An Army in the Dungeon
  • An Army in the Dungeon


    Dungeons & Dragons' roots stretch all the way back to wargaming and it has a subtle influence on play that's sometimes forgotten today. Early D&D relied heavily on henchmen and hirelings, who often rounded out a group that could number as high as 20 members. This sort of play affected the kinds of D&D, from expectations on mortality rate to distribution of treasure.


    Hirelings

    Hirelings were hired soldiers of a variety of types, the true cannonfodder who were risking their lives for coin. Hirelings were governed primarily by how much the PC could spend, but Charisma played a role in attracting them. Additionally, PCs could attract more by establishing a stronghold.

    Morale was an important part of managing hirelings. Rather than make these NPCs suicidal drones who did whatever the PC wanted, morale was introduced to provide a mechanic to manage them without requiring the DM to control all of their movements. A PC who abused his hirelings risked them quitting.

    Henchmen

    Henchmen were non-player characters who had a wide range of abilities, like player characters. They could be just about anything, but their loyalties varied by their relationship with the PCs.

    The distinction is significant. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons often presented classes in Dragon Magazine that were considered too powerful for players to use but could make interesting henchmen. This practice gave rise to the "NPC class" which was often used by players anyway, from anti-paladins to death masters.

    Henchmen were a part of regular play -- they gained experience points at a slower rate than PCs, but they still advanced -- and were thus these additional characters were usually run by the player herself. In this regard henchman served a variety of roles, including as backup PCs should the PC die. As an extension of the PC, the number of henchmen were dictated by the PC's Charisma stat. Henchmen filled important support: healers, torchbearers, and baggage carriers who took loot out of the dungeon while the PCs continued on.

    How it Affected the Game

    A mass of people moving through a dungeon changes a lot of dynamics in adventure design. Loot that could be pried up, that was heavy, that was not easy to carry, could be relegated to hirelings. Traps could be numerous because few PCs would put themselves at the front of the party. Non-combat characters like wizards could use their henchmen and hirelings to fill in their own combat weakness. Henchmen and hirelings were part of the army-building that was D&D's roots, as we discussed back when "name level" was a goal for PCs to aspire to. Peter V. Dell'Orto, who co-wrote the GURPS supplement, Henchmen, said:

    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.

    Henchmen and hirelings complicated the game considerably from an inventory and character management perspective, something that would likely not be nearly as feasible for later (and more complicated) editions of D&D. Encounters were freer with cash as well, because it was assumed to be spread out among the (very large) party. James Maliszewski explains:

    The very fact that Grenadier produced an entire boxed set filled with torch bearers, guys toting treasure chests, and even a "potion tester" (he's figure E in the image above) tells you far more about the way D&D was played back in the day than I ever could. Old school D&D was not a game in which a small band of hyper-competent heroes braved the dangers of the world with only their swords, spells, and wits to protect them. No, they had a veritable army of hirelings and henchmen to assist them and these guys all got a share of the loot in exchange for their assistance. Considering that the life expectancy of a hireling could be measured in minutes in some cases, those that survived the dungeon certainly earned their share.

    Although we don't use them nearly as much today, henchmen and hirelings were an important transitional step between PCs as leaders of armies and PCs as heroes. As D&D became more focused on the party and less about the army, they fell out of favor.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 76 Comments
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      My Yawning Portal group has one player who kept trying to provide his own "hirelings" (via Animate Undead). We found out that the resulting Zombies mostly clogged doorways or held us back when speed was vital. (In a pinch and a confined space, I Turned Undead and wiped out most of his Zombies plus all of the attacking Skeletons; this was met with mixed reactions.) We did finally put them to good use in a big room, as part of a 'hammer and anvil' plan.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Back in 2nd edition, I had a monk who used his followers like the Blood Guard from the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. There were 100% loyal and would lay down their lives on his command. Much of their tasks took place outside the actual adventures. For example, I would assign them to protect a person or collect some information and the DM would then determine if they were successful. It was actually a lot of fun and didn't take away from character time, which was often an issue with henchmen.
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      Ok? The only time I use hirelings was to help round out a pc staffing needs on his castle. I have played with a dm who used the charts. It was hand waved away. Now I know some super detailed dm did use the charts. Aka We had 12 wagons of treasure hauled out of the dragon's lair. We made 2 gp profit.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      For my 3.5 pirate campaign, npc crew-members to man the ship are pretty much a requirement. But rather than expendable meatshields, they are full fledged characters that are dear to the players. They try not to put them in danger if they can help it.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      I think enforcing encumbrance in my S&W game is going to make hirelings a reality for the party. Unlike the game I'm playing in which has a "loot sheet" for anything not written on a character sheet. this loot sheet is some kind of extra dimensional space that has canoes, hundreds of pounds of gear, etc. It apparently follows us around. I should say they already have one hireling who mans their camp when they are in the dungeon but I'm guessing pack-bearers are close to being a reality in the pit.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      I've noticed that having hirelings is also a great vehicle for the DM to deliver plot hooks, and exposition.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by jasper View Post
      Now I know some super detailed dm did use the charts. Aka We had 12 wagons of treasure hauled out of the dragon's lair. We made 2 gp profit.
      Funeral expenses are no joke, huh?

      Here's what I don't understand: when you're in close quarters, it's dark, and you're hauling lots of gear/treasure, it's virtually impossible to run away from anything (or make a reflex save) when you have eight hirelings also hauling stuff behind you. Yet today's players, as proffered by Matt Colville and witnessed by myself, don't want to run away or even face overwhelming odds. Why, over time, do D&D players slowly ditch their entourage, if they're becoming less interested in running away? Why not have more followers then?
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      Funeral expenses are no joke, huh?

      Here's what I don't understand: when you're in close quarters, it's dark, and you're hauling lots of gear/treasure, it's virtually impossible to run away from anything (or make a reflex save) when you have eight hirelings also hauling stuff behind you. Yet today's players, as proffered by Matt Colville and witnessed by myself, don't want to run away or even face overwhelming odds. Why, over time, do D&D players slowly ditch their entourage, if they're becoming less interested in running away? Why not have more followers then?
      Snark, Today's Players. Gee thanks. I forgot Halloween is in a week and it is 1980.
      The one thing that maybe and again maybe is bags of holding and portable holes were easy to come by, which could be used to replace henchmen/hirelings.
      As to pc's not running away, I solve that by having the monsters willing to kill the pcs. You kill two pcs inside 4 sessions, and the players learn they can run away.
    1. ninjayeti's Avatar
      ninjayeti -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      when you're in close quarters, it's dark, and you're hauling lots of gear/treasure, it's virtually impossible to run away from anything (or make a reflex save) when you have eight hirelings also hauling stuff behind you.
      Not really. Bear in mind that the PCs don't need to outrun the owlbear, they just need to outrun the henchman lugging 90 pounds of cp in his backpack...
    1. Mistwell's Avatar
      Mistwell -
      People are still willing to quote James Maliszewski for articles as if he is an authority? Really, after what he did, people are still down with that? Ok then...
    1. Alzrius's Avatar
      Alzrius -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      Here's what I don't understand: when you're in close quarters, it's dark, and you're hauling lots of gear/treasure, it's virtually impossible to run away from anything (or make a reflex save) when you have eight hirelings also hauling stuff behind you. Yet today's players, as proffered by Matt Colville and witnessed by myself, don't want to run away or even face overwhelming odds. Why, over time, do D&D players slowly ditch their entourage, if they're becoming less interested in running away? Why not have more followers then?
      My guess: because managing that many characters is a burden on keeping the game moving, even when you try to shunt them to out-of-combat support roles.
    1. Jer's Avatar
      Jer -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      Why, over time, do D&D players slowly ditch their entourage, if they're becoming less interested in running away? Why not have more followers then?
      I strongly suspect it's because the expectations of the players in 2018 are different from the expectations of the players in 1975.

      In 1975 the game you were playing was a game of resource management. All of the players had a wargaming background and brought that to the table - the way you "beat" a dungeon was to take it on via wargaming tactics. And wargaming tactics say that you bring overwhelming force to bear where you can and tactically retreat when you are losing.

      Fast forward just a little bit and you find a game where that has all fallen by the wayside. Roleplaying even by the 1980s was a lot more about characters and stories than it was about tactics and "beating" the game. You started to see narratives and plotlines and a focus on thinking of your character as a character and not as a commander of hirelings. As the playerbase expanded you brought in people who had never wargamed in their lives - and early on you started seeing people ditch the miniatures altogether and go with what we'd call these days Theater of the Mind play where tactics become less important than descriptions and interesting actions.

      And with that brought a shift in expectations. The characters are now the central cast of a fantasy story, and the central characters of a fantasy story rarely get beaten back by cannon-fodder bad guys. They might suffer a temporary setback at the hands of the big bad, but it's rare that a bunch of mooks are going to do much to them. As players started thinking of their characters as heroes instead of soliders, the expectations started to shift. (They also don't tend to have a bazillion hirelings around them looking for gold - at best you'll have a loyal butler or something, who might even be a PC in his/her own right).

      I think that's got more to do with the shift than anything else - shifting expectations by the players.
    1. Ed Laprade's Avatar
      Ed Laprade -
      And this is how Charisma went from a stat that was needed to one that many consider to be supremely unimportant. It wasn't a dump stat until H&Hes became more or less irrelevant.
    1. Eirikrautha's Avatar
      Eirikrautha -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mistwell View Post
      People are still willing to quote James Maliszewski for articles as if he is an authority? Really, after what he did, people are still down with that? Ok then...
      What parts of his quoted statements are incorrect? I don't know a thing about this guy, but what he said reflects the game as I remember it back then.

      This knee-jerk acceptance of ad hominem attacks as an alternative to debate that seems to be endemic to the Internet is getting old quickly. If Adolf Hitler said the world is round, that doesn't make it flat. Tell me what this guy said that is untrue or mistaken and you've provided a service. Otherwise, your opinion of him is irrelevant to the point being made. I wonder how many of the personal attack-slingers would be silenced if subjected to equivalent scrutiny themselves?
    1. Eirikrautha's Avatar
      Eirikrautha -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jer View Post
      I strongly suspect it's because the expectations of the players in 2018 are different from the expectations of the players in 1975.

      In 1975 the game you were playing was a game of resource management. All of the players had a wargaming background and brought that to the table - the way you "beat" a dungeon was to take it on via wargaming tactics. And wargaming tactics say that you bring overwhelming force to bear where you can and tactically retreat when you are losing.

      Fast forward just a little bit and you find a game where that has all fallen by the wayside. Roleplaying even by the 1980s was a lot more about characters and stories than it was about tactics and "beating" the game. You started to see narratives and plotlines and a focus on thinking of your character as a character and not as a commander of hirelings. As the playerbase expanded you brought in people who had never wargamed in their lives - and early on you started seeing people ditch the miniatures altogether and go with what we'd call these days Theater of the Mind play where tactics become less important than descriptions and interesting actions.

      And with that brought a shift in expectations. The characters are now the central cast of a fantasy story, and the central characters of a fantasy story rarely get beaten back by cannon-fodder bad guys. They might suffer a temporary setback at the hands of the big bad, but it's rare that a bunch of mooks are going to do much to them. As players started thinking of their characters as heroes instead of soliders, the expectations started to shift. (They also don't tend to have a bazillion hirelings around them looking for gold - at best you'll have a loyal butler or something, who might even be a PC in his/her own right).

      I think that's got more to do with the shift than anything else - shifting expectations by the players.
      This seems to track well with what I have observed. As the game has become more about heroes and less about logistics (remember all the debates in the early nineties about "games as sport" vs "games as war"?), the focus has narrowed to the PCs and their exploits. Yours is a very good explanation.
    1. Mistwell's Avatar
      Mistwell -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eirikrautha View Post
      What parts of his quoted statements are incorrect? I don't know a thing about this guy, but what he said reflects the game as I remember it back then.

      This knee-jerk acceptance of ad hominem attacks as an alternative to debate that seems to be endemic to the Internet is getting old quickly. If Adolf Hitler said the world is round, that doesn't make it flat. Tell me what this guy said that is untrue or mistaken and you've provided a service. Otherwise, your opinion of him is irrelevant to the point being made. I wonder how many of the personal attack-slingers would be silenced if subjected to equivalent scrutiny themselves?
      Your second paragraph is a knee-jerk ad hominem. If you had just asked why it's inaccurate as you did in your first paragraph, I could have answered you. But by then immediately assuming it's an ad hominem rather than waiting for an answer to your first paragraph, I am not sure why I should answer? I mean, as you said, it's getting old. Why couldn't you just ask me what I meant if you don't know what I am referring to, rather than making it personal?
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      Actually for us it started out (in 1974) as a small group of PCs. They didn't have henchmen and couldn't afford hirelings. Besides, what sane mercenary is going to go into a dungeon? That's a damn sight more dangerous than a regular war

      Sometimes you made a friend (NPC) who might adventure with you at times (as an equal), but the large numbers came much later when you were strong hold building, fighting wars, etc. Henchmen were recruited at fairly high levels (for the PC). Torchbearers / human "mules" early on were unreliable, running away screaming with your light or sometimes decamping with your cash... animals were as bad. Something about the smells of a dungeon upsets them

      *edit* We were wargamers btw, straight from Chainmail to D&D. Resource management for us (in the beginning) was about food, water, and weight carried. Not henchmen or hirelings. That came later.
    1. Salamandyr -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mistwell View Post
      People are still willing to quote James Maliszewski for articles as if he is an authority? Really, after what he did, people are still down with that? Ok then...
      What did he do?
    1. Les Moore's Avatar
      Les Moore -
      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      The very fact that Grenadier produced an entire boxed set filled with torch bearers, guys toting treasure chests, and even a "potion tester" (he's figure E in the image above) tells you far more about the way D&D was played back in the day than I ever could.


      What it tells me is Grenadier was interested in selling large groups of miniatures, which could be handy, to represent different party members, NPCs, and also townsfolk. I remember many a party of half a dozen PCs, back during AD&D, and usually we played NPCs to compensate for parties smaller than 5 or six.

      NPCs had the additional issue of tripping traps set for the PCs by the DM.

      Granted it is absolutely true that D&D's roots can be traced directly back to wargaming.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      We rarely used hirelings/henchmen. They wanted real money. OTOH, mules, donkeys and sheep, were frequent companions. Mules and donkeys to carry supplies and loot. Sheep to poke in the butt with the ever present 10' pole so the sheep found the pit, lurker above, piercer, or other trap/monster. Plus the livestock had the benefit of we could eat the ones that didn't make it.
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