Year of 4E: Minions
Once again we come to 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons! This time I want to explore a topic that is both the tip of the iceberg and a topic that can stand on its own: minions. As you know, minion is a term pretty loosely thrown around when it come to, well, anything that has villains and lackeys. In 4th Edition, though, minions became a unique and specifically designed type of monster that was loved, hated, and … complicated.
Not SO Complicated
Okay, so minions aren’t that complicated in and of themselves. Minions were exactly what they sound like. These were designed to be encountered in large numbers, be capable of very little, and very easily killed. Within the game this was very readily done by giving them a few of their own rules along side virtually no special abilities, and usually just one attack. Moreover these monsters had just 1 hp and would die from anything other than partial damage on missed attacks.
These guys were in here for big combats and awesome scenes. Like much of the edition they wanted the players to feel super powerful and do so in a way that easily worked no matter what type of game, setting, or campaign you were in. Minions could be of any level and any monster type. This allowed them to be a relative challenge to hit, deal appropriate damage, and represent monsters that were usually powerful. You could have kobold minions, drow minions, genie minions, or any creature you would not normally associate with being weak. The idea was that you could fight, say, a demonic stronghold and would be filled with minions of more powerful demons rather than just dozens of quasits because they happen to have a low HP.
It Makes No Sense!
All in all minions were a wonderful tool! However, there were some issues that people had. There were generations of the game that ingrained the idea of challenge rating or level being the equal to the power of a creature. Only characters of certain levels could handle orcs or giants or drow or whatever. 4th Edition did not stray from this concept. It did want to broaden the possibilities within encounters with such creatures, however.
So it leaned into the idea that not all representatives of a monster would be equally powerful. This was done in a couple ways. First of, the streamlined mechanics that acted as a backbone to whatever skins you wanted to use allowed a wide variety of monsters with a bit less work. Alongside that were the roles, of which minion is one, but we will talk more about those in the future. Because of this design choice you could not only have a variety of common monsters but also weak ones (minions), strong ones (elites), and the most epic individuals (solo). Developing encounters in 4E was just so much easier to do because of all of this.
But 1 HP? That was something a lot of people didn’t seem to like. Something many people feel unnecessary. Which I honestly don’t understand. These were a very specific design choice with a very specific role. There was no requirement to use them. NONE. Like hit points and armor class and everything else, the game is one of numbers representing “stuff” and descriptions or interpretations are super important.
I guess one hit kills is a little rough to handle conceptually. It is a line in the sand. And when either a fireball kills you or you come out unscathed? That could be a problem for some people. For me, though, that was just using HP as too much of a narrative crutch. Focusing too much on using that number to define how the monsters were effected rather than looking at it as a mechanical tool. Sure a fireball that “missed” them didn’t deal half damage and they lived so, as a result they have 100% health….technically. Does that mean you have to describe them as completely unharmed? No. That failure is on you for using the mechanic and ignoring your ability to shape it your way.
Gone From 5E….Or Is It?
Spoiler alert…it is. 5th Edition has no 1 HP minions. It also doesn’t even have a minion category. You will also notice that there are no such things a solos or elites which I also mentioned before. In fact, there are no roles. But that isn’t surprising since we did away with that as a core concept of the game. Just listen to me talk about player roles here or just wait till the article on monster roles to come.
However, all this doesn’t mean the concept’s point wasn’t carried over in some way. The strongest representation of the monster role design in 5E is with the commitment to prove that not all monsters are as strong as their “usually encountered” versions. While the edition goes back to a more 3rd Edition power level scale and rating, we still have a lot of monsters scaled down. I keep mentioning drow because this is a perfect example.
In 3E I believe they were generally of a CR6 or higher. Even the basic versions. In 4E they stayed up in the 10-15 range but they had minions, among other individual stat blocks. 5th Edition keeps the idea of providing a few versions with different abilities instead of forcing a lot of class-adding like 3E. More than that it builds in the backbone of weakness in common foes. You can fight drow that are of a CR equivalent to elves, dwarves, or orcs. This is super important because it allows you to introduce these things early in campaigns.
But we are still not talking minions. Minions are easy to kill remember?
Bring Them Back!
I want to make a case for bringing minions back. The tool that minions represented was a big one. Wading through kobolds with no gear or hordes of orcs to get to a giant commander was amazing! But these are harder to do in 5th Edition, for both players and GM. If your group can handle such things, that’s great! But tools are good because they can be used by those who need them and can be left in the toolbox if you don’t.
The question is of how we utilize them. The easiest thing to do, would be to take any given monster and reduce its HP to 1 and give it only a basic melee or ranged attack. Personally, I think the minion concept works even better in 5E than it did in 4E. Drow are a low CR at a base level, as are a LOT of other monsters. More than that as players grow in level they deal a lot of damage and many low CR creatures will die in one hit. Thanks to the way AC and attack bonus work in this edition it still makes them a threat at any level as well (to a point anyway).
So why give them 1 HP? Bookkeeping. If 3 or 4 out of every 5 lackey-style creatures (or an even larger percentage?) will die instantly anyways than why not make it 5 out of 5? Because that’s unrealistic? Is it any more unrealistic than it would have been anyways? Not if you ask me. As a GM I would find it much easier to just check them off as they die. Besides I, and many others, regularly double or otherwise scale up HP on monsters to make them live long enough to challenge players. So why not just do the opposite for a different kind of scene? Why not do both and make it really wild!?
As a quick tip before this article is over there is one major problem to running minons, regardless of using 1 HP or just a horde of low CR monsters: rolling. Sure 1 HP or 7 may not matter much in 5E but if you are sending 30 goblins at a level 10 group it will take forever to roll all those attacks or saves. My suggestion to you is to make many rolls ahead of time. Make a whole list of rolls with the attack included and then a whole bunch of them without a bonus for saves and the like. If you have a classic attack in your party pre-roll a set for that save (like Dex). As you need them go down the list and see if they succeed or fail. It will let you do what you need for randomness without getting overwhelmed. Oh, and utilize the average damage numbers 5E includes if you don’t already. Save that much more time!