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What is the maximum number of minions that can be pitted against a party 0f 5 characters of equal level without being overwhelming (as defined by the DMG)?

ie: How many Kobold minions can I pit against my first level party and expect them to survive?

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8 Answers 8

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I think you can use "up to the XP budget or a little beyond" with minions without it being overwhelming, but give the PCs some hooks- put in choke points (to cut off a full surround), and open spaces (to let some PCs get surrounded if that's what they want), elevations to escape, hazards like firepits and such that minions can be shoved into.. and even things like opening and closing doors to bottleneck the encounter if it does get out of hand. If you add a "running battle" element to it, it's also fun-- (ie, cross the battlemat in X rounds while minion after minion after minion keeps jumping up to slow down and hinder the PCs).

Good examples of the running battle- the flooding dungeon/sinking ship, the room that's slowly tilting into lava, get out before the bomb goes off/demon gets summoned/gate collapses...

Minions are great for fast paced scenes! Just don't stick the PCs in a room and surround them with minions to trade blows.

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This will definitely vary by level; minion damage goes up by less than 1 point per level, while PC hit points go up at least 4 points per level, so PCs will become sturdier in relation to the amount of damage minions can do.

Hm. Let's work out a light version of the math. For the sake of argument, let's say your PCs kill about 1 minion apiece per round. Some will manage more, some will manage less -- it's a working average. Minions should hit PCs about half the time. At first level, minions are doing 4 points of damage, which is maybe a sixth of a typical PCs hit points at that level.

So 20 minions will do 10 chunks of damage on the first round. Spread it evenly; you've got all the PCs 1/3rd of the way down. 5 minions are removed by the brave PCs, leaving us with 15. On the second round, 7 of them do damage, and all the PCs are bloodied. Then we're down to 10 minions, 5 of whom do damage; then 5, 3 of whom do damage; then none. Total chunks of damage is 25, which leaves the PCs seriously hurt but not down.

That's kind of a poor approximation since it didn't figure healing, and it assumes the minions are too dumb to focus fire, but it might work OK for a rule of thumb. What I've done in practice is stage minions (or other monsters) in waves. When the PCs are bloodied, you can hint that the flow is slackening. When they're close to down, you can throw in one more wave and call it done. If you keep a straight face your players won't ever know.

On the other hand, that might violate the game contract -- I tend to run for effect more than simulating a world, and some people dislike that, which is cool. To each their own! So I'd think about social issues before using that piece of sleight of hand. Choosing to focus or not focus fire might be a more acceptable way to go about it; those minions, as noted, will be much more dangerous if they all attack the healer on the first round.

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Some solid reasoning Bryant. I'd only add in to keep in mind minion interaction. Some minions gain bonuses based on how many others are round. This can snowball very quickly if you aren't careful. The flipside is true if you send the minions in waves. Waves of minions are often worth half of what groups are worth. –  SladeWeston Sep 7 '10 at 23:55
I concur. Mind you, the flip side of waves is that sometimes the players assume the encounter is almost over and use up their encounter powers, but that's more relevant for non-minions. –  Bryant Sep 8 '10 at 0:15

I put a level 4 party up against about 60 zombies minions once.

I was after the "overwhelming numbers wading through them in swathes zombie attack" kinda feel.

I fiddled it a bit here and there so they were a bit more useless than they could have been if I wanted to try and kill the party.

So the answer really is, as many as you can get away with, without the players feeling that you broke the rules at all!

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I ran an encounter with 36 decrepit skeletons and it was a lot of fun. Overwhelming minions is hilarious, especially if the PCs have some area bursts. –  Peter Seckler Sep 6 '10 at 17:39

I think there are two answers to this sort of question: a mechanical and a philosophical answer.

Mechanical: This is fairly dependent on the level of the characters in question and the minions themselves. However, we can use your question of first level characters under assault by an army of Kobold Minions. Assuming the five players are arranged in a star pattern (which would minimize the number of attacks afforded the kobolds), the kobolds (without reach weapons) are afforded 16 attacks per turn (assuming they choose to cluster around the players rather than simply attack from range and elevation with those javelins).

o = kobold x = player


For our players, let's give them an average AC of 17, 20 hit points and a +6 to hit (this is a rough feel average, but shouldn't be too far off base). At +5 to hit, you're looking at our kobolds hitting on any roll of 12-20 (45% chance to hit). So on average, you're looking at 8 hits per turn (it's actually a bit less than that, but we'll keep things in whole numbers to keep it simple) or about 32 points of damage a turn. Our players on the other hand are a bit better off, hitting on a roll of 9-20 (60% chance to hit). This results in a straight 3 hits per turn, or three dead kobolds per turn. If we assume damage is distributed evenly across all of our players (it isn't, but it's a simplification necessary for this discussion), we see that all of our heroes will be on their way to pushing up daisies in a bit over 3 turns (at 32 points of damage per turn with 100 hit points in the player aggregate). In that time, our heroes will have dispatched 9 kobolds. Not quite as many as you may have thought. Of course, this ignores a number of things (burst attacks, clever play by the DM, etc) and it changes pretty radically as the player characters achieve higher levels (players develop stats much more rapidly than the corresponding level of minion). Interestingly, just 25 kobold minions is a level 2 encounter which seems a bit surprising for an encounter that would be ultimately fatal (the moral of our story here is that minions who are able to restrict the movement of the players are much deadlier than you think).

Philosophical: 4E players rapidly develop a sense for "oh, more minions" and tend to get bored by them in my experience. As such, I try to limit their uses to locking the players down (inhibiting their mobility for a turn or two), giving the players a burst of confidence (sometimes as a morale boost and sometimes to set them up for something else) or as plot devices. Any time I would need truly large hordes of minions, I find that the 4E rules leave me unequipped to tell that type of epic story and I will typically borrow the large-scale conflict rules from a game like Reign instead - using these higher level rules to determine the fate of hundreds/thousands at a time while the players focus on the more personal conflicts with their opposing number (enemy generals, wizards, etc).

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Bear in mind that depending on the terrain only a handfull of them will be able to actualy engage the characetrs in combat at any one time anyway. Provide the players with tactical choices. if they back into the tunnels, even fewer enemies will be able to engage them, but they risk beign backed into a corner. If an army of allies is on it's way, or the temple is about to collapse, etc then characetr just need to be able to survive against the odds long enough.

There's more to the game than the mundane technicalities of the combat mechanics, think about the strategic and tactical situation and how you can use that to increase the drama of the situation.

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I was thinking that. Given the right circumstances, a single mage could take on pretty much an infinite number of very high-level minions using a guaranteed hit attack. A few that come to mind available to first level mages would be flaming sphere and wall of daggers, either can make a narrow hallway impassible to minions and the flaming sphere can be maintained from an angle such that most (all?) minions could never get an attack in without taking the damage--the minor sustain means it wouldn't even limit his ability to respond to non-minions. –  Bill K Oct 26 '10 at 17:41

Another factor that's very important -- what opportunity do the players have for attacking multiple targets? Minions addressing a party with a paucity of area-effect powers are going to be more powerful. Any chance the PCs have to swath through the opposition is going to reduce their effectiveness accordingly. If the PCs are light on AoE attacks, you might want to add features to the terrain that they can use to their advantage in making creative multiple-target damage (vats of oil that can be spilled and lit on fire, and so forth).

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To get the best feel for a "high number" of minions, have more of them arrive every round, some resurrect, teleport in, etc... rather than starting with a high number.

Any reasonably equipped high heroic+ party will be able to handle incredibly large amounts of minions without breaking a sweat. Controller zones, defender stances, striker stances, and so on all make for minion-popping love. Instead, have minions be staged out over a number of waves (but only cost for one, as extra minions will almost certainly not be worth their XP, once the party has its minion-popping mechanics up.

As a rough rule, 1 minion's XP cost should provide 4-5 rounds of "minion fun." With new waves of minions appearing at interesting times on the board.

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Recently the save vs death blog posted a neat implementation for using masses of minions, by creating a hazard which produces minions until it is shut down.

A cool effect of this is that your players have some control of how many minions they fight as they have decisions to make as to kill more minions, or wait to kill them till after the generator is shut down.

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