Henchmen Are the Opposite of Dissociated Mechanics

These would make great minis for henchmen.

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.

15 Responses to “Henchmen Are the Opposite of Dissociated Mechanics”

  1. 1 Ed
    September 8, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    In one of my first sessions with my son I killed off a couple of his henchman. I was shocked when he made a huge deal about recovering the bodies, finding a burial site, and burying them with the proper ceremony. He teaches me a lot about the game.

  2. September 8, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Playing with kids is awesome and revelatory! How old is your son?

    You can pass on those teachings by having henchmen who aren’t buried with appropriate rituals return as undead. (Note that this may not produce the behavior you’d expect: I played a cleric who made a big deal out of smashing the bones and tying together the limbs of every corpse we encountered, in case it re-animated).

  3. 3 Ed
    September 8, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    My son was 7 at the time. He’s a joy to play with if only because he has no preconceived ideas about the game. For example, he thinks candles are an appropriate ammunition for crossbows. Sadly we don’t play as often as I’d like.

    BTW, I’m overeddie from NerdNYC.

  4. September 8, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Oh yeah, I think we were talking in a playing-with-kids thread there and my enthusiasm to get the little ones together for gaming was dampened by your not being in NYC, no?

    I think a candle crossbow is made of win.

  5. September 8, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    I like your henchmen rules. They’re super-quick.

  6. 6 Keith Sloan
    September 8, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    That’s no poodle…that’s a Scotty!

    Otherwise, I agree wholeheartedly.

  7. September 8, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Ah the old Monopoly arguement; I have read that way too many times. But you are right, it is the content of the game and not its mechanics that allows for role playing.

    And as other have said, your henchmen rules are interesting.

  8. September 8, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Heh. I just said my piece about D&D != RPG on the ol’ blog. But you’re dead on right about the greater concreteness of old school resources. I am of the mind that concreteness is good when it comes to describing resources like equipment, rooms and spells, because it encourages creativity. If your candle is only a light giving implement how are you going to put it in your crossbow (backwards, natch) and shoot it to set that big haypile on fire?

  9. 9 Ed
    September 8, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    @Tavis: Yes, that was us.

  10. 10 cr0m
    September 8, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    “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.”

    This is an awesome way of combining PC gen with henchman gen, while setting the relative (and arbitrary) importance of each right away!

  11. 11 cr0m
    September 8, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Shoot, meant to say this too:

    Combine that PC/Henchman generation method with this bit of coolness from Alex Schroeder (http://www.emacswiki.org/alex/RPG) and you’ve got a recipe for some unforgettable characters:

    Click to access Character%20Generation.pdf

  12. 12 James Nostack
    September 9, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Tavis, if you were running a high-level game – where part of the fun is the assumption that your D&D dude has maxed out in most ways, including henchmen – what level would you set the henchmen?

    Specifically, I’m thinking like PC’s with around 300,000 XP.

  13. September 9, 2010 at 12:50 am

    James, I’d look at the Leadership table in the 3E DMG. It gives you a nice mix of a few higher-level dudes and many low-level ones, which you could organize into squads.

  14. September 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I think statless hirelings are the way to go. Henchmen are another matter; once a hireling reaches henchman status, the PC master should already be sufficiently invested in keeping them alive that you can give them distinct stats. (Plus, the PC should definitely be higher level than the henchman by this point, reducing the “I want to ditch my PC and play this guy” factor.)

  15. September 9, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I like statless henchmen for the same reasons you stated, and the “Roll up stats as replacement when your PC is dead” makes them much more than mere meatshields. I normally say they are all 0 level men-at-arms with 6 HP. A drop from d6 to d4 as HD when they become a MU represents the worry and strife that comes from the knowledge the rest of your finite life being dedicated to the study of the dangerous and natural world of magic.

    That’s a really good idea about choosing between guaranteed henchmen or rolling for them, I’d always just rolled and modified it by CHA. Instead of stats I just ask the player for a one word description about each.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2010

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