During arguments about whether game/edition X counts as a roleplaying game, people like to say that you could roleplay Monopoly. This is intended to end the argument, but I think it actually points out the way that roleplaying depends on a correspondence between something in your own personal experience and the situation you imagine your game-token to be occupying.
It’s easier to roleplay Monopoly than The Game of Gaining and Losing Points Due to Random Motion across a Regularly Demarcated Perimeter. The mechanics of both are identical; the difference is that Monopoly gives you imaginary things to manipulate that are easy to associate with things that have meaning in your life. (I’m talking here about money and real estate; the top hats and poodles remain inexplicable.)
Dungeons & Dragons is and always has been, among other things, a game of resource management. The great thing about old-school D&D is that the resources it gives you to keep track of are so often concrete and meaningful. It’s vivid and compelling to imagine having your last torch burning your fingers as you try to find an exit from the underworld, or taking your last swallow from a waterskin beneath the burning desert sun.
Hit points and spells are more abstract. Owing, perhaps, to long practice, we are usually able to associate these game variables with things that make sense to us. Nevertheless, when people want to make a “more realistic” version of D&D they often start looking for alternatives to fire-and-forget spellcasting and complaining about how it takes more sword thrusts to kill a high-level fighter than an elephant. I think this is because hit points and memorized spells start floating loose from anything we can have real-world experience with.
Healing surges and martial daily powers are a step further dissociated from the players’ concrete experience, and for many people that’s a step too far towards The Game of Gaining and Losing Points Due to Random Motion across a Regularly Demarcated Perimeter.
When I ran Blackmoor Dungeons at Gen Con, I gave each player some henchmen to control. In one session, the players positioned their henchmen and heroes around a door and then went storming in to meet a roomful of poisonous spiders. When they pulled out again, sealing the door with a wizard lock, I said: “Okay, you left three dead henchmen on the floor inside. What were their names? There are two more corpses on this side of the floor. What are you doing with the bodies?”
Henchmen are the opposite of dissociated mechanics, and I love them. They’re a game token that’s more easily commodified and spent than a PC. At the So-Cal Mini Con, in the first fifteen minutes of play I probably killed a dozen henchmen, immediately illustrating the lethality of the situation and depleting the players’ resource without having to take away anyone’s sole means of interaction with the action of the game.
Broken swords and bulging-with-gold backpacks are also good, concrete resources for game management. But, being people, players are interested in stories about people. The great thing about henchmen are that they create events in play that make for interesting stories. Will the souls of the abandoned henchmen come back to haunt the living? What might the families of the others do when their corpses are brought back to town? How do the survivors find the courage to keep descending despite the loss of their comrades?
The problem with dissociated mechanics is simple: you can’t tell stories about them. “We lost four henchmen” is more satisfying than “we lost four healing surges” for the same reason that “you landed on my Park Place hotel, pay me $2,000” is more satisfying than “your random motion earned me two thousand due to my investment in the penultimate gradation.”
In case this post makes a blahblah blah sound, here’s the way I did henchmen in the Blackmoor Dungeons run:
- Ask each player their charisma, tell them how many maximum followers they can have as a result.
- Offer a choice between guaranteed henchmen or rolling for them.
- If you go with the guarantee, you have three zero-level men-at-arms (fewer if your Charisma doesn’t allow that many).
- If you choose to roll, you get a d6 worth (again limited by your Charisma max). If you rolled a 6, one of them is a first-level fighting man, cleric, or magic-user (with two randomly chosen spells in their spellbook).
- Don’t roll any stats for the henchmen; assume they have perfectly average or just below normal scores. If a player’s PC is killed or incapacitated, they take over one of their former henchmen; rolling up their ability scores at this point creates some excitement and gives them a new sense of ownership over the character.
In my first Blackmoor run, we had a lot of time before the official session start so I had people roll their henchmen’s stats; this put more focus on them at the start of the game than I think was necessary, and when henchmen were known ahead of time to have great ability scores players were like “Can I sacrifice my main guy and play this one instead?”
Alternately, a nice way to turn alternative ability score generation from a dissociated mechanic into a concrete one is to have people roll multiple sets of 3d6 in order. Your favorite of these is your PC; the others are your henchmen.