I'm brand new to table-top RPGs and I am my group's DM (D&D 5e). I've been brainstorming ideas to work into our next campaign after LMoP, and I'm liking the idea of recurrent NPCs who are on their own adventures in the same general region.

Here is the situation:

  • I wish to incorporate an NPC who is having her own adventure that causes her to cross paths with the PCs on occasion.
  • I wish for her to be able to join the PCs on rare occasions, when her goals happen to align with theirs—if the party allows it, of course.
  • She may also act as an adversary to the PCs in certain circumstances.

Here is the background:

  • I've heard extensively about the dangers of having a DMPC, and am greatly worried about imposing a negative experience on my players for what may be my own benefit.
  • From what I understand, having NPCs occasionally join the players' party for brief periods of time is not too out of the ordinary.
  • From what I understand, having recurring NPCs is also usually a nice touch to a campaign.

Here is the dilemma:

  • I think it would enhance immersion knowing that other adventurers are out there with their own goals, developing largely independently of the PCs.
  • I don't imagine that she'd "steal the spotlight" or become a crutch when she's present; I intend for her to be timid by nature, a similar if not lower power level as the PCs, and not omniscient by any means.
  • However, I have already become somewhat attached to her and her backstory, and I can't be sure I wouldn't overlty value her character more than other NPCs—though I am at least aware of the danger and hold a strong personal disdain for plot armor.

My question is this: Would this setup run a high risk of metagame repercussions or other complications, similar to that of GMPCs? Has anyone else worked a recurring NPC ally into their campaign?

Thanks for your help/suggestions and if this is a terrible idea, please do stop me before I unleash this on my players.

up vote 8 down vote accepted

You've really asked three questions: A broad question in the title; a specific one at the end (after a lengthy and good set-up); and a final call for similar experiences. I will try to answer them all of them.

Does a recurring NPC ally in general run the same risks as a GMPC?

Yes, technically. Humans are unpredictable, even to themselves, and there is always a slight risk that you'll get a little too attached or invested in either the NPC or their arc. It is not unlike an author of a novel getting a little unexpectedly caught up in someone they initially conceived as a minor or supporting character.

But I am hedging here with purpose: Yes technically; slight risk; etc.

In my experience, it doesn't happen all that often.

Does the specific recurring NPC in the set-up you describe run that risk?

I don't think so. I think you've minimized those risks to a very large degree in several ways:

  • Psychologically, you're aware of the issue, and you're conscientious about this even in the planning stages which is probably all that is necessary.
  • Structurally, you are limiting exposure to this character, which is also a very large mitigating factor. When I think of GMPCs, I usually think of someone who has a great deal of time sharing the stage, not someone who appears twice in ten sessions.
  • You've started to develop limiting flaws and power levels for them, i.e., specific reasons that they won't overshadow the PCs. (Although you may want to think carefully through the idea of the shy/timid adventurer. That can lead to the PCs thinking that you've foisted a problem on them in the form of an NPC.)

Yes, I've had recurring NPC adventurer/allies in my games

It works great. I've gone through a process somewhat similar to yours, and ended up with similar constraints and guides, including:

  • They have to have their own agendas; they are not agents of the PCs or vice-versa
  • They have to be off-stage much more than they are on-stage
  • Agendas change, loyalties shift. By this, I don't mean to imply that the NPCs are soulless calculating mercenaries who will betray the PCs whenever there is advantage to it. But rather, sometimes they will feel compelled to oppose the PCs when they had previously helped them. Sometimes, the chemistry between the PCs and NPC is strong-- this leads to some excellent drama.
  • The NPC can be (should be!) the hero of their own story, but they cannot be the hero of the PCs' story. And this game is the story of the PC. (This is a mantra to be repeated.)
  • As a corollary, this means the NPC should rarely, if ever, save the day except in a supporting context.

For clarity, when I say, "They have to be," those are my constraints on myself, not divine rules I expect to apply to everyone. Because, for instance, I did not bind myself to keeping the NPC allies lower level than the PCs. In one instance of which I am fairly proud, the NPC ally started out considerably more powerful than the NPCs. An early encounter with her ended up, "Here, while you five are doing Thing A, I'll be over here doing Thing B," where both Things were roughly as hazardous. But Thing A was more interesting and dramatic. Thing B was sort of an off-stage, "And then she killed them all."

But over time, that balance evened out and even eventually reversed. It was a good way of showing the PCs their own progress through the hierarchy of power in that game world.

Go forth, and help your players have fun.

  • To expand on your last bullet point ("NPC should rarely, if ever, save the day"): avoid deus ex machina, but you can (in principle) let the NPC "save the day" if you set it up right; a fantastic example is in LotR when Gandalf brings the Rohirim to Helm's Deep: the setup was "look to my coming at dawn on the third day", so all the PCs had to do was survive 'til then. His arrival wasn't deus ex machina but was the hoped-for resolution promised. Compare the eagles appearing out of nowhere at the end to swoop in and save Frodo and Sam: total deus ex. – minnmass Aug 11 at 3:49

Not inherently - it depends on how you handle it

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with a recurring NPC character - even one you really like and get attached to! - as long as you play them fairly, and you don't use them to steal the spotlight from the actual player characters. The problems with GMPCs always arise when the GM shows favouritism to their special NPC and/or the GMPC starts making other party members redundant or overshadows them - what's the point in playing if problems are always solved by your GMPC, or the GMPC could fight everything by themselves, or everyone else the party interacts with only really cares about the GMPC?

If you can avoid these pitfalls, there's no reason that an NPC can't be a member of the party - temporarily or otherwise. The important thing is that you keep an eye on whether or not your players seem to be enjoying the game as it's unfolding. If they like your NPC, they respond positively to her, they get invested in her successes and failures like they do each others - you're doing a good job and your NPC is a hit! If they don't seem to like the NPC, they seem upset when she turns up, they don't seem very interested in what she's doing - then take the hint and make the character less important.

To take an example from media, I'm a fan of Not Another D&D Podcast (be warned - some adult/juvenile humour). Several episodes ago, their DM introduced what was meant to be a minor character who was an old acquaintance of one of the players - he was going to help them out with some information and then make his own way. However, the party latched on to him very quickly and effectively recruited him to their ranks - and now, several episodes later, he's a well-defined character with a unique personality and his own important, historical connections to the world and the adventures the party are going on, and the players love it!

That situation is a little different, as Ol' Cobb is an ascended minor character rather than planned out as an important recurring character from the offset - but your players don't need to know about what your plans and intentions are, so it should make no difference to them. I would only note that these kinds of long-term NPCs tend to work out better when the party is smaller to begin with. If you have a larger number of players, such NPCs tend to become less welcome, as the spotlight time is already being divided more thinly.

  • 3
    Matt Mercer of Critical Role also does this a fair bit, especially with Lady Kima of Vord. Might be worth checking out some of that, as I believe (and many of their fans agree) he does this very well. – Isaac Reefman Aug 9 at 23:23
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    "The problems with GMPCs always arise when the GM shows favouritism to their special NPC and/or the GMPC starts making other party members redundant or overshadows them" Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that such favoritism/overshadowing is the definition of what distinguishes a GMPC from an NPC. – Dave Sherohman Aug 10 at 11:49

Nope
You have very clearly thought about this and addressed the issue of spotlight theft and/or crutching.
In a number of my campaigns I have had NPCs, created with proper character sheets, accompany the players as guides or advisors on a number of occasions. One notable one was a guardsman who traveled with them for a stretch (around 3 sessions) to act as an eye witness for them apprehending a villain who no one else suspected. He would help out with combat but being similar level to the party meant he was only equally as good.
He would always take a back seat to the party as he was there to assist.

Basically as you acknowledge the pitfalls and try to avoid them you're golden. Just don't forget to avoid meta gaming since you'll know HP/AC/etc.

  • 6
    I always had a hard time not metagaming with my NPCs, so I'd just have the players tell me what the NPC should do in combat, which makes them more involved, gives them more power, and prevents me from cheating accidentally. This works especially well for support characters, who players can use to set themselves up for AWESOMENESS – Mooing Duck Aug 9 at 17:05

However, I have already become somewhat attached to her and her backstory, and I can't be sure I wouldn't overlty value her character more than other NPCs—though I am at least aware of the danger and hold a strong personal disdain for plot armor.

This here sounds like a problem. Once you are attached to an NPC, most people can't really play them as NPC any more, even if they are aware of the problem. It's human nature, you don't want to hurt things you care about (at least I hope so), even if they are imaginary characters in a game.

If she dies, you will be unhappy about it, and you will subconsciously avoid that as the GM. If PCs would end up doing something nasty to her (and it doesn't even have to be anything very bad), you as the GM will not like that. For example, you might notice you use other NPCs in the situation to voice your own feelings about what happened, and to defend your favorite NPC.

That last thing has happened to me: an NPC acted bullyish against another PC, and my PC reacted to it by stopping the NPC. I could literally see how the GM didn't like that (he rather liked playing that NPC, and possibly had some specific scene in mind). That was something very in-character for my PC, there's no way she would have watched the bullying behavior without acting. Still, another NPC, my PC's companion of sorts, who I'd have though would have my back in the situation or at least would've stayed out of it, got rather annoyed (as played by the GM) by what my PC did.

I was rather miffed by the whole thing. If you go by your plan, watch out. As you notice in the example above, these NPCs weren't anything special compared to the PCs, other than GM was fond of them. There wasn't any plot armor either. Things just went against an NPC favored by GM, and GM coudln't help but act on it through other elements in the game world (the other NPC in this case, I guess it could be rocks falling in other cases or something).

  • That's a very enlightening example; this is definitely one of my key concerns! I intend to mitigate this by planning a mildly tragic story arc for my NPC from the get-go, and characterizing her as something of an anti-hero so that her bonds with the PCs can fluctuate as the interactions demand it. – Michael Liu Aug 9 at 20:55
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    I've gathered from the RPG Stack Exchange that a GM shouldn't get too attached to any particular thing in the game so as to allow the PCs to drive the story, and this example seems quite revelant for GMs who want to incorporate NPCs like this. – Michael Liu Aug 9 at 20:58

Depending how you make the NPC interact with the players

My DM has had many NPCs in our campaigns be recurrent and have their own flavor and personalities. Sometimes, they were passively aiding in the campaign, sometimes, they were against the party's ideas (a good way to show the players you would advise another path than the one they are taking) and sometimes as a villain, as you mentioned.

If you chose to play the NPC as an ally, like my DM did, a good way to go about it is grant control of the NPC to the players so s/he is another body in their party, controlled by the player.

When this happened, the control of the NPC would go to the most experienced player in our group, as he is very immersive and immediately grasped the essence of what the DM wanted the character to be. He remained under our control until he parted ways with us and the immersion was there.

When the NPC was more passively helping us, not directly in combat, our DM would keep control of the NPC and we would play our characters as usual.

When he would be against us, turning out to be a very important villain, the plot was well chosen and it added to the richness of the story, to know the capacities of the villain but still have some surprises coming our way.

As you seem to have the NPC well thought over and have some richness in your ideas, I think it would be a great addition to your game.

If you compare to the GMPC, the NPC-sometimes-player-controlled will be loved by both you and your players, assuming he fits well into the game. And if you find that it doesn't fit well with your players, nothing forces you to keep such a character in the game or you can change the way he interacts with the group.

You are walking a dangerous path here.

A lot of DMPCs start out as an NPC companions and then turn into a DMPC over time. This happened to me a few times. I created an NPC as a guide for the party, and then caught myself playing that NPC as if it were a PC.

The difference between an NPC and a DMPC is how you as the DM play them. Some symptoms that you are turning your NPC into a DMPC are:

  • When the party is confronted with a problem, does the character propose to take a specific course of action? Which also happens to be the solution you expected from your players?
  • Does the character solve problems for the party even though nobody in the party asked them to?
  • Does the character have notable mechanical progression, for example by obtaining magic items, level advancement or even gets powered up by DM fiat?
  • Does the character's lifestyle and mindset fit the typical "Adventurer" description?
  • Is the character's sole motivation and goal to adventure with the party and have them succeed in their quest?

If any of this is true, you might be playing a DMPC.

To avoid this becoming a problem, make sure that your companion NPCs don't act but mostly react while adventuring with the party. They might comment on a situation, but not in a way which leads to a practical solution. They might use their abilities to help the PCs, but only when a player suggests that they should.

For example, let's suppose the party wants to enter a building.

Bad:

DM: Alice says "How about we try the backdoor?". She goes around the building and tries to open it, but it's locked. She tries to pick the lock [rolls] Success! The backdoor is open. She goes inside and asks you to follow.

Player: Errr... is there some way for us to also get involved or do you just want to play with yourself?

Good:

DM: Alice asks "So how do we get in there?"

Player: Let's try the backdoor.

DM: It is locked.

Player: Doesn't Alice have thieves' tools proficiency? I ask her to pick the lock.

DM: She accepts. [rolls] Success! The backdoor is open.

Player: I go inside.

DM: Alice mumbles "I just hope your plan won't get us all killed" but follows

When in combat, you should ask the players what strategic role they expect the NPCs to fulfill and then play them that way.

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