Sunday, May 6, 2012

DMPC versus NPC Tag-Alongs

So we've all heard how much players hate DMPCs (Dungeon Master Player Character), which is where a Game Master either introduces their own PC because they'd like to also play - or they introduce a tag-along NPC that steals the limelight and so is called as much. Of course, not every NPC that tags along is a DMPC. At least, I sure hope not because this ship-based campaign needs more NPCs than PCs in order for them to move any reasonably sized ship. So, how do you do it? Well, it's important to hold the distinction between an NPC and a PC.

The PCs are the protagonists. They make the decisions that move the plot. They decide where they're going and what they're doing. They get the limelight. They get the best loot. They strike the killing blow (ensure that NPCs who assist in combat never kill the big bad monster, or any monster the PCs are keen to kill, by always giving the monster 1 more hit point after taking into account NPC damage).

The NPCs tag alongs are the minor characters. They certainly influence the plot. They can complain, whine, or encourage certain courses of action, but they can't dictate it and they shouldn't expect to dictate it (unless you want the PCs to want to ditch them). They should have their own goals and motivations and you can even track how much they like the various PCs Dragon Age-style by adding ticks to the PCs who've gifted them nice loot, paid attention to them, or agreed with their sorts of ideas.

They can expect to get paid, or get a smaller proportion of the loot, but they never get to decide which loot to take unless they're not a tagalong and, in fact, are a quest giving NPC who's come along with them for a single adventure. Then they get to demand the agreed upon piece of loot and, either fight the PCs for it or take it and leave. The PCs, of course, may decide that the NPC should get more, or even equal, shares of the loot but it's THEIR decision. Gratitude on the part of the NPC is endearing. If your NPC isn't like this, create a different one who is. And always ALWAYS ensure you drop enough loot for your players to develop their characters by being generous without ending up with only +1 swords at level 10 (and thus getting curb stomped and repeatedly killed). The more NPCs you have along, the more loot needs to be dropped.

NPCs can leave the group, but just like in Dragon Age, they should generally find excuses not to unless the PCs treat them so badly it'd be stupid for them to stay. Of course, their general demeanor and personality can evolve through mistreatment and this often proves the best medicine to players who want to abuse an NPC. The bright and bubbly NPC who slowly becomes a miserable curmudgeon, always desperate to drown their sorrows, can sober Players and make them re-think their actions.

If the PCs are in trouble, can you send in the cavalry?

Absolutely. But always make die rolls for the NPCs. Make it seem realistic. Have the rogue NPC sneak in and pick the locks, not sneak attack the guardsman three levels above them and kill him. Or, of course, you could ask the players if they mind you using a cinematical for the cavalry so the excitement occurs right where it belongs ... when the PCs are doing stuff. Put the option in their hands and they might like to see what the NPCs can do. And, of course, once the cavalry have done their bit and the PCs have had a chance to heal or escape their bonds, the onus should be handed back to the PCs. The NPCs should ask for more orders from the PCs, in other words, though they can give further information that they've found on the way in.

Also, remember to keep meta-game knowledge separate from the NPC. Would Joe Bloggs, the rogue, really figure out that plot with his paltry Intelligence 10? They can give hints or happen to make a joke that is strikingly close to the truth to get the PCs thinking, but they shouldn't be all-knowing. This can be hard as a DM as you know everything, but try to keep it to what the NPC SHOULD know.

DMPCs are generally bossy, demanding, require equal loot like a PC, have equal time in the spotlight, and benefit from all sorts of meta-game knowledge. They know that trolls hate fire because the DM does and automatically cast fireball. The DM becomes attached to them and starts hand waving traps that would've killed them or monsters never attack them even when they should. This isn't cool. The Players are just as attached to their PCs.

If you really care about the NPC and want to bring them back, make them fantastic NPCs who the players really care about. Then, when they die fair and square, give them the resources to raise the NPC from the dead over and above their usual loot (perhaps as a boon from a cleric if they don't have anyone who could cast it). Don't force their hand but let them know that, should they choose (perhaps with a Knowledge Religion roll) that they have this long to raise that dead NPC.

If they don't want to do it, satisfy yourself by daydreaming about the NPC's epic tales that could've followed or write a fanfiction about it. Otherwise, accept it, just as a player must accept the death of the PC they may have worked for years on.

Oh, and word to the wise, NEVER convert an old Player Character you once played into an NPC. You can use inspiration from them but never make the same thing. You will automatically be attached to them and be quite insulted if the players hate that character. After all, even if he was a beloved party member last time, this particular party composition and the different rules of what a PC and an NPC should be like, may change the outcome.

So, have you guys got any advice on the difference between an NPC and a DMPC? Or have you got any examples of where it's worked or not worked?


  1. Against my better judgement, I've been running a literal DMPC in our Pathfinder campaign. So far it’s worked out okay, but I’m staying wary.

    I have a relatively inexperienced group of players, including two newbies, which for a couple of reasons has led to a lopsided party. While they’re aware of the classic fighter-mage-thief-cleric party, it’s not really that salient for them. I also wanted to give them a free hand with character creation, since I want them to enjoy themselves and stay interested, not force anyone into a role they don’t want. The end result was an extremely squishy party: an academic illusionist, a glamorous priestess of trickery, and a sylph-like druid. With an undersized group and no combat ability, I decided they needed more protection than a pet wolf, so I allocated them an official bodyguard designed specifically to soak damage. It seems to work reasonably well, he basically does what he’s told and just steps up when they get attacked. Of course, part of the reason it works is that the campaign setting justifies them having an official bodyguard; in a band of motley adventurers it would be more awkward.

    A fourth player joined more recently, and that point I felt it was necessary to insist on a non-casting class. The new player is running a monk, but very clearly not invested in the character and yearns for her lost 4E eladrin wizard, so I think the issue will come up again when we restart. At the same time, our druid (the least squishy of the squishies) is leaving town, along with her wolf. So I don’t think there’s going to be an opportunity to retire my DMPC any time soon.

    I think some important things for this specific kind of role-plugging DMPC (which you might call a ‘dummy’) are:
    * Make contributions limited. The DM already sets up the campaign, chooses scenarios, assigns personalities and goals to every NPC and monster, and influences player decisions directly through their responses to skill checks or questions. An opinionated dummy on top of that is too much screen-time. They might reasonably venture role-appropriate expertise if players have overlooked something important.
    * Don’t allow players to draw you into giving a casting vote, no matter how roundaboutly and unconsciously they do it. You know what’s going on and what’s waiting for them. If you pick the best tactic, it’s not much better than telling them; if you pick the worst one, you’re sabotaging them.
    * Be biddable. Dummies should be sensible in their own field of expertise, but on a broader scale they serve the party. They don’t have to take all the risks for the party (and hopefully the party won’t want them to), but quietly going along with plans is the way forward.
    * Keep them simple. You have enough to do as DM. A dummy should have a fairly simple personality, and ideally a simple character sheet too.
    * Never outshine the party. This can be awkward, because you should only have a dummy if there’s an unfilled role that needs patching up, so it may be the dummy has to disarm the trap, or go toe-to-toe with the troll, or cast feather fall to avoid catastrophe. Nevertheless, try to limit the coolness of those things, while emphasising the coolness of others.
    * Avoid giving them interesting magic items or oddball equipment. You could give them ‘nominal’ equipment that mechanically has the right AC or damage for their level (necessary to fill that role) but narratively is bland and uninteresting: it’s not a +3 flaming broadsword, it just does the same damage as one. Take mainstream feats and avoid unusual builds that can do funky stuff.

    Just my thoughts. Ideally, of course, you don't want a dummy at all.

  2. hehe, well, every game does have its needs. I wouldn't call a 'dummy' a DMPC. In truth, in a solo campaign I'm running right now I have an NPC who is an equivalent character to help pad it out to keep the solo alive. He's pretty opionated, has plenty of skills, even shares a similar niche (a rogue to the solo's ninja) but it works out well because it's still not a DMPC. The main reason is, it's up to the player whether he sticks around or not, the player assigns all the loot to him, and soon enough they'll be investigating Cheliax and the rogue (being a tiefling) will be relegated to bodyguard / spy and thus can't do the social politicking that would make it most troubling for me.

    In combats, I let the solo player run him as I find it hard playing both sides of the fence, so if he's cool, it's because of the player's choices. The player's also well aware that he's a fully functioning character ... he rolls dice for his skill checks and thus can botch his knowledges as much as a player can and he can also be wrong. When asked for advice, I take a moment to think about his personality and knowledge and give a likely answer.

    In a different game, with different players, this would be too much. In this game, with this player, and this NPC, it works out fine.

    In another game, I struggled to get my DM to run an NPC rogue as my character randomly decided to convert this evil rogue prisoner into a good person -- all the while taking advantage of his skills. We all liked the rogue and I don't think anyone minded him being around -- except for the GM who chafed under the constriction of having him around. In the end, he left, but not because of the players.

    Hrmm.... I guess your comment and mine basically point out the golden rule: "If everyone's happy with it, go with it". The way to know this is to give the players the power. If they want to ditch the NPC, then let them. If they want to keep it, then let them unless you really don't want them to.

    There's nothing you can or can't, should or shouldn't, do in a campaign. Only things that are more or less likely to work.

    Even a true blue DMPC (DM running their own PC) can work out in some games with certain players and a certain type of DMPC. It's just rare, and as it can be hard for DMs to figure out when the DMPC isn't wanted as players may be too polite to say it, leading to hidden grudges, people advise against it.