The latest Dwimmermount update inspired me to think more about rival parties, and how they might be composed. I’d really like a system more along the lines of “10% to level up, 10% chance to die every month” rather than just making them a certain level by fiat. As part of this, I was also thinking about henchmen.

I have the feeling my DMs approach to henchmen is a bit more lenient than that of other DMs, so the party has several long-term henchmen, few deaths, and no defections or involuntary retirements. They’ve stayed relatively close in level, but have generally been more than one level lower than the party.

I was wondering, is this similar to other people’s experience with henchmen? I’d love to hear more about how it’s worked in your campaign.

Henchmen are an integral part of my game, because four prominent people travelling around unattended would just be weird. They'd look like vagabonds or outlaws or something. We started off with henchmen, because the PCs started at 5th level. I gave them a 3rd level, two 2nd level, and any others were 1st level.

There's only been one session so far, so no deaths or defections, but we'll see what happens after the next. For morale, I've assumed those who aren't level 1 have levelled with the PCs, and if there has been any gift-giving, that gives a bonus too. So in some instances those henchmen are borderline fanatical (I think the highest rating is +6; though most range from +2 to +4).

They'll be levelling at half the rate of the PCs, though if someone wants to activate them as a backup character, should anything happen to their PC, I'll just bump them up to the same level as everyone else. I should add that we're not actually tracking XP in my game, the PCs gain a level when we think it's an appropriate juncture.

Over 12 sessions, my group has acquired a huge retinue of henchmen, henchmen of henchmen, and henchmen of henchmen of henchmen. In total, there are now 44 henchmen for 5 PCs. The PCs range in level from 2nd through 4th, while the henchmen are between 0th and 2nd. Recruitment has far outstripped losses, but turnover is high. Calamities seem to overwhelm everything else over time, at least for those henchmen who actually go adventuring, as opposed to being left behind to guard the fort or perform hijinks.

My current character is the former henchman of a now-deceased party member and one of the highest level PCs in the group. We have found henchmen vital to success though often clutter dungeons. Most party members have about 2 henchmen but it ranges from zero to seven (our GM will not allow sub-henchmen at the present as the 2 highest level PCs are level 3 and most of the party is level 1).

Henchman turnover rate is high (as was PC turnover before henchmen), and we alternate between joking about the henchmen being an ablative wall of meat (out of character!), and taking great pains to protect, heal, and equip them. There have been few voluntary retirements as many of the henchman-heavy characters have great cha and/or appropriate proficiencies and will pay well to keep a good henchman around. Fatalities, however are all too common, especially considering our very limited supply of healing magic. Most of the injuries can be blamed on putting 0 level men and 1st level fighters with 3~4 hp on the front line, which, despite a fairly good ac from good armor and equipment, get slaughtered by an unlucky shot. We have since started using only the strongest of our fighters (me and maybe one other) to soak on the front line, leaving the henchmen fighting men to aid with spears or cover the flanks and rear (i.e. any tunnel that the party isn’t charging down).

Of course, some of the lethality of our games stems from the fact that we have to roll our first hit die, resulting in some VERY squishy characters.

And they’re (both PCs and henchmen) happy with the sums of XP and gold?

With so many henchmen, PCs are barely getting a 1/30 share of XP each, and I shudder to think of how little cash the henchmen are risking their lives for, assuming they each take at least 15% of their masters’ income.

I just have a hard time imagining someone risking his life in a high-turnover dungeon expedition for just 0.0225% (or less) of the plunder plus 12gp a month.

Depends on what the take is, doesn’t it? If having a group of 50 characters lets you take down much bigger threats, they could be getting as much or more wealth than they would if they were operating as 10 groups of 5. Imagine that a group of 5 ogres (a smallish warband) are located in a wilderness lair–they’ve been raiding local villages and attacking the occasional caravan, so they have heaps of treasure in their hide-out. Instead of a 2nd level party encountering a group of 5 ogres and running away, possibly with casualties, a small army of 50 characters can probably kill all the ogres in a couple of rounds, and get both the loot (about 6000 gp, for treasure type L) and the ogre bodies for magic item components (at that level, likely to sell, but still). If we assume the treasure split is 1 share per PC (5 shares) plus 0.15 share per henchmen (the minimum, probably actually higher), then that’s about 12 shares–the PCs get 500 gp each, the henchmen get 75 gp each. Not bad when you compare it to the monthly wage table–75 gp is a lot of money for a day’s work, even if it is a very dangerous day. Of course, a group of 5 ogres is still dangerous–there might well be a couple of bodies left on the ground. But the small army approach works even better at taking on large numbers of weak humanoids. They might be able to take out a village of 185 kobolds with no friendly deaths (assuming they can fight on favorable terms), for a comparable take (about 5.5X1250gp). Again, a village of 185 kobolds could be a huge threat to a small party–and even if they can fight their way to safety, they’re unlikely to be able to get the jackpot.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the small army approach is the right, or the best approach. It can also mean losing the mobility and critically the stealth to be able to get big hauls without ending up in big fights. Six PCs and 4 NPCs are much more likely to be able to choose to avoid a confrontation with a kobold village (although they’re less likely to be able to intimidate the kobolds into backing down without a fight). But I can see why some groups, operating in some campaign environments, would choose to go with that approach.

Well, if the PCs aren’t happy with it they have only themselves to blame. They are the ones recruiting everyone in sight and refusing to leave the class VI starting settlement until they conquer it. With that as the goal they’ve chosen, and their scouts reporting an army of 180 beastmen on their way to contest their claim, I think they actually have too few subordinates. Even if we throw in their 20-ish mercenaries, conscripts, and militiamen.

As for the NPCs, the turnover is mostly from henchmen quitting. The PCs stick with 15 shares of the treasure for each henchmen (to keep the math easy), but are generous with bonuses, and pay for everyone to have at least a comfortable lifestyle (40gp/month), on top of their wages and plunder. Most of the PCs’ henchmen don’t usually go dungeon delving, but instead spend their time guarding, managing, and spying on the settlement. Among the adventuring henchmen, hardly anyone has been killed outright, and the party averages only one crippling injury per foray into the dungeon.

Still, those calamities add up. Last session, the last remaining henchmen from their first wave of recruiting finally quit, and the only reason he was around so long is that he spent a month recovering from having his tongue ripped out by a zombie.

Also, a henchman doesn’t get 15% of his master’s plunder. He gets 15 shares of the total haul, while each PC gets 100 shares. Like pirates. Or stockholders.

Fascinating thread! 

As those of you who've read the Opelenean Nights actual play reports know, the party I run has 7 PCs with between 7 and 9 NPCs at any one time. Given downtime and so on, the typical party entering the dungeon numbers about 12 to 14 at any time. 

We have lost about 7 NPCs to death and 7 NPCs to calamity, so total churn has been about 200%. 

It's amazing to see the different strategies different parties employ.

I haven’t actually played ACKS yet, and most of my time was spent with D&D 3.5 and 4e, and I’m really curious as to how combat plays out with parties of 14-20. Yet I’ve also heard that combat in ACKS is pretty quick! How does gameplay not slow to a crawl? Do you guys use battle maps and minis?

Well, you got me thinking, so I did some calculations. In the last month of game time, each PC has earned around 6000gp, and each henchman around 900gp, in plunder. For the henchmen, that’s 12 times the 75gp expected monthly income for a 2nd level character, and 36 times the 25gp expected monthly income for a first level character, before wages and bonuses are factored in. So the henchmen, at least, should be fairly content with their income.

ACKs does limit your options somewhat and there are fewer reactions. There are no attacks of opportunity, you can’t move when engaged PERIOD, no held actions, no immediate-action things, etc. You act simultaneously too. The rules are just simpler, even with minis and maps.

In 3.5, you have 3 actions (Standard, Move, Swift) a round, Full Attacks, Flanking rules, Immediate actions, free actions, AoOs, tumbling, double-digits of spells known, a metric f-ton of tiny +2 modifiers for every damn thing, and more options than you could shake a stick at. In ACKS, you get 1 action with 1 roll, and your special abilities are more sharply limited.

When you’re engaged in melee, your options are “I hit it again” or “I run away”. Maybe you do a grapple or something fancy like that, but you’re usually going to just keep smacking the guy.

Outside melee, you can’t do much other than ranged attacks or charging into melee. Or risk casting your 1 spell/day if you happen to be a Magic-User.

Plus, generally, you have to choose to cast a spells or retreat at the top of the round, so there is only so much reaction to enemy action.

I’m coming off of 2 years of 4e and a decade of 3e before that, and, let me tell you, ACKS combat plays gloriously fast. And brutal. Even with a huge party. I haven’t printed or used any battle maps for ACKS (and I made gorgeous ones for every battle in my 4e game). I do keep an old Chessex wet-erase grid mat on the table and have the players use minis on that to show their marching order. I have occasionally sketched out a quick map for more complicated battles, like the assault on the Temple of Zargon, but that has definitely been the exception. They players have gotten used to having enough d6s handy to roll initiative for all of their henchmen. I countdown initiative from 10 to 1, and the players listen for the count of the next character in their initiative order, and call out when I reach it. Since they usually fight in orderly ranks, rather than scattered as in 3e or 4e, and have few characters with precise shot, a lot of guys in the rear ranks end up having nothing to do on their turn, especially when they fight in dungeon corridors. And the fights rarely last more than a couple rounds before morale breaks or everything is dead.