Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Meat Shields

Regarding the introducing of the B/X game to new players, ViP asked (in the comments) how I felt about “giving each player two or more PCs, or a bodyguard, or an animal companion” in order to counter the initial deadliness of the game design. ViP cites the DCC “funnel system” (the practice of starting an adventure/campaign with multiple characters, presuming a high death toll) as a workable model.

The TL;DR answer: not a huge fan of the idea.

For those interested in my extended thoughts:

I’ve played DCC more than a couple times. I’ve also played in B/X campaigns where I was allowed multiple 1st level characters to start, with pretty much the exact goal as DCC: allow players a little leeway, without cutting down on the overall deadliness. I’ve also had the opportunity to run multiple characters in games when we were lacking a sufficient number of players at the table; that experience isn’t limited to B/X, either (I was asked to run multiple characters in one of my last ever 3rd edition games).

Here’s the thing: AS A PLAYER, running multiple characters in a game does not give me the same experience as running a single character. For me, I’ve found the practice gives me a lesser experience; that is, the experience of role-playing, the main reason I’m playing a tabletop game is diminished in having to split my attention between multiple characters. I don’t get the same “buzz” from driving two (or more) characters; what occurs instead is that I lose my subjective immersion in the game experience and become much more of an objective “game player.”

To use some Forge-y terms (which I know some of my readers detest), running multiple characters throws me immediately into “author stance” with respect to my characters…the same perspective I have when I am a DM running multiple NPCs. Perhaps this is a side effect of having run so many games (and so many NPCs) as a DM/GM over the years. Regardless of the reason, caring for more than one character causes me to lose my feeling of immersion in the game world…and the game, for me, becomes much more about practical game play, and much less about escapism.

I am trying hard (at this moment) to think of a time as a DM when I allowed players to run multiple characters in one of my games. I honestly can’t remember any (former players of mine reading this: feel free to correct my aging memory). I would much rather adjust/change the adventure, or increase the PCs’ experience levels (for a one-off adventure), or assign multiple NPCs to a party (that I, the DM, will run) then require or allow players to run multiple characters in a game session. When I run a D&D game, I want to give the players an immersive experience; I want players to feel like they are in the game. These days I am of the opinion that most of the enjoyment of D&D play is derived from being experiential and while (in the past) I did not fully grasp this concept, I was fortunate enough to run games in a style that (often) allowed this experience to unfold. Now…I wouldn’t want to run a game in any other way and, to that end, I would forgo any type of “funnel system” that deprived players of the single character experience.

Regarding ViP's other suggestions:

I’ve blogged before (and at length) about retainers in B/X. I’ve also offered my own ideas for adding “built-in” animal companions and bodyguards (see my B/X exceptional traits…some of the entries on the list provide just this type of bennie). My thoughts on the matter, and on hired “meat shields” in general, has shifted somewhat over time.

First, let me say that with regard to “retainers,” the B/X system’s brevity on the subject causes it to fall down. B/X is just a streamlined, cleaned-up version of OD&D and does an exceptional job in most of the slights changes to the original system. However, in subsuming the “Loyalty” system into “Morale” and providing a specific system of when to apply it to retainers, Moldvay goes a long way to undermining the concept of retainers as longstanding henchpersons and companions.

Per the rules printed on page B27 (and, yes, I realize these are listed as optional, but the Morale system in B/X is a rather key component of the game; cutting it results in multiple problems) retainers much check Morale after each adventure with failure indicating the retainer "will not adventure with their employer again."  That is damn fickle considering a PC of average charisma will only command NPCs with a morale score of 7 (possibly 8 if providing lavish rewards and shares of loot). That’s a 42% chance of desertion after each game session (as “adventure” is defined in B/X)! Even improving that morale to 8 only reduces the chance to 28%, meaning you’re fairly likely to lose your retainers after four game sessions; that’s a month of (weekly) play! The Cook/Marsh expert set talks blithely of “permanent NPC retainers” (on page X59) but then provide the exact same morale rules as Moldvay (on X26).

Clearly house rules on the subject are necessary unless you want your campaign world to resemble Vance’s Cugel to Clever, or similar (and perhaps you do). For me, I think the recruitment and grooming of loyal retainers is part of the overall system of character development that occurs in a long-term D&D campaign, helping to make the world more real for the players…and, thus, more immersive.

Jory Cassel, retainer
Retainers, in my opinion, should be MORE than simple “meat shields;” death or diminishment of a retainer is an appropriate alternative “loss” or penalty for players (in place of death or diminishment of their own characters). Players should not be cavalier about hiring retainers and allowing them to die in their stead…at least, not if they plan on hiring more in the future (word gets around…). But this only matters if you have retainers that stand fast with the PCs. Which doesn’t happen often given the B/X rules.

Mercenaries are a different matter. Here, the fickleness of the combined Morale/loyalty system is actually appropriate…and as mercenaries are pretty much expected to die “in service,” it’s less likely for PCs to take hits to their reputation for such losses, at least when it comes to hiring more mercenaries (they WILL however, take a hit to their pocketbook!).

Bronn, mercenary
(no last name)
I’ve always allowed the hiring of such NPCs to round out adventure parties…probably because it was suggested in the opening pages of B2: The Keep on the Borderlands (my first adventure module, included with the Moldvay basic set). The smart adventurers will save some of their starting money in order to acquire these types of hirelings, and I encourage this in new players. To me, a hired sword is just another choice of possible starting equipment for the beginning adventurer. I usually price mercs as 5gp to 10gp depending on equipment and assumed hazards (with expectations of bonuses or loot shares). Mercs in my games tend to follow my presumed prejudices regarding the type. I suppose they’d gain experience as a retainer, but such NPCs only rarely make more than one or two forays into a dungeon before dying or quitting (from a failed Morale test).

As for “animal companions?” Well, setting aside for the moment that I am a bit dissatisfied with how I did the exceptional traits (and would probably re-write them before using them)…I think such special characters fall into a category very similar to “loyal retainers.” They should probably only be provided as a reward for advancement (not something to start with at 1st level), as part of a character’s ongoing development. They should count against a character’s limit of retainers (based on Charisma), and they should not be considered simple “meat shields.” For me, an animal companion is something akin to a discovered magic item, and its loss should be a real blow to a character.

Expensive mounts and warhorses, I put in the same category as mercenaries…though their “loyalty” is assured so long as you remember to tie them up.
; )


  1. Good article. I also see many of the problems you mention with running multiple characters. I've even had this problem when I have only had one character, but had ideas for a new one that just seemed way cooler than the one I was playing at the time.

    In my current group, we started out with only two regular players so I added NPCs to the group that were controlled by me, but that I would sometimes let the players run in combat.

  2. What I do with retainers in my B/X campaign is have them make a morale check after each adventure/session, and if they fail the check, they "take a sabbatical" for as many weeks as the number they failed the check by. (So if their morale score was 8 and they roll an 11, they leave for three weeks.) In my campaign, a week passes in the game world for each week in real time (except when we've done overland travel). So if we play weekly, the retainers leave for that number of sessions, either to go spend their earnings or to rethink their career choices. ;-) I agree that having them leave permanently is way too harsh and defeats the point of having retainers, but I like a little bit of uncertainly because it keeps the players from taking the retainers for granted.

    I also adjust this morale score up or down depending on how successful the adventure was and how badly things went in terms of PC and retainer deaths.

  3. While I appreciate your position, JB, I wonder ...

    If you're the DM, is it really your bailiwick to concern yourself with whether or not your players want to be "immersive" in the way you want it, or if they want to be "objective" game players?

    1. @ Alexis:

      I suppose I feel that, as a DM, part of my responsibility is providing an enjoyable time...or, if you prefer, a certain type of experience (which players may or may not enjoy). And, as the best way I can think to do that includes providing an immersive experience, I want err on the side of increasing that immersion by whatever means I have at my disposal. Restricting players to a single, imaginary avatar (in my experience) does that's how I roll.

      [I love the word bailiwick, by the way. It's a term I'd like to see used more often]

  4. The B/X rules for followers are not terrible. You did a good job of explaining why they are not good.

    We recognize two kinds of followers: one is mercenaries who do check morale just like monsters do. Their morale is modified by their leader’s charisma. The other is retainers who are loyal assistants. There can include pets and tame monsters and are limited in number by the character’s charisma. They receive half-shares of XP (whether they level up or not) and for those who spend money, a half-share of loot too. The acquisition of these types is governed by RP and common sense.

    I don’t like to play more than one PC but I don’t mind playing a PC and his retinue. Weird but true.

  5. Retainers are paid by week / adventure. Why do you care if they leave? Just get a new one. If you want to have a reliable posse put that 18 into charisma instead of dump stat.

    The "my retainer might leave back at town" is a break on going back every time wiz blows his was.

    Permanent retainers arrive when you establish stronghold at 9th lol.

    I let players take over retainer if their character dies. Solving several problems at once.

    1. @ Norm:

      Huh. You made me went back and read my Expert book to see if that was something I'd missed (that retainers become permanent after establishing a stronghold). I kind of dig on gives players an additional incentive/award for taking the time and resources to build a stronghold and achieving a dominion.

      I HAVE allowed players to take over NPCs (both henchfolk and hirelings) when their characters died. I am happy relinquishing control of an NPC to a player...once their own character is no longer available.

  6. Random anecdote:
    A couple of years ago, I ran in a game run by John from Playing Dice with the Universe (

    We had these two retainers who were pretty much Normal Men types, and we had them longterm through the campaign. One of them happened to get murked by an energy drain attack and we were *shook* at losing him. We could never bring ourselves to replace him. Then we lost our other hireling to some magic deck that made him turn on us. It was harsh... and this from two guys who were essentially supposed to be disposable.

  7. Yes, hirelings are one thing, encouraged by B2 as you mentioned above. Henchmen DO need to be more than meat shields, and I don't let players start gaining them until 4th-5th ("Hero") level; I feel one needs some fame/notoriety before attracting henchmen.

    As for animal companions, players want them to be autonomous, rational beings, animals have to have a handler. So, PCs either forego their actions or the animals react according to their nature, using morale rolls to determine that. I don't like animals companions unless they're intelligent (such as blink dogs, for example) but then they're just henchmen for all in \tents and purposes, thus 4th+ level.