DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Sidekicks
Last Updated: December 23rd, 2019
The Dungeons and Dragons Essentials kit, released on June 24, 2019, introduced new rules Sidekicks. These rules previously appeared in an Unearthed Arcana article, but the rules saw a total rewrite between the Unearthed Arcana article and the final rules.
The released version is dramatically simplified, amounting to just two pages of text, including three stat blocks. The final rules also notably only go up to 6th level, which means that you'll be unable to use them beyond that point unless we see an expansion of these rules.
This article is intended to be supplemental to the published Sidekick rules. Because Sidekicks are not included in the SRD, I can't replicate any significant portion of the Sidekick rules. For text of the Sidekick rules, purchase a copy of the Essentials Kit from your friendly local game store.
Sidekicks in Your Game
Sidekicks are intended to fill in for players in your game. If you're running a game with a small party, you can use a sidekick to make up for missing capabilities and to help the party survive encounters balanced for more players. You can even use the sidekick rules to run a campaign with a single Player Character, allowing two people (the DM and the Player) to enjoy adventures written for typical parties of around 4 characters. However, Sidekicks are no not as powerful as player characters, so you may still need to be cautious when balancing encounters or you may need to include an extra sidekick depending on the size of the party.
When considering including sidekicks in your game, ask yourself these questions:
- Is your party smaller than 3 players?
- Is your party missing a crucial skillset, such as healing spells?
- Are encounters in your adventure or campaign too difficult for your players?
If your answer to any of those questions was "yes", sidekicks may be a good addition to your game.
Sidekicks and Racial Traits
The published sidekick traits omit racial traits of any kind, so there is no mechanical difference between two sidekicks of the same type even if they are of different races. You can apply racial traits using two methods:
The first method is recommended by the official rules: With the Dungeon Master's permission, the sidekick simply gains racial traits as appropriate. While this makes sense from a player perspective, it can be a significant increase in a creature's capabilities which the game rules aren't balanced for.
The second method is to use the rules on page 282 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. This page presents a table of simplified racial traits which can be applied to NPC stat blocks to make them more closely resemble the race you're seeking to use. While these traits still increase the capabilities of the Sidekick, they're less complex than those listed for players. This table also includes fun options like skeleton and zombie.
The official rules present three types of sifekicks: the Expert, the Spellcaster, and the Warrior.
The Expert most closely resembles the Rogue, but lacks the Rogue's powerful combat features like Sneak Attack, instead focusing on skills. This allows the expert to provide important skill and tool proficiencies without requiring a player to focus on enabling Sneak Attacks, which can require coordinating positions with allies, ambush tactics, or other complications. In combat, the Expert relies on finesse weapons and light armor, and while they're competent in combat they can't match the capabilities of the Warrior.
The Spellcaster is two sidekicks in one: an arcane spellcaster (Mage) and a divine (Healer) spellcaster. The two versions roughly match the cleric and the wizard, but with dramatically reduced and simplified capabilities. Each version learns a fixed set of spells as it gains levels, adding options specifically chosen to support Player Characters in the party rather than shining on their own.
The warrior is a generic sword-and-board martial character, focused almost exclusively on combat. Like the Spellcaster, they have two flavors: Attacker and Defender. Attacker focuses on attacking (surprise), while Defender provides the same effect as the Protection fighting style, allowing the Warrior to defend allies (generally Player Characters) to impose Disadvantage on an attack against them.
Designing New Sidekicks
If the three existing sidekicks aren't good enough, you might try your hand at making your own. As with any homebrew, it's important to learn from the existing examples, and to try to stay withing the mechical guidelines which existing content establishes.
In this section we'll go through an example and build our own custom sidekick: the Savage.
Before we dive into designing a new sidekick, we should look at some design considerations which will inform our decisions. We can learn a lot from the published sidekicks despite the limited quantity of examples.
- Simplicity First: Sidekicks should be mechanically simple. Their features shouldn't require complicated decision points in combat, and as they gain levels there should be no new decision points. When there are decision points to be made, there should be as few options as possible and the options should all be extremely distinct from one another. Whenever possible, make decisions ahead of time (example: pre-plan Ability Score Increases.)
- Low-Maintenance: Controlling sidekicks should always be easy. Their abilities generally should not need to be tracked in combat, so effects which change the Sidekick's status, which change the battlefield, or which require Concentration should be avoided.
- Spotlight on the Players: Sidekicks should never have abilities which are as exciting as those of the players, and under no circumstance should they be able to outshine Players Characters. Spellcasters should have spells which are helpful but not flashy, and martial characters should be effective but generally unremarkable.
When designing a new Sidekick, start from a concept. The published sidekick options have clear concepts: a highly-skilled expert, a warrior who excels in combat, and two varieties of spellcasters which provide basic magical capabilities.
Our "Savage" sidekick is a simple concept: an unvcivlized outlander with primitive beliefs who excels at surviving the dangerous, uncivilized parts of the world. We'll make the Savage a martial character similar to the Warrior, but we'll distinguish the two with proficiencies, item choices, and other small changes.
In many ways, a Sidekick should roughly resemble the core features of an existing class. The Expert resembles the rogue, the Spellcaster resembles either the Cleric or the Wizard, and the Warrior resembles the Fighter. Depending on how much of a class's features come from its subclass, our new Sidekick may or may not take some inspiration from a subclass. For example: the Warrior borrows from the Champion, but other published Sidekicks don't have subclass features.
Our Savage will be based on the Barbarian. This may present some difficulties because the Barbarian relies on signature class features like Rage and Reckless Attack, but there are plenty of class features for us to borrow without making the Barbarian less special and without maing the Savage complicated.
Starting Ability Scores
Sidekicks use a modified version of the Standard Array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 10. It's not clear exactly why the 8 was raised to a 10, but my best guess is that WotC didn't want you to need to remember what sidekicks are bad at. Instead, if they're not good at something they just get a +0. It's an extremely minor change that results in a significant gain in simplicity.
Since we want the Savage to resemble the Barbarian, we'll use similar ability scores to what we might see from a barbarian: 15, 13, 14, 10, 12, 10.
Every sidekick starts with 2 hit dice, and they're always d8's. We could deviate from this, but the fact that the published options include a wizard-equivalent and a fighter-equivalent without deviating indicates that we shouldn't do so. Instead, if we want to increase our Sidekick's hit points we can increase their Constitution.
Like every other Sidekick, we'll start our Savage with 2d8, then we'll add another d8 hit die at every level.
Weapon and Armor Proficiencies
Sidekicks are always proficient with the gear listed in their stat blocks, but the published Sidekicks also have additional proficiencies specified. These proficiencies roughly match those provided by the base class used as inspiration for the Sidekick's features. The Spellcaster is a slight exception: they are proficient in light armor, while the cleric is proficient in medium armor and the wizard not proficient in any armor.
We'll give the Savage the same proficiencies as the Barbarian: simple and martial weapons, light and medium armor, and shields.
Skill and Tool Proficiencies
The published Sidekicks include 3 skill proficiencies each for the Spellcaster and the Warrior, while the Expert gets 5 skills, a musical instrument, and a tool because of their emphasis on skills. This indicates that a typical Sidekick should get three total proficiencies between skills, musical instruments, tools, vehicles, and other similar proficiencies unless that Sidekick emphasizes the use of skills.
While I was hoping to deviate from the Warrior here, I think it makes sense to give the Savage the same skill proficiencies: Athletics, Perception, and Survival.
Sidekicks are proficient in just one Saving Throw.
We'll make the Savage proficient in Strength Saving Throws. Strength saves aren't as common as Constitution saves, but I think it fits the theme we're going for.
Features by Level
Now that we have a concept and we've chosen a class as the basis of our Sidekick, we need to lay out the Sidekick's features at each level. This is the hardest part of designing a sidekick, but we only need to fill in levels 1, 2, and 3. 4th level is filled by an Ability Score Increase, 5th level is filled by a Proficiency Bonus increase (and a new spell for the Spellcaster), and 6th level is filled by a "Capstone" ability (see below).
Generally the best way to do this is to look at your base class's core features and adapt the first two or three levels' features. If there aren't enough core features to use, consider the subclass provided in the SRD since those subclasses tend to be the simplest options for each class.
For the Savage, we'll start them at level 1 with Unarmored Defense. We want to avoid Rage because it requires tracking that we don't want to introduce to a Sidekick. Similarly, Reckless Attack requires the players to make a potentially complex tactical decision during combat, which we also want to avoid. Danger Sense and Fast Movement are both easy to adapt, so we'll add those at 2nd and 3rd
Ability Score Increase
At level 4, every Sidekick gains an Ability Score Increase. Every published Sidekick increases on ability score by 2, and we should stick to that trend to keep the Sidekick simple.
Since our Savage is Strength-based, we'll increase their Strength. This will increase their Attack Bonus and Damage Bonus by 1.
6th level is the final level for Sidekicks, and at this level they all get something special. Martial Sidekicks get Extra Attack, which helps them to remain effective in combat. The Spellcaster gains Potent Cantrip, improving their damage output with their primary combat option. Neither of these options make the Sidekick more complicated, but they do make the Sidekick more effective so that they can remain effective after the difficulty spike at level 5.
Because our Savage is a martial character, we'll select Extra Attack as our capstone.
Stat Block and Level Table
With our Sidekick designed, we can now commit it to a stat block, creating a quick reference document for the Sidekick's statistics and actions. We can also commit our Sidekick's features to a level table, detailing what they gain at each level.
Below is the final results of all of our design work on the Savage. If you want to try the Savage in your own game, feel free to do so.
|Level||Hit Points||New Features|
|2nd||19 (3d8+6)||Danger Sense. The Savage has advantage on Dexterity saving throws against effects that you can see, such as traps and spells. To gain this benefit, you can’t be blinded, deafened, or incapacitated.|
|3rd||26 (4d8+7)||Fast Movement. The Savage's speed increases by 10 feet while they aren’t wearing heavy armor.|
|4th||32 (5d8+10)||Ability Score Improvement. The Savage's Str. score increases by 2, raising the modifier by 1, so increase the Savage's Athletics bonus by 1, and increase the bonuses to hit and damage of the Savage's attacks by 1.|
|5th||39 (6d8+12)||Proficiency Bonus. The Savage's proficiency bonus increases by 1, so make the following changes in the stat block: increase the bonuses in the Saving Throws and Skills entries by 1, increase the passive Perception by 1, and increase the bonuses to hit of the weapon attacks by 1.|
|6th||45 (7d8+14)||Extra Attack. The Savage can attack twice, instead of once, whenever it takes the Attack action on its turn.|