A Minion by Any Other Name…

The question of whether characters automatically know if minions are minions has come up several times in both games I’ve played in, and games that I’ve run. Conversations about minion transparency always leads to discussions of what a minion’s role is intended to reflect; in other words, just what exactly do they represent in the game world? Of course, I can’t speak for the designers or other DM’s—I can only answer for myself, and thus let players know what to expect in my own campaigns.

First of all, the word “minion” is an game term and not an in-world term; the town’s Lord Warden isn’t going to describe to the character’s the Bandit King’s minions: “So make sure and hit them with a cloud of daggers, first!” Just like wizards and warriors in the campaign shouldn’t toss around words like “dailies” or “feats” in normal conversation with NPCs, it’s also unlikely that when they say “minion,” they mean anything other than the traditional definition of lackeys, toadies, flunkeys, and mooks.

So what are minions, exactly?

I don’t see minions as fundamentally “different” than any of the other monsters they stand next to—other than the fact that they have one hit point. In every great fantasy tale, you have the bad guys that drop on a single hit, whether the heroes are storming the castle in The Princess Bride or Sauron is attacking the free peoples of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings. Though they are indistinguishable from the rest of their comrades, they fall as if under a lawnmower. They’re there—literally—to have a high body count. After all, how can the characters be larger than life if every opponent takes four to five hits before it drops? You need those mooks to fall like a ton of bricks when hit by a feather.

Minions don’t really have one hit point. A farmer can’t go up to a devil minion, poke him with a pitchfork, and expect the evil bastard to keel over. To an NPC, minions are just as strong as their contemporaries; minions can’t trip each other and suddenly release a domino effect of genocide. This discourse invariably leads into the thematic view of what hit points really mean… which is another discussion altogether. In the end, “minion” isn’t a characteristic of the identified NPC—rather, it’s a characteristic of the relationship between the identified NPC and the characters.

For DMs who want minions to look different, that’s an easy thing to do. Imagine your minions as guards from James Bond movies. They’re not as well trained, have shoddier equipment, and are generally less intelligent. Translate that to a group of minion attackers, and you have weapons and armor that have seen better days, and a line of creatures that have difficulty staying in formation. Of course there are shades of grey between minions that look like everyone else and minions that fumble over each other, but that’s for other DMs to discover for their own games.

In my games, I feel it’s important the players know who the minions are, and not by trial and error. After all, what can be worse than for a player to drop his character’s daily on a group of minions? It’s definitely against 4th Edition’s number one rule to have fun.

The bottom line is: Any player may ask which miniatures represent the minions. However, in the game world, minions are just as deadly as everyone else.

I have a discussion going on over at EN World that reveals other DM’s thoughts on minions and whether or not they let their players know about them right away.