Ah, Minions. They're a wonderful thing. You can throw them in hordes at players to make them feel powerful as they slice and dice their way through, you can give them to the villains to show that they have a large amount of power. You can dabble them pretty much everywhere to help populate the world with the "little" people, not particularly special, but still there to try and make a difference. You can also give them to your PCs, and in doing so introduce them to a whole new world of mechanics, play, and a whole new feeling of power.
So, first off, let me be honest here. This is another post inspired by a game, and the game in question this time is Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Now, I don't know how I would rate Brotherhood, on the one hand I keep playing it, and don't want to stop. On the other hand, the game infuriates me to no end at times, particularly with some things that just come down to me as poor design, or design oversights. That is neither here nor there though, and the game has a lot of good going for it. One of the good things it has, is the ability to recruit assassins to your cause. Once you have them, you assign them to missions, level them up, and can even call on them mid game to help you out. It creates a situation where you can feel awesome as, with the push of a button and a slight whistle from Ezio, a masked person jumps out of nowhere and takes care of the problem you were about to have. All very nice and smooth. Still, there is a lot in Brotherhood done right with the minions, so lets look at some ways to handle them.
Now, there isn't much out there for customization in Brotherhood, but there is some. You can name your assassins, change their clothing style, and as they level up you can choose if you are going to increase their armor or weapon abilities. That is that game however, in a RPG you have a lot more variety you can choose from, and as a GM you should allow the Player to do so. Let the player name the minion, hell, work with the player to come up with a backstory and other things for them as well. Whatever you may lose in ability to 'hurt' the character with the minion, you more then make up for with the investment the player has into their minion. Be clear that a minion isn't, and will never be, PC level cool, but let the Player put their effort into getting the guy as close as possible. The more the player puts in, the more you should give back on this. Trust me, there isn't much as awesome as watching a player sacrifice and hurt their own character - the actual PC - to help out their minion because they "just like the guy".
Send On Missions
One of the more fun things you can do with the minions in Brotherhood, which is weird considering that this is just a menu interface, is send them on missions. These missions help level up your people, making them stronger and better able to serve you. With each mission you get a difficulty, a bit of story, and the chance of success. The more, and better, assassins you send, the better the chance of success. A simple system that wouldn't need to be changed at all for your RPG. It gives a way for the player to get more things done then they otherwise would be able to, and level up their minions. The cost? Well, if the mission fails, the minion dies. Also, while a minion is on a mission they can't be called upon to help out in the here and now, which can be trying when you suddenly wish you had your super-awesome right hand man with you, only to realize you've sent him to handle some affairs in Tuscany. Doing this, and doing it right, can also really help give the feel of an increase in social stature. You are no longer the mission runner, you are the handler. Sure you may still handle jobs, but you also give them out. It can be a lot of fun when done right.
Call For Help
The neatest, and way that gets most talked about, that you can use your minions in Brotherhood, is calling them down to help you in the game. With the push of a button, 2-3 of them come out of nowhere and kill whatever you were aiming at. This can be used to handle people you don't want to deal with, to stop a pesky guard from spotting you, or just to thin the protection out around a target you want. Whichever way it happens, it looks pretty awesome. Especially since they seemingly come out of nowhere (hiding in hay bales and what not). Now, in game terms it may not be this immediate, but the ability to get backup from a PC's minions should come part and parcel with them. Now, remember, the minion shouldn't be as powerful as the PC, so if a combat cracked PC calls some minions, they should be weaker than him in that regard. Still, creative usage can be rewarded. This, like the above, can really give the player a feeling (at least, the game I got to do it in, I felt fairly powerful) that they are both powerful, and important to their organization. The ability to have "people" that do things for you, is an awesome thing that shouldn't be overlooked.
There are tons more ways to use minions than I discussed here, all you need is a bit of creativity. The big thing to remember though is to not be afraid of them, and not to be worried about your PCs power level and how it can grow. Still, do you have stories of your PCs - or you - having minions in game? How did it go? did you have fun? Was it awesome? Let us know!