Recent experience DMing my 4th Edition campaign has gotten me thinking about the minions concept.
Overall, the minions concept is an aspect of 4e that I really like. The idea of a mighty hero hacking his way through a horde of orcs like Aragon in the Fellowship of the Ring film is cool. It also allows the DM to present an interesting tactical situation: the hordes of minions (because, let’s face it, they rarely travel alone) can be dangerous to the player characters, yet they can be easily defeated. They are more bite than bark, as it were. It makes for an atypical combat situation and I like it.
It’s admittedly hard at times to get my head around the idea of 1-HP giant minions, but I mentally justify the idea by telling myself that the 1 HP is just a contrivance to ensure that one hit downs these guys, and that any character fighting giants should be at a level to do a considerable amount of damage in a single hit!
On the downside—and there’s always a downside to most RPG rules in my experience—as a DM I’ve grown to dread the inevitable player statement that is bound to come: “Oh, they’re just minions!” I don’t blame the players for this metagaming lapse; I could no more expect a player not to say/think this than I could expect them not to picture a striped horse when I say “zebra.” But I don’t have to like it.
I mitigate the minion “discovery problem” by mixing up my humanoids and making it difficult to discern minions, thus making it a trial and error process to determine which figures on the table might actually be minions. This helps. But still…
So recently I’ve toyed with adding concept of super-minions to my game.
What’s a super-minion? It’s a minion that lasts just a bit longer—two hits to be precise. Short enough to still have a minion effect in combat but long enough that players, when seeing that one strike didn’t do the job, will have some doubts as to what they face.
How to implement this? Giving each super-minion more than 1 HP, say 5 or 10 HP, isn’t the way I’d do it. That’s too much calculating for the DM. The real beauty of minions in 4e is the ease of the one-hit drop rule. No, something simpler is needed. I’d propose a two-hit rule. On the second strike that does damage, the super-minion falls.
Of course, this could lead to some oddities, such as a super-minion being struck once for 6 HP damage and staying upright while another super-minion is struck twice for 2 HP both times and dying. But this might contribute to keeping the players uncertain about what they face. Savvy players—and aren’t they all?—may of course determine that two-hits-and-down equals a super-minion, but hey, no system is perfect…