Retainers: Loyalty in OD&D vs. B/X

Both of these retainers have VERY questionable loyalty scores.

While looking for something else I came across this in Volume 1: Men & Magic of the original Dungeons & Dragons ruleset:

Loyalty of Non-Player Characters (Including Monsters): Men, dwarves and elves will serve as retainers with relative loyalty so long they receive their pay regularly, are treated fairly, are not continually exposed to extra-hazardous duty, and receive bonuses when they are taking part in some dangerous venture. Judgement of this matter is perforce subjective on the part of the campaign referee, but there is a simple guideline: When one or more of such characters are taken into service a loyalty check is made by rolling three-six-sided dice. Adjustments are made for charisma and initial payments for service, and the loyalty of the character(s) noted by the referee. (The player will not have any knowledge of what it is without some method of reading minds.)

Loyalty ScoreMorale
3 or lessWill desert at first opportunity
4-6-2 on morale dice
9-12-1 on morale dice
7-8Average morale dice
13-14+ 1 on morale dice
15-18+2 on morale dice
19 and aboveNeed never check morale

Non-player characters and men-at-arms will have to make morale checks (using the above reaction table or “Chainmail”) whenever a highly dangerous or un-nerving situation arises. Poor morale will mean that those in question will not perform as expected.

Periodic re-checks of loyalty should be made. Length of service, rewards, etc. will bring additional plusses. Poor treatment will bring minuses.

Men & Magic, page 13

This is not unlike the 2d6 reaction and morale/loyalty checks in B/X (pages B21 and B27), except that the OD&D checks are “periodic” instead of “after each adventure” as specified in B/X.

This is particularly troublesome because B/X seems to define an “adventure” to mean what we generally call a “session” these days (page B3). In exceptional cases, an “adventure” might take more than one game day, but the term certainly is not used to mean, say, a complete module or other adventurous undertaking that will span a number of sessions and a significant length of game time. A concept repeated multiple times in the rules is that experience points are awarded at the end of an adventure, meaning that if and when characters tally up XP in B/X, it’s time to roll 2d6 and see if the retainers are gone forever. In Original D&D, that loyalty check is only to be made “periodically.”

This is part of what I see as one of the problems with retainers in B/X. Even characters with above average charisma who qualify for a retainer morale of 8 and further enhance things by rewarding a retainer with superior shares of treasure or preferential treatment to earn a +1 on the roll are sill going to lose their retainers more than 16% of the time at the conclusion of any session. Characters with typical charisma who don’t or can’t provide extra shares will lose them at the end of the evening over 41% of the time.

This level of risk makes it hard to justify the effort and expense of retaining a henchman, especially since it takes “several adventures” of premium payment to earn that +1 loyalty bump. Even if you are blessed with good charisma and you compensate that retainer extra-well, they’re likely going to be gone after five or six sessions and you will have to start all over with a new one.

The first thing to do, probably, is ditch the confining definition of “adventure” that B/X uses for retainer loyalty purposes and go with OD&D’s “periodic” specification. But what is this “period” to be? One obvious answer is to define “adventure” more like we have, in the years since B/X’s 1981 publication, to mean a completed arc of some sort, such as clearing the dungeon, finding the lost ark, or defeating the dark forces in the Caves of Chaos. The “adventure” ends when a definite break in the action occurs, not between scenes.

After all, while C-3PO did fail a loyalty roll and leave Luke Skywalker’s service to become Princess Leia’s retainer, at least it was at the conclusion of the Hoth campaign and not while Luke was dodging turbolaser fire from those towers in the trenches of the Death Star with a Sith Lord hot in hot pursuit.

Another option, and one I’ve subscribed to even before finding this passage in OD&D, is rolling for loyalty only when a retainer increases in level. This would be a natural time for an NPC to reflect on his or her adventuring career and consider striking out on his or her own. At retainers’ half-XP rate of advancement, this shouldn’t be so often that retainers are constantly shuffling in and out of the part, making a players and character’s investment in their development less risky.

In the end it comes down to how your want your game to play. If, like me, you want to encourage players to take advantage of retainers and make developing a team or crew of adventurers part of the game, doing so must be to their advantage. You need to make sure that players don’t feel that retainers are a waste of time, and you probably need to limit the number of non-retainer NPCs that are available to fill out a party.

Adopting a less-frequent loyalty check (assuming the character is not mistreating the retainer) is an important first step toward making retainers look like an attractive component of a successful adventuring party.

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