Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

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Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby Altair-the-Vexed » 9:25am on 29 Jan 14

Re-watching Game of Thrones the other night (my season 3 boxed set is on its way in the next few weeks), I was struck by how several characters wield power by commanding various others, rather than directly - one of them snaps an order to their guards to seize another name character and cut his throat, just to demonstrate their power.

This has got me thinking about how to introduce that sort of thing into an RPG - and whether it's a good idea at all.
There's a long history of games from D&D onwards adding lots of hirelings and men-at-arms to the player party, but as time has worn on, these features seem to have fallen away. Lots of games focus on individual player characters - you get one PC, and maybe an animal companion or hireling.

Here's my list of pros and cons, anyway.

    PROS:
  • Weak charismatic characters become more viable even in a violent setting
  • Politically powerful or important characters would tend to be surrounded by guards
  • Apprentices, squires and batmen are trope-tastic
  • More role-playing opportunities

    CONS:
  • Many more characters means more work for the GM
  • More combatants means longer combat
  • Players who don't want henchmen might lose out

So my questions to the forum are:

    Can you add anything to the pros and/or cons?
    Do you know any game systems that handle this well?

Discuss. (50 points)
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby ragr » 9:51am on 29 Jan 14

Altair-the-Vexed wrote:Do you know any game systems that handle this well?[/list]


Savage Worlds has some great ideas and mechanics for incorporating allies to a group of pcs with little fuss; I can't cite specifics because the book's not to hand but it's a real strength when you're player light.

In days of old I would often run a game with multiple pc allies and control them myself but these days pretty much every allied npc gets controlled by a player unless there are things about the npc that the pcs couldn't or shouldn't know.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby oreso » 11:20am on 29 Jan 14

IIRC, Reign focuses on this kind of thing, as does Houses of the Blooded. Not a particular fan of the kind of mechanics of either, so I couldn't tell you how well they work.

Apocalypse World handles this excellently though. Combats with gangs don't take particularly longer than combats without them. The gang are just an extension of their leader... an extension which occasionally sleeps with your sister and goes way too far and murders your best friend and so on. They're balanced against lone wolf characters because as much as they're a source of strength they're also a source of complication and weakness.

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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby decfeeney » 12:11pm on 29 Jan 14

(My first attempt at this post appears to have vanished. If its just delayed in the system somewhere and two similar post appear I apologise)

Narrative games tend to handle henchmen extremely easily. Once you move the focus to what you achieve and not how you achieve it and allow players to narrate their own success then henchmen become an aspect of the character.

I'm playing an investigator with a mandate from the prince to find traitors. I have a prisoner in custody and have agreed the stakes with the GM. On a successful roll I will get a written confession. On a failed roll not only will I not get a successful confession, but my reputation as an interrogator will take a beating. I'm happy with those stakes and roll. I succeed.

At this point I could narrate how my character lounged in a recliner supping wine whilst his lackey whittled away on the prisoners fingers with a scalpel. Every time the prisoner screamed the character winced, eventually having to ask his henchman to cut the prisoners tongue out because the noise was disturbing him. At this point the prisoner broke.

If I was playing something like Fate I might have a trait like 'Jack Knives, My amoral merciless lackey'. If I was playing cortex plus drama he would be an asset. Either way I could bring his presence into the roll to improve my chance of success.

This sort of play works far better when the characters stats are either associated to method (the FAE approach) or character beliefs (the Smallville approach) and not the characters innate abilities (the D&D approach)
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby Evilgaz » 1:26pm on 29 Jan 14

Seconded for Savage Worlds. From its design up it was meant to include "Extras" as they're called and as long as they're in similar ability groups, they're easy to handle. I'm thinking of giving one of the characters in my Savage Sci Fi game for Seven Hills access to a fire team of five individuals, which should be no problem. I've played Hellfrost and had a company of 20-40 Hearthguards under my command and as long as you don't mind rolling big handfuls of d6's (or d8s or whatever) and quickly discarding the misses, its not a massive overhead given the scale of the engagement.

What I have found over time is that you start with a big bunch of faceless goons, and as the sessions progress some of them develop personalities or backgrounds or motivations just from the luck of the dice or things the players or GM throws in. Before you know it you've got Brunhild the mysterious who won't look at another man until she's slain the frost giant that took her husband and Lars the Unkillable who's been injured in every battle since day one and it somehow still alive despite the extreme mathematical unlikelihood given the mook rules. You start to miss them when you lose one.

A name and one character trait is all you need to get going.

Another mechanic associated with groups is having an ammo level (Very High, High, Low, Out), after every battle it drops one level (unless the GM deems the fight didn't last long enough or wasn't intense or whatever) so there's no bullet or arrow counting.

I've enjoyed having them around for plot ideas too - like everyone's hungry and lost, you need to get some people to gather food from Haunted River, chop timber from shelter in Troll Woods and scout ahead in Goblin pass - how do you split your Extras up, do you trust them on their own, what if there's a traitor that's been poisoning the supplies etc.

The other classic is having a Squire in Pendragon. No extensive equipment lists or spending an action recovering a lost sword - just roll your squire's age or less to have a thing, or beat him for his ineptitude if you roll poorly.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby smiorgan » 1:32pm on 29 Jan 14

I've been getting back into WaRP, and reading the advanced notes in Over The Edge. Part of it deals with people trying to game the system for benefits, e.g. someone who specifies that, in addition to some outrageous traits, they have a big dog that follows them and does all the fighting. The answer to this is to have the dog as a trait. You could do this with henchmen, etc.

I also like WaRPs' take on multiple assailants. You have a bunch of 2-dice mooks, so you roll all their dice and pick the best 2 of the lot, and that's what the opponent (or set-upon PC) has to deal with.

We're locked into the idea that we play one character, and one character alone. But back when we played our "society game" LARP/PBM in Uni it became clear that the best traits were not the personal ones that gave you more magic, etc. but the ones that indicated a nebulous number of retainers, like armies and spies etc, particularly when things got heavily political and people were trying to influence whole nations.

So extrapolating that -- yes, you can have a charismatic leader be good at fighting. I guess the problem then is what do the players with actual PC fighters do, if they're always being upstaged by the charismatic PC's henchmen? There has to be some kind of limitation to what the charismatic leader can do.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby dr_mitch » 4:10pm on 29 Jan 14

I love the player characters having squads of followers when it's appropriate. I love games where the PCs are in charge of stuff. And if the PCs are in charge of something, and want to take the lead, and call in ten men from their organisation to help, sure, why not? It usually makes sense in the fiction, and it helps if it's doable mechanically.

The enemies of the PCs are always going to have lots of followers, after all.

In games where this has been a feature, usually one player character takes on the role of leading the troops, with the others continuing to do their own thing as usual. It works out well enough.

I love the way that Reign handles squads of followers mechanically. Another one I like is the warband rules in Age of Arthur, but it would be crude of me to talk about drinking my own wine, as it were.
Last edited by dr_mitch on 4:30pm on 29 Jan 14, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby Altair-the-Vexed » 4:12pm on 29 Jan 14

That's a whole lot of suggestions to digest!

I'm liking the idea that the henchfolk (gender neutral - I'm so PC!) are an extension of the player's prime character - the player looks after them and directs them, rather then adding to the GM's load.
I was going to say that "I've not had much experience of this", but thinking about the times that an absent player's character has been run as a sort of collective character by the players and me as Ref, I think I know how it'll work out.

Making sure that the player's prime characters aren't overshadowed by their goons is something I'm particularly keen on.

The homebrew game system I'm using at the moment grants hero characters a pool of vitality (extra "hit points", essentially, that mean you didn't really get hit) - NPCs only get wounds (equal to their base body stat, and only ever very slightly improvable).
If apprentices and goon squads only get wounds, then there's a constant reminder of the "betterness" of the prime player character.

Also, henchfolk should start - for want of a better term - a level or more lower than the prime player character. I'm thinking that maybe players would have to spend their improvement points on training / advancing their henchfolk... but I'm not sure.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby decfeeney » 4:48pm on 29 Jan 14

Although it could also be a lot of fun playing the Sidekick/Henchman.. playing Kato to the Green Hornet, Baldrick to first season Blackadder, Jeeves to Wooster, Humphry Appleby to Jim Hacker, Merlin to Arthur (at least the BBC versions) or the Cat to Henry the Mild Mannered Janitor (Hong Kong Phooey).
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby Baz King » 6:00pm on 29 Jan 14

Pedantry: Henry is in fact called Penry. I know! It surprised me too.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby simonpaulburley » 6:33pm on 29 Jan 14

I have one rule for this - players should have an equal amount of access to the game. So a game where you play individuals but some people have 4 "action phases" per round and others have 2 is unfair - whereas a game where one character has loads of stunts and another has loads of followers can be fair as long as everyone has an equal share of table time.

I also have a hint. The player can instruct the followers but the ref should Roleplay them in the first instance. Pick a ream you know well from a film or TV series and use them as the template. I've had great success using the marines from aliens as a template. You don't have to tell the players who they're based on but as long as you know who's Hudson, who's Hicks and who's Vasquez it makes the characters more real without needing any special work on your part.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby Neil Gow » 7:33pm on 29 Jan 14

decfeeney wrote:Although it could also be a lot of fun playing the Sidekick/Henchman.. playing Kato to the Green Hornet, Baldrick to first season Blackadder, Jeeves to Wooster, Humphry Appleby to Jim Hacker, Merlin to Arthur (at least the BBC versions) or the Cat to Henry the Mild Mannered Janitor (Hong Kong Phooey).


You know, someone should design a game where you can play in this exact format through a series of scenes that allow both characters to shine. It would be awesome

If I did it, I'd probably call it ERA...

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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby Altair-the-Vexed » 11:49am on 30 Jan 14

simonpaulburley wrote:I have one rule for this - players should have an equal amount of access to the game. So a game where you play individuals but some people have 4 "action phases" per round and others have 2 is unfair - whereas a game where one character has loads of stunts and another has loads of followers can be fair as long as everyone has an equal share of table time.
...

What I have in mind is that goon squads and apprentices defend their master as a default - taking no active action, but granting defensive bonuses.
Directing the henchfolk to do something else requires the master to use an action. The henchperson(s) then follow that action till complete, then return to default.
Directions can't be contingent - like "Attack those guys there, then those guys over there."

That ought to make sure that getting henchfolk to do anything complex and scene-stealing will use up the master character's actions, too.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby dr_mitch » 1:39pm on 30 Jan 14

Mechanically I don't do squads of people unless I can roll once for each action of the whole group, whether it's a single die or a pool of dice. I don't do it if I have to keep track of wounds of individuals. In combat, I give all management of the squad to the player character commander, as I don't like "playing against myself".

I don't worry about player characters getting overshadowed by teams of followers under their command. I've run games with player characters commanding others quite a lot, and I've never seen it happen. It's not so much "oh, my troops have done the hard work" as "look how great I am at commanding troops". I *have* seen this happen on occasion when a player character has an individual "almost as powerful" henchman or associate, but that's a completely different problem.
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Re: Henchmen, apprentices and goon squads

Postby Altair-the-Vexed » 3:31pm on 30 Jan 14

Star Wars SAGA has a relatively nice squad mechanic in the CLone Wars supplement - it treats a squad as a sort of larger gestalt creature. That means you can have gangs of goons threaten the party without having to roll for every ... single... one... :roll:

They make area melee attacks - roll once, apply the result to all in the threatened melee area - and their ranged attacks "splash" into the space around their prime target - a shower of blaster bolts hits the general area of the target.
They have a pool of hit points, take extra damage from area attacks, etc ,etc.

I'm adapting that into my game - but adding a "rout" feature, where the squad can be broken up if enough damage to kill an individual is dealt.
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