For those who haven't heard the term "DMPC", it refers to a character controlled by the DM, who serves a much stronger role than a simple NPC. The DMPC acts almost as a player character, except that they're controlled by the DM. A lot of people don't like this idea, because they believe it steals away the spotlight from the players. Well, running the Mecha campaign has shed some new light, for me, on the DMPC issue.
My History with NPCs
Well, I haven't run a whole lot of games, so my history with NPCs hasn't been big. I started roleplaying with some freeform stuff on the Entmoot forums, an adventure that played around with Lord of the Rings canon, a lot. There wasn't really a GM proper, but I was the person with the most control over the game, since it was "my game". And I controlled a few different characters in it.
My next major experience running a game was Spark of Fae, where I had (most importantly) Fade, an NPC who took on a very large presence in the game, becoming the rival of one character, and a not-quite-antagonist of the story. Fade added some really cool aspects to the story, but he also starred opposite the players' characters.
Mecha: Introducing Nathan
And then comes the mech RPG. I have a few "bad guy" characters who were introduced, including an ambiguous and rather cruel character who wound up taking arms against the main characters. However, I wound up introducing not one but two major NPCs to the group, who both remained allied to them: Ty and Nathan.
Ty was sort of an annoying little kid, and he didn't see a whole lot of screen time anyhow. Just sort of on and off, and one of the characters developed an attachment to him. Nathan, on the other hand, was a good deal more major. He showed up in the very first session as the romantic interest of Kureaa's character Paige. We played out a scene, and then of course Nathan was nowhere to be found when the rebellion started up.
Then he did show up, in a most unexpected way that left a lot of questions for the players, including the fact that he was connected to the antagonists of the story. From there, he became a lightning rod for drama for at least a couple sessions. Once everything resolved, he got established as a sort of member of the group, mostly playing off of Paige.
Nathan the DMPC?
That's when an odd realization struck me. I was thinking about how fun it was to play out the character-developing and character-drama scenes with Kureaa, and then realized that I'd started treating Nathan almost like a player character. Granted, he's not as prevalent as most of the main characters. He doesn't really interject his own thoughts into the stream of play (usually), nor does he get scenes except in relation to other characters, usually in relation to Paige.
What really struck me is that there's a pivotal advantage that he'll be able to bestow on the group, later on, by the simple merit of his backstory. At the same time, he doesn't really stand out in any other way, as far as in-game advantages go. A lot of them have been far more impressive in combat, and he's no good in a hand-to-hand fight. Though on the other hand, he had a fairly significant moment of "stand up and be a man" character development, so he really is in some ways acting like he's...my character, specifically.
Good or Bad?
At the same time, nobody in the group seems to mind Nathan. When it comes down to the basics, I think that the biggest pitfall of a DMPC is to stand in for the entire party, to replace player characters. That's no fun. If a DMPC solves a problem for the characters, they don't get to do anything, and they render the characters useless.
But that doesn't mean that NPCs need to be tossed to the smallest possible roles. You can use DMPCs to poke and prod the players, to act as "lightning rods" for problems and situations to arise, and to give the characters a little bit of leverage against an otherwise impossible situation, their one shot to get to the enemy.
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