On Reader Mail, The Acceptable DMPC?

Garth writes in "Is a Dungeon Master ran Player Character okay ONLY for a completely new-to-role-playing-games group, so long as they exist only to answer local questions, provide feedback when prompted, and perhaps provide support to the group (if, say, nobody wants to be a thief with lock-picking or a healer)?"

Nope, a Dungeon Master Player Character is never ok.

What you are talking about are services NPC's, henchmen, and hirelings can provide. This is different then a DMPC who is a character the DM rolls up to play.

Will the DM make a ruling that will restrict his character's power? Is the party willing to not only wait on the DM to reply to their actions, but spend a portion playing the game by himself? Will the DM resist being able to show off how smart he is by solving his own puzzles? Does anyone have patience for the overwhelming narcissism of a person who not only wants to run a game, but also be the most important character in it? How could it be otherwise, being that he is literally being played by god.

The NPC and Hireling? Controlled by the player, untrusted, subject to morale, is a different situation.

The last sentence of your letter is telling of your background. The appropriate response to them not rolling up a lock-picking thief or healer is that they don't get to pick locks or heal.


47 comments:

  1. One of the worst DMPCs I experienced as a player was in high school with a GM who introduced his DMPC following an exhaustive combat. This DMPC proceeded to taunt us with his fabulous magical items that he possessed (showing them off). My character attacked and the DMPC pulled out a magic carpet and flew away. We then proceeded to engage in missile combat against the DMPC and he promptly flew away on his magic carpet. Suffice to say, we didn't see anymore DMPCs following that encounter!

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    1. This sounds more like a NPC, though. Was this an enemy/ villain that was being portrayed by the DM? Or did the DM make the character out to be a would-be ally which you decided to attack? I think this post is more about DM-controlled NPCs that work with the PCs...

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    2. The memory is fuzzy, but I believe the character was intentioned as a Helping NPC -- though this NPC was portrayed in-game as a simulacrum of the DM himself. . .

      Our initiation of combat and compounding of the combat against the DMPC (which led to his full retreat) was our reflexive reaction to the DMPC showing off his cool magical items.

      Again, this was from a long time ago, so it is fuzzy in my recollection. It was what I immediately thought when reading about DMPCs -- especially profoundly annoying ones!

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    3. OK, if it was clear that the DM was stroking his own ego via some NPC then yeah, that was a DMPC!

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  2. What's the fine line between memorable villain or mentor and DMPC, though? Whether good guy or bad guy, I think the problem NPC combines "overpowered," "intrusive" and "recurrent."

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    1. DMPCs are NPCs that hurt player agency!

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    2. Huh, by that definition every competent NPC I have ever included in my games was a DMPC.
      I'm sorry, but the worlds I run do not revolve around the PCs, rather the PC are there to interact with the world. What this means to me is that, unless there is a damn good reason otherwise, NPCs are good at what they do. Thus, I have had parties that were helped by a wide variety of NPCs, as well as PCs that came to rely on these NPCs to solve problems for them. Which, depending on the problem, did happen. To my mind, if the stakes are high enough, there are groups that will take over a task if they can. If the SWAT are aware of a hostage situation, they will not want some random civilians to try and rescue the hostages for them. Because that is their job.

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    3. Spaz: I actually agree with you on that one, and its one of the few ways I disagree with Courtney; I am also all about the so-called "living world" which continues to act with or without PC interference. That being said, I think we can agree that there exist situations where NPCs intrude into PC territory not because it makes sense (the living world effect) but because the DM wants the spotlight.

      It's a sad and strange thought for most of us, I'm sure. I've never personally experienced it, but I've actually SEEN it happen in online games that I was observing.

      But again, you aren't alone; NPCs in the 10th Age will do whatever it makes sense for them to do as an NPC and its part of the fun for the players to find ways to act around them. Whether that means a rival adventuring party secured the contract (sometimes resulting in murder but also potentially resulting in a lost opportunity for missions) or what-have-you. Again, I don't think that's really the issue which is up for debate here.

      Although it has been pointed out that this may be an argument of degree rather than kind.

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  3. Henchmen and hirelings can always enter the party as healers and thieves; a party with too few fighters can hire up big beefy NPC fighter-types. The difference lies in the way they are played by the DM; in one case they are NPCs (to be controlled in combat by the PCs or at least ordered around by the PCs who must then hope to have their orders interpreted) and in another case they are literally providing the DM a way into the game to run through his own shit, and when that happens he comes out covered in it.

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  4. The question feels foreign to me. In my games, there tends to be a lot of social maneuvering, maybe more than combat. People pick up allies, they make friends in the game world, they involve these people in their schemes. The line between "PC party" and "My character's allies" is not always drawn congruently. These allies have personalities, goals, skills, and social networks of their own. They are characters, controlled by the DM, who are involved with the characters. It has to be that way.

    This feels like a very focused discussion on dungeon crawling only. Once you get out of the dungeon, or to a point where you do more than travel and fight, fully realized NPCs are critical. Right?

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    1. I think there's a fine line that's being discussed here. NPCs are one thing...but when an NPC starts leading the player characters around by the nose, and accomplishing tasks that, you know, the PCs could be doing as part of the game, then that strays into the DMPC realm. DMPCs cripple player agency in all sorts of ways.

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    2. The question doesn't have anything to do with non-player characters.

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    3. What is the difference between an NPC and a DMPC?

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    4. DMPCs are NPCs that hurt player agency!

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    5. A DM PC is a player character the Dungeon Master rolls up to play in the game.

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    6. "A DM PC is a player character the Dungeon Master rolls up to play in the game."

      This is insane. People do that??? That's just...sad. I've never experienced that...ever.

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    7. I have not either. Now, I HAVE seen DMs bring in characters they play in other games, but to create a character to "play" while running the game is not part of my experience. Except in the sense that the DM is playing all the NPCs.

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    8. That is exactly what the question is asking.

      "Is a Dungeon Master ran Player Character. . ."

      It's pretty clearly what he's asking about. Specifically one he rolls up to cover 'holes' in the party composition.

      This is a thing people do. It is bad. It is not an NPC.

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    9. I suppose my utter disbelief in such a possibility blinded me to the true intent of the question! I just can't conceive of such a thing! I'm not being flippant either. I am dead serious. If this happened to me, I'd pull the eject lever quicker than Goose in Top Gun...wait, that turned out badly.

      Seriously, I feel bad for anyone that's had a DM do that.

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    10. I did that when I was 13 and getting into roleplaying. There were only two other friends to play with, and we felt we needed more bulk. I don't think it had to do with power, rather with the feeling of a party. I now completely refuse to have anyone both play and direct a game, for the reasons all have exposed above.

      I truly am repentant.

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  5. If the situation that needs a solution is "We don't have a rounded party", then shift the focus of the adventure. Some movies are capers (like say Ocean's 11) and some are shoot 'em ups (name any you like, I don't really watch them). If no one wants to play the thief, then that sort of thing is not the interest of the group at that time -- remove obstacles that *only* the thief could deal with, and make other 'thievery' into stuff that anybody could cope with if they play cleverly and have good ideas. Not every session/campaign has to feature *all* of the toys in the box. I mean, if you do have a well-rounded party, but the one player is absent for the session, is the rest of the group penalized? That sounds wrong to me.

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  6. So the party is in a tavern planning their next score. The bored DM randomizes something, it's a bar brawl. They get in on it with gusto, and ask who's fighting over there; the DM describes a guy in a cloak, he's protecting his wizard girlfriend. (Sure, why not.)

    The brawl is over, the player characters think this guy is interesting. They choose to chat him up, so the DM plays the role and makes up some stuff about the pair on the fly.

    The player characters offer these two characters a share if they tag along on the next dungeon expedition. Whether they should or shouldn't, let's say they just did.

    If I understand this post right, the DM should make a standing practice that all NPCs will refuse to adventure with PCs--which seems to curtail player choice. Or, that all NPCs with the party will die gristly deaths as quickly as possible, or always have pressing business elsewhere.

    What am I missing?

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    1. The difference between a character run as a part of the setting (an NPC) and a character run so the DM has a PC to play (a DMPC). In one instance, the DM makes a character SPECIFICALLY because he also wants to participate in the game as a PC.

      NPCs may stray into DMPC territory if they are overly knowledgable, powerful, or solve all the problems on their own.

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    2. I guess to me this sounds like a question of "How should a DM handle NPCs" rather than splitting into two different kinds. I mean, NPC means "non-player character." Every character not controlled by the players is an NPC.

      So, if it's about being knowledgeable and powerful, and that's the problem, what about this?

      A PC has a younger brother who wants to adventure with his older brother. He looks up to him in all things, but is impetuous and inexperienced, prone to mistakes. He joins the party. Is he a DMPC?

      Maybe yes, if he's a Mary Sue and solves the problems himself. Maybe yes, if the DM uses him to trigger traps to hurt the party on purpose.

      Is there a "maybe no, and this would be okay" option here?

      To summarize, what about a non-employee, share holding NPC adventurer with the party? Is that automatically a DMPC?

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    3. I'm not sure what happened to some earlier comments I made on this post...maybe Blogger ate them? Stupid Blogger.

      Anyway, anybody that's read Courtney's blog in the past knows that one of the big topics here is player agency. That's what separates an NPC from a DMPC, IMHO: a DM-run character that steals/inhibits/cripples player agency. A DMPC solves campaign problems that the player characters should be tackling. A DMPC can serve as a source of deus ex machina, pulling PC bacon out of the fire when, actually, players would probably be "enjoying" in-game consequences, even/especially the "bad" consequences.

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    4. I know how key player agency is to the blog, which is why in some ways this is a head-scratcher for me.

      One way to summarize this might be to say "PCs should never have useful NPC friends."

      If I understand this right, "a DMPC solves campaign problems that the player characters should be solving." So the key is to figure out what problems the characters should be solving.

      For example, the characters find out an army is invading. They will hole up in the keep and stop the enemy advance, a handful against an army. They send an NPC to go to the king and warn him, so the king can bring reinforcements and relieve them. If they are not relieved, they die.

      You could argue that the NPC messenger and the NPC king and the NPCs in the army are solving problems for the PCs if they succeed, onscreen or offscreen. Or, you could say that defeating the whole army is not a problem the PCs should have to deal with--the problem is surviving until reinforcements arrive. Or, the DM could decide that it is suicide for them to do it at all, and they should run or die.

      I think PCs have a large part to play in deciding which "campaign problems that the player characters should be tackling."

      What if the characters rescued a cleric from the scouts of the invading force, and the cleric heals them up as they battle? Is that a DMPC? Or if they have an archer who owes them one who lays down cover fire and assists in their strategy?

      I just think it's too fuzzy to say "This NPC is a DMPC and should be killed or run off." There is NPC abuse, sure. But this post and the vitriolic certainty here seems out of place to me. I guess I'm not getting it.

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    5. I don't think there's any vitriol meant in this post or replies, Andrew. Nor do I think Courtney's intent was to state that there should never be any helpful NPCs. That's taking things a bit far, I think.

      I think there's a bit of common sense that can be exercized in the use of NPCs. In the examples you cited, the NPC actions you noted are, most likely, isolated cases of NPCs doing things for PCs. I don't see any issue with what you've depicted above, not at all.

      In contrast, a DMPC is usually a long-term, sustained presence in a group that becomes a "crutch" for the players. A DMPC is an NPC that is always around to drop huge clues, ensure battle victory, etc. A DMPC is, as I stated above, deus ex machina given form...incarnate, if you will.

      I hope that clarifies my point.

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    6. P.S. I'm sure that Courtney has a totally different definition of DMPC, BTW.

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    7. One way to summarize this might be to say "PCs should never have useful NPC friends."

      I'm not saying anything about NPC's at all.

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    8. Courtney: so a DMPC is not related to an NPC at all, in your definition?

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    9. Anthony is right, player agency is the key part here. NPCs should have little to no agency while they are with the PCs.

      As far as I am concerned, NPCs can affect the world in grand ways while not 'in frame' meaning the villain can pursue his or her grand schemes while the players are unaware, but as soon as the PCs come into contact with the villain, he/she had better have their s**t together because there is NOT going to be world manipulation by the villain on-the-fly while they are there. No-one likes a villain who mysteriously "... knew you were going to do that and now you have fallen into my (inexplicable/undetectable/unexplained) trap!"

      Same goes for helpful NPCs. Yeah, you can bring along that Rogue/Healer/Fighter/'Awesome black-clad assassin with, like, 5 swords and a dark past... OH and he's got green eyes and a scar', into the dungeon with you to 'fill out the party', but THAT character should NEVER be able to change the world on their own. That is reserved for PCs only, and if the GM decides that an NPC should change the world while 'in frame' with no input from the PCs, that NPC has been given agency and is now a DMPC.

      My own personal rules for NPCs are as follows:
      They don't solve puzzles.
      They don't have anything that the party shouldn't have.
      They are never, ever, EVER even close to being indestructible.*
      They don't open doors the party can't open unless they are asked, have the appropriate skill, and roll for it.
      They don't kill anything unless they are asked, have the appropriate skills, and roll for it.
      They don't give information unless they are asked, have the appropriate skill, and they roll for it.
      They don't speak with other NPCs unless they have a specific reason to want to do that pertaining to their history.

      PCs in my game can permanently kill plot-centric characters, but when they do I give them a hint that they have done it: "you feel something fade" is my favorite, but I've used "you all feel more ethereal", "the world shudders" and "you feel as if you have lost something". I call this the 'Morrowind Method', though your mileage may vary.

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    10. PCs in *my* game can permanently kill plot-centric characters ... and then that becomes part of the plot. ;)

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    11. Yeah, I don't really like metagame hinting, but sometimes when the PCs are explicitly told "The bastard son of the king is the only one who knows where the MacGuffin is hidden. He lives in X Town." and then they ATOMIZE THE TOWN, they get the little message letting them know that the plot point itself is dead and they're going to have to buckle down and start brainstorming alternatives.

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  7. A DM who introduces an overpowered or focus stealing DMPC is bad. It's also a straw man argument. Everybody realizes this is bad. Here's the rub - if you are counting on the DM to run the world fairly, you should be able to trust them to run a DMPC fairly. If they are cheating to the advantage of their character, then they are probably cheating in other places. Somebody that can't see this as a possibility has run under too many poor DM's. If they are the DM ...

    I do sometimes run DMPC's and play with DM's that do as well. But I explicitly say that they do not have omnisicent knowledge. Following their advice may end up with good, bad, or indifferent results. I usually also don't have them being the kind who are pushy and always interjecting their own opinion, but they'll give it if they're asked for it.

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  8. On a personal level, here's where I'm coming from: I've experienced a DM or two who had NPCs who would, say, sweep in during a fight that PCs were losing and save the day. On a regular basis. Or they would be there to answer any question the PCs would have, like a veritable crystal ball/living encyclopedia, an all-knowing being that would clear up all mystery. On a regular basis.

    Now, I don't think that the DMs I knew "rolled up" a full-fledged PC for themselves. That seems strange to me...I've never experienced that first-hand. If some DMs have done this...that's just bad!

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    1. And why specifically is it inherently bad? Yes, we've seen the examples of bad DMPC's. I know there are lots of ways that this can be used to cause problems. But it's reasonably common among the groups I play with and most of the time it's made the game more enjoyable. Three of my six regular games involve DMPC's.

      When you add up the gaming experience of my current groups, it's about 375 years. And at least half again when you count everybody I've gamed with in person. It includes several published game developers, and the founder of a game convention. It's a pretty wide circle. I'm not trying to brag, just that I've seen a /lot/ of cases where DMPC's have played without there being a problem. Admittedly, I've seen the bad cases too, but dismissing the concept entirely is going too far.

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  9. There are a few times that a "DMPC" is useful. Inexperienced or very small group is one. Used with care and keeping mostly to the background, a DMPC can round out the group's capabilities without stealing agency from the party. When I've used them, they tend to interact with the party and the world almost exclusively in the form of questions. "So we really want to attack the guildmaster? Doesn't he have a ton of followers?" or "Didn't the witch ask us to bring the crystal ball back?".

    I've also introduced "DMPC's" temporarily, with the understanding that players would be coming and going in the game - allowing them to take over characters without having to introduce and re-introduce the characters all the time. It adds continuity to the game.

    There is absolutely no reason that a DM can't run a PC in-game - provided that the DM isn't the massive Dick-Wad that the list of potential problems seems to assume. Just because the author wouldn't be able to avoid the mistakes listed, doesn't mean you can't - but you need to be aware of them.

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    1. "There is absolutely no reason that a DM can't run a PC in-game - provided that the DM isn't the massive Dick-Wad that the list of potential problems seems to assume"

      IME the kind of GM who can do it without being a massive Dick-Wad, is the kind of GM who has no desire to do it. Desire to include a GMPC in the group is the lead indicator of being unsuitable for running a GMPC. So there are circumstances where you do get GMPCs without a big problem, eg a rotating GM-ship and general agreement that each GM's previous PC stays in the group while they are GMing. If a GM is a bit reluctant but willing to go along with this for the sake of the campaign, he may be the sort to be able to do it ok. Positive signs include GMPCs who tend to fade into the background and GMPCs who don't get the level of plot attention the real PCs do.

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    2. Ha-ha... no. First off, this means that the grand majority of "escort" missions are automatically bad GM sessions. You literally can not have one without a GMPC of some sort. Does the fact that I have run these games and will continue to run these games make me a bad GM? My players disagree, especially since they have learned (the hard way) that not all NPCs are weak, but neither are they omnipotent. I enjoy creating a character avatar every once in a while that just needs help, whether they are a skilled warrior that needs a guide through the wilds or sorceress princess that need body guards for a diplomatic mission.

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    3. Again, problem of definitions. Not every NPC who participates in the game is a DMPC. The only ones that are DMPCs are those that are run as though they were PCs. That is a valid distinction.

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  10. By definition anyone who is saying they run "DMPCs" but who do not do so as though they were a PC is running an allied NPC. A DMPC is an NPC who acts like a PC to give the DM vicarious thrill through his own game—I think that's been made pretty clear.

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    1. Indeed. If the GM refers to the character as "my character" then it's a GMPC. Otherwise not.

      The Elminster-type all-knowing all-powerful swoop-in-and-save-the-PCs Marty Stu NPC is a separate but related issue. I satirised this sort of character recently in my Forgotten Realms campaign - meet Hallomak Stromm, Savant Sage of Waterdeep! >:) http://frloudwater.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/hallomak-stromm-of-waterdeep.html

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  11. You're playing an RPG wrong if you do this! (I know we don’t mean this, but this is how we commenters come across sometimes).

    But seriously, a fully fleshed out NPC that a DM has a serious interest in his or her success (= my definition of a so-called DMPC) that also doesn't impact the enjoyment of the players is not an easy thing.

    I disagree that it can't be done well and that it never has a place in any game, but I appreciate the warning call several of the other commenters have sounded. I especially echo the suggestion that if a DM is considering doing this "just to round out the party" that he or she should reconsider what kind of adventure to run.

    Another thing to consider is that perhaps this Über-NPC could be acting as a crutch for another issue(s) occurring in one’s group.

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  12. I think the desire to cast a line about "DMPC" versus "NPC" is problematic in general given that, as far as I have read there are scenarios in which a DM abuses a character, not run by a player, regardless of whatever the distinction is between being simply a non player character or a DM generated player character.

    I think the definition creates a smokescreen for the "concern" ie: it is problematic when a DM uses his narrative/adjudicating power to resolve [or force] issues for a party in a way that robs them of a chance to play the game they came to play and, most importantly, the way they want to play it.

    But some players want strong allies, some groups want more characters, and sometimes logistics mandate that the DM be more involved in the party dynamic. I've run characters as DM that might or might not meet many of the shifting lines I see in these comments between DMPC and NPC.

    I was running a two player PBP game and I ran a third person in their group. It was a narratively stronger way to legitimately make observations, inform opportunity and tap folks on the shoulder to pay attention and post without depriving them of the opportunity to live, die, succeed or fail by their choices. To be fair this was conceived of/approved of consensually by all three of us but still... Was I running and allied NPC or a DMPC and does it matter? Happy players. Happy GM. Not sure I see the point in such a narrow definition when the heart of the issue can be addressed at a higher level of discussion.


    Long time listener, first time caller.

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  13. As a newish GM, this was tricky territory for me. At the start of the campaign, I gave the party an NPC to fill the gap as a healer/wizard, especially considering I anticipated there would only be three party members. I intended for her to go her own way when the party grew. Unfortunately, they did not want to give her up, and this especially became tricky when one of the PCs developed romantic interests for her. For the sake of story, I kept her as a permanent member of the party.

    I choose that she would not take treasure and experience. Instead, she would consistently be one level lower than the party. She does not make decisions unless the party asks for her help in doing a task. She's a class that provides one free heal per character per day -- any healing after that requires a cure wand that the party purchased for her to use. My goal was to make her a tool.

    However, as a newish GM, I'm not sure if I'm doing it right. My players do like her, both mechanically and roleplay-wise. She's helpful, but does not take spotlight or trivialize my encounters.

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    1. Again, there is nothing wrong with henchmen, npc's, etc. It is specifically a character created by the Dungeon Master so they are able to play in the game that I'm addressing.

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  14. Late to the party here, but I'll still chime in. My current group has 3 players, all new. No one wanted to play a fighter. So I play one as a DMPC. In my game, henchmen get half shares. This DMPC gets a full share of experience, mainly so his power level stays on par with the party. He ends up getting magic items about the same as henchmen do. If none of the main 3 want it, and it seems most reasonable for him to get it. He's also low intelligence, average charisma, so he has little affect on puzzles and social interaction.

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