Friday, December 12, 2014

Animal Companions, Cohorts, and Familiars, Oh My!

Your character is the way you interact with and affect the game world. Whether you're an ancient vampire running Wall Street or a holy warrior standing against a tide of evil you have only this single skin to wear when you step into the game world.

Or do you?

I am a polymorphed dragon, and I want to be your friend.
Almost every game has a mechanic that grants you some form of companion. Whether it's a magical familiar, a supernaturally loyal bear, or just a sidekick you've picked up along your adventures there are plenty of rules that grant you a little bit of backup. These companions and followers are more than just one more set of mechanical bonuses to be used and forgotten though; they are a huge opportunity to roleplay, and to deepen your character's back story.

Who And What Are They?

The primary questions you need to ask is who and what your companions are. If you're a level one wizard that raven on your shoulder is more than just a talking bird; it's a part of your magic. It's a part of who you are and the journey you've taken. You have to ask yourself where and how you acquired it, what language you've taught it to speak, and what sort of relationship you've had with it. For instance, did your aunt give you the Corvax from her own aerie when she heard you had been accepted to wizard's college? Did you teach it to speak the language of your homeland so that no matter where you go you have a reminder of home near to hand? Does your raven have favorite foods like eyeballs? Is it solemn or profane, quiet or strident? Does it like people, or are you the only one it tolerates? Has it ever run off or gotten hurt?

A lot of questions for a level one caster, right?

The questions only get bigger the more powerful your companions become. How did the druid manage to tame a tiger? Did she raise it since it was a cub, or is it the gift of nature magic and worship that allows her to command the animal's loyalty? Is the animal a totem of her god, or a conduit to the forces of nature? If you acquired a cohort, how did you do it? What does that cohort want, and why did he or she approach you? What sort of bond do you begin with, and how does it change over time?

How Does Your Companion Change You?

Adding companions to the story does more than put another mini on the table; it forces you to deepen your primary character's back story to include this other character. This gives you a lot of opportunity to flesh out parts of your character you may not even have thought about. Is the companion someone from the character's past? Does the companion challenge the character's way of looking at the world, or give them a higher standard to rise to? Does the companion instead represent something your character once did, creating a real sense of continuity in your adventure?

Hellooooo Leadership!
Let's try some examples instead of working in the purely theoretical, shall we?

Say you have your stereotypical barbarian; big, brutish, angry, prone to outbursts and to challenge those he feels are disrespecting him. He's been gaining a reputation, and one day a young woman from his tribe wanders into town. She's looking for him because she wants to come along on his adventures.

What happens now? Does the barbarian maintain his uncouth ways, or does he attempt to appear more like a hero because someone who knows him in a way no one else does is now there to witness his behavior? Does he try to impress her? Is he protective of her? Does she know any embarrassing stories about him, or does she have a childish nickname for him that he never quite outgrew? Does he allow her to believe the swollen stories of his deeds, or does he tell her the truth about what he did and didn't do?

Let's try on another example. Say your paladin's mount is slain in battle, and she is grieving for the loss of her friend. Would her god see this and attempt to ease that suffering by sending a divine creature to serve in the mount's stead? Would the paladin accept the gift gratefully, or reluctantly? How long does she have to train with her new mount before the two of them achieve the oneness of mind and purpose that the paladin had with her original mount? What sort of relationship develops over time; do they become close, or will they always be two creatures simply serving the will of their master?

Examine Your Relationship Dynamics Carefully

Unless your storyteller takes control of these secondary characters they are the only characters other than your PC whose motives and actions you can really control. That also means that you can add to the collective story with them in meaningful ways.

Don't forget that these secondary characters are still characters, though. They have goals and desires and arcs all their own.

Sometimes they just want to watch the world burn... which is still a goal.
I'll give you a spoilery example (avert your eyes if you're playing Curse of the Crimson Throne). Early on in the game you get a chance to save a pseudodragon from captivity, and if you do so you can make him your friend. Spellcasters (my character Egil is tiefling rogue/magus in addition to being a town guardsman) can even convince Majenko to become a familiar. I did, and the sheer number of combats this cat-sized monkey wrench had ended with his sleep poison has become nearly legendary at the table.

Majenko is much more than just a self-absorbed house cat with scales and a stinger, though. Throughout the course of the adventure he's become a bosom companion to my tiefling, and has even shared in his crusade to return his city to order. Majenko has also fallen in love with a silver pseudodragon (one of my other followers), and the two of them have a brood in the Shingles of Korvosa. I have essentially written in a whole subplot about a character who was freed from slavery and who has fought by his friend's side, and who had to leave his family behind in order to help his best friend on a quest. While it might seem like fun and games, Egil has made it one of his sworn vows to return his friend back to his mate and his children. In essence having this friend turned a demonic-looking batman-with-a-badge into a more fully-fleshed character who has more emotions, connections, and reasons to step up and be a hero.

That's what adding secondary characters to your game can do; give you surprise character growth in addition to a dedicated healer or someone who's always willing to be your flank.

Also, check out one of the great stories of how a cohort not only expanded a single PC's plot, but helped alter the course of an entire game by looking at The Ballad of Baldric Brimstone.

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