Henchmen are an often underused feature of classic RPG adventure. They were with the game from it’s inception but aren’t’ popular with everyone. I wager henchmen and hireling popularity has some relation the weight of rules associated with them and the place those rules appear in the rule books. Original D&D had henchmen with loyalty scores. AD&D gave fair treatment to henchmen but they rules associated to them were mostly in the DMG and like many a rule relegated to the DMG they were often ignored if the DM didn’t choose to feature them and no players pestered the DM for their inclusion.
Over the years I’ve read many a post on the interwebs that mentions a dread “Experience Point Tax” associated with henchmen. The Exp Tax is that portion of exp tallied for a party during a play session that is awarded to henchmen/NPCs/Hirelings/Retainers which a number of folks see as a loss of their hard earned exp (never mind those EXP may have been out of the reach without the help of NPCs).
NPCS with the party require extra book-keeping and who controls that can be a little iffy, many a rule set recommend a loyalty score be kept for NPCs but it is best that score be kept secret from players and only exposed in play and deduced from NPC behavior. “Ownership” of a henchman is one of those issues that can reduce their desirable use in campaign. Does the DM want to deal with an extra paperwork and roleplaying each session or can players be trusted to carry that load, will players treat the NPC as a complete character if they are in sole control (will anyone)?
Many players feel having NPCs in the party is a way for DMs to insert chaos and eventually hurt the players ( frankly if anyone gets taken over by a doppleganger I’d rather have it be a henchmen than a PC) this vulnerability an perceived weakness of the party by allowing NPCs to be in the midst creates another reason for henchmen to be unpopular and underused.
Not including henchmen in play is robbing the campaign of many useful options that simply can’t be exploited well if at all without their presence. Charisma is weakened as it is the ability score associated with henchmen. Why do folks want to undermine/rob the player of 1/6th of their abilities?
NPCs and monsters aren’t’ always going to know who best to deliver that first attack to in combat, the “meat shield” aspect for NPCs is cruel but very useful; in many an early game and some retro clones attacks in melee are randomly applied to foes in an opposing group, if 1 in 3 party members is a henchman that means there is a 33% chance a PC will not be harmed. I myself dislike the random targeting of blows but I can see why they are in place and it’s a rule (if used) that really boosts the utility of henchmen/hirelings.
Henchmen are an opportunity for a PC to have multiple characters. Let’s face it not every DM let’s you play more then on character, certainly not in the same session. Want more then one attack per round: get a henchman. Want a couple additional spells a day: get a henchman. The degree and utility of this “extra character” will vary depending on DM handling of NPCs. When one reads early campaign write ups we discover henchmen/retainers were often used as back-up characters not simply a necessary evil of the meat-shield.
The henchman as backup character allows a player to stay fully involved when a PC is incapacitated as a result of a spell or wounds. A player doesn’t end up out of the game for the rest of the night when a PC fails a single saving throw if there is a henchman at their side to carry on for them. I players can make their own positions, scribe their own scrolls and even make more powerful magical items but the rules (wisely) require this to taker a fair amount of time the henchman can be deployed as apprentice to get the task done if they have the right skills or they can be sent in place of a PC during an adventure in their absence as a true henchman. Use of henchmen expands the opportunities and presence of a player character in a campaign when so used.
As stated above I do believe a major reason for the low appeal of henchmen in many a campaign if for place within the rules. Often the henchmen section is far removed from rules otherwise associated with character abilities. It’s not unusual for all the beefy bits on henchmen to be buried entirely in a section of the rules a DM is going to pay a lot more attention to than the players.
The next few paragraphs give an overview on how a few rule sets deal with henchmen.
In Sword & Wizardy complete henchmen are “special hirelings”. There is a shopping list section on hiring followers but not much support for hirelings within the rules for henchmen and their use in the game.
Hirelings, henchmen, mercenaries, and specialists get pretty comprehensive coverage in the ACKS rules. A fair bit of attention is applied to their acquisition. Henchmen expect a share of their masters loot not the entire parties haul. A loyalty factor is defined that determines what sport of relationship the PC is going to have with a henchman. Each henchman gest a ½ share of total exp. Henchmen also shore up a higher level character’s follower base of which there is a lot of coverage in ACKS (I suppose followers need a posting of their own really). Henchmen are supported pretty well in the ACKS rules.
BFRPG gives attention the retainer (using that term as opposed to henchman) as close associates of their employer (the PC) and attention is given to their hire and retention, a loyalty score is included in BFRPG which serves in place of the morale score used elsewhere in the rules for NPCs, mercenaries and monsters. Retainers get a ½ share of total exp earned on adventures.
Henchmen in Pars fortuna: One race improves henchmen’s attack bonus, there are a few other situations thar mentions henchmen in the rules with no other support. There is a hirelings section in the rules but it’s mostly presented as a shopping list for extra muscle and specialties. No comprehensive coverage of henchmen which are presumably wrapped together with hirelings as the Charisma score explicitly lists maximum # of hirelings.
Mutant Future doesn’t use the term henchmen it does use hirelings and retainers. Hirelings want a ½ split of loot , charisma impacts retainer morale, there is a section on hiring retainers and the necessity of checking their morale, retainers suffer a 50% penalty in exp earned suggesting they impose the dreaded “exp tax” that makes some folks avoid henchmen. Hirleings and specialists get a comprehensive shopping list treatment.
In closing, DMs should consider the place of henchmen within the game rules and their campaign and encourage their use and not cheat the players out of say 1/6th of a PC’s potential. Players shouldn’t look at henchmen as a vulnerability or “exp tax” but an expanded range of options and a way to increase character presence within a campaign.