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.

Speaking of monster books, be sure to download our monster books for Pathfinder 1e, DnD 5e, and Mongoose Traveller 2e.

5e/Pathfinder/13th Age: Guide to Mini-Bosses

There’s a short story by Janni Lee Simner called Practical Villany that I particularly love. It’s from the villain’s point of view. The opening line is “The first thing I want you to know is that I drowned those kittens for a reason.” It’s a dark comedy about a villain talking to his latest kidnapee about his rebellious daughter that turned hero, betraying the family business. In the story, the author talks about how evil is a business while heroes are just one person. That is where mini-bosses come in. Mini-bosses are akin to mid-level managers. The real question is why would someone in a fantasy RPG world need them.

No matter which level-based fantasy game you play, you get more powerful by level. You are obviously more powerful at level 2 than level 1 and even still more powerful at level 3 and so on. The same is true for your main enemy. They didn’t try to take over the world at level 1. They worked to amass enough wealth and influence and easily outclass the adventurers at the start of the campaign. So why are they employing people that can’t hold their own against a plucky group of low levels?

1) Your Big Bad Has a Source of Revenue and Power that Must be Maintained

Your big bad has a source of income that still needs to be maintained, and they are busy with taking over the city/country/worlds. So the actual job of generating that income has to be in the hands of some trusted aid to oversee the operation. Whether that operation is a kobold mining company digging up gold, orc hunters that sell skins for leather armor, or an ogre timber consortium, they have to perform operations far to trivial for the big bad to do. The problem comes in when they interact with the humanoid races. Do the kobolds breech into a dwarven mine or a gnome village? Do the orcs kill the cows of a small hamlet? Are the elves upset the trees are being felled? The people doing the work need direction and someone to pay them for their work, someone that represents the big bad to the workers. That is a mini-boss. Remember, any good business has lots of moving parts to it (different managers in charge of different workers at different locations all doing the same job, different departments doing different jobs, etc.). That is a lot of different mini-bosses at a number of different difficulty levels. In this case, the employees are minions.

2) Your Big Bad Doesn’t Have Every Skill or Ability

The person at the top simply can’t have every skill or talent possible in the whole world. CEOs hire accountants and lawyers to help them navigate those arenas. Your big bad trying to take over the city/country/world needs someone to advise them on the way to the crown and how to finance it. So your mini-bosses can be advisers to the big bad in their specialty field. Other possible advisers include a cleric of an influential church and the big bad isn’t a follower of the deity or doesn’t have any divine casting ability, a public relations bard to smooth over incidents like the kobolds invading the dwarven mines, and a spiritual advisory monk.

The important thing to remember with advisers is that they should fill two roles: the official one and an unofficial one. The official one is the job for which they are known. This is their day job, how this adviser is presented in the public. The unofficial one should be the real reason that person in particular was hired by the big bad. Does the financial advisory funnel money from the crown to the big bad? Does the cleric get people (more minions) to act against their interests in the name of the religion? Is the public relations bard in charge of spreading disinformation? All of these roles a big bad needs done and these make great mini-bosses.

3) Dirty Workers

Bad guys are not known for fighting fair. Once the adventurers have been identified as disrupting some small plans, they should have someone to deal with them. Assassination attempts have been done and the players will see that coming. Instead, trying having the big bad hire the adventurers for a job they are not qualified, like killing a monster that is more powerful than they can handle. Have the public relations bard hire them, apologizing for any previous incidents involving low-level managers, and praise them for bringing such bad actors in their organization to light. The job is something like clearing out a cave where some new miners will be going soon. The adventurers aren’t told there’s a dragon in there. The dragon will be warned and compensated for it’s trouble. Naturally the dragon will have his own minions to soften you up in your way there. The idea behind this is that if the adventurers never return, no one will miss them or possibly figure they left for another problem elsewhere. As an added bonus, the public relations bard can claim they had bad information and apologize for their near deaths. By doing this, you turn what would otherwise be a single encounter into a night’s game session and they might even believe the big bad isn’t so bad.

Every mini-boss need minions and we have some excellent ones in the Book of Beasts series, available now for Pathfinder, Fifth Edition, and 13th Age. Download them now.

Traveller: Using Monsters

I want to take a break from our usual Monster Wednesday for a moment and discuss the reasons to use monsters in Traveller. In games of fantasy like D&D and Pathfinder, using monsters is fairly obvious. In cases like lions and owlbears, it is a case of survival, a man vs nature story. For orcs and goblins, they are a stand in for uncivilized humans in a non-magical world. When it comes to zombies, dragons, and devils, they represent an aspect of humanity and our fears rather than an individual human. But what about science fiction in general and Traveller in specific. How should you use them? In my opinion, Star Wars is the best place to look for how to use sci-fi monsters well.

1) Essential Part of Native Life

While the sand people would be NPC aliens, the elephants covered in rugs that they rode we’re an essential part of their life. Remember that just because you have high tech people living on a planet doesn’t mean the natives are integrated and can use the technology. Some will still use animals as a significant part of their daily life, whether for transportation, protection, or a food source. No one says that that animal has to be docile.

Suggestion: When dealing with primative life, give them some kind of animal to make their life easier.

2) Dangerous Fauna

“Nuke them from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure.” When you are colonizing a whole planet, you’ll want to eliminate the local dangerous fauna. However, if you are not a sizable government with sizable resources, you’re not going to do the job well. Take the Rebellion for example. They only had enough resources to establish a small base on Hoth. They couldn’t waste resources to eliminate all the snow creatures like the kind that got Luke. In fact, if you watch the outtakes, you’d see that one even made its way into the rebel base. Random encounter, right there.

Suggestion: Have some kind of monster spring up as random violence when you are not in a hub of civilization.

3) Cheap Short Range Vehicles

If you’ve looked in the Vehicle Handbook, you’d know that high tech vehicles are expensive. So if you are not going far, ride something there. They come so much less, especially if you are just taking them from the wild instead of buying them. Just because riding an animal is low tech doesn’t mean that the saddle has to be from another century. Not to mention, if you are in an extreme environment, like Hoth, they will probably be better adapted to the climate than your vehicles. Additionally, different cultures use animals in different ways. Some might ceremonial roles or as symbols of their people. As a final bonus, they are meat and warmth if you are stuck in a bad situation, even if you thought they smelled bad on the outside.

Suggestion: To emphasize different cultural or economic conditions, have a high tech popilation ride animals.

4) Pets

Having a pet adds flavor to a character. Dr Evil and his hairless cat. Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Jabba and the rancor. What does it say about Jabba that he kept a rancor? That he liked watching people being eaten right in front of him. That he wants to be feared. That he likes associating himself with powerful creatures. That he is over compensating. Probably all of the above.

Suggestion: Give a dangerous person a dangerous pet.

5) Entertainment

The Last Jedi had animal racing that the wealthy were betting on. Animal racing is a common use and can be used in your game. Animals fighting each other can also be used. Imagine how much damage the fighting animals can cause if they escape.

Suggestion: Add some flavor to a location by using animals as entertainment.

Get yourself a whole some quality monsters for your Traveller game today with the Creatures of Distant Worlds. Download this book and anything else at the JBE Shop using the “holiday2017” coupon code to get 30% off today. You can also download it at DriveThruRPG/RPGNow and the Open Gaming Store.

Any Traveller NPC On The Fly

When I am prepping a Traveller game to run at home or a convention, I will always take the time to stat up an NPC and come up with a full backstory. This way, I always have consistent skills, the right number of dice for weapons damage and the exact equipment the character should have. This should be part of any good GM’s prep before running a game. Yet when the players catch me off guard and I have to have a Traveller character on the fly, I don’t bother looking in any books. I just remember these simple rules:

1) Pick a Theme

This may seem obvious, but it must be stated upfront: have a theme for the NPC. If I don’t, I quickly have NPCs that are good at everything. To combat this, I pick a theme and I stick to that theme for the character. It can be as simple as “doctor” or as complex as “down on their luck stock trader who took up painting.” Either way, their theme is pretty simple as it only needs to get me through the game session so I can stat them out fully (should the NPC survive that long). That theme dictates what skills, characteristics, and other bonuses the person should and should not have.

2) Bonus Tree from Competent to Incompetent

In much the same way that the difficulty goes up or down depending on how difficult any particular challenge is, I keep a ladder in my head of what bonus to add to any roll. Here’s what I use:

Bonus When To Use How Many Skills
+4 Exceptional Max 1
+2 Professional 1-3
+1 Above Average 2-4
+0 Average 3-6
–1 Below Average 4-8
–3 Never Exposed Before All the Rest

Take the Doctor for a second. For an exceptional brain surgeon, I’d give them a +4 Medic, but for your average family doctor, their Medic would be +2. Related skills like Science (biology) and Admin would be +2. If the subject of art came up like if the doctor was talking to the stock trader, I could assume the doctor took an art history class in college for fun so is not a complete noob at it and would get a –1.

The down on their luck stock trader, well that person is down on their luck because they are not all that skilled at it to begin with. So I would give them a +1 in Broker, Carouse, and Gambler, +0 in Admin, Art, Persuade, and Streetwise.

Even then, I wouldn’t write these numbers down. This is just what I’d assume based based on the theme. If, by the end of the session, it looked like the NPC would return, I would write down those stats after the game while it was still fresh in my mind so I had it for next time.

3) Weapons and Armor

While I can fudge weapons and armor in a pinch, I pretty much keep these stats on a sheet close by.

User Armor Bonus Weapon Damage
Military +15 5D+3 Zero-G or 4D, AP 5, Auto 3
Police +10 3D Stun, Zero G or 3D, AP 3, Auto 2
Survivalist +8 3D, Auto 3
Paranoid +3 3D-3 or 2D Melee, Stun
Stealth +1 2D Body
Unprepared/Civilian +0 1D unarmed

Like I said, I keep this with me. Even if I remember what the police officer’s weapons and armor is, that doesn’t mean that the players will strip them of it after knocking the person out and then they are left with being an unprepared/civilian entry. This little preparation makes running a game quick and easy for when (not if) the players run the game off the rails.

If you really want to be prepared for any name you could possibly need, get yourself the d66 Compendium and its sequel, the D66 Compendium 2. Both are available at in Print and PDF at DriveThruRPG/RPGNow. Order your copy today.

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