"Following!" - apprentices and goon squads

Re-watching Game of Thrones the other night, I was struck by how several characters wield power by commanding various others, rather than directly - in particular, one character snaps an order to their guards to seize another name character and cut his throat, just to demonstrate their power.

A goon squad in action

This 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. Lately it seems games focus on individual player characters - you get one PC, and maybe an animal companion or hireling.

In my experience as a player and GM, there are issues with player characters having followers - the followers can overshadow the players' characters, they can add to the complexity of scenes (especially combat), they can boost one character's power far beyond the rest of the player-base...

So here's my list of pros and cons:
  • Physically weak but 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
  • Many more characters means more work for the GM
  • More combatants means longer combat
  • Players who don't want henchmen might lose out
With that in mind, I'm going to look at how to harness the pros, while avoiding the cons. Let's see how it might work...

Avoiding GM overload

A follower, yesterday
My first need is to avoid overloading myself!

To that end, henchfolk 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 actually in the main group I play with, any absent player's character has been run as a sort of collective character by the players and me as Ref.)

Giving the playing of the apprentice or guards to the player of the leader character keeps the GM's load down, but we have to make sure the player doesn't abuse this extra power.
Let's give the GM the right to question any apprentice actions that the player declares - perhaps with some mechanical back up, like a loyalty check.

Avoiding longer combat & extra actions

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 follower(s) do  that action till complete, then return to default. And to avoid shenanigans, these directions can't be contingent - like "Attack those guys there, then those guys over there."

That ought to make sure that we don't have a proliferation of  dice rolls to worry about, and that getting henchfolk to do anything complex or scene-stealing will use up the master character's actions, too.

However,  we've still got the possibility of a squad of guards all needing dice rolls to resolve their actions. That's not what we want!
Some games treat small groups of soldiers as a sort of gestalt larger creature - Star Wars Saga Edition used Squads, for example. By using these sorts of rules we can just roll once for the squad of guards.

Types of followers

I've mentioned "apprentices" and "guards" so far, but we can extend those terms to cover any squire, butler, caddy or similar individual, and any gang, mob, or small force of combatants.

Followers need not be the same character type as the leader they follow -  in the Game of Thrones example that started me out thinking about this, those guards are very definitely differently skilled (tough fighters) to their leader (a scheming court socialite).

So I'd be quite happy for a scholarly wizard character to have a gang of dumb thugs protecting him, or for a barbarian warrior to have a loyal minstrel sidekick. Some combinations can be quite amusing, especially when they stray from what's expected.

Advancing followers

D&D 3rd edition and later editions allow player characters to gather followers - and then advances those followers as a function of the leader character's advancement. As your PC levels up, so do your followers.
So rather than letting any of your fellow PCs who've elected not to have followers catch up with your increased power, that system means that you will always be better than others due to your horde of followers and cohorts.
I reject that - it's exactly what I'm trying to avoid. Under that system, taking followers grants you an immediate advantage over any player who doesn't want to do so, and at very little cost. Once one player takes followers, anyone else who wants to play a loner character is put at a disadvantage - their character concept becomes sub-optimal within the player group. That's no fun.

Improving your followers should require that you spend effort training them, equipping them and so on. In terms of game mechanics, perhaps you should have to give up some of your lead character's experience points to improve followers, and spend your hard-gotten gains on kitting them out with decent weapons.

This method means that your fellow adventurers will advance faster than you if you spend effort keeping your followers trained. You could always neglect their training instead - but it will be part of the game to decide how much investment you want to make in your band of goons.



With a few easy tweaks, we've created some basic rules to gain the pros of using followers, and avoid the cons.

We've given control of the follower to the lead character's player, to avoid overloading the GM.
To keep the use of followers in games balanced, we've limited the additional actions - the leader needs to use some of their turn to command the follower - and we've made the player choose how much investment in the advancement of the followers she wants to make.

In practice, using followers has worked reasonably well with my gaming groups. At least, the cons have all been avoided - to gain all the pros, it may take time for us to get used to having multiple characters to play with.

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