DMPCs: A Tale of Two Characters

Atirakis (2)
An Artist’s Rendition of Atirakis. Art by Mat Andre.

In my first two official campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons, I was not only the DM, but I had drawn up a character of my own as well, a PC, controlled by the Dungeon Master, also called a DMPC. I drew up the same character both times; an Elf magic-user. Both times I named him the same name. He was my character.

The first incarnation did not last long, and was mainly there so that there was at least one character that my friend would be forced to interact with. My friend quickly turned him into a friendly rival of sorts, and for awhile, I was able to play it off like the characters did not like each other, but were forced to work together in order to accomplish similar goals. They became competing protagonists, after the friendly rivalry  broke down. My friend wanted to expand his territory into lands that my character controlled, and playing my character accurately, I told him that would cost him something that he treasured. I would make him give me a macguffin that I had given him and he had become attached to. It was a simple mirror, that when looked into, would show the viewer the future. Not the near future mind you, the very distant future. He would see airplanes and cars and microwaves when he looked into it, and would never understand what any of it meant; but he was convinced that there was something special about this mirror, so he refused to give it up.  What followed was a bloody civil war in the land that weakened our two pseudo-kingdoms so much that I had no choice but to accept that either my character or his would have to go. I decided that I would send my magic-user away. He secured a temporary treaty, and went off to explore an ancient land, and was never heard from again (at least, not anymore in that campaign!)

” I felt like I was playing a game of battleship against myself. I knew were every ship was, so I would either hit anytime I wanted to, or miss on purpose. “

The second incarnation of the character was a multi-class Elven Cleric/Wizard. He was the primary healer of the group, but also had plenty of arcane power to boost the party’s overall firepower and crowd control. Since multi-class characters often fell behind the curve, I did not think  that it would be a problem to run a character with the party. I was completely unprepared for what happened to prove me wrong. Instead of feeling outshined by my character, or resenting him getting a share of the experience points and treasure, my party decided that since my character was controlled by the Dungeon Master, that it was best if he was the party leader. I tried to take a backseat, and force the other players at the table to take the reigns, but every time we were faced with a decision to make, they would turn to my character. They knew that I would never completely screw them over, and that I always designed my character to be intelligent and wise. It was a fool proof plan, and it made me miserable. I felt like I was playing a game of battleship against myself. I knew were every ship was, so I would either hit anytime I wanted to, or miss on purpose.

The solution was once again to send my character away. I had another player who had drawn up a Monk (in the style of Dragonball Z) and, well let’s just say that it was time for that character to go too. So we embarked on a quest that would be remembered to this day as the mightiest, most epic quest of all time (so far anyways.) We were going to storm The Nine Hells, kill Asmodeus, and end the war between The Seven Heavens and The Nine Hells forever. Along the way, we battled devils, their minions, The Lords of Hell, rebel angels, and The Lord of The Nine himself, Asmodeus. Afterwards, we were allowed to take his formerly angelic spark, and cleanse it, allowing us each to become demigods, and ascend into the heavens, and realms beyond.

That was the last time I ever drew up that character as a DMPC. He is now an NPC who I use as one of the main protagonist/antagonists in all of my campaigns, depending on which side of the coin of good and evil the party decides to land on…

Sandbox vs Railroad

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Going back now to the first campaign I ever ran; I remember that I drew up about 18 or more interconnected maps on construction paper. I had made detailed lists of the populations of various humanoids and monsters in each area (complete with Random Encounter Tables!) I had an extensive history of the world written up in timeline form that I had typed-up on my mother’s typewriter (this was a long time ago.) I even had a litany of NPCs ready to interact with and shape the world around them. As I covered in my first blog, my friend did almost nothing that I had anticipated, and we ended up using about 10% or less of the stuff that I had prepared ahead of time. Most of our sessions involved me having to make up an NPC or plot hook on the spot, or ad hocking rules for mass combat with siege weapons, castles, and dragons.

I was panicked at first. We were not only doing things that I had not prepared for ahead of time, but we were completely ignoring the massive pile of prepared material that I had, and wanted to actually run for someone! Then, my friend wanted to build a castle of his own on a newly conquered patch of land. I had an adventure drawn up that involved clearing a highway of Orcish bandits, and figured here was the perfect chance to get him to take up one of my quests. I told my friend that the quarry that mined the rock that he would need to build his fortress was many miles away, and that he would have to travel there in order to secure a contract with both the quarry, and the caravans that would carry his stone to him.

My friend foiled my first attempt to get him to take the plot bait by deciding that he would not have to go at all if he sent his NPC companion to settle the terms. I rolled some dice, and informed him that his companion had indeed made all of the necessary arrangements, however his first shipment has been delayed for an unknown reason. I figured that now the quest could begin, however, instead of investigating (as I assumed he would) he told me that he was simply going to continue to wait. I rolled some more dice, and  I informed him that his second shipment was now also late. He gave the order to send some of his scouts down the highway to see if the caravans were coming, or if they were missing, or what was going on. I rolled some dice, again, and I proclaimed that his scouts had returned with a caravan guard, who had been badly wounded in battle, and was clearly dying. When asked what had happened, the guard claimed that the wagons were set upon by Orcish bandits wearing black cloaks with an angry red eye painted on the back.

“[The world] could be a dynamic and interactive simulation, rather than a series of adventures to be played in order.”

Now at last my hook was set, (or so I thought). My friend would have no choice but to go and confront these bandits, and eventually discover that they were actually outcasts from a local tribe that had been taken over by a bloodthirsty chief who exiled anyone unwilling to slaughter human villagers during raids. But he never went after the Orcs. Instead, he once again thwarted my attempts to get him involved in one of my adventures. He had my wizard character cast stone shape everyday until my character had built his castle for him using his magic. I was utterly defeated. Not only had he evaded my adventure, but he had accomplished his goal in spite of my attempts to make completing the adventure a necessary component of achieving that goal.

That is when it occurred to me that the world did not have to be run from Point A to Point B, like a fantasy novel, or a role-playing video game; instead it could be run from Point A to Point Q and back to Point A. It could be a dynamic and interactive simulation, rather than a series of adventures to be played in order. So I sat down and thought about what the consequences would be of my friend’s character not finding out about the bloodthirsty Orc Warlord in his backyard. I plotted out that the Warlord would eventually unite all of the other Orc tribes under his banner, and lead them in a single massive glorious assault against my friend. And that is exactly what happened. It was an amazing epic campaign. It was one of the best battles I ever had in any game. It was easily one of my most memorable adventures ever too, even if he never did find out that this all stemmed from a low level plot hook that he never took…

Good Gaming my friends!

– The Dungeon Master

NEXT TOPIC: DMPCs

Critical Moments

678517My first steady group of players started playing with me around the time 2nd Edition D&D was dying. My older brother, and two friends of ours, joined me (as the Dungeon Master,  of course) in my first real group campaign. My brother had rolled up a Centaur with a Dire Tiger companion. One of our friends was a Half-Elf Wizard, while the other one was a Human Monk (well sort-of, but that is another story for another time.) I was still in the habit of drawing up a character with everyone else, so I drew up, you guessed it, another Elven Wizard, but this time he was a Wizard/Cleric.

We were all exploring the ruins of the old empire, when suddenly, we were plunged deep underground by a collapsing street. We could barely see anything from the dim light shining down from above, so my friend’s Wizard cast a Light spell. We were in  yet another ruined city, this one much more ancient and dilapidated than the first. Among the crumbling buildings, we saw several statues of brave warriors. Some of them had their faces twisted in grotesque masks of fear, or anguish, others were frozen, mid-swing or charge, almost as if their own personal battle was stuck forever in that moment in time.

Just then, the Dire Tiger’s ears shot forward, alerting us of coming danger. We all rushed and took up defensive positions, hiding behind the statues, or crouching by sections of crumbling wall. Out of the shadows a form came slithering towards our positions. It had a huge snake-like body, with a woman’s torso, arms, and head. Her hair was made of dozens of venomous snakes. In her hands she held a battle-bow. Across her back was strapped a quiver of deadly poisoned and barbed arrows. It was the legendary Medusa we faced, and we were doomed! We had no protection against her petrifying gaze, and no way to restore our allies should they succumb to it.

We spent the next several rounds simply trying to avoid her petrifying gaze and move around to a better tactical position. Unfortunately, we were in her home, and she outmaneuvered us to gain the high ground and a sniper’s perch on us. We were trapped in a corner, desperately attempting to avoid the poisonous tips of her arrows, when suddenly I rolled a natural “1” for her ranged attack against us. What was I going to do about this? There are no official Critical Hit or Fumble charts in Dungeons & Dragons. It is left to each of us, as DMs, to decide what the rules are for rolling a natural 1, or a “fumble”; or for rolling a natural 20, or a “critical hit”, or “crit” for short.

I ruled that Medusa slipped on the edge of her perch while attempting to get a better shot at us. She was given a Dexterity check to see if she could grab the ledge in time, or if she would fall to the ground below. She rolled a 3, and came crashing down. We seized our opportunity, and fled while she was recovering. We were so intent on getting away from Medusa, that we did not even care which way we were running, or what we were running into. That changed when we felt the swamp water begin to seep into our boots. We had found ourselves ankle deep in murky, algae ridden water. We began to argue amongst ourselves as to what we were going to do now. We had no idea where we were, we had no idea how to get back to the surface, and we were now wet as well. Suffice it to say, we were caught completely off-guard when the green dragon’s head came up from the deeper parts of the swampy water.

My brother’s Dire Tiger companion leaped into action, pouncing on the dragon, and attempting to rake him with his deadly claws. My brother rolls. It’s a natural 20, a Crit! Everyone starts shouting. Now, you have to understand, back then we had a rule; one 20 was an automatic hit, but two 20s in a row was a chance for an automatic kill. So he rolls again. It’s another natural 20. Everyone is freaking out, jumping out of their seats, high-fiving each other, thinking that they were about to automatically kill an impossible foe with a lucky roll. My brother rolled his d20 a third and final time. All he had to do to kill the dragon was not miss this roll. The Dire Tiger had an amazing attack, so I believe that he just had to roll above a 6 to succeed.

“…we found a way to make the roll of the dice change, in a drastic way, the outcome of the adventure, and the character’s lives.”

As the dice left his hand, we all had a feeling that something amazing was about to happen, we just did not realize what it would be. The dice hit the table and bounced, once, twice, three times. It started to come to a stop. Now, anyone who has played D&D (or any rpg) long enough can tell you, there is a moment sometimes when you can see the dice almost decide to roll just one more time. To flip that one last side. We all watched, as that dice took an eternity, before finally tipping one last time, and landing on the “1” side. Everyone went as silent as the grave. What did that 1 mean? What was going to happen now? Clearly the Dire Tiger had hit the dragon, so what had changed from him almost killing the dragon?

Again, there is nothing to cover these situations in the books. They are something that you have to deal with on your own, usually as they come up in the game as a surprise for everyone! I decided that the Dire Tiger’s claws had become embedded in the Dragon’s thick scales, and that when he went to rake the dragon, he ripped his own claws out. It was a brutal moment, for everyone involved, but one that we will never forget.

We have rolled a million d20s over the years. More natural 1s, and 20s than I can remember. So what makes those stand out so much? Why are those more special than others? Because we found a way to make the roll of the dice change, in a drastic way, the outcome of the adventure, and the character’s lives. We knew that we were dead when we stumbled into the lair of Medusa, until she rolled a 1 and allowed us the time we needed to escape. The Dire Tiger was about to rip the Black Dragon’s head off because of the two natural 20s he rolled in a row, until the natural 1 altered that moment, and my brother’s character forever…

Good Gaming my friends!

– The Dungeon Master

NEXT TOPIC: Railroad vs Sandbox