Saturday, July 9, 2011

B/X Charisma & Henchmen (Part 2)

[from here]

First off, we should probably define the term henchman, as given in B/X.

Found it? Ha! There's no such thing in B/X, which means I've already screwed up the title of these posts by my improper understanding of the concept!

Well, that's not entirely true. "Henchman" is the term used in the older AD&D books. However, by 1981 (I am guessing) many kids picking up the Basic rules may very well have associated "henchmen" with the helpers/cronies of super-villains and such. The concept of the "evil henchman;" or as wikipedia so succinctly puts it (under the topic of "henchmen in popular culture"):

Henchmen (occasionally henchlings) are common in mystery, fantasy, adventure comic books, and adventure novels and movies. They are the expendable adherents of the main villain, always ready to do the master's bidding, to kill or be killed, kidnap, or threaten, as needed. Often, they are killed by the hero before the master villain is reached, by the hero's sidekick in a dramatic battle, or even by the master villain as punishment for failure to comply with orders.

What heroic adventurer wants toadies and minions? Who wants their PC associated with someone who (in fiction) is inevitably going to get their ass kicked by the "real" hero?

Which is sad, really, because "henchman" used to be a term of respect for a loyal aid or attendant (look it up).

Anyway, Moldvay never uses the term henchman to describe hirelings; throughout the Basic rules, the term Retainer is used exclusively. The Cook/Marsh Expert set continues this practice in the two or three places it is mentioned at all. When we speak of a retainer, we often consider the idea of a counselor or consultant (like a retained attorney) or the "loyal servant" that has been with a family for years.

The origin of the term retainer comes from the English feudalism (such as it was) during the late middle ages, at a point when the traditional "vassal-swears-to-provide-military-service-to-lord-when-called" had been replaced with "vassal-gives-money-to-lord-in-lieu-of-military-service." The lord would take this money to "retain" hired mercenaries year-round (a private army of sorts). Later, any crony in the pay and/or favor of a noble might be called a "retainer."

[this is, of course, a gross simplification but I'm not a medieval history scholar and this isn't a blog about old European governance systems. You can research the English War of Roses more info on this period]

For the purpose of B/X, Moldvay defines retainers as follows:
A retainer (or hireling) is a person hired by a player character (PC) to aid that character on an adventure. ...Retainers are more than just men-at-arms, soldiers hired to fight and protect their employer but only expected to take reasonable risks. Retainers are lieutenants and assistants to a PC and are expected to lend their skills and knowledge to the benefit of the party and to take the same risks the characters expect to face.
Wow. The parenthetical note ("or hireling") is problematic as it implies an equal relationship between the term "hireling" and "retainers." Which is not the case: all retainers may be hirelings (i.e. hired individuals) but not all hirelings are retainers. Expert hirelings (called specialists in the Expert set) are explicitly stated to NOT be retainers.

Nor would it appear (from Moldvay's description) are men-at-arms...what many of us in the RPG biz commonly refer to as "meat shields." Retainers are "more than just men-at-arms," the latter being defined as:
"...soldiers hired to fight and protect their employer but only expected to take reasonable risks."
No, no, not meat shields at all. Retainers are "expected" to "take the same risks the characters expect to face" (and if the PCs are unwilling to risk, well...). AND they are likewise expected to contribute their "skills and knowledge" to the success of the dungeon endeavor, not just step forward and eat the first orc arrow or goblin spear.

Retainers are fellow adventurers in other words. Albeit NPC adventurers and thus controlled by the DM.

There is a clear distinction drawn between mercenaries and retainers. For example, in the Expert set it is explicit that elves and dwarves may only hire mercenaries of their own species, "but specialists and retainers of any race may be employed." A human adventurer can be the trusty retainer of an elven lord because the retainer is outside the norm of society...he is an ADVENTURER. Normal humans are well defined in the Basic set (page B40):
"A normal human is a human who does not seek dangerous adventure. A normal human does not have a class."
Player characters are not "normal humans." They each belong to an adventuring class, or they are a demihuman class. They DO seek "dangerous adventures" and profit because of it. Retainers are cut from the same cloth, gaining experience (though at a slower rate) and contributing their abilities while taking the same risks as the PCs.

Now, retainers may indeed start as "normal humans;" Moldvay writes:
A retainer may be of any level (0, 1, 2, 3, or higher) and of any class (normal man or character class). Retainers can never be higher in level than the PC who hires them.
Does this contradict the definition of a "normal human?" Not at all. In his description of normal humans, he writes:
"...some professions (such as merchant, soldier, lord, scout, and so forth) help in some adventures. As soon as a human gets experience points through an adventure, that person must choose a character class."
A retainer may start their career as a normal human, but the sheer fact that they are willing to sign on to an adventuring party means they have the grit and fire to advance in "level" and outpace the rest of human society with their prowess.

These aren't "meat shields." These are fellow adventurers.

But they are NPCs. Adventurers controlled by the DM, even if hired by the player characters. And it is for this reason, Moldvay makes the following pronouncement that I believe I have misinterpreted up until now:
Retainers are often used to strengthen a party which is attempting an extremely dangerous adventure. It is recommended that the DM not allow allow beginning players to hire retainers. New players tend to use retainers as a crutch, letting them take all the risks.
Now for whatever reason, when I've read that paragraph in the past, I interpreted "players" as "player characters." However, re-reading of the Basic set shows Moldvay is fairy specific to distinguish "players" from "characters" in his text.

I always considered "new player" and "beginning player" to mean low-level player characters (possibly 2nd level, but certainly 1st level). For example, in my most recent B/X campaign (which has run for a dozen sessions or so) I wasn't letting any PCs hire CLASSED NPCs until recently when they started hitting 3rd and 4th level. My reasoning? They were finally getting to the "status" where low-level adventurers would come seeking them out.

In retrospect, this is completely retarded of me. Not that my players questioned this...I assume they assume I'm some sort of "master of the B/X game" (possibly because I have a blog and act pretty arrogant most of the time). However, I am only now seeing the error of my ways:

  • "Beginning/new players" are NOT the same as new (1st level) characters. When Moldvay talks about new players using retainers as a "crutch," I now believe he is referring to the fact that they are NPCs, and thus controlled by the DM. A NPC that is expected to contribute to the adventure by lending both skills and KNOWLEDGE? "Ah, yes, Mr. DM-controlled-character...what do you think would be the best course of action at this juncture?" Now that IS using the character as a crutch. For experienced players (as all mine are at this point after eight months of B/X gaming), this should be a non-issue.
  • Well, what does a 1st level adventurer hire since he cannot hire since retainers "can never be higher in level than the PCs who hired them?" Answer: Normal humans and 1st level characters. It doesn't say the retainers can't be equal in level...and since retainers advance twice as slowly (earning 1 XP for every 2 XP a player character earns), they should never be able to outpace their employer. Well, except possibly for elves, but there are ways to address that.
  • "Extremely dangerous adventures" include any adventure a 1st level adventure undertakes that doesn't involve mustard farming. Hiring a couple retainers for each PC might well have cut down on number of dead characters littering the Caves of Chaos. There IS a way to play this game from 1st level without the game looking like Russian Roulette, and including adventurous hirelings may well be one of the main ways.

Remember I said that all ability scores should carry the same weight and purpose? This is the whole point of Charisma. A player rolls 3D6 six times to get a set of ability scores. Some are high, some are low, most are (probably) average. For the player with the high Charisma and low Strength score, his (or her) advantage is the ability to hire more retainers...adventurers that will contribute to the party's fortunes and share in their dangerous risks.

We'll get to the actual usefulness of that in the next post. Right now, I'd like to apologize for all the extremely surly and risk-averse NPCs I've been providing for my players to hire. No wonder they don't give a shit what their Charisma score is!


  1. 2nd Edition cleared up the confusion between henchmen, hirelings and followers.

  2. Ah, but for every surly and unreliable hireling, there's a Witherdrool!

  3. Wow, I've never even CONSIDERED running B2 w/o letting the players run w/ hirelings. You're a cruel, cruel man. :P

    As for the comment, "There IS a way to play this game from 1st level without the game looking like Russian Roulette, and including adventurous hirelings may well be one of the main ways."

    That's not true at all! You're just using a bigger cylinder!

  4. Great post - JB. I've never really used Charisma in my games which strengthens it as a drop stat. I've been making charisma count for more in my latest game and I'm going to think about how to handle retainers.

  5. @ J. Random: Oh, I always let them hire two or three man-at-arms for their delves...they generally died first. It was only their very last delve into B2 that I said no one was crazy enough to hire on with them (since none of the mercs ever returned alive). Of course, there were 8 or 9 player characters in the party that evening so I didn't feel I was doing them a HUGE disservice.

    More on that later.
    ; )

  6. I actually felt quite a bit of moral angst when making the elf with the 3 Charisma, but I really could NOT help but to min-max my scores, weighing the pros and cons of every point in this or that score. Dex helps AC and bow attacks, strength aids melee, con for hp.

    Honestly I think intelligence is more of a dump stat in our game (no bonus spells, and picking extra languages seems really random and unlikely that you'll get to use any language that elves don't already know), but I needed a 16 for the bonus XP (elves advancing slowly and all that).

    I almost decided to roll instead of using point buy because it made me feel dirty, but I couldn't say no to those high scores.

  7. @ Josh: You should feel dirty-dirty-dirty!
    ; )

    Actually, I agree with you that INT is less useful to non-elves/MUs than the other ability scores, though you'll still want to have at least a 9 intelligence so that your character is literate...otherwise, how are you going to read all those wonderful magical tomes stashed in my B/X Companion?

    The honest-to-God main complaint I have with Moldvay is his handling of languages (including "alignment language"). It's why I allow players to choose languages as needed in play (like Randy's lizard-speak character)...just makes it a bit more useful.
    : )

  8. Just go 3d6 in order and all will be well with the world.