Today, the topic in question was henchmen and hirelings and their use in old school D&D. In the past, I've said that I think OD&D (and, to a lesser extent, AD&D) assumes that PCs will employ hirelings and acquire henchmen to accompany them on their adventures. That's why Charisma isn't a "dump stat" in OD&D: you want a good score in order to be able to secure (and retain) the services of hirelings. (Of course, it's worth noting that, unless a character's score is very high, he's only going to be able to employ 4 or 5 hirelings at most) In my Dwimmermount game, hirelings and henchmen have been important from the start, with several of these NPCs, such as Gaztea. Angrboda, and Hap, having become every bit as important as the PCs who employ them. When I was a kid, it was pretty common for our adventuring parties to include porters and torch bearers and men-at-arms, in addition to the occasional "specialist" of one sort or another. That's what we saw the older guys doing and we followed suit. Plus, it sure did help to have those extra guys along!
Because of these three emails, I went back to look at various older editions of D&D to see what they said about hirelings and henchmen. Maybe later I'll post some thoughts based on what I saw in the LBBs and AD&D, but, for the moment, I'm going to stick to the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert rulebooks, because I was actually quite surprised by what I found there. For example, Moldvay begins his discussion of "Party Size and Composition" by saying,
It is not wise to adventure alone, for the monsters which may be encountered are numerous. It is much safe to go adventuring with a group of people who can help and protect each other. The best size of an adventure party is 6-8 characters, enough to handle the challenges which will be faced, but not too many to become disorganized or to ruin chances to surprise the monsters.Later on, in a follow-up paragraph, Moldvay states that "The DM may allow a player character to hire companions to add to the size of a party." May. That's an important word, as we'll see in a bit.
A few pages on, Moldvay devotes nearly an entire page to explaining the rules surrounding retainers (as he calls hirelings), including how they may be hired and their loyalty to their employer. One noteworthy element of this section is that the hiring of retainers is presented as at least in part a roleplaying challenge, with the PCs expected to conduct interviews of prospective employees. Likewise, Moldvay stresses that, even if the PCs are generous in their terms, there may simply not be enough NPCs interested in signing on with the PCs, meaning that the hiring of retainers is not simply a function of a character's having a requisite Charisma score and cash to spare. He also notes that
Retainers are often used to strengthen a party which is attempting extremely dangerous adventures. It is recommended that the DM not allow beginning characters to hire retainers. New players tend to use retainers as a crutch, letting them take all the risks. If a dungeon is very difficult, the DM should let the players have more than one character apiece before using retainers, at least until players are more experienced. Hirelings are experts which can be hired by the characters. They are more suited to higher level campaigns and are explained in the D&D EXPERT SET.There's lots to to chew on in that paragraph, such as the distinction between a "retainer" and a "hireling" (the latter term being one that the Expert Rules do not employ, opting for "specialist" instead), but what I found most intriguing was the admonition against allowing beginning characters to hire retainers, for fear they'd become "a crutch." That's quite the reversal from the received wisdom in the old school world these days, where it's generally claimed that beginning characters have the greatest cause to employ retainers and that their employment shows that the players are being thoughtful and cautious.
Turning to the Expert rulebook, there are a handful of interesting points to consider. First, in a section entitled "Organizing the Party," there's a sample party presented, consisting of four PCs and two retainers -- quite a small number! Later, in discussing "Specialists and Mercenaries," the rulebook states that
During the game, characters may need to hire NPCs with training or special skills in a certain area. These people are known as specialists. Specialists are not retainers and they will not go on adventures.Examples of specialists are alchemists, armorers, and engineers. In discussing mercenaries, it's not that
Like specialists, they will usually not go on dungeon adventures and will only participate in wilderness adventures such as fighting other armies, clearing land of monsters around the castle, and defending the castle.And that's the extent of information on retainers in Moldvay/Cook/Marsh that I could find easily. What's interesting to me is how much this information differs both from my recollection of it and the assumptions of a lot of old school fans these days. When I was a kid, I distinctly recall using the rules for specialists and mercenaries in the Expert book to round out the party when going on dungeon expeditions. Likewise, my reading of both the LBBs and AD&D is that there's an assumption (often implicit) that most PCs will have one or more hirelings in their employ who will accompany them wherever they go, provided they are paid, outfitted, and treated well.
Clearly, though, that's not what Moldvay/Cook/Marsh actually say and I have to wonder what had happened by 1981 that it was deemed necessary to out and out state that many hirelings do not venture into dungeons and that low-level PCs ought not to have hirelings, lest they become a crutch. It's not something I'd ever really given much thought to, but I must admit that, knowing what I know now, we might well have stumbled on an explanation for why so many gamers have an aversion to the very idea of retainers: they picked up their attitude from the B/X rulebooks.
(As an aside, it's worth noting that the Rules Cyclopedia is a little softer in its stance on retainers. While sharing the insistence that mercenaries "do not normally go on dungeon adventures," it does allow that other non-specialist retainers might be allowed in games "with only a few players or with weak and inexperienced characters," if the referee wishes to allow them)