So in the Dragon Age computer/console games, you fight these endless hordes of faceless monsters called Darkspawn. The hero of the story must kill their leader in order to neutralize the giant horde of them that is threatening the ambiguously middle-ages european landscape. These monsters are the giant threat that the hero must deal with, but ultimately the hero’s victory over the Darkspawn is unsatisfying because the hero faces a foe that represents no moral quandary. Even the final boss, the Big Bad, is a mook! It is as faceless as its minions—despite being a fallen Elder God it offers no commentary, no insight whatsoever on the human or trans-human condition. It merely roars and directs its mindless masses. Luckily, I am finding that the sequel is much better about this, though certainly not perfect.
All mooks have this uninterestingness problem written into their design. The issue with having mooks as foes in an RPG, especially a tabletop RPG, is that they give players no opportunity to show the true colors of their characters. They cannot Be Awesome against mooks. The chance to discover or express more about characters is only gained by making them face choices, and morally irrelevant mooks present no opportunity for choice. “But hey,” you might say, “Legolas was totally awesome when he shot that orc with an arrow he retrieved from that other orc!”. Yeah, that was totally awesome. But movies (and video games, often) are capable of making a visual spectacle out of mook killing. Tabletop games lack the ability to generate this spectacle, and the end result is that Mooks make for bad games. This is especially true in games that have any kind of combat complexity to them—Exalted, D&D, Pathfinder, etc. Watching Legolas kill twenty orcs in The Lord of the Rings is massively different than playing an Elf Warrior killing twenty orcs on a miniatures board. The former takes at most five minutes, where the latter could take hours.
Our friend Exalted once again has something to say on this matter. In Exalted there are plenty of rules for extras, but so help me god, I haven’t ever heard of them being used in Exalted games. This is because they’re utterly irrelevant, and not just because of their relative power level. Power level is a part of it, but the real issue arises because they present no thematic challenge for the players to overcome. When your Solar Dawn Caste is fighting his Abyssal rival, the battle is about good versus evil, light versus dark. The battle is about more than just the characters, and that sensation of taking part in something bigger than oneself gives considerable weight to the conflict. Mooks can never give this—they’re just trash that gets between you and the real villains, the real character challenge.
So in my mind there are two different kinds of challenge that players can overcome to Be Awesome—mechanical power challenge and character challenge. At first that sounded like hogwash to me, but I’ve seen many players in my day who sit down and design characters capable of killing armies of mooks but, upon being asked how their character responds to a social event, shut down completely. How weird is that? But this goes back to my idea about horizontal boundaries. Mooks never test or define the horizontal boundaries that define who the character is, nor do they test the vertical boundaries that determine what a character can do. At best, they are a distraction, and accordingly I can not agree with any game system that makes me pay more than a trivial amount of attention to its mooks, should it have any at all.