As we’ve previously established, I love me some hirelings. They’re great for soothing those in-game headaches like “who watches the horses?” and “who’s going to take the third watch?” But as much as I like ’em as a player, I think that hirelings are even better as a GM. Having some kind of NPC to pal around with the party is a fantastic way to drop exposition. I’m talking stuff like, “I dunno, Sir. I didn’t get a good look in the dark. But me old gran used to say it’s the dead what walk on moonless nights.” For my money that’s a lot more interesting and evocative than, “You find footprints. They’re definitely zombie footprints.”

Even more than that, a hireling is a fine vehicle for new storylines and plot hooks. Sure they’re not as grand and interesting as the PCs’, but finding out that your random peon hides unexpected depths can be a treat. For example:

  • Aristocrat: A survivor of the Heart Grove Massacre, Aristocrat is actually Wizard’s younger sister. She was a mere 20 years old when last she saw her older brother, and has come of age since they parted. Suspecting Wizard of colluding with her wicked uncle, she conceals her identity from her elder sibling. In the guise of the humble Expert, the learned Aristocrat now watches and waits, spying upon Wizard for signs of treachery.
  • Commoner: All his life, Commoner has been a little different from his rusticated fellows. With an epicurean’s palate and a nose for quality, Commoner has made it his life’s work to master the culinary arts. Of course, that’s a tall order when you’ve got peasant’s wages to buy ingredients and equipment. When the doughty cook spied a certain mithral frying pan, he forsook his old life and cast his lot with the heroes. Now the company larder is stocked with all manner of exotic monster parts, and Commoner has access to cookware worth more than the family farm. If his forthcoming Cookbook/Bestiary sells, he may even afford that restaurant he’s always dreamed of.
  • Warrior: By far the youngest member of the company, Warrior recently celebrated his first birthday. He sprang into existence when Fighter drew a Knight from the Deck of Too Many Things, and has faithfully served his master ever since. Being a creature of chance and chaos, things seem to go awry whenever Warrior is near. Thief has yet to realize it, but Warrior’s aura of unluck has cost her more than a few hit points during the last campaign arc. Will he ever rid himself of this curse?

Nothing too exciting, but there’s plenty you can do with that sort of thing. And here’s the best part: Because none of that stuff is especially relevant to the main plot, you can take it or leave it session by session. Those hooks can wait off-screen while the PCs do the heavy lifting of the story. And if you ever want to bring in a side quest, you’ve got the hirelings waiting in the wings.

Question of the day then. What’s the best hireling/servant/hanger-on you’ve ever had in a campaign? Did they ever turn out to be a quest-giver in disguise?