Picking An RPG Party Is Agony

Role-playing game: "A rolling vista full of danger and secrets lies ahead. Adventure awaits. Which party members will you bring along?" Me: "Uhhhhh, can I get back to you in a few minutes or weeks or years?"

Image: Pillars of Eternity II

I've been playing a lot of Pillars of Eternity II lately, and while not every companion is doing it for me, I'm definitely invested in a lot of their stories. This has led to a dilemma as old as RPGs themselves: who do I bring along in hopes of advancing their levels and character relationships and who do I leave behind to rot in the damp recesses of whichever harbour my boat is docked at?

Or, put another way, which characters do I invest 60 hours in, and which ones do I kinda just pretend don't really exist? Unless you're the sort of monster who doesn't grow unhealthily attached to fake computer people, this is not an easy decision to make.

Now, generally, I have a sort of formula for this kind of thing. The folks who form my main party tend to fit the following archetypes:

  • The tank: The large person who absorbs damage in combat. I usually don't roll tankier characters myself, so I rely on an NPC to fill that role. Personality doesn't matter a ton here, but one that doesn't suck is a plus.
  • The funny one: Every good RPG has a wisecracking rogue or, failing that, someone who at least knows how to talk about things that aren't the graveness of the task at hand or their tragic pasts. They liven things up. I will often bring this character along even if they're kinda weak in terms of stats or redundant in terms of class.
  • The romantic interest: Just like in real life, relationships are work that can be broken down into a lengthy side quest once every act or so.
  • The project: If you're an RPG character who's unusually stoic but clearly has something interesting going on, congratulations: you're gonna be a fixture in my party even if you don't say anything until seconds before the final boss bites your head off.
  • The wildcard: Recent RPGs like POE II and BioWare's Dragon Age games contain a lot of intra-party chatter while you're out and about. I like to bring at least one character who makes it contentious. Maybe they're just a habitual shit-stirrer, or maybe they have beef with another character in particular. Either way, my party needs drama. This person supplies it.

In most RPGs, there's simply not enough space in my party to bring all of these characters everywhere. In POE II specifically, there's also overlap between characters, archetype-wise. Rogue-ish fuzzy man Serafen and bird-whisperer Maia are both funny in different ways, for instance, and Maia is my romantic interest. So I can't bench either of them. Meanwhile, there's positively juicy drama building between Eder, my tank, and Xoti, my priest, both of whom serve essential combat roles in my party, so I can't have them on the sidelines, either.

But I so badly want to bring in Pallegina, a stoic paladin who has huge "project" potential and a simmering beef with Xoti on the grounds that she hates religion while Xoti is hyper-religious. I want to see everything play out, but I only have five precious party slots, one of which is already taken up by my main character. Oh, and I'm starting to think that my new druid, Teheku, might be a romantic option too. In short: aaagggghhhh.

Of course, there's the option to switch characters out from time to time, but I'm the sort of player who likes to get really comfortable with a party. Pillars of Eternity II makes this even more tempting by tying your individual party members into its reputation system, meaning that party members react to nearly every decision you make by, say, chuckling quietly if you say something funny, huffing angrily if you do something that flies in the face of their beliefs, or even staring intently if it seems like something sexy is about to happen.

These individual dialogue prompts make it feel like you're travelling with a real group of friends (and enemies), rather than a bunch of Chuck-E-Cheese animatrons who suddenly spring to life every once in a while. On top of that, there are reputation stats underlying it all, and it's cool to watch those relationships evolve over the course of tens of hours.

All of which is to say, it's been insanely difficult to settle on a main party. I always feel a twinge of guilt each time I set out. Do I really have the right group of people? Or am I missing some great moment by ditching Serafen because, frankly, his character class overlaps with my main character's, and he's been oddly quiet while we're out exploring? Decisions, decisions.

Other recent RPGs have pinpointed this dilemma in their own ways. While it was frustrating for me at the time, I have to give Divinity: Original Sin 2 props for full-on killing off potential companions who weren't in my party at the start of its second act. That allowed me to focus on my party without getting hit by adventure FOMO. No more guilt!

Original Sin 2 also gave me the option of picking one of the characters who'd ultimately become my party members to be my main character, giving me access to their internal monologue and special dialogue options. This was especially interesting in the case of Lohse, a young woman possessed by a powerful demon who was slowly devouring her personality. Replaying the game with a different party and Lohse as a main character led to a vastly different experience.

My favourite attempt at solving the party dilemma, though, is probably Mass Effect 2. BioWare smartly structured the game around what it does best — characters — with character loyalty missions having a direct impact on the outcome of the final battle. As a result, the game ended up feeling to me like a season of a sci-fi TV show, with each "episode" focusing on a different party member.

I've heard some people say it made the whole thing feel disjointed, but I loved it. I got to max out my time with everybody, and when it came time to cross the point of no return and kick off the final showdown, I didn't have any regrets.

As for Pillars of Eternity II, well, after more than 50 hours with the game, I think I've finally settled on a main party. I'd be lying, though, if I said I wasn't still second-guessing myself at every turn.


Comments

    I do find there is a problem with “late joining” members too. In POE1, I’ve suddenly got to find space for a Druid? Pfff, get in line buddy, I’m emotionally invested in the others. And Haru in Persona 5? Yeah nah.

      Agreed on Haru...on my first play through. I enjoyed her story well enough and the whole taking over the family business was quite well told but at that point I was already committed to other characters.

      Subsequent play throughs however, the moment I got Haru, queen was ditched. the grenade launcher and overall damage output was just too much to pass up

    I haven't played POE yet, so I gotta ask about this-"Pallegina, a stoic paladin who has huge "project" potential and a simmering beef with Xoti on the grounds that she hates religion". A paladin. That hates religion. WTF? Can someone explain this to me plz?

      I haven't played the game, but I would read that "she" as referring to Xoti hating religion. It is ambiguous though.

        Nope, it's an Anti-Religious Paladin.

          Haha, yeah, on re-reading it in context it's actually perfectly clear, had a brain fart.

      My memory is a bit hazy, but Pallegina is a carry over character from the first game, and some shit goes down with her in that game. She gets screwed over pretty bad by the group she was a part of I’m fairly sure. I didn’t realise she was recruitable until late in the game though, so I missed a lot of that stuff, though she was certainly interesting! All the NPCs are actually.

    In pretty much any party based rpg it basically boils down to "who's shit stinks the least?" as I don't really mind if they aren't op characters (Cidolfus get in the bin you op punk) any more that they aren't annoying (Every moment of DA:I I wanted to force Sera back into the cursed crevice she came out of).

    Top contenders for easy picks (for me) come down to people like Vivi, Quina, Wrex, Grunt, Legion, Alistair and Mordin. They just don't get in your way, while simultaneously adding to moments when engaged.

    I tend to keep my character's romantic interest with them if they have one, though not 24/7 of course. It just depends who I like more than others, I'll sacrifice effectiveness for enjoying the party's company just like I'll sacrifice stats for a cohesive or appealing visual look regarding my character's gear. Those lvl 1 gloves look better as part of the outfit than those lvl 30 ones? Throw them on. I like to cycle in a tank regularly for more difficult sections as well, and add some variety by cycling in other characters I don't usually or because my character would think that person is relevant to the current task, but there's always one I completely ignore because I just plain don't like them lol.

    Heh, good article - definitely understand where you're coming from!

    See so many "rate your best"/"which is your favourite" type lists, don't think I've ever seen a 'pick your dream team' from across RPG's...? I'd have to go humorous and if limiting it to 4 I think (and this will give me nightmares and no doubt a deep desire to press the edit button);

    Morrigan (DA:O)
    Jan (BG2)
    Wrex (ME)
    Fane (D:OS2)

    So many other notable mentions but not going to list them all here. I know a lot of people love staples like Garrus & Varric from the Bioware games (and i had trouble leaving a Kotor friend out), but I find them a bit obvious tbh and they didn't resonate with me, much prefer the more 'wtf' characters.

    Hmmm. I've always dumped the romantic interest. Treasure over pleasure, man...

    It also saves me from the emotional burden of taking my party on perilous "we're all about to die" quests...

    I usually don't find it that tough... just try to pick people that fill a mechanical niche and aren't obnoxious. So for example, in the only good Dragon Age game I picked Sten, Dog, and Wynn. I was high damage so I needed a tanky guy (and Alistair was way too obnoxious), a healer and then like... there's a dog, so you know I'm taking the dog. I wanted to include Leliana because she was my top pick for waifu but she just didn't make sense in the comp - I would've had to ditch Dog and like, come on. I'm not ditching Dog.

      Just finishing the DLC for Dragon Age now. The beauty of the game was that it didn't really matter what your composition was. If you just take the characters you like, you'll likely be able to muddle through. That being said, it helps if you grind up to max level and get all the good gear.

      Being a dual-wield warrior myself, I had a party make-up that varied a fair bit. I'd mostly take Leliana because waifu and lock-pick, but other than her I'd cycle between Alistair (hardened, of course) / Oghren / Sten / Dog for the other member, and then Wynne / Morrigan for the last. I didn't really like the assassin dude (so much that I've forgotten his name).

      I found that I never really had any problems on hard difficulty that stemmed from party selection. Sometimes I even went harem and had Wynne / Morrigan / Leliana, which turned out to be quite powerful with the two mages and a ranged archer bard.

    I agree, sometimes it can be tricky to form a party. You want a party that balances out skills, weaknesses and thus, turns into strengths. Don't have a tank? You get one. Don't have a healer? Get one etc. You want a party that's well rounded.

    On the same token, we like characters of our party because of their character and their dialog, and sometimes, we don't want to lose that because we like Bob (for example) too much to replace with the sudden newcomer, Greg.

    Replacing characters later in the game can be tricky too, because we're already so invested in our current characters who we've gotten to know from the beginning of our journey (like Bob), so no Greg, even though you're a healer who joined late game, you can't join my party right now so please, stop talking to me about your Pokemon card collection.

    The only time that I can think of, when you really need to consider a party, is Mass Effect 2, the finale (the Suicide Mission). During that segment, some of your beloved characters will have to go off elsewhere to perform certain tasks that others can't, and if it isn't done properly, then people can die. You can't have too much fire power on your team or else your other team mates (who are off doing other stuff) can get killed, but on the same token, you can't have too many specialists (like Tali, or Garrus) or else your other party members can also die.

      I really lucked out on the suicide mission as all my squad members survived. The game gives you a pretty good idea of who should do what, providing you have been paying attention to the characters' backgrounds/skills etc.

        You're absolutely right. All of my characters also survived the Suicide Mission, as well.

        If you complete your characters' loyalty missions, that also improves their chances of survival.

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