Most villains have a minion or two to throw around, but it’s easy to fall into the trope of incompetent mooks that the heroes dispatch with minimal effort, and that’s not the kind of compelling adversary that your players will talk about for years after the campaign has finished. In this post we’ll be focusing on minions as they fit into the villain’s lair. There will be another post on minions as part of a villain’s schemes when get into the “fighting a villain” series. For now, though, let’s talk about how to effectively staff a lair with some evil henchmen, henchwomen, or hench-monstrosities.
Minions in a lair are generally there to defend it from outside threats, but they might have a secondary purpose as well. For a monstrous villain, perhaps the minions are also a food source. Maybe they function as servants, like kobolds tending to their dragon master. The minions might also function like an immune system, acting automatically to repel intruders rather than obeying commands. There are lots of tweaks you can make to get the minions to stand out, so let’s run through a few examples.
If your villain needs living resources, whether it’s a vampire feeding on blood or a carnivorous predator (or even a sadistic herbivore that loves hunting myconids and other sentient plants), consider making those the villain’s minions. It’s not appropriate in all cases, sometimes a villain will want to be surrounded by others of their own kind rather than by their food, but it’s an uncommon twist and it’s worth considering. You should also ask yourself if your villain can exploit the minions for their own gain, it’s fairly common in real-time strategy video games for certain powerful units (usually spellcasters) to be able to drain the health or energy of other units to fuel their own abilities. This can be a very cool and flavorful addition to your villain, and it will make fights against them more interesting. It also opens up the possibility of a minion rebellion, if they are sentient creatures who would object to being used in such a way.
Servile minions are very common among arrogant villains. While kobolds and dragons are the classic duo, this kind of relationship can exist between almost any group. Remember that both groups must benefit from this arrangement, and while the benefit the servants usually get is that the villain doesn’t destroy them, making the relationship more symbiotic will make the villain stronger and reduce the risk of an uprising substantially. This can work exceptionally well if the minions are trained to play along with any attempts by heroes to start a revolution, only to double cross them and lead the party into an ambush, because it turns out they actually like working for the villain.
Finally, when selecting automatic minions it’s best to pick ones that won’t threaten the villain. A villain that is immune to fire damage might stock their lair with fire elementals without bothering to train them in any particular way. Elementals are generally a good choice here, as are oozes, as both tend to do single types of damage that a villain can easily be immune to, and are predisposed to attack creatures that come into view. You can also open up some plot hooks here if you tie the minions in to something about the villain. Perhaps they are golems that won’t attack anyone who shares the villain’s bloodline. The players might then learn about a half-sibling the villain has and track them down to get past the lair’s defenses. The half-sibling might be in on the scheme and betray the players later… but maybe not.
Another important consideration is how organized the minions are. When the players roll in and start making trouble, do all the minions in the lair converge on them? This makes direct attacks very dangerous, but distractions easy and effective. Do the minions stick to precise patrol routes? That makes sneaking in less risky, assuming the players can map out the routes before they go in. Are they stationary? In this case, you can make the minions quite a bit stronger, encouraging the players to find ways to avoid confronting the sentries instead of brute forcing their way through it.
What happens if the players are really tearing through the minions? Does the villain show up themselves to handle it? Or do they flee, abandoning their lair? This will strongly depend on the villain’s style, with Hellions tending toward personal intervention and Tyrants generally retreating when their minions fail them. Archvillains, as usual, are hard to predict. As a guideline, smart villains don’t start fights they aren’t confident they can win.
Finally, you should decide on a source for the minions. In many cases, that source is in the lair itself, but what happens when there are casualties? Does the villain create their minions through magic, or do they need to recruit? Recruiting generally falls under a scheme, and some of the villains in Tyrants & Hellions will have recurring recruitment schemes they’ll use any time they run low on minions. The main point of determining a source for the minions is so the players know where to strike back against the villain if minions are the main problem.
Steven Gordon - The 2CGaming Team