Game Basics: a companion’s guide to companions - Part 1
Companions are the meat and potatoes of every good party-based RPG. Today's update is the start of a small series of articles about our approach to writing and developing the adventurers, who will accompany you on your journey across the Stolen Lands. These updates are brought to you by Narrative Designer Chris Avellone. Enjoy!
Companions are a complicated bunch.
They can run the range: Your buddy. Your crush. Your source of exasperation. Your sibling you always wished you had. Your dependent. Your source of unease. Your pal. Your one true love. Your sibling you wished you could throttle. Your (budding) arch-enemy. Your rival. Your dark mirror. Your better you. Your mentor. Your conscience. And sometimes, yes, your annoying fire support who you don’t give a submachinegun to because he unleashes burst mode on everyone – often spraying bullets on you and your own allies at the same time (Fallout 1 true story with the companion “Ian” – although it’s worth noting that this arguably unfavorable tactic gave ol’ Ian more personality than anything else – it became his signature move).
I’ve written several companions over the years, and one key aspect to their creation I don’t often discuss is math.
I understand math is the worst subject for any ex-English Major to discuss with any authority, I know, but “the maths” have so much to do with companion design and companion arcs that it deserves some explanation. Or, in this case, a lot of explanation. Because you know us writers, we love them words.
That said, here’s a list of system questions we ask about each companion for the sake of math – and why it’s important for narrative to take these mathematics into account when constructing a companion.
- Every piece of data on a companion is important. By this, I mean all facets of data that define a character – including alignment. Factoring in alignment may seem strange to some, but when you have a game where the companions do pay attention to your actions, you’re allowed to play the game however you wish (good, evil, neutral, lawful, chaotic), and you can build a party, then you have to make sure you have a balance of companions that are suited to each character archetype. An evil player should have the chance to build a party of evil (or evil-tolerant) companions as much as a good character can do the same with a party of good (or good-tolerant) companions.
- If you don’t have a lot of companions for the game (not a problem in Kingmaker), then it’s important you make certain choices in companion personalities or quest lines that would explain why differing alignments would work together (and they can, which can create interesting quests and moments if staged correctly). These “will work with anyone” can also be done psychology-wise and setting-wise as well – and I’ll use Firefly as an example. So every member of the crew on the ship Serenity arguably has a markedly different alignment, but they also have a dependency or psychological flaw – ex: Jayne’s not too bright, Simon has a dependent, Zoey follows orders, Wash is tied to Zoey, etc. – all of these psychological bricks are mortared together and it keeps them on board and working together. In Planescape: Torment, even though you could sacrifice and force people to leave, there was a reason your party of differing alignments were drawn to you – and they definitely still fought with each other.
- Next question – if you do have a party limited by good and evil, are the companions that split along good and evil party lines balanced? (Ex: If all the Fighters in the companion list are Lawful Good, that’s an imbalance.)
- How does the character systematically fit into this party – does the companion showcase one of the range of races the game offers, especially ones unique to the game and franchise? (Goblins in Pathfinder, for example, exemplified by the companion Nok-Nok in Kingmaker.)
- Class is important narratively as well – not only for franchise-specific classes (hey, here’s a sample of one of the unique professions in the world), but also because you can’t divorce character class from a character’s backstory or their personality – a druid is likely to have a much different upbringing outlook on the world than a rogue, for example, and you need to know what “career” the companion fell into/choose in order to backtrack through their life to build the reasons they chose it – or why the class chose them.
- Is the companion progression done in such a way where the introduction makes sense (ex: you don’t want 2 fighter companions at the outset of the game, but you might want 1, and perhaps also a cleric for healing because giving the player a tank or healer early on as a companion is a great idea – even if the player is a member of both classes). In Planescape: Torment, we introduced Morte first, not just for narrative reasons, but because he is a floating shield that can take a lot of damage, can intercept enemies for you (or lure them to you), carry your stuff (he’s a floating backpack), and inform you about the world.
- Be careful on how you build the companion’s attributes and skill set – they need to follow the exact same rules as the player, and you want to build them in such a way that you don’t make them so specific they can’t make use of certain items in the game (extreme example – but if the paladin companion isn’t built in such a way that she can make use of the best paladin sword in the game, then you’re going to have some angry players – also, it goes without saying, that if the PC is a paladin, the PC gets the best paladin sword).
- It’s an excellent idea to give companions unique traits, unique inventory items, but take care that the companion is not “built” incorrectly (ex: he has higher attributes than the player would be allowed to have) – it’s irritating for a PC to traverse a game with a companion who has the same class as they do but they happen to have an unfair rack of stats, which means the player ends up being second fiddle, math-wise. And players will calculate each point and do comparisons, it’s a given. So mind the rules, even if you’d like to move points around.
- A dash of systemic spice is always welcome. What I mean by this is that the companion may have some item, trait, ability, or twist on their skills that complement their personality. It can be a diary or a space hamster. It can be a unique weapon only they can use (just don’t make it better than any other weapon a player can get, and try to give it room to grow).
- Be careful in assigning skills and attribute points to companions so that you’re not dumping points in skills and attributes they can’t even use. Example: Some games don’t allow companions to “speak,” which often means that giving them Charisma bonuses or adding to their Charisma is useless because it doesn’t do anything – if that’s the case, you might want to expand any attribute or ability that only the player can use but the attribute is shared by both the player and companion (this can be solved in other ways depending on the game design – either never allowing Charisma to be added to, or re-designing the dialogue interface – what I call “Tony Evans style” – so everyone can participate in a conversation and each one can use their stats).
- Balance the placement of the companion so that they are introduced in an area where they systemically shine (not just narratively, but combat, exploration, and tools-wise). Make sure that when the companion is gained, he’s useful immediately and if possible, he’s awesome in the immediate environment. Example – during your adventure, you might be trapped in a field of explosive spells and deadly traps, and Nok-Nok suddenly walks up (perhaps walking across the mine field in his own special trap-detecting way). Perfect. You have your own goblin mine-detector (one way or the other).
- But don’t solely have the placement be something that is a challenge or obstacle, introduce reward with it that the companion can help you reach (you may have encountered a locked chest you couldn’t open earlier in the map, or have a chance to unlock doors and cages in a mage’s storeroom). Maybe you’re a fighter who just found a wicked dagger called The Onyx Vertebrae which happens to be a dagger +2, +4 with Backstab – it’s a good weapon, but you already have a better sword. Still, when Nok-Nok appears, you know exactly who to give it to. After you teach him not to hold it by the blade.
- It’s to your benefit not to let the player get too comfortable with their roster if you’re introducing a lot of companions or introducing companions late in the game. Some players “lock-in” their party and are resistant to change depending on when you introduce a companion (this is why Final Fantasy games often have specific intros for each companion where you are forced to journey with them long enough to get used to them, then they’d be free to be removed from your party – it’s more like forced exposure, but it’s done with the purpose of showcasing that companion).
- Even death involves math – an extreme example, but the tragedy of having decide to save one of two companions is made cheaper when one has a skill set that nobody else. And it’s worse if that same skill grants the player the ability to gain special items, access to more chests, or access to secrets and bonus areas vs. the generic “fighter”. The choice then becomes less a role-playing a choice vs. “well, if I lose him, I’d lose my ability to pick locks anywhere in the world.”
- Lastly, the companions should reinforce or interact with the key systems in the game as well – for example, the player’s Kingdom. Having companions or not having certain companions should cause (and does cause) changes in one’s kingdom in Kingmaker, sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worst – each companion needs to have that “system kingdom arc” spelled out, as when writing them, you’d need to foreshadow and explain personality-wise and dialogue-wise why certain events may occur.
So let’s take our squat little maniac goblin Nok-Nok as an example and examine his schematics. He’s franchise-specific (goblin), he fulfills a role rarely held by other party members (rogue – a class that I find not many people I know seem to take as their primary character, but every seasoned RPG’er knows they always want a rogue in the party to open stubborn locks and get to places only thieves can go as long as it’s not the player that has to waste the skill points). Furthermore, he’s evil-alignment-friendly and can round out a part of evil characters although arguably his trait of being doggedly loyal means he can bond with other alignments (though they may not appreciate this), and he has a few goblin and personality-specific skills that Owlcat and I have kicked around for him being a goblin – some examples (not set in stone) – he may have the ability to gain ugly pets (goblins have the worst “pets,” but Nok-Nok can help you gain them), or he may gain unusual “trophies” (junk) that bolster his confidence as he regards them as relics, and if possible, he may even have the ability to have a unique trap disarm that uses his body as a shield for the damage – and trap damage resistance as a result of being the victim of this ability once too often.
Furthermore, his motivations are very much intertwined with the religion of the world and the religion of the goblins – and then takes it a step farther by wanting to be part of the goblin pantheon as their fifth god. He has impacts on your Kingdom (and on this, I can’t give spoilers). So there you go!
Last word on companion math – I know maths are the unsexy stuff. Necessary, but unsexy. I say necessary because if you avoid the steps above, people are less likely to want the companion at all no matter how well you’ve written them and carefully crafted their backstory (and I didn’t say “don’t want,” I said, “less likely” – there’s certainly exceptions to the rules above).
For Kingmaker, we strive to intertwine both the mathematical and narrative aspects to create a helpful ally as well as one with a deep backstory and an agenda of their own.
Narrative Designer, Pathfinder: Kingmaker
Stay tuned for our next update, where Chris explains the narrative process of building outlines and character arcs!
Hail to the Kings!