This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Early in the campaign, on the island of Kheth, the heroes destroyed a cursed cauldron hidden deep inside an underground temple. This act triggered a curse that caused the dead to rise all across the island. The shambling horde chased the heroes back to the fortified village of Tyrak’n, where they made their final stand. I drew a map of the village’s palisade wall on a wet-erase battle map, and beyond this wall I arrayed a legion of D&D miniatures—skeletons and other undead critters. There must’ve been at least fifty of them.
Many levels later, the village of Tyrak’n was again threatened, this time by goblins hiding out in the Feywild. The goblins were using a ritual to create a fey crossing, allowing them to surreptitiously invade the village without having to breach the palisades. When the heroes caught wind of the goblins’ scheme, they ventured to the Feywild and assaulted the goblin stockade, which was filled to the brim with nearly one hundred of the villainous little buggers (as well as a few dozen hobgoblins and bugbears).
When it comes to throwing monsters at my players, the more the merrier.
I love minions. To me, they’re like popcorn. I can’t get enough of them. Every now and then, I dive into my collection of pre-painted plastic minis and sort them into armies that I can, at some future point, throw against my players. Skeletons. Goblins. Gnolls. Orcs. Ogres. Yuan-ti. Githyanki. Giants. Minions come in all shapes and sizes.
The 1 hit point minion is one of 4th Edition’s great contributions to the D&D legacy. Minions are fun for the players insofar as they provide instant gratification; all it takes is one good sword swing or one magic missile to drop a minion, while a good area-of-effect power might annihilate an entire group of them in one fell swoop. They’re a godsend to the DM, who doesn’t need to waste time tracking hit points.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide has a simple formula for the power level of a minion compared to a standard monster. I say forget the math! When a battle calls for minions, give the players everything you’ve got. And I mean everything. What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll tell you: The heroes might be overwhelmed and defeated. In my campaign, that’s never a showstopper. If you’re the type of DM who sees this potential outcome as an opportunity and not a campaign-ender, then you’ll probably agree with me that you can never have too many minions. Give the players the fight they’ve been hankering for all week, and let the popcorn fall where it may.
Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes it makes sense to include only a handful of minions in an encounter. What I’m referring to are those momentous occasions when you want to impress and terrify your players with what they’re up against. When an enemy has the advantage of sheer numbers, players start to think twice about their conventional monster-slaying tactics; true, a wizard’s fireball can kill twenty minions as easily as one, but if that still leaves twenty more minions on the table, the heroes could find themselves in serious trouble. They might even be forced to retreat or (gasp!) surrender.
When I build encounters, I balance them without factoring minions into the mix. That’s not in keeping with the rules as written, but the DM has license to break the rules (as long as he or she does so fairly, consistently, and openly). Depending on how the minions are arrayed and when they show up has a lot to do with their effectiveness on the battlefield. If they’re neatly arrayed in tight clusters for all the heroes to see, the wizard will make sure they’re not around very long. On the other hand, if they’re spread out, or if they only appear when certain conditions arise, they can truly change the complexion of the battlefield and force the players to reconsider their tactics. For example, I sometimes keep minions in reserve until the bad guy summons them, and I often keep extras behind my DM screen in case the player characters are having too easy a time.
When I think of minions, I think of the big fight scenes in all three films of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For some reason, the image of Aragorn fighting orcs always springs to mind, and I think to myself, “I will never get tired of watching Aragorn kill orcs.” Most of my players are the same way: They long to play out battles against seemingly overwhelming numbers of foes and watch their heroes carve and blast their way through enemy lines.
Wading through waves of minions makes the heroes feel like heroes.
Minions in large numbers terrify and excite the players.
Although minions come with specified XP values, it’s ultimately up to the DM to decide how much XP the characters receive for defeating them (and don’t let any rulebook tell you otherwise). I tend to “ad hoc” the XP awards for minions. If the minions prove to be instrumental, then I might award full XP for them. On the other hand, if the minions aren’t terribly effective, I might award none.
If you follow my advice and start bombarding your players with veritable armies of minions, be advised that the goal should not be to annihilate the party. If that’s your objective, it’s a lot simpler just to drop an asteroid on them and be done with it. No, your goal as the DM is to entertain the players by creating in-game situations that are perilous and fun, and minions are merely tools toward that end. If the heroes start dropping like flies, consider that the bad guys might stabilize them and take them prisoner. Many great adventures begin with just such a setback or defeat.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
“Magnificent Minion!” Design Contest
Awhile ago, I ran a “Best Villain Ever!” contest. This contest is similar, only the objective is to create a really cool minion monster. You’ve seen the minions in the Monster Manual and Monster Vault books. Here’s your chance to design one of your own and share it with DMs around the world! I’m not handing out prizes for this one, I’m afraid. The best you can hope for is the prestige that comes from having your work appear in an upcoming Dungeon Master Experience article.
Send your minion stat block to firstname.lastname@example.org by 9 AM PST on June 16, 2011, with the following subject line: MAGNIFICENT MINION! At the end of your minion stat block, type your name and whereabouts (for example, “Smedley Rohrbacher, Happenin WY”). And no, that’s not a real place. Your entry doesn’t need to be long; in fact, the best minions are often the simplest, usually with no more than a couple powers or traits.
I’ll pick the minions I like best, share them in an upcoming article, and talk about why I chose them and why I think they’re cool additions to the D&D game.
Poll 05/26/2011 Results:
As a DM, how do you roll?
I hide my rolls most of the time, except for once in a while: 35.5%
- I roll my dice in the open, for all my players to see: 34.7%
- I roll behind my DM screen, for the sheer mystery: 28.7%
- I roll my dice so rarely, it makes my players smile: 1.1%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 06/02/2011
Which of the following minion powers do you like best?
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.