|"All I want for Christmas..."|
Henchmen and hirelings. If there is any other potential gold mine for both roleplaying and tactical advantage that is so sorely underutilized, I have no idea what it might be. Possibly those iron rations (1 week!) in the bottom of every PC's backpack. And that's really a shame, too, because they are useful.
Allow me to relate a gaming truism I learned early on. Not long after Unearthed Arcana was released, I ran I6 Ravenloft for a (mostly) new group of players (I'm thinking this was my Halloween, 1986, game). One of the players was running a 6 or 7th level Cavalier and he had his men-at-arms with him. They had been a great help to this point; remember, the tactical advantage I mentioned earlier? At this point the fledgling knight had a baker's dozen of followers that were useful for room clearing, providing support, etc. They were well-utilized in that respect. However, they had no personality or names; they were just random fighter minis I had on the table. They were playing pieces, nothing more.
|"The Master of Ravenoft is having guests for dinner...."|
As the game drug on to the wee hours of the morning, something happened that night; his followers started to become precious to him. The classic Ravenloft module is a death trap, a meat grinder; maybe not up to the level of the Tomb of Horrors, but it can cut through a party, even one with 13-14 followers. Well, the NPCs were getting cut down; finally there was only one left. It was a female archer (that was the mini!), but she made it through the first half of the castle. She started to develop a personality as I moved her around. she was Jenna, a fiery red-haired warrior and she was pissed! Her comrades had fallen but she would not! She would protect her lord to her last breath!!!
The players began to respond to her as a fellow player, not an NPC. At the final confrontation with Strahd, it was close. They had the icon and the sword, but they were having problems cornering the devil Strahd. I was using some alternate damage rules I had picked up somewhere (Dragon maybe?), that stated that a nat 20 with even a regular arrow had a chance (5%!) of piercing a vampire's heart as a stake. I have never seen players so intensely watching a GM NPC roll! The d20 came up 20! I shook my d10s (the set I still use!); the yellow die rolled out (black is always high) and came up 3. I rolled out the black one and it stopped on 0. Strahd was immobilized! They proceeded to end Strahd's existence and the victory did not feel cheap to them at all. After the game, I read that largely ignored section in the DMG, and Jenna made the leap from follower to henchman, the first in (at the time) five years of gaming.
The proper use of hirelings and henchmen has fallen away amongst younger gamers. I think it has more to do with the MMO experience. Most MMO gamers I bring to the tabletop get the idea of iconic roles: Wizard = Nuker or Crowd Control, Cleric is the Buffer, etc. But followers: who cares? (On a side note, Star Wars: The Old Republic has an excellent NPC/follower system for a computer game and gamers that come from that MMO want followers!) I think that the fact that Gary devoted 9 of 230 pages (3.9 %) in the DMG to hirelings and henchman says something to their usefulness.
First, as I have briefly mentioned, followers are great as a force multiplier and add needed tactical advantage to a small party. Nowhere is this more evident than T1 The Village of Hommlett. A low-level party of 4-6 that go into the moathouse without hirelings is looking to die. And there are opportunities to find help in Hommlett, even outside the obvious (the traders's spy, Turuko and Kobort, Elmo, Spugnoir, etc.). Almost every adult male in the village is a member of the militia and owns some armor and a weapon. Maybe they would like a chance to take part in a grand adventure, maybe pick up some extra coin? This is also seen in B2 Keep on the Borderlands: plenty of mercs and others around to hire.
Second, there are the roleplaying opportunities. There is some discussion amongst literary scholars that Shakespeare's best character are actually the servants; they seem more real than the protagonists and antagonists at times, more three dimensional and not just parodies; we can relate to them better. They also add some much needed comedy in some of the darker tragedies. Hirelings and henchmen can do the same. Another story. In B2, there are two guards for the captured merchant in the hobgoblin cave. If saved, they will swear service to the party for a year. Boring, right? Not if played right. I have the guards, when freed, drop to their knees and beg for swords and armor that they might enter into service and avenge both their captivity and their fellow guards who were killed when they were captured. I usually make them brothers, one quiet and taciturn, probably a crossbowman, the other loud and boisterous, a axe and shield man. Usually, I have them swear to a party member, one who interacts with them first, usually a fellow fighter. But maybe the mage went to them first and checked their wounds....now the mage has gained a couple of meat shields. These followers can also be used to impart information that the characters might need. Maybe Robert Shieldwall knows a bit of Hobgoblin and heard the hobgoblin guards muttering about the gnolls higher up on the ravine or laughing about the stupid goblins they keep stealing from.
However, like General Lee says in Gettysburg, do not love your NPCs too much; they are not the stars but the supporting cast. Today, I probably wouldn't have left that crucial arrow shot up to Jenna; fortunately, she did not upstage the PCs but was seen as a helpful tool, maybe even a friend. So, please, DMs, work on those followers! They can be quite useful in setting the tone of your game and adding to the enjoyment of all.