Gaming Tonic

Henchman, Familiars, Cohorts, and Companions: What Should D&D Next Do With Them?

Every player gets a character; it was that way in 1st Edition and will be that way in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.  Henchman, familiars, beast companions, followers, mounts, constructs, and more can fill out the ranks of the adventuring party.  This can increase the time that a player’s turn takes to complete.  A companion, or NPC henchman and others can add another dimension to the character, hooks for the DM, fill in areas in which the party may be deficient, serve as a reward for an adventure successfully completed, and many other purposes.  I want to take a look at how these secondary characters (all inclusive for simplicity) have been handled in all the editions, which mechanics worked the best, why, and how they might be applied in the next edition of D&D.

We will start with henchman since they were around in the early days and gave another use for a Charisma stat.    The mechanic that allowed for any character to draw allies to him that would serve her as long as they were treated fairly was a positive and something a player could choose to use or not.  That really depended on if they player wanted the extra work and if it suited their character concept.  It worked well to create a thieve’s guild, a wizard academy, a group of man at arms for a liege lord.  If a knight has twenty archers that accompany him, in older editions they would be 0-level NPC’s, or in 4E I would handle it with minions.

I think henchman work well in games if you take care to use them in groups.  Group the henchman into smaller groups of even numbers, make sure that they all have the same plus to hit and damage, and roll multiple dice at a time.  It has been my experience in the past that groups of henchman can speed the game up sometimes outside of combat in positive and creative ways.  Having enough henchmen to rotate watch while the party rests, or knowing you can just leave a small contingent behind to guard the horses can quicken the pace of some bookkeeping.  If your group loves to role-play these situations out continuously that is fine as well.

That would bring us to the paladin’s warhorse.  I will include this to be thorough in the conversation.  The mechanic for the warhorse was always something that bothered me as a player (not that I ever rolled a paladin back in the day) because it was part of the power of the class but was out of the characters hands to make it useful.  The DM would have to run adventures that would allow the paladin to bring his warhorse so most dungeon explorations are eliminated.  In 5th Edition just save your gold and ask the DM if you can buy the finest horse available.  I am sure some template for an exceptional monster will exist and Rodney Thompson states that somewhat here.  In the meantime a few extra hp, a little extra speed, and a point in an ability, hit, or damage are a couple of examples the DM could use to toughen up a beast.

Familiars have been in the game along time as well.  In 2nd Edition if you didn’t roll a pseudodragon, your familiar was probably more of a liability than an asset.  Losing ability points or experience points when a familiar dies only made the familiar a target for intelligent monsters and PCs.  I am not sure if this made for a very heroic or exciting encounter.  If the familiar is granted as a class power in the next edition than much like the paladin’s warhorse it has to be useful in a variety of situations or give the caster some sort of boost.  If the familiar is gained from a feat the same is not necessarily true if feats are done as player choices as was done in the last couple of editions.  4th Edition handled the death of a familiar with a mechanic that was temporary limiting but had not long term effects.  We can hope this is one of the aspects of 4th Edition that is being included.

The cohort was introduced in 3rd Edition when you took the leadership feat.  The cohort was a lower level character built the same way as the PCs.  It was a good way to represent a character more powerful and perhaps important than a henchman but usually required a single player to control and role-play multiple characters in and out of combat.  Even if the DM role-played the cohort to help out the player from potentially having conversations with herself, the player controlling the cohort in combat could slow up the turn.  Now consider multiple players could have cohorts.  If the cohort was a spell caster because they usually have more options than the more martial characters it could delay everyone’s turn even more.  The caster cohort also had to prepare spells a lot of time just like a PC and that could slow down the game sometimes when choosing spells for the day.  Once again I like the way 4th Edition handled this for the most part with companion characters.

The companion character was a stripped down version of a PC.  They usually had a power or two to attack and defend with.  Those powers used the same mechanics that DMs and players had become accustomed to using for their own characters and monsters so they companions were easy to use.  A drawback to the companion the way they were presented in 4th Edition was that they only had two surges and could often be unable to continue after a single level encounter.  In the next edition I would like to see cohorts handled more like companions without the limited surges.  If the next edition doesn’t have surges and goes back to the hit point and healing system of editions prior to 4th Edition than problem solved.  The streamlined power system of the 4E companion and the healing problem solved either with more surges or just plain hit points and we have an option.

The animal companion has been several things over the course of the editions.  A loose series of hit dice that a druid or ranger (to a lesser extent) could use to gather a series of beast that accompanied the character on their adventures.  In the 4th Edition the ranger beastmaster was a build option and it did a good job of allowing this classic fantasy build its due diligence.  The system in 4E was quick and nobody had to wait for Dr. Doolittle to move around his army of squirrels.  The animal companion of the beastmaster lacked in surges like the companion character, but unlike the companion character you can bring the animal companion back from the dead easily.  The penalties for a ranger reviving an animal companion are minimal, so it is a viable way to build in D&D Next and have the character and companion play fast and easy.  Handling a host of smaller animals by grouping them as a swarm could be a solution if animal companion is included for the druid or ranger and the player wants a herd of smaller beasts.

The exact mechanics of how much of this would work will have to wait until more of the rules of 5th Edition are cemented.  I have several ideas but will wait until the public playtest to talk about those more in-depth.  I have playtested the game but have no idea if the game I have been playtesting is the game that will be included in the public playtest.  It is still easy enough to talk about it as a general idea and hearing what you have to say about henchman, familiars, cohorts, companions, and such, in the next edition of D&D would be great.  Feel free to leave a comment.  Until next time, Roll Hard!


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  1. I love the concept of hirelings, henchmen, cohorts, familiars and companions. By and large every edition has done a useable job with them, some better than others but each within the confines of that system limits, without breaking the system.

    I will be sorely disappointed with 5E if it does not include such mechanics. I was disappointe3d 4E waiting so long in their development cycle to include them. I hope we see something with 5E sooner rather than later.
    I would like to see an integration of companions from the beginning, that way it can be balanced around the system.

  2. I have mixed feelings about this. I think familiars and animal companions are neat, because it adds a bit more uniqueness to spellcasters and druids, but when every PC starts having some sort of companion, as you pointed out, it really can slow things down a lot. I’ve resorted to developing mass combat rules for some situations, but for the most part I try and leave companions out of things as much as possible. Not only for ease of play, but also because I feel like having too many “others” around undermines the heroics of the group. Most of the epic fantasy we love doesn’t have heroes hiring out mercenaries. They get the job done on their own.

  3. Thanks Callin of and Matt of for the comments. Callin I will tell you that from what I have seen of the playtest that it is still too early to tell if you will be absolutely thrilled but I saw a couple of things that will make you happy because we want some of the same things and I am happy. Wait a few weeks and perhaps some of the things will be included in the open playtest. I am under NDA as far as specifics are concerned.

    Matt I think mass combat rules are awesome for the times when we need to slide the game in that direction. I am very cautious about anything besides familiars and beast companions the way they worked in 4E. Some of the other mechanics such as henchman and cohorts could get out of hand sometimes. Great line about getting the job done on their own, and I know at least one member of my group and a sometime contributor here at the site who would completely agree with you.

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