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In my RPG, I have companion characters that can potentially leave the party. A behavior I have witnessed among testers is something that I think many RPGs deal with, namely that players will strip the party members of all equipment before they leave the party. For instance:

  • One tester removed all gear from a companion, then talked to them and chose the "I want you to leave" dialogue option.
  • Another tester saw that a companion was removed from the party via a scripted event, then loaded to an earlier save, stripped the gear from the companion, then re-played the scripted event.

I want to avoid this behavior because it encourages meta-gaming/save-scumming and breaks immersion. If this were a real life group of medieval adventurers, one of the group members wouldn't be ordered to strip down to their underwear moments before being ambushed and captured.

I don't want gear to be "stuck" on a character so that it can never be upgraded (I once played an RPG where I was frustrated that my companion had mediocre armor, but I wasn't permitted to swap it for superior armor I found later).

Is there any way that I can get the best of both worlds by allowing character equipment to be improved, while preventing (or at least limiting the incentive) to meta-game/save-scum and loot characters who are about to leave?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why is this so bad and why do you want to discourage it, exactly? Meta-gaming and save-scumming is a player's choice. In a sense your argument doesn't make sense (oh I chose to take the gear from one of my teammates, how immersion breaking???). Remember you're making the game for the player not the NPC. If the player wishes to take all of the equipment of a party member, because this benefits them in some way, let them (for whatever reason they want)! \$\endgroup\$ – Charanor Dec 29 '17 at 0:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's also worth remembering that the RP in RPG stands for! What if the player imagines their character as a back-stabbing no-good thief? Is it really that unrealistic that they would selflessly strip their allies of their valuables when they are no longer useful (i.e. when they leave / die)? \$\endgroup\$ – Charanor Dec 29 '17 at 0:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Charanor it's unrealistic that someone would let them take all the gear. It makes sense if they die, but not if you say "give me all your stuff and then go away". \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 29 '17 at 8:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I once played an rpg where... - Given THAT game... would YOU have meta-gamed the mediocre gear back unto the "companion" if you were able to upgrade him better gear... and then later knew he was "leaving"? Saving that better gear for the next companion or recouping a few gil? \$\endgroup\$ – WernerCD Dec 29 '17 at 12:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @naaz They're RPG characters, there's only a single human controlling all of them. Not a multiplayer game. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephane Hockenhull Dec 29 '17 at 20:03

11 Answers 11

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As Charanor and Philipp point out in other comments & answers, there is a school of thought in game design (called "Love the Player" in my studio) that says if the player wants to do something that doesn't break the game for other players, err on the side of letting them do it. Players who see a kidnapping twist coming and strategically prepare for it get to feel smart, rather than powerless, and you avoid creating a situation where the player's one-of-a-kind ultra-rare gear can be lost forever without recourse, without needing to create extra systems to protect against this. That's a valid approach to this design problem.

There's another school of thought, articulated in Soren Johnson's article "Water Finds a Crack," that says that players are drawn to choices that give them a material benefit in games, even to the detriment of their own enjoyment. Players tend to undervalue their subjective experience and time investment relative to things they can quantify in a game, like the value of gear. This means that some players who would normally leave the gear on - for reasons of role-playing immersion, or just to avoid extra menu fiddling - can feel pressured to play differently because that's the "wrong" choice according to the numbers.

If this proves to be a concern for your target audience (validate this by polling testers on their subjective impressions - if they're engaging in gameplay you'd consider "wrong," but enjoying it all the same, then maybe it's not a problem for them), there are things we can do to address this dissonance.

The other answers do a great job covering several different approaches, so I want to suggest just one more: narrow the gap between the player's reality and the character's.

If this were a real life group of medieval adventurers, one of the group members wouldn't be ordered to strip down to their underwear moments before being ambushed and captured.

Why not? What consequences lead the characters to make different decisions than players in this case? And how can we reintroduce those consequences into the player's view of the situation? Some thoughts:

  • Morality: taking all your ally's stuff and leaving them to rot is a pretty dick move. It could sit poorly with a character's conscience or moral code (alignment system) or affect how likely other people are to trust them (reputation system) or possibly even invite retribution from the wronged party and their allies (revenge system)

  • Uncertainty: the characters don't know when the ambush will happen, so they can't plan for it. Taking away useful gear on just the possibility that a character might get abducted means their utility and survivability in fights leading up to that event are greatly reduced. Set the abduction scene to happen sometime randomly within a gauntlet of several encounters with no save point in-between, and you put even a player with access to walkthroughs in a similar position. It's still possible to savescum it, but the increased difficulty/time investment can help players who aren't really there for the hyper-optimization to resist the temptation.

  • Future Payoff: If I leave a companion with good gear, I can hope they'll survive long enough to meet & help me again. Or for them (or their next of kin) to repay my generosity in other ways. Make the gear the character left with matter in some way - maybe you play a short vignette mission as that character while they're separated from the group, so stripping them down before that actually makes this harder to proceed (just beware of trapping a hasty player in an unwinnable situation if they can't backtrack/reload to before the split). Or maybe you model the chance the character survives, or their prosperity while they're away from the group, based on a function of the gear they were left with. A sidekick let loose with good gear is more successful in developing their skills and is higher-level / has even better gear when you next meet them, for example.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Lots of great, underutilized ideas in this answer. Hopefully some other game designers will get to read this one. \$\endgroup\$ – phyrfox Dec 29 '17 at 3:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, if you're going for Future Payoff demonstrate it early in the...EX: have the player give an NPC armor in the tutorial to show 'em how to do it, then have NPC leave before you've shown how to remove equipment. NPC comes back shortly with tale of how armor saved them from bandits... Alternatively first time they strip an NPC, NPC gets captured/robbed and possibly refuses to work with the PC afterwards ("Dude, you left me in the Dark Forest with nothing but my skivvies!") \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Dec 29 '17 at 14:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point @aslum. If we're introducing a mechanic that's not already well-established/expected by players, then the first time it triggers it could risk seeming like a mean "gotcha" instead of a realistic part of the world. If we want to use this to motivate different player action, then they need to have at least an inkling of these consequences in advance so they can make informed decisions. Doing a good job of proving this early in the game can pay dividends throughout the rest of the game, as the player reacts to their own internalized anticipated consequences. ;) \$\endgroup\$ – DMGregory Dec 29 '17 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like this is going to introduce the opposite problem - people who never bothered to equip a useless character are going to get screwed over when the character leaves abruptly without equipment, and they're going to have to reset and give the useless character gear they didn't want to part with just so they don't get screwed over by Captain Useless's Offscreen Adventures. That's not going to be a fun time. \$\endgroup\$ – user2357112 Dec 29 '17 at 21:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that's just revealing the more fundamental problem of saddling the player with a useless & unnecessary character in the first place. The best gear system in the world won't fix that. ;) We'll need to ensure that players have reason to invest attention in these characters, otherwise why are we making them party members at all? \$\endgroup\$ – DMGregory Dec 29 '17 at 21:33
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There are multiple design constraints, each of which can be solved independently. It's up to you to decide how to solve each one, in a way that makes sense for your game.

[I want to discourage] meta-gaming/save-scumming

The Quality of Life solution would be to automatically strip the companion's gear.

Breaking immersion

If the departure was voluntary, this can be explained away as the gear being owned by the party, not the companion. Or just a line of dialog like "Take my gear, I don't need it anymore."

If the departure was involuntary, rewrite the event to explain why the companion had no gear - e.g. they were kidnapped in their sleep.

Being naked

Most RPGs don't allow characters to be naked; they have a default set of clothes underneath the armor. Alternately you can keep them dressed in worthless clothes, nightgowns or the like, depending on how they left the party.

I don't want gear to be "stuck" on a character so that it can never be upgraded

You have some alternatives to this:

  • Character-specific gear. This reduces the impact of losing a companion's gear along with them, as it's worth much less without anyone to use the gear. Works even better if your game economy doesn't depend on selling gear.
  • "Gear" as permanent upgrades. You mentioned not being upgradable as a negative, but that's not something you have to have. You can still upgrade your mediocre armor with superior armor, but whatever armor you equip cannot be taken off. This is easier to explain if instead of equipping "gear", your game is about teaching "skills".
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Thunderforge: If they are no longer adventuring why would they be wearing armour and carrying weapons? Why would they need healing potions or whatever else? A person who is not out fighting monsters and so on in real life wouldn't be wearing anything other than normal/default clothes. If a soldier leaves the army they don't get to keep their guns, and whatever other equipment they have. Your hang up seems to me to be based on this nudity/underwear thing when in fact if you think of it as stripping them down to normal clothing it feels entirely reasonable to happen in real life... \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Dec 29 '17 at 9:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chris are they "no longer adventuring"? Or are they "no longer adventuring with us"? Just because the "companion" leaves "us" doesn't mean they aren't down at the local watering hole trying to get their next job... Kinda hard when they just "lost" their plate mail and diamond etched sword... Soldier turning in gear is an interesting point - The clothing (IE: Cammies/BDUs) is YOURS but the armor/weapons (Bullet Proof Vests and M16s) aren't. Could be an interesting distinction. What belongs to the "companions" and what is provided by the "hiring party"... \$\endgroup\$ – WernerCD Dec 29 '17 at 12:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WernerCD: Those questions would be for the OP. My point was only that they say "It wouldn't happen in real life" and I was providing examples of when it could be perfectly reasonable. If those examples aren't relevant to the OPs situation (ie they do continue adventuring on their own and they do have an equal share in the loot (ie they aren't hired help)) then the question can be updated to reflect that and I will happily remove my comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Dec 29 '17 at 12:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chris no worries... I provided my own answers as a spin off of that comment since it does make sense and has real world examples (IE: Military trained and gear provided/returned). \$\endgroup\$ – WernerCD Dec 29 '17 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 "Take my gear, I don't need it anymore." \$\endgroup\$ – Pharap Jan 1 '18 at 18:07
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This behavior is completely understandable. After all, nobody wants to lose an irreplaceable item forever because they made the mistake of having it on the wrong character at the wrong time.

There are several solutions I could think of:

  • Instead of fighting against your player's drive to optimize the fun out of your game, just give them what they want. When a character leaves the party, put all their unique items into the party inventory and leave the character with their default gear. This is not all that unrealistic. After all, most of their gear was obtained with the resources of the party, so the party owns it. And the remaining party members are those who continue saving the universe, so they have far more use for that +10 Sword of Slaying Everything Except Squid.
  • When that's not plausible (for example because the departure from the party comes as a surprise), make sure that it happens immediately after a difficult fight which would be next to impossible without having complete gear.
  • When you really want to encourage players to let departing characters leave with powerful items and be happy about it, reward them for doing so. For example, characters currently swapped out of the active party could collect resources and progression points offscreen. The better their equipment, the more successful they are. This would work best if you allow players to re-recruit any characters they send away and micro-optimize this mechanic through strategic swapping of equipment between active-party and off-party characters.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ "after a difficult fight" - can you elaborate a bit on that to explain how this would help? Do you mean this character wouldn't have been involved in that fight, so the best gear is (hopefully) equipped on the other characters (wouldn't that make it somewhat obvious that the character is leaving though, unless you make a habit of excluding some members, which presents a bigger gear-swapping problem)? If not, what stops the player from equipping the best items on that character? \$\endgroup\$ – NotThatGuy Dec 30 '17 at 0:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NotThatGuy he means that you should make sure you time your party leaves after a boss fight where the companion is involved and their gear plays an instrumental role in the victory, so you have no chance to unequip them and you need them with their gear to win. \$\endgroup\$ – Seiyria Dec 30 '17 at 14:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NotThatGuy No, I mean the opposite. The character would be involved in the fight and then leave the party without an opportunity to remove their equipment. So the player would be severely handicapped in that boss fight if they choose to remove the character's equipment before it. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Dec 30 '17 at 14:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp That might help (a bit) with save scumming, but it wouldn't help player satisfaction - you're still taking some valuable items of theirs, now you're just not giving them a choice about it (or the alternative is an unreasonably difficult fight). \$\endgroup\$ – NotThatGuy Dec 30 '17 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NotThatGuy It might help alleviate the hurt of losing the character and their gear if the difficult fight they just helped win gives the player some unique and interesting bit of gear. I know I am easily distracted by new and shiny things compared to the old gear I had. \$\endgroup\$ – Valthek Jan 3 '18 at 12:58
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Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (never released outside of Japan) has a couple of mechanics to stop people from looting their party members.

  1. Restrict trading.
    Party members can only trade items with their lover (and possibly siblings). Other than that, the only way to trade is to sell the item, then have someone else buy it back. Each party member has their own purse, and trading money is not possible.

  2. Characters return.
    One of the characters who leave the party actually returns in a later chapter. When he does, he is isolated from the party and has to protect a potential new party member from enemies. He also returns with the same level, experience points, and inventory as when he left. Looting him (or not letting him gain experience) before he leaves makes it harder for him to survive until the party reaches him.

  3. Items are inherited.
    Genealogy of the Holy War is famous for spanning 2 generations. There is a relationship system, where male characters and female characters can fall in love with each other and become lovers. One of the benefits of that system allows you to recruit their children after they leave the party. The children inherit several things from their parents, including inventory. Most of the children start in a location that is isolated from the party, so inheriting proper gear may be critical to their survival (until they're recruited).

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As as spin on @Chris's comment to @congusbongus's answer: Model your answer on real life Military or other similar organizations.

Military, Police Units, Mercenary outfits

As a military person myself - I "own" my uniform. My dress blues. My cammie jacket and boots. The government owns the M16, grenade launcher and body armor.

I got training in how to use an M16, grenades and have worked to get strong enough to use them in day-to-day situations... when I leave, that training and core strength is mine... The gear isn't.

If I leave the Military and go into a Mercenary unit... I wouldn't arrive with the weapons I used in the Military. I would arrive with my clothes and my skills - and the mercenary unit would provide the weapons and further training.

Thinking back at history... I would assume a Knights Templar would be in the same boat - the clothes, strength and skills are his. The plate armor and sword belongs to the Crown.

That distinction could be carried to your game.

Craft the gear such that the "company" (IE: The players party) owns the armor and weapons... the "companion" (IE: Trained Mercenaries) brings basic clothing (so they aren't naked when they arrive/leave), skills and strength...

During the course of adventuring, the companion gets paid, gets stronger and improves... but gear improvements are provided by the "Company" - and as such, stay when the companion leaves.

At that point, it's no longer a matter of question what belongs to who. There is "real world" precedence and expectations.

The "organization" owns the gear and the "individual" gets stronger/smarter/better

Same can be applied to scientists who use company microscopes, doctors who use the hospitals stethoscope and chefs who use company knives.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Along the line of the party owning the armour and weapons, I've seen games where instead of giving items to your characters, the characters are instead assigned to the items (with an equip sign on the inventory list perhaps). This causes less of an hassle when the character leaves, as there is no reason to disrobe them of their items, they are still in your inventory with no character assigned to them. \$\endgroup\$ – PunPun1000 Dec 29 '17 at 13:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PunPun1000 How the inventory is managed (kept in players inventory. Companies Inv. Companions inv with a company marking. etc) would be game dependant... the concept and real world corollary is what I think is relevant and important. What happens when a mercenary has his own pistol and the Companies M16? He has level 1 protective plating when he shows up and swaps it out for the Companies level 3 plating? The level 1 plating stays in his locker while he's out on mission? Or carried in his backpack? Interesting choices branch out at every junction... \$\endgroup\$ – WernerCD Dec 29 '17 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree, I was just adding that as a comment to show an example of how that thought process could lead to less of an incentive or need to hyper manage equipment, in order to help address the concern of the asker about encouraging meta-gaming / save-scumming. I wasn't implying that was the only way or the correct way to do it, but I wanted to help round out the answer of "Is there a way I can get the best of both worlds" by providing a realistic example of how it could be done in addition to your description of rationale behind it. \$\endgroup\$ – PunPun1000 Dec 29 '17 at 14:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PunPun1000 Absolutely. It's amazing how deep down the rabbit hole you could go. Create an inventory management system that logs who has what... when that Companion leaves the Company... and they don't return the items they have checked out? NEW MISSION! First Stage: Locate lawyers... Second Stage: Work with local magistrate to retrieve items... or create a lean against their hovel and send company thugs to rough up their family... part my my comment to your comment was going further down the rabbit hole in a different direction (and a different direction again here lol) \$\endgroup\$ – WernerCD Dec 29 '17 at 16:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Historically knights would own their own armour and weapons in most cases. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim B Dec 29 '17 at 22:39
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Rather then giving the player full inventory management over the companion, make gear sharing into a goodwill based trading system. You give items to the companion, which increases your goodwill with them based on how good the item is, and you request items from the companion and you will lose goodwill based on how good it is.

The NPC will just equip whatever gear it thinks is best out of the stuff it has, and might give you stuff back if it can't carry all the gear it has. It might even swap out gear dynamically based on the challenges it faces, which might even teach the player a thing or two about the world.

When the NPC leaves, pop up a dialog to trade with them one last time. Then you can spend whatever goodwill you still have with them to reclaim good items and they leave with the rest. You could even allow a gear-swap when they are kidnapped (maybe, if that breaks immersion too much, or would spoil the surprise, you can even do it in a flashback after the event ended. "Earlier that morning: 'Hm, I have a bad feeling about today. Want to do a gear check? We should do one, just to be sure.' ")

Of course, you could also earn goodwill for doing things that make the NPC happy and lose it if you do things to upset them. This means that if you treat the NPC well, they will happily give you all their stuff when they leave, and if you treat them like crap, all their gear will be locked in when they go. This might also increase immersion by getting players to consider their actions in terms of their companions.

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If it's a situation where the character would realistically have time to change clothes before leaving, automatically give back the gear! The characters can just as easily demand the return of their gear as the player can.

However, the character likely wouldn't to willing to walk off naked. For the sake of realism, have them reclaim the gear they joined the party with (provided they still want it). If someone else is wearing it, they'll just have to give it back.

Ambush scenarios are a little different. If a character is suddenly dragged off, there's no time to change clothes... but you can relieve the pressure to savescum by making it immediately clear in the dialogue that you will be getting that gear back. (And be quick about giving the gear back to the player - even if the character remains kidnapped for the rest of the plot, the player can find the character's discarded gear at the end of a brief, unsuccessful rescue attempt.)


I saw the "automatically give back the gear" game mechanic recently in the game "World's End". They didn't get fancy with it - the game would give all the character's gear to the player immediately regardless of why the character left - but it worked well enough to prevent savescumming.

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You could have NPCs value their own items, have limits on what they're willing to give up (and the state you're leaving them in - did you take what they need to get by without you?), and/or keep track of what they've given to the players, and ask for it (or some fair compensation) when they part ways from the players.

I'd recommend having it based on their value/attachment to different items, and perhaps also what else they've gained or lost, and their feelings for the player, so that their reaction is not unreasonable ("how DARE you not give me back that rope!") but also there's a reasonable limit to how much the players can take from them.

It's the kind of thing that will interest some players and end up with them studying how the system works and posting about it. (So I'd add a bit of randomness, so it's not something players can calculate with ridiculous precision.) But if you do a nice job of it, you could earn some great respect.

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I would expand on one point in @congusbongus' answer, namely the "gear as permanent upgrades" point. One way of going about this would be as an in-world interaction rather than a pure game mechanic. Make it so that the companion is not willing to simply give up certain types of gear, but is willing to exchange them:

"I will not give you my sword, we all know the world's too dangerous to walk around unarmed. But I can swap it with you for a mace, if that's what you prefer."

You could have certain value/stat minima for each character, probably equal to their starting gear:

"Do you take me for a fool? I am a valiant warrior and will never wield such a shoddy dagger instead of my fine waraxe!"

Some gear should still be "strippable" (probably consumables), potentially with a numerical limit or similar:

"You can have some of my healing potions, but I will need at least three to feel safe."

This could be expanded if desired to things like some companions valueing weapons over armor, some hoarding scrolls, etc., to give them an individual touch of personality.

This way, the player can still optimise somewhat if they feel they want to (e.g. if their enjoyment is Challenge and they like being as best prepared as possible), but the gain is not big enough to make Fantasy seekers feel they're missing out by behaving realistically.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like this makes the problem worse. It doesn't actually prevent stripping down characters, it just further diminishes their fun by making them play a pointless haggling game each time, and worse, encourages them to spend the entire game obsessing over which obsolete weapons they're carrying around to best win at the haggling game. \$\endgroup\$ – Hurkyl Dec 29 '17 at 17:20
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Instead of equipping the companions with "party gear" as if they were a permanent part of your party, why not make the distinction that they're outside of the core party and have the party choose to either give or lend them gear. This allows them to dump off items of little worth to the companions if they want to, or to give them powerful items for as long as they remain with the party.

So instead of having to anticipate a character leaving, or having to reload a save to deal with an impending party split, just have the character give back any lent items before they leave.

"I'm sorry we have to part ways, allow me to return these borrowed items..."

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Maybe you can give them something based on the gear the character left with. I for one always display the behaviour you just described, I never allow a character to leave with my best gear, specially if that gear was hard to get, otherwise I would feel shortchanged from the game and might even stop playing. But maybe if there is some sort of reward for letting the character go with his gear players might allow that to happen. Though signalling that to players might break immersion even more.

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protected by DMGregory Dec 29 '17 at 20:45

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