Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Message for you, sir!"

It's been months since I was seriously active on any message boards.  The OSR blogosphere has reached the point where it provides me a more than sufficient dose of rpg nerdery, so I have less motivation I guess.  But once in a while I still lurk around a bit, which brings me to this excellent inquiry made by the RPGpundit asked over on
Players not generally weaned on earlier editions of D&D tend not to hire retainers/henchmen/whatever. I want to try to encourage the use of them in my upcoming FR campaign

And I was trying to think of good ways to encourage this. Short, that is, of throwing them at the players or giving them away for free or whatnot. But rather, how to convince the players, in or out of game, that going adventuring with retainers (at low levels in particular) is a very good idea.

Any suggestions?

I've been giving this a lot of thought lately.  Personally, I haven't ruled out the idea of just outright giving every starting PC one or more retainers.  In my experience if you tell a player their newly minted PC comes with a free piece of stinky cheese they will figure out a way to turn that piece of cheese into a dungeoneering asset.  Especially if you DM the way that I do, insisting on 3d6 in a row for stats and not giving a crap if a '1' is rolled on your initial hit die.

Another way to encourage henchmen is to be a big ol' dickbag about the small stuff that a lot of DMs don't sweat.  Who is carrying the freakin' torches?  How are we getting this rolled up tapestry and two chests full of coins out of here?  What do you mean I get tired from lugging all this equipment around?  Equipment maintenance, tending the horses, keeping an eye on the boss's stuff while he's drunk off his ass, make sure he's not interrupted while researching spells, etc.  Good retainers make an adventurer's life easier.

And then there's this last idea I've been kicking around.  Call it the Emergency Red Shirt Rule: Once per session a PC can automatically save their own sorry hide by sacrificing one of their retainers. A smart player will come up lots of ways for their retainers to stand between his PC and the reaper man, but with this rule even clueless newbies will be able to use retainers to hedge their bets.


  1. But don't you know, beginning players aren't supposed to have retainers!

    Joking of course, but is interesting that this post comes right after a (very short) debate on hirelings in old school play.

    I like what you have, though I know several players who would be sickened by the idea of having a hireling take the bullet for them.

    I also no several who use them as bait.

  2. "Sacrificing a hireling to save the player" is a card in Munchkin, actually. Perfect rule (although I've never had the card and had a hireling in play during the game in my short Munchkin-playing career).

  3. Great minds think alike Jeff!

    I haven't had any chance to try this out though.

  4. Make them start with ONLY retainers. The last one standing can make it to 1st level and become the PC.

  5. Well, given who I am apparently ripping off, I must be on the right track!

  6. Anonymous1:29 PM

    In my jungle campaign, I use something like this. I call it "casualty of the jungle". Punji pits, poison snakes, throat's dangerous out there!

    Another way that my jungle campaign encourages the use of hirelings is to give some of them a minor special ability. For example:

    Trained Herbalist: Can identify and prepare most Famous Flowers, Rare Roots, and Miracle Medicines.

    Will the PCs choose to use the Trained Herbalist as a Casualty of the Jungle, and no longer enjoy the benefits of his knowledge?

  7. I've begged my GMs to let me have hirelings, which I would pay for out of my starting gold, and I've been told no. They just don't seem to want to deal with the possibilities minions open up.

  8. My players have had a de facto sacrifice a retainer rule, they seem to burn through them poor red shirts like there is no tomorrow. Might as well make it official then too.

  9. I encourage it by telling the players to hire them. I reference the retainers rules in the book and then state as follows:

    "Having a loyal retainer around can be the difference between life and death. It’s not a bad idea to inquire about hiring some help any time before going into the dungeon.

    Retainers are essentially run as the secondary pcs, where the DM has a veto over the player’s directions for the character. Examples:

    Player: “Stay here with the mules and food until we get back from the dungeon.”
    Retainer: “OK.”

    Player: “Stay here with the money we’ve already taken out of the dungeon, while we go back and get more.”
    Retainer: “OK.” (But if he isn’t particularly loyal and of the Neutral or Chaotic alignment, I’ll probably roll against his loyalty score to see if he runs off with the loot.)

    Player: “Keep your spear between the mage and those goblins.”
    Retainer (a 0-level man): I’ll make a moral check if it’s the first time he’s ever seen a goblin. If it’s the tenth time he’s fought a goblin, I won’t.

    Player: “Keep your spear between the mage and those goblins.”
    Retainer (a fifth level fighter): “OK.”

    Player: “Go down that dark passage and find out what’s making that awful screeching noise.”
    Retainer: “Screw you.” (I won’t bother rolling.)

    As retainers adventure more with the pc and consequently gain more and more treasure, the retainers’ loyalty scores will rise."

  10. You know, I don't remember *ever* using retainers back in the day. Of course my D&D group back in middle/high school had a crapload of players in it.

  11. Anonymous6:30 PM

    Like Chris says, telling your players "hiring retainers can be a life-saver" is probably the best way to encourage their use.

    I'm one of those players who wasn't weaned on hirelings, so I'm curious; do hirelings change or narrow the tone of a campaign? It seems like plunging into dangerous dungeons with disposable minions would make a campaign decidedly un-heroic, especially with a rule like 'sacrifice a meat shield to save your own skin.' Or at least grimly comical. Neither of which are inherently bad things, I've just never met a DM who actively encouraged that kind of tone.

  12. Once per session a PC can automatically save their own sorry hide by sacrificing one of their retainers.

    You might like my article on Fighting Groups for D&D -- when players fight in a group they can allocate the damage to any of the group members (a lot of wargames work this way). So if the PC has a retainer shieldmate close at hand guess who'll catch that otherwise lethal orc spear?

    But sometimes the PC will want to take the hit for their retainer instead! Losing the retainer means taking another sword out of the battle.

    Decisions, decisions... :)

  13. Anonymous10:36 PM

    Like Jeff seems to have done, I arrived at the idea independently, then read the article linked above, "hirelings will be splintered" when it was first posted. I've been wanting to try it ever since. A nice simple idea and it makes good sense in an adventure context (if it worked for Sinbad, etc. why not the PCs?) Next time I run a game I want to give it a go!

  14. I love this. I might implement it, as I was considering bringing up Sham's The Entourage Approach to my players.

    As I talk about on my blog, I've been trying to ease my players into a neo old school style using Pathfinder, and slipping in the tropes as naturally as I can.

    Recently, my players have discovered the joys of hirelings, and are dropping coin like candy to amass a small army to tackle WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.

    I think an incentive like dodging a potential death by sacrificing a red shirt would do nothing but further their love of the hireling money sink.

    Good times.

  15. I played in Zzarchov's game last night where this rule was enthusiastically in effect. It leads to an interesting parley where the player with henchmen gets to choose whether to sacrifice one to keep another PC alive (not always obvious they should). And then the enemy NPC sorcerer used it right back at us, sacrificing his own follower.