Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Hirelings Will Be Splintered

There's a rule in Warhammer Fantasy Battle called "Look Out Sir!". This states that if a unit is at least 5 strong, an independent character with that unit is immune to incoming missiles and may only be targetted by other independent characters. In other words casualties are taken from amongst the rank-and-file, not the heroes.

You might be familiar with the "Shields Will Be Splintered" houserule used in some D&D-variant campaigns. In this a shield may be sacrificed to cancel out a blow. It's quite genre-appropiate, aids the PCs a little bit and creates a bit of drama.

Yes, we are going to combine the two like so;

Whenever any trap that is going to target one PC activates, the PC may sacrifice an NPC hireling to avoid taking the damage himself before discovering what effects (damage, poison etc.) the trap may have. The hireling will always be killed or, if the trap is not lethal, will suffer it's effects to the worst degree.

The exception is where the PCs has taken a specific action to trigger the trap such as pushing a tempting button or placing his head in the mouth of a carven, green Devil's face - this is intended for tripwires in corridors, motion sensors, pressure panels, loose bricks linked to pit traps etc. The other exception is a trap that has a wide area effect, such as gassing an entire corridor, which would realistically catch most or all of the party within it's effects.

So then why suggest this houserule?

In the past I've often designed dungeon-based maps with a faulty or already tripped trap near the entrance, just to warn the players that traps are present. You know the sort of thing, a previous adventurer impaled on a spiked board or a spear trap that just graunches and seizes up due to neglect rather than firing off properly. Create a bit of paranoia and fair warning that the players need to be cautious.

Allowing for hirelings to be sacrificed to "take one for the team" does much the same but offers the potential for more drama. Lets be honest, in cinema, red shirts only exist to get killed and to show the danger inherent in the adventure without actually having to off a main character. Satipo, Indy's untrustworthy assistant at the start of Raiders is a good example and that scene creates much more drama and excitement than both of them secretly rolling high enough to not trigger a trap and then nobody knowing anything about it.

It also gives a little bit of a safety net for times of great paranoia in the dungeon. I've been reading James Raggi's Green Devil Face zines recently and some of the traps are so fiendish that the players would be wise to suspect everything. Don't get too close to the skull on a pedestal with the jewel in it's mouth because it might be trapped. Then again, it might be devious enough to have it's trap located 10' away to catch pole-prodders. Then again more bluff and counter bluff might mean that not taking the jewel is the action that triggers the trap when the party leave the chamber.

This can end up leaving the players frightened and unwilling to do anything because the nature of funhouse traps sprinkled with magic means that anything could happen regardless of any of the laws of reality which takes much of the skill and cleverness away from play. (A similar thing occurs in the Fighting Fantasy books written by Ian Livingstone whereby choices are so often meaningless in terms of weighing up sensible or risky options that the player might as well just flip a coin for it. I always felt that Steve Jackson's books were better written in this respect)

Knowing that there is a bit of slack because if the worst comes to the worst we can get through Nobbyfoot and the Kinky Chaosette before risking the PCs frees up the player's "analysis paralysis" and paranoia.

It also allows for the interesting and grim death-traps to be used to their full extent without holding back because the DM can always reap the dramatic benefits of such without saying "Wasn't that dramatic and grisly! What a end to the game! Now roll new characters up and try harder in the future".

So how do we stop this being abused and watching as the party hire thirty hirelings for each expedition and return home with none?

For a start nobody will take their coin if they keep seeing hordes of villagers leave with the PCs but not coming back. What are they doing, eating them? Do they need to supply the Septic Bungblatter Beast with 101 souls before their own are free?

Large parties should encourage more Wandering Monster rolls and ensure that any trap in the vicinity gets set off pretty much every time. You can stop two or three employees from trying to lift the obviously trapped jewel because you can keep an eye on them but when there are fifteen or more? More trouble than they are worth.

And of course each hireling shouldn't just be a one-shot meatshield, a free life for a PC. If they have useful skills, can swing a sword, cast Cure Light Wounds, are the only one who can translate the native lingo or navigate across the desert then every loss is a loss of potential functionality within the party unit.


  1. Excellent, well thought out as to the consequences, I'm going to use this :)

  2. I had the same idea while back but never actually ended up using it. If you do, please tell us how it went for your group.

  3. I really like the feel of this rule!

  4. I like the cut of your jib, sir.

    Especially apropos for games where the players routinely recruit henchmen.

  5. What a great way to make use of those redshirts...er hirelings! An excellent rule and one that I do hope I remember the next time I run a game with minor NPC allies/associates.

  6. Outstanding post! Looking forward to employing it in the near future.