When a spider dropped on my loyal teamster, Pedro, I was on the other side of my mule and too far away to rush to his aid. But, hey, at least the spider hadn't dropped on me. That seems to be the main reason why people have hirelings and henchmen, and mules for that matter. They provide tasty alternatives for hungry spiders.
I started this D&D session wealthy. The last time I had played with Mike Mornard, we had found a giant cache of gems, and my thief, Roger de Coverley, had earned enough gold and XP to level up almost to level 3. In this game session, I was joined by all-new level 1 PCs, with 30-180 GP each. Some of them were smart enough to suck up to me. I sprang for new suits of armor for the fighting men played by Andrew and Tavis, each of whom swore fealty to me and wore one of my garters as a favor.
I also decided that I should get into the spirit of OD&D and get a few NPC hirelings. It ended up costing less than 100 GP to get a level 0 man at arms named Baldric, a teamster named Pedro, and a mule. The mule's main job was to carry the rest of my wealth (which, at 1/10# per GP, weighed more than 300 pounds).
I never ordered my man at arms, Baldric, to do much, and he never volunteered to jump into combat. The mule was more useful. I used him several times as a shield, or skulked behind him when I was in danger. Pedro the teamster was in the thick of things. He was the first target of the first spider who attacked us.
One of the other PCs recognized our dungeon as the sample dungeon from the 1e DMG, which has a few filled-out rooms and a bunch of uncharted areas for the DM to fill in himself. I don't know if Mike was winging it or if he was using a premade adventure key, but we quickly fought our way through the initial spider attack, survived an ambush by giant camel spiders, avoided the deadly save-or-die yellow mold spores on the grain sacks, and made it into unfamiliar territory. Terrifying unfamiliar territory.
Tavis at The Mule Abides describes our antics pretty fully, but I'd like to spend some time on my first interaction with henchmen and hirelings.
First of all, Charm Person is a pretty cool spell, as it unlocks a new sort of pokémon-collecting henchmen acquisition system at level 1. You might not get a castle and followers until level 10 or so, but you can, like Mike's level 1 magic-user Lessnard in Gygax's game, pick up a fifth-level fighting man as a bodyguard if he happens to fail his saving throw. In OD&D, Charm Person can be long-lasting or permanent, but Mike emphasized that it didn't do more than the name implied: it made someone your buddy, not your slave. If you didn't treat your new friend fairly, they might not be your willing ally forever.
I mention this because, when we encountered four bandits who tried to shake us down for 100 GP each, our wizard cast Charm Person on their lieutenant. Suddenly the lieutenant was all affability: he consulted with his men and they agreed to take us to "meet the boss." "But aren't we supposed to lead them into an ambush?" asked the dumbest of the bandits.
I wasn't sure what we should do. From Mike's stories about nests of trolls on level 1 of Greyhawk, and my own experience getting schooled by six kobolds in Mike's dungeon, I had a feeling that venturing into the bandits' stronghold would be putting ourselves in a situation we couldn't necessarily fight our way out of. Furthermore, Mike had rolled the bandit lieutenant's saving throw secretly.
On the other hand, there was evidence that we might be able to win over some of the bandits. "You eat three meals a day?" one asked us wistfully. I offered to hire the bandits then and there, with 10 GP each as a signing bonus.
The bandits weren't willing to join me right away until they'd consulted their boss. So we ventured into the den of thieves, past the known ambush, after having announced to everyone that we were rich.
We finally won over the bandits, after Tavis defeated the boss in single combat. It all could have gone much worse. I think that we were saved by a) good reaction rolls, b) the wizard's Charm spell, c) the fact that Tavis won the single combat, and d) the fact that, as the bandits were deciding who to side with, I loudly announced, "Form an orderly line to get your 10 GP signing bonus!"
I'd entered the dungeon as an employer of a 0-level man at arms, a teamster, and three PC fighters whose equipment I had financed. I left with my retinue increased by nine bandits. I made sure to specify that I paid my new soldiers higher than the market rate. I figured it was a good investment. Mike told us about a similar occasion where he had hired some bandits. He treated them well, and even paid for resurrections when some of them died. That way, if he ever died, the bandits would remember who was punching their meal ticket and return the favor. The key to maintaining NPC loyalty is understanding the concept of self-interest rightly understood.
Those loyalty lessons are easy for PCs to forget, even towards other PCs. When our wizard, having expended his Charm spell, died to a poisoned needle on a chest, we were willing to let him stay dead - except for one of our PC fighters, Mauler, who might not had the stats for a paladin but definitely had the heart of one. He insisted we get the wizard resurrected. So we found ourselves before the High Priest of St. Cuthbert. In his best Don Corleone voice, the cleric said, "Some day I will need a favor for you," and laid a Geas spell on us before he resurrected the wizard.
As he was rolling the chance for resurrection failure, Mike quipped, "Note that he laid the geas on you BEFORE he cast the resurrection spell."
So now that our party is all resurrected, and I have my dozen henchmen at hand, I have no idea what I'll do next with my little army. Squander them in dangerous dungeon delves? send them on a crusade for St. Cuthbert? engage in mass combat?
In fact, I've never known what to do with hirelings and followers in D&D. When I was a kid, I loved the idea that I might build a castle and collect an army, but I didn't know how it would work in play. My first edition DMG was missing a big piece of the rules.
As Mike Mornard reminded us, the high-level castles-and-armies stuff in OD&D and AD&D was meant to integrate with the wargaming rules used by the Castle and Crusade Society. After all, D&D started its life as a hack of the Chainmail mass-combat rules. "The assumption was that everyone was an experienced wargamer," Mike said. That assumption was no longer true in 1986 when I was a ten-year-old first reading AD&D, and it's definitely not true now. By fourth edition, Mike added, the assumption is that new players have a basis in computer RPGs and MMOs, not wargaming. This is a logical and smart assumption for Wizards of the Coast. If they were still marketing to the wargamers, D&D would truly be a niche hobby like model trains, as Ryan Dancey forecasts.
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