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.

16 Responses to “Emergent Behaviors: The Sacrificial Hireling”

  1. February 9, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    I like the solution you propose at the end of your post regarding the division of experience points.

    That still does not deal with the issue of the treasure retained by the party as a result of their treachery. Even if the DM refuses to give the party any xp for the treasure belonging to betrayed henchmen, the party still has the gold itself.

    The only solution within the DM’s control seems to be to make subsequent hirings more difficult, as the party is seen as an unreliable and untrustworthy employer.

    That, or have the local constabulary start to investigate the party, as the family of the henchman accuses the party of foul play.

  2. February 9, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Once you take experience points out of the equation, there’s no special attraction to mugging one’s hirelings; the PCs could just as easily rob passing merchants on the road. Note that unless the PCs murder the hirelings in their sleep, there’s always a chance of an NPC surviving and getting away. And it’s perfectly fair to tell your players that you don’t want to run a game about a bunch of murderous psychopaths who’ll kill their own employees for a bit of cash!

    Note that if the DM is to be an impartial arbiter, NPCs must react to the party based on available information. Thus, a party that betrays and kills its hirelings will have the same problems with bad reputation and possible investigations as a party that values its hirelings but keeps losing them through bad luck.

    In any case, my experience suggests that deliberate murder is rarely the problem. Instead, it’s a matter of consistently pressuring the hirelings to stand in the front rank or otherwise take on the most dangerous roles, and then letting nature take its course. This makes it much easier for the party to generate a bad reputation! Sooner or later, one of these hirelings will survive an adventure and spread the word about how awful it is to work for the PCs.

  3. February 10, 2010 at 12:46 am

    Great post, as usual! I actually agree with your solution if the murdering PCs are an issue, but I find that my group usually utilizes its minions in the way Eric Minton mentions in his comment. For torch-bearers, it’s easy enough for them to refuse to open the Door of the Grinning Skull, but it’s harder to deny the request when you’re a richly-paid 5GP per day Man-at-Arms.

    My usual solution is to insist that the PCs pay for a contract up from–say, 6 days’ worth of funds–which the Man-at-Arms burns through in town before they depart. Any days they go over this, they owe when they return. It still kind of inspires them to have the man-at-arms open all the chests, but isn’t that what a dungeon-merc would be expecting when he signs on?

    For REALLY scary stuff, I have the PCs perform a charisma check to see if they can convince the poor sap to be their human 10′ pole.

  4. February 10, 2010 at 7:49 am

    Where in the book does it say hirelings earn a share of the treasure? This could change things in my game considerably. Up until this point, PCs hire retainers by paying a retainer fee, and that’s all they get until the next adventure, when they have the option of re-negotiating their fee.

  5. February 10, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Moldvay Basic, p. 21: “Retainers will earn experience from adventures just like player characters do, and may rise a level in their character class once they have gained enough experience. Retainers, however, only receive 1/2 the experience PCs would receive, because they were only following orders and not making decisions on their own. Retainers may be awarded more than their agreed upon portion of the treasure and thus gain more experience than normal.”

    In the book’s example of dividing XP, when a party of 5 PCs and 2 NPCs earns a total of 6600 XP, each PC gets 1100 XP and each NPC gets 550 XP.

  6. February 10, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Now, I have actually read in a blog–I can’t remember which one, unfortunately–that hireling and retainers/henchmen are actually very different classes of NPCs. Hirelings are your standard torchbearers and men-at-arms, and do not gain exp, have a character class, or level up. Henchmen, however, are fully-fleshed NPCs in their own right, with classes and exp gain and everything. They are also much more difficult to acquire.

    I’ll try to find that blog and link it.

  7. February 10, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    There are a lot of subtle differences between the various old-school D&D rulesets, and there are a lot of such rulesets: OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, 1e AD&D and 2e AD&D. I’m sure that one or more of those rulesets only allows henchmen, rather than hirelings, to gain XP.

  8. February 11, 2010 at 1:51 am

    That’s true, I suppose–you’re probably right. I have found that my PCs are actually fairly loath to ‘sacrifice’ their henchmen, as the exp that they don’t gain can actually go a lot further by boosting the lower-leveled henchmen to combat-readiness. Or perhaps they just aren’t as sadistic as yours ;-)

  9. February 11, 2010 at 4:41 am

    My players spent a ridiculously long time to get past first level, due to their tendency to commit spectacular suicide while halfway to second level. As a result, they developed a strong impulse to hoard every possible shred of XP. Hopefully now that we have a core group of PCs that have progressed to second and third level, they’ll relax a bit, but habits like that can be hard to break!

  10. February 11, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Ha ha ha, I started cracking up when I read this response. Getting past first level CAN be hard for some players or some groups of characters. “Committing spectacular suicide” is now in my lexicon of wacky things to say. Thanks!

  11. 11 mikemonaco
    February 12, 2010 at 1:48 am

    I’m a player in a fairly old-school C&C game, and we’ve been trying out hirelings and henchmen partly because there are only 3 PCs and partly out of a desire to rekindle the old-school experience. It has certainly been a learning curve! One player is rather brutal about throwing away the hirelings’ lives, but the other two of us are more careful with them. My description of the events, and comments with my DM’s & another player’s perspective, here:


    The use of hirelings and/or henchmen is something of a lost art, and one I never mastered back in the day, but figuring it out is a lot of fun!

  12. February 12, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    Eric, thanks for the cite. I knew retainers got a half share of all the XP (monsters & gold), but the PCs have always kept the gold for themselves, because of my misunderstanding.

    Also, re: the discussion of hirelings, henchmen & retainers… in Moldvay, Normal Men gain a class as soon as they gain XP, according to their entry in the Monster section of the Basic book. Something to think about.

  13. 13 John
    October 13, 2010 at 2:55 am

    Indiana: Give me the whip.
    Satipo: Throw me the idol. No time to argue! Throw me idol, I’ll throw you the whip!
    Indiana: [throws the idol] Give me the whip!
    Satipo: Adiós, señor.

  14. April 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Great discussion of this problem. This emergent behaviour has also lead to some of my favorite fiction about rpg, in the KoDT Bag Wars Saga. Really wonderful stuff to read about, though likely less fun in the real world.

  15. April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Hi Emily! Glad to see you here. Feel free to drop by our D&D game and mistreat some hirelings yourself!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,054 other followers

%d bloggers like this: