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May 2020

Redshirts or Sidekicks?

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Caves & Lizards
Not much has happened since my last post save the release of a revised version of the psionic classes previously seen several months ago. That said, the changes to all three of those subclasses were quite good in my opinion. They all now share a psionic talent die which decreases if you roll well or use certain abilities and increases if you roll poorly. It’s a pretty dynamic and engaging mechanic if you ask me. The Soulknife in particular has some great new features including the ability to teleport, create telepathic links, invisibility and eventually the ability to stun your foes for a turn.

Red Shirts and Recurring Characters
In the last game I ran we only had two players. I wish we had more, but it is what it is. I took this in stride and came up with a plan. I set in front of the characters a few options for something akin to guilds. Just like most settings there are many organizations they could find for support and work and each one would offer them different kinds of tasks. To that end I had a selection of characters they could hire or cooperate with by sharing profits. I had created eleven characters whose availability depended on which faction they went to. I had a few that shared mechanics and names, but whose personality would differ depending on their choice. Their most immediate options were the Edgewalkers, a pseudo adventuring and monster hunting guild, or the Shadowpads, a criminal syndicate. One of the dynamic characters I had ready was a yuan-ti character named Nephtys who, if they went to the syndicate, would have been a ruthless mercenary. However, because they ended up dealing with the Edgewalkers she was a kind and gentle hearted woman of struggling faith. In the end they joined forces with all the hirelings available (5) for a specific quest and, as it turns out, trolls are nasty to level 3 characters and poor Lester Shinbreaker, the NPC gnome barbarian, died a gruesome and tragic death.

My plan was to run them myself until the players gained a sort of rapport with them, at which point they would trust them enough to follow their orders and suggestions. At that point they were their character to use until the story changed that. They would always fall behind by a level and not be a true player character in terms of mechanics. I loosely followed the hireling rules that were put out in UA form a while back. My plan was to give them options at ASI levels that related to where they were in the story or relationship. So if they kept them at arm’s length their choices would be limited to a simple ASI and perhaps one very simple feat. If they had a better relationship or engaged with their story it would open up better options. Take Nephtys, who was a hybrid monk and paladin. If they got her to open up about her faith and convince her to pursue it she would get more paladin and cleric options and, if they pushed her away from it, she would gain more monk abilities. I even had a plan on a relationship feature that would give them a one round rage mechanic if their partner fell in combat or gain a small bonus if they were in visual proximity. Pretty sad I never got to use any of these things as they game fell apart the session before they would have gained full control over two of the NPCs they had befriended.

Anecdotes aside, hirelings and sidekicks are a strange beast. It was once a staple of early D&D. You used them to carry your gear or make merchant runs. Hell, your sidekick might be the only one to survive the dungeon and become your next character. That era, however, seems to be over. I don’t think I’ve seen or heard many games that deal with them at this point. Perhaps an occasional allied NPC, but nothing used by the players. To that point it feels unnecessary in 5e between the fact most games have plenty of players and the combat system generally makes higher numbers of PCs difficult to strike a balance between fair and challenging. 

In a game with limited players I could see the appeal, as it was in the game I ran. Even so it is a bit clunky and something I wouldn’t try with newer players to the game as keeping track of two characters can be cumbersome and confusing. Either way I can see using it in a limited fashion or something like a large scale battle. Giving at best vague orders for them to follow and perhaps rolling a few die to determine their success or failure, essentially becoming a skill. And why wouldn’t it be? You might say this falls into the realm of persuasion or intimidation, but not precisely. Charisma would largely play a role, but perhaps it’s a distinct skill of it’s own.

We’ll call it leadership and say by default it would be a charisma roll, but alternatively you could use almost any stat. The physical ones could reflect leading by example. Nimbly taking out your foes, crushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you as you stand beaten, bruised, armor dented showing your minions that it can be done against all odds. Obviously appealing to intellect or showing wisdom can lend to those attributes as well.

Perhaps, however, it’s more simple. We go straight back to the old days. Your hirelings are just your minions who do manual labor, carry your stuff and make supply runs. You keep them out of danger, give them their own horses and items befitting of their job for you. Maybe if you lean more towards the evil side of the alignment. You keep one around to check for traps or ambushes and don’t bother equipping them, seeing them as cannon fodder for your machinations.

Sidekicks could be a different beast all together, perhaps you don’t take them with you often and simply train them for their own adventures. This would go back to that leadership skill. They might go out, be successful and bring you back some loot. Maybe they are captured, bringing an urgency to rescuing them on some sort of sidequest. It might even be trivial for you and your companions, but your sidekick was nearly killed. What comes of that? What if it’s not true and your enemies convert them to their cause and lure you into a trap. Let’s say you survive,  is there a path of redemption for your former sidekick?

So are hirelings and sidekicks useful? Are they worth the effort for the player and DM? I think, obviously, it all depends on your game and how you run it. Epic dungeon crawl where leaving is a huge affair? Probably a good place for some hirelings. A sweeping goofy epic that goes from fighting kobolds in the forest to fighting undead in the swamp to the dragon in the mountains with danger at every corner? Probably not. Never say never though.