We are using retainers extensively in this campaign. I see many benefits to them, some of which are somewhat specific to our circumstances and others more universal.
This was my first time running a B/X campaign and I believe the first time my players have played under these rules. One of my goals was to play a more or less by-the-book game, with hit points rolled randomly and PCs dead at 0 points. I want dangerous situations in the game to be a tense, thrilling experience with real consequences on the line. In order to make such a game more palatable to all of us, it had to be essential that a player who loses his or her PC is not thrown out of the game for even a minute. Losing your PC might be all part of the game, but being forced to sit out and watch while the others have fun should not be. Retainers give the players a secondary character that they can immediately switch over to in the event their PC buys the farm. In addition, the larger party size allowed by retainers helps greatly in overall survivability. There is definitely safety in numbers in old school D&D.
The flip side of that is that as a DM I don't feel quite so bad about killing off an NPC retainer as I do a PC. So retainers also allow you to stage dramatic ambushes, use nasty save or die attacks, etc., without being completely obnoxious. It's quite thrilling to start off an encounter with an arrow from the darkness into someone's throat, but if that someone is a PC it usually gets you a lot of dirty looks from around the table.
So at our first session, I had each player roll up two characters, choosing one to be their PC and the other to be their initial retainer. I try to keep a clear distinction between the PCs and their NPC retainers. Players can generally run the retainers as secondary characters, but I maintain a veto power through morale checks, etc.
One other positive effect using retainers has had is that by having more characters in the game, it contributes a lot of interesting role-playing elements. Retainers may leave the party and return later, or show up elsewhere in the campaign, perhaps even as members of a rival NPC party! They are good fuel for the ongoing picaresque story produced by a D&D campaign.
Here's a summary of the rules I use for retainers in my game:
- Retainers are quickly rolled up (3d6 in order), usually by me though it could be by a player. The player recruiting the retainer may specify what class they are looking for. I roll 3d6 x 10 for starting gold and quickly jot down the starting equipment that the retainer arrives with, but anything after that is at the PC's expense.
- Per B/X rules, retainers receive a full share of XP, but actually record only half of the total received, to represent the fact that they are merely employees for hire and not making the tough decisions themselves. This keeps them at roughly a level behind the PCs, given the geometric progression of the XP charts.
- Retainers receive a half share of treasure. This money essentially vanishes from the game (spent by the retainer, sent home to family, etc.). The PC is expected to pay for any expenses or equipment they wish their retainer to use.
- Retainers have a morale score, determined by their employing PC's charisma score. Morale is checked whenever the retainer is asked to do something "above and beyond the call of duty".
- Morale is also checked between every game session. If the retainer passes their morale check, they stay with the party. If they fail, they go away for 1d4 weeks of game time to either carouse and spend their new-found wealth or take a break from the hazards of adventuring life. After this period is up, the player may attempt to rehire them if desired. Edit: I've since changed this to have the retainer leave for as many weeks as they failed their morale check by, instead of a 1d4 die roll. This way, a worse (and more rare) failure results in a longer absence.
- For the above check, the retainer's morale is temporarily modified as follows:
- +2: The adventure was a very lucrative success, with no party casualties
- +1: The adventure was not very successful, but there were no casualties
- +0: The adventure was lucrative, but at a cost of PC or retainer lives
- -1: The adventure went poorly, with little treasure found and lives lost
- -2: The adventure was a near TPK disaster
If a player loses their PC during a session, they may immediately promote their retainer to be their new PC, and the retainer will receive full shares of XP and treasure at the end of that session.
As I said, I started the campaign with every PC having a retainer because I wanted to make it as painless as possible to get comfortable with a gaming style where there is a very real chance that you will lose characters regularly. Beyond that, though, as a DM I don't particularly encourage the players to use retainers or not. It is a tradeoff they need to decide for themselves: are the extra resources of a retainer worth cutting the XP and treasure another way or not? I like tradeoffs and dilemmas in D&D; to me, that's a large part of what the game is about. So far, the players have chosen to maintain the "one PC and one retainer" arrangement that we started with, and I think using retainers has contributed a lot to the feel of the game.