Following Jonathan’s post from last week on flipping DM and player roles, I thought it might be helpful to go into more detail about secondary PCs. What can they add to your game, and how can you incorporate them?
What are they?
First, by secondary PC, I mean a secondary character for the player. Since homebrew one-on-one campaign narratives tend to center around the primary character, the player will likely always keep this character, notwithstanding a dramatic circumstance.
However, this puts a lot of pressure on the DM to give life and personality to literally every single other person the PC encounters. This is where secondary characters come in.
Where do they fit?
One of the most natural ways to bring these characters into your games is through the other members of your central party, especially those that function as a DMPC (DM’s player character). Very likely, as you get further into a duet narrative, you’ll have a few characters traveling around regularly with the PC. We, for example, have three, two of whom Jonathan really relates to and sees as personal PCs.
So it was in part with these two characters in mind and part my own love for making characters that my secondary PCs came into being. Three of them were created in lower-stakes sessions where I was DMing, and the fourth came out of my character’s backstory.
Note: If the player isn’t ready to DM yet, that’s ok! In that case, you still have a few options for bringing in secondary PCs.
Consider the following questions:
Is there an NPC that the player finds really interesting?
Is there a class they wish they could play or would at least want to try out?
Do you have any narratives branching out from your main storyline? Or a location that you’re leaving behind that resonated with the player?
These are all great places to begin your search for an exciting secondary PC. If nothing comes to mind immediately, that’s ok too. The character will present themselves when the time is right.
Why use a secondary PC?
There are a few places where a secondary PC, rather than just an NPC, can add a lot to your game.
These possibilities are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive either—several of my secondary characters would fit into multiple categories below even though they were created with one reason more in mind than another.
This is my favorite function of a secondary PC, and it solves a few potential problems revolving around the DM getting to know their DMPC(s) on the same level that the player knows the PC.
I think that one-on-one games uniquely enable character development, especially of the primary character. However, the DM is building a world, narrative, and game all at once, and so they may not be able to think about their PCs at the same level of depth, not to mention the fact that there’s probably more than one.
Another thing that can happen is that all this structuring around the PC and RP that aims to not have the DM talking to themselves can lead to DMPCs being oriented around the PC instead of having their own vibrant personhood.
Secondary PCs, though, open up avenues for the DMPCs to interact with others who aren’t the PC and who aren’t the other members of the central party. This provides lots of opportunities for developing the character’s desires, helping them achieve their own goals, and giving them more purchase in the world outside the PC.
One of my secondary PCs, Genevieve, is a Circle of the Lycan druid. My PC is also a druid, but I wanted to be able to play around with the class a bit more and add some interest and complications for one of the DMPCs.
How would our bard pirate captain, for example, react when coming across someone very much like his dear friend (my PC) who could also possibly turn into a werewolf? Would she be welcomed onto the ship in hopes that the PC could help her down the road, or left where she was to fend for herself?
Very happily, since I became attached to her immediately, she got to come aboard and has since been able to bring out other aspects of the DMPCs because of her different relationship with them.
Continuing developments in past/other locations
As you leave places behind, especially the PC’s home location, things continue to happen there despite the PC’s attention elsewhere. Having secondary PCs in those places creates a practical way for the two of you to work together on what’s going around your world which has a few advantages:
- The DM doesn’t have to unilaterally decide what continues to happen there, allowing you both to practice collaborative worldbuilding.
- This side-narrative provides a perfect opportunity for the player to DM.
- If #2 doesn’t strike you, then returning to a well-known location for some more light-hearted RP or exploration can create a breather in planning if the main quest is entering a new region or gearing up for a major conflict that the DM needs more time to prepare. I’m all for finding ways to spend the time together and play, even if your main narrative needs longer to percolate!
Rounding out the party for major confrontations
Many of us have classes we gravitate toward or identify with. Since the DM is going to spend quite a bit of time as their DMPCs, it would be ideal for those characters to be classes that the DM enjoys playing. Though between the two of you this probably creates relative balance, you might still be missing a class that would, on rare occasions, be rather necessary.
In these instances, having a character the party is comfortable with and can call on when needed really helps. This is also beneficial if your main party splits for a time, especially in a narrative developing one of the DMPCs.
We added a cleric, Ryleigh, to our game when we were gearing up for a major conflict. I first wrote her to serve as a support character, but as we incorporated her more, I became increasingly interested in her backstory and interactions with the major characters, so she’s grown in importance over time. She’s even my PC in our group game!
Creating vibrant characters who don’t necessarily fit in the playable classes
This might be my second-favorite reason. Part of the fun of role-play is getting to pretend to be things you aren’t but perhaps could have been or would want to be. Secondary PCs filling these roles not only enable that possibility but also make for a much more vibrant world.
NPCs that open up more and become secondary PCs can give you a lot of flexibility with your homebrew world or as additions to an officially published world. They also, perhaps even more helpfully, let you personalize a fantasy world and/or bring in parts of modern life you’d like to see in this created space.
For example, as a PhD student, I spend a lot of time around other scholars. I also think that translation is beautiful and noble and, given a second me, would have wanted to translate texts that I believe in and find meaningful.
This is a topic I’ll be tackling more on Grove Guardian’s website soon (launching next week!), but for now, having a secondary PC who is a scholar and translator has opened up those possibilities for me inside our homebrew world.
That same character, Katarina, has also developed our central party’s rogue and complicated his characterization to promote internal growth and change.
She was my PC’s best friend before her adventuring career began, and she stays in their home city-state while my PC is out on the road. This increases the stakes for two of our central party members if there’s a threat to the PC’s home, because it’s not just her loved ones who are in danger, but the rogue’s as well.
Jonathan surprised me with an extra level to this a couple months ago, involving her research in our game’s metanarrative in ways she hadn’t foreseen, so that was an interesting and unique development too.
Playing with different character personalities
As a final boon to adding secondary PCs to your duet, and related to making the world more vibrant, they can be a fun way for the player to get to try out different personality and character types.
Though this would make DMing at some point less intimidating, the more immediate benefit is a sense of something fun and new in your duet that’s still low-stakes. If you accidentally do something awkward as the secondary PC, just run the interaction again!
Playing around with characters you’re not as attached to as the PC and in situations that aren’t as weighty as your main plot can loosen up some of the RP between the two of you and bring out new facets of the DMPCs.
You can try out an accent or different speech patterns. If your PC is careful and thoughtful, maybe create a secondary PC who’s brash and reckless.
I love Iellieth, my PC, but I also wanted someone who was a bit more devil-may-care, like Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica. And so Briseras, my demon hunter character, was born.
Secondary PCs for the player add in a few different opportunities for your duet.
For the DM, they provide wider access to character development, especially beyond interactions with the PC. DMPCs can explore new facets and situations and be more fully-realized as unique characters in their own right.
For players, secondary PCs create new and fun challenges and RP opportunities. Whether through a new class or different personality type, they inspire new modes of play and interaction, both within the world and with your DM.
How do you incorporate secondary PCs into your two-person campaigns? Let us know in the comments below!
*My special thanks to The Rambling GM for helpful questions and ideas that further developed this post!
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