When you are in battle, it's all about the guy on your left and the guy on your right.
...And your front-right and front-left. And your back-right and back-left. And the guy in the row behind you picking his nose. And the girl with the enormous chest who likes to throw bunnies at the enemy. And the...good Lord, how many people are there?
Some RPGs take it to the extreme when supplying characters to the main party. Most games keep it in the 3-10 range, but some go so far as to give you 40 characters, or even 108 (or even 350+, if you count Pokémon)! What on earth am I going to do with all of these characters?
With a small party, say...three, the developers are able to provide an adequate background for each character. You are able to see their past, the things that make them the person they are today, and what drives them to their final goal. Take the original Wild ARMs. While not the most engaging story, it was able to convey a good amount of information behind each character, enough that I actually cared about their situation by the time something crucial happened in the story. Unfortunately, with only three characters, you are faced with one problem: a lack of variety.
Smaller parties mean that while you will potentially develop a stronger connection to your characters, you will ultimately not have as much variety in personalities or combat styles. In Wild ARMs, Cecilia is the originally naive princess that becomes steadfast in fighting for her kingdom, Jack is the proud treasure hunter that learns that power isn't everything, and Rudy is the silent protagonist who is loyal but has a hidden secret. What about the womanizer? What about the goofy character? What about the genius who fights with books? What about the guy who can kill a yak from 200 yards away...with Mind Bullets (that's telekinesis, by the way)?! Because the game limits itself to these three protagonists, we may end up missing out on some personalities that weren't available.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? Let's take a gander at Chrono Cross. This game gives the player the potential to garner up to 40 characters. And honestly, only about...3 of them are even what could be considered 'main' characters (and 2 of the characters are the same person)! Serge/Lynx and Kidd are the only people in the game that even get any form of background treatment. Sure, the other 37 characters have a small bit of backstory that can be told in one text box, but that's it. Actually, now that I think about it...Kidd doesn't have much either. I think she is essentially the voice for Serge, you know, the person that opens his mouth and stick his foot in there for him.
So, while we now have a grand assortment of characters, there is practically no background development. You have the main character, and 38 other characters who come along only 'for the ride,' so to speak. It's fun to try out everyone in battle, but by the end of the game, I couldn't give a swat about any single character except for Serge.
From this data alone, we can sum this up in the following mathematical formula:
Character Development = (1 / Variety)
Read: Character Development is inversely proportional to Variety.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Final Fantasy VI, for instance, managed to take 14 characters and provide 11 of them with fairly in-depth backstories. All of them had actual 'reasons' for joining the party, and while some were obviously more developed than others (say...Terra vs. Strago), the game overall did quite well in compromising character development and variety. Vandal Hearts also did quite well, for the same reasons.
Speaking of Vandal Hearts...Tactical RPGs follow one of two generic formulae that work very well for their systems.
- You get about 10 characters, with no recruitment allowed.
- You get about 2 or 3 main characters, with recruitment allowed.
The first system is like a standard RPG. I find it generally works better than a regular RPG because the settings that TRPGs take place in usually cater to the reasons for characters joining - "The Empire killed my family," or "My father was a general in the army and has gone mad so I have to destroy him..." something like that.
The second system works the best, in my opinion. You have several main characters...let's use Disgaea. You have Laharl, Etna, Flonne, and...uh...Gordon (there were a few other 'minor' characters). After you gain those, you also have to option to recruit other characters. These characters have names that you provide or randomize, and they are only distinguishable by class. They serve no purpose in the story, and their only purpose is to fight for you. Having these guys around actually makes it FEEL like a recruitment, rather than just getting characters that could have had backstories who just suck.
So, with all that said and done, how many characters are ideal?