By Guest Blogger Jason L. Dawson
Players are clever. They scheme, plan, plot and connive their way into and out of the most difficult situations we as the DM can create. This is especially true if you have players in your game who are tactically minded. I have the singular joy (and curse, at times) of playing D&D 4E with a group of real-life combat veterans. Some might call it metagaming, but in the encounters I run for them it just ends up being a simple fact: my players are incredibly tactically minded, and that translates especially well into a game like 4E. Because my players synergize and work as a well-oiled unit without even really thinking about it, I have had to “up my game” in order to keep the game challenging for them. Thus, I have developed a few tricks that I use to keep them on their toes. A recent series of encounters I ran demonstrates several of these minion tricks, so I will use them as examples.
Keep Them Guessing–Sometimes
Anybody who has run or played in more than a couple games of 4E knows that it’s pretty easy to recognize a minion unless the GM puts a great deal of effort into hiding them or disguising them as standard monsters. Once in a while it can be a good thing to put a bunch of visually identical (but statistically different) monsters on the board, and let the PCs figure out which is which by trial and error. However, this is a tactic that should be used with great caution. Most players who decide to use an encounter or daily power and find out they used it on a minion won’t be pleased. In an encounter designed around a theme of trickery or misdirection this can be a good thing, but more than once in a very great while will do nothing more than make your players resent you, and rightly so. The bad guys hoodwinking the characters is one thing—the GM hoodwinking the players is something else entirely. Use this tactic wisely.
Instead of deliberately misleading your players, use the tools in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (especially the second one) to build interesting encounters incorporating your minions. Find interesting ways of introducing them into the encounter. Invent creative abilities and powers or steal them from other monsters to make your minions tactically interesting. And finally, use the players’ expectations of minions to your advantage in how you use the little buggers tactically.
Introducing Your Minions
Spreading your minions out is a well-known means of keeping them from getting obliterated all at once. PCs with blast or burst powers are well-known as minion-killers. That’s part of what the Controller classes are especially good at. But the “spread them out” mentality is something that can be used chronologically as well as spatially on the battlemat.
My PCs were deeply involved in an urban combat involving wererats (skirmishers), a couple dire rats (brute non-minions, much to the PCs surprise) and a bunch of giant rat minions. I had built a total of 16 giant rats into the encounter, and gave them +1d4 damage with combat advantage, befitting their sneaky nature. There were only a couple of the minions on the board when the combat began, and the PCs dealt with them quickly. However, one of the wererats moved over to a sewer grating (marked on the battlemap from the beginning of the combat) and used a standard action to, in essence, use a terrain power and make a screeching rat call into the sewers. From then on, every round on the minions’ initiative, 1d4 giant rats appeared in a square adjacent to the sewer grate and entered the encounter. Each time they did, I subtracted that number from the amount I knew the encounter was built for. The PCs, of course, saw this as an “endless rat generator” and suddenly redoubled their efforts to take down the standard monsters in order to end the encounter. They didn’t know there was a finite number of minions, and it upped the tension considerably. They’ve also gotten far more interested in using the terrain of an encounter after seeing the monsters use it against them.
Another encounter in a Far Realm themed adventure saw the PCs fighting a tentacled, aberrant horror with huge egglike pustules all over its back. This encounter was built as a solo monster of two levels below the PCs and again, a considerable number of minions. The minions, however, didn’t start on the map at all. Instead, every time the PCs hit the solo with a single-target attack, I described one of the egg-pustules rupturing and a floating, amorphous blob of semi-sentient goo being “born” in a square adjacent to the solo. This is how I introduced the minions—the PCs had to decide whether to wail away on the solo and create more minions or deal with the minions and let the solo have time to pound on them. It increased the drama of the encounter just as much as the sewer rats.
Make Minions Matter
The “spawn” minions had a particularly nasty ability: when reduced to 0 hit points, they exploded in a shower of horrific goo. This was a close burst 1 dealing 4 psychic damage to any non-aberrant creature. This added yet another angle to an encounter the players had thought was tactically simple. The players, especially the ones who throw around burst and blast templates constantly, suddenly weren’t just affecting the monsters. Because the spawn appeared in squares adjacent to the solo, the melee characters often had several of the amorphous buggers attacking them at once. They were lower level than the PCs, so they didn’t hit often, but that wasn’t their real danger. Constantly dealing psychic damage to the melee characters was a serious concern, and the players had a good time figuring out how to deal with it. By the end of the encounter, the players had really come to hate the spawn minions, but it was a good kind of hate. It showed me I should definitely use those minions again.
Likewise, in the rat encounter, giving the giant rats a +1d4 damage bonus against targets they had combat advantage against wasn’t a huge deal, but it definitely made the PCs sit up and pay attention when they saw me rolling dice to determine a minion’s damage. They expected a flat number; playing against their expectations made the combat more engaging.
Think Like A Minion
The last encounter of that session was a big, set-piece battle against the cult of Far Realm worshippers. The PCs had fought numerous tentacled nasties by this time, and weren’t particularly surprised by the suicidally fanatic cultists, nor by the carrion crawlers that scuttled their way to do battle. But I used their expectations against them again and made the encounter more interesting by doing so. The cultists were, in fact, hosts for the same kind of “exploding brain amoebas” (as the players ended up calling them) that had spawned from the solo monster in the earlier encounter. I took the number of minions slated for the encounter and split them in half. The first half were the human cultists—simple cookie cutter minions with no special abilities. I did this deliberately to let the PCs romp through them and feel heroic, which they did. The cultists were especially suicidal, and I described them as such. The PCs took it as typical fanatic behavior, but the cultists knew what was growing inside them and what would happen upon their deaths.
I made sure the cultists went about 1/3 of the way from the top of the initiative order. I also kept track on the battlemat where the bad guys’ bodies fell when they died. I usually do this because I treat the corpse of a Medium sized corporeal monster as difficult terrain. This time, however, there was an additional twist, and an additional number on the initiative tracker. When the cultists died, the PCs did what any well trained soldier does when a target has been neutralized—they moved right past the body and engaged new targets, leaving the artillery characters in the “safe” space behind them.
When the mystery number came up on the initiative, though, the bodies of the cultists exploded in just the same way the egg-sacs on the back of the solo monsters had, spawning more of the “exploding brain amoebas” and making the players curse profoundly. The spawn were now *behind* the melee characters and proceeded to swarm the second-line fighters instead, forcing the PCs to change their established tactics . This created tension and more than a little bit of real fear for the characters’ lives. In the end, the players told me point-blank the encounters had been tough, interesting, and above all memorable. I have a feeling that “exploding brain amoebas” is going to become a common table phrase for this game.
When it comes down to the final analysis, minions have the potential to become boring just as easily as any other kind of monster if not used deliberately. It’s not enough to just throw them into an encounter as filler; likewise so they can use Aid Another or provide flanking or even just to provide cover against ranged attackers. In order to get the most out of your minion mile you need to think about how they fit into the encounter as a whole both in-game and in the metagame sense. Use minions to create interesting tactical situations and give them memorable abilities, and your players will remember them much longer than you might think one measly hit point could manage.