It is a good sign that you are invested in a campaign when you care enough about an NPC to bring them along with you on an adventure. Followers come in all shapes and sizes, even more varied than people (since…you know…aliens). They often help out in tricky situations, taking less than a fair share of the XP and dying in a noble sacrifice so that the PC heroes can save the day.
Today we are going to talk about how to incorporate followers into your game without ruining the game. You don’t want NPCs to be stars over the PCs, and you certainly don’t want to spend two hours waiting for an NPC to take their turn in a conflict. Followers make a great support cast and a fun way to help players and GMs really care about the world.
So if you want to play a game and include some PC followers, here are a few things you should probably know…
When to Hold Them
Sometimes you meet an NPC that has special something, and you feel like you really want to take them adventuring with you. Maybe your character has a crush on them, or maybe they have a great personality. Maybe you need their specific skills where you are going. Or maybe they just seem eager to see the world, and you want to be the one to open their eyes to that experience.
If you want to bring someone along with you, then go for it! Try everything your character can to get that NPC to come with you. It will be a great story opportunity, maybe even with a happy ending. If they stop being interesting, you can always bring them back home.
A good GM will make recruitment a challenge, so skill checks may be involved. A successful dock master may be more invested in staying put than a local barmaid that keeps asking folks to take her with them. The reward for success is plainly in sight, so play it up! But stay true to the story. If that NPC is interesting but does not want to go, or you fail to persuade them to join you, accept that the story will not go that way. At least until the next time you get a chance to persuade them.
Also be wary of taking NPCs that are important to the community. I know that sounds a bit harsh, but if you really believe that your space station is a real place and then take the commander that keeps things going with you for a couple of years you should expect a LOT of changes when you come back. If everyone is ok with this, then definitely move forward. But do not make such decisions lightly. Supporting cast members are still important to the world as a whole, even outside your story.
When to Fold Them
Followers are not meant to last forever. When a player takes an NPC with them on an adventure, they need to understand that bad things may happen (especially if the PC does not protect the NPC). GMs and players should have an idea about how long a follower will accompany the group. Sometimes it is just one trip. Other times, it is till death do us part (which may also be just one trip).
Sometimes the end is very obvious to everyone. The follower has achieved the goal that got them into adventuring in the first place, such as killing a monster to avenge their family. Other times they become bored or boring and everyone is happy that they want dropped off at the next fueling station. And other times, the NPC is wearing a red shirt and you know…you just know when you bring them along that they are going to die and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
NPC deaths can be powerful, so do not rob a follower of their final moments if they go out that way. Leave a lasting impression on the party, a final memory that will define the group’s feelings about that character and really shape their view of the world. If, on the other hand, a follower decides to leave be sure that somewhere down the line that follower makes an appearance again (possibly alive), and use the terms of parting for your investment in a future adventure. Or for some awkward conversations when you bring your new husband with you and find out your old one now has the artifact you need.
Stick true to the story that the dice and the people tell, and let your followers be themselves to the very end. If the follower betrays you, play it out. Try to make sense of it all when all is said and done. And if you can find it in your heart to do so, replace them with new opportunities.
When to Walk Away
Not every interesting or impressive NPC would make a good follower, and not every party would benefit from a follower. Followers are great, a lot of fun and often very helpful, but if you are feeling conflicted about taking an NPC with you then maybe you should stop and think about why. So let’s talk about some concerns that you should address before you recruit someone as a follower.
First of all, does the PC trying to recruit a follower already have one? Most games do not handle multiple followers well in that there are no special rules to regulate such things, and if you have a player that has multiple followers they may tend to outshine other player characters and take far too long in their turns. A player without a follower should always have a better chance of recruiting a follower than someone that already has one.
Also make sure that you really want to change the follower’s life by taking them with you. If you really care about someone…ugh, I am not going to finish that sentence. But seriously, if you take your favorite shopkeeper with you to delve into a dungeon, understand that he won’t really be a shopkeeper while he is traveling with you. You will see other sides of his personality, and you may lose your favorite shopkeeper forever. Sometimes it is not worth the risk, but that is really your decision to make.
Finally, be considerate of the other people at the table. If you are recruiting a wench just to bug your cleric, then you are probably not adding anything to the story. If you are bringing a pet monster because you out-rolled the GM and want to rub it in her face, then you are not really making the game more fun for everyone. Followers are not just your own NPC. They are a part of the game and should interact with the other party members in a way that benefits the story.
When to Run
People make mistakes in relationships all the time. No one is perfect, not even in our fantasy worlds. But maybe you don’t’ want a serious campaign where everyone is telling a complicated story. Or maybe you have a specific story you want to tell that does not include bringing followers with you.
Followers are very beneficial to a campaign when they work, but if the system you are playing does not really allow for players to have them then don’t use them. Don’t even try. Play the game that you are playing with the benefits that it allows, and have a great time!
If you do not feel comfortable playing with a follower and have no desire to learn, then don’t take one. It’s your game. Play it the way you want to play. If you want to feel more comfortable with other elements of the game first, work on those other elements.
Also, if the GM seems to be giving you exactly what you ask for in an NPC follower with seemingly no strings attached, but she can’t stop smiling an evil smile about the whole thing, then run. Don’t look back, and don’t ask questions. Just run to the nearest temple and stock up on holy water.
It is a great thing to be able to point to an NPC from a game and say “We really made a difference in their life!” Especially when that difference was for the better. Getting invested in an NPC’s story gets you invested in the story as a whole.
GMs should encourage such investments in their world. Don’t punish them with quick deaths or sudden-but-inevitable betrayals. Reward players for caring about the people you create, and keep the story interesting.
If you have any stories about followers from your own adventures, we’d love to hear about them!