For HireTLDR Hirelings can be more than just human shields and two legged pack animals, useful though they are in those capacities. They can add tension, drama, and color to an adventure, and become characters in their own right.
I stumbled upon a reference to a Gary Gygax short story, “The Magician’s Ring“, that was a recap of a gaming session for Lessnard the Magician (Mike Mornard). It’s a very short story and very much worth reading for the interactions between Lessnard and his hirelings, particularly Flopsspel. Hirelings, as class of NPC, have long been in the wane but bits of lore, remembered or written, like The Magician’s Ring, continually prod me to find ways to bring them back.
Death of the Hired Man
What good is he? Who else will harbor him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
He thinks he ought to earn a little pay…
– Robert Frost, “Death of the Hired Man”
There were probably many reasons that sparked the decline of the use of hirelings in Dungeons & Dragons, and in other fantasy games besides: the streamlining and/or handwaving of resource management like encumberance, the rise of narrative driven campaigns and set parties, and the decline of solo adventuring like that of Lessnard, and, I’m sure, other things that I can’t remember at this moment. Solo adventuring, for one, is a topic that often comes up on Reddit as a question in terms of how to do it and, surprisingly, hirelings, as such, don’t often enter the mix of answers. That makes sense since they’ve been so heavily deemphasized for so long. Now, it must be mentioned that hirelings do appear in the fifth edition’s Player’s Handbook, page 159, as “Services”, sandwiched in the equipment chapter between “Food, Drink, and Lodging” and “Spellcasting Services”. You get three quick paragraphs and a small pricing table. You’d be excused, however, if you missed it.
What is undoubtedly missing is all the previously available crunch surrounding hirelings from older editions that made them more interesting than just a generic service to be paid for: no henchmen based on Charisma; no mention of treasure shares or hireling morale, and very little on using them in adventuring situations (yes, it’s mentioned but almost in passing). Coming back to Lessnard, his hirelings allow him to delve by himself into the dungeon depths (remember here that the encounters are not strictly balanced to the party size) and the morale mechanic plays a big role (pun intended!) in his adventure’s story. As Gygax relates in the afterward to his tale:
The shenanigans of Floppspel were, of course, nothing more than what the game referee decided would take place. They were, however, based on several definite factors. the apprentice was a new hireling, and as such his loyalty was uncertain (as indicated by a dice roll). His master furthermore did not offer him any substantial portion of treasure gained, so he was quite naturally looking out for himself. The battles with the wights and the giant scorpion lowered Floppspel’s morale, first because he was not immediately promised a portion of the jewelry, second due to the death of the Acolyte cleric, and third because he took a great fancy to the ring of invisibility (a score of 12 with two six-sided dice) and saw no chance to gain the desired object. It was not unnatural that he attempt to gain the latter when an opportunity arose.
These kind of interactions are what gives value to a hireling beyond just acting as extra carrying capacity or a walking, talking ten-foot pole, and elevates them from a simple player expediency to a bona fide GM tool. Thankfully, it doesn’t require much effort to bring them back.
Since the PHB has a price list for hirelings, we don’t need to worry about that. Regarding morale and loyalty, important to give some life to the hirelings and keep them from turning into silent, obediant slave labor, the back of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide contains a bunch of tables for a very fine-grained calculation of a hireling’s state of mind. I won’t reprint them here and, in the spirit of fifth edition, will present, instead, a somewhat streamlined hireling mental accounting system.
Hiring a Hireling
- Start with the base cost listed in the PHB;
- Set the basic DC for the hiring check at 10 versus the hiring character’s Charisma;
- Offering higher wages and/or percentages of treasure haul can lower the DC of the check at your discretion;
- High risks can raise the DC of the check at your discretion;
- Have the hiring PC make the check against the final DC number and note the margin of success or failure;
- On a critical failure, the potential hireling refuses the job;
- On a failure margin of five or more, the hireling has disadvantage on all morale checks and makes all morale checks at -4;
- On a failure margin of less than five, the hireling makes all morale checks at a penalty equal to that margin of failure;
- On a success margin of less than five, the hireling makes all morale checks with a bonus equal to the margin of success; and,
- On a success margin of more than five, the hireling has advantage on all morale checks and makes all morale checks at +4.
Checking Hireling Morale
Whenever the hireling is placed in mortal danger, roll a morale check, modified using the bonuses or penalties established when he was hired (optional: add the hiring PC’s charisma bonus or penalty to the modifier before rolling).
Check morale immediately when:
- faced by superior enemy forces (check each round);
- after 1/4 or more of the party is down;
- the hiring PC is down;
- half the party or is down; or,
- the hireling is wounded.
The base DC of the check is 10 modified by the following:
- +1 for every downed member of the party;
- -1 for every enemy slain;
- +2 if outnumbered;
- +2 if wounded;
- +1 for any friendly deserters; and,
- +2 if hiring PC downed (stacks with penalty for downed party member).
If the hireling:
- fails the check by more than five, he surrenders to the enemy, if appropriate, or flees in a panic and deserts the party;
- fails the check by more than two, disengages in a retreat but does not desert, will attempt to rejoin after the danger has passed or wait for the party to return;
- fails the check by less than three, falls back, fighting if applicable, and remains with the party;
- succeeds the check, stays steadfast; or,
- succeeds the check by more than five, shows a will of steel, stands steadfast and requires no further morale checks for the duration of the encounter.
Beyond these guidelines, use the hireling’s morale modifiers to establish a moral compass for how the hireling reacts to the events of the adventure. If morale is generally low, represented by a negative morale modifier, the hireling, like Floppspel, might decide to subvert the hiring PC’s goals to further his own. This might manifest in lust for treasure or a knack for betrayal or a disposition to steal and desert. Roll against a DC of 10 plus the morale modifier, when appropriate, to check if the hireling goes into business for himself or stays true to his employer. Either way, let these actions and reactions surface at times to add tension and excitement to the game. Floppspel disobeying Lessnard in the local town’s tavern isn’t much of a game changer, Floppspel making a break for it deep within a dangerous dungeon is. It pays to be kind to your hirelings.
Let me know on Twitter if you find this useful (or not) or if you have any suggestions or ideas.