw a lot of them. It makes for an exciting battle when the PCs see a dozen or two creatures charging at them. They may soon figure out that encounters like are filled with 1 hit point creatures, but they still have to land attacks on all of them to win the encounter. Tension will still be present knowing it’s a race to land attacks on everyone before the PCs get severely injured. Sometimes I will hide a regular creature among the sea of minions after a few of those encounters to throw them off. Their faces show their realization when I say “that one doesn’t go down when you bury your great axe into his shoulder.”
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.