The characters burst into the evil lair to accost the Big Bad Evil Guy for the climatic fight! Cue the dramatic music!
Two rounds later it is over, the BBG is smouldering crunchy critter and all you hear is the sad trombone.
What happened? That BBG was tough, nasty even. Welcome to the single opponent problem. This is a corollary of the Fuzzy-Wuzzy Principe. “A sufficient number of Fuzzy-Wuzzies can defeat anything.” As tough as the BBG was, it was not as tough as the combined party through one factor alone. It has one action, they have one action each. System does not matter. As long as the party has more actions than the BBG it is going down fast.
I recently had this demonstrated in an on-line game. The half dozen PCs opened up on the nasty demon all at once. So long demon.
The solution is simple really, Minions. The minions do not have to be good, but they need to absorb PC actions to get them out of the way. Speed bumps. if you will to even the what you thought were great odds.
I recommend cheap ass minions. Their job is to eat mass damage spells and player attacks. Don’t arrange them to be wiped out in one fireball. Make your PCs work for it. Meanwhile the BBG can soften them up a bit. Minions will make the BBG fight a little more dramatic.
I once saw a DM lamenting that the players weren’t challenged by anything he threw at them. No shit, you’re just giving them one target. Fighting a gang is a whole different experience, players need to think differently and use new tactics. Like bravely running away.
At the risk of bringing D&D 5e into this, a blogger named Angry GM had a good take on this with Paragon abilities. I’m not sure how well it could apply to other editions, but it sounds generic enough to be doable if you don’t mind the bookkeeping (my experience with older editions is at arms-reach; time is infinite, but free time isn’t). His paragon monsters are essentially multiple monsters in one body. They have multiple, separate hp pools, and get a number of turns each round equal to the number of pools above 0. There are abilities to divide into multiple monsters, recombine monsters, and rebalance the hp pools. One of his examples was a duplicating wizard who can split into three parts - each with a full complement of spell slots. Another was an ooze that varied in size up to huge with six hp pools above zero, making it a formidable grappler. Even if those pools only had 1 hp left, it would still take six hits to completely kill, three hits to bring it to medium. If it has divided completely, then it’s exactly like facing a gang of minions. Seems like a good way to have a big set-piece fight against an epic foe for the players and overcome the action economy. It’s spread over several posts, I think this is the ultimate version of the rules.
I’m curious about something else. The infamous Tucker’s kobolds article from Dragon magazine has had a lot of interpretations: as good DM advice to challenge players, as criticism of sadist DMs out to notch up another TPK, in context as a barrier to a deeper dungeon level (“You must be this tall to ride this dungeon”), or completely made up to make a point or meet a deadline. If you’ve read it, do you think it’s good general advice, works as a “do not enter yet” sign, or just page-filler nonsense?
I see Tuicker’s Kobolds as a way to leverage a low end monster into something dangerous. Kobolds by themselves are easily squishable. The in lair defense in depth makes them a real threat. I’ve had Kobolds drive a mid level party out of the Dungeon. They made the critical error of, “We’ll come back tomorrow” after encountering the Kobolds. AFAIK that mummy is still in the rubble behind the door. Kobolds are the very essence of the Fuzzy-Wuzzy Principle.
Tucker’s Kobolds, such a classic example of monsters done right.
One of the classic methods in 3.x D&D specifically to replicate the minion dogpile effect is to use size small (or lower) creatures with pikes or other reach weapons plus the Aid Another action.
The combat usage is for the minion to succeed on an attack roll versus AC10. If successful, then that minion can add a +2 stackable bonus to the attack roll or AC of a friend versus an opponent that they can both melee against.
If a group of minions are all using reach weapons, then 5-10 of them can easily hit an adjacent PC or defend versus a PC attack against one person. The reach weapons allows more minions to be in melee range.
When dealing with high level characters, tiny or diminutive flying creatures with reach weapons can provide a rather large bonus to hit or AC thus still make a successful hit or defense. (When getting that little, they might only have a reach of 3’ or even 1’ depending on the weapon, which has extra implications.)
The real point is to give the main big bad a few extra rounds to fight or flee out accomplish an objective, and allow your players to show off: the fighter PC can go to town with a whirlwind attack or the SFX PC can lay down some area effect mojo. Turns out that in D&D, small minions are indispensable to the savvy villain.
There are many reasons why bad guys normally have a some mooks or minions. Villains have more. But a Supervillain always has a lot of minions because: