This is the first post in the final of three threads which will intertwine through my April A to Z effort. In addition to “Building abetter Hero” and “Building a better Villain”, I will offer a series of posts on character interactions. This first post is all about effective use of non-player character (NPC) companions.
Throughout the course of their adventures the heroes of a tabletop campaign will encounter numerous individuals, from townsfolk to royalty, to reclusive sages. Many of these figures will come and go over the course of a single game session or even a single encounter. However, on occasion, a GM may find it necessary and/or desirable to have an NPC or group of NPCs travel along with the heroes. Ideally, companion characters should enrich and support the story and the players’ role as protagonists without stealing the spotlight or otherwise getting in the way.
Running companions well is a bit of a tightrope act. Ideally, they should be more than simply walking stat blocks; they should seem like people. This means the GM must craft and role play each companion’s own unique personality. When you take into account that the GM must also play the roles of any monster, villain or village bar wench the party comes across, adding even one more personality to the pile can be a challenge. If the heroes have assembled a whole posse--eg. the squad of holy crusaders my players are currently traveling with--making sure these characters come across as people becomes an even more formidable task.
So, why is it important for companion characters to have personality? Why not just be content with Bob Spearman #1? First, if you play companions like they’re unique individuals, the party is more likely to treat them as such. This can help you avoid the problematic situation in which your heroes, the PCs send their companions to do all their dirty work for them—a situation, which threatens to spiral into the GM acting out an NPC vs. NPC play while all the players watch and eat Cheetos.
“We’re just about to the Dragon’s lair, send in archers 1 and 3 to see if its awake.”
If their companions are just stat blocks, the players will justify "sending in the help" as erring on the side of caution. If the companions have personalities, the players will be more likely to see it as risking the well-being of, well, a trusted companion.
Of course, the sheer number of characters a GM has to create and remember over the course of a game can make the task of crafting and assigning unique personalities rather cumbersome. I have a couple tricks I use to help ease the burden.
Step 1: Forget originality. It is perfectly okay to rip your NPCs’ personalities and even names from movies, comics, or any other place you find them. I once had a GM populate an entire medieval bandit village with the alter egos of DC superheroes! Unless you are completely ham-fisted about it, the uniqueness of your game world should be enough to make these personalities seem new. For the holy crusaders currently accompanying my players, I simply assigned various archetypes commonly found in action-movie teams. There’s the Sarge-style leader; the rookie; the wise preacher; the smartass; the big burly guy; the quiet, businesslike one; and the twitchy one with a chip on his shoulder. There, you have seven companions with seven very distinct personalities that only require me to remember a sentence or even a word to play effectively.
Step 2: Worry about unique personalities over unique stat blocks. Reuse old stat blocks for guards, cult members or barkeeps if you stat them at all. The crusaders in my game use two stat blocks. One for the healy clerics and one for the fighty paladins. Each of those sub-types has a leader. To make the leaders seem a bit more badass, I’ll simply fudge their stats by adding 2 to the existing stat blocks. Done! No muss, no fuss. Remember, only you the GM, sees your stat blocks. As long as things feel believable to the players, they likely won’t care where the numbers came from. (at least this is true in my group)
Combining memorable personalities with efficient character generation can turn companion characters into one of the most powerful tools in a GM’s toolkit. Want to establish a pants-wetting sense of danger before a big fight? Have the giant that the PCs are about to face tear the arms off their pal, Bucky and use his corpse as a greatclub. Have the mindflayer threaten to debrain their favorite wandering sage unless they meet its foul demands. Strong companion NPCs make great atmospheric and emotional fodder. The unique personalities that the players have come to love are, above all, a fantastic way to make it mean something when they die a horrible, horrible death.