Built with single-player story and fluid action combat in mind, Dragon's Dogma wasn't a good fit for online cooperative play. Instead, Capcom came up with an all new way for players to share their play experience — the pawn system.
What's the pawn system? It's essentially a way for players to collect, enrich, and return each other's created characters, sharing the battles fought and lands traveled with their friends through magical beings drawn to their service.
When a player begins his or her Dragon's Dogma journey, they first create their character, the avatar that will represent them in the world. They can select what type of character this is, define their appearance, assign skills, and so forth.
The player is also responsible for defining the class and appearance of their main pawn, a magical, otherworldly being drawn to the adventurer for unknown reasons. They'll never get old, and they'll never die. They are eternal creatures that only live to serve. The main pawn is the player's constant companion, and should be designed with skills that complement the main character. If the main is a frail caster, perhaps the pawn should be an armored warrior, keeping foes at bay. If The main character is that warrior, maybe a healer in required.
To fill out the adventuring party, the player travels to the Rift, an alternate plane that plays home to thousands and thousands of mercenary pawns. Mercenary pawns come in all shapes, sizes and classes, ready to fight by the players' side as long as they're needed. They can be swapped out during visits to the Rift as the situation calls for it.
Where do all of these mercenary pawns come from? For the internet connected player, they come from other players.
See, the main pawn of one player is the mercenary pawn of the next. Say a player creates a willowy blonde healer character to be his constant companion. Another player visiting the Rift can either randomly or purposefully (using an in-game search function) recruit that main pawn as a mercenary.
What's so great about that? For one, while a main pawn is playing mercenary to another player they'll earn Rim Crystals, a special sort of currency that can be used to either rent higher level pawns or buy powerful in-game items.
Far more interesting is the fact that a player's main pawn retains everything they've learned while acting as a mercenary, bringing that knowledge back to the player's game.
For instance, the main pawn of a beginning player gets rented out by a player further along in the story. Adventuring with this other player, the pawn takes down a creature the original player hasn't faced yet. When the renting player is done, the owning player is notified that there's an update available for their pawn, and the knowledge of how to take down that creature is added to the pawn's repertoire. When the original player finally faces that creature, the pawn will share knowledge about how the beast had been taken down previously.
The same goes for special areas and dungeons. If a pawn navigates a maze with a renting player, they'll impart that knowledge to the owning player when they reach the same spot.
Of course the best pawns get the best knowledge, so it's up to players to create attractive characters that others will want to adventure with, or use social networking to promote their pawn amongst their gaming buddies. Or maybe advertise their pawn in a future post on a major gaming blog.
Not that I would ever do such a thing. At least until early next year, when Dragon's Dogma hits the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.