D&D General Baldur's Gate has great companion character arcs. Are such things possible or even desirable in published adventure paths?

(Very mild spoilers for BG3.)

I just finished BG3 last night, and (aside from the very ending which needs a fuller epilogue), the game has some really stand-out character arcs for the various companion NPCs. If you go the route most players do, you'll design your own character, and along the way pick up Lae'zel, Shadowheart, Astarion, Gale, Wyll, and Karlach, plus potentially a few others. And while you're busy fighting all manner of baddies, you'll also be with those characters as they confront situations that challenge their assumptions, or force them to grapple with dilemmas that can steer their personalities in different directions.

By the third act, you could be in a party of do-gooders struggling to make right the sins of their past and break various cycles of abuse, or you could have gathered a cadre of calamitous scoundrels set on out-eviling the villains. Or, delightfully, a bit of a mix. A big chunk of gameplay involves quests that are personal to the NPCs, whereas your own character kinda doesn't have much of an arc (unless you pick the 'Dark Urge' origin, but shh, no spoilers!).

Now, I've run plenty of long campaigns in tabletop D&D where I've striven to give the PCs their own personal storylines. But that's the work I did as the GM. When I think about published modules, particularly adventure paths, I wonder whether it's possible for them to write in story arcs for NPCs that would have the same sort of impact that these quests in BG3 have had. While the dialogue isn't, y'know, scripted and professionally acted in an adventure module, is having important NPC character arcs something I, as an RPG writer, should even want to attempt?

Over the years I've played five or six published adventure paths. I wrote two myself. But I don't think I've ever seen a prewritten character in an adventure path whose story had as much impact on me as when I helped Shadowheart undertake the Gauntlet of Shar, or brought Astarion to confront the vampire Cazador.

Then again, in BG3 you're one player with 6+ companions. In a tabletop game, there are maybe 4 players with their own characters. Players want the game's story to be their story, and if the GM has an NPC tag along with their own character arc, people can grumble that the spotlight is being taken away from them. "DMPC" is a term of mild derision.

Now, that doesn't mean NPCs in adventure paths can't have written in arcs. In the ZEITGEIST adventure path that I directed, there are a few NPCs who show up often enough in the course of the ongoing series that your party can have an impact on them. Lya Jierre gets introduced in the first adventure, and by adventure six might be a stalwart foe, or might regret that she's forced by circumstance to be your enemy . . . or you might turn her to your side. (Or you can drop her in a volcano.)

But most of the NPCs exist to pose dilemmas for the PCs, to give the players a situation where they might turn in one direction or another.

Do you have experiences playing or running pre-published adventures where there are NPCs who have a genuine character arc? Did it feel like you were getting pulled out of the game and being forced to watch someone else's story? How might it be done well?
 

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Retros_x

Explorer
My read on the BG3 companions is that they're supposed to be filling the role of other PCs at a typical table, not NPCs. PCs having character arcs is kind of a platonic ideal at more story oriented tables, but NPCs taking center stage often feels bad.
This exactly, they are your party. The story BG3 tells with your companions are the stories of your PCs at your tables, or should be at least. The NPCs in your campaign are more like the NPCs (duh!) in BG3 - they can be well written like the Nightsong (I really enjoyed their story), but their story is not a focus and they do not have a big arc.
 

Gimby

Explorer
I think it's certainly possible, but requires a good amount of finesse.

I was running Curse of Strahd in which the characters of the Kolyana siblings, Ismark and more importantly Ireena have potential significant arcs.

The story of the module has the potential to revolve around Ireena and her relationship with the titular vampire and this is the route that we ended up going with. I'd had some concerns about having NPCs in the party forcing direction (as the players may be willing to follow a more experienced guide to Barovia) so very early Strahd maims and silences Ismark and so Ireena spent the first part of the adventure looking after her brother and being clearly in need of help.

For much of the rest of the adventure the party is discovering why she is so important to the plot, but at the same time she's relying on them for guidance and so they are shaping her personality. At critical junctures I get the players to vote on how she acts, so they feel they've got an influence in how things are going. Then, at a moment when the party is being overwhelmed, she sacrifices herself to save the party by surrendering to Strahd, leading to the party attempting to save her and the final confrontation.

Overall, I found that making the character of the NPC responsive to the PCs actions, having them having a personality that the party wanted to keep around (at the end of the campaign, one of the PCs described her as a "best friend") and having them present but not overwhelming made it work.

However, if I was running the campaign again, it may have made more sense to have her role in the story taken by a PC
 


Tony Vargas

Legend
I suppose I do that occasionally. Introduce an NPC with an interesting backstory, who matters to what the players are currently trying to do. The player's decisions determine how the NPC's arc unfolds and how it wraps up. Sometimes they can choose not to influence it much, and just be there as it plays out, in parallel to their own thing they decided was more important. Sometimes they get deeply committed to it.

Thing is, it's always the PCs' story, the NPC is a character in it, maybe supporting, maybe a just cameo, maybe part of the backdrop.
In a module... published adventure... I expect it can be hard to present that, because you don't know who the PCs'll be, and the heroes being generic while the supporting role is fleshed out seems like it'd be tough.
 

Gradine

The Elephant in the Room (she/they)
I think, at best, you can suggest possible paths for where the NPCs might be directed to develop, given appropriate and impactful PC intervention. Beyond that, I'd imagine it's for the best to try to allow that to develop naturally at any given table.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
My read on the BG3 companions is that they're supposed to be filling the role of other PCs at a typical table, not NPCs. PCs having character arcs is kind of a platonic ideal at more story oriented tables, but NPCs taking center stage often feels bad.
I think you're right on the rationale, but does it actually feel bad to give more depth to regularly appearing NPCs? Yes, bad DMs* can have their pet NPCs hog the spotlight, but I don't think we can extrapolate from that to say that NPCs shouldn't have bigger motives and desires than "kill another NPC in this same adventure" or "sell players some equipment."

I haven't played BG3 yet, but I've played Dragon Age, and the NPCs there all have goals and desires and are the star of their own stories, which overlap with the PC's. To answer @RangerWickett's question, I think it's possible to give NPCs a campaign-length ambition and to put things in their way that will cause them, and the PCs, to have to reckon with them.

In a live roleplaying game with multiple players, I would probably limit the number of NPCs I gave this deluxe treatment to one or two, not five or six or eight (I think some of the later Mass Effect games had pretty big casts).

This is a good question. When I get an ongoing live campaign going again (as opposed to a bunch of one shots), I'm going to try and see if I can make this work.

* Not paying attention to how the spotlight is being shared -- or not -- is the "bad DM" behavior I'm talking about here.
 

MarkB

Legend
Out of the Abyss tried to implement something like this, starting the party off with a whole bunch of NPCs that the DM was encouraged to have 'team up' with individual party members, with some of them surviving the initial jailbreak to accompany the PCs into the underdark, with each of these NPCs having their own agenda.

I've seen mixed reports on this, and the one time I ran the campaign, the PCs had either shed or lost most of the NPCs by the time they reached the second major location, and only one of them had made much of an emotional impact.

Glabbagool the sentient gelatinous cube on the other hand, an NPC encountered during a minor sidequest, was an instant hit, and every one of the PCs would have gladly sacrificed their life for him, despite him having accidentally engulfed each of them on at least one occasion. He got a decent character arc in the end, though only a few aspects of it were covered in the adventure itself.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
I think the closest a 5e adventure path has gotten to BG3-style character arcs is Call of the Netherdeep, where you're competing against a rival adventuring party that has a bit of character development as the adventure progresses. You meet them early in the adventure before the main plot starts and meet up with them at various points in the adventure. I thought it was an interesting idea, but haven't had the opportunity to do the adventure yet.

It's obviously not anywhere near the depth of BG3's companion quests, as BG3's origin characters are more akin to characters the players would control than DM-run NPCs, but I'm not sure how else you would implement Origin characters in 5e without extremely restricting player agency.
 

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