Friday, November 5, 2010

The DM Is Not A Player

This article is seven years old.  For those interested, I upgraded my opinion about this question a few months ago, as I am always evolving as a DM.

Here was a stunning assertion from runjikol, in reference to the statement that NPCs are props for the game, made in the comments section of the previous post:

"PCs are just props for the game, too. They're the props of the players. NPCs the props of the GM. My point is that the internal rules of the game, when it comes to mechanics and what can be achieved with them, I want to be consistent between NPC and PC. So if a PC can sway an NPC with a Charisma check then an NPC should be able to sway a PC with a Charisma check, too."

Blink, blink.

Let me make something clear.  'Non-players' are NOT players.  NPCs are not characters through which the DM 'plays' in the campaign.  The DM who uses NPCs in a way so as to feel a part of the game is seriously deluded about the DM's role.

I hate the term referee where it is applied to the Dungeon Master, mostly because I like that the game has independent terms, applicable only to its own milieu.  But 'referee' is a helpful term in this circumstance.  Referees are not players, and are subject within the game to rules that apply only to them.  Referees are never allowed to touch the ball.  Referees are not allowed to change, influence, or otherwise stymie the course of play.  They are not privileged to exercise their emotional judgment in a given circumstance.  They are highly discouraged from interacting with the players of the game, even in regards to friendly banter.  The referee does not answer when casually addressed.  The referee does not offer casual chatter or advice.  The referee calls the game, and that is all.

So when I hear the NPC promoted to the level of the PC, so that the referee can play along with everyone else, the spines along my back rise, my breath shortens and small animals nearby ... mildly take notice.

I realize that DMing can seem lonely.  I generally feel a bit down after a campaign, worried about whether it went well, if everyone had a good time, or if the ideas I presented just sucked.  Sometimes, I know that they did.  And those times paint the good times with a sort of "I'm not sure if they're being polite to me, or if they had a good time" kind of vibe.  Only now and then do you have a session where everyone is so ramped up that there can't be any question about the night being kick-ass.

In fact, the after 'drop' of DMing a game is similar to performing on stage.  Prior to the performance you arrive at the theatre, you chat with others, the stage manager makes a few announcements about ongoing technical issues (the director has long since departed for better shores), and the level of energy is still quite low.  But as people move around getting their costumes together, as you have your make-up applied, as the props that will be wrecked during that night's performance are brought forward from the rear shop, and as things are flipped on and tested, the energy level climbs.  The doors are opened, the audience starts to mill around the lobby, the voices in the back are hushed and ultimately suppressed completely ... and at the point when you are frozen in place, ready to go on stage, making the least movement possible so as not to give yourself away, your skin is flowing with electricity.  Most of the cast feels their nerves take hold.  But then the play begins, and you walk the boards, speak your lines, insult the designated villain, pontificate about the verisimilitude of life to earn whatever applause you're due that night, and the energy tapers off.  The play is over.  You bow, you walk off stage, you scrape the make-up away, throw off the clothes - some to the laundry, but most not - and you're done.  There's no cast party in a run, but someone is always ready to get drunk ... because, you see, with the performance over you feel like absolute shit.

The energy has gone through you and you are now a dead battery, dry until you're powered up for the next performance.  The experience is different for you.  You were not a member of the audience, sitting out front enjoying the play.  The play for you is work.

You might catch a snippet of pleasure watching someone you like perform their bits, but probably not - you've got your own character to get into, a character over which you have NO CONTROL.  It does what the writer and the director have agreed upon.  Not you.  Your performance is to behave in a manner that makes the other actors more comfortable from night to night.  The last thing you want to do is act like an idiot, forcing the play in the direction you want it to go, since that will only destroy the creator's vision.  You are not the creator, you are the facilitator.   And however well you've facilitated, when it's over, you're left feeling like shit.

There are DMs out there who delude themselves into thinking they write the play, or that they direct the vision - but they're wrong.  The dice write the play.  The dice determine the winner and the loser.  The game has designed the sets and built the stage, and brought in the audience.  All the DM can do is perform the vision as well as he or she can, take a bow, and - with luck - not have to get tight alone afterwards.

Now I realize I've put two metaphors forth - DM as referee and DM as actor.  I've been careful not to mix them, but to present them in order.  As the gentle reader reads, please try not to mix them up.  A thing can have more than one metaphor applied to it.  A thing often has better than only two.  A complex thing might need seven or eight dozen.  Try to read each metaphor as though I gave it independently - which, in fact, I did.

And when you DM, and you're fucking up trying to be both the audience and the performer, or trying to be both the player and the referee, try to note the dull, unhappy faces of your players and recognize that they're blaming this particular presentation on you.

You may only be the facilitator, but unfortunately for you, you're the responsible facilitator.  You wanted the part.  But that doesn't make you more important than you are.  The players came to PLAY.  You're only there to perform.


  1. I like both metaphors, but I'm not so sure about the conclusion of DM as non-creator. There's a missing, preceding metaphor. DM as creator but not sole creator. Dice, DM and players as co-creators?

    Afterall, unless one is solely facilitating the strict vision of an adventure module (and we know how often that goes on at your table) you are creating before, after and during the time you step behind the screen.

  2. I heartily agree that NPCs which turn into DM PCs are a bad, bad idea. Stealing the limelight (to continue your metaphor) from the stars of the show, the player characters, is not in the spirit of how I see the game.

    I completely disagree that NPCs should be treated equally as PCs. Again, not in the spirit of the game I want to play.

    However, I am not fully on board with your metaphors. I find them imperfect and lead to extreme thinking. Perhaps they are perfect for your game. You did quantify their imperfection so perhaps I am splitting hairs.

    I disagree with one statement - The dice write the play. I think that is too simplistic, and relegates the player characters to bit parts. I see the play as a collaboration between the DM, who creates the stage, and the player characters who are the main actors without scripts. The dice are more like the fates, deciding which way the winds blow when the play comes to a point of chance. Yes, that is my imperfect contribution. :-)

    But of course, the fates, and the dice, never lie.

  3. Yes James, I readily agree. But perhaps I could move that off onto the shoulders of the muse.

  4. Barad, we posted almost together. Yes, you're right too. "The dice write the play" sounded too good to not write down. Sometimes, I am too much in love with my own flatulence.

  5. And I am prone to endlessly repeating "The dice never lie", when in fact sometimes they fib a little. Cheers!

  6. If a DM is an actor, in a game, complete with stage-play metaphors, how are they not playing?

    I don't know for sure if you're saying that I GM in the various negative ways you describe. Can you clarify that?

  7. Got to say that I disagree with you about DM's not having Player Characters. I think any DM can have a PC as long as they play the right kind of PC, and, if they are really an actor, they should be able to RolePlay that PC right, seperating him from privalleged knowledge. I almost always run a character in my games, not because I want to play, but because we rotate the DM spot within the same campaign every once in a while and it is nice to have a consistent party. A DM that is playing a character should just be in the background in all honesty. It doesn't matter if they are always there fighting alongside the PC's as long as they don't stand out.

  8. I'm with Shinobicow on this one.
    Although many people claim GMPCs are close to blasphemous, I find it odd that there are DMs that can't do this.
    I don't know how many times I've had to thrown in a GMPC to fill in for another player or because the players asked me to run a character. Usually they ask when they feel the party is too small (missing players) and they ask me to do it as a "favor".
    If anything I'm much harder on the GMPC than I should be. I can't even count how many have been lost during an adventure.
    So I guess it is all a matter of how big the GM's ego is and their style of running the game. Of course I've seen GM ego show up when they believe that a particular encounter/monster/villain/npc is the absolute most brilliant/coolest thing they've ever created. That makes for a very unfun game.
    While I believe that running a GMPC is a complete headache, given all the other stuff you have to keep track of. I don't think it is necessarily detrimental to the game and can actually add to the experience for everyone. The problem is the GM and his/her ego. That is root of the problem in situations like that.
    So I must respectfully disagree regarding the GMPC.

  9. I don't know how many times I've had to thrown in a GMPC to fill in for another player or because the players asked me to run a character. Usually they ask when they feel the party is too small (missing players) and they ask me to do it as a "favor".

    There're way's of curing Players of asking for that sort of thing. :) An if you really feel the party needs some backup, that's what an NPC is for. One as expendable as any man-at-arms, hireling or barkeep. If you care about its fate, or take steps to insure its survival and increase its scope of power, in any other than the detached way a DM will referee any NPC, then you're playing a PC. Or running a railroad.

    If you're not willing to throw the bastard to the wolves, just as quickly and with the same verve as you would any of the other non-player inhabitants of the milieu, then it's a DMPC, or Pet NPC, or whatever you want to call it. And at that point, you've compromised yourself as a DM.

  10. There's a lot of forcing the polemic going on in Alexis' OP and a few comments. It is part of the problem.

    "You're with me or against me," kind of thinking. It always fails.

  11. It's called a dialectic, runjikol.

    What does "it always fails" mean, anyway? Isn't that just a cheap, meaningless placeholder you've spat out in lieu of an argument?

    I find it odd that you make this accusation, since TWICE in this comments thread I've already admitted that I was in error ... regarding the metaphor. Apparently, the problem is I haven't admitted that I'm wrong to you. And I'm not going to.

    So you're absolutely right - you are with me, or you are against me. I won't pay your ego lipservice by feigning respect for your position when I haven't any.

  12. You're confusing a dialectic with a dichotomy.

  13. No, he's not.

    A dichotomy is splitting a whole into non-overlapping parts.

    A dialectic is a discussion meant to come to an agreement.

    I saw Alexis's post as the latter not the former, and I applaud it.

    YOU are asserting the Alexis says XYZ and therefore XYZ has to be right or wrong in total. That's a forced argument that just can't apply. I can assure you that Alexis's game DOES work - as does apparently yours.

    However I would rather play Alexis's game. I have a term for your DM "PC's" - they are called Mary Sues. When I see them in a game, I hunt them down and kill them. I can't stand DMs who can't take a step back and let the players play in the world he's created, set-up and referees.

    The DM is the way you visualize HIS world. He presents it to you as an actor. You enjoy it. An actor cannot sit in the audience AND perform. He/she must do one or the other. An actor so enamored in their own acting that they must watch is called a failure.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Leaving the metaphors of the game aside for a moment, let me further articulate my objections to GM PCs. I find it hard, extremely hard, to completely segregate my DM knowledge from actions I might take as a DM PC. Even if I undertake near zero proactive role playing and only handle the DM PC during combats I still know whatever surprises are in store. So instead of focusing on the combat, and I spending thought cycles making sure I am not accidentally using DM knowledge in the DM PC action, nor am I over compensating in the other direction of ignorance. As a DM my time is better spent focused on the overall game then side tracked on a DM PC and its complications.

    At its worst I have seen DM PCs save the party with unique knowledge the party could not have known (smells like dues ex machina). Another favorite is when the DM is frustrated that the party has not figured out their 'perfect clues' to solving the adventure, the DM PC in a perfectly condescending manner explains how simple the solution is. Now, I am not attributing this behavior to those posting here, but I have seen it all too often and the DMs doing it do not see the damage it does to the game.

    Why oh why are the players not competent enough to handle an NPC add to the party if they need another body? How can it be that the DM is so much better at managing the entire game AND the DM PC but the players as a group cannot handle 1 or 2 NPCs?

    I can see the concern regarding switching DMs in the same campaign. However, I would just role play it away and have the characters come & go. Just have them come back as the appropriate level when the time comes so there is no 'missing from adventure' penalty.

    In the real world professional judges recuse themselves over conflict of interest, I maintain that DMs should do the same.

  16. DM PCs are not a good idea. Even in a rotation game you could either share the PCs available, or phase your PC out for the session, as Barad suggested. Why no GMPCs?

    1. Recording. You spend more time recording, judging, and separating this GMPC than the other players. This is time that could be spent on your players.

    2. Knowledge. I know GMs can do it, but the ones I've played under cannot. The GMPC becomes a magic 8-ball, berated with questions of what to do next.

    3. The GM's Arsenal. NPCs are there for a reason. Use them to get your point across. If a group feels too small, then add NPCs. If combat feels weak, I add them in as background pieces, fighting their own battles alongside the PCs.

    4. Rules. In the games I've read through, the rules (to paraphrase) state that all gamers create a character, EXCEPT the host, who controls all other characters.

  17. I would agree with the simple statement that the DM is a player in the game. You do it for fun, right? (If you're not doing it for fun, then for god's sake, please stop!) But the DM is functionally distinct from the rest of the players. No DM should consider any NPC on a par with a PC.

  18. I find it hard, extremely hard, to completely segregate my DM knowledge from actions I might take as a DM PC.

    The absurdity of the idea is obvious, once you take into account imagination, creative thinking, intuition, etc. You could certainly decide what a so-called DMPC might know and do, but you can't actually Play a Character that way. That sort of two-dimensional construct would be nothing but a pale imitation of the real thing.

    The Players have their own type of agency, within the game. The DM has his. You can't mix those precepts, without distorting the game. A lot of DM's have the sort of visceral reaction to the idea of a "DMPC", which Alexis mentioned. With good reason. Amongst other things, it makes a joke of what we're striving for.

  19. Nothing like being bashed with a strawman. In this case how I GM. Why don't you tell me more about how I GM? You can't because you don't know. The assumption about my assertion on game-mechanics with influence between PC and NPC being on par (Ie. effects of a Charisma roll) shows it very clearly. There was never an intention of an agreement in Alexis' assumptive diatribe about how I GM. There was never any confirmation about how I run NPCs if they do have that parity of a charisma roll. Hence the construction of the strawman about how anyone who GM's with a parity of Charisma rolls is an avataristic user of NPC's. Which I am not (tried it 20 years ago and it was shit). There's many emotional buttons being pushed for in the original post and it's worked very well. This says a lot more about Alexis than it does about me.

  20. runjikol,

    I don't think that anyone here really gives a shit how you run your world. You made what I thought was a stupid statement and I explained, at length, why I thought it was a poor way to play. I remind you that it was you that advanced your methodologies, proudly - you can't fault us for finding fault with your arguments.

    At this point, you've wandered into the standard internet game, make up your own rules then scream in the sandbox when we're not following them. Good for you, have a cookie.

    But I'm just going to let you know now that your fifteen minutes are up, and that any further posts you make along this line will be deleted. I recognize that you will find it 'unfair,' that it will make me a 'coward' and so on ... but that is the internet game, too.

    ChicagoWiz, Barad, Dustin and James,

    Excellent points.

  21. You're so bad-ass I love you. :-)

  22. I've enjoyed the comments here. I've been running campaigns on and off since 1981 when I was a sophomore in High School. While I have my favorite NPC's they really are nothing more than agents to further the story and the enjoyment of the players. In fact, killing off some of the ones they enjoy the most provide some great story arcs. I tend to run adventures in Dragonquest as 1 part sandbox and the rest a mix of scripted play with plenty of room for improv. Anyway, thanks for the comments here.

  23. For the most part, I can agree that the DM should not use NPCs to make decisions for the PCs or otherwise interfere with their exploration of the DM's world, but to what extent is this detrimental to the game?

    For example, say the PCs are employed by a noble to search for a missing relative. The PCs are eventually led to an unremarkable camp in the forest where the noble's relative is being held captive. Should the situation result in combat and the captive relative decide to aid his/her rescuers by relaying knowledge of the layout, how many bandits there are, or where they keep helpful supplies, would this then turn the NPC into a destructive DMPC?

    Consider alternatively that the PCs would like to enlist the aid of a mercenary they met in the town's tavern. If the DM were to control the mercenary NPC as he/she helped the PCs rescue the noble's relative, does this NPC then qualify?

    It seems that so long as the NPC remains bound by a certain set of rules, the DM can prevent him/her from overshadowing the PCs and the game from deteriorating into a railroaded story session.

    Does anyone agree? Disagree?

    Should the DM allow NPCs to aid the PCs in combat/skill challenges, and if so, what demarcates helpful from destructive NPC actions?

    P.S. Excellent article. Very thought-provoking! Always looking for new ways to improve my game ;)

  24. Should the DM allow NPCs to aid the PCs in combat/skill challenges, and if so, what demarcates helpful from destructive NPC actions?

    At the point where the NPC turns from "support" into "main actor", where PC decision becomes non-meaningful - that's when it's destructive

  25. @Barad the Gnome: Early on you said "(smells like dues ex machina)." So a mechanical tax collector?

  26. @C'nor - sorry for the delayed reply. Oops! Typo and I don't even have dyslexia for an excuse. (which always reminds of this humor - dyslexics untie!)

    Mechanical tax collector.... now there is the seed of an adventure idea.

  27. First of all, I think that the GMPC threat goes in a different direction than the one I thought this would go. I feel like the two metaphors open up a whole conversation about what should be the true role of the GM, of which GMPCs are just one part.

    Secondly, I think that Runjikol's original statement which is quoted in the post, about PCs and NPCs being props in a game, has been largely ignored. In many ways, the average RPG is biased in favor of PCs for no other reason than the fact that they are PCs. This discrimination is written right into the rules, charisma checks being a prime example. If I make a badass diplomat, I can persuade a whole NPC town to do my bidding with a few rolls of the dice, but conversely, that whole town cannot use equivalent rules to convince me of anything. True, most games explain this away by saying that PCs are not ordinary. Exalted even goes so far as to call common folk "extras". I suspect that Runjikol's original question is, "Is this discrimination reasonable and fair?" Which I think is a question to ask on a campaign by campaign basis.

    Actually, I've thought it would be really fun to play a game sometime where all the players had to use wimpy NPCs, forcing them to take on adventures more appropriate for their lesser status. One game I'm in right now, we even began as level zero characters, at a lower than prescribed starting age. But I digress.

    Thirdly, I think that the clearest line between an NPC that has a voice and a GMPC is less about their actions in the game (though I do admit it is annoying when GMPCs seem to know things about the "surprise" up ahead, like always standing in the safest spot when a trap goes off).

    What erks me is how a GM talks about the GMPC out of game. NPCs are discussed with neutrality, weighing the pros and cons of various choices. GMPCs are discussed cautiously, the GM trying to advocate in its favor without appearing to. The difference is emotional and fully encased in the GMs heart.

    Just what came to mind.

  28. What I want to know is why a GMPC is ever required. Doesn't the GM have full power to adjust difficulty, on the fly if required, to make up for missing roles, PCs, or even just unimaginative players? (the end goal, of course, being "players having fun"). Is it just rigid thinking that prevents us from adapting rather than doing backflips to create a "balanced party" all the time?

    Don't get me wrong - I've tried using GMPCs, or even just playing PCs whose players didn't show up. I just agree, for all the reasons mentioned, that it's a bad idea. Even PLAYERS have trouble playing two characters as two separate beings, with separate goals and motivations! So... it doesn't come down to "should or shouldn't" but rather "what works best for most" (my interpretation of this comments thread).

    What is most enlightening about this blog and its comments is "how do others do things and look at the game". I think that's why I keep coming back.


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