I Fail to Follow: Making Followers Easier for the GM

A guest article by: Jynx001

I’m terrible at GMing followers when I’m running a game. One of the players in my last game acquired one around game nine, rolled up stats, described her, and figured out what role she would play in the party. The player did all the work for me. I ignored it. Completely forgot she existed and didn’t even write down her name. I had plenty of opportunities to incorporate the NPC into the story in some semi-meaningful way and I simply didn’t. My bad on that one, whatever-your-name-was.

This isn’t the first time I’ve failed at giving followers a fair shot – I’m guilty of many counts of allowing backpack familiars and henchmen that seem to phase in and out of existence as they are remembered. The sin is especially egregious, considering that in many game systems the player is spending some of their hard-earned XP or other resources to simply be allowed to have a friend! (Just like real life!) It bugs me that I’m so bad at NPC allies. So, I started examining why it was happening to search for solutions.

Too Many Mooks

My personal preference is a gaming group consisting of somewhere between 3 and 8 players, not including myself. I’ve run for bigger groups and you end up not being able to hold everyone’s attention, not to mention you simply can’t keep track of that many imaginary people in your head at the same time. Even when someone else is calling the shots, as with a player-run NPC, that persona occupies mental real-estate. Now, if your 6 PC party has with them an awakened dire wolf, a medical droid, a backup healer, a smart-aleck sword, a talking car, and a team of dwarven hippogriff riders, your brain-browser suddenly has more than a dozen tabs open before you’ve even started adding in your own friends and foes to the mix.

The most obvious answer is simply to forbid followers of any kind, which concentrates all attention on the main characters but eliminates options and a bit of realism. My gaming group has tried this and it feels restrictive, especially from the player point-of-view. And keep in mind that many game mechanics are balanced around the idea of having an animal companion at the very least – a paladin’s or cavalier’s warhorse, for example – and stripping such an advantage ought to mean they get something in return.

I’m not a fan of total forbiddance, and I’m wary about putting a cap on how many NPC’s can be in the group at one time, but I have tried another idea with good results – replace “followers” with “helpers.” The nomenclature varies by book, but many “followers” are made to actually follow you around and give aid, especially in combat. Switch that with NPC’s who do other jobs, and you will save yourself from excessively long battles every session. What other jobs, I pretend that you ask?

Non-Combat Follower Options

  • Chauffeur – the guy who drives the post-apocalyptic battle semi or the horse-whisperer who rounds up all the stray mounts; this is the kind of ally that can keep the groups’ transportation safe and might occasionally serve as a getaway driver.
  • Crafter – if your group goes through a lot of arrows, needs mech repairs, or loves custom magic items; save yourself some skill points and let a craft-master specialize (and maybe make a little money on the side).
  • Financier – mystery-solving murder-mercenaries always need more cash and this type of ally can help find financial backers, high-paying contracts, and kingdoms who have lost their princesses so you can keep non-stop adventuring. Plus, they can invest your plundered dragon’s horde into ye olde diversified stock portfolio.
  • Fixer – technically, you follow her. She gets into town before you, pays for your rooms at the inn, tracks down the elven wine that the bard likes, bribes the gate guards so they don’t fireball your pet giant skeleton spider on sight, and sets up a meeting with Questy McQuest who gives out the dungeon-crawling permits. After your run, she sells all the goblin spears so you can sleep in.
  • Mailman – good for large-scale campaign worlds where messages have to be hand-delivered, the trusted messenger can send news of your victories (and pick up the payment) so you don’t have to make all those wandering monster rolls in the Woods of LowLevella where the kobolds dwell.
  • Nurse – after-battle care is important if your game system is realistic (read: brutal) when it comes to injury recovery time. Think of a nurse ally as an insurance policy that prevents you from moving into the “ancient” age category before you can heal up. Be sure to leave a will.
  • Questor – some cruel GM’s (me) force the party to chose between several quests at the same time, purely to cause irritation. But a side-quest crew can tackle those extra challenges and ruin his carefully crafted moral quandry, causing him to tear out more and more of his already thinning hair! The downside is that they will occasionally fail and/or die.
  • Researcher – what do you need when you have a GM who likes to drone on and on about the rich history of his world and a party who hurls lightning bolts at strangers who speak out loud on the off chance that they’re casting an offensive spell? A researcher! This lore-minded fellow can do all the informative prep-work, ID the artifacts, and ensure that the map that I spent 10 hours drawing doesn’t get burned up in a Wall of Solar Flares spell.
  • Scout – like the researcher, scouts are handy for both PC’s and GM’s in that they can deliver detailed information about the mission at hand or the area to be explored. Clever adventurers might also employ them to hide supply caches or disrupt enemy operations before the main raid. Scouts can also easily slip into other roles like night watchman, trap-finder, and bait.
  • Shopper – the shopper follower allows players to find gear, special mounts, or rare materials that they might not otherwise have time to track down due to their busy grave-robbing schedule and reduces the chances that a PC will monopolize an entire game session roleplaying the intricacies of the barter system at the local gun shop (Brian). In one Kalamar game, our group took our favorite shopkeeper as a follower and had him look for powerful magic items for us. He became obscenely rich by re-selling our dungeon loot and the PC’s were devastated when he died of old age.
  • Spy – a spy (or a team of spies) serves as another excellent source of information for the players, provided there is a reliable means of communication between the embedded agent and the group outside. This also prevents the sometimes-annoying solo mission where the party’s most stealthy character has to spend hours of game time infiltrating a stronghold while the rest of the noisy heroes sit in their +4 Plate Mail of Clanking, bored to tears. GM’s should be careful to arrange reasons why the spy follower can’t assassinate the main villain or steal the important item all by themselves, or they will become the hero of the story and your players will be annoyed.

Battle Bots

Ultimately, some followers will find themselves in combat, and even if experienced players are running them, fights can get cumbersome. Some rule sets mitigate this by restricting actions – NPC’s get less actions than PC’s or you make a single roll for a squad of allies. Followers are also weaker than protagonists (except for that one time when the squire surpassed the paladin because a swarm of vampires drained all his 2nd Ed. D&D levels away – it sucked for him… get it? Yeah, you get it). So, a weak follower will miss more often and do less damage, which slows down the fight even more. How do you compensate, without unbalancing everything and making a combat follower worthless?

I suggest a kind of gentle-gamers’ agreement between GM and players – if a follower is helping in the fight but not dealing the bulk of the damage to the enemy, then foes generally ignore them and target the PC’s, instead. This doesn’t make a henchman immune to damage (especially area effects like grenades), but it does mean they probably survive longer and don’t have as many rolls or calculations to make. Plus, it means the heroes can be heroes and it’s really their actions that decide the day.

What can a low-threat follower do during a fight? Buffs and heals are traditional, and GM’s can justify not attacking them first if a blood-soaked axe-murderer or a cyborg with two laser machine guns happens to be nearby. Torchbearers, flagbearers, or anyone carrying some sort of helpful item could also be readily ignored by most foes. Someone carrying ammunition could be close to the action, but less important than Robin Hood with the glowing bow. Followers like shieldbearers and people using some kind of support fire action are fair game however, and truly intelligent opponents know that threatening the weak link is a good way to force a change in tactics.

Ultimately, followers are great things to include in your game, but they can get lost in the mix when your GM’s brain is full of a make-believe universe and a complicated set of rules to govern it. Letting the players take on the burden of management makes sense, and any trick that eases the work and keeps the focus on the main characters is worth a try.

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