Recently, my (not-Living-Anymore) Arcanis character, Prima Gallia Tiberiana, leveled up to sixth level and I chose the Leadership feat. She is now accompanied by her handmaiden wherever she goes (being a noblewoman really helps). Oddly enough in my seven years of playing 3rd edition, this was the first time I took that feat. Though I thought about it in Living Greyhawk, I was too lazy (and generally too busy writing or editing) to take the time to maintain a cohort. Though I almost took one (I had access to an eladrin) for Corfell Treeshadow, my cleric of Corellon, the poor guys got removed from the campaign almost immediately after that.
However, I played with a few people (in and out of LG) who had cohorts some good, some bad, some memorable, some not-so-memorable.
The other day, my buddy Kenton (in the same Arcanis campaign) came up with a basic concept for a cohort and asked me for advice on cohorts. Yes, our party would be composed of 3-5 PCs with 1 or 2 cohorts (as we share DM duties, we always hit the 5-6 player mark).
So I began to think… What makes a great cohort? Is there a formula to come up with a great cohort? Which were the ones that left a lasting impression on me? How were they built? What role did they play in the game? Many questions filled my mind. I wanted to be sure that I would allow him to choose and build the character he wanted, by trying to provide options.
The Cohort’s background
This article targets mostly organized play campaigns so I like to keep the background light. I’ve seen spouses, lovers, slaves, squires, and planar allies as cohorts. All of which are fine. The goal is to find a reason the character would stick around you. A secondary goal is to find a way for the cohort to mesh with the rest of the party. After all, the cohort will be privy to many PCs’ secrets, abilities and even share the loot. This does not mean the cohort has to be lovey-dovey with everyone in the party, or an LFR character (oops, I meant a bland, flavorless series of dice rolls).
For my cohort, Drusilla, she used to be a poor legionnaire I recruited to be my personal assistant and handmaiden. Things I wanted her to have were Profession (handmaiden) and rogue skills (trap finding and open locks mostly), because the party needed those.
The Cohort’s basic personality
Like every good character, a cohort must have its own personality. I think that something contrasting especially in the social department is important. If your main character is talkative, the cohort should tend to be quieter. If you are rather quiet, your cohort should be talkative. Avoid the dual talkative or dual quiet characters. Makes them redundant plus it’s often difficult for the rest of the players to know who you are playing at that time. If you can work with completely different accent, this difficulty is not there. But you have to juggle the accents and that gets a little complicated.
Give a cohort a little spark by giving a single trait, what GURPS calls quirks to the character. Maybe the cohort speaks with a lisp, giggles when nervous, has a slight accent or has a short catchphrase. Nothing major just enough to give a short taste of the character.
The Cohort’s abilities
There are many types of cohorts one can build: the crafter, the healer/buffer, the talker the blaster… What is important to keep in mind is that the cohort is a second fiddle to the main characters (the actual Player Characters). The cohort will generally be weaker than the players and should not try to compete with the player directly.
If you already have a blasting Wizard, don’t make a cohort who is a blaster. It takes away the fun for the main character and usually makes your cohort look extremely weak. If your party has a great healer, make the cohort a buffer. If you have great melee, go for an archer.
The Cohort’s advancement
When people design their characters, they often imagine the PC at a very high level. So that at level 10-12, they will become gods among men, lording over all they survey. While a cohort often has a similar advancement scheme, I personally prefer to keep cohorts as simple as can be. This makes playing the cohort quick.
Cohorts should be designed to be effective NOW. Not in four or five levels when they gain a level of Awesome. Because they are often weaker than the PCs, they have to live and survive until then. Having a PC that is not fully effective for a level or two is one thing. Having a cohort that is not effective for the same duration often means a dead cohort.
A cohort’s role should be secondary. She supports the party and brings with it some abilities the party needs and can use. But should not be the main character at the table.
In organized play, where the party make-up is always in flux, the role of a cohort cannot be tailored to a party, but should be designed in such a way that she supports a party. A healer/buffer or an archer is a good choice as their options are limited and their turn goes quickly. Remember that guy who plays a druid with his animal companion, then his 20 summoned monkeys and his super-complex wizard cohort whose turn takes an hour? Yeah… avoid that. It’s just annoying and while fun for you, everyone else hates it.
Don’t be that guy.