The DM’s PC – Something Between a PC and an NPC

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 24, 2011

The distinction between PC and NPC is pretty simple. You, the players, are the PCs (Player Characters) and everyone else you meet in the game controlled by the DM is an NPC (Non-Player Character). But the more I thought about it, the more I’m realized that there was a lot to be gained by introducing a kind of character that fell somewhere between these two absolutes.

One of the most common D&D axioms is “Never split the party.” As many players have learned over the years this is sound advice. In most cases when the party divides into smaller groups or one character goes off on his own, they make themselves vulnerable and often end up dead. But I believe that the real reason to never split the party is because it divides the game. The DM has to jump back and forth between both groups. Each group has to have enough to do during their session to still enjoy the gaming experience, but the DM has to be conscious of how much time the group out of the spotlight spends doing nothing.

The type of story-telling that D&D creates and encourages, focuses on a party of adventurers who, for the most part, are always together. Strength in numbers and all entails; nothing new here. However, in fantasy literature that focuses on an adventuring party, including classics like The Lord of the Rings upon which D&D was heavily based, the story is constantly shifting between the characters as they do different things simultaneously.

This is something that doesn’t work well with the way D&D mechanics were created, and in some cases it’s really too bad. Many DMs, myself included, often feel that their hands are tied when they’re trying to come up with a really excellent story for their next campaign.

No matter how much I try to avoid the need for an encounter that excludes any of the PCs, I often find that at some point in my story arc the easiest and most obvious way to move the story from A to B is with this kind of encounter. Something that won’t work at all if everyone is present or would work a lot better if it focused on just one or two PCs specially suited to handle that challenge. When I try to change the encounter to include everyone it doesn’t work. As a result it is almost always removed from the story or seriously retooled, at which point it’s no longer the same encounter.

It’s this kind of roadblock that led to the creation of a new kind of party member. He’s more than any typical NPC but he’s absolutely not a PC. The new character type is a full-fledged member of the party but he’s run by the DM. He’s essentially the DM’s PC.

The DM’s PC is a supporting character but he’s integral to the story and to the party. The party trusts him as they would any other member of the group being run by the players at the table. He doesn’t participate in combat, but he’s certainly capable. He’s equipped with the equivalent magical items that the rest of the party is outfitted with. The DM’s PC is the guy who works outside of the group and takes on all the assignments that the PCs can’t do because it would mean dividing the playing time.

The DM’s PC can be any race and class but given the kind of tasks he’s likely to perform he’s usually part scout and part diplomat. He’s the party’s advance man. He goes into the hostile areas first and takes a look around, and assesses the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. He arrives at the next town a few days before the PCs and gets the lay of the land, learns who the power players are, and even books rooms for the party at the local inn.

However, the DM’s PC is practically invisible to the PCs. They rarely see him, they just get notes and messages that he leaves them to find. When they do finally meet up with him it’s after the adventure is done and the dangers have past. His role is not the same as that of the PCs. He doesn’t participate in combat, but he does provide the PCs with the details they need to be more successful when they fight. He’s likely to be compared to the Polkaroo or Snuffleupagus – often heard of but never seen.

By using the DM’s PC in the way I’ve described above the PCs don’t have to waste time taking care of the little details every single time they head out on an adventure. They know that the DM’s PC is reliable and isn’t out to mislead them. Of course, there may be times when the DM wants the party to perform these tasks themselves in which case the DM’s PC is conveniently unavailable or not suited to that particular task. Since he’s the DM’s PC it’s up to the DM to decide what he can and can’t do.

An added bonus of having the DM’s PC be a recognized member of the party and on the same power level as them, is that if you’re short a few players on game night, the DM can always have his PC show up to help the party fight just on that one night. After all he is a member of their group; they just don’t see him very often.

Before I came up with the idea of using the DM’s PC in this manner I always had to introduce some NPC. What usually ended up happening was that they PC had to decide if the NPC was trustworthy and then they had to decide if the information he shared was reliable. In most cases I just needed them to have the information so they could move the story forward. Although they usually got the information they needed it often took much longer then I expected and ate up valuable time that could have been used to do other things like combat or more important role-playing.

Selling my players on this kind of new charactertook a little bit of time. They were initially skeptical of me (as the DM) and therefore of my PC. I finally won them over by asking them to think of this not as my PC but as the PC of another member of our gaming group who moved away. This is a friend we’ve all known since childhood. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for him if he asked. So when I told them to think of the DM’s PC as his PC being run by the DM, the trust issues disappeared. It was like a light bulb went off and they suddenly understood what I was trying to accomplish with this new party member.

I’ve found that having the DM’s PC as a peripheral character, important to the story but not part of the action at the gaming table, let me develop a more interesting story. It also gave me an easy way to relay important information to the PCs without any time wasted questioning its validity or significance.

Is the DM’s PC something that you’d consider adding to your game? Do you see the DM’s PC taking on tasks that you’d rather the players have their own characters pursue? Do you already have something that’s similar? If so how has it worked out at your gaming table?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jim Tigwell June 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

I like your post, but I’m not sold on the idea of the GMPC, partly due to being soured by bad experiences, I’ll admit. But also because it seems to limit PCs choices both by giving them a metagame reason to trust the character, and by limiting their approach to an adventure based on how the GMPC sets them up for it. Doing the legwork, especially the diplomacy bits, is an opportunity for PCs to develop new relationships and bond with the setting. Even simple reconnaissance allows a PC to own that achievement. Instead of them entering through a back entrance which was given to them (making it essentially the front entrance), they enter through the back entrance which another PC has found (well done, party scout!), knowing that had the PC not located the back door, their plan would be completely different.

I certainly understand the frustration of introducing new NPCs, or when you just need the PCs to have some information, but I don’t know that the GMPC is the best method of resolving that issue. I tend to encourage PCs to cultivate a network of relationships in character, and can use that network to deliver information if necessary. Whether that’s one of the warriors spending her time investing in a training circle or underground fighting ring, or a cleric wenching his way through half the brothels in the city, they serve the same function by making the player(s) in question responsible for delivering that information to the party, and allowing them to reap the rewards of that. Having the information come through a network which the PCs already rely upon can eliminate the necessity of introducing a new NPC, and can also serve to mitigate the trust issues of doing so by allowing for introductions and referrals (“That shadowy figure in the corner with a quest? He’s my brother in law, fought in the war…” etc.).

That said, my focus when running a game is on how the PCs are changed by their relationship to the setting and the setting’s characters, and how the setting is changed in turn. With that in mind, having those networks becomes important. If the group has a different focus, such as a faster-paced action/adventure style, then I can certainly see the virtue of having the GMPC be the Charlie to the party’s Angels, giving them the necessary briefings so they can commence the kicking of ass and the taking of names.

2 Dungeon Maestro June 24, 2011 at 11:34 am

I love splitting the party! As you noted however there is a general issue with downtime for non-active players that can be pretty bad. But part of being a good DM is being able to keep everyone engaged. This means not going overboard on party splits. If you think about it, splitting the party is basically the same as keeping them together. If the whole party walks into the bar, you have to go around the table and get actions, and mix dialouge. The same can be done if the party spltis and walks into two bars. You just have to organize the flow in a way where the PC’s can keep in mind who is in which bar.

In some cases, the skill challenge mechanic can act as a tool to quicken or shorten RP so as to keep things moving. This is not to say it’s a substitute for RP, but more of a shortcut. Instead of delivering a flowery speech, deliver a few RP lines, state the intention, and make the check.

Speed, balance and experience are all big factors in splitting the party; and a DM who is really on their toes!

As for a DM-PC? It’s basically an NPC the party trusts. Use backstory, or current events to establish that trust, and the NPC can be used when needed.
Running the Scales of War campaign for my group several NPC’s have become known allies, and have been hired or sought out for their skills several times during their heroic levels.

3 Traveon June 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Good article, very insightful. I can see pros and cons to the DMPC as well. The only time I usually use a DMPC is if my campaign has less than 4 PCs at which point I just make him a big dumb fighter or something similar. The DMPC doesn’t make many suggestions and will take literal orders from the PCs. He can be extremely helpful if the PCs are smart or hinder them if they don’t phrase things correctly.

An example of this is a former campaign I ran for my brother and 2 friends. It was an evil campaign in which the DMPC was a dragonborn warlord. My brother ordered the DMPC to “take care of” a slave girl (get rid if her). The DMPC beheaded her in the spot (which was their inn room). My brother’s PC got upset because that wasnt what he meant. Then he said ” clean up this mess now!” The DMPC then threw the body and head out the window.

This caused quite a stir outside and again my brother was flustered with the outcome. I expained that he had to be very specific, it was a lot of laughs because of the unintended trouble the DMPC caused, but the PCs learned to be very specific if they wanted him to perform any tasks other than to just kill things in battle.

Anyhow that’s an example of how I use my DMPCs sometimes, I wouldn’t want to use them to give too much info to players as a scout, but more as a limited support in the game that gives clues or ideas that the chars can use if they feel like they are in a rut.

4 Seb Wiers June 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm

What you are describing sounds like a powerful henchman, likely the sort who would be hired by the party’s patronage. A manager, basically. I’m not sure why that needs to be presented as a DM PC- it seems a perfectly respectable role for an NPC.

5 Oz June 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm

A GM “PC” can be a useful tool, as long as you don’t let him step on the PCs toes. Usually they are best as either another fighter type (but not quite as good as the PC fighter types) or a support character (like a healer if the party is lacking).

Not only does it give you the occasional mouthpiece for those times the players are missing something obvious or a plot hook needs delivered, you can also do things to the GM PC that might be tougher to do to PCs (i.e. possession) or to make a point without gratuitously nailing a PC (that trap is dangerous). Plus it can provide for a little comic relief.

The biggest danger is that GMs often are denied the chance to be players, so when they have a character of their “own”, they get carried away. I was guilty of this when I was younger.

6 Ameron June 27, 2011 at 9:28 am

@Jim Tigwell
Let me be clear that the DM’s PC wouldn’t do the advance work all the time, just in those circumstances when the DM doesn’t feel that playing this part out with the main party will add any real value to the experience. I absolutely agree that there are going to be times when doing these things are important and necessary.

I also like to have the PCs cultivate relationships with important NPCs and it happens a lot in my games. However, my games just as often involve a lot of travel to exotic locations that the PCs have never been to before and it’s in these circumstances, when there is no way they’d know anybody before they get there, that I see the DM’s PC being useful.

@Dungeon Maestro
My group has a remarkably short attention span and as soon as one player is not involved, he stop paying attention. I’ve also had a few bad experiences splitting the party where one group does something so outrageous and unexpected that there is not fast and easy way to bring the two groups back together. One group plays for an hour while the other group does nothing. I still get crap from some players to this day for allowing this to happen.

In circumstances where I want the PCs to do their own leg work I usually use a skill challenge or two exactly as you’ve suggested.

@Traveon
I’m with you. If my DM’s PC needs to have direct interaction with the party or even join them for a fight he’s never put in a position where he’ll make decisions. I may not go to the extremes that you’ve described but I make it clear to the PCs that he won’t take any initiative other than self-preservation.

@Seb Wiers
I’ve tried fulfilling this role using a “regular” NPC but there were always trust issues. In circumstances where I wanted the DM’s PC to scout in hostile environments the players had a hard time believing that he’d be able to survive on his own since he was just an NPC. By “upgrading” him to PC status and putting him at that power-level the players suddenly accepted him as being capable of doing what I needed the DM’s PC to do. But you’re right, a powerful henchmen or the team’s manager could be subbed in if that works better for you campaign and DMing style.

@Oz
I completely agree. The DM’s PC is never the decision maker and never fulfils any part of the quest that the PCs should be completing themselves. My group regularly rotates the job of being the DM so there’s little need to create the DM’s PC just to fulfill their own desire to be a PC and feel like a member of the party. But I can certainly see how this could be a risk if you’ve got the same DM for a long-term campaign.

7 DM Devon Wilson January 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I love this! Mainly because i do this. I run my own PC that does almost everything describe in this article. My party is currently at a lower level and they need a NPC that knows how to kick ass and take names and My PC is it.. It may be cheap, but when theyre in a tight spot I swoop in and help em out a tad.. Plus i use this mysterious character-“THE WIND” to add a fun sense of Mysticism to my already Interesting ongoing story. Another great part of this is when my friends/party members request “Hey mind if i attempt to DM a round or two, it gives me a chance to play using an already familiar person to play w/.

8 Chad April 18, 2012 at 11:37 pm

I run a DMPC because my party lacks a healer and I personally enjoy playing with them. My first attempt at this went south, and the second has worked pretty well.
The first time, I made the mistake of utilizing my DMPC to move the story along. My party declared him a traitor and attempted to kill him in the middle of a battle with a green dragon. That led to some arguments and disagreements; in the end, I scrapped him.
I’ve learned my lesson; the new DMPC fulfills the role of healer and ‘faithful servant’ (as you mentioned a few years back, Ameron), present to offer healing, carry gear, and do the small chores the party doesn’t want to do. Needless to say, my players like this incarnation a lot more.

9 Erin July 26, 2013 at 10:09 am

I kind of forced my GM (and fiance) into this role for Exalted. I made a Lunar (shapeshifter) with intelligence 1 (I wasn’t trying to min max, but was instead playing with the raised in the wilderness theme) with a panther familiar with human level intelligence. A few months into playing I managed to work a miracle and my familiar became a Lunar as well. Instead of having me run a second character, the panther became the NPPC (non player player character). This character isn’t used for too much, he fights, but mainly as backup, he only talks when no one else does, and he is usually my way of checking on the other players (we split up more than we should, but the game is spanning multiple worlds and has been going on for 8 years or so). Everyone knows that the panther is run by the GM, and a lot of times he blends into the background, but when he is needed, he’s there.

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