Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Henchmen, Hirelings, and Warbands

I've not been blogging much, or gaming much. I'm in the middle of a protracted house move, from Cardiff to Yorkshire, and am engaged in a weekly commute. Et cetera, et cetera.

But that doesn't mean that I'm not reading about games - only that my recent gaming (of any sort) has been limited to Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Carcassonne, and the like. Unless you count Candy Crush as gaming... We did play some very good games of Chaos in the Old World before the complications of life, and my brother and I unpacked the Horus Heresy game by Fantasy Flight Games, but we put it away as it just looked far too complex. 

Complexity. Maybe the repeated concussions from playing rugby have eaten away at my capacity. Maybe becoming a father has done so. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Because I have little tolerance for complexity in my games these days. This might also be related to the fact that I'm the only one who will read the rules when we play RPGs, and so the rules - and stat blocks for both PCs and NPCs - need to be easy to absorb.

What on Titan has this got to do with Henchmen, Hirelings, and Warbands? 

Well, a while back I came across an interesting post on 'Billy Goes to Mordor', about expeditions in colonial East Africa, and it reminded me that I like games in which the PCs might employ NPCs, and that one of the first things that I check when I pick up a new system is the degree to which the rules support this. I am often disappointed. Systems are often either too complex (with an expectation that NPCs are statted out like PCs in order to interact with the game world) or absent, with perhaps only a list of wage rates reducing hirelings to equipment.  

Now, this disappointment keeps my head bouncing (I do have to be careful about these head knocks!) back to Classic D&D (B/X, BECM, and their OSR descendants) as there are simple but effective rules for Morale, Reactions, a distinction between personal followers and employees, a good list of wage rates, and so on. As well as - and this is very important - simple stat blocks. Indeed, stat blocks can be so simple, in fact, that for the average 0-level NPC non-combatant hireling you don't need to write down any stats at all, without undermining your ability as a Referee to determine the mechanical aspects of NPC interaction with the world. Maybe you need a Morale score... And the less than one line stat block you might need for a combatant NPC allows these 'extras' to get involved in a fight without unreasonable complication, even if we don't use a skirmish or mass combat system. 

And that's the thing - the simple mechanics of those D&D games allow me to incorporate henchmen and hirelings into a game and campaign in a manner that is dependent neither on Referee fiat or an overly complex system (either at the table of in terms of book-keeping).

But what other systems do this well? What other systems support the idea that the PCs might assemble a team of porters and assorted help when exploring the wilderness? Or to protect their manors? Or further their criminal ambitions? Or help start a new religion? Or... whatever the PCs goals might be? It seems to me that henchmen and hirelings are an important part of the tools of an extended 'sandbox' campaign, and I wonder if I've missed systems that do this well, and do this simply.


  1. I think the cleverest approach to this I've ever seen is Ars Magica, where the players create Mage, Companion and Grog (henchmen) characters. Every adventure then becomes like an episode of Mission Impossible with the main character assembling a team. It's not a good game for a one shot, but for a campaign with a group of interested players there's nothing to top it - and from a GM point of view, the players play all the characters which saves a lot of time.

    I like it quite a lot, if you haven't guessed.

  2. When I was a kid in the early '80s, we played D&D (a mishmash of B/X and AD&D) and everyone played more than one character. Sometimes (o.k., many times), it would just be one player and one DM, with the DM controlling some adventurers and the player controlling some others.

    We never really thought much about it, there weren't that many kids in the neighborhood and we quickly realized that most modules needed more than 2 or 3 adventurers.

    BTW, I too unpacked and then repacked the FFG Horus Heresy game. As a middle aged man, I just don't have time for overly complex rules. I can barely find time to play and paint, let alone memorize new rulesets.