Musing: 4th Edition’s Flawed Minion LogicMarch 6, 2012
Oh, how long has it been since I last posted… way too long. I got distracted by a failed D&D game, followed by a distaste for thinking about Dungeons & Dragons, followed by life. But I’m back, and here’s a topic that interests me greatly, because it impacts my own homemade RPG’s design: minions! You see, 4th Edition had this great(ish) idea, where it would take those enemies in 3rd Edition that you would kill in one hit (like 1st-level orcs or goblins) and build an entire mechanic around them! People love one-shotting things, so it’s a brilliant plan, right? I would say it’s not quite so clear cut as that.
The big problem, for me, is that there’s no sense of scale with minions. When you’re playing 3.5, you start off fighting goblins–vicious enemies who can knock you out regularly, and who take a couple solid thwacks to kill. Later on, you start killing them with single attacks, without even rolling to-hit, and it’s great fun! You’ve triumphed over your previously difficult foes! Or later on, you start meeting elementals and vampires and demons, who are hideously difficult, but then you level up and start dispatching them with single spells, single sword-strokes, single skill checks. It feels good, feels like you’ve grown.
With minions though? … well, there’s none of that. Minions are one-hit kills. They fill enemy ranks. The only way you get stronger is a 5% increase to your to-hit chance per level. You never suddenly turn a 100-hit-point giant into a 1-hit-kill, not unless the Dungeon Master starts putting “giant minions” in play once you reach level 20 or whatever. And while a lot of DMing is smoke and mirrors, that’s one trick the party sees right through, and doesn’t particularly feel enthused about.
I typically find my party gets the most fun when they see a 1st-level normal enemy they used to fight regularly, and kick its butt. Sure, the XP system doesn’t allow for low-level enemies, but the players love the feeling of flexing their new powers against a former foe. It’s good times. But since 4E inflated the number of HP a monster or player have, and made sure damage doesn’t scale up with at-will powers, there’s almost no way to get a one-hit-kill against a low-level enemy until you’re level 21 without wasting your encounter or daily powers on it.
I would therefore argue that 4E fails at one area that 3.5 succeeds at: a sense of progression in combat strength.
Now, I look at my own RPG designs, and have to wonder how this impacts me. Now, I’ve been planning a really simplified enemy system for my RPG: mooks are always one-hit kills (so long a minimum damage threshhold is met–and since damage doesn’t vary within a weapon, this takes about 2 seconds to check), while named NPCs have the same internal organ and armor protection systems as players. And combat doesn’t reward XP–nothing does, since my RPG is designed more for ‘short stories’, and is designed to make it really hard for the player to advance except in wealth and education. Combat is frowned upon for resolving your problems, which is reflected in how highly (realistically) lethal and mutilating it is to the players.
But a sense of progression is important. 4E, by making all mooks one-hit-kills, destroyed that, and 3rd Edition, by recycling old enemies with low hit points even to high levels, enhanced it. My system is currently closer to 4E than 3rd in that regard, so what do I do?
In thinking about this, I’m reminded of probably one of my favorite minigames me and my Star Wars: Saga Edition group used to do. Basically, since they were all powerful Jedi and whatnot, I would sometimes have situations where they’re leading a rebel force against a group of enemies, and we’d pull out the miniatures rules and engage in miniature-based combat. Fast paced and large-scale. Well, during one episode, three platoons of Sith soldiers marched toward the players, and the players wisely decided to focus first on the enemy commanders, then pick apart the remaining troops. As the GM, I decided that each platoon had different levels of discipline, and would fall apart at different rates: the green tokens would all split into squads who did their own thing, the blue group would pretty much panic, and the white group would not change their tactics lacking a commander. The players noticed this, and complimented me on how awesome it was when the white group showed good military discipline and kept the pressure up.
In a level-less game with 1-hit mooks, that could be the base sort of structure I use for creating a sense of progression. At the start of the story, the enemies are highly coordinated, impenetrable, with secret bases, lead by masterful villains. But as the villains die and the secret bases are exposed and the radios jammed/tapped, the mooks start becoming more and more disjointed. Sort of like in Die Hard, how the terrorists all start out with this brilliant plan, but John McClane eventually starts pissing off individual terrorists, who go off to fight him with their own agenda, the plans get accelerated and disrupted, and eventually what seemed like an impenetrable army become easy pickings for the hero. The same thing happens in Star Wars: at first, the Stormtroopers seem vicious, killing rebels left and right, killing Luke’s family, patrolling every street… but then Luke starts getting the element of surprise by entering their base, gets a disguise, has their boss distracted in a big fight with Obi-Wan… and suddenly the efficient killing machines of Stormtroopers become the jokes we know them as today: surprised, inaccurate, uncoordinated, easy to fool.
I think that could work for a good sense of progression. My RPG is supposed to be very story-oriented, so that fits with the theme perfectly. And best of all, it’s not just something that can be used in my RPG: it works anywhere, since in any story with enemies, there are opportunities to disrupt enemy activities through player subversions.
…Yeah, I think I like it, that could work.