Today’s 4e preview is about minions.
Essentially, a minion in 4e is an opponent that is made to come in a horde. You can wade through them, dropping them left and right, but you can’t ignore them.
In 3.x, this was very hard to accomplish. Someone of sufficiently low level to be dropped with a hit or two was often incapable of actually being a threat. A level 1 goblin warrior, for instance, is unlikely to be able to hit most PCs above fifth level or so with anything less than a natural 20… and, when it does hit, the damage it does will be negligible. The problem, of course, was that hit dice reflected both power level and staying power (hit points).
In 4e, these are decoupled. Monsters have levels that reflect the level of the PCs for whom they are appropriate threats. This level, however, doesn’t determine a monster’s hit points (at least not on its own). For that, you’ll also need to know some other things… notably including the monster’s role.
For instance, if the monster’s role is Minion, then – regardless of its level – it has one hit point.
This is a bit weird. What it means is that you can have a powerful (say, level 20) monster that a level 20 PC will find challenging to hit, and will be worried about getting hit by, but will go down in a single hit.
There’s been some controversy about this… including speculation about such things as what happens when one minion punches another. That sort of thing misses the point, though. Minions are an abstraction, a way to present monsters to PCs so that they will be viable threats without being major encounters. This is a specific instance of the 4e design mentality of using separate rules to create PCs and, well, everyone else.
Minions presuppose a particular play-style. As written, they won’t work at all in a sandbox-style game that imagines a world totally independent of the PCs. Minions don’t really exist as minions except with respect to the PCs. In a sandbox-style game, I suppose it would be easy enough to just say that the level of minions encountered is always scaled to that of the PCs. That what the rules seem to intend. Whether the game would still count as a sandbox game at that point I will leave to others…