Allies, part 1

Hirelings and henchmen have been apart of the D&D game for ages. They are a solution for many hiccups in adventures and have lost their way a bit in popularity from versions of the past. I feel the same way about mounts and other oft unused features of the game, but it appears that even a character with a mount is more likely than a team with a hireling or two. Why? Probably because no one wants to play a character that’s not theirs and if there are hiccups in an adventure’s balance then the DM should be adjusting, not necessarily the players. Once upon a time it was just plain SAFER to take on an extra dude who could fire a crossbow every round, or at the very least load YOUR crossbow for you. Today, if the adventure should be “safer” with more allies at your side, then why doesn’t the DM simply adjust the danger of the quest? Makes sense, less clutter and everyone gets to play their character not wasting time with the extra personality and possible “liability” of a follower. But maybe it’s a feature that can actually add to the game’s fun, keep the stakes high, and even act as a viable boon and “toy” for the players.

Allies as Toys

I say toy because there are lots of toys in the game already. I’m primarily talking about magic items, but all powers, spells, mounts, gear, rituals and the like are just toys to play with in the end. As a player, you can use toys for different means to overcome obstacles or challenges, and that can be fun. Hirelings can be fun, they just have to meet two requirements: they don’t upset the balance (or the balance for them is adjusted), and players actually want to play with them. From there, you could have a feature that adds personality to an adventure, opens doors to interesting role playing, and can even be a springboard for fun.

Though we focus on crunch rather than flavor on this blog, hirelings seemed like a narrow feature mostly designed for a typical party’s survival in the past. Their job was to support in battle on small party excursions and hardly thought about as a component of the story. Even the options presented to us from Wizards of the Coast in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 for companion characters seem to reflect that same concept, and although that chapter is decent with lots of options for support on the battlefield and in the story, the design is still cumbersome, if not complex. There could be many more reasons for bringing in an extra body or two to the adventuring party, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be based on monster blocks and given random motivations. Instead of considering them “companion characters” (which admittedly is already more focused on being singular or only a few closely kept allies), the concept could be broadened to allow for more versatility in representing “more people in the adventure.” That could very well be someone that stays close to the party, has resources and hit points and is more experienced than most. But perhaps a device could be made that represents soldiers, hired hands, cowboys, elite guards, pirate allies, heavy artillery, and the list could go on. Something that brings in a supportive force without getting too involved, both in story and combat actions.

Simplicity

I believe a key to fun for the players running an additional supporter in the group, who may or may not be invested in the story of the current adventure, is simplicity. Whether your players are looking for a little support on the sidelines or the tagger-along is more like a head strong princess with a few skills in her back pocket that the king demands the party protect, allies should be put into the hands of the players without ever getting in the way of their own powers, both in crunch and flavor. You’d want this ally on the sidelines to remain on the sidelines just as much in character role playing as in tactical options.

They can still be interesting, supportive and helpful though, so let’s take a look at a quick way we’ve developed at Rules as UNWritten to streamline allies for practical use in your campaign. Many of these crunch ideas evolved from a few posts I read a long while ago published by Greg Bilsland here and here. What Greg does here is very interesting and helps keep the game running evenly. Taking it a little further, I found a load of possibilities that can be fun to play, add  dynamics to the battles and support for the heroes.

The Concept

1/ The ally often doesn’t have a full set of stats. They get a level, a role, defense scores and a speed. These help measure their support in terms of soaking attacks and maneuvering on the field.
2/ The ally does not have hit points, per se. They have “hits.” If any attack hits their defenses, they are hit. They don’t take damage on a miss like a minion, and for the most part they have very few hits available, and rarely have healing surges. If they do have healing surges, one healing surge can be spent at the end of a short rest to regain a hit. Note, I’ve colored some of the boxes red to indicate when a particularly strong ally is bloodied. If the only boxes remaining “un-hit” are red, the ally is considered bloodied.
3/ The ally rarely has attacks, per se. It should be considered that the allies are indeed attacking on the field, or at the very least, contributing. This is represented often by basic ongoing effects that support the heroes. Allies that do have attacks shouldn’t deal damage that requires rolling dice, and often their one attack comes with a rider of some sort, again, much like a monster minion.

Speaking of minions, here lies a particularly nice feature to the ally concept: a sturdy and potentially more “important” ally can be more detailed, with several hits and even healing surges to keep them in the game longer. If there is a need for there to be a sense of a troupe or even an army of allies, the stats can be streamlined and simplified, giving the supporter only a single hit before they go down.

In a current campaign that I’m running, a large battle defending a castle is immanent, and though the player characters are clearly the most experienced and heroic of the defenders, I want to represent the mass scale of the battle by giving them options to take allies. They can choose between several different kinds of allies, but if they go with the bulk soldiers or archers for instance, they won’t have attacks that those allies can make, they’ll basically receive constant or immediate action boons for having them. Some allies however are sturdier than others, with full out attacks, damage and even multiple hits and healing surges. The name of the castle is Fluron in the game, so here are what these allies look like on paper, including one where the characters can take on an ogre as an ally. I’ll cover balancing these allies in combat at a later time, but lets get a feel for the design first. Feel free to incorporate these allies and any more to come in your own game, and be sure to pipe in to shout about how you may have used hirelings, henchmen, companion characters and allies in your own games. Enjoy!

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