5e/Pathfinder/13th Age: Guide to Minions
In a previous post, I wrote up a guide to mini-bosses. The thing about mini-bosses, they’re nothing without those to boss around. Today we are following that post up with the group that makes the last group possible: minions.
Minions come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of willingness. While fantasy and science fiction races that are weak, selfish, and not particularly clever are typically seen as the normal minion groups, always remember the Empire in Star Wars treated Wookiees as minions and that species is anything but weak or selfish and Chewbacca proved they are quite clever. So what makes a minion a minion?
1) Minions are Controlled in Some Fashion
Whether it is a psychic link that takes over a mind or a security of a regular pay check, the mini-boss gives orders and the minion follows. That at the end of the day that is what makes a minion a minion. Does that make most of the civilized world someone’s minion? Yes actually it does. However, I am not advocating you overthrow your boss. Remember it is both the organization treats those minions as well as those outside the organization that determines whether the company is evil or not. A lumber company that hires orcs and hill giants as a way to give them honest work as opposed to raiding human villages, gets all the appropriate permits in an above board fashion, works with the local fey to remove select trees with their permission, and hires orcs to guard the logs on their way to the mill still uses minion even if those minions are working for a good company. Compare that with the human only lumber company that bribed officials to work a section of forest right next to the good company. They attack the fey and fight the hill giants and ogres whenever they leave the human permitted area and enter the other company’s territory prompting both to defend themselves and possibly attack back. Not only does the human company fail to plant new trees but they also try to steal the felled trees from the other lumber company. This company as well uses minions. The first one controls their people with a regular pay check and a desire to be law-abiding citizens; the second controls their minions through a desire for violence and quick cash.
While the word minion has negative connotations, it covers employee, freelance contractor, slave, indentured servant, thrall, and many others just to name a few. Use the full breadth of the term to give real variation to your organizations, evil or otherwise.
2) Minions Fill a Variety of Roles and Can Be Found at Every Level
Frequently, I hear the question, “Why doesn’t [insert name of ultra high level NPC in the setting] just take care of this minor problem?” The answer is simple: they can’t handle everything. Take a modern world variation of that problem: if you have a question on your taxes, do you go to the best accountant in the world or do you go to the local accounting firm and ask someone there (an accounting minion to use a gamified term)? The best in the world is busy handling other cases that can pay more. Instead, we get it handled by an accounting minion. Now if you start a business and it becomes rather sizable, you’ll need higher level accounting minions. You wouldn’t ask them to do plumbing work because they do not fill that role. You would need a minion that is trained in plumbing.
Same is true for fantasy games. Kobolds are the go-to minions when mining, gnolls when taking slaves, hobgoblins when needing military like precision, goblins for random violence, and orcs when slaughtering people indiscriminately. Each of these has their own role. So why not just have a higher level one handle this? Well the higher level hobgoblin is training the next group of recruits, the higher level gnolls are working their connections to sell their slaves, higher level kobolds are scouting out potential caves to mine, and on and on. The higher level ones have better uses for their time than to do the same thing as their lower level compatriots.
So when you get to a higher level, you need new minions to fight. Demons, devil’s, undead, and giants are the classics. Unless you are playing a convention/organized play-style game where one session has nothing to do with the other, these higher level minions are working towards the same end (if a different aspect of the overall plan) as those same low level minions. Why would the giants and devils be working towards the same ends as the kobolds and gnolls? The simple answer is ‘because the big boss of the whole campaign is all having them work towards a single goal.’ While you could train up a bunch of orcs to do your bidding instead of working with a number of different groups, it would be much simpler to take advantage of some other group of minions’ natural strengths when they lend themselves to solving a particular problem. Just like you don’t ask an accountant to do plumbing, you don’t ask a goblin to solve a problem that a requires patience and planning, things devils excel at. So change up the monsters you are using as minions to fulfill a different aspect of your big bad’s overall plan.
3) Minions Have Similar Stats, Despite Being Individuals
Minions are a collection of individuals. Each one has different stats if you wanted to take the time to create unique stats for each. However, minions can instead be represented by a single stat block. Sure, that single stat block is not going to catch the nuance of one loving to solve true crime mysteries while another appreciates listening to music, but if all you are having them do is fight the PCs, then those abilities don’t really matter. Making a minion stat block that presents average stats for a group saves considerable time.
Back to that accounting example for a second. All those accountants at the tax firm can be represented by a single stat block. You don’t need to assign stats for their individual hobbies and other life events unless it is somehow relevant. You’ll need their ability to crunch numbers and use their stapler offensively. Maybe wield a letter opener if you want to be cute about it. Remember these are supposed to be average stats for the group, not specific stats for everyone. Making a single stat block for the whole group doesn’t prevent you from making a single stat block for a specific accountant. So you can have a stat block for the NPC that discovered the company’s fraud and became the whistle blower. Had that NPC not done that and just stayed another face in the crowd, they would still be just another minion with the same minion stats. As always, the Order of the Stick has a great comic that exemplifies what it is like going from a minion to a named NPC.
Quick tangent here: feel free to change the stats of any monster in the monster books. If the book says a lizardfolk has 5 hit dice (as an example), feel free to make it 3 if it fits your needs that way. Five is just an average. Maybe this tribe is composed of young lizardfolk. Maybe they’ve been starved or are sickly. The book has average stats. Raise or lower them as your game needs. This goes doubly true for specific NPCs instead of minions. Individuals can vary widely from the average of their kind. Just remember to change its level of difficulty to match the new stats.