Content of the article: "“Putty Patrollers, attack the Power Rangers!” – The Importance of Using Mooks"
We've all seen posts online with our fellow DMs trying to beef up a single enemy for an epic boss battle against their players. A lot of us have been those DMs ourselves. The issue is, this doesn't work all that well in D&D 5e. You can mitigate potential problems by using things like legendary resistance and lair actions but at the end of the day, any enemy your players can all focus down at once is going to have the durability of a wet paper bag. The exception to this rule is having an enemy so strong it's one-shotting most of the party and that's really not advised. Even then, getting slammed repeatedly by Stunning Strike, Hold Monster and other such things can make your "epic boss" feel way below their weight class.
The common solution to this problem is a simple one: mooks. Force your party to divide their attention and the boss will last longer. But there is a bit of decision making that goes into this. What should you use for mooks? How should they function? Why are they always there? And how will they remain a threat as the party levels up?
Step 1: Picking Your Mooks
In most cases, I would say to pick mooks that are thematically appropriate. If your players are constantly going up against the evil plans of a single BBEG, this can be easy. Otherwise, you might need mooks picked out on a quest-by-quest basis. Their functionality doesn't have to be all that different (more on that in Step 3), but they should fit whatever the PCs are fighting. Going up against an evil emperor? His army's footsoldiers will be great mooks. Trying to stop an evil cult? The cult leader sends in the lower ranking cult members. Need to slay a dragon? His wyrmling kids are ready to protect pappa from those mean ol' adventurers. While some monsters are arguably better suited at working alone for thematic reasons, you can justify some kind of mook for virtually any monster.
Step 2: How Do I Use Mooks?
The mooks have several key functions: protecting your boss monster, dividing the party's attention, and wearing down your party's resources. This first one can be direct, like putting themselves physically between the boss and the PCs, or indirect, like distracting the PCs by flanking their casters or something equally annoying.
Dividing the party's attention is all about tactics. Now, the exact mook you pick might determine their tactics. A mindless construct could carry out pre-issued orders very literally. A pack of gnolls might focus on one PC to rip them apart for food. If you want specific tactics for whatever you pick, I suggest reading The Monsters Know What They're Doing. On their own, the average mook will be about as smart as it is strong. The boss monster is there to lead them as much as use them for protection. Mooks are followers, not leaders.
Wearing down PC resources is another key task for any mook. D&D is a numbers game and you want your mooks to put the numbers less in the party's favor to make the game more challenging. Whether it's their current HP, number of spell slots, or a class feature like Ki Points available, your mooks should have the PCs consuming their precious resources. Every spell or ability used on a mook is one not used on your boss monster.
Step 3: Why Are Mooks Always Around?
This is going to depend on the type of campaign you're running. If you're like me and run a monster-of-the-week format, this is easy to justify. All the bad guys are playing on the same team, so they have access to the same minions. The bigger question here is getting them to the battlefield. Maybe your baddies travel with an entourage. Maybe they have mooks that don't need air like undead or constructs and keep them in a Bag of Holding. Maybe they use a summoning spell or teleport them in somehow, which could bring them in all at once or in waves if you need the fight to be a little tougher than originally anticipated. Feel free to play around with different concepts here.
For campaigns with an array of villains, your baddies will still have mooks. And functionally, they should basically be the same thing each time. Regardless of whether the party is going up against zombies, orcs, kobolds, or whatever else, the mook should be a basic enemy. Just flavor them appropriately. The necromancer uses zombies, the hag has turned victims into nothics, the cultists summon low-level demons, and so forth.
Step 4: Keeping The Mooks Threatening
This starts with when and how you introduce your mooks. Typically, I have my party fight the mooks like regular monsters the first time they encounter them. But after they, they switch to minion rules and can be one-shot. But how are they still a threat with a mere 1 HP, you may be asking?
First off, bump up the mook's hit bonus and damage. I'll generally make their hit bonus a few points lower than the current boss monster and their damage about half of what the boss can dish out with your standard Melee attack. I don't have mooks use Multiattack, relying on a numbers advantage instead, but adjust numbers accordingly if you try going that route.
Secondly, mix it up a little. The starting mook should probably just have a melee attack and ranged attack, assuming you're not kicking your campaign off at a higher level. But what's this, that mook just used a Scroll of Hold Person on the Fighter! They've never done that before! Oh no, another mook is starting to pull out another scroll! Now these mooks are suddenly a bigger problem. And don't be afraid to make it weird. Give them abilities from other monsters, single-use magic items, a fantatical willingness to sacrifice themselves to bodyslam a PC off a cliff, or whatever else you've got so long as you can justify it within your narrative.
An Example Mook
Let's look at one of the simplest monsters in D&D: the skeleton. These clickity-clackity skeleboys are nothing special, which makes them an excellent baseline for a mook. They're weak and have a melee and ranged attack. That's basically all you want in a starting mook. Possible upgrades include better armor & weapons, using skeletons from Large-sized monsters for supersized mooks, sticking a flameskull on one to surprise the PCs, and so much more. You can even spice up their flavor to fit whatever boss monster they're backing up instead of going with something generic. The only limit here is your imagination.
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