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One thing D&D introduced (and up to this point has been sadly missing from Pathfinder) was the concept of minions. These monsters are essentially normal threats, which die the moment they take a single point of damage. They fill an unusual monster design space enabling a GM to create large cinematic battles reminiscent of movies and video games in which the heroes cut through the boss guy’s lackeys before the climactic battle.
The difficulty arises because you want these creatures to die quickly but still represent a danger to the party.
Picture the last encounter in a dungeon where the party, now level 3, finally confronts the ogre chieftain (CR 3). Presented as a single target the party fall upon him concentrating whatever resource they have remaining and the chieftain dies a rather quick and pathetic death. As the GM you could add a couple of loyal ogre guards to protect the chieftain but this raises the encounter CR beyond the PCs capability. What you intended to create was a set-piece grand melee in which the PCs fought through the guards, while the chieftain taunted them from the back of the room, then a desperate fight against the brutish ogre boss.
One solution is to put a group of low CR creatures into the encounter – maybe four orc guards (CR1/3 each). However, CR1/3 monsters are not much of a threat for the PCs. Due to the math baked into the system these low level creatures have a very low chance to hit the PCs and are themselves glorified meat-bags, an annoyance which results in drawing out the climactic encounter of the adventure!
This is where minions work well. Firstly, they are able to hit the PCs for enough damage that they cannot simply be ignored. And secondly, they die quickly, so the pace of combat is maintained. Never underestimate how good it feels as a player to fight through a large group of minions! Never underestimate how much GM’ing respect you get from your players when you pull off a memorable epic battle that didn’t take the entire session to run!
Various game systems have implemented minions, mooks and cohorts and many of them have issues – Ogre minions (or demon’s or dragon’s) dyeing after taking a single point of damage are just silly! I have experimented with minion rules for Pathfinder but always secretly wished that Paizo would release official rules.
Jason Bulmahn (the lead designer of the Pathfinder RPG rules for Paizo) under the guise of his Minotaur Games imprint has just released the pdf supplement Rule Zero: Underlings. And, it’s good, really, really good!
I have run a couple of simulated encounters using the underling monster rules as presented in the supplement. They are simple and comprehensive – a natural graft of the current monster rules. Best of all they answer many of the failings of previous minion mechanics. These are threats that a party has to take seriously, but don’t die the moment they get poked in the eye with a stick!
I highly recommend any Pathfinder GM to pickup Rule Zero: Underlings.
Interestingly Paizo recently published “troop” rules (large groups of lower level monsters treated like a distributed swarm monster) in Rasputin Must Die, but these serve a very different purpose in creating cinematic combats. My hope is that the underling rules (or a refined version of them) find their way into the next official Pathfinder bestiary.