Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How do you treat henchmen and hirelings?

Tenkar asked if you use henchmen and hirelings. We use them, and I like them so much I co-wrote a book on them.

If so, how do you treat them?

Personally, I think the "meatshields," "mine detector," and "potion drinker" approach shows the wargaming roots of D&D. In a persistent wargame setting, it makes perfect sense to risk your least experienced and least valuable resources on the unknown. In a game growing out of a tabletop wargame, where you are moving your characters like pieces and promoting them between expeditions when they do well and survive . . . doing anything but expending your pawns and husbanding your queens and bishops and rooks and such would be foolish.

But a lot of adventuring groups aren't run that way. It's more like communal exploration group with a mix of senior and junior members. The junior members aren't suicidally bound to the commands of the senior members. Even senior members who employ junior members may do so as additional forces, not as resources per se. A hireling isn't a 10' pole, even if you may need one to carry one.

I personally tend to run NPCs as people, so they aren't all that willing to take risks they weren't hired for. Or do things the PCs won't do. I liken it to officers ordering troops around - the hirelings are the troops, and react about as well as real soldiers do when an officer orders them to do something the officer wouldn't do. They react much better when led from the front. I've noticed that my players play that way, perhaps partly from my influence. They lead from the front, and generally expect that NPCs are willing to do what they're willing to do and not much more.

Admittedly, they've squared the circle by using magically summoned, utterly expendable resources. But for living NPCs, they put them in no more danger (and no more risk of automatic death) than the PCs. They treat NPCs as more fragile but less important PCs.

Of course, most of this changes for NPCs who are either magically compelled, or who were hired for a specific task. The lockpicker doesn't balk at being assigned all the locked doors. The potion taster sips away. The suicidal fool who signed on to "check for traps" by walking point doesn't worry when he's on point. But the default isn't obedience to foolishly dangerous commands.

Similarly laborers resent being pressed into the front line to fight, and often solid fighters protest when the PCs treat them as pack mules. It's a matter of what their job is, and what they charged for.

Close allies are more like PCs in our group, but then they tend to be expected to carry more weight and do just as crazy things as the PCs. Of course, they're in it for much more than a salary - they get a piece of the action, or are fulfilling a stronger, deeper contract.

You get into an issue of "send these guys, they're expendable" vs. "watch out for these guys, they're vulnerable." The first attitude is the hireling as meatshield and walking trap detector. The second is that henchmen and hirelings as junior but important delver.

Which do you, and your group, default to?


  1. The second approach is particularly important if the fallback of incapacitation of your main pcs leads to players taking over henchthings or add on players picking them up in a game that doesn't have plot allowances for people to just drop in. Felltower always ends back in Friedricksburg, but if it stopped midsession and another player showed up, it might be an option.

    1. I hadn't thought of it that way, but the NPC hangers-on in the previous campaign played some of that role. At least 2 people took over this one NPC who joined the group when they dropped in for a session in our last campaign. Maybe more, actually.

  2. Sometimes I wish there was some trait in DF like Humanity in Vampire the Masquerade. Maybe to worse your PC treats other the more difficult it is to resist the temptations of evil. Thus if you send your henchmen to suicidal missions then your PC would have a penalty to their Will to resist temptations from succubi or the mind control from demons. If your PCS are compassionate towards their henChen then they would have a bonus to their resistance towards evil temptations. I think that would be hard to do in DF though. I agree that the henchman should be resistant to suicidal missions however.

    1. For NPCs, one already exists - the Loyalty score, and the rolls against it. DF15 has all of that covered on p. 30.

      For PCs, yeah, it's something you'd need to put some work into. Giving some kind of bonus/penalty scheme so a lack of morality gets you something, but has the tradeoff of weakening you against immoral temptations. Pure good might be hard to be, but have lots of upsides. Pure evil might give you lots of power, but with glaring weaknesses. Still, it's not an easy bolt-on.

      Otherwise it's purely static, based on Disadvantages, and doesn't couple with Will at all.

  3. This is generally how I run my NPCs. And if there's lots of loot but they're just payed "straight salary", they tend to leave. But if they get some share of loot, even if it's fairly small in comparison to the main party? They're much happier. I have yet to see groups (as opposed to individual characters) treat hirelings as pawns.

    I also tend to give these hirelings XP if they do anything. It might not be much, or it might be a lot. It all depends.

  4. Actually, speaking from a wargaming perspective, I'm more likely to use henchmen as trusted lieutenants and sub-commanders than as meat-shields. [That's what mercenaries and other hirelings are for. ] Command and control is central to an awful lot of wargaming and makes sub-commanders very valuable.

    Actually anyone that callously throws away people is more likely to be a computer gamer than a wargamer. Sure wargamers tend to accept loses as inevitable but they don't necessarily court them. [Then again I was taught be professionals so I may be more biased in this regard than most.]

    [I make a qualitative distinction between henchman and hireling, and it'snot whether they are willing to go down into the dungeon - pay enough money and have appropriate death benefits for the family and most peasants will willingly take the risk - although using them as meat-shields rather than protecting them will adversely affect their morale - and then who will you get to carry your torches and treasure whilst you fight. If you doubt me, look at the Bangladeshi mine-clearance teams they used in Kuwait who detected mines by probing the ground using steel reinforcing rods - they were paid well enough that the risk was worth the occasional death and dismemberment. And still paid far less than the professional mine clearance teams. Of course your ability to hire skilled hirelings does depend on how you treat them - and their predecessors. Treating them as simple meat shields means that no matter how much you actually pay you are actually unlikely to get many recruits.]

    But subordinates you have a reasonable expectation of being able to trust are invaluable, especially when you start getting into domain and troop management (the wargaming end-game of OD&D). That's where henchmen are extremely valuable (especially when it comes to dispersing pay to those mere hirelings).

    As a social side-effect henchmen are often much more valuable than hirelings. Especially when they are, for example, effectively your apprentice. It's how you build a continuing social dynamic. For example a noble fighter (aka knight) might take on another noble's son as a squire, being both nobles into a closer relationship. Losing this squire would socially be a disaster.

    1. Thanks for the long and considered comment!

      "Actually anyone that callously throws away people is more likely to be a computer gamer than a wargamer. Sure wargamers tend to accept loses as inevitable but they don't necessarily court them. "

      I don't know about that - I read too many "that's what the meatshields are for" suggestions about opening doors, probing for pits, testing potions, etc. to believe that tabletop RPGers don't regard the weakest of their hirelings as, basically, the best resource to risk when risk is necessary. I'm not saying people are purposely getting hirelings killed off, just saying there is an approach that treats them as expendable, as cannon fodder. You'd generally rather not spend them, but I still see a split between the ones who will spend them and the ones who won't.

      The split between "henchmen" and "hirelings" is really just a nomenclature split, I think, between "valuable NPC" and "not-so-valuable NPC." The ally, assistance, apprentice, squire, professional hireling type vs. the more faceless, disposable, interchangeable mercs and peons type. I've yet to see anyone treat them all the same way. It's the pick of the litter vs. the rest of the litter. Even folks who regard NPCs are mostly cannon fodder sort the cannon fodder by their utility, and risk the ones least valuable and husband the valuable ones.

  5. The group of dungeon delvers I play with is quite hireling averse at the moment. In past campaigns, our GM tended to use lower level NPCs as a way to increase the challenge (fight the monster while protecting the nobleman's son) and now that we're just delving for loot it's hard to get used to the idea that low level hirelings can be helpful. Anything that they can do we can do better and more safely.. we definitely err on the "they're vulnerable" or even the "they make us weaker" side and it has kept us from really exploring the potential that hirelings could bring to our party.

    1. Sounds like the early experience has kind of poisoned the well a little bit.

      There is a real concern with bringing hirelings that are too weak to contribute - you can see a lot of that in my games. The PCs bring hired help when they think they need a boost in numbers, or need a specific skill or specialty covered. In a high-risk situation they'll leave all but the most powerful types behind.


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