Hirelings, Henchmen, Retainers, and Minions

James at Grognardia writes about Retainers in Moldvay/Cook/Marsh and notes something that threw me for a loop a while back when I ready it:

It is recommended that the DM not allow beginning characters to hire retainers. New players tend to use retainers as a crutch, letting them take all the risks. If a dungeon is very difficult, the DM should let the players have more than one character apiece before using retainers, at least until players are more experienced.

This really goes against the grain of what I’ve always understood to be be the basic understanding of how the game was designed to be played, going back to what I read as a low-level adventurer in the 1e AD&D books. That this anti-hireling stance was adopted and stated so strongly in Moldvay really surprised me when I was reading through it about a year ago as we were working out details of our homebrew game.

I will admit that when we played AD&D back in the early and mid 80s we didn’t use a lot of hirelings other than non-adventuring specialists such as sages. But I must also admit that we spent a lot of time fudging dice rolls to keep our low level PCs alive.

I found the statement that low-level characters, in particular, should not be allowed to employ hirelings a strange one. It is at lower levels, especially, that PCs are most in need of some extra muscle. I wonder, to be honest, if this statement was originally intended to refer specifically to specialist hirelings like sages or hired spellcasters or to henchmen-type adventurer hirelings, not standard men-at-arms, torch bearers, and porters.

As we’ve been playing more and I’ve been spending more time thinking about the details of how the game works and how to tweak the design so it does more of what we want it to, I’ve decided that PCs hiring men-at-arms and eventually employing henchmen is the way to go. First, it allows smaller or low-powered parties to adventure in the dark and dangerous places where the most excitement is. Also, hired swords in the part give players of characters who don’t always have a lot do (low level magic-users, for instance, or the player of a character down to his last couple hit points after the first encounter) a more exciting way to take part and more dice to roll.

In fact, I whipped Labyrinth Minions and the Labyrinth Minion record sheets (good for any hirelings in any system) specifically to give us a quick and easy way to determine who applies for the openings and to keep track of those in the party. The simple system has been serving quite well, and it even spawned a Jungle Minions version for the Forbidden Jungle. The system, with a few tweakings, will be part of our homebrew Wizards & Warriors games.

We envision that hireling men-at-arms and henchmen will be a significant factor in the level of success that a PC reaches. In fact, we see hirelings and henchmen as such an important part of the game and of characters’ careers that we’ve made a couple of minor adjustments to the hireling modifier in the Charisma score. First, we upped the numbers slightly in anticipation of not only larger numbers of hirelings but in anticipation of high, um, turnover. Wizards and warriors go where the danger is.

Second, we’ve specified that the number means two things: A) The maximum number of short-term hirelings that the character can employ at any one time, and B) The maximum number of long-term henchmen that the character can ever employ during his or her career. But, as we’ve not got in a lot of playing time yet and haven’t had any characters advance terribly far, we will have to see how this interpretation of the often contradictory understandings of that number works.

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5 Responses to Hirelings, Henchmen, Retainers, and Minions

  1. Jack Colby says:

    It does seem funny how the Charisma limits are for different purposes in different versions of the rules. And as the title of your post shows, even the names were multiple and potentially confusing.

  2. Erin says:

    There’s a disconnect in the quoted text that I don’t believe the author(s) intended:

    It is recommended that the DM not allow beginning characters to hire retainers. New players tend to use retainers as a crutch…[emphasis mine]

    Meaning, players new to the game could do themselves a disservice by relying overmuch on retainers. But there’s no reason for better-than-novice players running 1st-level characters couldn’t benefit from their use.

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  4. ChicagoWiz says:

    @Erin – I use my hirelings/henchmen to train my new players. Suggesting courses of action while leaving the final decision up to the player (some courses are bad and it’s obvious) and sometimes to serve as “jogs” to the brain for players. I’m thinking of the delicate balance I have with @thePrincessWife in the byplay between her and Tironell, the NPC mage that travels with her.

    • Erin says:

      Makes perfect sense. When I GM, I tend to use retainers as a sort of “Greek Chorus” for the PCs.

      A quick clarification: My previous comment was not intended to dissuade the use of retainers. I think they’re useful both as in-game assistants to PCs and as plot/character devices for the GM.

      I only wanted to point out what looks like a significant error in nomenclature by the quoted author. Given the context and other references to retainers in the rules, it seems clear that 1st-level characters can and should hire retainers.

      My belief is that the author was cautioning GMs to not let inexperienced players push all the heavy lifting off on retainers. The use of the term “beginning characters,” is an unfortunate bit of lazy writing that confuses what I think is the intended meaning of the passage.

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