Theme Thursday: NPC Allies

Non-player characters are one of those things. You have to use them just right, or they screw everything up. In terms of main character NPC’s, there are a number of unique pitfalls and issues unique to an RPG that simply don’t apply to, say, a fantasy novel. In a novel, you can simply skip over the annoying parts; in a game, you have to play through almost everything. Let’s go over the main issue that comes up with major characters in many games.

The DMPC

This stands for “Dungeon Master-run Player Character”. The classic problem NPC. This guy can’t help himself, he’s just so badass. This character might be cool to meet at first, but he steps in and does things…he participates in the adventure, playing through it and doing things for the players, rendering them dull sidekicks or entirely irrelevant. The DMPC is always better than the players, and he does things in a cooler way. That’s just the nature of GMs. He comes into the story because it seems more realistic–why wouldn’t the king’s champion help fight the horde of undead–and sticks around because he can’t die.

What you need to do first is understand the real problem behind the DMPC. He’s an expression of the GM’s desire to have fun, and the thought that their adventure is awesome. In a way, the DMPC is an expression of confidence in one’s own game, which is good…but the effects are terrible. The whole point of a game story is to allow the players to have agency, to allow them to move the story and defeat the encounters with their own choices.

There are three ways to deal with this issue: first, kill off the DMPC in an appropriately tragic way. Appropriately means in response to the players’ level of concern about the character; if he’s been a main character that they liked even if he made the game a little less fun, play up the funeral or grand sacrificial death to the maximum! If the players are just annoyed by him, let him die in a minor or even funny way, pumping the players up about themselves.

Second, have the DMPC provide an equal force against some major powerful force–while that threat is being neutralized for them with no clear winner, the players must quickly play through their adventure before it’s too late.

Third, use the oldest and best trick in the GM’s book: don’t give an explanation. Like Elminster in Forgotten Realms, the most interesting powerful NPC’s are like gods to the players. They don’t appear to help directly, and if they do, it is a rare and wondrous occurrence that makes the player feel special but not safe. The appearance of one of these beings, even if on the players’ side, strikes fear into their hearts, because it means something huge is going down. Mystery makes the players question motive; imagine if the DMPC who’s been kind of ruining your game suddenly up and disappears one night. Or is lost in a teleportation spell. Or simply walks off into the wilds, a sinister smile on his face. All of a sudden a number of questions and fears spring up in the minds of the players. This method uses your mistake–a powerful character doing things the PC’s can’t–and turns it into something amazing, as the players fear seeing that power lined up against them.

Enjoy! Leave me a comment!

Max Porter-Zasada

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One response to “Theme Thursday: NPC Allies

  1. Pingback: RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Motivation | Gaming Mage

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