Monday, July 18, 2011

B/X Charisma & Henchmen (Part 3)

[continued from here]

Wow, this has taken a long time about procrastination!

A couple weeks ago I was out of town and my gaming group, unwilling to give up their Thursday Night Out, met up and played a little DCC (the Beta rules) that everyone's been yammering about. Great fun was had by all, and my understanding is that the "funnel system" (they started with 15 characters between 'em) worked well and gave them a different (and not unwelcome) play experience, since they weren't worried about being overly-cautious. this the game to supplant B/X?

In the email chain that discussed the session, and its plusses, severals comments stood out to me, especially this one from the GM:

It seemed like the extra characters were a lot handier than D&D henchmen which you have to order around by DM proxy and which have annoying morale checks/self preservation goals.

Here, see, this is the kind of misunderstanding I was trying to address in my prior posts, started O So Long Ago.

In B/X, the morale of one's retainers (remember we don't have "henchmen" in B/X) is determined by the employer's Charisma score. A character with an average Charisma score (9-12) conveys a morale score of 7 to his or her retainers...a step up from normal ("civilized") human morale (6), though not quite that of a disciplined man-at-arms (8). According to the Expert set, 7 is the moral of your average "barbarian horde" (page X22).

Higher and lower than average Charisma provides the same bonus/penalty system found for the other ability scores: 13-15 +1, 16-17 +2, 18 +3, etc. giving the possible morale scores for retainers a range of 4 (really pathetic) to 10 (pretty darn stalwart).

Now, we all know what morale is in B/X, right? The Great Equalizer for PC adventurers, that's what. While a small group of 1st level characters might encounter as many as 8 spear-wielding goblins or 16 (!!) kobolds in a wandering 1st level encounter, it doesn't take much to break the morale of such rabble: kill one and have the DM roll over their morale score (7 for goblins, 6 for kobolds)...quite possibly adjusted in the PCs' favor if the party is heavily armed and armored with shiny steel.

You can see why the idea of retainers doesn't appeal to your average player, then (especially those with low Charisma scores), when the odds are good that your hired help could be fleeing the coop in the midst of battle...especially if you paid them up front! Sounds like it's not worth the time it takes to post a Help Wanted notice at the local tavern.

But such is only the case if you're using retainers incorrectly.

Retainers are ADVENTURERS remember? Not rabble. The only time they run in combat is when the rest of the party runs, i.e. when the battle seems lost and discretion becomes the better part of valor.

Really. But don't take my word for it; here's Moldvay:

Retainers do not need to check morale in combat unless the danger is greater than might reasonably be expected.

(page B27; emphasis Moldvay)

Remember that "retainers are more than just men-at-arms...hired to fight and protect their employer but only expected to take reasonable risks." No, retainers are "expected to take the same risks the characters expect to face" (Moldvay, B21).

In other words, if the party is duking it out with some big, ugly demon the retainers should be front-and-center, doing what they can to the best of their ability. If the PCs decide Old Walking Malevolence is too tough and want to split, the retainers are going to go right along with 'em. They're going to follow the PCs lead, but they are cut from the same adventurous cloth as the PCs.

So, what then is the point of retainers even having a morale score? And for that matter, what's the point of having a high Charisma score to influence the retainers' morale?

Here it is:

RETAINER MORALE: The morale score of a retainer is based on the Charisma score (see page B7) of the player hiring him (or her). Retainers must check morale after each adventure; if the morale check is failed, they will not adventure with their employer again...

(Moldvay, page B27)

Just let that soak in for a second...pretty damn harsh!

First off, it's great that the only time morale becomes an important item is between adventure sessions; one never needs to worry about retainers flipping out and bugging out or backstabbing the PCs mid-adventure (unless abused and mistreated, I presume)...which is, of course, what some (like myself) have suggested in the past.

On the other hand, one puts an investment of time and money into a retainer and expects the dude to stick around. Remember these guys are adventurers, so they gain experience points (albeit slowly) and level up, eventually becoming powerful allies and lieutenants of their employer.

Then WHAM: "So sorry, just got a better offer." And they're out the door. Perhaps to retire (they've earned enough swag), perhaps to settle down (marry their sweetheart), perhaps to join a rival adventuring group or start their own band of cutthroat treasure-hunters. Point is, they're gone, and that's tough to mitigate.

Oh, you can give them extra shares of treasure to stick around: Moldvay suggests a full share over several adventures will permanently raise retainer morale by 1, and I'm sure an occasional magic item would help "sweeten the deal" as well.

Why else would a magic-user need the ability to craft magic weapons and armor?
; )

Oh, yeah, there is another thing you can do to increase retainer loyalty: have a HIGH CHARISMA SCORE. It ain't a dump stat if you want to keep your retainers around!

Is it worth it to keep a few hard-cases on retainer?

What do you think? A retainer can be of any adventuring class (though the book points out that dwarves should be rare and elves rarer still), and can be used to shore up deficiencies (those of the employer or those of the party). The retainer advances in level, gradually becoming a powerful adventurer in his (or her) own right...and the retainer is loyal and helpful and uses skills in aid of the party to the best of his or her ability. Not a bad trade for a half-share of treasure.

Plus wouldn't it be damn cool to ride into town with a band of knights or dwarves or whatever at your back? To have dibs on your hench-cleric's cure disease or neutralize poison spell? To ask your pet wizard to slay the impertinent tavern wench that spilled your beer in some spectacular and callous fashion?

Of course it would.

So is there any reason NOT to hire retainers?

No, but there are some words of caution: unless your party is a small one, it's probably best NOT to go hog wild with the hiring of retainers. Even if your character has a high Charisma score and doesn't mind being free with his treasure. Experience points awarded for an adventure are divided evenly between all party members including NPC retainers. From Moldvay (page B22):

DIVIDING XP: Treasure is divided by the party, but the DM handles all the XP awards. At the end of the adventure, the DM totals the XP from all treasure recovered plus all monsters defeated and then divides the total by the number of surviving characters (both player characters and NPCs) in the party.

The example that follows clearly shows the NPCs taking an equal share of the XP earned; although NPC retainers only earn one-half the XP a player character does (1 XP for every 2 XP earned).

NPCs are thus a drain on XP, slowing down the advancement rate of an entire party. If every PC brings an entourage of 4-5 (or more!) retainers to the dungeon, advancement can become glacially slow...not to mention the logistics of managing a party of 25+ adventurers.

On the other hand, if the inclusion of NPC retainers allows a party to explore more dangerous dungeons and purloin more incredible treasure (not to mention survive more extreme danger), then you're going to want to hire at least a couple stalwarts.

As with other aspects of B/X, it's a balancing act, and yet another area of tactical importance. How many retainers are enough? How many are too many? Which classes should we bring and which should we leave at home? How much "bonus" money should I pay to ensure a retainer stays on? Is the retainer really worth the extra share of treasure? At what point does a retainer become more bother than he or she is worth?

All things to consider...and well worth considering. I believe the rules regarding retainers, loyalty, morale, and Charisma occupy a significant portion of the Moldvay book for a good reason: retainers are an important part of the D&D experience. This part of the the rulership endgame...seems to have faded from importance in later editions as PCs have become more and more "superheroic" and thus self-sufficient. I would imagine that retainers (and henchmen) were much more prominent in the early years of the game, and I intend to make it a bigger part of MY on-going campaign.

Maybe some of you ancient grognards that occasionally drop-by would care to comment on the use, value, and prominence of retainers "back in the old days?" I've read Robilar had at least a couple of trusted hirelings (Quij the orc and Otto the mage)...I'm sure there were others attached to the original player characters.
: )


  1. We played by running 3 characters per player. Normally with one of each back at the base camp holding the horses and handy for a TPK if the main group got wiped. Our groups maxed out at 4 or 5 players, henchmen and hirelings were NPCs under the DM's control, but normally handled pretty straightforward after the PCs got to know them and their personalities. It seemed to work wonderfully for our group and I've used the same set-up as a DM for the last 30 or so years.

  2. Retainers must check morale after each adventure; if the morale check is failed, they will not adventure with their employer again...

    what a terrible rule! i'd never use that as written.

  3. The roll to lose a retainer goes some way to ensuring the NPCs don't eclipse the PCs in character and achievement. They're transient.

  4. I think that the roll to lose a retainer should have some modifiers applied to it, at the GM's discretion.

    As an example, if a retainer has served with a PC for a long time and his experience has been a good one, then I would say that it is worth a -1 or -2 to the roll.

    Similarly, if the PC is of a higher level than the retainer, then maybe that is worth a -1 or -2 to the roll, depending upon the magnitude of the difference.

    Treating a retainer poorly should be worth a +1 or +2 on the roll. Etc.

  5. "annoying morale checks/self preservation goals"

    That cracked me up. My players treat the help with due respect, from link boy to 0 lvl mercs to classed retainers. The natural long term consequences of treating NPCs in a sociopathic manner are so severe, it's an untenable option for law-oriented charcters.

    I see a lot of creative hireling use that is generally non combat oriented(the group is 4-5th lvl): guards to make and break camp and go into town for routine provisions, local backwoodsmen to scout for enemies, young guys to run messages if the party separates, or if the group needs to alert the local authorities and doesn't want to divert major resources to such a menial task.

    Every now and again a hireling gets clipped, but in general, the party takes great pains to keep them out of direct harm. They've discovered that having infrastructure issues resolved frees them up to spend way more time kicking monster ass in the dungeon.

  6. I'm the GM quoted above, and I don't have any misunderstanding about how the play of party NPCs has worked out in the game so far. Half hour of tedious "hire some dudes with dumb names at the tavern" followed up by immediate death because they all have leather armor and 2 hit points.

    Hiring Tim, Bim and Dim at the Red Dragon Inn every session so the characters can survive one extra combat isn't fun for me. I'm not 14 anymore with all weekend to play D&D, and these time sinks get annoying. I'd rather play a game with fewer monsters so the extra meat shields aren't necessary.

    The DCC RPG character funnel worked because the extras aren't NPCs. The players just play more characters, and that's pragmatic in a "let's just play the fucking game" kinda way.

  7. @ Fumers/Luke:

    Hey, man, as I said in my first post I blame myself for any misconceptions of what retainers were...because *I* was the one using 'em wrong!

    Bif, Mac, and Clem (and all their assorted brethren) were men-at-arms for hire, armed and armored as per the B2 description. Those guys weren't good for anything more than dungeon fodder the way they were statted up (as evidently proven in play). However, I'm thinking now that they weren't really "retainer material."

    Anyhoo, I'd be happy to do the "in-between-excursion" housekeeping stuff via email so as not to waste folks' time.
    ; )

  8. I think that in combat if the bad guys pass 2 morale checks they fight to the death. Maybe the same for retainers; they have a "probation period" and if they pass 2 morale tests, they're in it for life.

  9. @ Fictive:

    That's actually not a bad house rule...I think I'll implement it (so long as the retainer is getting decent treatment from the employer!).