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One of the main kinds of encounter is combat with minions. In a vanilla encounter, heroes can often sweep through a group of minions with little effort or risk, and little color added to the game. The options below are ways to spice up and toughen up a minion encounter to make a memorable fight.
Aim For Consequences
First, a general strategy: try hard to get that first (Mild) consequence. A fight in which a player's *next* consequence will linger for more than a scene is a lot more dangerous (because a lucky roll can get there even without bonuses). Once a hero has a consequence, they are much more vulnerable in case a boss or mini-boss shows up. Many of the techniques below apply to any combat in SotC, but here will be phrased in terms of minions fighting against the players.
It's easy to end up just trying to inflict stress and wear down the heroes. This is both (relatively) boring, and difficult to do. Maneuvers add color via description, but also add a +2 to another roll from the free tag. Often, one roll with +2 is *much* better than two rolls of equal magnitude. With that extra +2, a roll that would just have done stress is now much more likely to hit consequences.
Against named characters, whittling away at the stress bar is only useful for a long running scene (going from fight to fight); maneuvering to go for compels and consequences (bonuses to skip over stress) is worth more. When combined with some of the alternatives for "grittier" combat, this makes for a quicker, more entertaining, and more dangerous combat.
"I was here first!" (Prepared Manuevers)
If the minions are already "entrenched" (they were at the scene first), then they can in some sense have already completed various maneuvers to have temporary aspects that they know of, and they might have free tags available.
For example, the party comes upon an ambush by a few minion groups: the minions are [protected by cover], [have the high ground], [know the territory], etc. With free tags available, it's like having an FP to spend in a particular way, but since these are positional, they add color to the scene, and can be countered by player maneuvers. Because the free tags get consumed, they only help for the first few rounds.
Since they add to rolls that were going to happen anyway, they should typically make a fight more challenging for the party without extending the fight. As with Fate Points, they help minions leap past stress into consequences initially. It also provides more flavaor that a prepared group of minions can thus be a lot more dangerous than an unprepared group. Similarly, a clever assault can cream a group of minions that would be dangerous to attack frontally (because it neutralizes their temporary aspects).
Use Manuevers to Target Weak Skills
If a maneuver goes against the same skill that the characters use to defend, then it is still useful (because a +2 on one success may get to consequences, where two lower rolls don't). But the real win is if you can force a challenge where the character is defending with a weaker skill.
This provides both increased color, highlights characters that are good at something else, and is usually more effective. Just making the weapons guy use athletics instead of weapons (e.g., to dodge the bookcase you pushed over) might make the difference in success (+2 to the next attack) or not. Finding a way to go against endurance (shoot holes in the tank next to them; "hold your breath!"), survival, alertness, etc. would be even better.
Give Minions Fate Points
This can be just a starting advantage to make a group of minions more colorful and dangerous. But often, it can reflect the actions leading up to the fight.
For example, Le Capitaine Leclerc is sneaking up on some minions in the darkness. They know he's out there, but have no real chance of spotting him (Good Alertness vs. Superb Stealth plus Stealth stunts in darkness with cover). Instead of hopelessly rolling dice, offer to the "minions" what you would offer to PCs, a compel to resolve the action: "Don't bother rolling, it's too dark to see anything; here's a a fate point".
The minion group now has a fate point as a result of how the they were approached. That could give them a much better chance to avoid being sitting ducks, an ability to tag some aspect of the terrain that they know and the characters don't ("in the darkness, he missed the dry leaves, which reveals him"), etc. FPs can make Minions surprisingly more interesting, especially when they know the environment or terrain better.
Give Minions Aspects
Grant a minion an aspect or two. This makes them interesting rather than faceless, and gives them something to tag if they do earn fate points. Orcs that [especially hate woodfolk] or a bandits that are [on their last desperate chance] are easier and often faster to run because their definition helps drive tactical decisions.
These aspects also give players something to assess without much effort by the DM, again making non-combat skills more useful in combat. Don't be afraid to discard that aspect in favor of one that a player declares instead, though ( e.g., "Those bandits are [just without hope]; I'll give them some and get them to surrender").
Compel Those Minions (with Aspects)
If minions have aspects (and everything does!), compel them early. For example, if the thugs are arrogant, have them posture, or brag to each other while they are looking for the heroes. That should net them a fate point because it reveals something about them to the players (the fact that it shows off the prep work you did is also nice).
Spend Fate Points and Free Tags Carefully
Minions get a lot fewer FPs or maneuvers (that result in free tags), so they must spend the tags they get wisely. Turning a miss into a nearer miss is a waste. Turning a 1 stress into 3 stress is not very useful since the minions likely won't last long enough to whittle the player down; take the stress and save the tag. Turning a lucky high-stress hit into a consequence is *great*!
And if you've not had a good use for your tags, use them to help that last minion survive and escape! Even if the party didn't take damage, they now need to worry about him notifying the boss, growing up to take revenge, etc.
Have Minions Cooperate
Mechanically, one group of minions can be perform maneuvers to aid another group of minions. For example, the first group "shoots the beakers near the players to add a [surrounded by nasty clouds of glass] aspect. The second group of minions takes the free-tag when they attempt to directly attack the now-distracted characters.
Make Minions Interesting
It's useful both tactically and for story color to describe some minions groups with different individuals. For example, a bar fight could be "three guys leap to attack" (faceless minions) or could be, "The guy who takes offense swings for you. His buddy who seems about twice his size rolls his eyes and rolls back his sleeves too."
As the fight progresses, each round might involve describing a maneuver from the perspective of a different antagonist (like "the sneaky waiter they were chummy with before jumps you from behind"). Behind the scenes, it's just a minion group with a few aspects, each of which represent a subset of the minions. This adds a lot of color and tactical interest to a fight, without extending it or adding to the DM's effort.
Know the Environment
Sketch Out The Situation
Sketching an encounter is easy because it doesn't need to be to scale. The main thing to capture are the zones and borders between them (e.g., put "1" on a fence that's easy to jump over). That concrete sketch will provide lots of clarity and leverage for gradually revealing minions, providing them extra protection, providing them opportunities for impromptu maneuvers, etc.
Zones are your friend
There's a few discussions of tactical combat (on the FateRPG list and rpg.net) that have focused on the importance of zones for making the combat interesting and fast paced. They can often provide the defense or obstacle while the minions just provide the danger. If the minions are up on a cliff ledge, shooting arrows from cover, just closing with them while they are shooting can be dangerous and challenging.
If one minion group maneuvers to add aspects ([pinned down], [distracted by arrow fire], etc.) or takes a blocking action to prevent climbing up to attack another minion group that uses those free tags to push towards consequences, you can have a dramatic, quick, and dangerous encounter with even Average minions.
Terrain can be dangerous
Zones and borders in the combat may have the potential to do stress. This can be treated as a fixed attack against Athletics when moving through the region. For example, take a lab, add broken glass, arcing electricity, etc. Now try to rush through it to attack or defuse a trap. Minion defenders can either be smaller than the remaining hazards (e.g., mutated rats), or have been able to get in place leisurely, and thus had time to avoid the hazards.
Use Henchmen (aka Threats)
A mini-boss is like a named NPC, but much weaker (and easier to create). An example henchman might be able to take four stress and two consequences, and would have two aspects and skills at around Great. They are very quick to create because they are pretty one-dimensional. They are interesting mechanically because they too can attach minions: suddenly that Average minion group gets a spine when their sergeant joins the fray. And yet with only four stress, it takes only a little bit of creativity by the players to kick and attack past stress and into consequences.
Something Else Is Going On
Just mowing through minions can get dull (hasn't yet though :). Having to hustle through the minions to stop the villain from dragging the heir to throne away makes them dangerous even if they don't do stress. And if they can do even a little stress, it's going to make the combat versus the villain (that you can see up the steps and know you are going to face) that much more dangerous.
The first few combats are likely slower as players get used to the new mechanics. It does speed up! The opportunities in the mechanics are different enough from most systems that they take some getting used to, but once things start to flow, combats go quickly and can be easily made dangerous and/or interesting using the existing mechanics.