You’re playing a necromancer, and you’ve finally got animate dead. Your last battle leaves you with a small hoard of corpses, and careful spell selection and treasure hoarding has given you the resources to raise, equip, and transport all of them.
You reach the dungeon, a team of bandits riding out to meet you. You command your minions to charge alongside the barbarian and—
You have to roll initiative for all of these guys…
Player minions have long been and still are an important part of the game. While hirelings and the Leadership feat have faded out of view, spells like animate dead and the summon lines, and some class features still give access to minions meant to boost the player in or out of combat. However, like masses of foes, minions have playability issues.
Like hordes, minions bloat the time it takes to play the game and are an additional full creature for a player or GM to track, something that is often forgotten or botched in the bookkeeping at the best of times. Mechanically they bloat action economy much like hordes do, and for armies of the undead, hordes of summoned creatures, or a rallied town watch, the solutions offered in the previous article in this series may well be good enough.
However, if your table’s problem is the effect of minions on combat at all, I would recommend abstracting them further. Controllable, moving effects that provide buffs or deal damage already exist after all. Spells like spiritual weapon and healing spirit provide a template with which you can take minions out of the initiative order and balance them as a player option. They are a moving unit in the combat that uses an action (your bonus action) to perform an effect, and they can be removed by dealing sufficient damage to their caster.
There’s a lot of variance in the types of minions your players are going to be using. Squads of zombies have a different role than familiars, which in turn act differently than animal companions and paladins’ steeds. We’re going to cover a general action economy fix first and then get into ways that solution can be tailored to different types of minions.
Our general solution is to take minions out of the initiative order and create the Command action. Minions (defined as “subservient, allied combatants that aren’t full-fledged NPCs”) don’t get their own turns or actions and instead are commanded during the turn of whoever is responsible for them. For minions commanded through spells, items, or class features, this is obvious, but for hirelings and other special circumstances, it can simply be whoever has the action spare to command them or whoever was most involved in acquiring them. Ideally, one character should have full responsibility for a given group of minions.
The Command action is a new, baseline bonus action to the game that anyone can use to command minions loyal to them, allowing them to act despite the fact that they have been removed from the initiative pool:
On your turn, you can issue one command to your minions. This occupies one bonus action and gives orders to all minions of one type (that is, all of your zombies, all of your familiars, and so on). Commanded minions may immediately move and take a single action. A creature may only respond to one Command each turn.
This can be tweaked to fit different types of minions. A group of hirelings may be relatively autonomous if commanded, and if concentration is maintained by a character, they will simply repeat their last action to the best of their ability. (This also gives martial classes, who traditionally don’t have much to Concentrate on, a role in leading troops.) Animate dead explicitly says that commanded undead will follow their last order, so concentration becomes unnecessary (but there is a spell slot investment).
If a character is heavily invested in Command, defining themself as a necromancer, summoner, or army officer, the following variant allows for more muscular and tactically varied use of minions with less of an investment in bonus actions while still simplifying things from base gameplay:
On your turn, you can use a bonus action to issue one command to your minions. This issues orders to all minions of one type. All minions must be given the same command and continue following their last command on each following turn until it becomes impossible or they are given a new one. The available commands are as follows:
• Swarm. You choose a number of target creatures equal to the number of minions you control. While these creatures are in reach of your minions, the first attack against any of them each turn benefits from the Help action.
• Shield. When an enemy makes an attack against a friendly creature within reach of a minion, roll 1d6. On a 1–3, the attack instead targets that minion.
• Strike. One minion makes an attack against a single creature within reach as if they were part of a group turn consisting of all of your minions.
• Use Item. Minions of your choice carry out a simple order equivalent to an item interaction, such as pulling levers or carrying loot. Once this order is complete, they revert to whatever the other minions are doing.