Retainers: The Forgotten.

Now, what we tend to forget mid-dungeon is that Lil Jimmy (thusly named because of his small stature, not age) probably has a family that would miss him and his 3 copper per week income. The family goat just died recently and they sent Jim out to try to earn enough to buy seed for next year’s bean crop. But, on paper he’s listed as Torchbearer Jim: AC 11, +0 Init, 3hp, +0 Saves, Club: 1d6 dmg.

Sounds like it could almost be an RPG in and of itself.

Game Masters/Dungeon Master tend to hate them because they’re one more name to come up with and one more stat block to keep track-of. Players tend to use and abuse them for all sorts of things. While I try to make them as entertaining and endearing as possible, let’s just say most adventuring parties tend to either forget them, or use them as fodder.

Some players forget they’re even available, preferring to haul their lucre home on their own backs. But more often than not, a wagonload of loot and everyday comfort items can bog down. It’s a little hard to fight in a dungeon while dragging a chest full of loot, carrying a torch in one hand and firing a crossbow with the other two…oops. Not many three and four armed characters out there. (*Thri-Kreen not withstanding.) At some point, the group must realize they’re going to have to hire some help.

Personality: a guide to NPC retainer survival.

Sure, Lil Jimmy the torchbearer only has one tiny line of stats. He’s armed with, uh, the torch. He’s had little to no training as a fighter and tends to trip over his own boots in the dark. He hasn’t found any deathtraps yet because he’s still with the group. Super useful for carrying the torch. That’s about it.

Now, what we tend to forget mid-dungeon is that Lil Jimmy (thusly named because of his small stature, not age) probably has a family that would miss him and his 3 copper per week income. The family goat just died recently and they sent Jim out to try to earn enough to buy seed for next year’s bean crop. But, on paper he’s listed as Torchbearer Jim: AC 11, +0 Init, 3hp, +0 Saves, Club: 1d6 dmg.

Maybe Lil Jimmy the torchbearer is a really nice guy. Kinda meager. Missing a few teeth so he talks with a lisp. He’s mostly human, but grandma always said there was a gnome far up the family tree. All of Jim’s extended family lives under one roof. Great grandma’s lumbago keeps her bedridden, so Jim’s 3 coppers often go for apothecary expenses. Sharecropping hasn’t paid so well lately, so the family is pretty far in debt to the landlords.

My aim here was to illustrate the more the characters get to know their trusted, loyal retainers, the less likely they are to have one walk into a room full of traps to act as a damage sponge. Every job, including adventuring, has its set of employer-employee relationships. Most worthy employers at least try to know a little bit about their employees.

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What? They ran off with the loot in the middle of the night again?

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Another thing that might keep an adventurer-retainer relationship healthy is that the retainers know when the group sleeps. There is very little to keep a number of disgruntled retainers from just wandering off in the middle of the night, possibly with the party’s gold and magic items. Those are just the scrupulous retainers. 3cp/week to haul around a veritable mountain of gold, magic, and misc objects d’art? You don’t have to be a noble to see that’s a really screwed up deal.

Yes, the adventurers might think they’re paying a fair wage. They have to do all the scary, heroic things to get the loot. Then again, porters and torchbearers might be risking all down in the dungeon right alongside the “brave heroes.” A bit of wage negotiation might be in order at that point.

Some games might include 0-level retainers/hirelings/henchmen as backup characters.

Dungeon Crawl Classics and other OSR games might allow for 0-level characters to be retainers in the event one or more party members happens to die mid-dungeon. The player may then treat the retainer as a character that freshly passed onto Level 1 and keep the action going.

Ed the cart driver suddenly becomes Ed the Wizard. Billy the torchbearer suddenly takes up the thiefly arts. Bob the dwarf cook suddenly becomes Bob the Dwarf Adventurer. Seems a bit unlikely in places, but perfectly logical in others.

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Retainers were automatic in some fantasy RPGs.

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We used to laugh in Warhammer FRPG when a new class automatically retained followers. The same was true of D&D back in the day. The question was always, “Who are these guys, and why should we care?” Sometimes characters would become landowners and need someone to watch the place while they were off dungeoneering. Enter the NPCs.

Well, obviously, Alfred the famous Warrior was worthy of a retinue of like-minded knights who want to travel with him. Fredo the Cleric had people who flocked to hear him speak, and Sunny the Thief had an entire guild of street urchins. Made total sense except for where did these people come from and why were they stalking our characters? The DM always had fun coming up with ways for these characters to obtain followers and why.

Some unscrupulous PCs would get their retainers killed and fake sympathy. One of my Warhammer players actually had his character start killing his off one by one. It was pretty grim, but it did settle the problem of people wanting to work for him ever again. That was a pretty, um…. murder hobo campaign, though.

Later editions of various rulesets made retainers optional or just not a thing, thankfully. It saved the GM/DM time in coming up with names, descriptions, etc. It was a lot less paperwork all around. Nowadays, if characters want to attract followers/retainers, cool. It can be a good roleplaying device and characters in some fantasy games these days don’t explore or crawl about in dungeons as much.

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All things said, I think it can be a good lesson, especially for younger players.

Treat people nicely (in game) and they’ll want to work for you. Please treat people with kindness and understanding, regardless. In a game, it’s just nice to reinforce positive values. That, and it’s better than having Bob the Former Dwarf Cook having to be triple encumbered carrying a mountain of loot home on his back.

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