skip to Main Content

10 Tips On Running a DMPC in D&D 5e14 min read

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Wolgraff Divinity OS Kickstarter Art
Wolgraff Character Art from Divinity: Original Sin Kickstarter

Dungeon Master Player Characters. If you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder long enough, you might have encountered a time when a Dungeon Master or Game Master tried to run their own character alongside the party. I’ve thought about this topic for awhile, having run DMPCs myself, and since Wizards of the Coast recently published their guide to running Sidekicks in D&D 5e, I figured it made sense to go into detail. Now, whereas the humble Hireling sidekick is a glorified waterboy played by a Player, a DMPC is a more capable character, perhaps even an adventurer in their own right. I figured I’d give my tips for any DM or GM out there who wants to run a DMPC properly. People like Sly Flourish have addressed at length mostly why you shouldn’t run them, and I recommend getting familiar with that reasoning. But, contrarian that I am, I think D&D 5e can actually work decently well with an occasional DMPC. How so? Well, let’s find out!

Tip #1: Good DMPCs prompt Players into choices and decisions.
Tip #2: Avoid DMPCs talking to NPCs much.
Tip #3: Good DMPCs fill specific, short-term party gaps.
Tip #4: Consider a DMPC with a death wish, or wanderlust.
Tip #5: Have DMPCs play by the rules. No SuperNPCs!
Tip #6: Involve players in DMPC battle gambits and character creation.
Tip #7: Make DMPCs team-players who unlock potential.
Tip #8: Consider letting your Players take turns running the DMPC.
Tip #9: Make your DMPC a Party’s best friend.
Tip #10: Instead of creating obstacles only a DMPC can handle, consider just removing both with fun workarounds.

Tip #1: Good DMPCs prompt Players into choices and decisions, inciting action.

If you want to do it wrong, work the DMPC like a racket: have them sweep away story challenges with glorious mistakes like having your DMPC answer your own riddles you gave to the Party. You can even have the DMPC act as a narrator! But please don’t. Like, seriously.

Instead, if you want to do it well, have the DMPC act as a conduit for inciting Players’ considerations and actions, using your normal prompting and DM Voice Special Moves: “how should we proceed?”, “which one should we pick?”, “how would they react if we did that?” And don’t forget the classic, “but what happens if we rub the lamp?”

Tip #2: Avoid DMPCs talking to NPCs much.

The opposite is also true: DMPC silence has a lot of value, often even moreso. Specifically, avoid situations where the DMPC talks to another NPC at length. Like, what even. Anyone who has experienced the DM talking to themself too long can attest to how easily that kills the fun. So make your DMPC terse, maybe even mute, or having a Vow of Silence.

A good example? The character Wolgraff from the game Divinity: Original Sin. The very art for this article! He’s basically a skilled thief with a gentle soul, who had his voice stolen by sorcerers. Cool, right? Have your DMPC be like Wolgraff: lots of utility and personality, but doesn’t clutter the Players’ conversation space, and can gesture and write when needed.

Tip #3: Good DMPCs fill specific, short-term party gaps.

The most common example would be the navigator, the humble helper who guides the party through an unfamiliar territory. Yes, the essential Ranger skillset, though others can take up Survival too. Make sure if you do this that the navigator holds some significance, otherwise you should just give the Players a better map and compass.

Ok, but what other gaps might exist? Some other ones might include offense, defense, healing, problem-solving, or social skills. Of those, use extreme caution with DMPCs that might take up too much of the spotlight, such as ones that cover offense (more on that soon), or social skills (remember Tip #2). And use moderate caution with DMPCs that fill problem-solving: obstacles have little meaning if the Players have zero agency in dealing with them. But go ham with defense and healing DMPCs, those bastions and buffers which allow the Players to keep up the shenanigans.

Tip #4: Consider a DMPC with a death wish, or wanderlust.

Speaking of the temporary nature of DMPCs, let’s talk about what that really means: at some point, the DMPC’s just gotta go. As Sly Flourish advised, always have a DMPC “exit plan”. Narratively, you can do this in many different ways.

Want an easy and compelling one? Give your DMPC a death wish. Now, I don’t mean like Romeo & Juliet, per se. Instead, you can use some other archetypes like the doomed martyr with a grave wound and a vendetta to finish. Or the tragic hero who meets a timely *ahem* untimely fate, stepping just a bit too bravely into that trap.

If you want to make your DMPC episodic, eventually the Players will access resurrection magic. Or, you can simply make the DMPC a traveler, a loner, or a coward who flees at the proper narrative moment. Rather than just pull the rug out of nowhere, you can articulate your DMPC’s persona ahead of time and work with it flavorfully. Yum!

Tip #5: Have DMPCs play by the rules. No SuperNPCs!

Yes, a rare instance where you should actually play by the rules. And I don’t mean just not fudging your DM dice rolls, which you never, ever do, right? Anyway, don’t let your DMPC steal the show even without long-winded speeches. Here, I’ll let you in on an embarrassing moment from my tenure as a DM. I once designed a large set-piece town battle against a horde of chaotic undead monstrosities. You know what I did? I had a DMPC that was basically Clint Eastwood with a Heavy Repeating Crossbow, it even fired AOE bolts of Alchemist’s Fire. Pew pew pew!

Awesome right? Nope. Total mistake, because it outshined the Party, undermined their characters’ participation in this epic battle, and basically just functioned as DM ego-stroking. The Players no longer felt like they earned their victory. So learn from my mistake: don’t create an apocalypse just to throw in your own Rambo. If you feel the temptation, just make a cooler Boss for the Party to fight instead!

Tip #6: Involve Players in DMPC battle gambits and character creation.

Speaking of battle, let’s talk more about DMPCs in combat. Too often these just become one-dimensional caricatures. Ah, yes, everyone’s favorite lumberjack-warrior, “Ax Fighterman”! No, we can draw upon something cooler, like Final Fantasy 12’s “Gambits” system, which uses prioritized lists of conditional statements, “if this happens, then do this”. To keep it simple, have the Players work out a few thoughts on two tactical elements: the Enemy Type Priority for the DMPC to focus on, such as apparent squishies, tanks, utility, or heavy-damage foes, and the Ally Condition Priorities to intervene in, such as low HP, downed, or incapacitated. Of course, they can use verbal communication in combat, but it helps to have a baseline as it makes more of the combat about the Players’ turns, rather than the DMPC’s.

If you want an alternative, and even simpler route, for D&D 5e you can have the Players help with character creation for the DMPC somewhat. And I don’t mean just cosmetically. The DM will probably have to pick things like class and background and at least some of the motivations, because of narrative constraints. But you can have a Player pick one aspiration, another pick one quirk, another an ideal, and another a flaw, to give this DMPC. And if you want fast buy-in for them, you can also have the Players pick to share one each of their character’s bonds, traits, ideals, flaws, aspirations, or quirks in common with the DMPC, which you can of course add on top of. An instantly fleshed-out NPC, with both Player participation and affinity. Nice!

Tip #7: Make DMPCs team-players who unlock potential.

Speaking of affinity, the best possible ways to use DMPCs focus on building up the Players’ options. Always look for synergy. Consider how to use 5e’s Help Action, and Readied Actions, to support Players. Or, imagine how a DMPC can set up Cover or Concealment, or set up ladders or lights for the Party members to interact with. DMPCs who swing a rope or chandelier to you, or pass you a flask of Alchemist’s Fire, those are fun. Likewise, spell buffs like Spider Climb, or Enlarge/Reduce can unlock novel maneuvers for characters. Consider how you can use Skills to give the Players new opportunities too. Animal Handling? Go nuts! Have the DMPC fetch things, use Object Interactions.

And remember how I said “play by the rules” earlier? We have an exception: Player potential. Yeah, feel free to get weird with it. Maybe your DMPC has some strange arcanobionic attachment on their body that once per day can convert the elemental energy of the next spell cast by an ally into a different element of the caster’s choosing. But the DMPC never learned any spells. Maybe one of your Players did? You get the picture.

Another way of making your DMPC into a team-player, that works particularly well for lower-level PCs: the Expert Dungeon Delver, who takes on the rookies and teaches them the ropes. Like, literally. They’ve got a 10-foot pole to test traps with, enough flour to throw on an invisible creature, and the ever-classic noisetraps from bells & wires. Don’t give away all the tricks of the trade, but let the Players learn and access new tools this way without just throwing a shopping catalogue at them.

Tip #8: Consider letting your Players take turns running the DMPC.

So the Players have seen the DMPC’s battle role and capabilities, participated in the essentials of their character design, got to know their synergistic utility and tricks of the trade. Now you might try letting them take a crack at running the DMPC for a turn during combat! Just make sure to take the reins back when the DMPC’s gotta go bye bye. Speaking of that…

Tip #9: Make your DMPC the Party’s best friend.

You know who’s loyal, doesn’t talk too much, knows some useful tricks, loves to support you, but sometimes goes missing? That’s right, you played Fallout, you know. A dog! In D&D, your “dog” DMPC could be many creatures, so think outside the box. A domesticated Rust Monster that spits acid to clear locks and debris? You’re the DM, no one can stop you!

Tip #10: Instead of creating obstacles only a DMPC can handle, consider just removing both with fun workarounds.

Sly Flourish wrote, “The easiest way to deal with tag-along NPCs is simply not to. Don’t let them become tag-along NPCs.” But sometimes neither that nor Hirelings make sense. If no one in the Party has Rogue skills, it might still break immersion for all the doors and chests to never have locks. And brute force may get tiresome. If you must have the DMPC pick a lock, don’t have them roll for it, approach it narratively. If they only exist to pick that lock, let them do it.

But, if you want to avoid the usual DMPC or Hireling lockpicker altogether, which I recommend, here’s three fun workarounds:
1. Sly Flourish mentioned turning DMPCs into “background scenery”. Here’s my take on that: you can add intrigue, mystery, and even plot hooks by having the Party chase an NPC’s shadow, some Tomb Raider type who already got there and opened the door. Let the Players investigate, and track this figure.
2. Make the Party transport some locked chests to an established locksmith NPC in the market. Not just that, but turn it into a chase scene as the monsters go after the Party for taking the treasure!
3. Those savvy quest-givers, sometimes they have a single-use Skeleton Key, or two, to give to the Party. This also cuts out the DMPC, and gives the Players some agency, which becomes meaningful agency if you do something like have a dungeon chamber that splits in three directions: a hostage room, a treasury, and a room of strange sounds. Now they have to sacrifice something. Marvelous!

TL;DR

DMPCs work best when they prompt Players into meaningful agency and catalyze action, when they don’t hog the spotlight, and when they fulfill a temporary niche. They work best when you have a compelling exit plan for them, when they play by the rules, and when they involve Players in their gambits and persona. This includes sympathetic and synergistic builds, which cultivate Player options. And consider letting your Party take a swing at managing them. Done right, the DMPC is the Party’s best friend. Otherwise, you can make the DMPC obsolete through creative alternatives.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed these handy tips on running DMPCs! Give it a share if you liked it, and let me know in the comments if you have any feedback. I publish new posts on Tuesdays.In the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. Also, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check out my Newsletter Sign-Up to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patrons on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Anthony, Geoff, Kelly, and Rudy. Thanks for your support!

Liked it? Take a second to support Tril on Patreon!

Tril

D&D 5e blogger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

error

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)

Back To Top
Otherworldly Incantations