Cunning Cohorts Build Character: Four GM Tips

An RPT reader asked me for tips about handling followers. This tricky territory is just now emerging in my Riddleport campaign. Following are three tips for getting more mileage out of followers, plus some advice on how to tie followers better into your plots and campaigns.

Give Them Family, Friends, Contacts, And Enemies

For gameplay, give a follower at least a few relationships. This provides you more great fodder for plot hooks and encounter seeds. Better yet, it adds depth to what is often a one-dimensional NPC type.

For flavour and immersion, give NPCs their own lives. On the surface, life might seem to be about tangible things, starting from food and shelter and then moving to toys and status symbols. The true measure of a life, however, is a person’s relationships. And so it is with NPCs, too.

An NPC with existing relationships will have carved a place in the world long before the PCs came along. That place might be big or small. Regardless, it makes the NPC seem real, and less like a tool, servant, or slave.

Use relationships to give players pause before abusing a follower or taking him for granted. Ensure the NPC will be missed if he dies or disappears. Better yet, if powerful people take notice, then the characters will be held accountable to the NPC, causing the group problems if he is killed or abused.

In times of trouble, the follower should rely on people other than the PCs for advice and help. In times of success, the NPC should want to share with, brag to, or help others. In this way, you introduce other NPCs for plots and encounters in a believable, seamless, fun way.

Potential relationships:

  • Parents and grandparents
  • Siblings
  • Sons and daughters
  • Former trainers, teachers, and mentors
  • Past and present rivals and enemies
  • Former patrons and employers
  • Romantic partners
  • Others who need the NPC

The enemy of a follower will likely become the enemy of the PCs.

Also, complications in relationships do not need to always turn into side quests or lengthy encounters. Even a one minute situation adds a lot to a game session.

Be sure to offer a few boons resulting from a follower’s relationships as well, to balance things out and not make players feel penalized.

The great thing about followers with relationships external to the party is you have control of all the other NPCs, so you can impose checks and balances, challenges and fairness.

Give Them Feelings

In the game system I run, characters can gain the ability to attract loyal followers. One interpretation of that is the henchmen are only loyal to the PC they’ve chosen to follow. In addition, the PC is not a king or god who commands fanatics.

This offers up several interesting possibilities:

  • The follower’s loyalty must be continually earned.
  • The NPC chose the PC, not the other way around. Unless the PC has a number of supplicants to choose from, the GM gets to pick the follower.
  • The follower is loyal to their chosen PC – not to other PCs, nor the group.

I see you rubbing your hands together and I hear your evil cackle. I join you. While you do not want henchmen to steal the spotlight away from player characters too much, and you do not want to nerf a character’s hard-earned rewards, you should always try to make life interesting for PCs.

For example, a character abuses his cohort. He names the NPC Pit Finder, gives him latrine duty every day, and uses him for +2 cover during battle. After awhile, the NPC snaps. As he should. Who would put up with that for long?

Instead of letting the NPC fade into the background and being abused this way, you have him stand up for himself. Some ideas:

  • He confronts the PC. Good roleplaying opportunity. Also reminds the player the NPC is a living, breathing, independent game element.
  • He hides. The PC will not only lose the NPC’s services and benefits, but he might lead a search party resulting in lost time and resources, and causing embarrassment to the character and party.
  • He switches sides. This one is a doozie. The defection might only be temporary, but it’ll sting. The cohort might go on a single mission with a rival, become a double agent, or get a second job for somebody who happens to be unfriendly to the PCs.

Another opportunity is intra-party politics. The follower is loyal to the PC they have chosen. That does not mean loyalty to every PC. The NPC might cause other party members all kinds of trouble.

Imagine a loyal cohort who felt another party member was a threat to his master. What would he or she do? Very interesting possibilities here.

If you take the follower seriously, the player will too. If not, you have lots of ways to show characters the error of their ways.

Give Them A Name Players Will Respect

A respectful name helps NPCs get the respect they deserve. Give a follower a cheesy name and they are doomed to be a party joke. This is fine for one or two NPCs, but a cheeky name should be the exception.

You can use names to enhance campaigns and add flavour. There are a lot of name resources available online.

Treat a follower’s name as an opportunity to build your world and improve gameplay.

Prepare a name cheat sheet so you do not get stuck mid-game coming up with a great NPC name.

For my Riddleport campaign, I assigned each world culture an Earth culture, and built name lists based on those cultures. Then I put the names into TableSmith software for easy random generation.

Give Them A Private Agenda

Serving their master should not be the NPC’s only motivation. Here are two interesting possibilities for some great gaming.

1) What did they want before becoming the PC’s follower?

Give the NPC one or two strong desires that remain unmet when becoming a follower. Have these ambitions come to the fore once in awhile, triggering gameplay opportunities.

Perhaps the NPC takes a strong position during a party debate. Maybe he uses his spare time to kick off an interesting side quest. Or maybe he makes requests of his leader that affects party decisions, for good or bad.

For example:

“I have a chance to meet master sculptor Ardonis in nearby Waterton. I have waited years for this opportunity – he never travels this far south. I’ll be back in three days. You won’t even miss me.”

The PCs may choose to accompany their henchman to Waterton, and get into some fun encounters there. Regardless, the follower falls in love with Ardonis’ daughter, and he becomes torn between love and loyalty – an interesting predicament!

2) What new needs, desires, and ambitions do they develop during the campaign?

This offers interesting twists and gameplay potential.

Even getting a new hobby mid-campaign makes players look at a follower as more than a stat block.

But what if the NPC started having feelings of personal ambition? How would he try to steer his leader, or what actions would he take to earn notice amongst others, possibly stealing the spotlight away from the PCs?

Alternatively, though the NPC might remain loyal to his PC leader, he might not feel the same about other party members and followers. Maybe the NPC spies on another PC in exchange for money, secret training, or romantic interests.

Here are a few ideas for interesting private agendas:

  • Wants to surprise his leader with some great accomplishment, which ends up going awry or actually working against the PC.
  • Dreams of owning land and settling down with his wife of ten years. This might make him adverse to risk at the wrong times.
  • Seeks revenge against a lord whose army killed his family. At key times, the NPC’s loyalty to the PC competes against opportunities for vengeance.
  • Wants to change class, but his leader won’t let him.
  • Wants to impress a noble’s daughter and some day have enough wealth to win her hand in marriage.
  • It turns out a PC’s friend or family member murdered the follower’s brother.
  • Deluded. He believes in a contrarian prophesy or dream.

Whenever possible, developer followers and cohorts into living, breathing NPCs. Loyalty does not mean without fault or stagnation. Avoid making followers liabilities, and instead design interesting situations that make for fun gaming.

Balance risk, reward, and failure according to the pacing of your campaign.

Guaranteed, nobody will forget gaming with followers such as these.

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