What do you do when you don’t have enough players? Let’s say you have two friends come visit for the weekend and you want to run an impromptu game. With only two characters, the party would be at a disadvantage. So, what do you do?
Multiple Characters Per Player
We have frequently used this method. It works, but I am not a fan. My main complaint is that when players run multiple characters, each character is treated very superficially. They are not given the depth that players usually employ when running just one character. In addition, player’s have more trouble remembering what abilities the characters possess. When running just one character, the players are usually on top of what their characters can do. With two (or more) characters, it is easy to overlook a useful ability of one of them. Lastly, players have a natural tendency to favor their own characters. If a player is running his favorite character and a “throw-away” character, the player may have one give up things for the other where he wouldn’t normally do the same for other players’ characters.
Used properly, this can work too. But it has problems as well. When one of the players is running the NPC, you have the same problems as you do when the player is running multiple characters. But the NPC will certainly be considered to be even more of a “throw-away” character and the player will also be even more unfamiliar with what the NPC can do. If, on the other hand, the DM is running the NPC, you have different problems. The players may look to the NPC for guidance since, being run by the DM, the NPC is bound to have all sorts of insights that the other players don’t have access to. This leads to the players simply following the NPC around and the DM handling all the decision making for the evening.
I talked more on this subject in an earlier post: My Favorite NPC.
I am a huge fan of henchmen. That may seem odd, as henchmen present very similar problems to those that arise from players running multiple characters. The difference is, imo, in the way the player perceives the henchman. When a player runs more than one character, the 2nd (3rd, etc) character is typically a “throw-away” character, that may or may not continue on past this adventure. The henchman, on the other hand, is a trusted friend with longevity within the campaign. The player will certainly have the henchman favor the character, but in this situation it fits the role of the henchman.
My other complaint with multiple characters was that the player treated them all more superficially and may not know all their abilities as well as she would if she were just focusing on a single character. In this case, the player is only running a single “actual” character and is focusing her attention on that character. The henchman may be a valued comrade but, because of the dynamic involved, I don’t think this causes her to split her attention as much. As to not knowing the abilities as well, usually the henchman has fewer abilities than an additional character would have. In addition, the henchman persists through multiple adventures and therefore becomes more well known by the player.
The player controls the henchman, but the henchman is still technically a NPC who may, occasionally, act independently (under the control of the DM). Therefore, how the character treats the henchman will affect the henchman’s loyalty down the road.
I feel that this additional interaction adds a great deal to the game. Beyond that, henchmen offer a couple of additional uses. For instance, if the party is adventuring in a particularly dangerous place, that contains character-ending traps, it is far less disheartening to have a henchman lost forever than to have a character permanently destroyed. Not that this is something that should come up very often, but if the situation should arise, this is a nice time to have a henchman handy. The other benefit would be in a similar situation. If, in the middle of an adventure, a character is permanently killed, the player typically sits and twiddles her thumbs while the others get to have all the fun. Why not let the player take over the henchman and even upgrade the henchman to character status? The player is already familiar with the henchmen and, assuming the character has been generous, the henchman will already be well-geared.
If henchmen are used, I strongly feel that they should be more than one-dimensional NPCs (from the very beginning). Give them a personality. Give them a background. Give them motivations.
At Rolang’s Creeping Doom, I recently read an article on Eighteen Common Hireling Motivations. Although he discusses hirelings, these work well for henchmen as well.
Given the choice between multiple character per player, NPCs, and Henchmen, I will choose henchmen every time. Not only do they fit the story better, but they bring a little something extra to the game and are less problematic than the alternatives.