Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Lowly

If there is one part of the D&D ruleset I vastly underutilised back in the day it was the retainer/hireling/henchman rules. Using the retainers rules as written in BECMI or LL there is no reason why any dungeoneer would not hire as many retainers as they could to provide more firepower or cannon fodder. For some reason my friends and I always assumed this would be too complicated but, really, it is no more complicated and requires no more bookkeeping than all the monsters we rolled up and slaughtered time after time.

I think that retainers offer a number of opportunities to increase the grittiness of the Dung-Age milieux. Their lowliness appeals to me. I have little interest in having retainers that are the equal of the PCs in power so I’ve gone with the assumption that retainers are zero-level grunts whose survival is even more tenuous than that of the PCs. The death of retainers hammers home the Crapsack World atmosphere as well as heightening the chaos and tension of play. Additionally, reatainers are ready-made PCs-in-waiting. When one of the PCs dies a retainer can be automatically promoted to whatever class is appropriate to become one of the protagonists.

As an aside I am going to be using a simplified version of the encumbrance rules wherein each character is able to carry up to their strength rating in items. Going over this means the character moves at half pace. Some items have a higher or lower rating (e.g. 100 coins = 1 item, a mail shirt = 3 items) but I will try to keep it abstract and simple. All retainers are assumed to have ability scores of 10 until such time as they become PCs so are able to carry 10 items. I will not include rations and clothes and suchlike stuff because I am not interested, I think I’ll use some other rule to determine when characters run out of stuff rather than make people keep track of how many rations each of their five retainers has.

I’m allowing most of the retainers to have some of the abilities of various classes as a means of augmenting the abilities of the PCs. If the party has no thief proper, an urchin, a poacher and a tinker will be able to perform many of the same tricks.

All retainers are going to be human. Demihumans are weird and exotic and I’d prefer to focus on the lowly, the grotty and the superstitious to maintain the atmosphere.

Morale is fun. People do run away from battle far more often than they fight to the death. Retainers allow this to occur without the players losing agency over their characters.

Retainer Characteristics
(No mechanical effect, will just make the retainers annoying and/or memorable)

Roll d20

1. Surly
2. Filthy
3. Lecherous
4. Servile
5. Superstitious
6. Sardonic
7. Itchy
8. Fey
9. Addle-pated
10. Devout
11. Pock-marked
12. Gluttonous
13. Indolent
14. Sly
15. Sneering
16. Belligerent
17. Rash
18. Cock-eyed
19. Boastful
20. Snaggle-toothed

Types of retainer d100

01-02: Chirurgeon
03-15: Urchin
15-20: Pagan
21-30: Pilgrim
31-35: Poacher
36-37: Hermit
38-40: Tinker
41-43: Scholar
43-48: Fool
49-50: Apothecary
51-00: Peasant

Chirurgeons are field surgeons, barbers and leeches. They have the ability to treat wounds. If a chirurgeon attempts to treat a wounded character that character must succeed in a constitution check to receive 1 hit point’s worth of healing. Failure in the check means the character sustains one point of damage due to the brutal nature of the treatment.

Hit points: 1d4

Equipment: Field surgery kit (counts as 3 items), dagger

Cost: 5gp/day

Urchins are beggars and cutpurses. Urchins are able to pick pockets (23%) and Hide in Shadows (13%) as a first level thief. They also receive a -2 penalty to morale.

Hit points: d4

Equipment: Dagger

Cost: 5sp/day

Heathens are idolatrous savages from the outlands. Heathens gain a +1 to morale except when in the employ of a fanatic when they receive -1.

Hit Points: d6

Equipment: Spear, throwing axe, helmet, shield

Cost: 2gp/day

Pilgrims are pious folk in search of redemption or enlightenment. Pilgrims in the service of a fanatic gain a morale bonus equivalent to the fanatic’s level.

Hit points: d6

Equipment: staff, holy texts.

Cost: 1gp/day

Poachers are stealthy hunters and outdoorsmen. They can move silently as a 1st level thief (13%) and track enemies on a 1-2 on d6.

Hit Points: d6

Cost: 3gp/day

Equipment: Shortbow, quiver of arrows, hunting knife

Hermits are solitary outcasts with fey wisdom. Hermits are capable of performing hedge magick like cunning men. They receive a -1 on morale due to their generally uncooperative nature.

Hit points: d4

Equipment: Staff, pouch of magical ingredients.

Cost 3 gp/day

Tinkers are wandering pedlars, hawkers and tinsmiths. They are capable of picking locks (17%) and finding and removing traps (23%) as a first level thief.

Hit points: d4

Equipment: Tinker’s tool-kit, dagger, cudgel

Cost: 2gp/day

Scholars are learned individuals seeking knowledge. They are able to read and write three languages (usually the Low Speech, the Imperial Tongue and the Old Tongue).

Hit points: d4

Equipment: cut-and-thrust sword, books of arcane lore

Cost: 4gp/day

Fools are itinerant street performers, jugglers, tricksters and acrobats. Fools are able to climb walls (87%) and pick pockets (23%) as a first-level thief.

Hit points: d4

Equipment: motley garb, 3 daggers

Cost: 4gp/day

Apothecaries are pedlars of herbal potions, ointments and poultices. A herbalist is able to treat wounds, poisonings and illnesses through the application of their skills with herbs. The treated character must make a save vs. poison, success means the character regains one hit point, failure means the character loses one hit point.

Hit Points: d4

Equipment: Pouches of herbs, Book of Herbalism, Sickle

Cost: 5gp/day

Peasants are the most common type of retainer and represent a variety of different professions; ploughmen, woodsmen, charcoal burners, rat-catchers, dung-collectors, fishwives and swineherds.

Hit points: d6

Equipment: roll d8

1. Pitchfork
2. Maul
3. Hatchet
4. Threshing-Flail
5. Cudgel
6. Sickle
7. Billhook
8. Quarterstaff

Cost: 1gp/day


  1. Good stuff Tom.

    You might also want to look over Hackmaster 4E's crazily baroque version of the D&D hireling rules. It has a section about 'hangers-on' who attach themselves to successful adventuring parties. These are spongers, friends-of-friends, and suchlike opportunistic dags and parasites who offer no actual advantage, merely increasing the maintenance cost of large entourages of hirelings.

  2. This is totally great and I'd love to see it in Fight On! or Knockspell - you should throw it their way! Cheers

  3. I have been reading through your blog and have wanted to comment here and there, but this post I cannot resist. I will be stealing this idea with the addition of filthy hobbits and down on their luck dwarfs that reside amongst the rabble. Top notch post!

  4. Excellent work. Reminds me of the old Talisman game.