Player Character Calculus

This is the video game-specific variation of the Cast Calculus. In many games, the player controls a single Player Character at any time and often throughout the entire game. Others give you an AI-controlled Non-Player Companion, while certain genres offer multiple companions to make up an entire Player Party. This page categorizes individual maximum party sizes and which tropes are associated with them.

Compare Faction Calculus.

Lone Gunmen (1-2)

This category encompasses games with just one—at most, two—Player Characters, plus optional cohorts.

1 - Lone Hero

The player controls a single Player Character (or at least one at a time), and that's it. This template is extremely common in shooter (the First-Person Shooter in particular), hack-n-slash, fighting, roguelike, Survival Horror, and adventure games, as well as in more story- or sandbox-oriented RPGs. It also includes games where the PC is given assistants upon reaching certain plot points but cannot control them in any way, including whether and when they leave.

Role-Playing Game
  • The Elder Scrolls series let you roam on your own in Arena, Daggerfall, and Morrowind. Sometimes, characters would follow you, but in Daggerfall, they were just icons in the top-left corner of the screen, while in Morrowind, they tended to get lost or meet untimely and messy ends.
  • The original Diablo followed a lone hero (in the single-player mode) descending into the depths of hell, though later canon established that all three playable characters fought their way to Diablo.
  • In Nox, you always control Jack and that's about it. At predetermined points of the story, various characters follow him around but you can neither control, nor equip them in any way.
  • In The Witcher, you control Geralt the eponymous witcher. In certain levels, several NPCs will follow him around and fight enemies together with him, but otherwise he is on his own.
  • Dragon Quest I had one lone character. Luckily the enemies only ever decided to attack you one at a time as well.
  • Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a rare Final Fantasy title with just one playable character (namely, the eponymous Lightning).

Simulation Game

1+x - Lone Hero and Optional Cohorts

A subtype of "Lone Hero", in this template, the Player Character is fully expected to complete the whole game alone, but can also request assistance from an NPC or two. The player's control over them often boils down to telling them when to follow or to leave. This also includes games where Summon Magic can be used to conjure up functional monster/animal companions.

Role-Playing Game
  • Fallout and Fallout 2 let their player characters hire help at certain points but they were fully expected to finish the game on their own.
  • Diablo II lets the player hire a human Attack Drone of one of four available types (archer, paladin, mage, barbarian) and even outfit them with better weapons, but this is a mostly optional feature, especially for classes that specialize in summoning/necromancy.
  • The Russian RPG GoldenLand revolves around a single hero who is occasionally joined by story-relevant NPCs and can hire two cohorts (a Norse Action Girl and a bogatyr-for-hire at the local inn).
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allowed the player to bring hirelings along, mostly as rewards for advancing faction-specific storylines, but Skyrim also lets you hire mercenaries with gold.
  • The Shadowrun games for SNES and Genesis start off with a lone hero but include the option to hire up to two other runners to make a party.
  • Ragnar's and Taloon's chapter in Dragon Quest IV had them going solo, but Ragnar could enlist a Healslime to assist him and Taloon could hire mercenaries to join him temporarily.

Platform Game
  • Some games in the Kirby series let Kirby summon a helper character who can be controlled by the computer or a second player. Amazing Mirror always has four Kirbys running around, usually doing their own thing unless a player calls everyone to one location. Most of these games feature obstacles required for 100% Completion that Kirby can't overcome alone, but there are ways to get the AI to cooperate so that a second player is never required.

Simulation Game
  • In Air Combat, you could hire wingmen for a particular mission but they were borderline useless for the money they demanded (you couldn't even control them beyond giving a single order for the entire mission) and they were only there for one mission, anyway.

2 - Two Heroes

A rarer variation with two essential and fully controllable Player Characters, who fill in The Protagonist and Deuteragonist roles, respectively, and the player either controls them both or can switch control at any time. This setup lends itself well to Co-Op Multiplayer, with one player taking control over the one of the PCs.

Role-Playing Game

Fighting Game

Platform Game
  • Mega Man X7 and X8 allows you to take two of the player characters together, but only one can be controlled at a time, while the others will come in if you switch them. X7 has the Lazy Backup problem (dying will make you lose a life, even with your ally still up), while X8 fixed it (the downed character will be switched automatically and recover some of the lost health).
  • Journey can be played solo offline, but the default online mode is a two-player online co-op, where you're dynamically matched with another PSN player currently at roughly the same stage of the journey. If you walk too far apart, you will be matched with another player, identifiable only by their different symbol.

Shooter Game
  • Dead Space 3 has Isaac get a new ally John Carver. The game is programmed to make him what amounts to an optional second player, active only if someone else has picked up that second controller (in another networked Xbox). The game had dynamic difficulty for when the second player shows up or leaves. And apparently hallucinations visible only on John's screen, to make gameplay different.
  • Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a weird example, falling somewhere between here and 1+1: you can choose to play either as Thomas or as Ray—but only between missions, not during them, while whoever you didn't pick follows you as a Non-Player Companion for that mission.

1+1 - Lone Hero and an Essential Cohort

This is a particularly common template that bridges the gap between "Lone Hero and Optional Cohorts" and "Two Heroes". Like in the former, the player's control over the Deuteragonist is limited (often restricted to their equipment and use of special moves), but like in the latter, the game is impossible to complete without them. In essence, the Player Character must have the Non-Player Companion.

  • Drakan is a rare example with a non-humanoid Non-Player Companion: while you control the Lone Heroine Rynn throughout the game, she is accompanied by a dragon named Arokh who is essential to beating the game but cannot follow Rynn into dungeons.
  • Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War and Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation give their protagonists a single plot-relevant wingman each who can be given orders and, in the latter game, equipped with better planes.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic lets the player recruit an entire Player Party (after the first planet) but only one of them can accompany the PC at any time. Their help is pretty much essential in beating the solo campaigns, although much less so in the post-endgame content.
  • BioShock Infinite has Booker as the not-silent protagonist and Elizabeth as the companion. Even though Booker doesn't meet Liz until well into the game and only has limited control over her actions (such as ordering her to open specific tears), she is an essential character to the plot.

Medium Party (3-4)

Several important changes occur once the player is allowed to control three or more characters:

3 - Three Heroes

The smallest possible template that can be called a Player Party.

Role-Playing Game
  • Betrayal at Krondor had a total of six predefined Player Characters, although only up to three were in the active party at any given time. The active party roster changed according to plot events from chapter to chapter.
  • Knights of the Old Republic and The Sith Lords allow up to two party members to follow the PC at any time, while the rest wait on the ship.
  • The Mass Effect series likewise allows two party members to follow Shepard. The first game even expects the player to complement Shepard's firepower, biotic, or tech focus with appropriately specialized companions.
  • Chrono Cross has a three-character party but a mind-boggling 40-something recruitable characters. It takes multiple playthroughs to unlock them all, some requiring mutually exclusive paths.
  • Chrono Trigger, the predecessor to Cross, also has a three-character party and a more manageable roster of six plus one secret character. It's actually a plot point that you can't use more than three characters at once, as trying to time-travel with more brings them to the End of Time.
  • Post-SNES, Final Fantasy tends to limit the party to three:
    • Final Fantasy X lets you swap active characters during battle, provided that the retreating one isn't knocked out.
    • Final Fantasy XII expands on the formula in FFX by letting you immediately take control of the three reserve characters if the first three get knocked out.
    • In Final Fantasy XIII, once the party finally gathers together, you can only have three members out of total six in the frontline team. Unlike in many examples, there is no "main" player character, so you can swap out the leader (outside of battle) as well as the supports—yet the game is still over if whoever is in the leader slot is knocked out.
  • Mega Man X: Command Mission is like FFX in that you can swap characters during battle.
  • Dragon Quest series:
    • Dragon Quest II upped the party from the original to three.
    • Dragon Quest IV in Alena's chapter.
    • Dragon Quest V allowed you to build a large pool of party members by introducing the ability to recruit monsters, but you could only use three at a time in battle, oddly lower than what you could field in the previous two games. The remakes of the game bumped the party size to four however.
    • Dragon Quest Monsters.
  • All (but one) of the Wild Arms games only allow three people on a team, but the first game only had the three playable. The remake adds people who join for a time, and can later be permanently added to your team late game.

Fighting Game

Shooter Game
  • In Spec Ops: The Line, the PC is assisted by the sniper Lugo and the heavy gunner Adams.
  • Call of Juarez: The Cartel, similarly to Bound in Blood, lets you pick one of three protagonists to play in a particular mission, while the other two follow you around.

4 - Four Heroes

Around this stage, the player may no longer be required to fill in all available party slots—it may be possible to play the game with an "incomplete" party or even solo (except for an occasional Required Party Member). Class-wise, the Fighter, Mage, Thief roles may be expected to be distributed evenly across the companion NPCs to support a Jack-of-All-Trades PC, or the PC may fill in one of these roles, with the fourth slot reserved for the Combat Medic. In other games, however, the party composition will be rigidly mandated by plot events.

Role-Playing Game

Shooter Game
  • Star Wars: Republic Commando gives the PC command over three compatriots—a sniper, a hacker, and a demolitions expert, although the party splits up and rejoins again multiple times throughout the campaign.
  • Saints Row: The Third allows you (with proper upgrades) to bring up to three homies with you. These can be either named NPCs (who are often Required Party Members on story missions) or disposable Red Shirts you order to follow you on the streets.
  • PAYDAY: The Heist and PAYDAY 2 are meant for four-player online co-op, but the offline play lets the player choose one member of the eponymous Payday gang and play him, while the other three are controlled by the AI.

Simulation Game
  • Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War gives the player three wingmen (technically, one wingwoman and a subordinate leader-wingman team) to control and equip. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does so, too—technically, since the player no longer has any control over the wingmen and only one of them has an actual personality.

Strategy Game

Tabletop Game

Large Party (5+)

Parties of more than four playable characters are pretty much exclusively found in RPGs.

5 - Five Heroes

This template is popular in Eastern RPGs (not so much in the West) and, indeed, seems to be the highest party cap in this sub-genre.

  • Final Fantasy IV has room for five party members, though the slots empty or fill as the plot progresses. The only constant is Cecil.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics allows you to field up to five characters in any battle (in story battles, you Can't Drop the Hero and there may be other restrictions in play) and you can have up to 16 (24 in the PSP port) total characters in your roster.
  • Beyond the Beyond lampshades its five-slot party by having an In-Universe book on tactics reveal that five is the optimum party size, and increasing it to six would just have them get in each other's way.
  • The Etrian Odyssey series lets you have up to five Player Characters in your active party at a time. The third game had a sixth slot that could be filled by certain skills, such as the Wildling's Summon Magic or the Ninja's Bunshin, while in the fourth it was reserved for the occasional Guest Star Party Member.
  • Might and Magic VIII is a rare Western RPG example, being the only game with a five-head party limit in the series.

6 - Six Heroes

This is the classic Western RPG party, perhaps owing to the fact that six players is the optimal size for a Dungeons & Dragons table.

  • The Wizardry series is probably the Ur Example of six-person parties in video games: all installments except the fourth (where you played the Evil Overlord) had fully player-created parties of six, which could be imported from game to game (with a notable break between V and VI). The final installment had eight party slots in total, allowing the player to add two "Recruitable Player Characters" (essentially predefined NPCs) to the roster.
  • The first five Might and Magic games, similarly to Wizardry, let the player create an entire six-character party and, from part two onwards, additional characters who could be swapped in at the inns and played Lazy Backup otherwise. Part two also let the player supplement the party with two hirelings, technically bumping the headcount up to eight.
  • The first Bard's Tale also let the players create six-person parties, although the limit was increased in later installments.
  • All of the Gold Box games (Pool of Radiance, Savage Frontier, Champions of Krynn, etc., etc.) had the same Player Party mechanics and limited the party to six heads, tops. Some games, however, featured an additional NPC Guest Star Party Member, technically bumping the party size up to seven.
  • The Magic Candle series followed the dominant model of its time with six player-created adventurers.
  • The Eye of the Beholder series put an unusual spin on this: at the start of each game, you can create a party of four customizable PCs, but the actual limit is six, as you can additionally recruit up to two predefinied NPCs you meet on your adventures.
  • All Infinity Engine games—Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale—allowed up to six characters in the party, being straight-up implementations of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. IWD even lacked a designated "main" player character, allowing you to create an entire party from scratch in a deliberate throwback to the Gold Box era.
  • Pillars of Eternity, being a homage to the Infinity Engine era, allows up to six people in the party. You can even create your entire party from scratch by hiring generic adventurers from the inns, rather than traveling with predefined NPCs.

7+ - Way Too Many Heroes

At this point, all bets are off—there may be, in fact, no Arbitrary Headcount Limit at all.

  • Ultima IV capped the party size at the Avatar's current Character Level—which itself was capped at 8, the Arc Number of the game.
  • The Bard's Tale games from part two onwards had seven slots in the party.
  • The party in Wasteland and Wasteland 2 has room for four custom player characters and three NPCs.
  • Similarly to Wasteland, The Temple of Elemental Evil lets the player create up to five custom characters, who are optionally joined by up to three NPC followers.
  • The original Dungeon Siege allows the player to have up to eight characters in their party (including the customized PC). Alternatively, some party slots can be filled with (literal) packmules for increased inventory space.

0 - No In-Game Heroes

A special category where the player has no immediate in-game avatar. The vast majority of strategy games with a Non-Entity General fall here. Even though they allow you to field and controls dozens to hundreds, even thousands of units, their plot significance is often negligible.