Whilst a player in a swords & sorcery adventure game typically generates and plays the role of only one character at a time in the context of a single campaign, he is also well advised to recruit hirelings and henchmen into his service when possible. These individuals provide the character with additional resources, look to his interests when he is unable, and may eventually serve as replacement player-characters in the event of his retirement, incapacitation, disappearance, or death. Clearly, then, it can be desirable for a player to enlist both hirelings and henchmen, but there is also a downside. Such characters are a drain on resources, requiring payment, upkeep, and a part of the treasure seized, not to mention being apportioned a share of the experience points gained. This last aspect is often particularly contentious amongst players of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, since the Dungeon Master’s Guide implies that hirelings count for the division of experience, yet gain no advantage from it, whilst henchmen gain only half the benefit, and that amounts to "wasted" experience points (DMG, p. 85). Of course, the root of the idea is that player-characters are awarded experience in proportion to the difficulty of gaining them.
In the original Dungeons & Dragons game (1974), there is only a brief mention in Men & Magic (p. 11) of the difference between ordinary hirelings and "hirelings of unusual nature", but the idea that charisma limits the number of the latter, whilst the former can be employed in unrestricted numbers, is present. Even a player character with a charisma of one is entitled to enlist a single henchman, whilst an eighteen allows for up to twelve. The text notes that players "will, in all probability, seek to hire Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and/or Clerics in order to strengthen their roles in the campaign", and also that "charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service." Further elucidation is provided on the following pages (pp. 12-13), where it is explained that monsters with the same basic alignment as the player-character may be "lured into service", but otherwise they may be charmed or subdued. In this context, it is also made clear that men count as monsters and that high-level characters can be enlisted in a similar way. Furthermore, subdued monsters can be sold, presumably even men if there is a market for them. A loyalty check is made for groups or individuals so enlisted, which affects all subsequent morale rolls.
Unsurprisingly, these somewhat brief guidelines were expanded for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) and a formal distinction drawn between hirelings and henchmen. The former group was subdivided into "standard" and "expert" types, the idea being that experts were more suitable for employment after the construction of a stronghold. That these included the various mercenaries available seems to contrast with the idea put forth in the original game that a player-character might wish to hire such a band to "participate in and share the profits from some adventure" (M&M, p. 12). Nonetheless, some provision was made for recruiting men-at-arms to participate in the danger of exploring a dungeon, though in restricted numbers, and the random non-player-character adventuring parties generated using the Dungeon Master’s Guide are noted as containing such hirelings only on the upper levels of the dungeon (DMG, p. 175). Subsequent versions of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the second edition of the advanced game, downplayed and discouraged the use of mercenaries outside of the context of strongholds and domain management. This coincided, it is often noted, with the increased emphasis on small parties of four to six player-characters.
As with hirelings, henchmen are divided into two types for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which is to say standard and exceptional. The former are down on their luck adventurers of first to third level, arriving with little but themselves by way of possessions, whilst the latter are higher level characters who may agree to become permanent or temporary henchmen, depending on their level relative to that of the player-character seeking their service. Alternatively, they may agree to become associates, which is presumably similar to the relationship between player-characters. Indeed, the Dungeon Master’s Guide notes that henchmen operated independently tend to become associates, or even rivals, of the player-character (p. 38). The potential for a henchmen to become an associate or rival is somewhat analogous to the possibility of a player character being permanently rendered a zero level character as a result of life energy level drain (DMG, p. 119) or of the textually unmentioned, but otherwise well attested, capacity of a zero level and classless hireling to receive a battlefield promotion and attain the rank of henchman. Movement between hireling, henchman and associate, then, is a feature of the game.
The concept of a non-player-character associated adventurer is interesting, as when a player fails to turn up (and even the best campaigns invariably suffer from scheduling issues sometimes) this is what the character they would usually play essentially becomes, assuming some alternative device is not employed. It is also possible that a player whose character is slain, incapacitated, lost, or simply not present at the scene of action, will be asked to take the part of a non-player-character, such as an associate. This recourse seems most successful with experienced players, as they are usually better able to divorce the persona and aims of one character from another, or even capable of running multiple characters at once, but it is also a good exercise for neophytes and often a welcome change of pace. In the Shadow Peaks campaign there was a considerable amount of role-changing as player-characters were frequently incapacitated or removed from the action, and there were often several associated non-player-character adventurers accompanying the party. Such individuals were recruited to assist in difficult expeditions, allotted equal shares of treasure and received full experience, but had their own agenda.
Since each of these had their own personality and opinion of the party, the players grew to like and trust some of them more than others, which was rather gratifying. In fact, they had their beginning as the nine pregenerated player-characters for the Twisted Tower of Mordras introductory adventure (and can be downloaded here), but ended up as an integral part of the campaign, supplying the players with information and many role-playing opportunities, as well as accompanying them on adventures from time to time. For their part, the players seemed interested in the fortunes of these characters, even seemingly trying to impress them from time to time (their own reputation was a frequent source of concern to them). This did not discourage them from taking on hirelings and henchmen, though, so the party was usually comprised of four to six player-characters, two or three henchmen, two or more associates, and half a dozen hirelings. In fact, the difficulty of their adventures encouraged it. In retrospect it is interesting that at the time it seemed unusual to me, because my earliest campaigns were very similar, but at some point four to six characters became my normal expectation.