Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Helpful Hireling (An Alternative to The DM PC)

There are few things that start arguments faster than talking about dungeon master player characters. For those not familiar with this concept, a DM PC is when the dungeon master creates a personal character of their own, and has them join the party just like any other PC.

And, if you ask around, this is an arrangement that can get stupid in a big damn hurry.

"Yeah, my mount is secretly a dragon. So what?" Dude, we're level 5.
On the one hand, it can be argued that a DM PC is a great way for the DM to flesh out the party, and to fill roles that none of the players chose to fill. Especially if no one chose to bring a healer, a buffer, or someone with the ability to disable traps. On the other hand, a DM PC becomes a huge matter of trust. After all, the DM knows what is in store for the players. They know the challenges the PCs should be facing, and it's hard not to grow suspicious when their personal character happens to have just the right spell for this situation, or happens to have a particular item that there was no real reason for them to have if they weren't gazing into the future.

This week, I'd like to suggest something for the DMs out there as a way for you to have your cake, and eat it, too. I call it the Helpful Hireling.

What Is The Helpful Hireling?

Every dungeon master out there is familiar with the idea of a hireling. They're an NPC that the party can bring on, usually to help out with a small task. They're the ones who drive the wagons, carry the extra gear, act as guides, and sometimes provide their knowledge in deciphering the hidden messages in the ruins. But, generally speaking, hirelings are supposed to be pretty squishy. The player characters are the heroes, here, after all, and the hirelings are the support staff. At best, they have a few levels of an NPC class.

The world is full of people with the same classes as the rest of the party, though. So make some of them available, and looking for work!

"Hey there! Skeld Skullsplitter, spelled just like it sounds."
Rather than a dungeon master making a personal character for themselves, as you would with a normal DM PC, you instead make a dozen NPCs who are built using the exact same resources that the players have access to. And then, if the party recognizes there's a role that's lacking in their makeup, they can go and find someone to fill it of their own volition.

Players Get The Agency, DM Still Gets To "Play"

The problem with DM PCs, even if they're run correctly, is that too often it can feel like the DM is forcing their character into the party. It's hard to say no to someone when you know they're literally the finger-puppet of the man behind the curtain, so players often feel like they're stuck with the dungeon master's personal character if they want to keep playing.

A Helpful Hireling, on the other hand, is someone the players can take or leave. They will re-balance the odds, but they should never be a necessity to progressing. That's just forcing the players' hands in a slightly more subtle way.

Oh, turns out you need a cleric! Better go back to town and see if you can find one.
The other important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they should change out with a fair bit of regularity. Even if your campaign is set in the same place. The idea behind these party fill-ins is that they're kind of like guest stars on the PCs' show. They might be fun, and really helpful for a particular plot arc, but once they've had their three or four episodes, it's time for them to leave and for someone new to come on.

Helpful Hirelings Need To Have A Connection

The most important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they need to expand the lore of the game, and take the players deeper into the setting. To that end, these characters should act as a way to introduce certain groups and ideas, or they should be used to expand on the PCs' personal backstories. And, if you're playing on hard mode, both.

"My brother? Well, he's the strong, silent type. Outdoorsy. I guess we could ask if he'd help?"
As a for-instance, say that your party is planning a raid on the Storm Peak, and they want to go in through a tunnel they heard about. They're sure it will be filled with death traps, but they don't have anyone who can handle traps in the party at present. Well, if the Shadow Lamp Guild operates in the area, you could present the option of taking a meeting with a representative to hire one of their burglars to get you in. The party would have to lay out their plan, the risks involved, and negotiate for the guild's help. That's how the party gets Shaila Nightfingers, a halfling with a dry sense of humor who proves to be instrumental in getting them into the keep unscathed. By having the party go through the search to find the guild in the first place, talking with the representatives, and immersing themselves in the seedy underbelly of the city, they feel like the Helpful Hireling is a reward that they earned for their efforts, while also learning more about the setting.

Because they could have just gone into the tunnels and tanked the traps, counting on Hrothgar's huge HP or Donnegan's ridiculous saves to carry the day. Instead, they chose to seek help from a local expert.

Alternatively, say the party's sorcerer Knows A Guy. It might be someone they met while they were in prison, before they tried to go straight. Maybe they have an uncle, or a cousin who was a notorious burglar, but never got caught. Calling on this connection gives weight to that character's backstory, and now makes the Helpful Hireling something that comes indirectly from that character instead of being an element introduced entirely by the dungeon master. This gives the character a kind of legitimacy, making it fit more smoothly into the game.

There are all kinds of directions you can take this in. For example, if your party's fighter comes from a long line of wizards (making her the black sheep), then she might be able to call on an old tutor if they need help of an arcane sort. Alternatively, if the party made a big deal standing up to the corrupt sheriff and his posse, they might be approached by Hark Bower. A deadeye shot with his longbow, he knows the tracts round here, and if they need someone to stand and fight with them (given that the party is one cleric, one wizard, and one sorcerer who can get rather quickly overwhelmed by foes), he'd be honored to be at their side, and to guide them through the rougher parts of the country. The party might even find that the Gray Man comes to repay a debt he owes them, since they had the chance to turn the notorious assassin in when they defeated him in battle, but let him go so his daughter wouldn't have to grow up without a father.

Keep track of the things your players do, as their Small Legend will affect the sort of people who know about them, and who would offer their aid. Remember their backstories, and what allies they've managed to earn over the course of the campaign. And if it turns out they need another member to help them get past a certain obstacle, see who they approach and take on.

Most importantly, when that arc is done, the Helpful Hireling goes back to their lives. They aren't here to tag along as a fifth wheel from level 1 to level 20.

If you're looking for a place to get started with your Helpful Hirelings, then I'd suggest taking a look at 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern. From elven crime bosses, to hangdog hedge knights, to wandering warriors and wizards on sabbatical, there's a little bit of everything in there. Or, if your parties are more of the space-faring variety, then 100 Characters You Might Meet in a Star Port might be more your speed, with its ex-security droids, blockade runners, fighter pilots, and high-tech low-lifes.

No Safety Net

Perhaps the most important thing about a Helpful Hireling is that they have no safety net. They face the same risks as the rest of the party, and they shouldn't be a necessity to completing a particular arc, or accomplishing a certain challenge. If they die, they die.

He fought well. His funeral shall be glorious!
It's amazing the amount of camaraderie your players will build up over a short time with these NPCs. The key is that the time needs to be short, the characters need to be unique, and they have to help out without doing all the work for the party. A Helpful Hireling is a lot like a freelance bass player; they should be part of the band, but it is not a one-man show by any means.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! Sorry it came out a little late, but deadlines didn't match up, and I had to push it back a day. Still, I hope this helps folks out there who've been trying to find a solution to the DM PC problem.

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  1. Edric the Coward is that fellow in the game. He is a Neutral (Good) cleric of the blandest of gods. He will do what the PCs say to do except lead, he has no ideas, and only prays for the spells they tell him to. His advice is always to surrender or run away, always.

    Edric the Coward was devised by Matthew Colville and he is perfect.

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