Archive for February 9th, 2010


Emergent Behaviors: The Sacrificial Hireling

DM: Albrecht the hireling asks for his share of the treasure so he can give it to his wife and kids before continuing on with your next adventure.
Player #1: Quick, let’s ditch him!
Player #2: I tell Albrecht that we need to go to the big city to cash in the jewels we found in the dungeon, and I give him a handful of gold to tide his family over while he comes to the city with us.
DM: Albrecht takes the money gratefully and says he’ll rejoin you in just a few minutes.
Player #1: We grab our things and head out of town before Albrecht gets back.
DM: You gather your possessions and leave the village. Behind you, you hear Albrecht calling your names as he tries to catch up with you in the monster-haunted dark.
Player #1: We ride faster!

In a previous post, I discussed emergent behaviors: interactions between rules and players that guide activity during play. Now we’ll take a look at the behaviors that emerge from the intersection between the old-school D&D rules for experience and for hirelings.

Hiring expendable minions is a time-honored D&D method for tackling opposition above one’s weight class. Hirelings get a share of the experience points and—by the book—a share of the treasure, distributed at the end of the adventure. Since wealth and experience that go to NPCs are wealth and experience that the PCs don’t receive, it is in the PCs’ interest for all of their hirelings to die before the end of the adventure! Those hirelings who survive may be cheated out of their share of the treasure, or worse.

DM: After regaling you with tales of his exceedingly profitable adventures with some of the other PCs, Bernard the hireling retires to his rooms.
Player #1: Let’s rob him.
Player #2: Huh?
Player #1: Look at all of those fancy rings he’s wearing! Let’s break into his room and steal them.
Player #2: I don’t think he’s going to leave his jewelry in his room when he’s not there.
Player #1: You’re right. I guess we’ll just kill him and take his stuff.

Depending on your style of play, this may be a feature and not a bug! A high death toll among subsidiary characters is common to the sword and sorcery genre. Conan’s companions often die to demonstrate the dangers he faces, for example, while both Elric and Kane are in the habit of leading whole troops of men to their deaths.

Some DMs, however, may not enjoy the sociopathic behavior this encourages in their players. That’s where the simplicity of early D&D comes in handy! The DM has any number of ways to penalize adventuring parties who leave a trail of dead hirelings while rewarding those who treat their hirelings well. Done well, these methods provide the players with meaningful, strategically interesting choices:

  • Loyalty: Loyalty must be earned! Determine how loyal each hireling is, perhaps using the loyalty table in adventure B1: In Search of the Unknown. Apply modifiers based on the party’s behavior so that parties that treat their hirelings well are more likely to recruit loyal minions, while those that stab their hirelings in the back are more likely to recruit disloyal minions—some of whom want to do unto the party before the reverse occurs, while others are friends and family of deceased hirelings who want a little revenge!
  • Morale: Trust is hard to acquire and easy to give up. In addition to using the morale system religiously, apply modifiers a heavy hand, starting all new hirelings with morale penalties and giving bonuses to morale with every successful adventure. Parties with a good record for keeping the hirelings alive get overall morale bonuses, while those who keep coming back with full pockets and no hirelings get steep morale penalties as their hirelings assume they’re going to die and bail from the party at the first opportunity.
  • Reputation: Word gets around that the PCs are bad news! This makes it more difficult to acquire new hirelings, or imposes other appropriate penalties such as reaction roll penalties in town, higher costs to buy equipment, etc. Devious PCs can get around these penalties by hiring new hirelings in secret, pinning the blame on their rivals, or—worst of all—leaving the area for greener pastures where no one recognizes their ill name, and abandoning your lovingly-crafted dungeon in the process.
  • Turn into PC: When a player character dies, you can allow the player to take over control of a hireling with all of that hireling’s accumulated experience points. This makes hirelings a valuable asset, especially if you otherwise begin all new PCs with no experience points. Hirelings go from being experience point sinks to experience point banks!

Over and above these mechanical concerns, you may wish to consider talking to your players. If there’s some element of play you’re not happy with, clear and open communication is your friend! Unless you’re gaming with jerks, your players should give serious consideration to whatever you need to enjoy the game.

DM: A horrified scream echoes from the tunnel behind you, then chokes off into silence.
Player #1: That’s where we left Weberran the hireling on guard, right?
DM: Yes, and it sounds like his voice, too.
Player #1: Good riddance! That saves me the trouble of killing the coward myself.

Ultimately, all of these solutions paper over the problem without solving it. As long as there’s a mechanical benefit to disposing of your hirelings mid-adventure, players will be tempted to make it happen. The only way to get rid of the issue entirely is to attack it at its source: the interaction between the rules for hirelings and the distribution of experience points.

The simplest fix is to give hirelings their shares of experience points whether or not they survive the adventure. This removes the impetus to eliminate the hirelings during the session, as the PCs gain no extra benefit for the hirelings’ deaths! At this point, any homicidal urges on the part of the PCs and their players are an expression of play style rather than an outgrowth of the system, and you can react accordingly.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

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