Multiple Characters (5e Variant Rule)
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Animal companions, mounts, hirelings, familiars, and all other systems of having NPCs subordinate to the PCs have always been a contentious subject in D&D. The issue has been tackled in countless ways, and always there are conflicts and disagreements. Discussion ranges from how to balance it, to whether it even can be balanced, to whether it's even a valid concept in the grand scheme of what D&D is about. The subject has been debated to death, with no happy resolution ever achieved. 5th edition's response to this was to simply not mention it and hope nobody cared. In 5e, spellcasters do not immediately get familiars, paladins do not automatically get a trusty steed, and the ranger can only get a true animal companion through an archetype that is mechanically disadvantaged by the companion. Hirelings are briskly glossed over without any real explanation of how to operate them, and they're discussed as if they are equipment. Simply put, they didn't know how to balance it in a way that would make people happy, so they just... didn't bother with the subject at all. This approach to subordinate characters is a fundamental cause of the significant weakness of the beastmaster ranger archetype- which makes the archetype feel like an afterthought that was tacked on simply because they didn't want people complaining that they didn't include it.
- Having a subordinate NPC is basically an invitation for the DM to screw with you. Tied your horse up outside the dungeon? A dragon ate it. Have a rat you use to disarm traps from a safe distance? it blows itself up. Have a trusty hound who aides you in combat? It begins barking at the big bad, giving away your position and ruining your advantage. Got a guy who carries your stuff for you? The thieves guild paid him off and he ran away with all your treasure. Does every DM jump on every opportunity possible to attack you through your NPC companions? Hopefully not, but it's a constant threat, a sort of conceptual point of failure that you are opening yourself up to. Just because the DM usually lets your companions work the way you expect does not mean he always will, and if a companion malfunction or betrayal suits the DM's purposes, they WILL do it.
- This is because a subordinate NPC is not really yours. To you, the player, it is usually an important extension of your character, often with emotional importance, and is a halfway between character, feature, and equipment, but it is fully under the control of the DM. Any illusion of control on your behalf is merely what the DM chose to allow. Any time an NPC under your command could derail the DM's plans, they can have it react irrationally, disobey, or simply get itself killed. They ultimately decide who your subordinates are, how they think, what they care about, and even how they speak!
- Animals are unreliable. Many are expensive to obtain, and all continue to cost money to maintain. (In 5e there are specific food and water requirements per day paired with gold piece expenses) They grow old, they get sick, and one way or another, they die. Other types of NPCs are equally costly and temporary. Comparatively, the idea of equipment wearing out or breaking is so rarely explored, even a wooden staff is effectively invincible until snapping it has story importance. Given that the vast majority of NPCs will be weaker than the PCs, they are extremely prone to untimely demise. Thus, the balancing effect of "Second character, but lower level" is utterly self-defeating.
- Most animals are outside-only. As such, the "beast of burden" can easily become a simple burden, or even a liability. This is especially the case with PCs aiming to be knightly, as horses do not make sense in dungeons, and dungeons are what adventuring is all about. This was the fundamental problem with the paladin being a knightly cavalryman; it all worked fine until you were jumping between swinging platforms over a bottomless pit, surrounded by giant fire-breathing bats! Dungeons simply do not make sense, and a creature like a horse often is incapable of navigating such an absurd environment.
- To maintain balance, NPCs cannot be used to increase player-action-economy. An NPC acting on its own does not screw with the action economy. (Primarily because the DM controls it for impartiality and tactical/metagame balance) However, in the control of a player, a player-NPC or second PC, is essentially a bonus turn with another character. In a metagame perspective, that player gets more field control, more hp, more combat time, more actions, more options, and thus exponentially more power.
- The logical reasoning would be that every character involved in combat should get a full turn at their own initiative position. This is the fundamental structure of D&D combat, and changing it or interfering with it can have a dramatic impact on game play. (For example, having each side go in turn is a common variant with a significant impact on combat tactics) Unfortunately, treating subordinate NPCs this way results in a MASSIVE action economy imbalance in the party. The alternative, without changing combat in its most basic functions, is to essentially turn controlling a subordinate into an action, thereby negating almost the entire advantage; all a player gains is a little more field presence, because they wind up deciding which character gets to do something on their turn. Unfortunately, this makes subordinate NPCs disproportionately expensive. (As happened with the animal companion in 5e)
- The developers failed to appreciate the actual investment and risk a subordinate NPC is to a player and their character. This probably happened because it was overshadowed by the balance issues associated with it. As a consequence, nobody took that expense into account when attempting to balance the mechanics, and the final rules disproportionately restricted NPC subordination.
- We can't think of subordinates as characters. If they aren't full characters, they don't need a full turn. At the end of the day, a subordinate character is a type of equipment-like character feature; another resource a character has at their disposal. This resource costs time, space, food, and often money. This resource is also a risky investment, as it is mortal, and typically only the most expensive ones grow over time to scale with the campaign.
- The problem isn't that subordinates give an action economy advantage; there are many features in the game that already do just that! The problem is that the advantage is massive. As such, we need to reduce that advantage to match the investment and risk, while still operating within a manageable balance range. This means we need to change combat on a fundamental level, and not all players will find such a shift acceptable.
- The DM controls all NPCs, as per normal. At any point where the DM determines that a PC is sufficiently loyal, the DM may relinquish authority of that NPC to the PC's player. It is up to the DM what it takes to make an NPC obedient. The DM may only grant control over NPCs with strong, deep, personal relationships with the PCs. Or they might just give full control over any old cohort, tagalong, hireling, or slave.
- Upon a PC earning the obedience of an NPC, regardless of the method, that Player has full control over that subordinate NPC. It effectively becomes an additional PC under that player's command. The player has full RP authority over the subordinate, including their thoughts and actions from this point forward, regardless of proximity or access to their commanding PC.
- As such, even if the subordinate character becomes separated from the party, the DM is to keep the controlling player informed of any important events happening around the subordinate, and give that player the opportunity to react to events as is logically feasible. (You can't just say, "A dragon swoops down and eats your horse!" unless the horse is so utterly restrained that it cannot even attempt to evade or break free.) In essence, if it would be unfair to do to a PC, it is unfair to do to a subordinate.
- A subordinate may attempt to disobey the orders of a PC or its player. For example, if a player declares "My henchman becomes suicidal, and hangs himself from the nearest tree!" the DM can respond by having the NPC make a save against its own passive charisma, or the passive charisma of the PC commanding it to behave irrationally. If the subordinate is successful, it becomes a standard NPC again, out of the player's control, and back under the full power of the DM. Following with the above example, if a DM had a subordinate make such a save, he may have the NPC shake his head, realize that he has a problem, and leave to seek out help for himself. (the example given had the subordinate character deciding to commit suicide of its own accord, by the word of the player, not its commanding PC, although the two are treated as virtually synonymous. The disobedience/loyalty clause only exists for the sake of having some impartial means of severing that tie for any reason. For instance, if your subordinate were being bribed, the DM would throw this save to see if it is successful. If your subordinate were facing a terrible threat and had valid reason to flee, the DM would throw this save to see if they buckle under their fear and retreat. The suicide example was given as the most extreme possible representation of this. At the end of the day, the DM still has full say. If he doesn't want the subordinate to carry out a certain action, (Say, the player is being disruptive and irresponsible) then the DM can simply say, "No. He doesn't do that. We need to talk." It is not a tool for resolving out-of-game issues through in-game mechanics. Such a thing would be ineffectual at resolving such conflicts, as it would be just as irresponsible as the behavior that caused the problem in the first place. It is a tool for impartially determining the NPC's actual loyalty to the PC/cause. It may seem that it should probably be a contest against the PC, or the external force acting on the subordinate, but NPCs typically do not improve over time, and such a contest against a high level PC would be a waste of time, the PC would almost certainly win.)
- Each subordinate under the command of a PC gives that PC 1 flex action which can be used during combat. At any point during the round, the player may declare that they want to change a flex action into another type of action. A flex action can become: One Movement, One Action, One Bonus Action, or One Reaction.
- All subordinates share an initiative position with their commanding PC. Subordinates consume their commanding PC's actions; they do not have actions of their own. So, for example, a knight with two squires could have one squire move, and the other squire attack, leaving himself with two flex actions, a bonus action, and a reaction remaining for the turn and round. This, at the very least, allows all of a player's character's to move or attack together as one, as well as other tactical tricks, like effectively buying yourself bonus actions from flex actions if your companions are safely hiding within the battlefield. This has the effect of making the subordinate into literal extensions of the single character.