Cannon Fodder

Chewing on the cud of minions

Bring me my Right Horn!

One of the first things I think of when creating a new campaign is, "Who/What will the PCs fight?" A few uber-villains always come to mind—an ancient C'thuloid, a Venger-like badass (but with 2 horns, because that always bothered me), a beholder whom I've patterned after a hookah-smoking Stalin—but the hard part is identifying the cannon fodder. They have to be unlikable, memorable, and challenging foes to be sure. But not too challenging, else they lose their roles as cannon fodder and become stand-alone villains in their own right.

I suppose conjuring up cannon fodder should be easy, but for whatever reason, the voices in my head make it challenging. So lets talk about cannon fodder.

Q'est-ce que c'est Cannon Fodder?

For those not yet accustomed to the casual apathy reserved for an underling's well-being, "cannon fodder" are basically the low-level opposition fielded by your campaign's bad guys. These are the poor slobs that form the first (and second, and maybe even third) waves your PCs have to assault through before they can confront the Big Bad, the Majordomo, the Level Boss, whatever you call him/her/it. Think of ants defending the queen, and you get the idea.

Just about every epic story pits cannon fodder against the heroes, who have to overcome the nameless minions to bring their quest to a successful end. Fodder come in many shapes and sizes—companies of foot soldiers, hordes of orcs, seething masses of heaving savages festooned with beads and poison darts, even a swarm of carnivore bugs who erupt out of the ground to kill Michael Ironside—but they all have a few things in common:

  • They're crap fighters individually, but en masse, they can overwhelm the heroes
  • They personify an antagonist's badness—an Urak-hai's icky birth is a direct reflection on how twisted Saruman has become
  • They whittle away the heroes' strength and resources (hit points, healing potions, etc.); the best fodder take the Vietnam sniper's approach: wound (but don't kill) a target to slow down the entire party
  • They're iconic to the setting—nazis fit right into pulp '30s action, orcs are integral to Middle Earth, and Trollocs are the twisted embodiment of the evil rising in the (unfinished) Squeal of Time saga
Kill 'em all!
In ur base, settin' a trapz!

Looking for examples? Just off the top of my head:

  • Trollocs, foulspawn (from Jordan's Rand-land)
  • Orcs, Urak-hai (from the father of modern humanoids, JRR Tolkien)
  • Cavewights and Ur-viles (say what you want about Donaldson—he does give his beasties good names)
  • Nazis, Stormtroopers (basically any rank-and-file soldier in the employ of an evil empire)
  • Necromongers (from my wife's favourite Vin Diesel vehicle, Chronicles of Riddick)
  • Bugs (in this case, from Starship Troopers; what I like about these is that they're specialised: you have soldiers, fliers, bugs that shoot explosive butt-missiles into space, and brain bugs)
  • Aliens (from the Aliens franchise; while the alien in the first movie was more like a Big Bad, the aliens in the second movie were more like fodder. Get some!)
  • Any humanoid - kobold, goblin, orc, hobgoblin, gnoll (my intro to fodder, courtesy of Moldvay Basic D&D—though subsequent editions spewed out many more flavours; basically these were all the same monster, but with different combat stats)

So What's the Problem?

Given the common features cannon fodder share, the challenge is to make them interesting, but retain their role as middling foes. Books, movies, comics—possibly even dodgeball—all have established a tremendous precedent for cannon fodder. On the plus side, we know what works. On the down-side, fodder can be boring. I think there's a fine line between established models and what's trite. And who wants trite?

Possible Solutions

Modern Fodder

So here's some ways I've seen (and thought of) to make cannon fodder more interesting. Basically, take one of the examples above and tweak it with one of the traits below. Or use an example as-is, and give traits only to a certain segment of the population. Either way, my recommendation is not to give cannon fodder more than one of these traits (because if they become too special, they cease being cannon fodder); roll 1d6+1d4 below:

  1. Special defence
    1. Acid for blood (splashes on melee opponents when struck)
    2. Weapon damage (hard skin can shatter blades or turn them to rust)
    3. Immune to specific material (steel, iron, obsidian, wood) or attack type (fire, frost, acid)
    4. Force field (prevents melee attacks, so long as fodder doesn't fight back)
  2. Special result when killed
    1. Petrifaction (turn to stone when killed, binding melee weapons into the body; require roll to extract)
    2. Noxious (corpse evaporates into toxic vapours)
    3. Reanimated (corpse rises in 1d4 rounds (in a weakened state) and must be destroyed by fire, acid, holy water, etc.)
    4. Useful (body part has value, like a fire beetle's glowing antennae, or a gland that alchemists crave)
  3. Special role
    1. Soldier caste (better attacks and extra damage)
    2. Scout caste (weak in melee, but stealthy and observant and has some killer ranged strike)
    3. Tank caste (slow moving, but can take a terrific beating and deal out a lot of damage when it attacks every third round)
    4. Thinker caste (signals commands to subordinates via telepathy or pheromones)
  4. Specialised Ability
    1. Very strong (extra melee damage)
    2. Very dextrous (harder to hit or fights with a weapon in each hand)
    3. Natural attack supplements weapon use (and this has to be memorable, like a snapping inner jaw, venomous scorpion tail, or barbed goring horns)
    4. Reinforcements (can summon comrades from afar; they appear in 1d6 rounds)
  5. Special vulnerability
    1. Photosensitive (overall penalty in bright light)
    2. Vulnerable only to specific material (cold iron, silver, obsidian, wood) or attack type (fire, frost, acid)
    3. Berserker (uncontrolled when confronted by foes of certain race, nationality, religion, etc.)
    4. Cowards (automatic retreat if outnumbered—even by one)
  6. Special tactics
    1. Naked (eschew armour in favour of some other form of (real or imagined) protection)
    2. Stalwart (never need to check morale and will always fight to the death)
    3. Assassins (refuse to engage in a stand-up fight, preferring instead to attack at range from prepared positions)
    4. Unique weapon (some cool blade, gun, throwing star, or whatever that does great damage, but is usable only by the fodder race)

I've left these system-agnostic, but you should have no problems adapting them to your favourite RPG. Like Chimera, which I suggest you play. Everybody's doing'll make you feel good.

Final Words

Two simple questions: (1) what examples from books or movies come to your mind when I say "cannon fodder," and (2) what do you do in your campaign to make cannon fodder memorable?

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