Friday, February 11, 2011

The bandwagon still has room for one more hireling

So today's topic around the OSR-type blogs is hirelings/retainers/henchmen.

I'm pretty sure I've blogged in the past about my own early experiences with them, but I'm too lazy to look up a link to that old post right now.  So I'll briefly recap.

Starting with Mentzer, his Basic set tried to discourage retainers.  I'll need to double check the actual books, but the way I read them was very similar to the excerpts of Moldvay Basic that James M., Lord Kilgore, and others are talking about.  PCs can hire help, but they're discouraged from doing so at early stages of the game.

My idea of the 'retainer' that I got from Mentzer, though, was that they were free-lance classed NPCs who would hire on with your group for a share of the treasure.  Sorta like henchmen in AD&D, only contracted on an adventure by adventure basis.  We never got the idea from Frank's set that hiring Normal Man type soldiers/men-at-arms, or other porter/linkboy types was even an option.  Frank's Expert set reinforced this, with the admonition that mercenaries would guard your castle or clear the land of monsters, but wouldn't go down in a dungeon.

Since Frank had stated that it was preferable to have players each play multiple characters rather than resort to hiring retainers, and since we would often just roll up new characters when we were bored (to put off doing homework for another few minutes), we all had a dozen or so characters at any one time, and our adventuring parties usually consisted of each of our 1-3 players playing 3-5 of their characters, plus the DM 'NPCing' some of their own as well.  So we didn't need to hire extra help most of the time.

But that's what comes of playing D&D in a tiny farm community with a very limited player pool.

More recently, I've been encouraging the hiring of NPC help.  Some of my players take to it, some don't.  That's up to them.  I find that having a few hired spearmen along on a dungeon delve, or some extra sacks and backpacks for hauling out loot (or hauling in more oil, holy water, rations, etc.) can help a lot.  But if a group wants to go without them, OK by me.

So what have I got to add to the discussion?  Not much really.  But it was easier posting this than writing up the post that's on my mind, which is all about literary critique theory and how that may possibly be messing up some people's ideas of what RPGs should be about.  I'll save that one until I get over the headache I've got today.


  1. Checking Mentzer, he doesn't say it's preferable to have players play multiple characters. He just says they should be used if you only have two or thee players.

    He doesn't say whether or not they're classed, but he does compare them to hirelings so I would assume they're not.

  2. Dude, now I seriously want to read the post you have delayed, because I'm definitely interested in literary theory and criticism, and I'm curious about your thoughts on the subject of how it impacts gaming/gamers.

    As for hirelings, I've never really used them, and nobody I've DMed for really did either. The reasons were more roleplaying-driven, I think. We usually wanted to be a close-knit group, and having people whom we paid or had sworn fealty towards us just kind of created this sort of sense of class that made things a bit awkward. At least, that's my take on it.

    We also had a tendency to have full parties, and most DMs got frustrated if combat involved more than six PCs. Throwing NPCs on the players' sides just kinda slowed things down a bit during battle.

  3. Evan--like I said, I didn't take the time to look up the actual quotes from Mentzer, just going from my recollections of how we interpreted the RAW back then. To us as pre-teens, it seemed to read like any 'retainers' would be classed characters, and that we should play more characters each rather than resort to temporary NPCs to fill out a party.

  4. Dave--I'll see if I've got the energy for it over the weekend. It'll take some research and thought. Flynn might not give me the time for that. :D

  5. I'd like to see the delayed post as well. Sounds interesting.

    I have never been in a game where anyone used hirelings. That part of the rules has always seemed foreign to me, like the building of castles and whatnot. Holdovers from the wargame rules, when it was not solely about the PCs, and large numbers of combatants were the norm, I assume. We never had loyal henchmen either, but there were NPCs who went along with the PCs on some adventures. They were not in control of the players though, they were used by the DMs just as any other NPC.

  6. Anonymous makes an interesting point--is it a holdover from the wargaming era?

    The endgame is very much wargame oriented when compared to the early dungeon-crawly bits, and I guess that's where some of the world-building would have kicked in. I always considered the henchmen-hiring thing more of a mid-game thing, and by the time we reached mid-game, we didn't much care for it.

    In addition, when we first started playing, we each played two characters simultaneously, but gradually, we discovered it was difficult to effectively roleplay them. What happens when they disagree? It was just awkward to play out, so we basically stuck with only one character at any given time.

    NPCs could come and go, and many of the parties I've been in included one DM's "special," an NPC that he kinda favored and treated it as a PC sometimes. It often turned out to be a plot device or helper at times. For example, if we were stuck, the DM could use the "special NPC" to give us a nudge. It was often a way for the DM to try to enjoy being a PC while still DMing. It didn't really work incredibly well, depending on who was running. Sometimes he became a surrogate character and unconquerable badass for the DM, other times different DMs made them almost wholly ineffectual in an attempt to be fair. Only a few DMs could run party NPCs well enough for them to feel like a member and also not be too powerful or helpful.