Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Raging Swan Press’s Henchfolk and Hirelings

According to the foreward, this supplement is an attempt to fix 3rd edition D&D’s not-so-great Leadership feats and cohorts and replace them with rules that captures the spirit of first edition AD&D’s henchmen rules. (I play GURPS 4e and Labyrinth Lord, so I am not in the target audience as far as the specific ruleset is concerned. However, I have experienced the same appreciation for henchmen at the gaming table, especially in situations where I only have a two or three players.)

Henchfolk are listed in a series of charts broken down by alignment, class, and race. A sidebar contains some concise notes about henchfolk, game balance, and their consequences for adventure design. There are a couple of pages with rules for attracting and hiring henchfolk. There is a d100 chart to allow the DM to randomly determine who answers the players’ want ads. In my opinion, these concise rules for attracting and hiring henchfolk are very good. They make sense to me and can easily be translated into other systems (like GURPS) and they are far superior to the henchmen rules that I improvised on the fly while running a Labyrinth Lord campaign. The rules cover attracting henchfolk, interviewing them (ie, gaining a good reaction), and also the rates at which they gain experience.

The bulk of the product covers the 100 henchfolk in detail. Name, sex, race, class, and attribute scores are given… then appearance, background, personality, and mannerisms are sketched out with a few sentences each. (As my Labyrinth Lord game uses plain, unmodified 3d6 rolls for attributes, these numbers are a bit high for me… but that is easily corrected.) The information given is plenty to allow for an on-the-fly characterization in a role-playing session. Note that this is the sort of thing that is hurt by too much information– what I really need is a good gloss and enough hooks to allow obvious things to improvise and riff on during play. That’s exactly what is provided here. Players should be able to take these descriptions and run with them as they please– there is little setting specific detail in them beyond what is typical in a generic AD&D type setting. For groups that aren’t playing the henchmen rules for whatever reason, these henchfolk can be a great resource for populating the tavern when the PC’s go back to town for supplies. The individual backgrounds and motivations of the henchfolk can provide a lot of ideas for DM’s looking to add texture, drama, and a sense of setting to their games. (Note that Labyrinth Lord players will find these characters more useful if they are using the Advanced Companion– the race/class combinations will often be a bit much for those that play an old school “Basic” D&D. GURPS players will immediately see obvious advantages, disadvantages, quirks, and skills to apply to these characters based on the descriptions.)

Now that I’ve described the overall contents, let me briefly list the things that were bothersome and/or not-so-great. At the front of the book, there is a note that states that the authors “won’t correct typos,” but “will correct any game mechanic or balance issues that come to light.” While I only saw a couple of typos in the product to begin with, this attitude strikes me as somewhat unprofessional. I’d prefer to see something that indicates that the authors stand by the quality of their product and will do what it takes to make it perfect. I find the Half-Elf and Half-Orc character background to be hard to swallow, but then… I don’t play a lot of straight AD&D type games to begin with. (The implied world of these characters clashes greatly with how these “races” are presented in Tolkien’s works, for example.) Finally… the illustrations do not appear to… illustrate… any of the henchmen in the book. It would have been nice to read an NPC and then see a drawing of him on the page. I could be wrong, but I think the drawings are of generic player characters and don’t have much to do with the actual content. (This is evidently a cost cutting measure.)

One of the more useful aspects of this product is in the variety of henchmen. Some are “good servants” that will pretty much do their jobs without any fuss. Some have major problems that almost disqualify them from adventuring status. Some have ulterior motives that can come back to haunt the party. Some of them have higher goals that could influence the party in one way or another. Some of them have unusual situations in their background that could lead to complications. As a GM, it is really easy to get into a rut. If I’m improvising these sorts of details, I will often gloss over them completely (making all of the henchmen dull drones ready to do anything they’re told) or fall into some other pattern that the players can pick up on. In either case, the players’ suspension of disbelief is damaged. However, by seeding the henchmen list with some… uh… interesting folk… the players will learn quickly to pay attention during the interview stage. As henchmen come and go in the players’ ranks, the PC’s will experience a variety of perks and hassels in regard to the hired hands. Having these characteristics predetermined before the first want ad is posted means the GM can play the NPC’s to the hilt without anyone feeling like he’s arbitrarily slamming the PC’s with complications or being capriciously nasty.

To sum up, this is a surprisingly useful supplement. It is cogent, well written, and has some nice illustrations. The writers are fulfilling a real need that is derived from actual gaming experience. I have seen lists of hirelings and NPC’s elsewhere… but nothing with this degree of utility. This supplement is well worth the gold pieces.

Miscellaneous notes:

This product comes as two PDF’s: a larger one optimized for printing and a smaller file optimized for ebook readers.

Full Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of this supplement for review purposes.

My Labryinth Lord session reports are here.

Raging Swan’s website is here.

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