Companions are key for any fantasy roleplaying game. Anyone who has read my previous post about my devotion to BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise has already guessed I consider companions a vital part of the roleplaying game experience. As it happens, it is also one I want to use more, so allow me to remind myself of why.
What is a Companion?
I define a companion as a support character controlled both by the GM and the players. The companion has useful skills and plays a part of the story, making it advantageous for a character to keep the companion around.
A companion does not need to be a friend or love interest, just someone who sees the benefit of sticking with the character for a while. The characters and companion have realized they need each other for whatever reason, they are not required to like each other. Sometimes it is more exciting if the character and the companion despise each other.
Who Are The Companions and Why Use Them?
Your roleplaying game of choice may have a rules system for support characters. You should, of course, read up on those rules as you proceed. I first encountered companions in the D&D red and blue boxes, so that is ever I begin.
Basic Dungeons and Dragons
A character who grows in wealth and power may build a castle and attract followers.Frank Mentzer, Dungeons and Dragons Expert Set (1983)
The D&D Basic and Expert Sets (1983) dealt with retainers, hirelings, followers, mercenaries, and specialists for support roles, and there is some overlap in the terminology
The Basic Set introduces retainers and hirelings, nonplayer adventurers controlled by the Dungeon Master.
The group can get hirelings to they are equipped to deal with the dangers ahead and make sure the game is both fun and playable. The hirelings also come with considerable cost. The characters hire them for a fee, and the companion gets a share of earned experience points. While the hirelings get no treasure, they expect the characters to provide any necessary gear.
The Expert Set introduces the remaining support characters. The followers help to build and staff your stronghold and serve as men-at-arms or apprentices. The mercenaries serve in your armies, and the specialists have specific tasks like brewing your potions or spying on your enemies. The characters gain followers for free based on level, while mercenaries and specialists are someone you pay.
The Expert set uses support characters to show and reward your progress and to introduce new modes of play.
D&D has always codified and created systems for everything it does. The degree has varied with the editions, but the desire to create systems has always been there. Companions in basic D&D are resources to manage and possibly spend to solve problems. This is one of many ways D&D, in my opinion, shows its wargaming roots. For instance, the Art and Arcana (2018) name the early D&D character Robilar, from the original designers’ home games, as one who uses callously used retainers to spring traps.
Read up in the current Dungeons Master’s Guide (2014), and you’ll find that the game still sticks to the same types to support cast members.
The Storyteller Approach
Other systems have their own ways of doing companions and other support characters, and Vampire: the Masquerade became a significant influence on my games in the late 90s. The attitude, presentation and topic matter was wildly different from standard Dungeons and Dragons. Vampire: the Masquerade was an inspiration at a time the D&D output, and RPGs as a whole, struggled to grasp my interest.
Some of the differences were superficial, for course, because also Vampire: the Masquerade has rules to generate characters and solve encounters, called the Storyteller system. This system includes ways to purchase companions as background traits for allies, contacts, herds, influence, mentor, and retainers. Each purchase gives access to support characters. Assigning more points in a category increases the support character’s power and utility.
The counterpoint to D&D in the Storyteller system is to keep the details abstract. Both have systems, and while the D&D rules emphasis managing resources, Vampire emphasis creating drama.
So where is the middle ground between managing resources and creating drama? I need both. That is just how I am wired. How do I get the companions I want for my game?
Today I implement companion characters in my games somewhere between the approaches in basic Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: the Masquerade and BioWare games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
The goal is to encourage interaction with the game world, keep the game balanced, and fair to all the players.
Companions in Play
I use companions in addition to the existing rules of whatever game I’m running, with the following added into the mix.
- All players can suggest and recruit a companion. The companion must fit the story and the main characters.
- The GM designs the companion based on player wishes and the companion’s role in the setting. The companion’s background and motivations are controlled by the GM.
- Companions are not the main characters of your story, and their overall power should reflect that. In D&D or Pathfinder RPG that typically means the companions are 3-4 levels lower than the player characters.
- The GM then hands over the companion’s stats to the players. All characters should have access to some or all available companions. The players roll dice on behalf of the companions, use their powers and makes the tactical choices.
- The companion power progression is kept appropriate for the story. It is assumed the companion get a share of the loot, but this is not something the players have to micromanage. Companions do not get a share in the earned experience, but rather level up as appropriate. The players are not penalized for using a companion.
- The companion cannot be the group’s main tank, because many combat situation would end up with monsters and the NPC characters clobbering each other while the player characters are bystanders. That is not fun or exciting.
- The companion’s loyalty is not purchased during character generation or progression but rather ensured by roleplaying. Failing to secure loyalty leads to indifference and even betrayal from the companion.
- Lost companions can always be replaced through roleplaying as the story progress.
In short, the companion is a GM character, but the players control them in combat to bolster the party.
Why is Companions a Good Idea?
The obvious reason to bring in a companion is if the group of characters lacks specific skills. There are, however, other reasons as well.
- Companions are close to the characters and act as moral compasses. The companions react to character actions and perhaps demand justification. This improves immersion and empowers the players.
- Creating character backgrounds are excellent world building tools. Backstories add to the world whenever you explain where somebody is coming from. Do that as often as you can, and your world will snowball. Note that this does not mean you should drone on about backstories, but knowing them helps consistency.
- The companions give the GM a voice in the group. The companion can be used to feed the players information, misinformation, and perhaps highlight plot points the players have missed.
- The companions are roleplaying opportunities themselves. Love, lust, sorrow, intrigue and betrayal, it is all there for the taking.
- Companions are convenient replacement or guest player characters.
- Creating more characters allow you to explore new mechanical options. You and your players will learn more about your game system and perhaps change how you play.
Companion characters are a good idea as long as game balance, engagement in the game world, and player character focus is maintained. Do not penalize the player for involving NPCs in the story. Reward them.
Companion Secrets, Motivations, and Loyalty Missions
The Second Rule of Dungeoncraft: Whenever you fill in a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.Ray Winninger
The real fun begins once the companion is introduced and its role in the group is established. You, as the GM, should ask the same questions you ask when you add anything to your setting. Figure out what makes the companion tick and always add a secret. This may grow into a story arc if you’re lucky.
Of course, showing the list below to any of the players may cause them to never trust an NPC again, so this too has to be used with some caution.
- Amnesia. The companion cannot remember some past events.
- Heartbroken. The companion mourns the loss of love or a loved one and is vulnerable despite displays of courage and bravado.
- Missing Relatives. The companion is looking for missing relatives and traveling with the characters enables the search.
- Redemption. The companion seeks redemption, possibly for others, but the burden lies with the companion.
- Sworn Enemy. The companion has a sworn enemy.
- Traumatized. The companion suffers from past trauma and struggles. Adventuring and aiding friends and allies is a way to cope, but it does not make it any better.
Dirty Little Secrets
- False Identity. The companion is lying about the past and may have powerful enemies or seek to escape past mistakes and regrets.
- Mixed Loyalties. The companion has sympathy and perhaps even loyalties to the enemies of the characters.
- Patient Avenger. The companion is patiently gathering resources, information, and power to revenge something in the past. This may be something that contradicts the companion’s nature and will destroy the companion.
- Secret Fanatic. The companion shares the character’s beliefs but is secretly a fanatic inclined to extreme measures. The companion will grow impatient with the character’s weakness, and unwillingness to do what is needed and may become a villain unless the characters pay attention.
- Stolen Property. The companion has stolen gear or property and is hunted by powerful enemies or law enforcers.
- Wanted Criminal. The companion is a wanted criminal, justified or not, and will either be hunted or at some point desire to revisit the past to settle scores.
I first came across the idea of “loyalty missions” when reading up on the BioWare game Mass Effect 2. I have not found a proper Wikipedia page or definition of loyalty missions, but the idea is old as dirt: The protagonist secures the loyalty of the sidekick by dealing with something relevant to the sidekick
The mission depends on the companion’s secret, should advance the main story, and increase the chance of overall success if completed. The loyalty mission may be standard side-quest like any other adventure, or it may be role-playing encounters. Powerful allies, or merely good friends and sympathy, may be required for the companion to put the past to rest and needs aid from the character.
Not all secrets are equal, both in and outside the game. The mission does not have to be something that is easily fixed, and not all topics are appropriate for all people. Care and sensitivity may be required both in and outside the game. Shooting up bad guys is not the best way to deal with trauma or heartbreak, but it may suffice for a bittersweet story for an adult audience. Use caution and good taste, and your story benefits.
Completing the mission will cement the alliance, and perhaps friendship. The immediate reward is a more trustworthy and loyal companion. The long-term reward is more depth to the story and its characters, and a better chance of successfully completing the story.
Failing the mission will sour the relationship, and the companion may eventually leave. Your story has benefitted from the companion either way.
- What Dragon Age Means to Me
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- Your First Pathfinder Game
- Create Roleplaying Game Characters
- Random Roleplaying Game Character Backgrounds
Did I Miss Anything?
Let me know in the comments below.
The Reading List
Looking for more GM tips? The basic ideas have not changed much in thirty-five years.
The sources below are worthwhile reads, and all lead to the same conclusion: companions are worthwhile additions to the game if used with some care and mindfulness on game balance.
The fifth edition Dungeon Master Guide (2014) devotes a handful of pages to creating nonplayer characters, including NPC party members, hirelings, and extras. More development seems to be forthcoming with the recent release of Unearthed Arcana playtest rules for sidekicks.
A somewhat more obscure source today is Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (2009) for the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which devoted a couple of pages on the topic.
Check out the Art and Arcana (2018) for more about older editions of Dungeons and Dragons. It is an exciting story, and the art is gorgeous.