Hireling Traits

Help Wanted sign in a windowWhile participating in Brendan‘s weekly OD&D game, Vaults of Pahvelorn, I’ve become enamored of the role hirelings once played in D&D. In Pathfinder, it’s uncommon for a player to seek out an NPC companion. And when they do, they need to take the Leadership feat first. In previous editions of the game, it’s more common for every player to have at least one hireling, while many have several. This makes a lot of sense. From a practical standpoint, one doesn’t need to be a particularly good leader to pay someone to perform basic tasks. All you need is money and a sense of superiority, which adventurers and retail managers both have in spades, AMIRITE?

Despite my respect for the hireling system’s elegance, I’ve noticed a potential weakness in the way they are handled. It’s not a flaw; it doesn’t break the game, nor does it render hirelings less effectual than they ought to be. But it’s an area where I feel as though the presence of hirelings in the game could be strengthened to the game’s benefit. Namely, every hireling is a robot that does what it’s told except when a completely random die roll determines that it should do otherwise. They have no personality to them which makes them individual or interesting, despite the fact that players often try to ascribe personalities to them.

To my understanding, Hirelings in OD&D are handled very simply. (Bearing in mind that I don’t actually know how hirelings are handled in Vaults of Pahvelorn. The machinations of loyalty  are kept hidden from the players). When the player character orders a hireling to attempt something which the hireling might object to, the GM rolls against a “loyalty score” which the player has earned with that NPC. On a successful roll, the hireling will do what they are told. On an unsuccessful roll, the hireling will refuse the order. It’s a simple and effective means to differentiate between the PC (which the player controls directly) and the Hireling, which is an NPC that the player can only control indirectly.

In my weeks playing Vaults of Pahvelorn, however, I’ve noticed that my fellow players and I often try to impart personality traits on our hirelings. They’re not quite members of the party, but we still view them as more than cannon fodder. I suppose the closest analogue you might draw is that the players view their hirelings as pets. They want to get to know them a little bit, and the simple nature of the loyalty score doesn’t allow much leeway.

I propose a random chart which defines a hireling’s personality. Not in a role playing or aesthetic sense, as -C has already covered that exhaustively and there’s really nothing more to be said on the matter. Rather, this chart would define personality on a mechanical scale. A character’s fears are going to make them less willing to engage in certain kinds of questionable activities, while they may feel more confident about others. To demonstrate what I’m talking about, below is a sample chart which I’m sure could be expanded and improved upon. Each personality trait is the result of two rolls:

Roll 1d6

(1) The character is terrified of… (Takes a -3 penalty on loyalty rolls associated with…)
(2-3) The character isn’t comfortable with… (Takes a -1 penalty on loyalty rolls associated with…)
(4-5) The character is pretty comfortable with… (Receives a +1 bonus on loyalty rolls associated with…)
(6) The character happy with… (Receives a +3 bonus on loyalty rolls associated with…)

Edit: Brendan has pointed out to me that OD&D loyalty checks are made using 2d6, not 1d20. Oops! I’ve modified the bonuses and penalties to work better with that number range. That’ll teach me to try and write a homebrew for a game I’ve never GM’d!

Roll 1d20

(1) Being left alone in to stand guard in a dangerous place.
(2) Being sent ahead to scout in a dangerous place.
(4) Magic and Magic Users
(5) Religion
(6) Fire
(7) Darkness
(8) Undead
(9) Monstrous Humanoids
(10) Insects
(11) Demons and Devils
(12) Evil
(13) Lawbreaking
(14) Near death experiences
(15) Being asked to participate in battle with a ranged weapon.
(16) Being asked to participate in battle with a melee weapon.
(17) Dangerously cold weather.
(18) Dangerously hot weather.
(19) Large scale battles.
(20) High places

The GM could roll for an individual hireling as many times as they like, ignoring any contradictory results on subsequent rolls. The GM is also strongly encouraged to work a hireling’s trait into their personality. For example, a hireling who is comfortable with fire might have been part of the fire fighting volunteer squad before they joined up with the party. If they’re happy to confront fire, then perhaps they’re even a little unstable, with pyromaniacal tendencies.

There are some potential problems with this idea. Aside from complicating a simple system (and thus, potentially, making it less effective) it adds to the amount of information the GM will need to keep track of. I do like the idea, though, and I’d be curious to hear other’s thoughts on it. I’m particularly curious what oldschool GMs think, since my only experience with OSR gaming is as a player.

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2 thoughts on “Hireling Traits”

  1. -8 penalty! Holy numerical inflation Batman! Though the mechanism behind morale checks is actually not specified in the OD&D text, most methods use 2d6, so modifiers should probably remain between -2 and +2. Even on a high variance d20 though, -8 is huge!

    OD&D actually separates loyalty from morale in a way that no other edition does. Loyalty (determined randomly though affected by employer charisma) is like an ability score, which grants a bonus or penalty on morale rolls. Thus, you can have a very loyal retainer that nevertheless botches a morale check, or vice versa.

    I like the idea of these mechanical quirks, though I think it would be hard to track from the ref’s side. If the player can take responsibility for reminding the ref when the bonus or penalty applied, I think it would work very well. Also, bad and good experiences in play (from the perspective of the retainer) could generate more modifiers if desired.

    By the way, this is the morale check system I use:


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