I’ll cheer you up if you’re depressed, if you get murdered I’ll avenge your death

Back in school a few of us discovered roleplaying and tabletop games through the standard gateway drug of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and formed a bit of a gaming group. Thanks to geographical distribution and shifting school friendships, though, it was quite rare for three or four of us to get together with the requisite space, time and polyhedral dice for an adventure, and they’d often turn out to be slightly disappointing. You know how early teenage fumblings are; you spend weeks preparing, getting everything just right, imagining how it’s all going to play out so flawlessly, but then it’s all a bit awkward in person and you’re trying to nudge them along into a bit of delicate manipulation without being too domineering, but you know they really just want to grab your booty and get out of there. After fighting some orcs.

We still loved collecting and discussing RPGs, though, the settings, lore, art and mechanics. Creating characters was my thing; over the years we assembled a motley collection of systems including Dragon Warriors, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, FASA’s Doctor Who RPG, Paranoia, a couple of flavours of GURPS, the Marvel Super Hero RPG, Maelstrom, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Battletech, Warhammer 40,000, and probably a bunch of others I’ve forgotten. For each I had at least a couple of characters rolled up or an army planned out, stats calculated, feats selected, starting equipment purchased, progression through to level 20 mapped out, and a provisional rota system posted for the guards of the castle he’d buy as soon as he had the money. Only a fraction actually went adventuring; a couple might even have made it to level two…

Computer RPGs were a natural evolution; about the first I seriously played was Curse of the Azure Bonds, the second of SSI’s Gold Box series of AD&D games. You control a party of six characters in it; I can’t remember if there was option to use a default party if you didn’t want to create six characters yourself, I wouldn’t have cared, I was too busy repeatedly mashing the “roll” button to get a decent set of stats for my seventh tweak of the party composition (“all right, this time I’ll have a Paladin on the front line, and a Half-Elf Fighter/Thief instead of the pure Thief for more damage…”) Other games around the time, notably the Ultima series, might have had NPC companions you’d meet and recruit, but I was more than happy having complete control over a full party, more worried about spell lists and THAC0 than personality or dialogue.

The next landmark of my personal CRPG history was ten years on, Bioware’s seminal Baldur’s Gate, once again an AD&D game giving the player control of a party of six, but this time with a single player created character and the other five recruited the rest from a cast of thousands. Well, several, at any rate. This slightly irked me at first, still being more preoccupied by stats and classes than personalities; I mean look at that character’s Charisma score, complete waste, it could be a far more efficient build… With the writing, though, I did start to appreciate dialogue between my character and the party, and between other members of the party, mostly due to Greatest NPC In The History Of Time(tm), Minsc. I found a pretty good compromise, after reading on the ‘net that starting a Multiplayer game gave exactly the same experience as the single player game but you could bring in as many of your own characters as you liked, and rolled up two ruthlessly min/maxed characters of my own (some sort of ranger/wizard/kensai/thief cross-classed death machines), then rounded out the party on the criteria of (i) fulfilling other required roles in the team, and (ii) being Minsc.

Romance had never been something that had crossed my mind in RPGs. Well, maybe something vaguely related to romance when viewing the cover of Curse of the Azure Bonds and the Armour Of Complete Protection Whoops Apart From That Massive Hole In The Front depicted thereon, but in the games there were dragons to kill and worlds to save and really no time for soppy kissing with Slimey girlS. I recruited Viconia as a Cleric in Baldur’s Gate II on the basis of her vital statistics (phwoar, get a load of that Wisdom), and only after reading a couple of guides did I bother trying “romantic” dialogue options. I wasn’t really feeling a deep emotional connection with the character, though, it was mostly to get her alignment to change to Neutral to cause fewer arguments in the party. Oddly enough, while typing this very paragraph I read Jon’s critique of romance in Bioware games and the way saving the world can become secondary to carving a series of achievement-shaped notches on your virtual bedpost, and it is something that can be a bit crowbarred in (as the actress said to the bishop). Dragon Age 2 has some unsubtle moments, with a big heart next to a dialogue option that leads to a line like “Wow, you had lyrium inlaid in your skin in a ceremony of unspeakable agony, huh? It looks HOT, let’s KISS with TONGUES!” Syp was pondering it too, but there are cases where I think they’ve handled it quite nicely as a developing relationship rather than a shag and an unlock, such as Alistair and a female Warden in Dragon Age: Origins.

The Baldur’s Gate games established the Bioware tradition of NPCs where personalities were as important as stats; Neverwinter Nights had the restriction of a single NPC party member in the original single player campaign, which limited inter-party banter, but you could wheel each potential recruit out during each chapter, engage in a deep and personal conversation about their past, then shove ’em back in a cupboard until the next chapter while you actually adventured with the one with the most useful skills. Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins cemented the formula, fully voicing companions and having them react to your actions. They stripped the RPG back to a few classes, with most party compositions being viable, so in Dragon Age if you wanted a warrior in the team the main choice was down to whether you wanted a drunkard, a strangely impassive giant or a slightly sarcastic ex-Templar running around with you.

Dragon Age 2 has extended the individuality of each companion still further. They have their own outfits, rather than sharing common armour across a class, and some have signature weapons. Their talent trees are more locked down; there are some choices, but weapon choice is fixed, and each companion has one set of talents unique to them. I think they might have taken things a smidge far, though By narrowing abilities, and developing personalities, it’s almost as if Bioware have managed to get themselves into the same position as pre-WotLK WoW raiding: if you crank the difficulty up you’re forced to pick someone for the mechanical reason of what their class offers rather than because you like them as a (virtual) person. You can avoid the issue by turning the difficulty down; as Melmoth said of Casual difficulty “…there were perhaps only three fights which required me to drink a potion, let alone worry about tactics”, and on Normal I’ve scarcely had to pause to manually issue orders regardless of who’s in the team. If you relish difficult combat *and* the interaction with your companions, though, it’s almost like you need Bioware to have their own “bring the player, not the class” moment.

6 thoughts on “I’ll cheer you up if you’re depressed, if you get murdered I’ll avenge your death

  1. Eliot

    To be fair, it’s arguable that there’s any difficult encounter that can’t be completed without a single character, since for tougher fights you’ll almost always require a healer (which could be yourself if you’re a mage or another companion if you aren’t). Other than that, it’s truly a matter of building a character as you wish. Fenris isn’t ever going to wear a sword and shield, but he’s got the talents necessary to tank with the best of them if that’s what you want him to do. You can bring whichever players you want; it’s mostly left to you to determine which players are going to fulfill all the necessary roles (tanking, healing, support, damage, picking locks because you’re a party of sociopathic looters, and so forth).

  2. Zoso Post author

    I think that was completely true in DA:O with all warriors having the same options open to them, and at the lower difficulties of DA2 it really doesn’t matter; looking at the abilities of Fenris and Aveline, though, when the old min/maxing tendencies kick in, the stuff Aveline can get but Fenris can’t seems absolutely built for tanking (passive flanking/crit/knockdown/stun immunity, damage transfer from a nominated character etc).

    That’s purely from a very cursory bit of theorycrafting, though, I haven’t got the skill/determination/masochistic tendencies to crank the difficulty up to Nightmare to actually test it out. It might very well be that Fenris is more appropriate in some situations, especially against spellcasters, but having the two distinct sets of abilities seems like there might be a bit of an issue.

    Mind you, the number of people who care passionately about companion personalities *and* demand absolute perfection in capability are probably minimal. And thinking about it, with the differing abilities giving different capabilities that could be more suited to certain situations, it could be that for people focused heavily on the mechanics and combat it’s welcome flexibility to be able to tailor your party for specific encounters.

  3. Caspian

    Your description of your route into gaming is almost entirely identical to mine (I suspect we are of a similar age…) I started with FF and Dragon Warriors (I remember there was this awesome spell called \’Dishearten\’ – Did it demoralize the enemy? Hell no, it made their heart explode! More games needed spells like that)

    Ah, I look back and think that was a golden, innocent age of gaming; roll up at a friend\’s house on a Friday evening and roleplay through to the Sunday, grabbing the occasional sleep and subsisting entirely on cola and cheesy comestibles (Wotsits were big in the mid eighties); now, trying to organise any kind of tabletop session is a bit of a nightmare, people have proper jobs, families and other responsibilities, which means we have to plan weeks in advance…

    Until last year, I\’d been playing in a Marvel Superheroes campaign for nearly 15 years, but it all seems to have fallen a bit flat now; I guess that\’s why MMO\’s and other CRPGs can step up to at least take some place, but no matter how good an MMO is, it can never *quite* take the place of a great evening around a table, with a bunch of friends and the roll of a natural \’00\’ on percentile dice… I might even take a pack of Wotsits along next time, y\’know, for old time\’s sake.

    Happy days.

    Go for the eyes, Boo, go for the eyes!

  4. Jim

    Ahh, nostalgia…I had a great friend who combined elements of Aftermath and Car Wars into a table top game…we were members of the R.A.F., Royal Auto Force, chaotic good to the core.

    Looking forward, your post title inspired me. In Dragon Age 5, if you should perish, will you just sit back and watch your party finish the game? And they’ll occasional reminisce about you between fights, “Remember our poor fool leader, when he tried to pull those 4 mages at once? We’re lucky we weren’t all killed.”

  5. Zoso Post author

    @Caspain Mmmm, Wotsits. And Monster Munch, of course, and Frazzles… And Skips, do they still make Skips? I haven’t had a packet for ages… To the supermarket!

    @Jim Oh, yeah, Car Wars; never had the full rules, but I did enjoy a couple of the gamebooks. I lusted after Dark Future, a Games Workshop auto-combat game, in White Dwarf, but that was a pretty expensive box…

    Heh, like the idea of an independent Dragon Age party carrying on without you… though I fear that might be a short hop away from Skynet and an all-too-real post-apocalyptic landscape…

  6. Eliot

    @Zoso True, each character does have specialty trees that suggest a certain role… but then, there’s really nothing obligating you down them. Aveline in particular has an overstuffed tree full of defensive options, but Fenris can do just fine with Lyrium Ghost and the friendship bonus. He’s going to come out stronger in magic-heavy fights, I’d imagine.

    It’s theorycrafting, but I think the only person who performs a role no other companion can even try to perform is the one character whose insanely stupid actions later in the plot inform an awful lot of unpleasantness.

    @Jim For that matter, when will we get companions who point out (quite correctly) that you’re being an idiot and your tactical setup is moronic? Or decide halfway through the fight that this is a lost cause and dart out into the hall to drop out of combat and regenerate?

    Of course, when the game gets a better idea than you have about how best to exploit mechanics, it may also be time to step away and read a good book for a while.

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