Can a DM play a Player Character?

Dungeon Master in DND

Dungeons & Dragons, the beloved tabletop role-playing game, revolves around the collaboration between players and the Dungeon Master (DM) to craft epic adventures. The DM, as the storyteller and referee, controls the game world and its inhabitants, while the players take on the roles of heroes. But is it possible for a Dungeon Master to wear two hats, guiding the story as the DM and playing a character, known as a Player Character (PC)?

In this article, we'll explore the concept of DMs playing PCs, the potential challenges it presents, and how to shift your mindset so everyone can enjoy playing.

Can the Dungeon Master play too?

Yes, it is possible for a DM to play a character in a D&D campaign, but it's not recommended. While there are exceptions and unique situations where this can work, it's important to consider the potential challenges and how doing this might affect your table.

The primary reason why DMs playing characters is discouraged is that it can disrupt the balance of the game. The DM's character can inadvertently overshadow the player characters (PCs), making the players feel like they are merely spectators in their own story.

Fundamentally, the DM's role is distinct from that of the players. The DM is the storyteller, world-builder, and referee, while the players are the protagonists and central figures of the narrative. DMs already control a multitude of characters in the form of non-player characters (NPCs) that populate the game world. Adding a DM character to the mix can make it challenging to maintain a fair and impartial perspective, potentially leading to a less enjoyable experience for the players.

In many cases, it's best for DMs to focus on facilitating the game world and creating engaging challenges for the players, allowing them to be the heroes of the story.

What is it called when the DM tries to play a character?

When a DM tries to play a character in addition to their role as the DM, it's known as a ‘DMPC’, which stands for ‘Dungeon Master Player Character’.

What are the challenges with a DMPC?

Playing a Dungeon Master Player Character (DMPC) comes with its share of challenges. Here are some of the key difficulties that can arise:

Taking the spotlight: DMPCs have the potential to steal the spotlight from the player characters (PCs), making them feel less like the heroes of the story.

Imposing on player decision making: DMPCs can inadvertently push the game in certain directions, potentially leading to railroading where players feel like their choices are restricted.

DM knowledge impact: As a DM, you have extensive knowledge of the game world and its secrets. It can be challenging to play a DMPC without allowing your meta-knowledge to affect the character's actions, creating an unfair advantage.

Information leak: players may be tempted to use the DMPC to gain information that only the DM should know, potentially leading to a breakdown in immersion and game balance.

Additional bookkeeping: managing another character sheet, abilities, and inventory for a DMPC adds an extra layer of bookkeeping for the DM which can be challenging, especially when the DM already has lots to do.

Plot armour: in practical terms, DMPCs often come with plot armour, meaning they are less likely to face dire consequences or death. This can be frustrating for players, especially if the stakes are high for them.

Player jealousy: less experienced players might compare themselves to the DMPC, who is often more knowledgeable, stronger, and effective. This can lead to feelings of jealousy and inadequacy among players.

Different player experience: playing a DMPC just isn't the same as being a PC in someone else's game. The dynamics and challenges are different, and it can alter the overall experience for both the DM and the players.

Balancing the inclusion of a DMPC in a way that enhances the story and doesn't disrupt the player's agency can be a complex task. It requires careful consideration and communication with the players to ensure that everyone is on the same page and that the addition of a DMPC contributes positively to the game.

When can a DMPC be useful?

A Dungeon Master Player Character (DMPC) can be useful in specific situations, but it's often more practical to think of them as long-term NPCs with a recurring presence in the campaign. Here are scenarios when such characters can enhance the game:

  • Solo play or small groups: in solo DND gameplay or DND campaigns with two players, a DMPC can help round out the party and provide necessary support and balance. It ensures that crucial roles, like healing or spellcasting, are covered when the player group is small. However, you might want to delegate responsibility of the DMPC to another player. This maintains player agency but helps with balancing issues if you have fewer players.
  • Playing with new players: when running a game for newcomers to Dungeons & Dragons, a DMPC can serve as a guide or mentor, helping the players understand the rules, mechanics, and the flow of the game. This can make the learning experience smoother and more enjoyable. Instead of using a DMPC, try running a mentor NPC, who the players can return to whenever they need advice or help. That way the players still have agency, but have the support of a knowledgeable NPC who they can choose to interact with, rather than it being forced upon them.
  • Long-Term NPCs: instead of a DMPC, consider creating a long-term NPC who occasionally travels with the party. These NPCs can offer advice, quests, or companionship without overshadowing the player characters. They can weave in and out of the story as needed and don't need to be present all the time.

It's important to note that, generally, NPCs are preferable to DMPCs when it comes to long-term companions for the party. NPCs can still have rich personalities and contribute to the narrative without dominating the spotlight that should shine on the player characters. Balancing their involvement in the story is crucial to maintain a player-centric focus and a rewarding gaming experience.

Advice for playing a DMPC

Playing a DMPC can be challenging to balance, and if you choose to go this route, it's essential to establish some ground rules to maintain a fair and enjoyable game. Here are some recommendations if you decide to incorporate a DMPC into your campaign:

  • Avoid being the party leader: ensure that the DMPC does not take on a leadership or face role within the party. They should remain in the background, offering guidance or assistance when necessary but allowing the player characters to make critical decisions.
  • Separate knowledge: find a way to separate your DM knowledge from your DMPC's knowledge. Avoid using your out-of-game knowledge to influence your DMPC's actions or decisions. This helps maintain the integrity of the player experience.
  • Establish risks and consequences: establish clear rules regarding the DMPC's mortality, or in other words, treat the DMPC the same as you would other PCs in combat and other life-threatening situations. There should be a genuine risk of harm or death for the DMPC, just like any other character. This ensures that there are fair stakes in the game.
  • Avoid participation at key moments: refrain from participating actively in puzzles and strategic decision-making during battles. Allow the players to solve complex encounters and develop strategies independently, without the DMPC offering solutions. If they are particularly stuck, you may choose to have the DMPC give them a hint, but avoid anything further so you don’t inadvertently railroad your players onto a particular path.
  • Keep their alignment consistent: when creating a DMPC, choose an alignment and personality that aligns reasonably well with the party's overall alignment and dynamics. Significant personality clashes can lead to disruptions in the group's cohesion, especially if between a DMPC and the PCs.

Remember that the primary goal is to maintain a player-centric focus in your Dungeons & Dragons game. A well-balanced DMPC can enhance the story and offer valuable insights without overshadowing the agency and decisions of the player characters. However, we wouldn’t recommend beginner DMs use a DMPC, as it can be tricky to use them effectively due to the number of challenges they present.

Alternatives ways to play as a DM

For those still not convinced on why running a DMPC might not be the wisest, Matt Colville’s video breaks down the challenges with DMPCs and explores ways of running NPCs that might be more involved with the party.

If you're a Dungeon Master who's eager to experience Dungeons & Dragons as a player, there are alternative approaches that allow you to explore the game from a different perspective:

  1. Share the Dungeon Master role: if someone else in your group is interested in trying their hand at being the DM, consider taking turns running the campaign. This way, you can alternate between being the player and the DM, giving you a chance to experience both sides of the game.
  2. Join another D&D group: find a new Dungeons & Dragons group in your local area or online. Many communities host open games or welcome new players. Joining another group as a player can provide a fresh perspective and allow you to enjoy the game without the responsibilities of being the DM.
  3. Explore D&D-like video games: there are several video games based on the Dungeons & Dragons universe, such as the Baldur's Gate series or Neverwinter Nights. These games offer immersive D&D experiences where you can create a character and embark on epic adventures.

Exploring these alternatives can help you satisfy your desire to play D&D as a player while still enjoying the creative aspects of being a Dungeon Master in your primary campaign.

In the realm of Dungeons & Dragons, the role of a Dungeon Master is a noble and challenging one. While the allure of becoming a player character in your own campaign might be strong, it's essential to consider the potential drawbacks and how it could impact the enjoyment of your players.

The role of the DM is unique, and it's the art of crafting unforgettable stories and facilitating epic adventures that makes D&D truly magical. So, remember that you don't have to be a player to have an incredible D&D experience. Embrace the storyteller's mantle, and if you need some advice, check out our guide on becoming a better Dungeon Master.

If you're looking to enhance your Dungeons & Dragons journey, whether as a player or a Dungeon Master, explore our collection of polyhedral dice sets. From weighty metal DND dice to vibrant resin dice, we’ve got something for you. Treat yourself today!

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