Minion Motivation

As a Game Master you probably spend a fair amount of time creating a Big Bad for your adventures. Part of this creation involves coming up with a motivation for this Big Bad. By determining why they do the things they do it is easier for you to determine how they will act in different situations. Motivation is an important aspect in creating well-rounded characters in your game. But, have you ever stopped to think about the motivations for the minions that serve the Big Bad? These NPC’s are often just nameless cannon fodder. We trot them out for the PC’s to fight without a second thought as to why they are fighting.  However, a minion’s motivation defines their actions just as much as the Big Bad. 

Why Motivation Matters

You’re probably asking yourself “Who cares? The players are just going to cut these minions down. Why does their motivation for fighting even matter?” It’s simple; a minion’s motivation for fighting determines whether they will fight to the death or whether they will flee.

I covered this briefly in the Attack By Stratagem post for Sun Tzu’s Art of RPG Combat. It’s unrealistic and just plain lazy to have groups of enemies that will fight to the death every single time. No matter how evil they are some of these bad guys are going to retreat rather than die. This is where motivation comes in to play. By determining why they fight a GM can also determine what they are willing to die for.

We can easily sort any enemy into four groups that define their motivation; those that fight for money, those that fight for a strong leader, those that are defending their homes and those that are true believers. The groups willingness to fall on the players’ swords depends on which group they fall into.


Sell-swords, assassins, and regular old mercenaries all fall into this group. It can also include bandits, cutthroats, or thieves. These enemies don’t fight for a cause; they fight for a paycheck. Maybe the Big Bad has hired them to take out the party. Or, maybe they just think the party looks like an easy target for robbery. Enemies that fight for money are very unlikely to fight to the death in combat. Being dead is very bad for bottom line. Therefore, once the odds shift against them in a battle they will flee. There is always another job for those that live to fight another day.

A Strong Leader

Instead of following the money, an army of minions may also follow your Big Bad because she is a strong leader. Maybe she is charismatic and attracts loyal soldiers willing to fight and die for her. Or, maybe she rules with an iron fist and those that serve her do so to avoid her wrath. Either way works and either way has the same result. Minions that follow a strong leader are more likely to lay down their lives in service of that leader. However, the presence of the leader (or lack thereof) on the battlefield has a direct impact on motivation. When the leader is present their minions will be more likely to keep fighting even when the odds of victory are against them. Conversely, in the absence of their leader these same minions will be more likely to flee.

Defending Their Turf

Sometimes the party members are actually the bad guys in a situation. Creatures that live in a forest or cave that the players are exploring will view the party as an invading enemy. The motivation to protect their lands, and, even more so, their families will be very powerful. Minions with this motivation will fight to the death if they become desperate enough. These minions may believe that their sacrifice will buy time for families or other minions to escape the party’s grasp. Or, the actions of the party may leave the minion with no other option in defense of their home.

True Believers

The minion with the strongest motivation to give their life for a cause is the one who truly believes in that cause. These minions may be called zealots, cultists, or acolytes, but they all have one thing in common; they are convinced that they have been called to serve a higher power. Unwavering devotion to a god, ruler or even a corporation makes these minions the most dangerous. However, it also makes them the easiest for a GM to play. Minions who are true believers will not quit the field of battle no matter how overwhelming the odds against them. To the true believer even death serves a purpose.

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