Friday, April 2, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 34

Were I to focus on one of the less obvious ways that older versions of Dungeons & Dragons differ its latter day descendants is in the matter of henchmen. Henchmen were an important part of old school play, as evidenced by the very existence of the Charisma score. Consequently, the Dungeon Masters Guide contains many sections devoted to this topic, such as page 34, where Gygax says the following:

Henchmen, whether male or female, are greatly desired by the discerning players, for they usually spell the difference between failure and success in the long term view.

If anyone ever doubts the importance of henchmen, let him contend with this statement. What I find most interesting here are two things. First, Gygax says that henchmen are "greatly desired by the discerning players," not characters. It's possible that is simply a casual conflation of player for player character that can sometimes be found in early RPG writing – it happens a lot in Empire of the Petal Throne, for example –  I'm not wholly convinced of that. Gygax was very interested in "skillful" play and regularly stated that D&D (and RPGs more generally) was something at which one could become better with time and practice. My guess is that's what's going on here when he references players. Second, his use of "long term view" is a reminder that Gygax, like many early roleplayers, was strongly focused on the campaign as the ultimate expression of the game.

Gygax goes on:

They are useful in individual adventures as a safety measure against the machinations of rival player characters, provide strength to the character and his or her stronghold, and lastly serve as a means of adventuring when the player character is unable.

The first point he raises here is probably outside the experience of many people. The idea that players might, through their characters, scheme against one another is unusual today, at least in Dungeons & Dragons. I can assure you that it was not in the early days of the hobby; even I, who didn't start playing until late 1979, saw plenty of evidence of this, not only in my own friend group but also among other groups I encountered. It certainly wasn't endemic behavior by any means, but it certainly happened enough that Gygax draws attention to the value of henchmen as a guard against it.

Strongholds, too, were more common in the early days of gaming. They are an essential part of D&D's lost endgame, something that was still emphasized as late as Mentzer's BECMI boxed sets, so it's little wonder that Gygax makes note of them here. Equally interesting to me is the notion that one could play a henchmen as a kind of "substitute player character" in circumstances when one's actual character is unavailable. This practice was widespread in my youth and is a way one can recognize a rich and well-developed campaign. My House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign is full of instances where the players have taken up the roles of NPCs associated with their PCs when it was, for various reasons, impossible to play the PCs. 

Because they are so useful, and because they are typically so devoted, there are charisma limitations as to how many henchmen a PC is able to attract.

It's fascinating, from the vantage point of more than four decades in the future, that Gygax simply takes it as given that henchmen are "so useful." I don't disagree with that perspective in the slightest, only that it's not one that's commonplace nowadays. Does contemporary D&D even mention henchmen – or would that be henchfolk?or describe Charisma in a way that relates to the attracting of followers? I honestly don't know, but I'd be delighted to learn that it does, since, as this section of the DMG makes clear, Gygax at least considered them a significant aspect of play for "discerning players."


  1. My experience back in the late 70s-early 80s: scheming was not present in any D&D groups I interacted with, but was a significant feature of both Arduin-influenced groups I encountered. One of the groups was so Eff Your Buddy that it was ultimately an unpleasant experience and I quit after a few months. Henchmen and NPCs were an absolute necessity to protect your PC as much as possible from your fellow PCs.

  2. From 1980, when I started, to around 1985 intra-party conflict was the accepted norm, and more than one backstabbing PC was executed by the rest of the party.
    I remember once during a pick-up game at the FLGS when, in the middle of a fight with hobgoblins, the party members decided to "have a friendly conversation about their differences". The DM was astounded.

  3. The interesting thing about henchmen, and how people perceive them, is they are far superior to multi-classing and yet the same people who often complain about multi-classing not being available to humans say they don't want henchmen because they'd have to share the spoils.

    And yet, if I "redesigned" multi-classing in such a way keep the experience cost roughly the same way, but allow the character to split into multiple incarnations able to operate separately and independently with each other - half the players would probably think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, while the other half would immediately cry "munchkin!$!!$!"

    There is a cost to henchmen, but the capability bought for the cost is unit-for-unit so far to the player's benefit it is the biggest bargain in RPGs.

  4. I can only think of two games prior to the 90s where "PVP" really took place, and in both cases it was one player that started the scheming and backstabbing - in one case they managed to kill all the other PCs and then seemed baffled when they no longer had a game to play in. Certainly not a common frame of thought IME, although it became much, much more common in the 90s when Vampire the Masquerade came out, drawing a lot of new blood and encouraging more oppositional gameplay as PCs feuded over limited resources and perks from their vampiric elders.

    Hirelings were more common back in the day, but actually fanatically loyal henchmen didn't crop up at all outside of a few D&D games. For better or worse most DMs didn't want to deal with them, and they were rarely the kind of devoted followers Gygax seems to think they should have been. More often they were likely to betray their "master" at some point, and in one of those "schemer" games several of them turned out to be double agents for the traitorous player.

    It is kind of interesting that Gygax's concept of using henchmen as "backup" PCs is somewhat akin to the troupe-style play first seen years later in Ars Magica, and occasionally since then.

  5. Ah, nostalgia for the game we have nearly lost.
    I started in this hobby a couple years before you, based on the date given above, and as a college student. As memories will, I recall those days as the epitome of my decades long playing at this hobby. I do think the original version of the game has much to recommend it despite later editions making various "improvements". The use of henchmen and strongholds being but two examples of a deeper engagement with the setting. Nothing has perhaps changed more than the relationship between the characters and the setting.

  6. I played with a group of older OD&D players starting in '79 (they started a few years earlier). It wasn't so much "backstabbing" as it was naked self-interest and realpolitik. I learned at a very early age to play down your successes so as not to become a target of envy. This is not at all unlike other strategy games one might play.

    When, decades later I restarted as a DM for my kids and we embarked on a multi-year long AD&D campaign. Reading those same passages from the DMG concerning players taking control of henchmen for parts of an adventure, and realizing it had occurred organically in our home felt like an affirmation.

    It's amazing to me, with so many different disconnected groups, and the frequent claim that everyone (used to) play differently, that these similar patterns of play still emerge.

    Your whole site is about quantifying that amazing play-style before it gets lost. Another great article (about a great book).

  7. I never played with henchmen. ever. I think that the problem is that you are expected to get to a leadership level (say, 8?) then attact followers, or at least that is how we understood it. we never did. characters died, and games broke up long before that.

    I wish we had.

    1. We almost always hired henchmen at 1st level. Paid the 100gp as group and posted a "want ad". Half the time they were more boon than blessing...but, at first level you need all the help you can get to survive.

    2. I wish we had thought of it

  8. On the subject of henchmen: bitd my groups used to have, or deal with, lots of hirelings and specialists, but henchmen, while present, were few.

  9. Tasha's Cauldron of Everything features rules for "sidekicks", which aren't quite the same but could fill a similar niche in 5E. They have their own classes - Expert, Spellcaster or Warrior - and can be added to "any type of creature with a stat block in the Monster Manual or another D&D book" with a challenge rating of 1/2 or lower.

  10. Looks like I never was a discerning player. Lugging around pathetic cannon fodder felt always cumbersome and contrived to me, even in born-again OSR games where it's "expected".

  11. About Gygax’s reference to “players,” he wrote “players” in the same context a few years earlier:

    “However it is likely that players will be desirous of acquiring a regular entourage of various character types, monsters, and an army of some form.” (OD&D Vol. 1, 12)

  12. Henchmen were important as the player character's trusted lieutenants in my game. They were capable of independent initiative and action, and reacting appropriately to events. This, at times required the players to take the role of the henchman to deal with the situation or handle the independent mission they were sent on. Meanwhile a simple hireling just did their assigned job without exercising any initiative.

    For example a spy that was a hireling would simply report what was happening wherever they were recruited or placed. A spy that was a henchmen could be sent to find to a place to find out what was happening there (and even recruit hirelings as spies).

    Henchmen could also have a life after the character. This was particularly true of a knight's squire or magic user's apprentice, who was generally expected to "graduate" and become a knight or magician themselves. Whilst no longer the player's proxy, there still was considered to be a [generally favourable] relationship between the player character and their former henchman.

    We never used the "henchmen as [disposable] hireling" which was prevalent in later party orientated games, but then we usually ran campaigns in the wargaming sense, where players take independent moves in the common campaign framework. They could form parties for joint expeditions, but they did so in the actual campaign (with the advantage they could then share scheduled sessions).

    And yes, Gygax definitely considered the game in the wargaming sense in that it was all about how clever the player was in moving their figure(s) around the battlefield (or other situation). [I believe that he commented that the California D&D players (who were very much into playing a role), were playing the game wrong.]

  13. I tried the new 5e D&D Sidekick rules from the Essentials Kit (now reproduced in Tasha's) but they proved too weak for traditional Henchman type use, so I went over to using PC-class Henchmen, but capping them at 4th level unless played as PCs. Seems to work very well. The 5e DMG does mention PC-class NPCs in the party but very briefly and easy to overlook. In 3e it was rare except via the Leadership feat (very bad idea IME as it created a sense of entitlement to henchperson), and in 4e wholly impractical due to the complexity of any PC.

    1. 4E had rules for companion NPCs in the later parts of its run (DMGII IIRC), which were essentially custom "monster" builds (usually with PC-class power equivalents) with the mechanics further slimmed down a bit. They weren't really intended to be old-school "henchmen" or even "hireling" types, more an extra warm body to help fill missing roles in a small party. Worked fine for what they were IME, they were simplified enough that running one in addition to your own PC wasn't a strain.

  14. The whole notion of henchmen and players building strongholds and keeps shows the duality of D&D. Such mechanisms make little sense in today's roleplaying framework, but make perfect sense when you see the rules as campaign rules for a wargaming campaign. After all, if you have players carving out seperate realms that go to war with each other, you need armies and castles and whatnot.

    A dungeon adventure, in which the leaders of the various realms (temporarily) join forces for some common mission, is atypical in such a setup, but as I understand, it's exactly where D&D originated.