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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