It’s the end of the dungeon, the adventurers’ big boss is dead but so are the adventurers. In this no-prep, single session, roleplaying game, the players are playing the adventurers’ hirelings who now have to escape the dungeon on their own.
Runaway Hirelings is a one-shot, high improv, zero-prep, fantasy RPG that started off as a one-page RPG written by Thomas Novosel.
So what exactly is Runaway Hirelings the RPG?
Runaway Hirelings was designed and written by Thomas A Novosel with help from Jarrett Crader and Owen Kerr. It features art by Thomas A. Novosel. Runaway Hirelings started as a one page RPG released in 2016. A revised edition was written and released in 2018. This review is of the longer, revised, edition.
You can get Runaway Hirelings as a PDF or as a softcover book. This review is of the physical book version.
While we don’t usually do unboxing videos for RPGs we do actually have a Runaway Hirelings unboxing video up on YouTube. I did this one because I didn’t actually know what was in the box that showed up until I opened it.
My copy of Runaway Hirelings is a thin digest-sized book that clocks in at forty-two pages but only the first thirty-three pages actually have anything on them. I have to assume this is something to do with the DriveThruRPG print-on-demand formatting.
The book is black and white and uses a single column layout with some text that is just a bit smaller than I would have liked. There is a surprisingly high amount of artwork in the book. I would say, flipping through, that the book is more than half artwork. The art style is unique and slightly humorous. I dig it.
While there are no chapters in the book, it is broken up into a number of sections.
A section by section look at Runaway Hirelings the indie RPG:
While there are no chapters in Runaway Hirelings, it is broken up into a number of sections. Below I will take a look at each section.
Introduction – What exactly is Runaway Hirelings about?
The first section of Runaway Hirelings introduces you to the game. It does this by diving right in. This is a book written for experienced players and Games Masters. You won’t find anything here explaining what 1D6 means or what a roleplaying game is. Instead, Thomas wastes no time explaining what their game is all about.
The core of play is explained followed by a list of what is needed to play, which isn’t much. A character sheet for each hireling, some pencils, scrap paper and a couple of six-sided dice.
In this game, players are creating a dungeon as they go. This is done using a number of different rules which are set up like Moves in Powered By The Apocalypse.
The basic flow is that one player gives the name of the room, another points out a problem that can be sensed. Then the Games Master (called a Dunarch here, short for Dungeon Architect) will use those prompts to describe the room. The Dunarch randomly determine a Danger Score and then players take actions in order to find the entrance to the next room. When players have gotten past a number of threats equal to the Danger Score, the next room is revealed. These actions are repeated until you get to the final room which follows similar rules with higher stakes.
One important thing to note is that the characters here are hirelings and not adventurers, but more about that in a bit.
Rules of Play – The mechanics of Runaway Hirelings
First are the Discovery Rules. These cover what to do when a new room is opened and introduce a rule where players can get a bonus for tying in things from the world creation start of the game (which is explained later).
The neat bit here is that the active player chooses to either name the room that is about to be explored or to point out a problem that can be sensed. Then the next player to go does the other choice. The active player also earns one Flail point, an important resource in this game.
As a bunch of hirelings, it’s going to take some teamwork to make it out alive. There are two teamwork rules provided. First is the “helping others” rule which basically lets a player describe what they are doing to help another character to give that acting character a +1. There is some risk though, if the roll fails the helper suffers half of the penalty.
Second, is the rule for reviving a dead ally. This costs a couple of Flail Points and a heap of gold. This option never came up in our game for some reason.
Doing Stuff: Remember how I noted that your characters in Runaway Hirelings are just hirelings and not real adventurers? Well, this is where that comes into play. Each character type in the game is only good at one thing and that one thing isn’t always all that useful. The Slop Cook can cook, the Torch Bearer can find things in the dark and the Peasant is just really good at not being noticed. None of the classes are actually good at doing any adventurer style things, like say fighting.
The rules for doing stuff all depend on if the Hireling acting is doing what they are good at or not. It takes clever play and out of the box thinking for these near useless hirelings to come up with narrative reasons that their skills actually can be useful in each situation.
In general, if a hireling is doing what they are good at they succeed. They have to tell a story (the type of which is determined by the Dunach from a list of four) and then get to do what they set out to do. After the first four successes though, succeeding comes at the cost of Flail Points.
Don’t have any Flail Points? Well, then there’s the “Fail for Flails” rule that lets a player choose to fail when they otherwise would have succeeded. This costs them some Gold (which is the hit points of this game) but earns them valuable Flail Points for later on.
Finally, there’s the “Doing something that isn’t your thing at all…” rules which have the player describe what they are doing and roll a D6. If they get a five or six, despite all logic, they manage to succeed and get a bonus of getting to ask the Dunach a question. With a four or less, disaster occurs. Each of the other players describes how things went wrong and the group decides on the best outcome. With failure also comes a significant loss of gold. Alternatively, the player can spend two Flail Points to automatically succeed.
Gold and Hirelings:
Here we finally get to the rules for how to make a character.
It’s dead simple. You pick one of the seven hireling types, grab a sheet for that type, give your new character a name, pick a build question to answer and choose one piece of equipment from the equipment list. New characters start with fifteen Gold and no Flail Points.
In this section, you’ll also find the rules for when you run out of Gold. As noted earlier Gold is basically the Hit Points of this game. When you run out of Gold your character dies but gets to do something heroic which helps with getting the other characters past the next obstacle.
Finally, there are rules for your next character. Yes, in this game you can, and probably will, go through more than one character. Your second character is made basically like the first one, except you only get ten gold and your build question becomes, “Why were you left behind or forgotten on the way in?”
If this second character doesn’t make it, you get one more shot. Grab your first character sheet again because they weren’t actually dead. Your original character is back but with only five gold this time.
Stocking The Dungeons – How the Dunarch creates the dungeon in Runaway Hirelings
The next section has some tips for the Dunarch of Runaway Hirelings. It describes how the Dunarch stocks the dungeon through the use of the two prompts the players provide using the Discovery rules.
Here we also find rules for determining the Danger Score which is just a matter of rolling a simple D6. This is the minimum number of actions the players will need to take to get through to the next room. Note these actions don’t have to be successful.
Finally, we are reminded that the characters are not adventurers and cannot fight or do things like cast spells. This section talks about how the players will need to think outside of the box and use trickery, talking, and potential traps, to get past any monsters the Dunarch decides to place in the dungeon.
Hirelings – Character Information for Runaway Hirelings
The Hireling section of Runaway Hirelings starts off with the hireling equipment list. Note that this is a list of nearly useless items that are going to really require the players to be creative to find a use for them. Items on the list include a leaky hourglass, a bottle of massage oil and a tin of canned tuna.
The different types of hireling are: The Trap Poker, The Torchbearer, The Peasant, The Chronicler, The Fool, The Itinerant Monk and The “Slop” Chef.
Each hireling type gets its own page and a piece of art. Rules for each include some equipment and what that hireling’s speciality is, as well as a set of build questions one of which is answered during character creation.
The Dunach – The GM section of Runaway Hirelings
In what I thought was an odd choice, we are finally presented with the premise of the game and a description of how a game session is expected to flow. We get tips on how to be the Dunarch or Dungeon Architect (the Games Master of Runaway Hirelings).
Gameplay starts by reading out a short introduction story that sets the tone for the game. From there players answer some worldbuilding questions. These include naming the dungeon, determining why the adventurers came here and describing how each of the hirelings found themselves in this predicament.
It then continues with entering the first room. Here it’s explained that you play the game until either eight rooms are explored, or one of the players has to make their third character, or you are nearing the last twenty minutes of your playtime. In which case, you move on to the final room.
In the final room, the stakes are increased and the Dunarch is encouraged to come up with challenges that are based on a mash-up of everything that has come before.
Finally, we get to the Epilogue where the surviving hirelings explain what they did with their gold and where they will be in ten years. While those that didn’t make it out alive get to decide what is on their tombstones.
How does Runaway Hirelings Actually Play?
Unlike my reviews of the Pip System Corebook and Mermaid Adventures Revised, I actually got a chance to play Runaway Hirelings. Last weekend I ran a session of this one-shot RPG for some of our Patreon Patrons and everyone had a great time.
I have to say that I was intimidated by Runaway Hirelings when first reading it. I am very much a traditional roleplaying gamer, having grown up playing RPGs since the 1980s. I’m used to crunchy games with lots of rules that require substantial preparation time before play. I’m also used to the Game Master being the one responsible for all of the world-building and narration during the game. While I have been trying a number of newer games in recent years, an impov heavy, shared narration style game like Runaway Hirelings is still pretty much outside my wheelhouse.
Another thing that I found off-putting was the way the rules are presented in Runaway Hirelings. I recognize this format as similar to the “move” format made popular by Apocalypse World and the various Powered by the Apocalypse games that followed it. However, I had a hard time piecing together what went with what in what order.
It also seemed really strange to me to have the gameplay overview saved for the end of the book. I assume this was done to have everything a player needs to know to play in the front of the book as the rest is controlled and can be taught by the Dunarch.
Once I had a feeling for the flow of play, the game actually played very smoothly. The flow of entering a room, getting some player prompts, using that to create some challenges, then having the players face those, worked great. By having two different players provide prompts, and letting my imagination go wild, we came up with some really great rooms.
My favourite creation from our game was the Tomb of Exhaustion which was a white marble tomb in which the niches, instead of holding caskets, each held a very comfortable bed and there were pillows and duvets and all kinds of soft things to lay and rest on. Here the entire party chose to Fail for Flails, give in to the temptation of the room and take a rest, at which point they faced a Down Golem.
While my players were a mix of traditional game fans and fans of more story-based games, everyone had a great time playing Runaway Hirelings. All of them noted that they would be willing to play it again, but not right away. While fun it seemed like a game you would break out only every now and then and not something you would play for several weeks in a row. The group also agreed that Runaway Hirelings would be a great convention game.
Overall I had a better time than expected while playing Runaway Hirelings. It’s a single session fantasy dungeon-crawling RPG that relies heavily on the entire group’s ability to improvise and think on their feet. Due to that, I know this game will not be for everyone. Despite being a style of game I’m only just starting to be comfortable with, I had a very enjoyable time running Runaway Hirelings and hope to run it again in the future, probably at some form of game Convention or perhaps as a one-shot for my home group if we can ever get together in person again.
If you are a fan of these narrative style games where the players have a lot of input into the world around them and also dig dungeon-crawling tropes you really should check out Runaway Hirelings.
As noted above I’m still new to these more narrative-based games that give a large amount of narrative control to the players as well as the Games Master. Similarly, I’m still getting used to games that don’t require any preparation time to play. I would love to hear about (and potentially check out for myself) your favourite of these style of games. Let me know about your favourite in the comments!