Monday, February 23, 2009

The Road Not Taken

I've been looking at my D&D Rules Cyclopedia again, and thinking about things that were apparently intended to be a part of the game, but that I've never done - either as a player or as a GM. So, here's a short wishlist of stuff I want to do in a fantasy game at some point:

1. Build a stronghold and attract followers

2. Explore a dungeon with a bunch of expendable hirelings

3. Become an Immortal

4. Find/fight something incongruously high-tech

Sadly, as fun as D&D 4th edition is, I doubt that they're going to be covering any of those things any time soon. (Actually, none of this stuff has really been a part of the game since 2nd edition at the latest.)

Hirelings and henchmen have been dropped because the entire combat system has been so heavily revamped since the early days that they're really not necessary, mechanically speaking. Even though I find the idea of having an entourage appealing, in practice, they'd probably just slow down 4e combat, and that would be a mistake. Still, I can't shake the image of traveling adventurers accompanied by a bunch of loyal followers, money-grubbing mercs, and/or cannon fodder.

The high-tech weirdo stuff was never a huge part of the game, popping up mostly in the bizarre module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or in Judges Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting. Still, Barrier Peaks was fondly remembered by my older brother Chris, and his account of fighting a mind flayer in a crashed spaceship is one of my most vivid memories of early-80s "D&D story time". There's an appeal to playing a sword-and-sorcery style barbarian armed with a lasergun, I think. Call it Custom Van Fantasy.

On a game design level, I do feel that there is plenty of room for stronghold building, domain management, and even the idea of ascending to Immortal status in 4e, though. I mean, there's already a "tier" system in place, where characters progress from Heroic, to Paragon, and then to Epic. That's thematically reminiscent of the old Basic-Expert-Companion-Master-Immortal progression, and you can become a Demigod at 4e's final (Epic) tier. The Paragon tier, as written, seems focused on planar exploration, but I would be very happy if somebody would publish a supplement allowing for an endgame more in line with the original game. I'd like to think I'm not alone there.


  1. The three-tier advancement system in 4e is well structured, I agree. I'd actually like to play a regular game so I could experience it in practice. It's been a LONG time since I've progressed a character to immortality in real time.

    I can also see how hirelings would slow down combat in 4e (I mean, they slow down combat in general, for the most part), but I still think there's got to be a way to work some sort of henchmen/mercenary NPCs into 4e campaigns. From my perspective, 4e shines in that it is more flexible in most ways than previous editions of the game.

    I think that hirelings are an essential part of the RPG narrative. I mean, they're an important part of fantasy narrative in general. Sure, a PC must work with the other PCs in order to complete a given task within the storyline, but the idea of it just being "us and them" without any other compelling NPCs relevant to the quest (i.e., interactive followers) seems a bit hollow.

  2. I'm interested in your opinion that hirelings are "an important part of fantasy narrative in general." I don't think anybody would disagree with you about NPCs being important to the narrative, but hirelings specifically? I'm having a hard time thinking of fantasy novels or movies that involved the protagonists hiring torchbearers, sellswords, etc. Please elaborate.

  3. I just mean NPCs in general, so I suppose saying "hirelings" specifically as integral to all fantasy narrative is a bit of a stretch. Fair enough, I will concede to that. I'm not trying to espouse some grand theory that RPGs require henchmen in the storyline (and certainly most novels/movies praise the lone hero fighting evil), but I do think that--depending on the particular angle your storyline might take--the narrative will always require some specific NPC interaction (or in the case of movies, supporting characters) in order to be effective. These might include (but are not limited to) a squire for a knight, an employer for a hired adventurer, a guide for the mountaineer, a historian for the treasure seeker, a wise old man for the young hero, and so on. Specifically, these might differ from the "henchmen" of old, whose sole purpose was to collect gold to do dirty work, but principally the narrative effect of such NPCs is the same. I'm basically saying, that it makes the story hollow if your PCs are multitasking everything themselves.

    That being said (since acquiescing to your question cuts my original assertion in half), let me rephrase by saying that I think hiring a tracker or a torchbearer (or whatever) is taken for granted in many novels and movies (though these activities are still there) in a way that you can't as easily do in a rules-laden tabletop RPG. In the RPG world, such activities are a conscious thought and action for the PC, for which a rule/feat/skill/challenge must exist. Thus, since PCs can't do everything without having to account for their action, it seems like there has to be something to make up for that in the narrative. And the easiest way to do that is with interactive NPCs.

  4. I don't think a good 4e DM would really sweat the small stuff as much as one who was running a dungeon grind for an earlier edition might... it's less of a "resource management" game in terms of tracking torches, rations, etc. The resources you manage are things like action points, powers, healing surges, etc.

    Also, in D&D 4e (and for, the most part, earlier editions) a lot of basic items like lighting and carrying of items is accomplished with magic - which works fine, and lets the DM and players spend less time worrying about niggling details like the number of iron spikes you have in your pack. Still, somehow I yearn for the imagery of having a bunch of unwashed plebes carrying crap for you. I guess it's just my taste for "low fantasy" talking.

  5. i can't even imagine how slow hirelings would make combat. in my experience, combat was always slow, even with a skilled DM like Ryan T. at the helm. during our campaign it was actually sped up by the fact that Liz's tremendously stupid but terrifyingly strong barbarian would basically pulp an opponent every swing she got.

  6. The purpose of hirelings was basically to get killed for you. D&D at early levels is pretty lethal, especially in its earliest iterations, though a lot of the time hirelings wouldn't get directly involved in fighting (that cost extra). I think followers were supposed to mix it up alongside the PCs, though, which seems to me to be a recipe for sllloooowww fights, but I never really ran/played anything that used them, so I'm curious.

  7. 1. You can now. The Mythic Sovereign Epic Destiny in one of the old freebie editions of Dragon (I believe 367) gives you a keep and some dudes to take care of it and farm your land and stuff. It's very vague about it – which is what I like about it. It didn't try to give stats to your dudes or tell you how many acres you got or anything. Just a residence and dudes. That's it.

    2. Not supported yet, no. The bag of tricks can produce little minion critters, so maybe you can buy a bag of hirelings? ;) Mostly though, D&D 4e tries to be more about the party being some kind of secret club nobody but them can join...usually if players find an NPC they really would like to bring along, I allow this, and just adjust encounters so they don't lose out on XP from having a "hireling". If they get a bunch of dudes out of the tavern though, those guys are low HP or minions. And after they die, the PCs better be ready to face the wives and family...

    3. That sort of happens off-screen in 4e, HOWEVER, the Demigod Epic Destiny is nigh-immortal, and the Undying Warrior is effectiely immortal at Level 30. So for one level, you can be immortal...not very satisfying I suppose, but then again I don't like immortality much, even in 4e.

    4. Well, you have stuff like the Apparatus in the Adventurer's Vault. An NPC Warforged Juggernaut could work as well. I throw robots and alien invaders at my PCs all the time too, I just stat them using the monster rules in the DMG and give them the high damage progression.

    I think Hirelings, if run well, wouldn't slow down combat too much. One thing I would do, is have the hirelings fight "off-screen" so to speak. For example, you bring your hirelings along, and you find a bunch of goblins. The party faces off against the "nucleus" of the goblin party – the captain and his close cohorts. The hirelings fight random goblins, keeping them from the PCs. If this isn't dangerous enough for the hirelings, invent a kill mechanic. Every round, roll a d20. If you roll below 10, kill a hireling.

    Yeah, I know that isn't part of the system, but I love 4e homebrew. My blog is chock full of it. I'm actually working on a homebrew system where the party has a DMPC along with them that isn't a DMPC – the DM roleplays it, but in combat, it has special powers that PCs coordinate with it. Any PC can spend one of his actions to have the NPC do something, so it's like the whole party is helping control a cohort.

    This isn't like hirelings of yore, but serves as a fun way to include an important NPC in the game.

  8. These are actually all very helpful tips, thanks! I had read about the Mythic Sovereign way back when but had forgotten about it.

    I stumbled across a post on EN World not long after I wrote that suggested a very basic system for hirelings in combat. Basically, a PC would blow a minor action to have a hireling (minion) act that round. The minion gets its full selection of actions (standard, minor, move). I haven't tried it yet, but it seems appealing to me. I actually like the idea of hirelings not contributing much unless you take the time to command them to.

  9. The DMPC that the PC's control in combat sounds really cool.