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.

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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.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
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.
 

AriochQ

Adventurer
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.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
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.
 

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.
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
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.
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
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?
 

jasper

Rotten DM
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.
 

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...
 

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