You're planning on playing a roleplaying game and your DM tells you they are going to play a character as well. Can they do that? And if they do, what should they pay attention to?
A DM doesn't just play 'a' character, they play 'all' the characters that are not being played by the other players. What is generally frowned upon, however, is when the DM plays a character that is a member of the adventuring party, as if they were one of the players.
So the actual question that we need to answer is: 'Can the DM play a party member character?'.
Let's dive a bit deeper into why they would want to do that.
The roles in a roleplaying game : player vs dungeon master
In my opinion a big part of the confusion around whether a DM is allowed to play 'a character', comes from not properly understanding the components needed for most roleplaying games.
Most (not all) roleplaying games make a distinction between a player and a DM.
Depending on which game you are playing the term DM might be replaced with dungeon master, gamemaster (GM), keeper of arcane lore, handler, ...
It's basically just a term for the player who will 'run' the game. This player is designated as the DM.
The role of the Dungeon Master or DM
Now what do I mean with 'running' the game?
The task of the dungeon master is to prepare the story (or adventure) that the players will be playing in.
This can be a story that they have invented themselves, or a ready-made published adventure.
The DM will need to have a grasp of the locations in the story, the characters that the players will interact with, possible combat encounters, the atmosphere of the story, and so on.
Depending on the preferred playing style, the dungeon master might also provide miniatures and tactical maps to play on.
When all this has been prepared by the DM, the game can be played.
The dungeon master will start describing to the other players where they are, what they see, hear, smell, ...
Then it's up to the other players to pick up on those cues.
The role of the other players
I mention 'other players' as I see the DM as one of the players for the simple reason that we are all playing a game together. Everyone involved is playing the game, and thus a player.
The 'other players' who have not taken up the role of the dungeon master, will create a character that is going to experience the story that the DM has prepared.
Creating these characters most often happens in conjuction with the dungeon master who can provide background information on the setting of the story.
The role of the players is to react to the story elements provided by the DM.
They will indicate what their character is going to do, and based on that, the story will develop further.
So where's the confusion?
In game-technical terms you have PCs and NPCs.
PCs or player characters are the characters that are being played by players who are not the dungeon master. Basically the 'other players' I was talking about above.
NPCs or non-player characters are all the characters that are being played by the dungeon master.
This can be the local innkeeper, the priest that healed them, the evil big bad guy, and yes, this could even be a party member.
The confusion arises when the DM wants to play a player character.
That's why when you check discussions on this topic on forums, reddit, or Quora, you will see people using the term 'DM PC'. The Dungeon Master Player Character.
In my opinion there is no such thing as a dungeon master player character. There are player characters and non-player characters.
In fact, as the term non-player character (NPC) kind of contradicts what I said above (that the DM is also a player), I subscribe to the terminology used by Robin D. Laws, which is GMC or Game Master Character.
On an semi-unrelated note, Ken and Robin talk about stuff is a highly recommended podcast full of inspiration and great advice for both players and dungeon masters.
So why would a DM want to play a player character?
In this video, the Nerdarchy crew talks about 4 reasons why a DM wants to do exactly that.
Don't mind the title of the video, it's misleading on purpose.
Reason 2 and 3 given by Dave are, in my opinion, similar as both have to do with party composition, so I'm going to include a remark made by Ted in the video as well.
The DM feels he's not playing the game
Like I mentioned earlier, this stems from not properly understanding the different components/roles needed to play the game.
As the dungeon master, you are a part of the game. You ARE playing the game.
The question that DM needs to ask themselves is: "Do you want to be the DM?"
There's nothing wrong with not wanting to take on all the preparation involved with being the dungeon master.
I've been a DM for over 20 years but there are times when I don't feel like it. There are times when I just want to show up to the game and play a character.
And that's totally fine.
So the very simple fact of the matter comes down to :
If you don't want to be the DM, don't be the DM!
Dropping Truth Bombs
It's that simple.
What if nobody wants to be the dungeon master?
- Do a search on Facebook. There are plenty of groups related to roleplaying games in general, or very specific roleplaying games. There are even groups specifically for players and dungeon masters to hook up.
- Hire a dungeon master. I know, there's people who feel you shouldn't make money for being a dungeon master, but hey, if you want to play and you can't think of any other options, you could visit Start Playing Games or check Fiverr.
The DM feels the party was built the wrong way
What you need to remember is that a roleplaying game is a cooperative effort.
The whole idea is to create a story "together".
That means that if the DM has a story in mind that requires a specific party composition, it's their responsibility to clearly communicate this to the other players.
It makes no sense to let the players create a character, and then complain that they created the wrong type of character.
Let's take a Dungeons & Dragons game as an example. If the DM has a story in mind that revolves around a religious cult and it is imperative that one of the player characters is a cleric, this needs to be communicated to the players.
What if nobody wants to play the required character?
- In that case, the DM can include a gamemaster character to fulfill that role.
- Alternatively, both the DM and the players will need to improvise. The DM on how to get the player characters involved in the story, and the players on how to solve the story without that one specific character.
Going back to the above Dungeons & Dragons example, the DM could include a cleric game master character. Or the players will have to figure out how to get in touch with/defeat that religious cult without a cleric (and healing powers).
Don't forget, not having the correct party composition can pose a very fun challenge in itself! Have you ever tried pulling off a heist in Waterdeep with a group of paladins??
The DM feels the players are inexperienced
There are many ways to handle inexperienced players. You don't necessarily need to include a gamemaster character in the party to counter that.
If roleplaying the characters is the problem, you can insert story elements where they have to interact with game master characters.
If an infamiliarity with the rules is the problem, you can take the time during a session 0 for example, to play through a few simple encounters to teach them what skill checks are or how combat works.
The DM feels there's not enough players
Adding a game master character to the party makes sense if the story you have in mind requires a specific number of players or a specific number of character levels.
Let's be honest though, this is only a problem in a combat-heavy game. If the majority of the game is players roleplaying their characters, this should not be an issue.
So for the combat portion of the game, don't forget that it's also possible to scale encounters. You don't necessarily need to add characters to the party.
If you are running a published adventure, just reduce the numbers of creatures the characters will face. Or run a lower-level adventure.
Alternatively you can use my favorite DM trick : cheating! Fudge dice rols, or monster hit points, or whatever you need to do to make it challenging without overpowering the characters.
What should a DM pay attention to if they play a character?
We've already established that there is no such thing as a DM player character.
We've also established that it can be possible for a gamemaster character to join the adventuring party.
If that happens, here's a few things you want to keep in mind as the DM:
- Don't steal the spotlight. The spotlight is reserved for the other players. They should be able to experience the story en enjoy playing an important part in it.
- Don't create a character that's untouchable, or a lot stronger than the rest of the adventuring party. If you are worried about the combat encounters being to strong, create a support character, or as mentioned above, adjust the encounters.
- Don't play out whole conversations between game master characters. If you want your character to provide information to the party, have them go and get it 'off-screen'. There's no need for the other players to sit through minutes of DM monologue unless that interaction is integral to the story.
Instead you want to use your gamemaster characters to:
- provide interesting roleplay opportunities (Example: a gamemaster character that feels very strongly about a certain subject)
- highlight elements of your setting (Example: the gamemaster character hails from a different region/culture that the other players will visit further on in the campaign)
- provide the seed of the story (Example: the gamemaster character has a friend/mentor that is in need of help)
- advance the plot (Example: the gamemaster character knows someone who has information that can help the party)
- slow down the plot (Example: some of the above information was a red herring)
- force action (Example: the gamemaster character takes an action that forces the party to react, after being bogged down in planning for too long)
- provide a skill that the party is missing (Example: the gamemaster character is a skilled healer or tracker)
My own experience
One campaign that I ran with my buddy Koen comes to mind.
It was only the two of us and we agreed that we would alternate the role of the DM.
Both of us would create a character and we spent a good amount of time working on a strong connection between the characters.
If I was the DM, my character became a GMC and the spotlight was on Koen's character. If he was the DM, the roles would be reversed and my character would receive the spotlight.
This worked really well for us and since it was just the two of us, provided very in depth roleplaying.
Our group grew to 4 people at a certain point, and then reverted back to the two of us.
Koen and I have been playing together for over 20 years so that certainly helped. Both in our shared experience as players and DMs, but also in understanding what we enjoyed in a roleplaying game.
What is your experience with gamemaster characters? How do you use them?
Should you agree or disagree with all the above, by all means, feel free to share your opinion in the comment section.
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Good stuff! Yeah, I would very happily play a DM PC, but admittedly that’s because I don’t really like DMing. I have DMed a bunch of times, but in a very lazy way. I improvise everything and it gets very silly (which is how I like it), meaning my games work pretty well for beginners at BJJ Globetrotters Camps.