Meet Toan Wavewalker, a tribal island barbarian who looks suspiciously like The Rock from the Scorpion King movie, but also uses a tortoise shell great axe as a primary weapon and wields the shamanistic power of the ocean when he rages. Toan was a key character link that helped the party to understand where a missing cleric had gone to, and guide them into the “Scar”, a location in Brokenbank where the very ground itself has been turned to glass. The party is a fighter, rogue, bard, and a warlock, so they can put out a lot of damage but have been messed up pretty bad with three of four characters being ‘squishy’.
While I didn’t plan on Toan becoming a member, he’s a willing ally of the party and has shared Lazz with them. “Lazz” is a hallucinogenic drug that allows a person to have shamanistic visions over many hours when guided by a member of the tribe. To him, sharing Lazz is tantamount to forming a blood brothers ceremony or swearing oaths of allegiance and friendship. It is not something done lightly, and was only done when the party promised to support him in solving his tribe’s problems.
Which brings me to my point. NPCs are often one note, or perhaps two, with just a first name and a few distinguishing marks. But an NPC who is recurring needs more character and life. In short, an NPC who becomes either a PC guided character/ally or a DM run PC (DPC? DMPC?) needs the following…
- Motivation – Why have they joined the party? What do they seek to gain? Even if it’s just money, the terms should be specific and straightforward. Toan is an indigenous member of a local tribe. He’s invested in his community and wants to keep them safe.
- Logical abilities – DMPCs or PC controlled NPCs shouldn’t outshine the PCs themselves, and should (ideally) fit both a group need and a world view. Toan is a barbarian, but with Path of the Storm magic. He’s more tank-y than the fighter, but very much a ‘fire and forget’ type of character, which helps to run him. Toan also is both a story hook and a plot progression tool, as well as being a competent tracker and nature person (in a group that doesn’t really have that either).
- Loyalties and Bonds – I actually think the loyalty system in the Players Handbook isn’t a bad start, as the relationship with characters changes over time. I’m not a fan of making it too complicated, especially when we are virtual, but assuming the PCs treat the NPC right, he/she/they should be willing to join along in most things that they agree with. But they shouldn’t go against their better judgements or beliefs. For example, Toan did not like the party rogue stealing things from dead farmers (or even investigating them). But with some quick role playing, and a persuasion check, came a compromise. The rogue could take things from people who didn’t need them anymore, but had to help bury the bodies. Toan held her to it, also.
- Be easy to run! – Yes, I said it. It can be frustrating to run a DMPC. It can also be REALLY tempting to get into it fully as well. But I have to be the DM, not a player. I speak for Toan, but I won’t run him in combat. I give that responsibility to the players, to avoid Toan acting in a way that reveals secrets. He also doesn’t offer any initiative for investigation or anything else. If the party asks him to help with certain things he will. He also does certain things ‘automatically’ like helping track or guide the party. That being said, Toan is not stupid or blind, and will respond when the PCs are doing something he likes or doesn’t like.
That’s my thoughts on a DM NPC. How long will Toan stick around? That depends on the party and how much they help him. So far, he’s already died in the first encounter he fought in, but soaked up about 60 points of damage (That would have killed 3/4 of the party otherwise), and the party went to great lengths to save him.