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

Incenjucar

Legend
Adventure video game NPCs make handy examples here. They often have quest lines that advance their story and touching moments the PCs can trigger or disrupt, but the revelation is still sought by the player, not thrust on them. There may be background arcs occurring that the players get glimpses into, like a rival party going to the dungeons they don't, but it's not ever the focus.
 

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Kurotowa

Legend
Yes and no.

Yes, there's room in a campaign to have a story arc focusing on an NPC the players have grown to care about. Helping a friend, seeing them succeed at a major goal or resolve their issues, can be very fulfilling. No, it's not something a published adventure path can do easily, because of how bloody unpredictable it is which NPCs the players will decide to care about.

Seriously, everyone has stories about the time the players decided they all hated a major plot NPC that was supposed to be an ally, and everyone has stories of the time the party universally agreed to adopt a random minor NPC that had a quirk that was endearing. Maybe a specific DM can get good at reading their particular group, but a published adventure has no way to predict or engineer which NPCs the party will care about enough to want to participate in an arc focused on them.

Baldur's Gate 3 can pull the trick of having a team of writers spending years creating side plot for every major NPC, crammed inside a bottomless digital box so that the player can follow the ones they want and ignore the ones they don't. A published adventure doesn't have the budget or the page count to do that. Not as any more than short stubs. It isn't until you go out the other side to a DM creating it all as they go along that they can respond to the players directly enough to have appropriately tailored NPC sidequests.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Seriously, everyone has stories about the time the players decided they all hated a major plot NPC that was supposed to be an ally, and everyone has stories of the time the party universally agreed to adopt a random minor NPC that had a quirk that was endearing. Maybe a specific DM can get good at reading their particular group, but a published adventure has no way to predict or engineer which NPCs the party will care about enough to want to participate in an arc focused on them.

Baldur's Gate 3 can pull the trick of having a team of writers spending years creating side plot for every major NPC, crammed inside a bottomless digital box so that the player can follow the ones they want and ignore the ones they don't. A published adventure doesn't have the budget or the page count to do that. Not as any more than short stubs. It isn't until you go out the other side to a DM creating it all as they go along that they can respond to the players directly enough to have appropriately tailored NPC sidequests.
Maybe the trick is to have a canned longer plot that can be attached to whichever NPC the players fall in love with. ("Hmm, so this novice goblin bandit with the lisp you all have adopted, uh, is actually the bastard son of the previous king ...")
 

Kurotowa

Legend
Maybe the trick is to have a canned longer plot that can be attached to whichever NPC the players fall in love with. ("Hmm, so this novice goblin bandit with the lisp you all have adopted, uh, is actually the bastard son of the previous king ...")
The thread title says it all. We're talking about "great companion arcs" not "blandly generic character arcs stapled to a random NPC". It's not like Clue where anyone can be the murderer. A great companion arc needs to be made specifically for that companion, with foreshadowing and character growth and all those good story bits.

A DM can respond dynamically the party's decisions and affections. A high budget CRPG can cram in enough variable paths to give the player satisfying choices. A published TTRPG adventure falls in the gap in between, where it can't respond intelligently but doesn't have the information density to cover enough variables.
 

Tazawa

Adventurer
I think it is a very interesting idea when applied to a specific structure.

It could be very effective in a single or two-player campaign when using sidekicks for additional members of the party. The player would be able to select their companions from a number of possible sidekicks, who would have different motivations (and adventure hooks).

It could be structured very much like BG3, with the player controlling the sidekicks in combat and exploration, but the DM controlling the interactions. Decisions the player makes could influence how the sidekicks develop and change, with decision points that could change the sidekick’s traits and stat blocks.

Solo player games are an area that hasn’t been highly supported in the past, but there is likely a group of people who should be interested. One nice thing about doing this type of adventure is that the player’s back story can be more closely integrated into the backstories of the sidekicks.

Could existing adventures be modified this way? Could you start as a solo adventurer in Out of the Abyss and select who you are going to break out of prison with? Could you start Call of the Netherdeep as a member of the rival party?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I think it’s easier to pull this kind of thing off with smaller groups of players, and ideally just one. One-on-one D&D has unique challenges and advantages compared to standard group play, most notably, the singe player can enjoy the DM’s undivided attention, but will likely need a lot of help from NPCs to compensate for the lack of other party members. Both of these factors lend themselves well to having highly detailed NPC allies, which gives much more opportunity for the DM to develop these sorts of character arcs for them.
 



MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Supporter
It is entirely doable, and indeed desirable, to have interesting NPCs with arcs in published adventures.

The arcs don't need to be incredibly detailed, but they do need to be there. Yes, occasionally players will disrupt them, but what else are players for? But without those arcs, too many NPCs in longer campaigns end up as one-shot and forgettable.

You can see an attempt done for an arc for the squire Darrett in Shadow of the Dragon Queen, where you're introduced to him as an enthusiastic young squire in the opening chapter, and he reoccurs throughout the adventure experiencing major events - such as the death of his mentor, assuming the mantle of a Knight of Solamnia, trying to serve in the Kalaman army, experiencing defeat and betrayal, and eventually rising to - effectively - second in command of the army.

At least, that's what's intended. Unfortunately, the designers rather squib it by having the PCs not present for a lot of the major turning points in his story - and not really writing the other scenes with the impact they need.

But if you include a few scenes - or enhance them:
  • His despair after his town is burned and his mentor slain, giving the characters a chance to inspire him.
  • The characters coming upon him in the aftermath of the betrayal as he's fighting for his life, and saving him
  • Him riding at the head of an army to save the characters when all seems lost

That's the sort of stuff that gives his story impact. He interacts with the characters in key, memorable moments.

I've heard reports from friends about the NPCs in the DDAL BMG adventures set in the Moonshaes, where they have great storylines and personalities. (Eric Menge mentioned how he put them through hell). This sort of reoccuring NPC is what you want.

Meanwhile, when you get to branching storylines, this becomes more difficult and you have to step back and do a bit more in-depth design. My advice here is to not overcomplicate things, and create simple branches. You don't need that many decision points or significant encounters to make an NPC memorable.

I've been considering the NPCs in The Shattered Obelisk, and one of the bits of advice the adventure gives early on is to make the NPCs sympathetic (i.e. memorable) so the PCs want to save them. How does it help you do this? It doesn't. They're one-shot forgettable NPCs - typically they give one quest and don't have anything else to say. And, for most of the NPCs introduced, the adventure completely fails to use most of them in all of the new chapters. (Instead, it decides to introduce a new important NPC rather than use an existing one. Sigh).

Cheers,
Merric
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Possible? Probably--depends on the writer, of course.

Desirable? Potentially--depends on the group.

It's...hard to really say anything more than that. A good writer can make NPC stories quite compelling, especially if those stories actually react to the choices the players make. That can be quite hard; BG3 gets away with more than many tabletop GMs could because there are restrained choice points and fixed dialogue options. However, it's still theoretically possible that a good writer, composing an overall compelling journey, could include NPCs that are just genuinely really well-written and interesting, with enough advice and support for GMs that the players can go pretty far afield without "breaking" the good writing of the characters.

However, even with all that, some groups just don't care about NPCs. I'm not the kind of GM that can run stuff for groups like that, but I know they exist. Some players chafe at the knowledge their future is even minimally pre-determined. Some delight in forcing things off the rails, whether or not there even are rails (like cats with objects near the edge of a table). Some appreciate good writing, but don't find NPC interactions that compelling. Etc.

I'm dead certain that there are groups out there that would love this. I'm also certain that this could be used to bring some new folks into the hobby. The problem is, would the folks interested be enough to achieve critical mass? That's the real sticking point.

Branching off of @Lanefan's answer, I suspect the best thing to do is to write several such NPCs...and have them be genuinely optional as "companions," but with a divergent story if they aren't recruited. E.g., to use his Little Joe the Fighting Farmboy example, perhaps LJ joining the party means the players get to shape how this nascent godling develops--but if they don't, then there's a whole different path where now they have to convince an incipient god to support them. If they do, this period is instead an effort to help LJ get the power he needs to do something plot-important. The recruitment path results in a deity naturally inclined toward the players' interests, possibly even toward the alignment(s) of the PCs that he looked up to or who he feels "helped" him (note that this doesn't have to mean those who were nicest to him--perhaps the party teaches him to "toughen up" and he values that lesson.) The non-recruitment path results in a deity skeptical of the party, remembering how they overlooked him in the past--one who might be naturally unwilling to help them with what they need, but who has earned his power all by himself, thus needing convincing, not enhancing.

Such things are gonna be doubly tricky, since they effectively require you to write two different, parallel, more-or-less-equally well-written stories, when just one is already a tall order, but it again theoretically can be done.
 

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