Since I'm in San Francisco taking in the sites, eating the delicious foods, and all-around enjoying myself, this entry is going to be brief, and on the subject of the invariably put-upon members of any D&D party: the henchmen and hirelings. I'm heading to the MAP conference in Santa Clara later in the week to give a paper on the Liber Eliensis, so I'm also pretty busy getting that up to snuff for presentation insofar as the performative aspects of giving papers go.
Modern incarnations of D&D have forgotten all about these characters; in a dramatic situation, it is thought of as bad form to upstage the main character by giving the action to some lesser fellow. Of course, this is a rule mostly followed in action movies and obeyed to a much lesser extent in serious literary works. However, since a lot of people play D&D like an action movie, and because most modern RPGs exist to paint the player as the prime actor, the idea of henchmen and hirelings have fallen by the wayside. We are warned to be wary of upstaging PCs with NPC actions, lest they feel as though they didn't accomplish the important tasks in the game. Mike at Really Bad Eggs wrote about something similar recently, concerning the primacy of PC actions (and whether or not it really needs to be Prime).
This attitude springs, I think, from the same abuses that most of the other Player's Rights issues arose from. Indeed, I think this is a cornerstone of the Player's Rights movement—that nebulously defined set of core rights that no GM should violate. It is probably true that Bad GMs have foisted characters onto parties, characters that had no right to be there, who conquered all the foes and took all the treasure and essentially made the game into a masturbatory exercise of power. Again, like all Player's Rights issues, I think this is a problem with bad GMs rather than with rules and should be handled as such; the players do not necessarily have a right to primacy of action, but they have demanded it to head off GM abuse.
This has led to the decline of the henchman. I'm guilty, myself, of punishing parties that want to use hench- and hirelings. I once angrily informed a player that they would have to split their xp with their hirelings (even animals, were they to buy them)! What fit of foolish Player's Rightisms sent me into paroxysms of rage I cannot begin to say. My thought was that the players should accomplish their achievements ALONE, without the aid of GM assistance in the form of hired hands. This is patently ridiculous! These penalties were wrong-headed of me; I might consider splitting the xp a few additional ways (ie, count hirelings as members of the party) but to force someone to cut their own xp with a hireling is just nonsense.
Hirelings and henchfolk are an important resource, and no one should be docked for using them.