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Hireling to Hero

jt_evans_hireling_to_heroA few years ago, I was running a game in the midst of a deep dungeon delve. As things go with these delves, a character in the group died. The character had hired a faithful hireling and dutifully kept him alive. The hireling was more than just a backpack-carrying torch bearer. The PC treated the NPC as more than a stat block that existed to reduce his encumbrance.

When the character died, we didn’t want to break the continuity of the storyline we had going on and drop a new character in without explanation. We also didn’t want to take the “easy” route out and have the rest of the party “rescue” a new character and have them join the party. Fortunately, the character death happened near the end of the session. In the week passing between the character’s death and the eventual introduction of a new character to the group, the player and I met and brainstormed.

I’m not entirely sure which of us came up with the idea, but we agreed that the hireling would gladly take up the fallen character’s sword and shield to carry on with the dead character’s quest. We reasoned the hireling felt like part of the family and also had a strong sense of loyalty to the dead character. However, we had an issue with the hireling being the “typical zero-level human” and the rest of the group standing somewhere around 5th or 6th level. How were we going to balance out the power level?

Here’s what we did to turn a hireling into a hero.


During my meeting with the player, we hashed out a quick backstory to fill the blank pages of the hireling’s history. We decided he had joined the group to gain the necessary experience to be accepted into the ranks of the standing army. The hireling’s end goal was to gain enough martial prowess to avenge his father’s murder. While talking about the history and family, I had an idea for the dead character’s sword. I didn’t reveal my idea to anyone until the next session, which both surprised and pleased the player.


We did a bit of hand waving and determined that the dead hero and the hireling were of similar body build and size for the hero’s armor and other gear to fit the hireling properly. When the hireling picked up the fallen hero’s sword, the weapon spoke for the first time. It came to life and greeted the hireling with pleasure and humility. I’d decided the sword was a lost, ancestral weapon of the hireling’s family that happened to be intelligent as well. The sword was so overjoyed that it had been found by a “proper heir” it unlocked its hidden powers for the character. Along with the armor, shield, miscellaneous gear, and such, the addition of intelligence to the sword helped equalize the hireling and the rest of the party a quite a bit. The player running his new character was overjoyed at this turn of events he’d not been expecting. The rest of the group was equally happy with how this went down as well.


During our brainstorm session, the player and I agreed to “boost” the hireling to 3rd level given that he’d been with the party for quite a long time and had survived a ton of adventures with the group. It was only fair (and added balance to the game) for the new character to come in slightly lower than the rest of the group, but not at 1st level with zero experience. He had originally asked to be one level lower than the rest of the group. The compromise at 3rd level made us both happy.


Something I haven’t mentioned yet was the fact that the dead hero was a paladin. While the player thought it was hokey for the hireling to step into the paladin role instead of the fighter role, I proposed something to him. We hashed out the details and finally settled on a plan of action. While the hireling respectfully pulled the dead paladin’s gear from his corpse, the hireling prayed to the appropriate god for the paladin’s soul to find peace. When he pulled the holy symbol from the paladin’s neck, he issued a promise to the god to return the symbol to a worthy representative of the church. At this point, a disembodied voice answered his promise with, “If you choose to take up my mantle, I will deem you a worthy warrior for my cause.” We then role played a “conversion” to the paladin’s religion for the hireling, which was the final step in making his a true hero to stand at the side of the rest of the party.


Because the hireling (now a hero in his own right) had been a faithful companion to the rest of the party, there was a camaraderie already in place. None of the awkward “meet ‘n’ greet” roleplaying had to take place. They all knew each other. Yes, they had to learn more about each other during the course of the adventures, but he turned out to make a fine addition to the rest of the group.


In the end, the player was very happy with the turn of events. The rest of the group thought it was a wonderful way to introduce a “new” character into the fold. I was relieved because I didn’t have to contrive or delay the introduction of a new character into the group. It worked out well for everyone. Now that I’ve told my story of turning a hireling into a hero, what would you have done differently? I’m certain folks out there have their own angle on this concept, so I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Hireling to Hero"

#1 Comment By Jo-Herman Haugholt On April 27, 2016 @ 4:34 am

In Hackmaster, this is already included in the official rules in the form of Protegés. As a character gets a few levels under his belt, he’s encouraged to take a protegé (or possibly several). The protegé starts out as a 0-level character, but the player can funnel experience to the protegé by training him and gift him gear. He can even take the protegé with him on adventure for additional experience, but this can be risky as the protegé is usually several levels below the rest of the party. Later if the hero is killed or retires, the player can start playing as the protegé instead of rolling up a new character. This way he hopefully doesn’t have to start entirely from scratch at 1st level, and his new character already has a relationship and history with the party.

The story here is really a text-book example of a good mentor-protegé relationship in Hackmaster. 🙂

#2 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 28, 2016 @ 11:25 am

Thanks for pointing me to Hackmaster. I have a version of it floating somewhere around my office. I’ve glanced through the book, but I don’t recall those rules. I’m going to have to dig out the book now. Time to do some research to prep for the next time something like this happens in a system where there aren’t predefined rules or steps to resolve the issue.


#3 Comment By NikMak On April 27, 2016 @ 6:14 am

similar thing in Pendragon. Every knight has a squire and it’s expected that the squire will take up arms sooner or later (there is nothing quite like a battlefield ‘knighting’ to start off an epic PC story!)

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 28, 2016 @ 11:26 am

It’s been 20+ (maybe 25+??) years since I’ve laid hands on Pendragon. I don’t recall those rules being in the version I had way back in the day, but they could have been there and my Swiss cheese memory is failing me. Thanks for the tip to point to another way to promote an NPC to PC status. I’ll have to see if I can lay hands on a more recent version of Pendragon and check it out. I appreciate the tip.

#5 Comment By Angela Murray On April 27, 2016 @ 10:46 pm

What a fun way to replace a lost character! I love that you found a solution that worked with the narrative you’d already built up for the characters so far.

I’ve been dealing with a bit of the opposite situation. We lost a player for one of the PCs in my Eberron/Pathfinder game and I haven’t really figured out how I want to handle it. I basically GM’d myself into a corner by tying a prophecy to the original six characters of the game, leaving me in a pickle to deal with a lost player. Luckily, the new player we’ve got said she’d be happy to pick up the character and run with it, so while it’s not a perfect solution, it doesn’t twist the game into unrecognizable knots.

#6 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 28, 2016 @ 11:29 am

Ouch. Yeah. Losing a player, but needing to keep the character is a painful thing as well. It’s the flip-side of the coin that I talked about in my article.

It’s a good thing another player stepped up to handle the orphaned character.

If you get in a pickle and need to drop the character, I’m going to throw out there the “false” or “incorrectly interpreted/translated” prophecy that might change the nature of the prophecy to allow the character to slip out… or become an antagonistic NPC of sorts. Since I don’t know the full details of your game story, my suggestion might be WAY off the mark. Take my advice with a grain of salt.

#7 Comment By Angela Murray On April 28, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

I actually considered the antagonistic NPC, or at least having her abandon the group. I couldn’t really go the ‘incorrect translation’ route because all six PCs got marked with mystical tattoos as part of the prophecy. Kinda locked myself into that one. Thinking back on it, I’d *still* do that since it made them all feel pretty awesome, but I might have done it a little differently. Of course, I’d have also parred down the whole game and probably have completed it by now. 🙂

#8 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 28, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

Just throwing out another idea… What if there was a mistake (akin to a typo) in the character’s tattoo? Something subtle. Something malicious (or even accidentally nefarious) that changes how the tattoo interacts with the character or changes the character herself?

Sounds like a cool premise for a game, though! I might have to run away with that one and use it sometime. 🙂

#9 Comment By Swanthony On May 12, 2016 @ 3:20 pm

This is something I’ve done as well, to great effect.

In our FantasyCraft game, I played a diplomatic, by the rules Lawful Good cop who had been drafted into law enforcement but ultimately aspired to a life in politics, doing good for the poor. To this end he had a rookie working under him that he had recruited from the beggar’s district (a companion using the Lieutenant feat). When my character died, I immediately took up the mantle of his protege but played him as an On-the Edge, Stab-First-Ask-Later Chaotic Neutral Cop, who ultimately wanted the things his mentor wanted – a peaceful world – but used different means.

Eventually, he accepted he was fundamentally the wrong person to save the world and swore to resurrect his mentor… by making a deal with the devil. When the chance to play my original character came, I took it, but the campaign had gained a truly sympathetic, complicated villain in the process.