Monday, February 15, 2021

When are Henchmen Appropriate on an Adventure?

Classic D&D (OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc.... everything prior to 3E in 2000) had as a core rule the fact that the Charisma score correlated with a particular number of maximum loyal hires. (Called variously "hirelings" in 0E, "henchmen" in AD&D, "retainers" in B/X, etc.). This number is 4 for the average Charisma score of 10-11, and varies for higher or lower Charisma, edition specifics, etc. Of course, this is the primary function of the Charisma ability in the first place, and without that mechanic in action, Charisma quickly becomes "the dump stat".

But I'll confess that I've found it a bit burdensome to run games by the letter of the book and have PC parties start to swell towards 4 henchmen per PC. (And related: I've wrestled and run some surveys on how much direct information/control to hand to the player in question, which bears on some recent discussions of "immersion" in the game.)

Random thought for today: In spite of the core rule being without any constraints (other than possibly cost and negotiations to hire the henchmen), the early adventure modules specify a narrower place for the hiring of loyal henchmen: namely, when the number of PCs does not match the design of the given adventure. 

Here's the text in Mike Carr's Module B1, In Search of the Unknown (p. 3, 1979):


Here it is in Gary Gygax's Module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands (p. 2, 1980):


And Tom Moldvay's Module B4, The Lost City (p. 2, 1982):

Now arguably, these products starting in 1979 may not count as "early": at least half a decade after the publication of Original D&D. And I don't find similar text in other adventures of the same era (the earlier GDQ series, T1, either version of B3, etc.). But I do find an interesting take at the end of Gygax's Module S1, The Tomb of Horrors, from one year earlier. Here a list of 20 different high-level characters is given, and then a complicated matrix is given for exactly which ones are put in play depending on the number of players, which can range widely from 2 to 10 (from p. 12, 1978):

Following that rule, the associated table indeed gives two characters per player if the players number 2-4, and only one character each if the players number 5-10. This stock advice is then repeated at the end of Gygax's next adventure, Module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (p. 30, 1980).

So: What happens if we follow that sensibility -- found only in certain O/AD&D adventure module publications -- that a player shouldn't be controlling more than two characters at a time in a dungeon adventure? As I think it now, the high Charisma allowance for many henchmen has the flavor of one of those rules that works better in high-level solo play, possibly by mail or phone, than it does in live, large-party dungeon crawls (which is part of a more general thesis that's been evolving for me of late).

I wonder: What mechanic could we institute to formalize this in the open-play campaign situation? (That is: give PCs the full benefit from a high Charisma score of many henchmen, but restrict the number in a dungeon crawl to perhaps one at most.) Possibly NPCs decline to take part in adventures when their proportional share of the rewards would be too low? Some logistical problem in spelunking with a large group of people? Something else? Maybe you have some creative ideas of which I wouldn't think...


40 comments:

  1. Not every retainer needs to be an adventurer. You could have a bard, scribe, alchemist, weapon smith/armorer, animal trainer, jeweler, butler, etc. as retainers. They mostly remain in town, but provide services to your PC that you couldn't get otherwise, or would have to pay a lot more for.

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  2. Interesting post. I like that you compiled the advice from a number of modules. I do think it's helpful to differentiate between retainers who will carry stuff, torchbearers, and those henchmen who would be combatants. Also retainers do cost money to hire and employ which should limit them.

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  3. Well, the early games were often played with a mentality of win at all costs, and as soon as the idea of the meat-shield came into being that created problems. This is why it was difficult for a player to run three characters at once. It's difficult to keep two of those characters from sacrificing their lives for a player's Mary-Sue.

    Personally, I like playing multiple characters. That's probably because I grew up playing with action figures and it only seems natural. But if it's a problem, hmm....

    I would first make all retainers/hirelings/etc monsters under the DM's control and then use B/X Morale to handle their loyalty. Basic humans have a morale of 6 and you check it by trying to roll under with a 2d6. A character's Charisma bonus should increase the morale of the characters under their command, but every time a hireling perishes on an adventure a morale check is made for the entire group, one that takes a -1 for each hireling lost. If failed the entire group drops their stuff and flees. If the group's modified morale ever drops to 0 or less they turn on the party, possibly hiding somewhere close-by in the wilderness hoping to find the party weakened by their adventure yet laden with treasure.

    This would get rid of the hireling limit (which never made much sense to me, think of the bosses you've had in the past, did they really have the Cha to handle the number of people they employed?), and yet it still makes having a character with a high charisma score to lead the party's hirelings a very valuable thing to have.

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    1. Doh!
      I was just looking over the B/X rules and realized I was essentially restating them.
      Ignore all of this.
      I need more coffee....

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    2. Nice thoughts -- although it doesn't stop the PCs from assembling an overly large party of NPCs in the first place.

      Of course I like playing multiple characters myself, although maybe that's b/c I've always been DM since Day 1. And I think us old-schoolers all agree that morale is monumentally important -- I use an OD&D method of casting 2d6 and trying to roll high, as suggested in the reaction table there.

      I will say that the idea of "retainers belong to the whole party" echoes a similar proposal that came up when asked about how people role-play and talk about the hiring/offering scene, in which again that arguably would feel more realistic/natural.

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  4. In my homebrew, parties larger than seven creatures - not counting mounts, familiars, animal companions - receive a hefty penalty on surprise and initiative rolls.

    The rationale is that larger groups are easier to notice and harder to organize.

    The actual reason is to give players an incentive to limit themselves to seven characters -- and thereby keep the game fast.

    That said, they occasionally take on more henchmen than needed to get to the lucky number seven for various reasons (e.g. deinstalling and carrying off a bunch of huge mirros deep in the dungeon).

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    1. Now that's solid, better than any idea that I'd come up with.

      The initiative-modifier is a bridge I'd crossed before, by giving a bonus to players sitting at the table in PC marching order, so I'd be pretty comfortable with that. Nice suggestion, thanks!

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  5. I've always treated it (no idea if this is justified somewhere in some edition) that Retainers will fight for you, and are limited in number; hirelings will just tote stuff around and refuse to fight, and you can have as many as you can afford. I personally would like to see dungeon expeditions with more hirelings, at least to take care of the base camp and the like. It bugs me when players treat horses like a vehicle you can just park outside and forget about.

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    1. Right, I'm primarily thinking here about the loyal-people-who-fight-for-you. I think it gets a bit confusing b/c the terms for those different types slipped around every which way between editions.

      I'm pretty solid that the Charisma limit is only on the uber-loyal special guards ("This is not to say that he cannot hire men-at-arms and employ mercenaries...", Vol-1 p. 11).

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  6. I think you have to separate what you want in the game and focus on what is there and why. Both Gygax and Arneson ran huge groups in their play test games. Some players ran solo, but they tended to have magic items and were higher level.

    The idea of hirelings may also be coming from Arneson's living world concept for a campaign. You need hirelings to help you command your army in the field. You need people to keep an eye on your castle when you are adventuring.

    IMHO later editions are so separated from the original premise of role playing that these things do not matter. Individual PCs are nerfed up to be like 2-4 characters at level one.

    It is very clear that the unit of measurement in OD&D is the single fighting man of 1 HD. Players get 1+1. The encounter charts have 2-12 appearing of most creatures per level of dungeon.

    When I run OD&D dungeon dives I always hand out 12 characters, or make players roll up 12. A party of 4 to 6 cannot survive through multiple combat encounters.

    Part of the action is PCs stepping back when injured to let a good fighter take their place during a combat. Good play is also a bit of meta-gaming in terms of resource management and people management.

    Of course their is the inherent 10% to 20% casualty rate of every dungeon game. The monsters are very slightly nerfed for each level, or the casualty rates would be around 50% every combat. You can see the Nerf in the Armor Classes of monsters. There are no AC 2 monsters on the first level.

    Gary and Dave knew exactly what they were doing with the design. The survivability for PCs is based on die roll overages for both hits and damage. Yet, these are averages and the only way to take advantage of probability is to have more die rolls. i.e. more PCs and Hirelings. The outdoor encounter charts in OD&D reveal their ideas about party size as smaller parties have a better chance of running away, or hiding, than larger groups.

    If you do not use hirelings - Your Doing it Wrong ;)

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    1. Hey, Griff -- Thanks for commenting here! I think we agree about so much of that, and all of those issues are things I've got deep dives on multiple times over the years with this blog.

      That said, you examples of hirelings running an army or castle -- great, totally agreed, but those aren't dungeon delves. I'd love a way to more carefully distinguish, e.g., your exact intuition about their expected use.

      What's your feeling on when Gary wrote "It is recommended that each player control no more than 2 characters" on a dungeon adventure in 1979?

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    2. If you look at OD&D as a system for simulating an entire world setting it reveals a lot.

      Those castle building costs and ships and areal combat are all coming from Blackmoor. We know this because they did it and we have documents and 1st person statements from actual players.

      While the original D&D game was designed to do the living world campaign, most gamers weren't interested in that and just ran dungeons.

      You see it carrying into AD&D in the form of charts. A lot of that stuff is still there. Hardly anyone used it.

      I will admit to having very little interest in AD&D. Had to books read em. Meh.

      That line from Gygax is very specific abut PCs. If you look at the inverse of any encounter, if players are bringing in 3 characters and your average group of players is 5-6. Now you have players slaughtering everything easily with a party of 15-18.

      Gygax wrote a lot about balance. He felt things should be like a set piece war board game. Some of that comes out of point-buy minis war games where players secretly built an army and then they put them on the battle field to see who's army was better.

      Gygax was so obsessed with keeping magical types balanced to fighter types that he really hobbled them.

      I prefer the David Wesely approach of of asymmetry wich comes from Totten. Of course some people will argue with me because I think Braunstein Brownstone Blackmoor lead up to D&D. Thus it is odd to see some important earlier ideas get ignored.

      What you see in D&D is Gygax as editor imposing a lot of his own design ideas. This is why you see chain mail re-injected into D&D at this point. Much of this is merely a matter of taste and not good/bad.

      The Minnesota players had been playing with ideas for open game formats since around 1964 when the core members read Totten. I feel they had explored many of the problems encountered in RPG design over a decade of play. Gygax played Blackmoor around November of 72. He did not run his own games until early 1973. The game is published in early 1974. His understanding was not as acute as that of Wesely and Arneson. He did not have as much time to explore the RPG concept as they had. Not saying he did not add in some interesting ideas like the Class system, which I think is brilliant. He also imposed a lot of ideas onto the game, which were not necessary.

      Can I interest you in a log post?

      https://www.secretsofblackmoor.com/blog/rpgs-the-asymmetrical-war-game

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    3. Those are really excellent thoughts, thanks greatly for those! And an excellent blog indeed.

      I've always been thrilled by asymmetrical wargames -- e.g., AH's Bismarck is my favorite wargame of all time (one ship vs. the whole Royal Navy, totally different objectives).

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  7. IIRC, AD&D has a +1 modifier to be surprised for every 10 members in other party (i.e. less chance of being surprised).

    Or to put it relevantly, the PC party with many members reduces the chance the monsters will be surprised by +1 per 10 members. They, the PC group, still have the same chance of being surprised as before.

    Unless of course the monsters hear them coming and prepare an ambush, then the monsters have a +1 modifier to surprise for "lying in ambush, observing, waiting".

    Hmm .. only just now realised I don't usually remember to apply these rules when the monsters are in large groups. Oops.

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    1. That's OK, because at least in core AD&D, that's not a thing. Party size affects tracking, but not listed under Surprise.

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    2. Agree with RS, that's not a thing in the books anywhere. But I wish it was! This is among my favorite ideas for managing that now.

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  8. In some respects, the number of henchmen limits in another way as the PCs level, as henchmen are limited (at least at hiring) based on the PC level. At 11th level, the highest level of henchman is only 25% that they'll be as high as 3rd level, and still 50% likely to be L1. Not exactly front-line material. Their utility (at least for direct adventuring) starts to drop as the PCs level.

    If you play with time, the player/party also has to deal with the time to hire. And there's a cost to keep them that is, generally, of consequence at lower levels. The share they demand (or gold and magic items) can also perhaps be higher than the players want to deal with.

    So limited at low PC level by cost, at high PC level by utility.

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    1. Yeah, those are good observations. While it wouldn't cross my mind to make retainers higher than 1st (re: DMG rule), we've found the geometric-XP charts make them advance very fast (usually just a few sessions to 3rd, 4th, etc. w/6th-level PCs). And usually my time scale is pretty fungible, I encouraged them to take long breaks in town (c.f. by healing blog post). Even given all that, some players do have 2+ NPCs on the dungeon crawl, counter to the adventure text we see above.

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  9. STR dump stat in my games
    everyone wants charisma

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  10. Lot of good discussion. Here are my two cents:

    Right now I'm running a 1E game. There are only two players, and they are allowed to play one character each. They have thus attempted to hire retainers at every opportunity. AD&D sets fairly strict parameters of how one goes about doing this: it is expensive and time consuming. Consequently, the henchfolk they've hired have been cherished, to the point of even spending thousands to "raise" a dead 2nd level character.

    The resource management in AD&D is extreme and really limits how many retainers one can hire. Not only are costs in equipment and provisions, but also cost of living expenses and training fees. These quickly eat up scarce resources. PCs end up doing tasks for poor villages just to gain free food and lodging!

    Within the dungeon, logistics absolutely come into play. Not only is there the issue of securing a "base camp" (who's watching the horses, pack animals?), but the cramped dungeon setting and space requirement for weapons (per the PHB) limits formations and tactics in combat...parties of "12-18" aren't really feasible except in wide open caverns and enormous chambers (and probably not even then). Henchmen in heavy armor slow down the party, eating up resources (torches, lamp oil) and fallen members are burdens that must be carried/helped out to safety. More hands make light work of carrying out treasure, but it really depends on how much equipment each hireling is burdened with.

    Development-wise, henchmen take a share of treasure found but only advance at half the rate which forces the party to choose between suitable PC rewards (with lesser chance of henchman survival) or easier challenge (with a lot lower treasure takes). Dead henchmen end up being a lot of both reputation AND resources spent (time and money) and hiring new henchmen (another drain on resources) often means ending up with an even weaker party member as only low level NPCs are willing to become retainers of a PC patron.

    The two PCs in my campaign are currently 5th level. They have only four henchmen at this point (three 3rd level, one 2nd) and that is really straining the limits of their resources, but they've found a six-person party to be about optimal for their dungeon crawling.

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    1. Sorry, that should say "...dead henchmen end up being a LOSS of both reputation and resources..."

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    2. Great thoughts, thanks for that! I have *most* of those same mechanics happening in my OD&D game (except training costs). There's been some debate about splitting the treasure/XP haul, but my players haven't found it too burdensome... if anything, it nicely balances the "huge cache of treasure with nothing to spend it on" problem in (later?) other games.

      I think like a lot of us I wouldn't mind the PCs having a growing roster of henchmen managing stuff outside the dungeon, but some specific reasons why a limited strike team goes in-dungeon.

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  11. So maybe one way to give a game effect to having loyal retainers without actually bogging things down by bringing them in the dungeon is to actually play up the problems with not having somebody loyal to guard your horses and the rest of your possessions. Maybe even possessions back in town, if the characters aren't hauling all their wealth around as portable stuff like gems. After every delve make a loyalty roll to see if your stuff is still intact; assume that if the roll is passed the retainers fought off any intruders, otherwise maybe some other kind of check (encounter roll?) and some of them are dead or fled with some proportion of your stuff?

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    1. Ooh, I like that. Actually my players did hire a majo-domo as a henchman for pretty much that reason (run their house in town) and he immediately became one of our favorite NPCs (and me to run, sort of Alfred/Radar O'Reilly mashup).

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    2. Sort anticipating the public roll at the end of the adventure: now let's see if Zybox is still there with your horses...

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  12. Regarding the notes of how many characters a player should control - recall that it was expected that players would maintain 'stables' of characters. There is extensive downtime built into the game and switching characters while one trained or healed was always expected.

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  13. I've been thinking about this for days, and there is so much I could write (and probably will on my blog). Some brief thoughts: I agree with having a 1 Retainer/Henchman per player when in the dungeon policy. However, during overland travel or a wilderness hexcrawl all Henchmen should be allowed. I like what others have said about guarding the horses, and having a larger party waiting outside the dungeon to help guard and transport treasures the party finds in the dungeon.
    The one option that I would add though is that extra henchman should be able to provide some other sort of benefit to the PC by "staying at home" back at the PC/Party's base of operations. Courtney Campbell's "On Downtime and Demesnes" has a full, complex system for this, but there are some simpler options. These are just examples, but I think you can see that there are lots of potential options. Magic User Henchmen can create scrolls (I like the OD&D/Holmes rules), Fighters can guard the base (very important once you establish a stronghold), Thieves can learn rumors. Clerics can pray for the party's success (provides some sort of buff for the the party during the adventure). The one thing that shouldn't be possible is for these activities by Henchmen "staying home" is to earn money.

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    1. I like all of that very, very much! Totally on board with that sensibility. I very much like the prospect of making explicit that idea of bring-cohort-in-wilderness, strike-team-in-dungeon. (And reminds me of mountain-climbing protocols, too.)

      Look forward to your blog post, add a link here when you do that!

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  14. Some things come to mind, but I dont know any of them are worth the hassle at the table.
    -Being more of a hardass on lighting. torches, lanterns, etc. Requiring torchbearers to free up their weapon hands.
    -Same for heavy armor and squeezing through cave openings, need a paige.
    -Maybe let Cha Mod be a bonus to Moral for those loyal henchfolk.
    -Put "Henchman" on the equipment list right along with other standard dungeon gear.

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    1. Ha -- re: the last item, I actually do that with an item "Ads for Hires" added to my OD&D equipment list.

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  15. Steamtunnel Here,
    One element that has not been discussed is "modeled economics" of supply and demand. Hirelings and Men at arms willing to enter a dungeon are obtained at population centers. Larger population centers have more options. So roll d6 for availability (response to the ad), 1in6 for hamlet, 2in6 for small village all the way up to 5in6. With the number of responders equal to the successful roll. So if the chance is 3in6 and you roll a 2, two show up. The Meatshields generator seems to have finding and hiring covered - I only wish I could get it in a pen and paper format. The BX approach seems good for morale. And I like the Init modifier idea for groups over 7 but I would make it over 8 - teams of 8 turn up time and again as the basic unit - Military, hiking, environmental impact, capabilities, etc. Malcolm Gladwell has a good essay on it in the Tipping Point.

    It seems you would have 4 classes of hireling - non-dungeon labor, dungeon labor, non-dungeon arms, and dungeon arms. You might do different rules for each type. Henchmen seem like more then hireling - implying trust with resources etc.

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  16. Great thoughts here! I'm very much in favour of the aforementioned techniques for organically limiting the practical size of dungeon parties based on logistical considerations: light, other equipment, and "notice-ability".

    I don't think this has been mentioned yet, but in addition to effects on surprise and initiative, if a party goes above six or so total, and if they are using more light sources (quite natural to do so that everyone can see), I'll add extra checks for random encounters to represent the noise & general disturbance their large party is causing in the dungeon halls.

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    1. That's good, too.. adding it to my idea list. Thanks!

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  17. I suppose *another* tactic is to scale the number of monsters that appear on a wandering check by the number of bodies in the PC party. That's actually in the books for OD&D Vol-3, Holmes mentions it explicitly as a justification (p. 10), etc. Not sure if I'm about to do that, but interesting nonetheless.

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  18. Yeah, I've run into this in my open table OSE (B/X) game. Because each retainer takes a share of XP and (usually) at least a half share of treasure, I have no trouble with the party wanting to take more than they "should" - usually they'll bring as many as they need to get to a party of 6-7 and then go for it. Typically each PC has 1 retainer, and doesn't want to bring more. This does raise the question of what the point of CHA is - I think the modifier for loyalty checks is probably a big enough deal though that it's still useful.

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  19. The LBBs only limit how many unusual henchmen you can have (see charisma definition in vol1).

    However, I also use a house rule that says the limit also applies to "leading" npc's into a dungeon environment; much like the leadership mechanic in the boarding rules in vol3. So if your hireling limit is 4, you can have any number of non-veteran mercenaries and men-at-arms in your employ, but only lead 4 of them at a time into a dungeon.

    I typically don't allow direct control of hirelings by the players. I let them roll attacks of course, but they are treated as servants and players have to ask them to do particular things. As such, I keep track of basic npc stats and roll them up as needed throughout play, but it's up to each player to account for their actions.

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    1. Right, the whole discussion here is on unusual henchmen (again, terminology expressing that varies by edition). My own assumption is that non-unusuals simply won't go in a dungeon.

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  20. Dennis hit on my thoughts above, but why not let high-Charisma characters build relationships with craftsmen who will repair or build things for him when he’s back in town, or a merchant who’ll shop around for rare items while his employer is out dungeoneering (or work to find a buyer for the art, jewels, or magic items the party located)? I’m thinking of almost more on the lines of WoD’s Contacts merit – thinking of how costly sage work is in the DMG, I’d gladly employ one back in town as a charismatic wizard if it meant I could save some time and money on spell research like a lawyer using a paralegal to prepare a case!

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    1. I don't think anyone disagrees with this, and players in my game have done likewise... but I think the goal here is a buttress against a player who expects to bring a fully armed henchmen troop into the dungeon. Allowed or not? What rule enforces it?

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