The Infamous DMPC

DMPC. Kind of a misnomer, really. Also, more or less universally despised by those familiar with the term. In this article, I will explore the following questions:

  1. What is a DMPC?
  2. Why the hell would anyone ever run one?
  3. How should you play a DMPC?

1. What is a DMPC?

In D&D, a DMPC is a Player Character run by the DM. “Isn’t that an NPC?” you may ask. Well… kind of. A DMPC is built using the same rules as a player, generally sticks around over the course of a campaign, levels like a player, and often demands its fair share of loot. So, aside from the fact that it is played by the DM, who is running the rest of the campaign, it is basically another PC.

It should be noted that there is nothing specific to D&D about a DMPC. There could be one in any rpg with a traditional GM and Player structure.

2. Why the hell would you ever run one?

This is an obvious question. Shouldn’t the DM be satisfied running the entire campaign and all the NPCs and Monsters in it without having to play a PC on top of all that?

Below are a few good reasons I could see running a DMPC. They also happen to be reasons I have run DMPCs in the past:

  • The campaign is short on players: I have run campaigns with only one player in some cases. In these cases, a DMPC is often useful to add variety to combats and give the player an ally to roleplay with on a regular basis. Theoretically, you could have an NPC fill this role, but there are some problems with using an actual NPC in D&D. NPCs are typically built differently (like monsters) and so interact with the PC a little strangely in combat. To use a rather crude example, say the PC wants to be a defender. It would typically be more appropriate to play a DMPC built like a leader to heal and aid the PC in combat than a monster who would have difficulty filling that role as effectively.
  • You Expect to Switch off DMs frequently: I’ve played in several campaigns where the players take turns DMing. It can be inconvenient to invent excuses for why a PC disappears when a new DM takes over. It can also make for strange situations in terms of resource usage and treasure distribution. I’ve run published adventures that mainly have a lot of fighting in them where we’d take turns switching DM every combat! These can be fun to play casually (or as a sidetrack in a serious campaign), and it feels right to keep playing your PC when taking your turn as DM.
  • To Fill a Vital Role: If absolutely no one wants to play the leader or defender, it might be appropriate to step in and run one as a DMPC. D&D can really suffer if one or more roles are missing from a group, so filling in with a DMPC can improve the play experience for everyone and make for more interesting encounters.
  • It’s Fun: To be frank, sometimes I get a little tired of DMing. There are a lot of aspects of playing a PC that you don’t get as much of as a DM: developing a consistent character, making fun build choices, getting cool pieces of equipment, etc. In my groups, I DM A LOT, which is something I am generally fine with. Sometimes, however, I want to play a DMPC to get the best of both worlds, assuming my players are comfortable with it. Again, you can sometimes get a lot of these perks from playing a regular NPC in the campaign world, but if you’ve got an NPC who frequently adventures with the players, who levels with them, and participates in all their fights, then you’re already pretty close to a DMPC anyway.

3. How should you play a DMPC?

The short answer is carefully. In some ways, playing a good DMPC is as much about not falling into common pitfalls as making positive choices:

  • Don’t take center stage: Playing a DMPC is NOT about hogging the spotlight or showing how badass your character is. In general, you want to fill the roles that the party is missing, which more often than not are going to be support roles (there’s no shortage of strikers in the groups I play with). You don’t have to be a doormat, but generally you’re looking to make other players look cool, not rub in how awesome you are. A good DMPC would be the cleric who fills a vital role in the party that no one else was interested in and does a really good job of keeping the PCs alive and at full hit points. Remember, you don’t need to shine; you’re already shining enough by being an awesome DM.
  • Don’t Make the Decisions: If taking a back seat in combat is important, it is doubly so outside of combat. The PCs should not need to rely on you to solve a puzzle or to come up with an awesome plan of attack. That’s their job. Your job is to provide fun roleplaying fluff for them to work off of and to keep throwing the ball back in their quart.
  • Do be the Voice of Common Sense: On the other hand, a DMPC gives you a powerful tool, an easy way for you to remind the PCs when they are way too far afield. This is similar to what you might do with any NPC, except that the DMPC is almost always around. For example, if you’ve been dropping hints that the villain is hiding in the dark tower in the center of town and the PCs are looking everywhere but there, you might gently have your DMPC remind them that the villagers have heard screams from the tower at night and it might be a good place to check out. This is a seamless way to avoid the PCs making a puzzle out of something that you meant to be pretty obvious, thus allowing the adventure to continue.
  • Don’t Expose Hidden Information: Roughly translated, this means you should act boldly when all the information is on the table (literally!) and be more passive when information is hidden. In combat, most of the pertinent information is often available and you can sometimes afford to think more tactically. For example, while players don’t know all the defenses and powers of enemy monsters, they usually form an idea pretty quickly of the various roles monsters are filling in combat, and they know the status of all their teammates. However, if you know there is a trap in a combat, it is probably good to avoid situations where you take the action that gives that information to the players unless any PC would do so in your situation. So charging the nearest enemy and running into a pit trap might be an obvious move for a Barbarian to make, but moving to the far side of a battle to trigger (or obviously avoid triggering) a trap is probably a bad idea. Outside of combat, you shouldn’t be the one fiddling with the puzzle! It will either hurt your group or help them, which cheapens the experience either way.
  • Take Suggestions (and build on them): If a player says, “Roracus, help me flank this guy so I can get in a good hit”, then by all means, help flank! In fact, go a step further and use a power to pile on an extra +2 bonus to help them out! This is not so different from being a helpful PC, except you are more likely to go along with someone’s suggestion even if there was a more optimal move. Similarly, if someone has an awesome plan for tricking the guards to lower the drawbridge so the group can storm the castle, come up with ways to add to the plan instead of proposing a different one. This way you enrich the playing experience for everyone instead of competing with other players (which in some cases might be more justified if you were just playing a PC, who really does deserve the chance to shine or throw in their two cents).
  • Don’t give yourself special treatment: This is pretty obvious, but it is one of the more common pitfalls I hear about. When deciding on magical items the PCs will find, don’t put yourself at the head of the list. Your character can still get their fair share, but they can afford to wait a little longer to get it. Don’t give yourself special powers the PCs don’t have. Don’t make yourself higher level. In short, play on the same terms as other PCs or slightly below.

I suspect that if everyone followed these guidelines the dreaded DMPC would be seen in a more positive light as just another useful tool in the DM’s toolbox, one that has the potential to improve the D&D experience for both the Players and the DM!

5 Responses to “The Infamous DMPC”

  1. Awesome advice.

    I have a DMPC in my kids’ Dragonslayers D&D 3.x game now because of the reasons you mentioned, light on players and voice of common sense, but also as a learning tool. My boys can model the behavior to help in role-playing since they are both still a touch young.

    The role of my particular DMPC is to be the chronicler of the adventure, she is the one writing everything down (which gives me a good reason to help my boys remember things) and as such she is not a strong combat type.

    Thanks fo r posting this!

  2. RisusMonkey says:

    I have a DMPC in my ongoing Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG series and the reason is because we frequently take turns as Director (DM). When I’m running (which seems to be most often these days), I do my best to get my character off stage as quickly as possible unless it would present interesting role-playing opportunities for the other players.

  3. cwhite says:

    Several times, actually, in several different systems, I’ve run a variation of a core DMPC: a monk who has taken a vow of silence. This came about from playing with someone who extorts every NPC for any piece of information they might have about anything that might be relevant at any point in their adventuring career.

    It got old. Fast.

    So I made an NPC who fought, but didn’t talk. Signing to the players was fun, too.

  4. Tom Snell says:

    Honestly the BIG no no for me with DMPC is that it provides nothing that a fully developed NPC doesn’t already do, yet also has potential issues that can be avoided by just using an NPC.
    An NPC can be a fully developed character, that levels and gets loot, but without the stigma or potential for player/DM distrust. The concept is akin to having a referee who is also the quarterback of one team. ANY thing played by the DM should remain an NPC. It can be a fully developed, and realistic NPC, that levels and gets a share of the loot but it resides and remains within the campaign, and is never taken out by a DM to play in any other campaign or setting. The simple altered view that the DM has when its a DMPC over an NPC is a simple negative that can be avoided. The potential for player distrust, or the fact that its very existence can take something away from the players, is reason enough not to use them. There is nothing a DMPC can do that a fully developed NPC can not do.

    NOW YES, you can argue that as a Dm you do not give special consideration to your DMPC, or its treated totally fair, but the simple fact that you even need to make that consideration, is reason enough to understand the red flag….

  5. Jack Walker says:

    To be frank, the simple fact that you need to make that consideration, is reason enough not to blindly recommend other GMs try using a GMPC, but that’s no reason not to try it if you can follow the advice above.

    I just GM’d my very first game of Battletech: A Time of War last night, and I was hellbent and sure I could manage a GMPC well, and as it turned out, things went off without a hitch.

    A Time of War is non-level based and non-progression heavy, both in terms of skills and loot, so most players have all their sweet sweet loot and toys from the outset of the game, the GMPC included. The goal, then, throughout the campaign is primarily focused around narrative, the role playing, exploiting your characters talents, and of-course the combat (which is a non-rpg stand alone TT game in and of itself). As a result I don’t have much need for worry on the front of playing favorites in loot or leveling.

    On the front of suggestions I have, as the GM, instructed the players to elect a team leader for combat who will generally take charge from a tactical perspective. It’s generally up to each other player whether or not to listen to orders, but the GMPC serves to get that ball rolling by following instructions (at least most of the time). It also isn’t generally much trouble to otherwise refrain from cheating in combat because I’m used to obsessively playing Battletech 1v1 by myself to test builds; and cheating usually translates to me not getting good data on whether or not the build was effective.

    I also haven’t had much trouble on the front of not revealing information, because as an aspiring novelist, I’m quite used to hiding information for a greater narrative moment later. It takes some discipline, but there’s also something fun about walking the GMPC obliviously around a plot point and watching the other players scramble around in the dark trying to pick out what she missed.

    On top of all of this, within my very open ended narrative I do have plot events wondering around the background, that if engaged with and not handled properly will lead to the GMPC leaving the party and becoming a (non-PC) antagonist. And if she does become an antagonist, she won’t just be any antagonist, she’ll be an antagonist, that, if I’ve done my job right, the party will have an investment in and will actually care about when they kill.

    And that really gets to the cruxt of why I wanted to run a GMPC in the first place. First and foremost what I want is to extensively interact and role play with the other players and get them role-playing with each other, so that all of our characters form realistic and meaningful bonds. Then, when as the GM I add more and more pressure from the environment, real sparks start flying and the wounds will run deep when tragedy strikes.

    In short I want to participate in a deep interactive narrative with other people, and I don’t feel as though I can trust building that narrative to anyone but myself, so that’s why I’ve taken to using a GMPC.

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