In September 2023, Twitter user @LouisatheLast tweeted “Babysitting a 4 year old has me convinced that what video games need is “little buddy mode,” where a kid can have a character that just jogs along with you and can help/get their own encouraging score but cannot be harmed”. Her sentiment made it onto a meme featuring Sonic and Tails, above.
I’ve recently experienced a similar need in other forms of play, and I see how even TTRPGs can benefit from Little Buddy Modes.
What Is Little Buddy Mode?
As Louisa suggested, Little Buddy Mode finds a way to let equally enthusiastic players of varying skill levels play together. They don’t need to play in the same way or follow the same rules, as long as they play at the same time.
For example, I have two daughters. One of them is incredibly athletic, and loves to push herself to her physical limits. The other is social and likes to participate with whatever anyone else is doing, her big sister most of all. Say, my older daughter wants to pass the football with me. If I play with her but not her sister, my younger daughter gets upset because she’s left out. If I insist both sisters play, my older daughter doesn’t get the experience she’s looking for because she has to play down to her sister’s level. So we invented Groundhog Football.
My older daughter and I pass the football. My younger daughter is the groundhog. Whenever the ball hits the ground, the groundhog runs to get it and brings it to the closest player. Everyone gets to participate in the game, and they get to play the game the way they want.
Little Video Game Buddies
I will get to RPGs eventually, but first I want to share the different ways I’ve seen videos games handle co-op, and rate how well they fulfill the Little Buddy criteria.
Bad Little Buddy Co-Op
Contra on the NES still stands out as one of the most antagonistic co-op experiences I ever played. Contra is a side scrolling platformer with a sliding invisible wall. In most levels, once you go right, you can’t go left. But a major component of the play experience is getting power ups for your weapon. So if a power-up dropped near the left edge of the screen that someone (let’s say me) wanted to pick up, but someone else (let’s say one of my brothers) kept going, the power up could be lost forever.
Worse were the vertical levels. In the horizontal levels, the screen stopped moving if it reached the leftmost player. In the vertical levels, if the higher player got too far ahead of the lower player, the bottom of the screen killed the lower player.
Now you could argue this forced the players to communicate and work together and that Contra was teaching teamwork. In my experience, it mostly caused fights that got the game taken away from both players.
Another favourite game of mine that fails to take Little Buddies into account is this real time obstacle course cooking game. Overcooked is fun, flashy, and brings out my and my wife’s competitive sides in a cooperative way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave us many good options when our kids want to play too. Now, Overcooked does provide a variety of difficulty settings to adjust. You can lower the points needed to earn stars, remove the timer on orders so they never expire, and limit the number of orders you have to deal with. However, these all apply to the entire game. Which means if our older daughter wants to play, we all have to play at her level, noticeably lower than me and my wife. And if our younger daughter wants to play too, we have to lower the settings to the basement so our older daughter doesn’t get annoyed that her sister mainly likes playing Overcooked to kill my cook by closing doors as I’m walking through them.
OK Little Buddy Co-Op
Super Mario Galaxy
The Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy (the first one for sure, I didn’t get around to the second one) incorporated Little Buddy play subtly. It was a one-player game, in which Mario went around his galaxy solving puzzles, beating up baddies, and collecting resources, including star bits floating around the level. However, a second player could pick up a remote and wave it around to collect star bits and stun enemies.
I appreciate this inclusion, but I only rate it as OK for two reasons: Firstly, Mario games are built on character. Player 1 gets to be Mario, a defined character with a distinct look who the games are named after. Player 2 gets to be an undefined benevolent force. Had the cursor been a Toad with a jetpack, or a Lumalee or Lakitu, something with a face, name, and personality, that could have elevated the fun of this option. Secondly, as a 3D puzzle platformer, player 1 tends to repeat the same sections until they succeed. Once player 2 runs out of star bits to collect and enemies to stun, they’re just waiting and watching player 1 fail. That’s not fun for player 2 and puts pressure on player 1.
DrinkBox Studios’ luchador adventure comes so close to addressing these problems, but they persist. Up to four players can play; I often play with my older daughter, where I control Juan and she controls Tostada, the corporeal spirit of a historic heroine. However, the story is unquestionably a single player game about Juan. In every cutscene, characters only address Juan, and only Juan reacts, all while Tostada stands there. This annoys my daughter, because the dialog and plot don’t make sense in multiplayer mode at her character’s expense.
Similarly, Guacamelee almost succeeds at a Little Buddy Mode of game play. Guacamelee is a side scrolling platformer and beat’em up. You unlock new lucha moves that both improve your ability to fight and overcome obstacles. However, once you unlock a move, the puzzles mandate its use. This leaves my daughter overwhelmed as she needs to remember a growing number of options and how to do them, then needs the coordination to string these moves together. Similarly, once we unlock a new move, enemies gain shields that make them immune to all attacks except for a specific move. So she can’t sit out of the puzzles and just join in for the fights, because the fights are also puzzles that require similar skills as the platforming sections.
Guacamelee does allow the players to turn into ethereal bubbles that let them float anywhere on screen, including through objects. This means that as long as one player can get through a puzzle, everyone advances. But unlike the Mario Galaxy off-screen second player, players in bubble modes can’t affect anything on screen. They can’t even revert to character mode, an on-screen player needs to pop their bubble. So it’s nice that players aren’t forced to solve puzzles beyond their control, but the only other option is basically opting out and waiting, which isn’t much different from just watching someone else play a game.
Good Little Buddy Co-Op
The first Little Buddy Mode I can think of is pictured in the banner. Sonic 2 added a new character to the game: Tails. But it didn’t add a full 2-player mode. Instead, it acted more like a 1.5 player game.
Whether you played it solo or co-op, you had two players on screen (there might have been an option to play single player as just one character). Regardless, the camera followed player 1. This was important to the gameplay experience, since Sonic was sold on speed, and players used hills and other terrain features to build momentum and blaze through the levels. The slower player didn’t anchor down the faster one. When Sonic outran Tails, the little fox companion would fly back on screen once Sonic stopped. The rest of the time, Tails played exactly like Sonic, stomping enemies and collecting rings.
This meant everyone could participate in Sonic almost equally. A better player could play as the main character without lowering to the skill level of a worse player, or a worse player could take the lead and the better player can play along, helping without taking over.
Little RPG Buddies
So how do we bring Little Buddy mode to our RPG tables, my fellow GMs? We learn what to do and what not to do from video games:
- A Little Buddy should be allowed to participate, regardless of skill level;
- A Little Buddy doesn’t need to participate in the same way, but ideally the same amount as everyone else;
- A Little Buddy’s role should have agency and potential for characterization.
With these three rules in mind, here are some ways Little Buddies can participate in our sessions:
Let the Little Buddy be the Tails to a player’s Sonic.
Many player characters across multiple systems gain access to companions, from pets to hirelings. Even when the mechanics don’t allow it, PCs can amass a menagerie of recurring NPCs in their lives. Instead of giving players the reigns on these tangential characters or playing them ourselves, my fellow GMs, we can hand over these characters to novice players. This helps them get a grasp of the game without risk to the character or the campaign.
When I worked out a way for my younger daughter to play catch with me and my older daughter, an important factor was giving her role a name. She wasn’t like the anonymous second player in Mario Galaxy, she was the Groundhog in a game called Groundhog Football. It’s not Groundhog Football without the Groundhog!
Likewise, we can lighten our logistic loads at the table by delegating to our Little Buddies. To avoid making them feel like they’re doing TTRPG chores or busy work, give them a title to get excited over. Just like we feel pretty great with a powerful title like Game Master, we empower them with a title like Master’s Apprentice. And instead of making them wait to be called on, give them some if/then circumstances to look out for. “These are my tokens. When the wizard casts wall of fog, give them 10 grey tokens.” “When I say ‘the fire spreads’ give me a red, yellow, or orange token.” This way they have a reason to engage beyond “pay attention”, even if it’s a quiet kind of engagement.
A pro wrestling tradition on the indy circuit is that young wrestlers hoping to get into the industry pay their dues by helping to set up and tear down the ring before and after events. In addition to showing their level of commitment and getting face time with management, it teaches them additional layers of how their industry works.
We aren’t just GMs when we’re at the table. We’re GMs whenever we think ahead to the next session. If you’re one of those GMs who preps physically for their sessions, a Little Buddy can help more than you might expect. Afterall, a lot of GMing skills are elementary. Ask your Little Buddy to draw in details on your battlemaps, or flip through the stat blocks looking for a cool monster and then find miniatures to match. When I was writing a In A Jam, a My Little Pony RPG adventure, I’d run the scenarios past my daughters in a diceless version of the game to see what decisions they made and questions they asked. This helped polish the adventure, and was a fun bonding experience for all involved. Even after I turned over that adventure, my daughters asked if we can do “the pony story”.
Not everyone needs to experience a game in the same way to feel like they’re participating. Taking in the atmosphere of game night, seeing how it plays out, helps new players young and old ease into the experience. Giving these new players a purpose makes them feel like a part of the group without the pressure of fully integrating them before they’re ready. What’s important is that our Little Buddies feel like they participated, and fun was had by all.
Every two weeks, Ryan Costello uses his experience as a Game Master, infused with popular culture references, to share his thoughts on best GMing practices to help his fellow GMs. Often deconstructing conventional wisdom and oft repeated GMing advice, he reminds his fellow GMs that different players play the game in different ways, and for different reasons.