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There was an encounter in my most recent D&D 4e adventure in which the players fought several (16) minion skeletons. Because all of the skeletons were minions, the encounter was not difficult, but it was also not very interesting. Resolving the actions of all 16 skeletons felt like more of a slog than a tense, exciting fight, because for every single skeleton I had to decide who to attack, then roll for attack, then apply damage, which got tedious quickly. This problem also occurs in fights without minions, that fights are more numerical than dramatic, but it is most prominent in fights with lots of minions or only minions, because in those cases there are simply more enemies to handle.

What techniques can I use to make fights (especially fights with lots of monsters, such as fights against minions), an interesting battle rather than just a game of numbers?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What does the party look like? Are they missing a controller, by any chance? \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jul 7 at 1:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman They do have a controller, a wizard, but I don't really think that defeating the minions more quickly would solve the problem, because there would still be, at some point in the battle, a large number of minions. \$\endgroup\$ – mprogrammer Jul 7 at 16:11
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Don't make eliminating minions part of a victory condition.

If I'm going to have more than a handful of minions in an encounter, my preference is to have endless minions: a couple more minions are going to be added every turn until the party solves the puzzle, or kills the boss, or makes it to the end of the trapped hallway. This makes minions obstacles rather than opponents. You can kill them to get them out of your way, but you can also just work your way around them to get the actual goal of the encounter.

This can be generalized to every encounter, not just ones containing minions. Giving the players a way to win besides just "kill all the enemies" makes combat a more interesting tactical puzzle and helps avoid every encounter turning into a slugfest. You might even have encounters where "kill them all" results in the party losing rather than winning.

A brief note on XP: When I use endless minions, I only give the party XP credit for 2 rounds worth of them. This discourages players from farming endless minions. Similarly, when players beat an encounter through an alternate victory condition (i.e. not killing everything) I give them XP for every opponent in the encounter, unless the encounter was specifically to escape a much more powerful foe (in that case I usually give them XP for a solo or maybe 2 elites of their level). The party gets XP for beating or resolving the encounter, not for killing things, even though beating the encounter often involves killing things.

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Give them something to do besides using their attack power.

The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 introduced the idea of terrain powers, where you're in terrain and can burn a standard/move/minor to get a certain effect. Some terrain will let anyone take advantage of it for the whole battle. Other terrain, like a boulder to be set rolling or a hanging chandelier that collapses, only has one use.

If you've got a dungeon where it might make sense for the same terrain power to reappear in multiple fights, like a bloodstone circle in a dark crypt, using a minion fight to introduce the terrain power lets you expose your players to it in a low-stress environment - the terrain power is going to hit above a minion's weight, but it's still just minions making use of it.

This is particularly true if you have minions cluster around terrain powers to take advantage of them or help each other use them to attack - that'll leave them clustered up for a player counterattack, or if they fall short of one of the terrain powers the players can turn it on them and wipe them out.

Something else you might consider is having the minions trying to bucket-brigade something important but ponderous (so it slows them when they pick it up) to a spot on the map where it's destroyed or otherwise taken beyond the PCs' reach. It has a similar effect in that if the minions want to move the thing along quickly, passing it from one to another, they're also getting close enough to each other to be taken out many at a time.

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