Last time I was in the UK, I picked up a 1958 edition yellow-leafed pocket-sized paperback of Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming, which I later read on various beaches of the Costa Brava over summer.
I was impressed with Fleming’s punchy, authoritative prose and I enjoyed the gritty, down-to-earth plot of Bond exposing a diamond smuggling racket in the States – a far cry from the pompous overblown plots that cinema-goers are familiar with. (As an aside, it was interesting to note a George R.R. Martin level of detail paid to Bond’s menu selections, and that 007 drinks an awful lot of bourbons and branch waters, and few to none vodka Martinis, shaken or otherwise).
This enjoyable beach read led me to rewatching the film adaptation in which Blofeld is inserted and the plot becomes pompous and overblown – and, to be fair, upping the stakes of the story suits the film medium pretty well. Seeing Diamonds Are Forever for the first time in a decade, or two, took me down a rabbit hole of rewatching virtually every Bond film available on Prime Video, as I developed a strange new fascination with the franchise.
Bond films have been part of my cultural landscape since I was old enough to turn on a TV, and (like so many things we grow up with) I never stopped to analyse them in any great detail. Watching these movies with fresh eyes has given me a fresh appreciation of their cleverness and creativity, and, while many criticisms can be levelled at the franchise, I don’t think it’s coincidence that the franchise stands in a league of its own when it comes to real world action movies. Only the Indiana Jones films come close, with perhaps the Mission Impossible franchise squeaking into the frame. (I could perhaps throw Sherlock Holmes into the mix, but his legacy is far more tied to the books… while if I don’t mention Jason
Yawn Bourne someone will no doubt collar me in the comments section).
My point being that the Bond films have nailed a formula for entertainment that contains much of the drama, action, thrills, tension, twists, humour, high stakes and charisma that us Games Masters would like to realise in our RPG games.
I think there’s a LOT that Dungeon Masters, and D&D adventure writers, can learn from the scripting of the Bond franchise, but today I’d like to focus on one niche but fun aspect… the Bond films’ henchmen and women!
Defining Villainous Henchmen in D&D
Villainous henchmen (I will treat the word as gender neutral from now on) are the folks that do a villain’s dirty work for them; and, while this technically includes every dogsbody in their secret volcano lair, I’m really referring to their trusted righthand agents who act as their personal bodyguards, overseers and assassins. Typically, Bond will have to deal with a villain’s henchmen one or more times before he can get at the villain themselves.
In D&D parlance we often refer to a villain’s henchmen as their ‘lieutenants’, or perhaps more simply their ‘agents’, and Dungeon Masters can employ these operatives in much the same way that Bond’s screenwriters deploy henchmen… to harry and harass the heroes, to provide a sense of menace, and to inject their stories with unforgettable opponents who often develop ‘personal’ relationships with the protagonists, based on grudges, one-uppery or even playful competition. Let’s go into a bit more detail…
Note: I consciously add the epithet ‘villainous’ to the word henchmen for the sake of this article, as in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the word henchmen would more usually refer to hirelings that the players recruit to help them loot dungeons or guard the fort while they were away. So apologies to any OSR dungeon delvers here… I’m only interested in henchmen in the Bond sense of the word today.
What Villainous Henchmen Bring To Your Game
Henchmen are an underused storytelling device in D&D / RPGs, and Games Masters who use them in their adventures, should discover several cool benefits of leveraging lieutenants:
1. They provide fun complications (and make your villain more credible)
Worthy RPG villains are smart (otherwise where is the satisfaction from overcoming them?). A credible villain therefore shouldn’t be passively waiting for the heroes to arrive at their lair and dispose of them, because that would be rather dumb. They should be actively working towards their goals and possibly actively working against the players (at least if they are aware of them), waylaying them at every turn or just downright trying to kill them. Henchmen and lieutenants are the villain’s long arms into the campaign world, which they can use to further their ends and to actively counter any threats to their plans, without having to put themselves in the firing line. Deploying henchmen to set fire to the tavern where the heroes are sleeping, ambush them on a bridge, or leave a nest of scorpions in their beds creates memorable scenarios and brings the villain to the fore – instead of them existing only as a nebulous entity waiting to be encountered in their throne room at the end of the adventure.
2. They offer a first layer of security (and make your villain more menacing)
If an agent setting fire to the heroes’ tavern etc. makes the villain more credible, then it also makes them a lot more scary. Look at all the resources this villain has! And look who they have to deal with before they can even get to the villain’s lair. Pitting these powerful lieutenants (and other agents under their command) against the players in combat should raise the fear factor some more. If the players can barely defeat the villain’s henchmen, what hope do they have against the BBEG themselves?
3. It doesn’t matter if henchmen die
Perhaps the greatest thing about henchmen is that, unlike the main villain, it doesn’t matter if the players kill them in Act 1. Informed by popular fiction, Dungeon Masters often enjoy introducing their main villain at an early stage in the story in order to bait, intimidate or mock the players… only to watch in horror as the PCs pull out an unexpected spell combo, or dusty magic item, that stops the BBEG in their tracks and derails the the DM’s entire campaign plan. Deploying lieutenants allow the DM to relax and enjoy the encounter, instead of trying to railroad a certain result (never a good idea!). If the players win, great, the villain sends the next bigger badder henchman to harass them instead. If the lieutenant wins, they tie the players up / steal their stuff / laugh at them / leave them to die etc. and then ride off, ready to reappear in the story as a reoccurring antagonist. The next encounter with them will sure feel personal! Similarly, unlike with the main villain, if a lieutenant tries to escape and gets caught, it’s no big deal to your campaign… it could even be a good thing, as you can use the captured agent to feed the players clues. (If your heroes are expert mind readers etc. then you might want to think in advance how much they know… hint: it shouldn’t be every last detail of the main villain’s plan).
Designing A Villain’s Henchman
The Bond franchise has given us dozens of memorable henchmen, from Oddjob to Onatopp. What makes them memorable can usually be defined in the following five categories:
1. Distinctive Appearance
Memorable lieutenants often rely on a memorable look, starting with an unusual physique. In Bond films henchmen tend to be intimidatingly big (Jaws, Mr. Hinx, Stamper, Tee Hee) or impressively athletic (Oddjob, Mayday, Kriegler, Bambi & Thumper), but have occasionally been eye-catchingly small (Nick Nack) or noticeably overweight (Whisper).
Otherwise distinctive physical attributes, beyond their frame, can be used to create a unique appearance for an antagonist. Examples from Bond include metal teeth (Jaws, Bullion), facial scars (Zao, Alec Trevelyan, Morzeny, Scarpine), a missing eye (Emilio Largo) or hand (Tee Hee), or even a third nipple (Scaramanga).
Clothing can also play a big role in creating a distinctive appearance, and you might want to consider if your lieutenant wears specific headwear, eyewear, gloves, boots or is always dressed in particular material or colour (crimson leather?).
You could also invert the trope of having your henchmen stand out, by making your lieutenants appear as mundane as a pair of petty bureaucrats (Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd) or a craggy aunt (Rosa Klebb)… they are often spies and assassins after all, who may need to blend in with every day society.
As Dungeon Masters, we have a big advantage over spy thriller novelists and screenwriters: simply by using a certain player ancestry, or even a monster stat block, we can create a lieutenant with a far more memorable appearance than your average human heavy. But don’t rely on fantasy flavour alone… being stalked by a mindflayer with a monocle and top hat is going to inspire your players much more than being pursued by a plain old illithid.
2. Notable Character Traits / Quirks
If getting sexually aroused while killing (Xenia Onatopp) might be hard / inappropriate to pull off at the gaming table, Bond films furnish us with a few other cool examples of personality traits that we can steal, or be inspired by. I love Tee Hee’s broad grin and relentlessly amiable nature, at odds with his work, and a big fat strongman (Whisper) who can only speak in a low hoarse whisper would work well on any D&D table, and should provide one or two comic moments. If you can do accents (and are confident of not offending anyone!) you could mimic the exaggerated German accent of Dr. Kaufman, or else borrow a more subtle personality trait from him… that he considers his work ‘art’.
This is the tip of the iceberg really and you can consider any personality trait that you would give to any NPC as a way to make your henchmen more memorable, while you might dream up scenes that help showcase classic bad guy traits (sadistic, petty, vengeful, loyal, cowardly, ruthless, relentless).
3. Special Skills / Abilities
Good henchmen are specialists at what they do, and have mastered certain skills to help them carry out their work. In Bond films this often means they are highly trained in: martial arts, firearms, knives/blades, explosives, poisons, computer hacking, surveillance, disguise, torture etc. Often they are preternaturally strong or tough, and again Dungeon Masters have a big advantage here, because, in a fantasy world, we can give our lieutenants superhero style abilities to wreak havoc on our players’ existences.
One trick I quite like to use is to take a class ability that the players think only they have access to and give it to an adversary (possibly turning it up to 11 in the process… I loved the fiery counterspell ability that appears in one of the Keys from the Golden Vault). Otherwise it’s fun to invent new little mechanics, or steal monster abilities from one stat block and gift them to another to make the henchman uniquely threatening, and different to anything they have faced previously.
4. Special Equipment / Weapons
While Bond tends to have fancier equipment than his adversaries, a few of the henchmen he crosses have access to advanced technology, or else employ a distinctive weapon that lingers in the memory (a top hat chakram, yo-yo saw, shinai, hidden shoe blade and a golden gun all spring to mind). In D&D we can think along similar lines, or even raise the stakes by throwing in magic items and weapons. Just bear in mind that, if you do the latter, the players are likely to kill the lieutenant in question and use those items themselves from now on.
While they are not a feature of Bond films, Dungeon Masters might want to consider giving their lieutenants interesting and/or dangerous mounts and pets.
5. Signature Killing Method
Finally, if you’re looking for that last little ‘ding’ to make your lieutenant sing, you could consider giving them a signature way of killing their victims. Xenia Onatopp likes to crush rival combatants between her thighs, Necros is a master of garrotting unsuspecting victims, while Rosa Klebb uses a poison-tipped shoe blade and Oddjob sends his hat out for a spin. A trademark finishing move is often related to a character’s special abilities or equipment, and ideally you want to foreshadow it by having the players encounter some previous victims of this signature killing manoeuvre earlier in the adventure. If the PCs have already found the desiccated corpses of several witnesses around town, it should raise the fear factor before their own encounter with the mysterious blood-sucking menace of a lieutenant.
Your Best Lieutenants?
As always, please share your own experiences and insights employing henchmen in D&D, and any other tabletop RPGs you might be playing, in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your stories!