As a Dungeon Master, I’ve found there are many occasions where I wanted to be a player as well. If only to steer my players away from certain doom. But can a Dungeon Master be a player?
No, a Dungeon Master cannot be a player. Any character the Dungeon Master plays while DMing is called an NPC (non-player character). NPCs are handled differently in the game and do not gain XP, level up or share rewards like PCs do.
You can, however, make your NPC a party member or just let them tag along. And there are also ways to be a player in your campaign if you share DM responsibilities. But it can spell disaster for your campaign if you get it wrong. So here are some tips for getting it right!
Playing NPCs the Right Way
As a DM you can’t be a player. They are the heroes of the story, which means you are not. But you get to play EVERYBODY ELSE which can be way cooler and more interesting than just being a single hero. And you get to be the villain. (And everyone knows the villain is always cooler than the hero.)
Let’s talk about appropriate situations to introduce NPCs, and how they should behave in said situations.
1. NPCs as a Guiding Force
“We’re lost and didn’t bring a map.”
Maybe your adventuring party has found themselves deep behind enemy lines with little hope of navigating a hostile, unfamiliar landscape. Maybe the group’s wizard fudged a teleportation spell and now they’re in the depths of a forest with no idea which way is north. Or maybe they’re floating adrift in the void of space, fuel, and food running low.
These are all examples of great opportunities to introduce an NPC to act as a guiding force. If the players have found themselves in a situation that they can’t justifiably work themselves out of, it doesn’t automatically have to spell the end of the campaign. This is a great opportunity to introduce an NPC to act as a guiding force or mentor to the adventurers, and can also present a chance to introduce new story arcs, lore, and hooks to the world.
2. NPCs as the Quest-Giver
“We killed the dragon- now what?”
This conundrum usually happens in the mid-tier levels, after the players have vanquished their first big villain, be it a bandit chief that was plaguing a town, a dragon in a mountain, or a rogue space pirate pillaging the local mining belt.
Usually right after big story arcs come to a close, there’s a dead spot in the story. Immediate threats are no longer readily available, as the players have killed them all (or so they think.) Little do they know, there’s a lich preparing his phylactery in the next kingdom over, or a supervillain gearing up for a prison break.
In these “dead times” in the story, the players can quickly become bored or lose motivation to participate at the table or drive their own character arcs forward. It’s our job as Dungeon Masters to keep the world in motion as a living, functioning entity. Remember, players respond to the world, so if they’re not moving-give them a reason to move.
Your NPC quest-giver can open the players to new possibilities and keep the game fresh with organic forward momentum. Remember, the world is a living place, always shifting and presenting new conflicts and challenges. If your players just killed Strahd von Zarovich, and they have nothing on their itinerary, one of those villagers who witnessed their deeds might just know of a string of people going missing in a nearby town, or a strange tomb full of marvelous treasure.
3. Use NPCs as a Unifying Force
“The Civil War”
Sometimes the party comes into conflict with one another. Whether it’s a religious difference between the warlock and cleric, a political difference between two planetary empires represented, or just tensions that have been boiling under the surface for far too long, occasionally people just need to fight.
I’ve only seen this in person a handful of times, but thankfully I learned quickly that it didn’t have to mean the end of the game or everyone killing each other.
Nothing unites players more than a new villain or monster to be slain. After all, they’re adventurers. One of the smoothest ways to introduce these new threats is through an NPC, whether the character is new seeking help, an old ally with a new threat, or a little-known but trusted friend taking ill or worse.
In the first Avengers movie, the team wasn’t a unified force until the death of Agent Phil Coulson. It took the apparent death of a friend and supporting character to motivate the central characters to forget their own personal differences and address the greater evil in the world.
When the PCs have nothing in common anymore, you as the Dungeon Master have the power and responsibility to give them a commonality.
4. NPCs to balance out a group
“Wait, no one is playing healer?!”
Sometimes players aren’t the best at balancing their party out. That’s perfectly fine. Depending on your game or system of choice, there are probably a ton of different possible combinations of classes, powers, and abilities. Maybe your party accidentally builds just a little too melee-heavy, or neglects social interactions, or, the typical issue- NO ONE brings support spells/abilities. Everyone loves the white mage, but no one wants to BE the white mage.
A balance issue amongst the party will most often only present itself to the players in the moment, after it’s too late to adjust. Part of your role as a Dungeon Master is being able to recognize these potential issues and plan accordingly. You can try to have some conversations amongst the party, and see if the group is willing to rework a few of their choices so the missing party role is covered, or you can present the option of having an NPC accompany the party.
This character may be a hireling of the party, a devoted fan looking to help, a wise mentor, or any other number of supporting type characters. They don’t necessarily have to participate in every combat or have a voice in every decision. They can be as invested or personable as you and the party are comfortable with.
Typically what I do if there’s a dire need in the party, and the players are comfortable with it, I’ll introduce an NPC (usually a hireling) that’s a few levels below the party. I’ll then hand the sheet to the players. They roll the dice, I do the voice. I make any kind of role-playing decisions as the Dungeon Master, but the players’ direct the NPC in combat so I don’t have ANOTHER variable to control.
This way, the players have a little bit of extra help when needed while still being able to play their own unique characters, and I don’t have to stress about having to run a completely separate character all of the time.
5. Make your NPCs Come Alive
“Remember that bartender? You know, the one with the apron?”
As a DM developing your NPCs is very similar to creating PCs. Your NPCs have a backstory, relationship, flaws, and quirks. Most importantly, they must be memorable and believable to the players. But with the exception of your main villain, you can’t spend as much time on creating an NPC as you can on a PC. So how do you create believable NPCs on the fly?
Add something unique: We remember people by the aspects that make them stand out from others. Such as an elf with nine inch lacquered nails that glow in the dark? Check.
Add a contrast: A contrast is something that breaks the stereotype. Like a barbarian who is afraid of mice. Or it can be an inner conflict like a bard with stage fright.
Create a round character: Round characters have interests that fall outside the main storyline. Like a bartender that does taxidermy as a hobby. It doesn’t have any relation to the story – I hope – but it makes the NPC more believable and memorable.
Playing NPCs the wrong way
A DM can’t be a player. And sometimes trying to use NPCs as characters can lead to bad results. So let’s talk about some very inappropriate ways to utilize an NPC:
1. The Sheriff
This is the NPC that bullies the party into doing whatever he or she wants, not allowing anyone to step a toe out of line or deviate from the “main story.” This is usually a symptom of a Dungeon Master who is a bit too controlling and isn’t comfortable allowing the players their own agency in the game. An NPC should be able to guide without pushing.
2. The Limelight Hog
I haven’t seen this too often, but this is the kind of NPC that runs in, kills mobs, gets loot and refuses to share with the rest of the party. This is BASICALLY just the Dungeon Master wanting to play his own character in his own story, and severely dampens the other players’ experiences.
Your NPC should NOT be the center of the story, shouldn’t get the fattest loot, and should not have more spotlight time than the player characters. This always begets weird conversations between one NPC and another NPC where the Dungeon Master is just talking to himself at the table and everyone is forced to watch and save against extreme boredom.
Trust me, guys. Just don’t do this. If you want to play, just go play.
3. The Puppet
Kind of the opposite of the previous example, this is NPC that offers NO resistance to the players’ actions, no matter what, and has no personality or story of their own. This is essentially just a miniature character for the players to use at their whim.
While your NPC shouldn’t be at the center of the spotlight, nor should they be constantly pushing the players around, they SHOULD promote a healthy amount of accountability and conflict when necessary. If your rogue just blatantly murders someone and takes their coin purse, the hired priest of Pelor following you around should PROBABLY have something to say about that.
They don’t have to cause problems per se, but the NPC should still be a character that stands on their own, with their own convictions, otherwise, they just become a static piece of the background and they don’t enhance the gameplay experience (which should be the ultimate goal.)
Share the Load
This is more of a universal tip about the game as a whole, but it still plays a vital role in the health of your game and the relationship between player characters and non-player characters as a whole.
Don’t be afraid to take a break and trade seats with a player once in a while. Whether it’s for a one-shot, a mini-campaign, or an alternate campaign that runs parallel to your own, giving someone else the chance to DM can give you a wealth of information.
Not only do you get to rest and just play the game, but you also get to see what one of your other players is looking for in an NPC or NPC. Dungeon Masters are artists, and artists create content that they would like to consume.
Take a break and give someone else the reigns for a minute. Study the kinds of stories they try to tell, the kind of characters they build, and the kind of gameplay they emphasize. The characters they build are the characters they want to see more of.
If you are using a player as guest DM in your campaign, make some agreements to what extent the other DM can affect the story ahead of time. For instance, if a guest DM kills your main villain it might upset the main storyline you have laid out. The easiest way to prevent these mishaps is by agreeing on regions, NPCs, and storyline that can be affected.
By Jamie Helms
Can you play D&D without a DM? No, the Dungeons and Dragons RPG requires a DM. But some D&D board games like Castle Ravenloft does not require a Dungeon Master. Also, role-playing games like Fiasco and Archipello do not require a DM.