Role Play and Small Parties: Companion Characters

I have seen a bit of controversy over the use of Companion Characters in 4th edition. Many people liken it to the dreaded DMPC and groan. In my time as a 4e DM I have found the companion character to be a useful tool in creating plot hooks and quests.  The CC has never been a thing to fear due to its very limited abilities as a party member. As long as a DM sticks to the CC rules players don’t have to worry about a DMPC upstaging their story. Every time I have used one as a DM it was to fill out an underserved role in the party and to promote great role playing in the session. The CC is also a great way to bring a huge cast of characters into your game and add an epic scope to the campaign. Anyone who owns a copy of the DMG 2 can peruse the section on building CCs, but I am writing this to talk of my experiences in using one both in combat and for RP.

To Battle!

Of the four companion characters I have used, two of them were strikers, one was a defender, and the other was a leader. The DMG 2 states that a CC should have no more than three powers or else it will create too complex of a character. I have found that building a CC depends on how it’s used in the game. If I hand over a CC character sheet to a player to run in combat I will design that character with no more than two powers. A player has to deal with too many of their own abilities, that running a second character can be overwhelming. Striker and Defender characters can be built with two powers and be left in the hands of the party. The leader on the other hand had two attack powers plus a healing ability. I chose to run the leader myself to keep the players’ hands free.

In terms of powers for CCs I have found a good rule to stand by. Companion characters should be built with one damage heavy power and a second damage-light/controller power. In many cases, a CC power that enables movement for the party, or forced movement of an enemy is what players need when a fight gets challenging and they require some kind of respite. A CC should still be designed with simplicity in mind, because of that they can’t have all those nice get-out-of-jail utilities that PCs enjoy. Therefore, movement enabling powers will have to suffice. This system has worked fairly well for me and the party. The players know that the CC has a trick or two up his sleeve, but he won’t be able to save the day if the battle takes a turn for the worse.

Would Be Heroes

The four companion characters I have designed for previous games were Toh-kin the Kobold Avenger, Tenelin the Human Fighter, Jacoby the Halfling Rogue, and Sgt. Karev the Dragonborn Warlord. Each CC drew great reactions from my players, and even though they were simple combat ready NPCs, they inspired some fantastic role play. I personally believe the biggest criteria required for bringing a companion character into a session is whether the current game requires some role playing and advancement of story. I wrote before that the CC is maligned as a DMPC, and in some ways that observation is correct. Creating these characters is a selfish thing for me. I get to design interesting race/class combos, come up with fun backstories, and even pull out some fun voices. I get to be greedy and I get to hog a bit of the spotlight instead of playing standard bar tender #36 or old farmer who needs help #93. What separates the CC though, is that he isn’t capable of outperforming the players and I use him in a support role. These characters are great for reminding players what their goals are, or any bits of information the party might have forgotten from a few sessions back.

The reactions my players have had over theses characters have been thoroughly enjoyable. Toh-kin was essentially the younger brother of the party. Some players abused him and others loved him. He remained as an NPC for a long time in my first campaign, but there came a point when the party was in session and they were lacking firepower. I told everyone to take a break and stretch their legs. I pulled out my copy of the DMG 2 and asked the players random questions about their Kobold companion and what they wanted him to become. Soon enough Toh-kin became an axe wielding Avenger sworn to a new religion founded by one of the players. We continued on with the adventure and the young Kobold ended up having a few heroic moments that had the party cheering. Toh-kin went from younger sibling always underfoot to a somewhat respected companion.

Tenelin and Jacoby were not as emotionally entwined with the party but they certainly had an effect. While clearing out bandits in the woods, Tenelin had become the party’s meat shield for the session. He admirably took the hits for the rest of the party and drew the eye of the dark elf sorceress Chalii (played by one of my female players). Chalii, being a rather unscrupulous character, was admiring his excellent physical condition and his ability to direct harm from her. Though Tenelin hasn’t adventured with the party for a while I have made a mental note to attempt some kind of romance storyline (something I’ve never done before) with the dark elf at another time. Jacoby on the other hand was designed with the intention to make the players feel uncomfortable. The halfling rogue is dangerous and helped the party steal their biggest prize yet. Jacoby helped them grab hold of a nice sailing ship through the murder of its crew, and he could quite easily use their nefarious deed as blackmail later on. A tenuous, intrigue ridden alliance like this could spark a variety of quests or even turn the whole campaign into a cloak & dagger affair.

Sgt. Karev was simply a way for me to give the party a band-aid because the party leader wasn’t able to play that day. Karev ended up investigating a cult of Tiamat with the party and helped them face off against their first dragon. Most of the players got banged up and Karev’s healing was quite welcomed by the players. He fought valiantly beside the defender and almost died. By the end the party’s swordmage told Karev to back off while she tried to handle the dragon alone. I chose to roleplay the Dragonborn warlord as an honourable soldier and so he rushed forward and managed to bring the enemy down with a solid hit from his battleaxe. The party ended up acting quite grateful to the Dragonborn (usually the players treat NPCs like mud), and they’ve developed a sort of warrior-bond with him.

Conclusion

A lot of these CCs have developed complex relationships with the party as opposed to the classic quest and reward giving NPCs. They act as the supporting actors to the party and have helped me develop options throughout this campaign. I can easily see how the players react to each of these characters and now I can take their assumptions and create some interesting story arcs for these minor characters. From here I can start looking at when to bring these companion characters back, how to nurture a romance, how to reveal a treacherous conspiracy, and whether a proud and honourable warrior should sacrifice himself for a group of worthy allies.

Comments, questions? Email me at shiftykobold@gmail.com or follow me on twitter @shiftykobold

I wrote today’s article in Ommwriter. If you’re having trouble doing writing of your own check it out here.

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2 thoughts on “Role Play and Small Parties: Companion Characters

  1. Great post. I’ve used CC’s myself, and Splug (now an elemental-tainted Warlord goblin) has become a core member of my players’ party. Taken with him immediately, my wife plays him, so there’s no chance of the DMPC infraction.

  2. I’m glad you liked it. I’ve seen a few forums where people have complained about it and made wild accusations about how it’s just like a DMPC. Splug sounds like a badass though, and it’s cool that your wife loves him so much that she plays him without feeling overwhelmed!

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