Dungeons and Dragons has been a popular table-top adventure game for years. Each game includes a Dungeon Master that plans the entire world for the characters involved. But have you ever wondered why the Dungeon Master doesn’t typically have a character in the party along with the other player characters?
Dungeon masters can’t have a character in Dungeons and Dragons because it sets up a conflict of interest for the dungeon master. Since the dungeon master has prior knowledge of what will occur in a campaign, any character the dungeon master runs has meta-knowledge that puts them at an advantage.
Even though it is not common for Dungeon Masters to have a character to play, they still sometimes manage to insert themselves into the narrative of a D&D campaign. Keep reading to find out more about why DMs don’t usually roll a character and why they sometimes do.
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Reasons Why Dungeon Masters Shouldn’t Play Their Own Character
There are several good reasons why it is not a good idea to have the Dungeon Master of your D&D campaign roll their own player character. Here are some of the things that your D&D group needs to consider:
- The Dungeon Master has the entire world to play with. In most cases, a Dungeon Master doesn’t roll a character simply because the Dungeon Master has way too many other aspects of the campaign to keep up with. It is hard enough for a Dungeon Master to consistently generate high-quality material for a D&D campaign without the added stress of rolling a character, too.
- A Dungeon Master Player Character (DMPC) is challenging to pull off. Because the DM has so much power over the entire campaign, it is very easy for a DM to accidentally “meta” the game or give himself handicaps simply because of the prior knowledge of the campaign the DM already possesses. DMPCs are only recommended for advanced Dungeon Masters who are familiar with the concept of “metagaming.”
- If a DMPC is played fairly, it’s nothing more than a weaker version of a Non-Playable Character (NPC). There’s not much point in running a player character as a DM when you can easily commandeer any of the NPCs that are running in your campaign. There are no advantages to running a DMPC that won’t ultimately lead to immersion-breaking and cheating. A DMPC is just a hamstrung NPC.
- In most cases, a DMPC is unnecessary. Unless the D&D group is tiny, there should be plenty of other player characters in the party already without the Dungeon Master having to roll one, too. The only time when a DMPC might be necessary is if there aren’t enough people to play the campaign effectively without help.
- Being a Dungeon Master is hard enough on its own. Unless you are very experienced in running D&D campaigns, being a DM requires tons of mental and creative resources in every single session—so much so that you’ll be doing good just to keep your campaign on the rails, much less keep up with your own character.
- There is a serious lack of conflict. The biggest problem with running a DMPC is that it’s the equivalent of a player character getting to read through the entire campaign’s plot before starting. If the Dungeon Master uses his PC to act on secret DM knowledge, he is breaking the game. If the PC is played passively by the DM to avoid railroading the campaign for other players, it’s just an NPC with worse stats.
- It’s too easy to steal the limelight. Since the DM is already responsible for creating the campaign, rolling a character can make it too easy for a DM to dovetail his PC into the most exciting parts of the campaign by using meta knowledge, leaving the scraps for the rest of the player characters. Too many DMPCs devolve into blatant Mary Sues or fictional versions of the overly perfect people who annoy you in real life.
Can a Dungeon Master Play a Character?
Technically, there are no rules against a Dungeon Master playing a character in a campaign. However, most D&D veterans highly discourage it because traditional tagalong DM NPCs that group up with the party are just as useful and not as game-breaking as a full DMPC.
In most cases, a Dungeon Master running an NPC is a much better option that allows the DM to play a character with the rest of the party while also maintaining a clear division between the knowledge of the player characters and the knowledge of the Dungeon Master to keep meta-gaming to a minimum.
Another significant advantage of NPCs is that they can be added into the party and dropped at will depending on the context of the campaign, which allows the Dungeon Master to cycle through several characters rather than being locked into one player character.
Dungeon Masters can have characters, but having them run their own player characters can add way too many complications to a campaign run and can ultimately break the game in some cases.
Alternative Strategies to Rolling a Dungeon Master Player Character
If you’re a Dungeon Master and find yourself itching to have a character in a campaign, there are some alternative strategies you can use to get satisfaction without ruining your campaign with an overly powerful DMPC.
Here are some tips for incorporating yourself as a character when you’re the Dungeon Master:
- Go nuts with NPCs. The great thing about being a Dungeon Master is that you aren’t just limited to your player character—you can generate every other character on the board, from the pimpled busboy at the tavern to the eccentric town magistrate. Colorful NPCs can let Dungeon Masters get their urge to play out while still reserving player action for the players.
- Take turns being the DM. It can get boring for one person in a D&D group to continually be the Dungeon Master, even if they enjoy the role and are used to doing it most of the time. Taking turns being the Dungeon Master not only allows less-experienced DMs to gain much-needed campaign practice, but it also gives the group’s regular DM a chance to relax and roll a PC.
- Roll an NPC tagalong. An excellent way for DMs to participate in a party’s adventures firsthand without investing in a player character is to roll an NPC (a hireling or an escort of some kind) and have them join the party temporarily. Not only is this a good way for DMs to experiment with a variety of different NPCs, but it can also give the DM a way to communicate hints to the party directly through a character in dungeons and other encounters.
- Roll a recurring NPC. A recurring NPC is an NPC controlled by the DM that may turn up in several campaigns and may even spend the entire campaign with the party, making them effectively similar to a DMPC. However, as with DMPCs, it can be challenging to run an effective recurring NPC without using meta-knowledge or breaking immersion for the other players. An advantage of NPCs is that they can be written out of campaign scenes when necessary.
- Take over another player’s PC on occasion. It never fails that someone will miss a D&D session for this or that obligation every once in a while, and unless other arrangements are made, this can bring a campaign to a grinding halt. With permission, a DM can temporarily play a player character in an absent player’s stead so that the campaign can continue without delays.
There are several ways that Dungeon Masters can exercise their creativity when creating characters without having their own player character in the campaign. These methods offer DMs the best of both worlds—the opportunity to interact as a character and the detachment to avoid meta-gaming.
Dungeon Master Player Characters Aren’t Worth the Trouble
If you’re trying to run an excellent D&D campaign as a Dungeon Master, it’s a good idea to try and throw the bulk of your energy into generating the campaign itself rather than trying to juggle your player character as part of the group. The chance of meta-gaming is too high, and while they can sometimes work, DMPCs are much more likely to ruin a campaign than they are to enhance one.
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