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My PC wizard used to trudge around with a veritable stable of minions: his familiar, a Shield Guardian, and up to four skeletons from Animate Dead. The skeletons were good utility; they could form a protective cordon against ambushes, be sent ahead to trigger traps, or give missile support in fights.

I still stopped using them for gameplay reasons: with a virtual table top, they were just a hassle to move around and slowed down combat with low impact busywork. There always were extra initiative rolls, initiative counts, movement, weak attacks that often did matter little.

Another contributor here related a similar experience: their wizard had Conjure Elementals and Planar Binding, which enabled them to have several powerful elemental minions. Still, the conclusion was "it wasn't fun. We agreed to limit such conjured/summoned minions in number and frequency. It worked much better after that."

So there is clearly a trade-off, where you sacrifice objective power for a better, more fun play experience.

In my experience, no matter how strong they are, once there are more then two additional creatures to manage per player, it is getting tedious. Are there practical ways to manage a larger number and push this limit up? What is the cutoff, based on your experiences in game? What methods can help to manage minions more easily, and at what point do they break down?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I’ve removed the generic D&D tag as that tag is for questions about the franchise as a whole. \$\endgroup\$ May 22 at 19:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: "How can I make combat with a lot of summoned creatures quicker?" \$\endgroup\$ May 22 at 20:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Voting to close mainly on the fact that the title question "how many minions are too many" is largely opinion based. However there's an answerable question in there, as shown by the existing answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Andrendire
    May 22 at 20:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Andrendire, I can see your concern. I will recast it to address the question of how to manage minions effectively. \$\endgroup\$ May 22 at 20:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't see the issue with this question. It describes an actual-play issue that happened and asks for how others have solved similar issues (or failed to do so). \$\endgroup\$ May 23 at 12:40

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Extra minions are fine as long as they stay out of fights.

My experience mirrors yours: two NPCs (pets, minions, summons, etc.) is about as many as a player ought to be expected to manage in combat, and one is better. Some players can handle more without being strained -- one of the players in my group DMs a game of his own, and could easily handle many NPCs without a problem -- but I would still recommend limiting the number of NPCs just to make sure the spotlight stays firmly on the player characters, and limiting the number of NPCs per player to make sure everyone gets somewhat equal time. If you let one skilled player manage two or three minions while the rest of the party has none, you technically don't have too many NPCs around, but that'll still feel like one player is monopolizing the fight because they're getting to do something between every other player -- or worse, one player is active for a solid five minutes while the rest of the group waits around for their thirty seconds of spotlight because the initiative just fell out that way.

I recently had a situation where my group had three combat NPCs helping them because of some good roleplaying choices (a warrior, a ranger, and the ranger's beast companion), so I doled out the three NPCs to three of my players to manage in combat -- and in my opinion, even that was too many non-player additions that made the combats drag a bit and started to draw attention away from the players. My preference is to have only one or two NPCs involved in a fight, if any.

This is, of course, fuzzy around the edges. Some classes have a "pet" as essentially a class feature that happens to have its own stat block, and it's probably unfair to treat that the same way as a full fledged NPC or summoned monster. But on the other hand, if I have a wizard with a familiar, a Beast Master ranger, and a Battlesmith artificer with a Homunculus Servant and Steel Defender, I'm going to hesitate to bring more NPCs into things because there's just already so many things on the board. (I'll bite the bullet and bring in an NPC if it's really necessary, but I won't like it.)

So I don't think there is a good way to manage larger numbers of combat-capable minions without having a significantly negative impact on the flow of the game. But there's a key word there: Combat.

There's no issue with having retainers, guides, porters, pack animals, or other minions, so long as they are cast as scrambling for cover or even fleeing the area entirely when a fight starts. They aren't combatants; they're set dressing, like the townsfolk cowering from an orc attack. Even if they could theoretically grab bows and shoot arrows with a low to-hit and damage, or move in to take the Help action, a player can just decide that their skeleton squad stays out of fights and their familiar stays in its pocket, and the problem goes away immediately.

As DM, you should also decide the monsters won't prioritize the NPCs unless the players do something really dumb, like, say, turning the entire party invisible while leaving the NPCs undefended or intentionally bringing a string of mules into a dragon's lair before they dispatch the dragon. Sometimes the results of the situation flow naturally from the players making extremely poor decisions -- but I'd be hesitant to take out NPCs in most situations. (I might go ahead and off the Skeleton Squad or one nameless pack animal without warning since they're fairly easily replaceable, but I wouldn't kill off a named NPC/pet/etc. unless the players did something really stupid to bring it about.)

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How many minions (in combat) is too many?

Whatever works for your table

This is going to vary from table to table, and even session to session. There isn't a hard number, you're just going to have to work it out.

Now, we're talking about combat minions, that need to act in combat. As Darth Pseudonym pointed out, keep 'em out of combat and it doesn't matter.

Of course, anyone can have minions, but casters seem particularly prone. Anyone can hire some mooks, but casters can acquire legions of beholden followers, and really, why not?

You probably need to talk about it

You probably need to talk with your DM, and maybe other players.

Gameplay problems with minions

Minions can slow down combat for everyone, can be hard to run, can overpower a character, and can centerstage a player.

Almost always these things are going to make the game less fun for other players.

Slowing down combat/can be hard to run

Just managing to-hits, and damage, and tracking hit points, effects, position, and so on can slow down gameplay.

I've found this can be partially mitigated by being more organized: writing down specific to-hits, keeping special track of hit points, etc. You can even average hits and damage to speed things up even further.

The DM can have minions go on the same initiative as their master, and can essentially leave them out of attacks.

But no matter what, extra minions slows things down.

Overpowering a character/centerstaging a player

Minions do not necessarily overpower a character, because they often don't hit all that hard. But even if they don't hit all that hard,they can take lots of other actions. And this ends up taking up time, no matter how efficient you are.

One thing you can do is limit minions to roughly the amount of actions other players get. If the party's fighter gets 3 attacks, then balance the minions to that.

What we did

I'm the player referred to in the original post. For several battles, my wizard had a familiar, a shield guardian, 3 bound elementals, and a sim.

In talking with the other players, it just wasn't as much fun. Not always, but sometimes, even often.

We've solved the problem, more or less. We didn't make hard-and-fast rules, but we do a handful of things:

  • Mostly, the minions stay out of combat, or semi- out of combat. For instance, the shield guardian takes up a defensive position and doesn't attack. I have a bound elemental spirit of air who usually stays out of combat and provides eye-in-the-sky recon on the group chat (telepathic bond).

  • We keep the numbers limited. Teleport helps with this, since there's a creature limit, but there are ways around that, but one way or another we keep the minion count low. I watch gameplay, and if it seems like any other players are getting overshadowed, I decrease minion activity.

  • When they fight, they're extremely efficient. If I can't say what they do and the effect in like one sentence, they don't go that turn. If they're fighting, I'm prepared with exactly the formulas needed, so no looking things up. If there is any hesitation whatsoever, I just have them do nothing.

  • The DM kills them. Minions are expensive. I go through them like tissue. It takes days and spell slots to set things up. The DM makes me account for time, and then doesn't give us enough.

  • We give them other things to do. Often the minions are busy either out of combat, or back home, or running some errand.

  • They fight their own battles. We've had the minions fight some monsters off-stage, so they help absorb some of the monsters, but don't take game time.

  • We keep them in reserve. The other players are amenable that there may be big fights where more minions are useful. In that case, they

  • Change the character. After discussion with the DM, we changed my wizards subclass. She was a conjuration wizard, and without conjured creatures (or less conjured creatures) in combat, I felt like the character was losing out on the subclass capstone. The DM and I were talking, and the DM said, if it isn't fun, or if something else would be more fun, change it. So my wizard become a scribe wizard. The DM was like, justify it however you want, and I made up some in-game stuff that felt right.

  • Talk about it. We have an after-session talk after every session, and we text and voice chat between sessions. We rarely talk about minion issues, but everyone feels like if they have an issue, we can talk about it.

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I ran the module Out of the Abyss in a college game, which is a module absolutely riddled with extra NPC bloat, to the point where even the module itself recommends that the DM start killing off the NPCs as soon as possible to make things easier to manage.

In the end, I wound up making use of the Companion System from Chris Ramsley, which I highly recommend checking out in its entirety, but I will summarize here in the interest of avoiding link rot.

Essentially, what I found worked best was to remove the stat blocks of the companions entirely. They don't have their own turn in combat, and their health tracking is dramatically simplified. Instead, they add various boons to their controlling player character.

Per your skeleton example, your minions might now offer you a bonus on Investigation checks when looking for traps, or a bonus to your ranged damage. Part of the default functionality of the companion system involves allowing the companions to take a lethal hit for their player character, which covers the meat shield side of things nicely.

I have found that swapping from the official stat blocks to this simplified system works beautifully for streamlining gameplay, and also tends to be more fun for everyone involved. The focus stops being on Jim and Tim, the Skeleton Twins, and gets back to being on Lord Coolwizard, the actual player character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ cool, thanks for sharing this, I will take a look! \$\endgroup\$ May 24 at 18:19

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