Poor Overlord's Power-up
Died recently and your minions are weakened!? Go to either Halfling Homes or the village of Spree, and break all the objects You see for new weapons and armor. This might not be a substitute for actually upgrading your minions, but it works at the start of the game!
When lifeforce is harder to come by with the advance smelters, visit the tower dungeon and use the staged fights to earn lifeforce. A mix of minions will let you set ambushes and revive any losses. The only downside are that your have no spells to use.