Thinking back on zombies and vampires, with their victims as “converts” to their cause actually got me thinking about the role of minions and mooks, and how they tend to be handled in gaming. I thought about how minions are handled in Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, and how they don’t really live up to the expectations of minions. What is the point of an unstoppable horde, really?

I sort of figured the problem was how individual minions, or members of a mob, could be targeted and eliminated one at a time. When they only have one hit point, they don’t really present the same scary, dangerous thing that an unstoppable horde of minions is supposed to represent. You just wipe them all out and it’s done.

No. No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. That’s wrong. That isn’t how it should be at all. I don’t know why it’s taken me such a long time to realize it, but I think I figured it out while I was thinking about abstracting character roles and all that. The way you take out an unstoppable horde is with artillery. Or the cavalry. Or a heroic sacrifice that costs you part of your team. Or you completely exhaust your resources.

I figured out what the “spread” part of the combat attributes is supposed to represent. It’s designed to directly counter a defensive effect that produces multiple foes. If you use massed infantry to attack (which is essentially what a horde represents, whether they’re mindless zombies, or whatever), then the proper countermeasure should be to use area-effect attacks. The enemy should have normal hit points.

I guess this is now primarily a rant against Fourth Edition. “Minion” is a misnomer. I’ll admit that there’s a clear benefit requiring a single hit to kill some enemies, but calling them minions is incredibly misleading. In the event that the game master wants to throw the equivalent a horde of zombies at the party, and wants them to represent an unstoppable horde that actually does something, they should use swarms.

The role of the one-hit point “minion” should be the combat equivalent of a Skill Challenge. “Kill this guy to trigger an effect” is the role a minion should serve. Not “replace one monster with four,” because that just doesn’t work. You use a minion when you want a player to make an attack roll for a Skill Challenge instead of a skill check. You use a swarm if you want an actual monster on the field.