Pokémon is one of those divisive elements of geek culture (I’m pretty sure another is Power Rangers…). But regardless of how you feel about it, you have to admit there’s something compelling about having companions that fight at your merest whim!
A full blown Pokémon RPG is a bit on the nose for a hook (and it’s already been done) – what we’re interested in is how we take the idea of constant battle companions and sprinkle it into our setting. This isn’t a new idea; in fact, it’s one of the foundations of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.
A word of caution before we start digging into some options for companion-based settings: there is a very real danger of power creep and/or roleplaying loss. Power creep is pretty easy to understand – you’ve essentially given each character an extra set of actions with a different power set enabling some unexpected min/maxing. The roleplay loss is a bit more subtle – depending on the nature of the comnpanions, they almost certainly have their own personality and goals which may differ from those of the PC. Some players will find it difficult to keep the personalities of the two characters distinct, resulting in a “muddy” roleplaying experience.
Enough with the warnings – on to the hooks!
- Constant Companions – Constant companions are…well…companions that are always around. The textbook example is the ranger’s animal companion or the wizard’s animal familiar. Try having a world where everyone is either born bonded to another creature or forms a bond at some point in their life – this latter could form a great “coming of age” story arc. The aforementioned Codex Alera series has some great examples of this kind of companion.
- Summoned Companions – This is more the Pokemon style of companion – the companion that you can summon forth during your time of need. This works particularly well in fantasy settings with summoner archetypes (“I choose you Water Elemental II!”), but can work with any setting with enough creativity: try a transhumanist setting where the summoned companions persist as symbiotic parasites on the player character and can be detached for defense.
- Embedded Companions -The embedded companion is a companion that doesn’t physically exist apart from the player character to one degree or another. My favorite example of this is Cortana and Master Chief from the Halo series – while Cortana is almost never separated from the Chief, she’s an integral part of the story and definitely has her own drives and thoughts. This sort of companion can be a bit trickier to handle from a roleplay perspective, but there are some great models in games like Greg Stolze’s Better Angels where the player next to you plays a demon providing you with your super powers.
- Player-Driven Companions – This one is a modifier to the others and is pretty self-explanatory: players don’t control their own companion. Instead, another player at the table has control of the companion. While Better Angels does this really well, I’ve used this mechanic in other games and it can be highly effective with players who have created well-developed motivations for both the companion and their own character.