Players Finally Using Mercenaries - an ACKs Mindset

My gaming group were all introduced to roleplaying through extremely "high fantasy" games, where player characters did epic things right out of the gate, fought carefully tuned encounters designed to fit their power level, and were generally never in the position where running away, thinking, or not fighting were efficient solutions to their problems. Eventually we made the switch to OSR games, settling into ACKs, which we have played now for over three years. But as a group we seem to have been stuck in an individual heroics oriented mindset as we played. In essence the rules changed, but how the party operated did not. After a long series of TPKs and refusing to get henchmen for fear of splitting party exp (and the subsequent TPKs) something seems to have clicked.

Having stumbled across a dragons lair, the party carefully and quietly left, went back to town, grabbed every mercenary, seige engineer, wagon, teamster and ballista they could, and then proceeded to seige the cave, flushing out the dragon and its kobolds with a character, then burying them in ordnance. In a single encounter they went from refusing to fight in depth, to cross supporting, entrenched, artillery positions.

I am really quite pleased with ACKs as a toolset for playing this style of game, and I am glad that we as a group have gotten to the point where we are using it to its potential. Have any of you had these moments? Alternatively, what do you think typifies an "ACKs mindset"?

I'm going to tentatively say we haven't had "the moment".  Though in fact, one of my players alone wrangles four war dogs (and took animal training just so he could), a wagon and driver and two mercenary archers who just guard the wagon and don't dungeon crawl, so we're on the path.  He's saving up for either a magic sword or a war elephant, hasn't decided which he wants more.

Otherwise though the rest of the group has this weird dynamic around hiring where they jump between trying to haggle the most basic elements of pay and moments of generosity.  "I want to find an orphan to carry my stuff for room and board!  If he's still alive in a year I'll train him as a wizard - if he proves worthy."  (No takers.)  "I'll offer the mercs a quarter share of treasure each but no monthly wage to enter the dungeon."  (I went for it.)  "I'll offer the sell-sword a hundred gold pieces flat for one dungeon delve, but no treasure share."  (With a good roll I went for it, but if they'd had a massive haul there'd have been another roll.)  "I offer [1st level fighter] half my share of treasure to fight alongside me!"  (He accepted with alacrity.)

At the moment our paladin 2 has a fighter 1 henchman who's happy with his pay, our mage has a mercenary who just leveled to 1 who I won't even know till next session whether he's going to try to keep or was just paying henchman wages to get him into the dungeon once, the cleric 3 looked for, found then passed on hiring a level 1 cleric hench (?), the fighter's got the wagon train and the thief seems content to roll dice.  So that's not actually PCs only, but neither is it full hench-trees and armies.

Like Dave R, we probably haven't quite had the moment, although for a while I thought we had.

They should have had it by now...several party members have been saved by their Henchmen (I'm talking carry-the-body-back-to-civilization-and-have-them-raised kinda saved), and the Henchmen, who are all Fighters thus far (after gaining 100 XP), have carried a number of battles for the party. Two of the party members also have dog packs.

Yet, even with the above, they mostly haven't branched out beyond a single Henchman each. Those Henchman have developed personalities and indiosyncracies, and the players tend to think of them as second-characters. Indeed, they've played those Henchmen when their own PC was down.

The current make-up of the main party (it's open table with multiple characters each, played as needed) is like this: Caasi (Cleric 5) with a Fighter 2 Henchman, Belgarath (Mage 3 with Animal Husbandry x3) with a Fighter 4 Henchman (first Henchman in the party; received XP when Belgarath died and advanced past him; hasn't figure it out yet and is supremely loyal), Owl Familiar, 3 War Dogs, and 1 Hunting Dog, Kalasandr (Thief 6) with a Fighter 1 Henchman (second Henchman left a while ago after terrible battle the party barely won), Kane (Elven Ranger 5) with 1 War Dog and 1 Hunting Dog (had a Dwarven Vaultguard 2 Henchman who was killed - didn't raise him; has been desperately seeking an animal Henchman).

Most of the secondary characters have a single Henchman as well. They are now facing problems they created for themselves that they will have great trouble facing without more warm bodies. There are also problems they could've avoided by hiring Mercenaries, but they don't know about those yet. We'll see if they finally clue in.

My current group numbers four including me. Two of the PCs have max henchmen (four and seven) while the third PC has none, although in the last case it seems to have more to do with the character than the player. They also have a growing band of mercenaries and camp followers. This is despite only being levels 2 to 4.

We were playing 3E until 2010 and played The One Ring from 2012 until late 2014 before “coming home” to the OSR. So, I feel pretty fortunate that my group made the transition so well, though we did lose a guy who found the paradigm shift from special snowflake to meatgrinder to be too much.

Possibly because I set it up that way at the premise stage, but my group leapt into this mindset whole-heartedly from the off. The fact that it's a historical game probably helps - both from the perspective of important people having retinues, but also needing meatshields in the absence of healing or any other kind of magic.

Everyone maxed out their retinue from the start, and we've used some of those as backup characters when the main PCs have been out of action.

Probably helps that we don't track XP, so there's no mechanical "cost" of having henchmen and hirelings, just the monetary upkeep of them.

I bet that last part helps. I've seen, both within my own group and others' based on online reporting, that players often tend to balk at the idea that they are surrendering "their" XP to employ Henchmen. I think my players have finally been disabused of that notion now that they would have been dead many times over without said Henchmen. You don't get any XP when your character is dead.

ACKS is a harsh mistress!

Not only that, but bigger parties can take on higher-level chalenges. The party in my cmapaign has 4 PCs and 16 Henchmen, and its been able to take on encounters that would have wiped them out easiliy if they were smaller.

I think this is the thought I was having that was trying to find itself.

Yes, you ‘lose’ XP if you have henchman, but only if you’re taking on the exact same challenges you would without them. Those challenges are easier because of the henchman, you should receive less experience for them!

The point of having henchmen is to let you do things that you couldn’t do. I view it as no different from any other sandbox element, you opt into the challenge that you want to have. For example, when our party in Dark Sun found a treasure map that led to a purple worm’s cliffside lair, we noped right on out of there, because the sandbox allows us to choose our own level of challenge, and that was more than we were looking for.

Similarly, when we found a hydra’s lair, we snuck in, stole her eggs, and ran like hell.

A relative army of henchman allows you to unlock more challenges and gain greater rewards. Instead of grabbing six hydra eggs, if we had had a bunch of henchman, we could have grabbed the whole twenty. If we had ten or fifteen 2nd-4th level henchman with us, we could have killed the hydra and also gotten her combat XP and lair treasure. More power gives you more options, and if you choose to take the safe option, then you get fewer rewards than if you go for the risk.

As well, even if you just want to go clear out the tiny kobold lair, you don’t have to bring your henchman with you everywhere! Give them some money and send them off on a merchant venture. Have them recruit mercenaries for you for your next quest while you clear a dungeon. Send them to PTA meetings as your proxy. If it needs to be done but you have better things to do, make a henchman do it!

Absolutely! That is precisely the lesson PCs need to learn.

The "sending Henchmen off to do other things" is another lesson my current group is just learning, once again mostly by harsh necessity. One of the characters died after a long wilderness sojourn and received 0 XP, but his Henchman survived, and leveled! That Henchman is now higher level than his employer, but hasn't figured it out as his master is recovering from Tampering with Mortality. The player intends to send the Henchmen off doing something more menial (the Henchman is immensely loyal) while he tries to get some quick XP to level his main character to prevent his Henchman deserting him. The utility of doing this more generally has suddenly made itself apparent.


ACKS is a harsh mistress!



(there ain't no such thing as a free level)


The first combat of my game was case in point.

The PCs were attacked by a whole tribe worth of combatants, some 60-odd individuals. Combination of said tribe having been paid to kill them, and promised that they could keep the PC's horse herd (numbering some 50+ animals) for themselves.

The "party" was some 30 individuals, only a handful of them non-combatants. One contingent was a group of experienced Celtic cavalry. Another a seasoned Greek phalanx. Another had a bunch of pirates and assassins in it. The last was a unit of archers.

As you can imagine, being better-armoured and better-co-ordinated than the tribesmen, they won. The phalanx and cavalry in particular reaped them something awful, before they fled or surrendered.

The PCs then ransomed the survivors back to their tribe, and exacted a promise of safe passage for the remainder of their journey through their lands.

I take it back about "the moment".  Just this session two players announced at the start they wanted to form a mercenary company.  I'm certain I missed part of the conversation leading up to that, so I can't even tell you what exactly the trigger was, but I've got no complaints about the direction.  For reference, party character levels range from 3 to 1, with a couple of 1st level henchmen separate from the mercenary company, so actually a fairly early start on it.

So we spent half the session on price list and bookkeeping stuff.  The two other players present opted to "buy in" (split the start up costs), though I sense one might have been reluctant and only did it not to be left out.  But the merc company has nothing to do with dungeon crawl treasure, so it wasn't mandatory.  So far they've just been used as an escort to the dungeon plus a pool to recruit dungeon henchmen from, but the players are talking about everything from looking for contracts to looting towns, so there should be good times ahead.

Tally so far is 11 heavy infantry, 10 crossbowmen and 19 light infantry from a class II market.  Four of the heavy infantry accepted a 20% share of treasure for a dungeon crawl and just went to level 1 fighters, but two of those are likely to retire with disfiguring injuries unless they receive further healing.  So we'll see how it goes.  Time to read up on Campaigns for refresh rates for recruiting pools and a few other things.