Here Comes Tagalong: Henchmen, Allies, and DMPCs

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You know what? I really DO listen. I find myself screaming this at people a lot, but they don’t always hear me because they are too busy running off their own stupid mouths to hear me. And yet, no one believes me. Even when I can repeat every word back to them verbatim in a mocking tone, they still don’t believe that I was actually listening. I HAVE TO listen. How could I make fun of the stupid things people say if I don’t listen first? And, as I keep pointing out to my girlfriend, how would I know to correct you when you’re wrong if I didn’t listen first. And then she slaps the s$&% out of me. I just don’t understand people.

For example, two weeks ago, I posted an article explaining what an NPC really is and why so many GMs suck at creating an engaging world. And, apart from the usual slew of people who argued with me and then mistook me not AGREEING with their stupidity for not LISTENING to their stupidity, I also noticed an upsurge in general interest about NPCs in the game and the different ways they can be used. And several questions kept popping up. So, while I was initially going to wait a couple of weeks and toss off a MEGA article about NPC building, I realized that people wanted something a little different. Many of the questions that came up were about specific TYPES of NPCs. People wanted to know about building villains, patrons, companions, and even romantic interests.

Now, right now, I’m knee deep in prep for GenCon and the usual summer runaround. And I’ve been cranking out a lot of LONG, DENSE articles. And I’ve noticed an uptick in critiques for my length as well as an uptick in questions about NPCs for various roles. So, let’s try something a little different. This will be the first of several SHORTER articles about specific types of NPCs. I’ll intersperse them with other, longer articles, so we should have a few interesting weeks about creating engaging and unique characters to populate your world. Sound good?

Note: It didn’t turn out to be shorter. It’s like I can’t f$&%ing NOT write 5,000 words. At least I’m consistent. – The Angry GM

I hope so, because I’m doing it anyway. Of course, if people don’t like it. I WILL listen. So let me know.

So, this week, we’re going to explore one of the NPC roles that I’ve gotten NUMEROUS questions about, not just in the last few weeks, but actually for several months. Several of you will see things resembling answers to Ask Angry questions you’ve sent me in this. So, consider this your answer. We’re talking about Companions, Cohorts, Allies, Hirelings, Henchmen, and DMPCS. We’re talking about Tagalongs.

Here Comes Tagalong

When I was a kid, I had a children’s book called Here Comes Tagalong. It was a book about an a%&hole older brother whose younger brother didn’t have any friends of his own. So, the younger brother followed the older brother and his friends around. And annoys the f$&% out of them. And the younger brother gets frustrated because he never wins any of the games they play. Finally, the younger brother finds friends his own age. And he can beat them at every game. And everyone is happy. Until the younger brother’s younger brother starts tagging along with him. Presumably, that was a sequel hook, but I don’t know if they ever made another one. I was like six years old for f$&%’s sake.

Now, this book was a f$&%ing mess. I’m not even sure why my parents bought it for me. It was basically a book used to tell a middle child to leave your siblings alone and go find your own things to do. We could dress it up and say it’s about helping a middle child to actualize their identity and not live in the shadow of an older sibling. But what it’s really about is never following another clique if you can be the queen bee of your own circle of sycophants who can’t compete with you.

Why my parents bought it for me, I’ll never know. Because I didn’t give a f$&% about the protagonist. I was the oldest of three children in my family, and with my charisma, I was always the center of my own weird social circle. And both of my younger sisters had ZERO interest in following me around. Hell, my one sister was so good at actualizing her own identity that she purposely mispronounced our own last name so no one would know we were related.

The point is, no one likes a tagalong – someone who isn’t really a part of a social circle, but who keeps following it around. And that is a lesson that repeatedly gets bandied about in D&D circles. After all, that’s why the phrase DMPC even exists. And why it’s always uttered with such scorn and derision. Because no one likes a tagalong.

Now, the only reason I told that story is to explain my personal phrase: The Tagalong NPC. The Tagalong NPC is ANY NPC who travels with the party during their adventures. That includes the NPC ally or friend who joins the party and fights alongside them. That includes the companions and cohorts. And, hell, that can even include pets. Because, as we learned two weeks ago, ANYTHING is an NPC if it makes decisions based on consistent motivations.

But MOST GMs actually divide Tagalongs into two different types. First, there’s what we’ll call “henchbeings.” Those are the acceptable kind that no one complains about. Then, there’s what other people call “DMPCs” and I call “allies.” Those are the terrible kind most people hate. Because they are stupid.

What’s a Tagalong and Why is Tagalong Great?!

So, what makes an NPC a Tagalong? What makes a Tagalong a Henchbeing? What makes a Tagalong an Ally? And what makes Henchbeings okay and Allies terrible? Let’s settle down and start trying to hammer out some definitions so we can get to the bottom of this and then figure out how to use them in our game.

Apart from who is controlling the character’s brain, the major difference between an NPC and a PC is one of screen time. NPCs are extras. Usually. They drift into the story now and then, have a scene with the PCs, and then vanish. When the NPC leaves, they go off camera. Because the camera is always squarely on the PCs. That ISN’T, by the way, the same as saying the story is only ABOUT the PCs. But that’s a distinction for another time. I’ll save it for when the metagaming fight dies down and I want to start a new s$&%storm.

But if an NPC spends multiple scenes with the PCs – that is, if the NPC travels with the PCs for a time – the result is that the NPC gets more screen time. The NPC is always available to interact with the PCs. In fact, the NPC often insinuates himself into the PCs’ dealings by virtue of standing right f$&%ing there. That is to say, the NPC is involved in all the scenes the PCs are involved in. In fact, if you were watching a movie of the game, you might not even be able to tell the difference between the PC and the NPC. In effect, the NPC is part of the party.

THAT is a Tagalong NPC.

Now, let’s put aside distinctions between types of NPCs for a moment because people can get really stupidly emotional about Tagalong NPCs. Let’s just look at the basic idea of an NPC that hangs out with the party enough to be a part of their interactions and just how awesome that is.

That’s right, I said awesome. Because Tagalong NPCs offer a lot of awesome possibilities. First of all, Tagalong NPCs are unique as NPCs. Because the PCs interact with them regularly, the PCs can learn a lot more about them then they can other NPCs. So a well-developed Tagalong with strong motivations, hopes, dreams, flaws, and fears is proof of how ALIVE the world really is. It creates a very strong illusion that the world is full of real people and that the world of the game could actually BE a real world somewhere in the universe. As I noted two weeks ago, this is one of the most important things NPCs do because all good stories are about people.

But because of the ongoing interaction, Tagalong NPCs can also do something else most NPCs don’t. They can grow, develop, and change. They can have character arcs. Which is something else real people and characters in real stories do. And most of those developments and changes are driven by the PCs actions. In one game I ran, the PCs united with a dwarven mother to rescue a relative. In the beginning, the dwarf had been staunchly “dwarves first, dwarves will solve their own problems.” But when the predominantly elven and human PC party came to her aid, she was willing to work with them. Bitterly. But she was willing to take any help she could get. As the dwarf traveled with them, the party took their typical slow, dawdling, bickering approach, retreating for frequent rests, and dragging their feet. The dwarf grew increasingly bitter and argumentative, blaming the elves in the group. “Elves never act when they can debate instead.” The party f%&$ed up, tripped an alarm, and retreated. And by the time they returned, the prisoner was dead. And the dwarf blamed the party and became a bitter, racist ongoing antagonist. She never believed the party was really giving their all to help her lost relative.

Alternatively, the party could have healed a major rift between the dwarves of that specific town and the humans and elves. Too bad players are just f$&% ups.

See, the party COULD have just offered to rescue the lost dwarf, failed, returned to town, told the dwarves they had failed, and then the dwarves could have gone berserk. But that would have felt far less organic. The gradual change in the already bitter dwarf’s disposition as the mission got worse because of the party’s lack of teamwork and cautious approach allowed them to see how they had changed the world.

Beyond that, an NPC can provide a source of conflict. In another campaign I ran, the party was trying to help a mine owner clear himself of responsibility for an accident that had gotten two miners killed. The sheriff wanted to hold the miner responsible. The party agreed to investigate and both the sheriff and the mine owner tagged along. In the end, the party felt the miner WAS partially responsible but that he didn’t deserve to be punished for what was ultimately an accident. The miner was a coward, trying to shirk any responsibility and make a quick buck. The sheriff was noble and stalwart, but also a bit overzealous and devoted to the letter of the law over the spirit of mercy. As the party fought through a haunted mine, they had to deal with the growing conflict.

But Tagalong NPCs also provide other benefits. Mechanically, they allow the GM to plant extra skills, tools, and information in the party. The Tagalong can become a method for delivering exposition. For providing hints. The Tagalong is also a soft voice. So, for example, if the party wants to do something that might have far reaching and disastrous consequences and the GM wants to warn the players of the implications of their choices, the Tagalong provides an in-game way of showing them some of the unforeseen consequences so they can make an INFORMED choice.

Now, I know – I f$&%ing KNOW – that there are GMs who are going to be furious at me for suggesting that a Tagalong NPC can – and SHOULD – be used as an occasional mouthpiece for the GM. It’s all just a little too meta, isn’t? Too impure? Well, knock it off, f$&%ers. Let’s get one thing straight: the players only know what the GM TELLS them or what the story SHOWS them. It is the GM’s f$&%ing JOB to constantly feed the PCs information. And TELLING via DIRECT NARRATION is the most boring f$&%ing way to do it.

GOOD storytellers weave exposition into the narrative. That’s why there’s always lines of dialogue in movies and games clarifying things that the characters probably already know. It allows the writer to communicate with the audience. Well, in an RPG, the protagonists and the audience are the SAME people. So if the audience doesn’t know it, neither does the protagonist.

Tagalongs are GREAT tools for sharing exposition, allowing the PCs to constantly interact with the world, building engagement, inserting non-violent conflict, rounding out party skills, and providing the party with needed tools. I use them ALL THE F$&%ING TIME.

Henchbeings vs. Allies

So, let’s talk about the two major different types of Tagalongs. Henchbeings and allies. The distinction is actually a little trickier than you might think. And it has nothing to do with skill and power level.

A henchbeing is, in some way, subservient to the party. They are pets, hirelings, cohorts, apprentices, assistants, and other reasonably subordinate beings. Animal companions, companions, and henchmen are the most common. But they can also include bodyguards, NPCs the party has to escort somewhere to perform a specific task, and so on. There are two major things that make a henchbeing a henchbeing. First, the henchbeing will GENERALLY follow the orders of the PC or otherwise won’t act independently in most situations. Second, the party generally CHOOSES to bring the henchbeing along, usually because they’ve hired or conscripted them. Of course, some henchbeings have been offered to the party or foisted off on them as part of the quest, but the party then usually accepts the henchbeing.

An ally is someone who works with the party because of common goals or interests, but it is not subservient to the party. They act independently. While they MIGHT take suggestions or orders from the party, they will ignore, argue with, or countermand orders that conflict with their goals. The most common form of ally is the dreaded DMPC, which we’ll discuss in a moment. Often, an ally ends up in the party organically. That is to say, the party and the ally agree they have common goals and agree to work together. Sometimes the ally will offer to work with the party. Sometimes the PCs will invite the ally to join with them. But there’s almost always a sense that the PCs and the ally AGREE to work together due to some common motivation.

Now, a LOT of GMs make a big thing about how powerful the tagalong is and use that as an identifying feature. A henchbeing might generally be expected to be weaker than the party or – at the very least – a specialist with a limited skillset. An ally is generally expected to be as powerful as any other member of the party. This just isn’t true. A ranger’s animal companion – in some editions of D&D at least – is an equal to the ranger herself. A bodyguard might even be a more skilled combatant than some members of the party. Allies can be weaker, stronger, or on the same power level. It doesn’t matter. But we’ll get to when it DOES matter.

The Dreaded DMPC

So, let’s address the elephant in the room for just a minute. Tagalong NPCs are really, REALLY great and I use them a lot. But, for f$&%ing years, I’ve listened to countless GMs lecture about never using DMPCs. A DMPC is an ally tagalong that joins the party for extended periods of time and is equal to or superior to the other PCs in capabilities. In effect, they are PCs except that they are controlled by the GM. The term DMPC refers to the idea the GM has included the NPC SOLELY to give the GM a character to play in the game too. This is derided as a bad thing.

First of all, there is nothing INHERENTLY wrong with the idea of a DMPC. Even the complaint that the GM is “just including the GMPC to have someone to play on the side of the PCs” is a pretty f$&%ing stupid complaint. So what? Oh my f$&%ing God, the GM wants a character ON the team instead of always OPPOSING the team. The GM might even have FUN doing so. Well, we have to put a stop to that crap. We can’t have GMs HAVING FUN. SILLY RABBIT, FUN IS PLAYERS! Give me a f$&%ing break.

A GMPC – done the right way – is actually great fun for the GM and the players. I’ve used them for years, especially in campaigns with a lot of dungeon crawling and action and not a whole lot of interaction. Because, again, they give the PCs the chance to bring along a little bit of the world to interact with. And they give the GM organic ways for the GM to provide information that the players and the characters sorely need. In moral arguments, for example, the GMPC can represent the view of the world. That is to say, the players might be about to do something they don’t realize much of the world would consider evil. The GM COULD say that, but it’s more natural in the story for the GMPC to raise objections.

GMPC – and other allies – can be some of the most memorable characters in the game. As long as the GM doesn’t f$&% them up. My past players – the ones that are still talking to me – remember ally NPCs in the same breath that they remember the PCs. Wistfully and fondly.

So, let’s not have any arguments about “never ever using a GMPC.” Because I’m going to spend the rest of the article telling you what to do right and wrong so you won’t NEED to listen to dumba$& advice like “never have a GMPC because players rule and GMs drool.”

A Tagalong is an NPC

Tagalong NPCs are NPCs. This is really super important. And if you’re thinking “duh, of course they are. NPC is right in the name,” then you don’t f$&%ing get what I’m saying. Here’s the deal.

Remember two weeks ago when I said that for NPCs to feel like living things, they need to have things like motivations and goals and fears and flaws and strengths and weaknesses and desires and all that other s$&% that separates robots from you humans. I mean US humans. Hahaha. What a funny mistake. I’m a human. Shut up.

A Tagalong NPC is going to have a LOT of f$&%ing screen time. They are going to be in ALL the scenes. You can get away with a shopkeeper with one fun quirk and call it a day because that shopkeeper has to be in ONE scene with NO conflict. But that Tagalong is going to be around ALL THE TIME. So that Tagalong better be a human f$&%ing being. Even if they are an elf or a halfling or a wolf or a robot. You need to know what they want, why they are in the party, what lines they won’t cross, what they fear, what they desire, and what their favorite f$&%ing color is.

Most important, you have to role-play them. That is to say, they can’t act like preprogrammed combat robots. They have to make decisions. And those decisions have to be based on what they want and fear and desire and so on. They have to make decisions like any other PC; like any other human.

Now, this is where the difference between henchbeings and allies is important. And where it becomes really clear. A henchbeing is like an employee. They will often do things they don’t want to do. And you’ve also got to understand why and figure out how far they are willing to go. What is the henchbeing getting out of the relationship? Why is the henchbeing there? Is it for money? Duty? Loyalty? Servitude? Enslavement? Hero worship? Imprisonment? Fear? It doesn’t matter the reason. The point is a henchbeing has something inside of them that makes them willing to follow the PCs and do things they might not want to do. And YOU have to decide when the line gets crossed. And how the henchbeing responds. A slave or pet might simply try to run away if abused. An apprentice or fan or groupie might resign in disgust with a cool speech about how they lost a hero that day. A loyal follower might plead. A mercenary might sell-out the party or rob them or just walk away.

On the surface, it seems like henchbeings should be easier because they are subservient to the party. But that actually makes them harder. When you’re playing a Tagalong Ally, you’re just in the mindset of making role-played, human decisions because that’s how they decide everything. But when you’re playing a Tagalong Henchbeing, you tend to just make them mindless slaves of the party. And that dehumanizes them. And if you dehumanize a Tagalong, they cease being an NPC. Even if they are a wolf or a dog or a war elephant or a faerie dragon.

The point is, any Tagalong has to be an NPC. So get used to playing that thing 24-7. If you’re not ready to role-play continuously while you’re doing everything else you need to do to run a game, don’t use a Tagalong.

Mary Sues and Marty Stus

Now, let’s talk about when Tagalong NPCs go bad (and when they actually don’t). Let’s talk about Mary Sues and Marty Stus. Those are male and female versions of the same thing. The term “Mary Sue” originated in the fanfiction community. Say you’re a fanfiction writer and you’re writing a story set in the Harry Potter universe. And you introduce a new original character of your very own. She’s a Ravenclaw, the smartest in her year. Actually, even though she’s only in her third year, she’s so good at magic she can do magic that most sixth-years can’t do. She’s even doing nonverbal spells and can produce a corporeal patronus. She gets into a duel with none other than Hermione Granger and bests her easily. And then does a better bat bogey curse than Ginny Weasley and Harry Potter falls in love with her. But then she has to transfer to a new school when her parents move to Africa to study the catoblepas and the mkole mbembe and that’s why she’s never in any of the books. The end.

That’s a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character that the author is so attached to that she outshines everyone else in the story. Most – but not all – Mary Sues are a form of author surrogate and wish fulfilment. The writer creates a character to represent their own fantasies and desires. But Mary Sues don’t have to be author surrogates. The term has broadened a great deal.

Say, for example, you and your buddy have been playing a hot-shot pilot smuggler and his mechanic and bodyguard buddy. You have a cool ship that is actually an old junker, but you love the ship. You’ve had it for years. You’ve souped it up. And you know it inside and out. You’re a crack pilot. Your buddy is a great mechanic. And your ship is a part of you.

Now imagine that the GM foists off an NPC on you. And in one adventure, she proves to be a better pilot than you, a better mechanic than your buddy, saves both of your lives, and can fly your ship – that’s she’s never flown – better than you and even get your modifications to work better than you ever could. How do you feel? Kind of upstaged, right? The things that defined you in the story have all been supplanted by this upstart new character that came out of nowhere.

Mary Sues and Marty Stus are extremely capable characters that make the players feel like their own place in the story is being supplanted. Because that’s what Mary Sues and Marty Stus do, they co-opt the story. It is all about them. And because most Mary Sues and Marty Stus have few flaws or weaknesses – or none at all – they are pretty boring characters to boot.

The problem is we want our characters to feel human. And part of being human means being flawed and making mistakes and failing sometimes. We want our heroes to succeed, of course. We want them to win. But not at the expense of their humanity.

Here’s the thing: players value their spotlight time and their role in the story. Specifically, players like to have wheelhouses. They like to put a little line around a certain part of the story and say “okay, this is my spotlight, this is my thing.” That’s why, when you get a group of players together and have them start generating characters, one of the things you’ll notice is that they naturally and purposely DON’T overlap on things like classes, skills, and party roles. And when two people discover they both want to be clerics or the party talker or the guy with the big two-handed weapon, there’s a lot of negotiation that happens between them.

And THIS is where the DMPC becomes dangerous. Because the DMPC is basically a GM surrogate – and there is NOTHING wrong with that – they are prone to becoming a Mary Sue or Marty Stu. Overly powerful, barging in on everyone else’s wheelhouse, and being annoyingly flawless.

But it isn’t just DMPCs. Any Tagalong NPC can become a Mary Sue or Marty Stu if they spend too much time in other people’s spotlights and have no flaws. Hell, I’ve had allies hit Mary Sue status just by virtue of the fact that I had a really, REALLY good run of die rolls for a few weeks of action scenes and stole a lot of kills. Sometimes, Mary Sue isn’t your fault.

The balm against Mary Sues and Marty Stus is actually pretty easy though. First of all, make sure your NPCs are fairly specialized. Just like most PCs have a role or archetype or skillset that sort of defines them, make sure your NPC has a descriptor that identifies them. “The combat medic,” “the con artist,” “the wilderness guide,” “the stealthy spy,” whatever. And make sure that role doesn’t overlap with someone else’s. In short, make sure any Tagalong you put in the party has a spotlight of their own that isn’t infringing on someone else’s.

Except spotlight infringement doesn’t HAVE TO be a problem. It’s okay to duplicate a role once in a while to create a strong friendship or alliance. One monk in a past group had a rival-turned-romantic-interest join the party as an Ally Tagalong for a while. It was a really interesting, fun dynamic and the player monk built a lot of synergies with the ally monk. Until she got killed and then it turned out she was a doppelganger spy. Oops.

Like any other rule, the spotlight infringement CAN be broken, but you’d better have good reason. Hell, even the Mary Sue rule can be broken. After all, you can purposely add a Tagalong NPC into the group that the party WON’T like to create challenge or conflict. I’ve added purposeful Marty Stus to the group – powerful allies that helped the party a lot that the party grew to resent as they gradually became a Ziggy Stardust, stealing the party’s thunder and developing a huge ego. That NPC eventually became a rival antagonist, competing against the party. The PCs and the NPC wouldn’t murder each other, of course. Neither was evil. But they did try to beat the other, humiliate the other, and ruin the other’s reputation.

The second balm against Mary Sue or Marty Stu is to give an NPC a weakness or flaw that will come up periodically and clearly handicap them. A recent elf ally in one of my games was slow to make decisions. Really slow. He dragged out party discussions with lots of deliberation and forced the party to basically override him. And sometimes he would freeze up over tense decisions. In actual combat, his training took over and he was fine. But if two people were in danger in battle, he wouldn’t know who to help first. Any fear, weakness, or negative personality trait that occasionally gets the NPC into trouble the party has to deal with qualifies. And the more powerful your NPC or the more spotlights the NPC is intruding on, the more weaknesses you need.

Handling Tagalongs at the Table

And that’s basically it. Tagalong NPCs are really great and super useful and GMs should use them freely. The GM has to understand why they exist, what role they fill, and detail them so they can be role-played effectively. But apart from avoiding the dreaded Mary Sue or Marty Stu, there’s really nothing to worry about. But, no discussion of Tagalongs would be complete without a quick discussion about how to handle them at the table. And that comes down to three quick pieces of advice.

The Tagalong Sheet

Here’s the deal: it is impossible to fully detail an NPC as a living, breathing human being BEFORE the game starts. The moment a Tagalong joins the party – either because you planned it or because the players hired it or because suddenly an organic relationship developed and you or the players decided the Tagalong would tag along – the moment an NPC joins the group, take out a piece of paper and write their name and any details you know about the Tagalong. Race, class, gender, physical description, favorite flavor of ice cream, whatever. You might be doing this on the fly or you might be able to do this before the game, depending on how the Tagalong ends up in the party. If you can, put the NPC stats on that sheet too. If you can’t do that right away, do it later.

Now, keep that sheet handy. Because every time you “discover” a new thing about that NPC, you write it down. Say, the PCs are talking around the campfire and you suddenly volunteer an anecdote about how the NPC’s sister died of rabies that you just made up on the spot because its relevant to the adventure. Write that s$&% down. Say you suddenly decide that the NPC is afraid of undead. Write that down. That’ll help you remember it.

Playing The NPC Card

Now, there are two problems that frequently occur with Tagalong NPCs. First, sometimes the players get confused about whether the NPC is talking or whether the GM is talking. Second, sometimes, the GM forgets the NPC exists. It’s like Vaarsuvius’ raven familiar from when Order of the Stick was still funny and worth reading. In these two comics, we see the raven popping into and out of existence as the party remembers it exists. These two problems become especially tricky when there are MULTIPLE Tagalongs in the party (yes, you can do that too).

Whenever I have Tagalongs in the party, I write their name (and a quick descriptor) on an index card and leave it there on the table where the players and I can all see it. If I’m using miniatures, I leave the miniature next to the card when we’re not using it. When the NPC speaks, I will either hold up the card or touch or point to the card as I speak. It’s a simple way of reminding everyone that the NPC exists and indicating when I’m speaking AS the NPC.

Who Controls the Tagalong

And now we come to the difficult question. At least, a lot of GMs MAKE IT difficult. It isn’t really. It’s a stupid thing to get worked up about. But that’s GMs for you. How do you run the Tagalong at the table? Who controls the Tagalong?

First of all, EVERY TAGALONG IS AN NPC. And that means YOU HAVE TO ROLE-PLAY THEM. That means, no matter what else you decide to do, you – the GM – are ACTING as that NPC. In interactions, you ARE the NPC. You are ALWAYS the NPC’s brain. Even if the NPC is a class feature like a f$&%ing familiar or animal companion. Remember, the NPC represents a piece of the world that the players can interact with at any time. YOU are the world. Never, EVER relinquish that.

But then comes the question: who rolls dice for the Tagalong and who controls them in combat? And the answer is easy: it doesn’t really f$&%ing matter. You can hand over their stats to another player and they can roll the dice for them. You can even let the player make their decisions and take their turns in combat. Or you can do it yourself.

Me? I go back and forth. I do all sorts of different things. Henchbeing Allies, I generally turn over to a player to run in combat and to make die rolls. But if the Henchbeing is also a plot Macguffin (like someone the party has to bodyguard in an escort quest) or if the Henchbeing might not be totally loyal, I keep it for myself. Allies, I often keep to myself, but not always. My deciding factor is usually how independent the NPC is. If the NPC will generally follow the PC’s orders or will just always take the tactically best action, I hand it to a player. If the NPC is likely to do something different from what the PCs would want, I keep the NPC to myself.

But, even if I DO hand over the NPC to a player to control, I always stand ready to veto any action the NPC takes. See, no matter who is rolling dice or controlling the NPC, that NPC is still MY character. Because they are a part of the world and the world is MY character. So, if a player chooses an action MY character would never take, I step in and take control.

PS: It is a f$&%ing myth that letting the players control the Tagalong makes them feel more engaged or less resentful or makes the NPC take any less table time or prevents the NPC from stealing the spotlight. I don’t care what any other GM says. Engagement comes from the NPC being a relatable human. The rest comes from not creating a Mary Sue or Marty Stu. So chill the f$&% out.

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30 thoughts on “Here Comes Tagalong: Henchmen, Allies, and DMPCs

  1. I use DMPCs to reduce the fidelity of the signals i’d give out. If I give any exposition the PCs would treat it as law/word of God. After all it came from the DM! But if an NPC says it, they are doing it because they believe it to be true. Might not be. An NPC that says “Trust me” might not be believed, or “We can defeat that dragon”. I stole the idea from Matt Colville. He has a good video detailing Information and how to give it to your PCs.

  2. Damn this is so good to read. I’ve used many many DMPC’s over the years and have always felt guilty about it personally (though I’ve never had PC complaints and they often tell me they keep thinking so-and-so is just part of the party). I’m really glad you chose this topic to discuss. It’s one I think many DMs don’t want to get into. Your so right about flaws for DMPCs being key. I had a blast last year, for a couple sessions, when one PC befriended and young Mage who happened to be beholden to the local thieves guild. He had spells and items, but the guildmaster owned all of it, so his descisions to help the party were always balanced by his loyalty to the woman who actually payed for his training and his subsequent career. And the more of his magic they utilized, the more payment his master would require apon his return. All the rest of the party didn’t like or trust him, and he knew it. One night he got pretty drunk and let off on em for treating him badly even tho he helped as much as he could… They felt bad. Alas, next morning he died via giant slug acid. They haven’t forgotten him tho, and even commemorated him with a little memorial in their guild hall… Best part is, next time they go to that town, they have to explain how they lost one of the thieves guilds most valuable assets, and how the cost can be recovered… But I’m rambling. Great great article angry!

  3. “Hell, my one sister was so good at actualizing her own identity that she purposely mispronounced our own last name so no one would know we were related”

    How do you mispronounce “gm”?

    • I dunno – yeah she can do anything she puts her mind to, but I’m preferring her to the whiny Luke and bratty Anakin 🙂

    • Wait, I haven’t seen Star Wars. Was he talking about SW and not about those who share the Angry DNA?

  4. Order of the stick is still excellent. Also you mentioned companions and what not but it seems like they are a special case because they are integral to a PC. What do you do if the Eidolon, or animal companion starts to out shine the other PCs. Do you as a GM determine there motivations and flaws or leave that up to the player they are attached to.

    • OOTS is now too wordy, not particularly funny, and the time between episodes is too long to maintain continuity. Which is a bummer, because it was good.

    • If an animal companion is outshining a full PC, then you either misunderstood where companions get their stats from (not the normal creature), misunderstood the Boon Companion feat, or the player is bad at the game and probably deserves to be outshined by a dog. In my humble opinion.

  5. And then sometimes the players FORCE you to keep the quest-giver in the party as a GMPC. (They even really liked him, despite him not being all that flawed. Go figure.)

    That was, in retrospect, my own fault. I should’ve talked with each player so each character would have a reason to care about the quest in its own right. But lack of PC motivation was only half the problem. The other half, which has been recurring for me and which I’ve never figured out how to solve, is a lack of player desire to lead the party or otherwise drive the story. I’ve often felt like I’m running games for parties without any protagonists, just multiple flavors of ally and sidekick.

    • The lack of a PC willing to lead is usually a result of how they’ve been “trained” to play. If the GM continues to drive the story without anyone stepping up, then no one will bother to step up. Which means that the GM feels more obligated to drive things, and so on and so forth.

      The best way to get the PCs to drive the story is to just leave the story undriven until one of the PCs does something. It’s always important, but it’s especially important when retraining them, that there’s a clear goal for them to pursue and ways to do so.

      Of course, some people are just timid and unable to lead. That’s just their personality, and there’s nothing to do about it. If you have a full group of those then they’re probably fine not driving the story themselves.

      • I’ve tried just leaving the story undriven but with a clear goal. I generally just end up with players staring blankly, especially at times when I expect characters to be discussing the situation and coming to a conclusion or decision. A lack of clear paths to pursuing that goal is something I’ve considered as a potential problem, but I’m not sure how to make some kinds of paths clear. You can’t really turn something abstract like comparing notes and evidence and discussing theories into a yellow brick road, can you? Even handing a group a cool headquarters on a silver platter with “BRAINSTORM HERE” engraved on it didn’t help.

        • “A lack of clear paths to pursuing that goal is something I’ve considered as a potential problem, but I’m not sure how to make some kinds of paths clear.” Remember that when you try to be subtle, the players get muddled.

          I recently started up a new group, so I’ve had to train some players this way. Running Way of the Wicked, an evil campaign for Pathfinder, for the record.

          I spent the first 3 sessions teaching the players that the direct path will usually get them destroyed in my game. The enemies were legitimately just too strong to fight head-on, but when e.g. one of them is a Paladin and the other was a group of undead, it’s pretty easy to just turn them against each other and prey on the weakened winner. Approach with a plan and the stats won’t matter.

          Then I followed that lesson up by presenting their goal to them as plainly as possible. There’s a keep guarding the drawbridge that your army wants to cross. Destroy the keep and open the way. Good luck btw, since you’re level 4 and the keep is cumulatively a CR 16 or something. Hope you remembered not to attack head on! Zero ambiguity, super clear goal, but no known methods yet.

          Since they didn’t know what to do immediately, they just went to the nearby town and went to the inn. And from there, I started absolutely PILING ON the leads. They picked up that some dwarves staying at the inn were doing construction work at the keep. They met one of the captains there who had a particular patrol route, and they learned a spot he always visits on his patrol. They learned that the wizard was keeping something secret in his lab. They learned that there were a bunch of servants being hired and fired all the time at the keep. They learned that there was a secret passage from the inn to the keep. They learned that the town’s alchemist was doing some really shady stuff at night. And freaking more. So many angles for them to start tearing the keep down.

          I won’t bore you with how it ended up, but I feel like the examples above are important. They’re extremely obvious opportunities. Insultingly so, almost. But by me presenting them with a goal and then dozens of ways to go forward, they had to pick their own path. After following the obvious leads, they were used to driving their game well enough to make their own plans, and are doing things that I never thought of.

          That’s my 2 cents on the matter anyways. They need a clear goal (preferably a pretty long-term goal so that they can settle into it), and then a good number of super obvious starting points. Once they’re moving, players can usually keep up the momentum, but starting is the hardest part of any large endeavor, and you really need to just make that part obnoxiously easy.

          • While there is some good theory for other people’s purposes in here, it doesn’t strike me as particularly applicable to the kinds of games I’m interested in running — or playing in. Thanks anyway.

        • I have definitely been in your shoes, man. I tried quite a few times to give players the choice of what to do or where to go in an effort for them to forge their own path in the game world, but my players are always pretty obstinant about doing anything on their own.

          Giving players lots of leads on how to solve an issue is a good idea though. Even though I’ve sort of resorted to linear task-driven games, the tasks are usually nonlinear and my players have gotten pretty good at coming up with their own ideas.

          In one situation, the party was tasked with finding and recovering a stolen item. They were given a single lead, which branched into many different leads (the players ran off on a few red herrings) which ended with the players being pointed at the direction of a particular NPC who was a clothing mogul.

          After casing out his house, they decided they would instead completely avoid the house, go back to the ruins where the item was taken, and spread rumors that they found another valuable item at the ruins. They then set traps, hired a NPC scout/sniper, ambushed the people who came to investigate and used magic to interrogate one of the survivors about the location of the item they were looking for. This was completely outside my list of possible solutions but I liked the idea and felt it could work, so I let them do it.

          Try encouraging players to find out of the box solutions to problems!

  6. FINALLY someone who understands that GMPC isn’t a dirty word! I’ve been running one for years with my group; once upon a time it was our buddy’s character, but he passed away and we didn’t want to just casually McLean the character.

  7. I’m in much the same boat as Pteryx, in that I absolutely detest running DMPCs and other ally NPCS (in combat, at least, the roleplaying part is fine, though its still pretty trying if they are just constantly around), but my players always want to bring along reinforcements or try to convince random friendly NPCs to join up with them.

    My rule with any ally NPC, which I state directly to players who try to bring them along, is the following: “I hate playing allies during combat, so either one of you controls him/her and keeps track of their stats (with the caveat that I can step in and take control whenever I feel like it), or accept that your new party member is probably either going to die very quickly or run away screaming when things get too dangerous.”

    If the story or encounter demands some variety of ally combatants (ie. a fight in a crowded place or the PCs stumbling on people being robbed or bad guys attacking somewhere with guards, etc), I generally treat them more like buffs/debuffs than actual characters, and work out the (general) outcome of their contribution to the fight prior to the session. Their statblocks, for lack of a better word, will literally be something like “Guard 1 hits Orc 4 for 5 damage in Round 1, misses in Round 2, hits for 10 damage in Round 3. Killed by Orc 4 in Round 3 if PCs don’t kill/distract Orc 4.” Guard 1 is essentially just a status condition afflicting Orc 4, dealing it 15 damage and preventing it from attacking the PCs for three rounds.

    With everything else a DM has to keep track of during a game, I’ve never quite understood why some want to add the extra headache of a PC they have to control too. In my experience, there are few things more tedious (and sad) than more or less rolling attacks against *yourself*. Honestly, I sometimes wish I didn’t mind running ally NPCs – as Angry points out above, having someone tag along with the party can be a godsend for exposition and the like – but it just drives me up the wall. Even roleplaying them can get old pretty quickly, since unless they’re literally mute, they generally need to have some sort of role in party decisions and conversations, and if they’re a genuine member of the party, they are just constantly *there*.

    Hell, in the campaign I’m currently running, the players had a hobgoblin child they more or less enslaved (who spoke virtually no Common, and didn’t take part in fights) and a newly hatched owlbear that basically just sleeps in a makeshift baby-carrier type thing one of the PCs wears, and even that proved frustrating (not least because I have to continually remember that they exist!) – I wound up making the hobgoblin run away at the first opportunity, while the owlbear just sleeps and eats and sometimes runs around trying to catch tiny animals.

    As a player, on the other hand, I actually don’t really mind DMPCs and the like, though I haven’t really experienced a great deal of them. There is one, however, that sticks in my mind as a great example of how *not* to run a DMPC, from an old campaign I played back in high school.

    There was only two of us plus the DM, so he brought in a third character to round out the party. And, honestly, for the most part, it was fine, despite the NPC being a blatant Drizzt clone – it didn’t even slow down combat, as far as I can recall – except for one major issue: the DM made me and the other player level Not-Drizzt up! While also checking with him to make sure he approved of our choices! This became especially frustrating in later levels, since the DM also kept screwing up the XP he handed out (this was back in the days of 3.5’s enormous XP tables), and we were literally leveling up after every battle (sometimes TWICE!).

    Me and the other player wound up constantly trying to ditch Not-Drizzt, which the DM would have none of – when we started encouraging Not-Drizzt to split with us to explore other parts of a dungeon, the DM introduced a magic item that allowed us to constantly communicate telepathically, and threw encounters at us that we were outright told would be too difficult without Not-Drizzt.

    And, despite this, it actually was a very fun campaign (I probably wouldn’t enjoy it now, but we were fifteen). Even the XP stuff-up wasn’t too bad, since it made that game one of the few where I ever reached the later levels (I think we flew from about level 13-18 in a single day!), though it would have been nice to actually get to savor some of those high level abilities a bit more. Of course, when I talk to that DM about that campaign now (he’s still a very close friend of mine), in his opinion, the best part about that campaign was “Hey, do you remember that Drow character I had? Man, it was so awesome to be able to actually play and DM at the same time.”

    Moral of the story: If you’re going to have a DMPC, for the love of God, level it up yourself!

    • I’m pretty sure the whole paragraph about “heaven forbid the DM actually have fun” applies here. You kinda sound like a jerk because the DM actually got to have fun with you especially because by your own admittance it didn’t affect the campaign in any other way and you still had fun.

      • As stated, I really didn’t have a problem with the DMPC, nor that the DM had fun playing the DMPC – it was purely that have had to level the guy up ourselves (again and again and again…) that got increasingly frustrating.

      • I think this is more of a question of, “when is it appropriate for a GM to delegate his work to the players” than “I don’t want the GM to have fun”. In this case the GM was making the players do more work so he could run a character. That is not a choice that I, personally, would make.

      • Thanks for the link, that is a brilliant little system. I think I will start using it in my own games – its just the sort of thing I’ve been looking for.

  8. That example with the Dwarven Mother.
    It seems so obviously a classic example of the hateful character who eventually warms up and becomes sympathetic and friendly over time.
    …Except this is Angry, so instead the bitter and racist character becomes EVEN MORE bitter and racist! Because character development can be in any direction. 🙂

  9. I use cards printed with the 4th ed Character Builder and the Magic Card Set Editor to keep track of initiative, and I always have a few made up for the party’s ally NPCs. Having a picture with their name on it, and a short description of where the artist’s name usually goes helps me keep track of ’em. For example, one of them is “Grigori the Avalanche”, whose tagline is “Insufferably Serene Goliath Sage” and cool picture of a goliath monk I found online. I use card sleeves to keep everything organized, so I can also slip little notes about ’em into their sleeve to help remember stuff. Works great!

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  11. I am curious about jow one would combine the advice in this article with last weeks.

    One of the big problems I have when running a DMPC is “playing dumb” whenever there is a mystery or a secret that I, as the all knowing DM, already know the answer to.

    If you have a DMPC and dont believe there is anything wrong with metagaming, I have to wonder how one would keep any secrets, surprises, or elements of hidden doors / treasures / enemies, etc.?

    • It’s not actually that bad. My party currently has a tagalong/ally who was a former PC who ended up having to leave the game due to work scheduling. He’s an orc barbarian, and despite having an int of 10, he really doesn’t plan or solve puzzles other than things having to do with the outdoors, tactics, or combat.

      In other words, your DMPC probably just shouldn’t be a wizard or a rogue, or similarly intelligent/crafty character. If you have to add a wizard, just add a sorc or warlock instead; if you have to add a rogue, you’re kinda screwed.

  12. This is a very useful article for me, because I am about to start running a campaign where the players escort university students and faculty on their field trips into the wilds. They are bodyguards for them, basically. It will be a lot of work to run all the NPCs, so having all the categories of NPCs broken down will be quite helpful. I am thinking that the students are blurring the line between Henchbeast and Allies- they will usually obey the party in dangerous situations, but won’t otherwise. Furthermore, they will be spending most sessions with the players, so I will need to flesh them out.

    Now, I don’t think that there will be any problems with Mary Sues, because these escortees are burdens in combat, mostly useless and prone to getting killed if enemies get past the PCs.

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