I have always found hirelings and henchmen to be extremely useful, both as a player and as a DM. Therefore, it has always baffled me that they are so often ignored. To help shine a light on their benefits, I have done what I could to show my players how useful henchmen and hirelings can be.
When a player creates a new character, I have her roll up three characters and select one. The other two are henchmen serving under that character. By starting characters out with henchmen, it was my hope to spotlight their usefulness early on. It could not have worked out better; my players now love henchmen and always take hirelings with them as well.
You probably think that creating three characters at once may sound rather time-consuming. I should mention that I have a very streamlined character creation process. Characters always start out as level one. They roll abilities and select a class (fighter, thief, wizard, or cleric). Casters receive initial spells. Then each character receives a standard basic equipment package (slightly modified by class). That’s it. If a character survives the night, players are encouraged to write up a background before the next session.
When a player loses a character, she may select one of that character’s henchmen to be her new character. Her other henchmen will then follow this new character. Not only does this soften the impact of losing a character, but it motivates the players to provide their henchmen with quality equipment and magic items.
Characters may have up to two henchmen, plus one additional for each point of charisma bonus (no penalty for negative charisma bonus). Additional (or replacement) henchmen are only available from one source: hirelings who have been well-treated and offer their services as henchmen. So, it is advantageous to include hirelings and treat them well.
Other changes within my world additionally make it beneficial to include hirelings. Lighting is probably the most pressing. None of the player races have infravision, it is extremely rare to find a magic weapon that radiates light (and only under certain situations), and Continual Light has a greatly reduced duration when the item, upon which it is cast, is moved. Torches and/or lanterns are therefore much more necessary, as is someone to carry them.
For some reason, everyone has some sort of initial resistance to using hirelings. Once they’ve taken that first step and included a couple of torch-bearers though, every player I’ve had in my game has immediately warmed up to them. As soon as they return to town, after their first adventure, they are looking for more, to employ as porters, men-at-arms to guard their horses (while they are in the dungeon), and trained hirelings (low-level adventurer types) to flesh out the party.
It has always bothered me when the party finds a lowly +1 sword (or similar item) and everyone turns up their nose at it. Each character already has a similar item or otherwise doesn’t need this one. It is thrown into a bag and sold in town, as if it were scrap metal.
When henchmen and hirelings are thrown into the mix, these lowly items suddenly have someone, albeit NPCs, who are interested in them. Providing henchmen and hirelings with magic items also gains loyalty and makes them more useful to the party.
An unexpected development was that once my players had embraced employing NPCs, they began to show an interest in building a stronghold. No one had ever even talked about this before. Although the costs were rather enormous, and the work went slowly, everyone seemed to really enjoy this new aspect of the game. It also opened up all sorts of new interractions.
Another benefit, although a bit grisly, is that NPCs offer additional targets. It is to the players’ best interest to ensure that henchmen and hirelings return to town as whole as when they left. Adventuring is dangerous and accidents happen, but when too many hirelings are killed, it becomes difficult to find replacements. That said, it is still emotionally preferable to lose a hireling than a cherished character. Having NPCs along improves the chances that, if someone is going to die, it will be one of them opposed to one of the player characters.
There is also the possibility that a hireling, or even a henchman, leaves the party, possibly even becoming an adversary. Generally, if well-treated, loyalty is high. But fear and greed are motivating factors, so desertion is always a possibility. When this happens, you now have a ready-made villain. What greater motivation than the desire to track down a comrade turned betrayer.