Sometimes in the course of running an adventure you will run into an encounter that calls for a summoner to bring on a horde of undead (often minions).

I have a simple problem: My summoners die in the first round or two, sometimes before they even manage to get a turn.

Even if there are other monsters in the room prepared to defend the summoner, they are often ignored in favor of focused fire on the summoner, who is either killed before having a chance to act or after just a turn of action.

How can I support my summoners in a way that they actually get a chance to summon?

  • \$\begingroup\$ What classes are in the party? and what level? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 20:09
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ L9, Human Barb, Dragonborn Sorcerer, Human Rogue, Dwarf Warden, Githrazi Wizard, Human cleric. However the question does go beyond this party to general DM tactics.... \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 20:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right I was a bit curious. I rarely have trouble with this, and so I was thinking maybe half the party is ranged strikers, but you only have 2. I usually make my encounters a bit more difficult that suggested. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 20:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MaskedPlant the rogue is most definitely melee. the problem is they tend to just skirt around or out right ignore any kind of protection and dispatch the summoner first... \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 20:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was assuming the rogue was, but the Wizard is Githrazi, which I would assume is for 1 reason: striker damage as a controller. I will write an answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 20:25

8 Answers 8


Be Prepared

If the party makes a bunch of noise on the way in, the summoning should be completed just as they arive. To get this effect, simply have an encounter outside the necromancer's room - plenty of warning.

Cover / Line of Sight

The necromancer should have easy access to cover, and the other monsters should provide barriers to line-of-sight.


If you're not opposed to adding powers to your elites/bosses, consider two types: defensive and healing.

A minor action to go invisible until next attack works well. Nothing like a -5 modifier to convince the party not waste daily/encounter powers on the boss.

Likewise, allowing the necromancer to banish a minion to provide temporary HP also works well - this way you get the benefit of the ignored monster transferred directly to the necromancer.

Snilvor, Goblin Emissaryddi (In the DM's Kit adventure)

Triggered Actions

"Die For Me" At-Will

Trigger: A minion ally within Snilvor’s line of sight drops to 0 hit points.

Effect (No Action): Snilvor gains 5 temporary hit points.


F. Randall Farmer has some great suggestions, I would like to add a few more.

Change the Map

Test out much larger fighting areas, or close ones with many levels of height, this makes moving around rather difficult.

Take a look at what supports the summoner

Think about having a controller to slow the party down in getting to the Summoner.

Take a better look at what your defenders are. If you party tends to ignore them, find ones that punish this.

For example monsters that get bonuses for team fighting, then pick one PC that has some trouble skirting the others or gets separated and focus fire on that PC. This is usually less popular and not as fun for the PC's but you only have to do this once or twice before they get the idea. And at level 9 a raise dead ritual isn't very costly.

Or ones that have status effects. PCs usually find it hard to run around someone slowing them. Or find it nearly worthless to get to a summoner while they are weakened and doing half damage.

I will add specific examples of monsters tonight when I have access to the monster database again.


Without repeating some of the answers that have already been given (which are great), a simple solution that is very thematic for a necromancer is that he simply sacrifices his minions on his behalf. Give him an At-Will Immediate Interrupt that lets him redirect all damage taken to one of his allies within 5 squares.

Double bonus if his allies have death triggers.

An alternative that works very well but requires you as the DM to be very in tune with your players is to simply give the boss extra action points and a select number of big, scary powers; these powers would be a bit stronger than "normal" for a creature of his level. If you know he isn't going to live longer than a round, then let him essentially "alpha strike" the party and put the fear of god in them before dying. This isn't a tactic I would recommend for every boss encounter, but it's a great way to change up the formula once in a while and add some immediate tension to the room.

Lastly, there is always the option to "cheat": Forget rolling initiative for the boss, just declare he goes first. (This usually goes hand in hand with the alpha strike option.) It's a bit inelegant and you have to be very careful that the party doesn't feel like they've been set up in a "death box" ready for the boss to drop all of his powerful bursts and blasts on them, but it's a great way to just ensure he gets to be scary at least once.


If I understand correctly, the players know that minions are worthless and weak, and thus ignore them completely and go straight for the big-boss, right? They allow themselves to be attacked once or twice along the way, because they know they can handle it?

If so, it's time to give the minions some added firepower. Remember, just because they're minions and easily dispatched doesn't mean they can't deal out a lot of hurt. In my view, if a players' tactical "I can handle a hit or two" considerations are shared with the character, something is wrong. I have a hard time imagining an adventurer telling himself "Yeah, I don't mind getting stabbed two or three times along the way". Make the characters FEAR getting hurt.

How? You said it's a necromancer, right? Have the minions be nastier. Zombie bites can be infectious, so even a minor hit doing little damage can have serious consequences for the rest of the encounter. Skeleton hands can remain animated even after the minion is dispatched, hanging on to the character, giving additional encounter-level penalties to the one who killed them.

Make the characters care about the minions. Make them fear the minions. Make them spend their encounter burst/blast powers to handle the minions first, because if they turn their back on them, they're toast.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Two-hit minions have been an effective way for me to beef up mine. By mixing them in with traditional one-hit minions, you can keep the players guessing pretty well. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 13:06

The best way is to treat your "boss" type encounters, or even lesser ones, intelligently.

Why would there not be traps or an alarm system to warn them? A necromancer may not be a field general, but why would they not use their brain to set up the situation geared in their favor ahead of time? The ability to make plans AND decisions on the fly using their abilities is the PC's most powerful ability... in my opinion... and why not have some of their opponents do the same? Brain-power is the PC's and NPC's best weapon.

Also, spice things up a little bit. Why not have a skeleton wearing the necromancer robes and the necromancer disguised as a servant or in the shadows wearing a black suit painted to look like a skeleton from a distance? Have a few inanimate targets the PC's can make assumptions about and waste time and energy on. Have the necromancer controlling some undead permanently, so there's always a few with them. Look up the old Death Master class and let the necromancer have some abilities like that. I come from a world where story trumps mechanics though... your players may cry "foul" if you go too far.


Probably the easiest option is to have the summoner already have his minions out and ready when the party gets there. Why would someone who is traditionally weak in a one-on-one confrontation wait until the confrontation actually happens? He'd want to have the upper hand going in. Also what the others said about having the summoner out of sight. Invisibility works, so do slightly more insane options. Maybe as the party enters the room, he's perched up on the support beams or a ceiling fixture. Maybe he's phase-shifted just enough that they can't hit him.

He could also be masquerading as something else, especially if he has the feats that let him cast unnoticed. This works doubly well if there's some obvious target set up as the patsy. Perhaps some lieutenant commanding the minions. Maybe just some unfortunate schmo who gets to wear the impressive robes and then get whacked by the party. The actual summoner could be posing as an assistant, a servant, even another monster.

If your party's high enough level to handle it, consider a multi-classed summoner. The party evidently goes after the summoner first because they recognize him as a summoner. But if he's got a couple of levels of something else, he won't be immediately identifiable. Especially if those couple levels are a combat class and/or it's a monstrous humanoid like an ogre or bugbear. As long as they don't see the summoning go down or figure out where it's coming from, there would be no reason to assume the one that looks like a fighter is actually the summoner. The additional class would probably also give it some more soak potential and thus more staying power.

While these all directly address the summoner part of the equation, you could also do away with the summoner entirely, or use it as bait. Instead of a summoner and a horde of minions, maybe it's a squad of a couple of toughs and some nasty little bitey things. Or maybe while they're busy giving the unfortunate summoner a steel enema, a bard or another type of mage starts screwing with their stats, or laying down the mind control. Or a cleric or a druid could do some horrible, horrible things to them. The players have identified the game as Summoning Central, and have identified the summoners as the priority target, and I can't say that I fault their logic. So change it up a little. Surprise them. They always take out the summoners because there is always a summoner to take out. That's the thing about players. If the encounters are predictable, they'll learn how to demolish them in the most efficient way possible.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Keep in mind that this is a 4e question. While your ideas are solid a good chunk of your terminology is from previous editions. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented May 3, 2012 at 15:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @waxeagle My apologies. I haven't played 4e and I don't know the terms; I missed the tag. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ria Hawk
    Commented May 3, 2012 at 18:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ no problem, in general its good advice. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented May 3, 2012 at 18:10

This is kinda one of the issues of every game; players realize who they should hit at; there's a few things I do with my big bad mages/squishies to keep them alive and casting;

  1. Give them armor; this doesn't work in D&D so much, but I like to make sure that all my Shadowrun mages are at least as well equipped as their mundane counterparts; arcane spellcasters can be buffed with spell resistance and Mage Armor and equivalents (you may have to Rule Zero this), and divine spellcasters are fine either way (I like to mix things up and have evil clerics once in a while.
  2. Bonus health; this is a bit cheap, but it keeps them up. I also like to do an arbitrary number of turns before they can die if my players have a massive amount of offensive power; I balance this by letting them fight with lower-tier spells for the beginning of the battle.
  3. Out of Sight; my players almost never see summoners in the first turn, and in a Pathfinder game I play in the GM is cautious to keep them well out of reach (a difficult feat given our party's love of long-range abilities). Summons almost never require line-of-sight to maintain in any system or setting, so I'd say that you're fine with a boss who's ordering his minions to attack from afar. Players who teleport/mad-dash rush the summoner can be picked off easily.
  4. Preparation; I suggest making all your boss battles have some check beforehand to prevent alarming the boss, that way they come with all their summons and may have already begun to flee/reassess their position unless the players are careful. Players will have to deal with their most powerful abilities, and the summoner should have buffed himself as is possible/practical for his build.
  5. Rumors of my death...; one thing I've found is that if you narrate that a boss or foe goes down, the players assume it's dead. You may want to contemplate the summoner playing dead; if they have still and/or quiet spell metamagic they can do this with startling effectiveness while still troubling the players. This could also be useful if you were to say that there was something with necromancer/lich transitions that allowed him to survive.
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    \$\begingroup\$ In general I agree, but I'd say: don't overdo it - the game is there to support "clever" players, that find the easiest way to overcome their opponents in order to complete the adventure. If you try to "frustrate" their being clever to hit the necromancer, ignoring a bit his minions, you may risk going against the "spirit" of the game and turning them in a bunch of "juggernaut" team, trying to beat up whatever moves in front of them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yaztromo
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 21:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I don't think it's a good idea to make things impossible, nor is it a good idea to make things too easy; I had to take away most of the gear from my Shadowrunners because they had each gotten high-tech gear and were capable of taking down helicopters and tanks and the like with startling regularity. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 22:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for #5. Or maybe he'll just play dead and sneak away while the party is distracted to plot his eventual revenge. \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 15:20

First of all, make sure that you are using your monster's abilities to the fullest. Study them for a while, often if they have some obscure ability or attack and you can't figure out why it's there--you are probably missing something. Most DMs don't seem to put enough time into studying their monsters for a given encounter.

Assuming that the encounter is actually under-powered--As a DM it's your job to ensure that the game is fun, not so much to follow rules.

DMs often use screens for just that reason, sometimes it's better if you can fudge a roll. Furthermore, it's nobody else's business how many hitpoints the thing has, it doesn't have to die until you say it does (although in 4e the bloodied state can give it away). The only real problem with this is when it backfires and you kill half the party because you arbitrarily upped something too much.

I personally prefer an in-game solution. If you have seen your players take out summoners in a few turns, assume word has gotten to their next encounter and that they are more prepared. Perhaps they are hidden in a bunker or have protected themselves with powerful runes--in other words, update the encounter to specifically counter tactics your players have taken previously. This is natural and I believe it's assumed that DMs are doing something like this with dungeons rather than following the module word-for-word.

The D&D encounters sessions run every week in game stores tend to be EXTREMELY under powered, even for a novice group--I had to get in the habit of nearly doubling the difficulty just to make it a challenge.


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