One basic truth of playing D&D or any roleplaying game (RPG) is that the spotlight usually remains on what the players are doing. In some campaigns, this can prevail to the extent that it seems nothing of consequence ever happens when the player characters (PCs) are not around, which exaggerates the importance of the decisions of the players (in other words, if they don't do something about it, they know darn well that nobody is going to do it). It also conveys a sense of unreality to the players, because it is hard to take seriously a world that is frozen in amber until you step out on stage. This issue has been dealt with in previous columns, and what I intend to discuss here is the opposite end of the spectrum -- an excessive focus on the action going on in places where the players and their characters are not involved -- and ways to think about the integration of nonplayer characters (NPCs) into the campaign both as elements of the background and world surrounding the PCs and also as elements integral to an adventuring party, such as cohorts and followers.
As always, balance is the key to resolving how much to play up the NPCs in the campaign as compared to the PCs. The presence and independent activity of NPCs makes the world vital and real instead of just a sterile stage for the PCs to sweep in, do their business, and then leave behind without a second thought. The fact that NPCs can react to (and sometimes anticipate) the actions of the PCs reinforces the point that behavior has consequences, both good and bad, and that the choices that NPCs make will be based on their personality (simply represented by alignment, plus any particular cultural, traditional, or even instinctual ways of seeing and behaving). It makes the PCs aware that their actions and reputations matter in the world (or at least their little corner of it), so they're not just anonymously hacking and looting their way to fortune.
Problems can arise, however, when you spend too much game time describing what else is going on in the world besides what the party is doing. You may see this come true when the actions of the NPCs overshadow the achievements of the party. You may find this complaint often leveled against computer-based RPGs, wherein much of what the player can do amounts to a series of "fetch my boots" missions carried out at the behest of some powerful NPC personage, but the phenomenon is not limited to electronic games. It is perfectly reasonable for PCs to undertake missions on behalf of some NPC or other, but if that becomes the standard template of their adventures the players may begin to feel more like errand boys than aspiring heroes. They may question that if So-and-So the Magnificent is so great, why doesn't he go slay the iridescent puce dragon that lairs in the Caves of Chaos? He's powerful enough that it would be no problem, but instead he sends a party of PCs that are just barely powerful enough to take on the dragon and live to tell the tale.
This solution is a self-defeating one, however, because rather than feeling like errand boys, the party may feel like a bunch of irrelevant wimps where the superheroes of the game world take care of all of the real problems and they receive the two-bit get-the-kitty-out-of-the-tree missions. Fairly or unfairly, the Forgotten Realms campaign setting has this reputation in gaming circles, as one where the key NPCs are the most powerful characters in the world and always will be. This may be due to misuse of powerful NPCs as deus ex machina, where they would ride in and save the ostensible heroes (in other words, the PCs) in their darkest hour, like the cavalry riding in to save the beleaguered settlers in an old western. While this might be okay to do once, especially if the party was already seeking out the NPC in question and were actively engaged in a foil-the-evil-plot activity, to have the campaign superheroes pop up and save the party for something other than as a plot device in the ongoing story arc of the campaign makes the players feel impotent and frustrated. This is especially true if the players get the sense that these super-NPCs will always be more powerful than they are, that they can never approach the NPCs' degrees of power or importance in the world, and that they will never have a real opportunity to become more than a second-rate hero.
However, one shouldn't say that such characters cannot and should not ever be used. Instead, it can be kind of fun for players to encounter a "celebrity" of the game world, especially for players who have read novels featuring those characters or if they are simply fans of the game world. It can be fun for you, as well, and it strengthens the tie of the PCs to the fabric of the game world, because those famous personages are a part of what makes the world unique and special. The key is to use powerful NPCs in situations where they can be allies or resources but without making the players feel that their characters are merely the henchmen of the more powerful NPC. The PCs don't have to be as powerful as the super-NPC, and the power gap can be quite significant, but they must feel as though their contribution is important and useful in whatever they are doing together. Without this sense, the players are likely to very quickly become bored, frustrated, or both. The fun wears off quickly if you always have to be Robin to someone else's Batman, or Jim to their Marlin Perkins (gratuitous reference inserted for fans of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom from the seventies). Use super-NPCs like a strong seasoning; a little goes a long way.
On the other hand, some players might like a turn at being on the other end of the hero-sidekick relationship. To this end, D&D offers the Leadership feat, which entitles the player who selects it to attract a cohort and/or a number of low-level followers. The construction of this within the rules as a feat ensures that only those players who have some interest in amassing a body of minions need to worry about it; those who don't care for that style of play needn't bother with it. It also becomes a part of the tradeoffs in constructing a character: Attract a cohort, and you have an assistant whose first loyalty is to you and can watch your back in situations where other party members might not be willing or able to; forego Leadership, and you get an extra feat of your choice. Game-mechanically speaking, a cohort can also fill in a missing link or supplement a weak area in your (or your party's) arsenal of capabilities, whether that void is in spellcasting, fighting prowess, rogue skills, or whatever. Cohorts that are rare and exotic creatures (including mounts) can also be just as much fun as typical classed humanoid cohorts and offer many of the same types of extra capabilities to the party.
Cohorts do create a problem for the party, however, in that they also create a drain on party resources. They are almost always several levels behind the party average, but they need to eat, they require healing, and they are usually killed more easily and require raising or resurrection. They also count as a party member for the purpose of determining experience points, and they usually are entitled to at least some share of treasure found during adventuring. While this may not be a full share of treasure, other players may resent having to grant any shares to a lower-level character who joined the party without their input, whose primary loyalty is not to the party as a whole, and who in a sense could be considered an employee of another character. They might suggest that if the character in question wants a cohort, then they should pay the cohort a salary from her own funds without penalizing the rest of the group for that choice. Most groups would not make such draconian demands of PCs who take a cohort, but sometimes issues such as these should be addressed before any characters take the Leadership feat and introduces a cohort to the party.
Over and above any objections raised by players, cohorts can be a problem for you, the DM. First and foremost, they create the potential for a power struggle over who controls the character. As an NPC, the cohort technically remains under your control, though in most cases you may simply allow the player to run the character as a secondary character. The classic warnings against allowing a player to run more than one character are muted by the fact that the cohort is not a full-fledged character but is an intensely loyal follower of the PC and likely to take his or her instructions in the most favorable way. If you feel it important, however, you might have to overrule a player's preference for what the cohort should do, and that kind of situation may create at least a bit of hard feeling.
In addition, adding extra characters to the party can be a problem in combat situations, especially if the group is large. The use of cyclic ordinal initiative in D&D makes this problem a bit easier to deal with than in previous editions of D&D, but one more player on the battlefield (or more than one, if several player characters have selected Leadership or have taken it more than once) can add a significant headache both in terms of keeping track of that character and what he or she is doing and in figuring out what that character adds to the preparatory abilities of the party. Does that character have special skills or magical/psionic capabilities (for example, a wand of haste or fly, or high Search and Disable Device skills) that alter the way the party can approach the challenges you place before them, whether in combat or otherwise. Cohorts make it more difficult to balance encounters and challenges for the party, particularly with creatures capable of using area-effect attacks. The player characters may easily withstand (or at least survive) attacks that wipe the cohort(s) off the board with little or no chance of survival since cohorts usually have fewer hit points, magic items, or spells in effect on them, and they are less likely to succeed in saving throws or (for the most part) skill or ability checks. The DM can just say "tough luck" to the player(s) with the cohort(s), but that's cold comfort to someone who invested a feat slot as well as time, effort, and probably treasure in building up their cohort. On the other hand, challenges that do not wipe out the cohorts might be too easy for the player characters, and trying to balance everything out is a dicey proposition at best. All of the above problems apply but in even greater degree when a player with Leadership wants to make use of his or her followers, who are far too weak to be taken on most adventuring situations, and even if they were they would constitute an enormous headache in combat logistics for the DM and players alike.
The problem of power disparity applies equally to any party in which you find a significant variation in levels on an ongoing basis (it is less important in one-shot or specific scenarios, such as the super-NPC working with a less-powerful party mentioned above), and it makes things harder on you to keep everyone satisfied. You may find it reasonable to state that you are not comfortable having to deal with the complications of cohorts, either in the clutter of day-to-day action (especially combat) or in creating and balancing the challenges within the campaign, and simply rule out the use of the feat on that basis. This may disappoint those who had aspirations of taking the feat, but it should prevent a lot of argument later on.
Even if you and the players do not want to deal with cohorts and followers on an ongoing basis, you could talk about allowing the feat to those who aspire to feudal lordship or some such similar position, in a campaign scenario where they have enough free time to pursue long-term goals of this type. Although in certain game situations the ability to rally followers (or a cohort who does not adventure with the character) may not be a benefit, attracting a seed cluster of low-level NPCs can certainly be useful in terms of staffing and guarding a castle, a large business enterprise (perhaps a trading ship), a cathedral, or even a small town, and the number is probably sufficient to serve this need. Should a character desire something made by her craftspeople or want an honor guard for a state visit (or to guard a trade caravan), those kinds of services are available on demand. In this use of Leadership, the cohort serves as the steward and representative for the player character and governs her affairs while the PC is off adventuring. Although the followers granted by Leadership number too few to constitute any sort of army (unless the character is very high in level, and at that level the PC could probably take on the same challenges as her small army with at least as good a chance at victory), they are ample to police a small domain that will progressively expand as the PC gains levels or fulfills special conditions to boost her Leadership score, in addition to growth that may be due to other settlers who elect to move into the PC's domain even though they are not technically loyal followers. Is all that worth a feat slot? That depends on the player, but for some it might be, and it's probably worth keeping Leadership as a feat even if you decide not to allow active play of cohorts or followers on adventuring missions. It can be fun to meet famous NPCs, but it can be even more fun to make yourself into a famous PC and have the NPCs be excited to meet you and join your legion of lickspittles, toadies, and yes-men, or just to be loyal and faithful followers of your mighty banner.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!
©1995-2008 Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All Rights Reserved.