Hardcore Pawn: Dragon’s Dogma’s most interesting system

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I apologise for that title. I couldn’t resist, but it’s strangely fitting for a system this in-depth.

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Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is out on PC today, and both Peter and I have been clambering onto giant monsters and hacking their limbs off. Yesterday, he gave you some impressions on how the PC version holds up (and I’ll back him up on most of that – the mouse/keyboard controls aren’t perfect, but I haven’t switched to gamepad at all in my 13-or-so hours of play, so they’re certainly playable). Today, I want to talk about one of its more unique systems: the pawn system. If you’ve played the game on console or voraciously devoured information about the game, you probably know all about this already. If not, then… well, this is one of my favourite things about Dragon’s Dogma.

In Dragon’s Dogma you play the Arisen, a person who has their heart stolen by some bastard dragon, and is tracking said dragon down to get it back. (Note: that’s not a metaphor. I don’t mean that your character is in love with the dragon. I mean the dragon surgically removes your heart with a talon and a really creepy grin, and then flies off.) This means that you’re destined to fight the dragon, or… something. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue your heart?

Dragon's Dogma - Arisen

Hilariously, I can still pick up my gigantic companions and throw them.

That’s not important right now. What is important is that your status as Arisen means that you can command the pawns, a mysterious group of inhuman warriors summoned from the Rift, and these fill out the rest of your party and shore up any gaps in your personal skills. They don’t have their own will. They don’t have emotion. They exist solely to serve the Arisen, and to kick the arse of anything that gets in the Arisen’s way.

Once you get the earliest quests out of the way and make it out of the starting village, you’re given the opportunity to create you main pawn. This is a pretty big thing, as this pawn will remain with you for the entire game, and as far as I can tell, you can’t change their appearance or anything of that sort without considerable expense.

My protagonist is a teeny little girl, because the idea of an eight-year old child with pigtails hunting down a dragon makes me giggle. As such, my main pawn is Butch Manly, a gigantic chap with a pink afro and an impressive moustache. I mean, if I’m playing a little girl, I want somebody the size of an oak tree to defend me.

Dragon's Dogma - Butch Manly prototype

This Butch Manly prototype was recalled before launch.

Dragon's Dogma - Butch Manly 2

The finished version is far more imposing.

This also works out well in terms of classes. There are nine “vocations” in the game, six of which are only available later, and three of which – the hybrid classes – are exclusive to the Arisen. My Arisen started off as a Strider, the glass cannon rogue-ish fighter who employs dual daggers and a bow. As such, Butch Manly started off as a Fighter, a tanky melee type who uses sword and shield to draw aggro and dish out pain.

Butch is “my” pawn, and my only pawn. I can swap out his gear, change his vocation, choose his skills. I can change his inclinations by either talking to him or by giving particular orders or engaging in particular behaviour. If he has to keep coming to help me out, his AI will gradually shift towards sticking closer to me and helping me out at the expense of everything else. If I keep ordering him to rush into enemies, he’ll be more likely to charge towards the strongest foe he can see. It’s very, very easy to screw up the AI a bit by not paying much attention to this sort of thing.

Dragon's Dogma - Knowledge Chair

That’s fine, and all, but we really need you to stop calling me a useless dickhead when I resurrect you.

As an example, I want my tanky fighter to draw a lot of attention and, y’know, actually tank enemies. But if I’m not careful and I encourage this behaviour too much, he’ll become so overprotective of me that he’ll rarely leave my side, and when he taunts enemies, they’ll actually come rushing towards him and therefore me. It’s a really nuanced system, and one that’s not particularly well explained in the game, but mastery of it can make your life a whole lot easier.

The thing is, while you only have one pawn whose growth you directly impact, you’ll also have two more pawns. These are hirelings – pawns created either by other players, or just randomly generated ones – and you can’t change their skills, equipment, or inclinations. If they’re your level or below, they’re free. If they’re the pawn of someone on your friends’ list (regardless of level), they’re free. If they’re a higher level than you and not the pawn of a friend, then they will cost you Rift Crystals, a currency used pretty much exclusively by pawns and for pawn-related things. You can swap them in and out at Riftstones, so you can rejig your party pretty regularly as you level up, or when you come across a quest that needs a carefully configured party.

Dragon's Dogma - subtext

Which doesn’t explain why every other bandit on the planet tries to kill me, because I’m pretty sure it doesn’t get much stranger than a tiny girl armed to the teeth and accompanied by pink-haired giants.

This is where things get really cool. Other than checking for pawns of a class that’ll fit your line-up, and making sure they have skills you want and inclinations you like and so on… pawns learn things.

Example: I spent a lot of time with Peter’s pawn, the terrifying zombie that is BrunoPuntzJ. I was level 4, Bruno was level 16 (and was free, because Peter is on my friends’ list). Bruno had, alongside Peter, done most of the early quests. Bruno had fought goblins and harpies. Bruno knew what he was doing.

Dragon's Dogma - Bruno the guide

And he did!

If I set a quest as my priority quest, and Bruno had already done it, he’d chip in with advice. He’d give me a bit of info about what I was likely to face, or where I should probably investigate. He’d use effective abilities against the foes we fought, because he’d fought that sort of thing before and knew what sort of tactics to employ. Bruno was more than just “a party member”: he was pretty much a mentor. And indeed, hiring pawns who know how to complete particular quests is a very viable tactic, especially if you have no idea where to go next.

(Which is actually quite likely because the quests are really shit at indicating where you need to go. Expect to do a lot of aimless wandering… although that’s actually quite good fun, in Dragon’s Dogma. The unexplored wilderness is full of treasure and terror, in equal measure, and accidentally stumbling across a chimera when you’re definitely not equipped to deal with it is an experience I highly recommend.)

Dragon's Dogma - cyclops

Huge helmeted cyclopes count, too.

Now, of course, the tables have turned. Peter had to take a break to review Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, and I outlevelled poor Bruno and left him back in the Rift. Of course, this means that Peter can now call on Butch Manly – now a two-handed Warrior, rather than a sword-and-shield Fighter – and get the same sort of assistance I did. Plus, Bruno may have learned a few things, and might also return to Peter with some Rift Crystals and gifts.

To make a Dark Souls comparison, the pawn system is sort of like that series’ system of leaving messages. You can help out other players, impart knowledge, and generally provide a sense that they aren’t alone and that the world is alive, without ever actually directly interacting with them. It’s hardly the same thing, but in terms of being a unique little “multiplayer-but-not-multiplayer” twist, it falls into a similar category.

It’s also one of Dragon’s Dogma‘s most in-depth and nuanced systems and, as with most things in Dragon’s Dogma, it’s barely explained by the game itself. But take the time to explore the pawn system and make the most of it, and you’ll find yourself with useful companions that’ll earn for you even when you’re not online.

Just make sure you hire Butch Manly. He’s worth it.

Dragon's Dogma - Butch Manly

Can you say no to that face?

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Image of Tim McDonald
Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.