Sidekicks - Why You Want One and How to Run Them
How To Use Sidekicks in D&D - An Introduction to the New Rules
Who Wouldn't Want a sidekick?
Iconic partnerships are common throughout many of the greatest stories we know; Batman and Robin, Xena and Gabrielle, Jay and Silent Bob, and Han Solo and Chewbacca. These great partnerships always add a dynamic to the story that wouldn't have existed otherwise and they often create some of the most memorable moments. So, why not add one to your D&D game? This week's article will be focusing on just that, how to use a sidekick in D&D!
There are many reasons why you might want to add in some sidekicks to your party. Perhaps the party composition is lacking in a specific skill that they will need to rely on in an upcoming adventure. Maybe there is a subplot that needs some exposition and you don't want to just read a wall of text to your players. You could also be having a hard time finding enough players to play regularly and you are having a hard time balancing your encounters to fit. (If you need some help there, check out last weeks article How to Balance a D&D Encounter).
There are multiple ways to handle this, so let's dive into it shall we?
What's a Sidekick?
There is an important difference between an NPC and a Sidekick. The difference being that the sidekick exists solely to help the PCs out. They probably have other motivations and their own life things to deal with, but as far as the story and mechanics go, they are there for the PC's benefit. That doesn't mean that if they are treated badly by the PCs they have to blindly follow along with no matter what, but generally speaking, they are always good guys. Having a sidekick turn out to be the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) would be a pretty shady move. (An NPC that the party thinks is good but turns out the be bad however... that's perfectly fine! <laughs maniacal DM laughter...>).
The concept of a sidekick is not a new one, and DMs have been solving these particular problems on their own, either by creating an NPC, letting players run multiple characters or even a, somewhat controversial, DM PC (a regular PC that the DM plays). All of this can amount to a lot of extra work on both the players and the DM and lots of newer DMs and players wanted simplified methods to deal with this common problem. Wizards of the Coast has been courting the rules for implementing this idea for several years now. They first created playtest material in Unearthed Arcana and most recently made the ruleset official in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. These rules present a simplified set of options that will allow the party to augment their collective skillset, but without adding the additional complexity of running a full character.
Who Will Run It?
You have three options here: you, the DM, can run it, you can have a player run it, or you can have the party run it collectively. The decision will be largely dependent on what your players want to do and their level of experience with the game. If they are already having a hard time keeping track of their own character, that might be a signal that you should run the sidekick. You can always hand it over to them to play once they gain more confidence.
If the players are going to run it collectively, make sure you have a conversation about how that will work. Who is going to get the loot that the sidekick finds? Who is going to roleplay for them? Who gets to decide what they're going to do if there's a disagreement? Having these conversations up front is going to save you tons of time at the table when the situation comes up. You might want to consider passing the responsibility of running the sidekick around after a certain amount of time or session by session. Additionally, you can use a small token (glass bead, special mug, feather, whatever you want) to indicate who has the responsibility of running it at any given time.
If the sidekick will belong to a certain player, make sure that player doesn't hog the spotlight from the rest of the group or overshadow everyone else, both in and out of combat. With double the actions and roleplay opportunity, this is a real concern. Again, have a discussion about how everyone wants to see this work at your table to make sure it's still fun for everyone.
If you are going to run it (assuming that you, dear reader, are the DM of course) then keep in mind what I said earlier. The sidekick is there for the PCs. Make sure they don't steal or act against them. If you want to do that, you want an NPC, not a sidekick. If the party wants the sidekick to go off and do something on their own, let that happen the exact same way as if a PC was doing it.
How Does It Work?
The rules presented on p.142 of Tasha's Cauldron of Everything are really simple. You pick a type of sidekick that you want (Expert, Spellcaster or Warrior) and every time the players level up, so does the sidekick. The book lays out a simplified set of new abilities that they get at each level. That's pretty much it! Of course, if you are interested in expanding or customizing these abilities, go for it, but the rules presented are a solid starting place.
You can have the sidekick be visually anything you want it to be at this point, as long as it (mostly) makes sense. It might be a lot of fun to make animal companions that use a sidekick stat block to really expand on that relationship and the companion's usefulness. The sky is the limit, let your imagination run wild!
You can have the sidekick join the party right from the beginning of the adventure, or they can come together later on. You can have the sidekick be a hired help of some kind (making the decision to get a sidekick an impactful one) or you can have them join for other story reasons. Whatever the case though, make sure that the sidekick doesn't outshine anyone. Having the expert sidekick pick all the locks and find all the traps is cool, but only if your party doesn't have a Rogue who can already do that. Make sure that the sidekick is filling a gap that doesn't already exist.
You can keep track of their stats using a regular character sheet, a post-it note, a napkin, or just a regular piece of paper, but if you are looking for something slightly more put together, you can find simplified character sheets around the Internet. I'm personally pretty fond of this one https://www.dmsguild.com/product/284776/The-Essentials-Sidekick-Sheets on the DMs Guild. It's pay what you want so you can check it out before you buy it, but if you like it go back and toss the lovely creative person a dollar for their time.
Some Cool Examples
I think one of the most interesting uses of a sidekick is for 1 on 1 games of D&D. I'm just about to start a 1 on 1 game with my brother who lives in Australia, and I plan on giving him a sidekick. It's hard to schedule a group of people to get together regularly when they live in the same city, never mind on the opposite side of the planet. This takes a little extra effort on my part to make sure the encounters are still fun and epic, but don't accidentally kill the PC every single time they fight something. A sidekick is a perfect boost for both combat damage as well as skills coverage. For this game, he's going to find a damaged Warforged Cleric in the woods to help round out the adventure.
Another cool option for a sidekick would be to give one to each of the PCs. That lets them send the sidekicks off together or stay home, holding down the fort. They could send their hirelings on side quests to do research or collect various things. Again, be careful here that you're not letting the PCs send the sidekicks off to do the whole adventure without them while they eat bonbons at the castle, but this could be an interesting way for the PCs to find out about various things that are happening elsewhere in the world, or to tie off a mostly finished adventure arc without spending the time to roleplay it all out.
Another interesting option would be to create a spellcaster for a party that was relatively low magic, giving them access to some additional magical options on their adventures. The opposite can also be pretty useful; if you have a relatively high magic group, letting them hire a fighter as a bodyguard to their squishy Wizard group would be really helpful.
However you play D&D at your table, consider the sidekick as an additional tool in your DM toolbox. With the now official rules providing a solid baseline for your homebrew craziness, you can now bring that Harold and Kumar, Bill and Ted, or Sherlock and Watson vibe to your game with ease.
That's all for this week, and don't forget, there are 20 sides to every story!
-The Intrepid Adventurer