It is common to see articles and advice admonishing DMs to avoid running DM-controlled characters that are very active or involved. In the Starter Set’s Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure (an excellent opening arc by the way) it says as a tip for running NPCs travelling with the party to “let the characters make the important decisions. They are the protagonists of the adventure.”
Generally this is fine advice considering that it is no fun for player characters to get upstaged by NPCs. In group games, the party will probably be diverse enough to only occasionally require extra assistance or abilities from a powerful NPC. However, especially in one-on-one (and other small party) Dungeons and Dragons, a DMPC can play a much more active role, adding diversity of ability and class as well as providing more opportunity for roleplay.
In this article I am going to talk about things to consider in regards to class, roleplay, and combat when first drafting your DMPC.
Choosing a Class
When deciding which class you should make your first DMPC, it is probably a good idea to first consider what will compliment your partner’s pick. For example, if you are running a duet and your partner has elected to play a Wizard, they are going to have a very tough time surviving standard encounters all by themselves. In this case, a beefy Barbarian will increase survivability and will be naturally likely to draw attention away from the squishy Wizard.
For more on this, check out Central Party: Character Class.
This would be a fine pairing, but in small games and duets, it is often preferable to choose classes, especially for the DMPC, that have even greater flexibility. In the example above, a Barbarian can fight and take hits, but that is about it. However, a Cleric often comes with good defense, decent health, AND a number of healing abilities. Your DMPC being able to shift into a number of different roles allows your partner to play their primary character however they want.
We’ve had so much fun with this in our home game. When we started, Beth’s primary character was a Ranger and my first DMPC was a Paladin. I wanted to play someone who could give and take damage and heal while she reigned death from afar. Our game has developed extensively since then as we have added other characters and Beth now multiclasses. Everyone’s role in combat has evolved since the beginning. I know I’ve run a good encounter when Beth says that our characters had to do things they had never done before.
For other ideas on some adjustments to the members of the Central Party to give them a bit more flexibility without being game-breakingly overpowered, see this post on Empowering your characters.
Thinking about a complimentary class across from your partner’s primary character is the way that we’ve done it and is generally good advice.
But this is D&D, so of course there are different opinions!
Depending on how the DM builds encounters, parties comprised of one class could totally work. How cool would it be to play as a gang of Rogues, a cadre of Fighters, a squad of Rangers, or (gods help us all) a troupe of Bards? Class limitation could make for an interesting campaign!
One final thing to consider when creating DMPCs is class ability. For instance, if you are playing a Cloak and Dagger campaign where you expect your player to participate in high-stakes heists, but your primary character is a Warlock, they are probably going to have a hard time sneaking and picking locks. Your DMPC can make up for deficiencies in these scenarios.
Another approach could rely on some Custom Magical Items.
The second DMPC we brought in was a Rogue. His Stealth and Thieve’s Tools have gotten our party out of a number of jams and his personality brings a lot of levity into our game, bringing me to DMPCs and roleplay.
When first creating a DMPC, class is not the only thing to consider. Especially in one-on-one D&D, the personality and temperament of your DMPCs become extra vital. One of the big mistakes I made early on was undervaluing the importance of personality.
I saw the primary character’s DMPC companions mostly as functionaries. They were there to even the odds our hero faced in combat, but I imagined them largely disappearing into the background outside of fights. This mentality resulted in lots of unnatural quiet and sidestepped the “roleplay” part of the tabletop roleplaying game.
Make your DMPC a character that your primary character is going to enjoy spending time with and speaking to. If you are playing a duet, your partner’s primary character is likely going to need to spend a lot of time interacting with and conversing with your DMPC.
If you play for any extended amount of time, these two characters are going to create a special relationship. The connections that develop between characters are one of the best parts of playing Dungeons and Dragons, and in my experience playing one-on-one only intensifies that pleasure. For that reason, it is worthwhile to develop the personality of your DMPC considering that of your primary character.
For example, Beth’s character is intelligent, kind, and fiercely loyal, but inexperienced in regards to the wider world and sometimes naive. My first DMPC is a well-travelled veteran adventurer, but doesn’t know the current political/social landscape and is seeking personal redemption in relationship. They are both rather serious.
I was planning on our second DMPC being a super serious intellectual, but when I played him I found out that he was kind of goofy, bringing balance to our otherwise intense party.
We talk more about developing shared DMPCs and developing multiple characters’ personalities in our post on Secondary Characters.
We discuss in a few other places how we run our multiple characters in combat encounters, but it bears inclusion here as well. Specifically, I’m going to cover the progression that worked for us.
Beth ran her primary character and I ran my DMPC and the bad guys. This allowed her to focus on what she had going on as she learned her character and abilities. I tended to play my DMPC rather simply. Choosing simple actions for your DMPC also leaves space for a bit more RP and characterization in the midst of combat.
After some time, we got to a place where she was making combat decisions for my characters while I ran more complicated baddies. I would still consult and advise, but at the end of the day, her running the good guys while I tried to kill them allowed us to go back and forth, and no one took five turns in a row while the other person waited.
We typically play with full character sheets for the primary character, the DMPCs, and secondary characters and run more complicated enemies. We will decide at the beginning of the combat encounter which people we want to be in charge of. I am almost always my first DMPC and she is always her primary character, but other than that our games have a ton of flexibility.
We work together to use the full extent of our character’s abilities to take down powerful foes. While whoever is DMing always tries to provide a stiff challenge, we play a collaborative game and offer ideas when called for.
As always when playing two-person D&D, communication is key. You’ve got to be ready to listen to your partner and work together to figure out what is the most fun for the two of you. Running DMPCs in combat was not something that we just did perfectly (it took lots of practice, and it still doesn’t always go exactly right!), and we continue to adapt and develop it as we go, which has been awesome!
DMing is often an act of service. As the DM, you spend time preparing an engaging, living scenario for your player(s) to experience and interact with. That act of service extends to developing/creating DMPCs. Prime consideration should be given to your partner and their primary character… But make sure you are having fun too!
Have you ever made a DMPC that just rocked? Or one that should have been cool, but didn’t jive with your primary character? Share your stories and tips below!
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