Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Questionable Companions

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

Q is for Questionable Companions…especially those thugs-for-hire called henchmen and retainers.

First a little Q & A: What is D&D without hired companions? Answer: a game where Charisma has very little impact.

NPC hirelings are one of THE things that make D&D the game that it is. Besides being dead useful at low levels (even for larger parties) and giving DMs a way to role-play besides going “Raar!” (or other monster noises), NPCs give players a chance to interact with the game world in a NON-ANTAGONISTIC FASHION on a regular basis. And what good is that?

Engaging the players, enriching the role-playing experience.

If NPCs are only ever used as opponents (i.e. set up to be knocked down) or quest givers (Mr. Moneybags at the local tavern) than you might as well be playing the World of Warcraft. Seriously. Go do it…live your virtual fantasy life stepping-and-fetching for imaginary characters and skin as many velociraptors as you want; you won’t even have to wash your hands afterwards.

If you want to play a ROLE-PLAYING GAME instead…well, welcome to the world of character interaction.

Every story has its “bit parts;” every movie has its “character actors.” NPC hirelings, for the most part, fill this role. Even if they’re not actually “hired.” The classic example of the latter: PCs find an adventurer-type person trapped in the depths of the dungeon and (freeing the person) gains their services. Such an NPC is still a “hireling;” their hiring price was the freedom bought for him/her by the party.

These latter hirelings are found frequently within those old TSR modules: B2, N1, A1, G1-3 (a storm giant!), D1-3 (Svirfneblin, insane Kuo-Toa, bastard half-Drow!). To me, they serve several purposes:

- They bolster a party weakened by attrition.
- They give new players a chance to come in in media res.
- They provide a chance for PC/NPC interaction of a non-antagonistic nature.

And that last part IS important. As discussed in negotiation, actual character interaction helps us engage with our own characters and the game world…not to mention it makes things a lot more interesting than simply looting and killing every character. And no, it doesn’t mean players (or DMs!) need to “talk in funny voices.” Just being engaged in an “in game” conversation is enough to shift one’s mindset to the “imaginary world.”

Now for the “questionable” part.

Remember that the player characters themselves are scurrilous rogues for the most part: treasure hunters and fortune seekers delving in dark and dank dungeons, not above slaying the odd (or odd-looking) sentient and looting said creature’s fallen corpse. Not only are such scallywags not above a little murder, they appear to have a fairly low value of their own lives, blissfully walking into dragons’ dens and death traps.

What kind of individual would work for such people?

Now aside from the “grateful captives” rescued from “durance vile” I’m thinking only mercenaries of the lowest and meanest types. In other words, individuals of even more rotten character than the PCs!

I often picture the opening sequence from the Disney film Aladdin…where the evil sorcerer has just received the magic amulet from his little henchman, Gazeem “the humble thief.” Gazeem may be my favorite Disney character of all time (even considering those anthropomorphic animals from Robin Hood and Malificent from Sleeping Beauty) despite his extremely short screen time. This character practically screams HENCHMAN at me…I have often modeled Gazeem with grogs and NPCs in a variety of games (including Traveler!).

I used to wonder at why mercenary prices in the B/X Expert set were so damn low…5 gp per month? What kind of stuff are you shoveling? Then I realized that these types of mercs aren’t hired for dungeon expeditions…they’re hired for military operations. And in addition to their standard rate of pay they expect to be able to rampage and rape and pillage whatever city or barony or domain they’re hired to conquer. These are those same guys you see in the Paul Verhoeven film Flesh and Blood. Ugly, violent, sordid types who live (and eat and whatever else) by the sword.

NPC retainers and hirelings should NEVER be meek little meat shields. It takes true grit to accompany a band of adventurers into a dungeon. Even though they are not as skilled and proficient as the PCs (remember, PCs are “heroic” compared to “Normal Men”) they should still be grizzled, hardened to hardship, and always looking for an angle.

“An angle?” Hell, yes! Unless they’re getting paid excessively by the PCs they should be shirking duties whenever they can and grumbling mightily whenever inconvenienced. Remember Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto in the film Alien? “I think we need to discuss the bonus situation before we go any further.” Yeah…THAT kind of attitude.

Just because the NPCs are hired by the guy with a high Charisma (and thus have a high morale score) doesn't mean such rascals don’t bear watching. They may not have the pickpocket skills of a thief, but that doesn’t mean they won’t attempt to purloin a gem or jewel if left unattended with said valuable…and they’re probably the first ones to get drunk on any wine or victuals found in the dungeon. The high morale score simply means they won’t abandon their employer…because of the high Charisma they feel safer with him (or her) than taking off and trying to find the way out of the dungeon alone! A character with a low Charisma inspires no such confidence.Forget this dude,” is the first thing they say when the going gets tough and the leader looks panicked.

The old DMG had a ton of random tables for creating hirelings with varied personalities. I remember as a kid thinking, “huh, there sure are a lot of negative personality types.” Now, though, I think ol’ Gary didn’t go far enough to the negative. Sure, sure…Big G was probably accounting for those holier-than-thou Paladin-types (I play B/X so I don’t have to worry about THAT particular nonsense). These tables give a nice beginning, but I’d prefer to make my own lists of questionable character. Allow roguishness to be your guide.

: )


  1. Unless they’re getting paid excessively by the PCs they should be shirking duties whenever they can and grumbling mightily whenever inconvenienced.

    Amen to that. This is one of the things that HackMaster was absolutely right about (IMO).

    IIRC that version of the classic game had rules for hireling revolt (and further rules for dealing with same), and for the %age likelihood that *any* hireling a PC took on was a shirker who stayed around long enough to suck up benefits, but who bugged out with as much as he could steal as soon as things got the slightest bit risky.

    There were also friends-of-friends hangers-on who performed no useful function (always quick with an excuse though...) other than to run up party living costs.

    Great stuff, really characterful, albeit far too complex in execution for my tastes.

  2. Yes. Unless they're simply desperate, in which case they make for another kind of Harry Dean Stanton: drifting, dispossessed, trying to make enough to feed the kids, hyper-aware that they have to make it back alive to be of any use at all.

    I have too much to say about this to make my reply any longer - if I can get to it, I'll post on this.

  3. I think some of the utility of the two types of things you're talking about, hirelings and henchmen, fall into two different categories. It may be my readings of Elric when I was younger with Moonglum being the 'Eternal Companion' and a few other spots back in the day when the characters who hung around the 'heroe's were fairly loyal.... but then, we have the hirelings, the peole who, hey, you didn't do us right, hope you don't need this rope to get out of that pit sorts.

  4. interesting post. sure could use this for my own fantasy novels.
    Great meeting you through the A-Z!

  5. Nice post! I recently wrote a similar article titled Companion Character Creations. I love companion characters, they have so many uses in game. If you think back through pop culture, nearly every iconic hero has companion characters... People that come and go, journey with the hero for a while, and influence them dramatically (whether for good or evil).

  6. @ Chris: Oh, I don't think it requires a whole lot to execute. Just keep it in the back of your mind...and take advantage of it when you can.
    ; )

    @ Richard: Look forward to reading about it.
    : )

    @JoeGK: I always think of Indie's companions in Raiders of the Lost Ark myself. Moonglum was more of a "lower level PC" that got upstaged by his melancholy partner.

    @ Jingle: I try to be interesting.

    @ Nut: Thanks! And thanks for stopping by!

    @ Standard: Lots o sidekicks all right!