Image: Pillars of Eternity II

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?”

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 harbor 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.

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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 traveling 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.

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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.

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My favorite 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.