Perhaps I'm wrong. Can anyone recall a module written for 10+ level characters that begins, "An emissary approaches the party while they're hanging out in their castle," or, "After you've assigned persons to look after your lands and fortifications, you set out for the adventure." Anyone?
I couldn't find the comment where someone lately asked me about retainers. I thought I'd begin with discussing what retainers are and how they differ from followers, hirelings and henchmen. I another post, I'll talk about how one gets them. Please don't expect me to follow the guidelines established in early D&D.
The word relates to "retinue," which is an old French word meaning a group of followers or a state of service. The concept is that the followers are taken into feudal service, and thus "kept" or "retained" through the granting of lands on condition of services. It isn't that the character suddenly gets a mess of instant obedient followers ~ it is, rather, a contract. You provide the land, they provide the service ... not as serfs, but as men-at-arms or as knights. The number of "hides" that they're given (see the previous post depends on their status and the landholder's generosity. It's not really clear in wikipedia, but every five hides could be expected to provide a soldier in times of war. Nothing about feudalism ever worked out that sure, but it's a guideline.
The retinue did not consist of only soldiers, as the old DMG suggests, but also of servants, artisans, professionals, estate officials, treasurers, stewards, lawyers and generally all that was needed by the normal operation of society. And, as the lord grew in status, so did the retinue; so that a sort of "bastard feudalism" developed, in which middle ranking figures under a king or major noble would compete for money, offices or influence. This is how the French court of the 17th century grows organically out of the more rural France of the 12th and 13th centuries. The collective name for these retainers was "affinity," which also happens to be a word that began in c. 1300 as "relation by marriage." In a sense, the retinue were "kin," or part of the "neighbourhood," words that have developed other meanings over time. For this post, we'll go on using the word retinue and retainer, but try to keep affinity in mind.
|Prestigious items such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel above|
were given to highly important persons within the lord's
retinue. Jewels such as the above are rare. I find it likely
that many were melted down in times of crisis.
To identify the relationship between the lord and the retinue, often livery badges were bestowed upon the various retainers; these were heraldic badges or devices that granted status and some legal protection for the wearer, while advertising the power of the lord. The appearance of hundreds of such badges, given out for a variety of reasons, would quickly establish the lord's importance in an area, while at the same time producing opportunities for rivalry with other retainers wearing another lord's badges. We need only think of Liverpool and Manchester football to gain a clear idea.
Many of the symbols we recognize began this way; the Lancaster or York roses, the Prince of Whales's (er, Wales's) emblem, the boar, the lion, the Maltese cross, etc., all started as this sort of "advertising," or team making, among nobles and other like authoritarians.
Obviously, this would mean that many persons outside the retinue, would always be seeking to be a part of it, if they had no affinity of their own. This meant that outside the retinue were an amorphous group of general supporters and contacts, most of them completely unknown to the lord, but known to the various members of the retinue. Thus, even a minor lord could potentially affect hundreds, even thousands of persons, simply by their existence at the heart of his or her retinue. This made political maneuverings and the raising of an huge army a realistic possibility, as the War of the Roses proved, as Henry the VII was able and again as Cromwell demonstrated. In D&D, we tend to think that to raise an army, we need to scatter out agents and interview people. In fact, the more likely truth is that there would be large numbers predisposed to our cause; we would need only to canvas our own connections, gain the support of other nobles and let them canvas their connections, and thus through specific persons already in our employ, we would dredge up the very people we needed from both our lands and from those wanting to be part of our lands. Thus, every war begins with a promise of land ~ which we will naturally take from the losers, when we win.
All this makes the retainer far, far more valuable than the follower ~ though, it must be said the retainer has less reason to be directly loyal. Ultimately, the retainer serves the office, not the individual. A lord is sure to be surrounded by trusted, reliable followers and henchmen, the "inner circle," while sorting out the trusted members of the retinue from those not quite so trusted. In general, the retinue is expected to fall in line because the lord has the retinue's general welfare at heart; if the lord fights to preserve the lord's lands, he or she also fights to preserve the retinue's lands. So all join together in the common cause.
The complexity of this is doubtlessly beyond the tenacity of DMs and Players who are only interested in adventuring ... but I find the concept utterly fascinating, myself. And I positively adore the idea of building a system of land ownership and management of such persons in a way that would empower me to influence the actions of a very large kingdom, such as Sweden or Poland, even if I am not the king and have no interest in deposing the king.
I am far more excited by this sort of thing than I am by disarming another trap.