The following article continues the limited Villain Builder series from industry veteran Wolfgang Baur. Last year, Wolfgang delivered our much acclaimed Adventure Builder series, focusing on better design elements to incorporate into your adventures.
If 2006 was officially the Year of Dragons, 2007 might well be—at least in some part—the Year of Villains. Looking at the online product catalog for the year, Expedition to the Demonweb Pits releases next month, followed by Drow of the Underdark. Later in the year, Robert Schwalb delivers Exemplars of Evil (September) and Elder Evils (December), providing specific examples of villains to use in your campaigns, as well as advice on how to construct and play memorable foes.
In advance of these materials, we wanted to start the conversation on villains with the following limited series. We hope you enjoy the series; as always, feel free to send us your thoughts and feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
While truly wicked villains are the headliners in any game, no villain is a threat without some serious minions. All of those followers gave a big villain heft and authority; he commands armies of orcs, legions of flying monkeys, herds of barbarian-driven dinosaurs, or automaton assassins. Even lone villains often have at least an Igor to fetch body parts for them, a powerful improved familiar, or a devil who serves them under duress.
How can you maximize the value of those minions? There are a few simple ways to get the most from minions in any adventure. I like to think of them as: scenery, weak spots, traitors, alarms, spies and (ultimately) fall guys.
Minions as Scenery
The first purpose of minions is to look good, and (more importantly) make their boss look good. For starters, I recommend making any particular set of minions easy to describe with just one quirk, in order to keep them both a faceless yet recognizable quality. Orcs who all wear a red flame device on their armor might work, and so would zombies that are all branded with a wizard’s rune. After one or two encounters with this sign, the party knows that anyone wearing it is an enemy.
The basic idea behind minions-as-scenery is to supply the mass of orcs, apprentices, clockwork servants, and other nameless mooks who are there for PCs to mow down in huge numbers with cleave and great cleave. They should walk around in large groups (or at least in pairs). In some rooms, they should be in very large numbers (50+), as this both shows the villains’ leadership and strength, and creates obstacles for a party trying to get to a particular place. Any party foolhardy enough to storm into a room of fifty minions without a clever plan is likely to end up in the villain’s dungeons (see Part 1: Basic Villainy).
Minions in this mode are a great reason to use area-effect spells. However, don’t waste a lot of time on these encounters. Rather than playing out every detail, figure out how many minions are killed in a single round, then assume that the combat ends soon thereafter as the minions flee. You may not even need to individually mark them all on a battle mat if the difference between the party level and the minion CR is great enough.
Minions as Weak Spots
Acting as scenery is fine for a mass of skeletons or zombies, but more intelligent parties can exploit the relatively weak minions by capturing them and pumping them for information (Intimidate and Bluff are key skills against minions, although enchantments are probably faster). But taking minions alive can also have a down side, when they beg the party for help, require someone to watch them, or even work against the party during a combat encounter.
All of this is faster and easier if the PCs burn charm person or similar spells to get the minions on their side right away. Nothing is more insidious, however, than a minion who’s smart enough to pretend to be charmed… and then escapes at the first opportunity, to spill the PCs’ names, descriptions, and plans to its master.
Minions as Traitors
The ability of minions to work in the middle ground between the main villain and the heroes cuts both ways, of course. A henchman, for example, might approach the party hoping to "change sides" (falsely), and offer to lead them into the villain’s fortress through a secret passage. Is he trustworthy? Maybe. The heroes are likely to give him a try. The minion is pretty likely to betray the party at the first sign that anything is going wrong. The most likely form of betrayal? Leading them into an ambush, or raising the alarm.
But what about the minion who actually becomes a party mascot, and really does betray the villain? These characters can make a party’s job much easier, since they know all the secret doors, traps, and locations throughout a villain’s dungeon or lair. However, a minion of evil alignment probably will expect something for all the risks he runs. These might include:
- a share of gold,
- armor or magical protection,
- bribes/favors for his evil friends who let the party slip by,
- a share of magical treasures,
- maybe even the ability to torture his former captain or larger monsters.
At some point, a helpful minion may become more of a nuisance than a resource.
Minions as Alarms
Minions are terrible combatants, but they are loud and numerous sentries. They should have terribly Listen and Spot rolls (the heroes can stealth past them easily if they try), but if they happen to notice the party, panicky minions should raise a loud alarm. And in that respect, the minions in the guard towers should be treated more as traps than as combat encounters.
If the party can’t get past with stealth, bribes, or a quick kill, the minions’ only important role is to raise the alarm. In that sense, it’s often worth making the alarm really, really obvious, such as a gigantic bronze bell, a wand of shout, an iron triangle, or a trumpet. Alarms need not be objects, either: a pack of barking dogs, a lion’s roar, or a trumpeting dragon all work as well as a gong.
Not every minion has to be a humanoid with low Intelligence, or an undead. A villainous bard might whip mobs into a frenzy on his behalf, a villainous druid might command animals as his spies and protectors, a wizard might have a large collection of summoned monsters.
The toughest minions can be the ones who are least powerful in combat terms. Innocent bystanders and fools that go along with a villain’s scheme without real understanding are a challenge for any good-aligned character. For instance, a young or naïve paladin might serve as a truly despicable villain’s minion, duped into serving the wrong side by clever lies and suggestions to kill or torture “heretical” or “impure” people that the villain points out. Should the party kill this paladin? Normally, no. But if he’s in their way, heavily armed and armored, it may be difficult to talk him around once he has his mind set on doing the “right” thing.
Overlooked and Invisible Minions
Minions should be nameless creatures for the most part, bit players in the game’s storyline. But some are not just nameless but largely invisible. For instance, a few minions might be spies recruited from among the servants at the adventurers’ favorite inn. Others might be literally invisible creatures that walk around the villain’s volcanic lair. Just because they are weak doesn’t mean they can’t do a lot of harm to the party’s plans.
The Minion’s Most Important Role: Fall Guy
My personal rule for minions in combat is that they should always fall down after just one or two hits. Any more than that, and they are not mooks; they are henchmen or minor officers of the main villain. Mind you, for a high-level party, one or two hits may be enough to take down ogres or even hill giants, so the size of minions does scale!
In combat, minions should be fearful, charmed, or dominated enough by the main villain to do whatever he says. PCs shouldn’t be able to talk a minion out of doing the evil thing when the big boss is Right There Watching. In the case of cultist and religious minions, they may even happily sacrifice themselves to save the life of the big bad (or even just to show off their obedience, as with Thulsa Doom’s jumper). This can make for a wonderfully creepy scene, as minion after minion throws itself in front of the killing blow. Mechanically, you can treat them a little like shield guardians. In flavor terms, it can make a powerful impression on players when they pile up handfuls and then even dozens of minions who refuse to let them near their evil genius leader. Good minions should act as shields; even if they are terrorized by the PCs, they are likely more terrorized by the main villain. After all, he’s had years to intimidate, abuse and cow his followers: adventurers are just passing through.
The Forbidden Zone Where Minions Must Not Go
The one thing minions should never do is upstage their evil master. Any minion who shows too much intelligence or ambition is likely to be killed off by the master villain. There’s one way around this rule: with the death of the master villain, one of the main minions may take the reins and try to continue the master’s plots. That’s a fine origin story for any new villain in your campaign: the goblin or other minion who seized the rod of lordly might just as it was falling from the death knight’s hand…
Minions can be a lot of fun, whether they are dumb, scheming, naïve, loud, treacherous or simply numerous. They should always work to make the main villain seem stronger, more deadly, or at least more cringe-inducing. With minions, it’s worth your time to play up the buffoonery or make them into hack-fodder—that’s what they’re for.
About the Author
Wolfgang Baur is plotting his elaborate-yet-ruthless vengeance even now. His escape hatch is a series of cleverly-disguised blogs like Open Design, where he shares further design secrets.