Allies, part 2

Way back in April I offered some words and crunch to help bolster your PCs’ numbers by introducing allies. Whether in a large scale battle scenario, an expedition to the holy land or just a few wayward soldiers you picked up along the way, allies can add variety to your party makeup and help build your world so that it doesn’t feel like the heroes are the only people trying to do the right thing.

As I outlined in the previous article, which you can read here, these allies can be fun, but should definitely take a back seat to the to players’ strengths, mostly because we don’t want to over complicate things. It’s tough enough making sure that combat runs efficiently with five players and a handful of monsters. To keep their stats as simple, but also as fun as possible, I’ve piggybacked on an idea I saw Greg Bilsland use once on his blog where the allies don’t get hit points, and rarely actually have attacks. Instead they get “hits,” and usually offer support rather than contributing too much to attacks. Any damage an ally takes equals one hit, and at zero hits, the poor dude falls. That’s okay though, they should come in bulk, and although I’m certainly not as heartless while role playing them at the table, in terms of drama, these allies often represent the masses who gave their lives so the world could be a better place. Or something.

I finally finished my bi-monthly adventure that included a large scale battle where the players took on some of these allies to fight seemingly never ending swarms of assailants and feedback was positive. It was great to play test some ideas I’ve been cooking up here on the blog and I’ve definitely learned a few things I’ll incorporate here. Do these allies add complexity, despite how simple their designs are? Yes, without a doubt. With tactics taking the longest time to grind in the heads of my players, even moving a one-hit soldier into the prime spot can take valuable time and consideration. But the point is to sacrifice a little of that to paint the picture of a massive battle, and so I learned that allies should either be used in small packs of 3 to 5 for a player or group to run, or used in a limited setting (I’d say once per tier) where having that many fixtures active at once is worth the extra time and effort because the final battle is just that freakn’ huge.

Last article I provided a human soldier, a human archer, and an ogre (as an example of an ally that actually has more than one hit and can make attacks). A good benchmark for how many of these allies to give to the players is best measured in hits, and 4 or 5 hits is the sweet spot. So, if a player wants to run with some Bloodcrown Lizardfolk Shield Bearers, who have 1 hit each, you could give them 4 or 5 to control. If they want to run some ogres, because the ogres have 2 hits each, then 2 ogres is a good number to have them control. I’ve designed several kinds of creatures for them to choose from below, not just your typical humanoid “civilized” races, so take from them what best suits your own game and let me know how they run at your table should you choose to offer them to your own players!


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.


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!


What do we want from our games? Competition? Interaction? Sleek Design? Accessibility? Fun?

We want rules. I know that sounds awfully boring. And I would say that all those grand ideas go into the process of creating rules. We need rules to make things run, to help guide us through the routine and grind of our daily lives. Even as children we play many games with rules to help us accept adult rules later in life. Rules run our lives, and they rarely change. I think this obsession with rules was the first thing that attracted me to Dungeons & Dragons.

I do not know how many manuals and guides and rulebooks on D&D that I have read, there was something always peculiar about every tome of esoteric reality re-creating and magic predicting rule that I committed to memory. This peculiarity sprung from a strange subtext that seemed to find its way into every book I read: if you do not like the rules, change them. This idiom seems simple and innocent, however never before had I encountered a game that expressed to me that rules could be changed to fit my style of play. More role playing games would come into my life with similar prospectives, but D&D was the first game I played that said ‘these are the rules, but only follow them if you want.’

Surely much of this extends from role playing in general. How can you measure the validity of rules in a world built on human imagination. But there was more than that. It always felt like when you sat down to play D&D it was your game. No longer did it belong to Gygax, TSR or Wizards of the Coast. Everything you knew until that first die was rolled was just game theory. Once the game actually started, it belonged to the players at the table and to the DM behind the screen and there was no rule that could predict what would and did happen. Not only that but maybe your DM showed up with something that you had never seen or heard of before, most likely because it was never printed in any book you owned. By the same token a player would shock a DM by utilizing a skill in a manner never deemed appropriate in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. How many magic items did you craft, new spells did you research and evil monsters did you draft?

In this spirit we have started this blog. It is not just about our rules and theories and fanciful ideas for campaigns. It is not about redesigning a game that will most likely be redesigned another three or four times before my life is done. It is not about making everything about D&D… even though it is.

This blog is about what we want from our games, specifically D&D. It is an experience that we all love for different reasons because it is a different experience for every group. This blog is about us taking the game Dungeons & Dragons and making it our own.