Wednesday, May 20, 2009

No More Minions

Thunderspire Labyrinth has no minions. Not one.

It may have been a deliberate stylistic decision, but I suspect not. I think Thunderspire was being written while the 4E rules were still in flux, and Richard Baker never got the memo that minions were a D&D thing now.

Minions are a new thing to 4th Edition, although the concept's been floating around in games like 7th Sea for over a decade now. "Minion" monsters have the defences and special abilities of a regular monster, but they do fixed damage rather random, and they die as soon as they take damage.

They're a great mechanic. Killing a minion is just as satisfying as killing a real monster - maybe moreso - and they let the DM field enemies on a scale that would have slowed previous editions to a crawl. They let players really feel like they stand head-and-shoulders over the average opponent, and the ineptitude of minions makes "real" monsters even more impressive by comparison.

Minions aren't just a flavour issue. They're built right into the game balance.

Warlocks gain a minor bonus every time they drop an enemy to zero HP. So do Battlerager Fighters. Both these characters are custom-built for removing minions from the battlefield. Wizards, Druids, and any other area of effect class are more effective when there's more minions on the board, as their powers can hit more targets and yield a much higher proportionate reduction in the enemy's damage-per-round. Paladins get better when they get surrounded, and Fighters get a lot of value out of Cleave-ing onto adjacent minions to earn two kills for the price of one.

Rangers, Avengers and Rogues, by contrast, can be significantly hampered by minions, who are able to restrict their mobility at little cost and render irrelevant the large damage totals that a striker could otherwise deliver.

So when Thunderspire forgets to include minions in its encounters, it's a real issue. If you're playing through this module, you're going to find levels 4 through 6 are the era of the striker, with high damage ruling the day, while other classes feel as if there's something fundamentally missing from their game experience. There is - it's minions.

Improvements:

[1]
Wherever possible throughout Thunderspire's combat encounters, remove one regular enemy and replace it with two minions of equivalent level. In large combats, swap two enemies for four minions. You'll find the fights are better paced and more satisfying.

EDIT: It's been suggested in the comments that three or four minions per normal monster is a better ratio, and I agree. Depending on the effectiveness of your characters, you may want to go as high as five or six.

[2] A real danger throughout Thunderspire (which I'll be talking about eventually) is what MMO players refer to as "adds". Outnumbered monsters routinely flee to adjacent rooms and bring back allies, which can quickly turn a balanced encounter into a party-killer. You can kill two birds with one stone by declaring all non-named adds to be minions and awarding only half XP for their defeat.

10 comments:

Xtian said...

I would only comment that minions are designed to be worth 1/4 of a normal monster's xp, and they are rarely as effective as a quarter of a monster (more like 1/6 in my experience). I totally agree with your recommendation, but advise that more than 2 minions be added at a time. Just two per fight will die too quickly to be of any significant tactical interest, just making all of the fights easier and less interesting.

Maelora said...

No minions seems to increase the dull, grindy aspect of 4E combat. With the hit point bloat, it seems to make every fight into a dragged-out war of attrition.

GregT said...

Xtian - That's a fair point. With that in mind, given that many of the fight locations are quite cramped, I'd be inclined to go towards three minions per exchanged monster, maybe.

Doom said...

I dunno, my campaign now has players from 7-9th level, and the higher it goes, the goofier the minion mechanic is.

It's way too easy to slaughter hordes of these guys, trivially; by the third round of most combats, they're all gone.

I think 6:1, instead of 4:1, in terms of experience is just a start; with so many auto-damage effects, and more coming every level (which minions have no chance against), they're showing alot of cracks now, and I can't see them being in my adventures in in another level or two, even as I concede they were fun to use at levels 1-3.

Fauxreigner said...

Absolutely agree with the other commenters who have found that a 6:1 minion:regular monster ratio works; it's what I tend to use for my group and they really enjoy it (Plus I get to hear them say "I didn't think there would be THIS many goblins" which is a joy.)

One mechanic I've seen tried, but haven't used personally, is to make "elite" minions; minions that take two hits to down, unless you do more than X damage in a hit (the DM I know who used this said 10+ for a low heroic game, I'd be inclined to use the average "High" value from the normal damage expressions table on DMG 185).

It's a little bit more bookkeeping, but by all reports it's a fun mechanic when the players realize they can't just casually toss a Scorching Burst onto the minions and then go back to killing the monsters. It'd also solve the auto damage problem, since they've still got at least a chance to get a shot off.

Xtian said...

Remember though that minions are not intended to do damage. They are designed to soak PC actions. They have decent attacks and damage in order to convince PCs to kill minions (otherwise you would just ignore them), but the really fun combats I've seen rarely saw a minion get off more than one or two attacks.

I like fighting out of a losing position in combat, because you have tense moments and have to work with your party to climb out of the hole. Minions create artificial losing situations, since the PCs spend the majority of their first two turns killing minions, which allows the real threats to achieve tactical advantages (positioning, applying status effects, forcing PCs to spend resources, etc.). Traps and hazards can work in similar ways, but killing minions is exciting and they allow you to create that losing situation without forcing a bad position on the PCs (haha, you're ambushed by kobolds again!).

Fauxreigner said...

Oh sure, and I'm not advocating changing all of your minions this way (I'm not really advocating at all, just sharing an idea I found interesting). But to your point, if you've got PCs doing regular automatic damage (Storm Wardens, Fighters in Rain Of Steel, etc) that can nullify a lot of the "soaking PC actions" benefit of minions.

Also, if you have situations like Greg is talking about, where the rooms are small and can't support a 6:1 minion ratio, using a 3:1 ratio of "elite" minions could help close the gap. The players still need to use 6 or so actions to kill them off (depending on hit rolls and how much damage they do) without it just being a room knee-deep in goblin cutters.

Of course, there's also another of my favorite things to do with minions, which is to make them the reinforcements monsters call in. A room might not have space for six minions plus regular monsters, but I'll bet there's room for two minions each round for the first three rounds.

doubleofive said...

Admittedly, there are a few minions in Thunderspire. A few Norker (?) grunts, in one battle, almost towards the end of the adventure.

Thanks to your inspiration, I'm not going to run this straight as written, I'm going to be adding my own twists and some of your suggestions.

Xtian said...

I like Faux's idea of minions as reinforcements. Or you could flip it around and get roughly the same affect.

I guess bottom line is that minions require lots of specific development and thinking to make the best use of them.

Greg Tannahill said...

Doubleofive. I just found the minions, in Paldemar's tower. Very odd, sitting there by themselves.