Removing Non From NPC

During the past two sessions, the brave adventurers traveling through The Shadowfell have been without their devote Cleric of Pelor as he is on vacation worshipping the Sun in some foreign land. How typically Pelorian of him! The remaining party members are a Barbarian, Ranger, Fighter and Rogue; healers, they are not. A solution was needed to fill the gap because continuing the adventure without allowing the party access to a healer would have been a death sentence. A variety of options were available.

One option was to allow another member of the party to also play the missing player’s character. I have allowed this in the past, but it presents a few problems. First, while the missing character is still being used, his or her character cannot contribute to the story. Second, the player executing decisions for the missing character is bound to be more distracted from playing their own character, which is not ideal. And finally, it can get quite complicated if the missing player’s character is killed or suffers nasty consequences while they are absent. For those reasons, I wanted to avoid another player taking on the role of the missing Cleric.

Olevex, Shadar-kai Cleric

I decided to create a NPC that would join the party as part of the storyline in the campaign while our Cleric was missing. The NPC did an admirable job of serving as the healer for the party, but she also served a number of unexpected purposes during the sessions. She increased the amount of roleplaying during a combat-heavy portion of the adventure, and she increased my level of enjoyment because I was also playing a character.

The following column is a description of how I replaced our missing Cleric in two consecutive sessions with a Non-Playable Character (NPC) who fulfilled the Healer role in our Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Below I present how I inserted the NPC into the party and the variety of functions she served during the sessions when our Cleric was out of town.

Moil, The City That (Doesn’t) Wait

Players miss sessions, and I thoroughly understand the multitude of reasons why this happens. I am perhaps the greatest offender in the campaign where I play a Rogue. The absence of one person should not hold up the enjoyment of the rest of the group. But when the missing player is the only healer in the group, then the party can come to a screeching halt. I decided the show must go on!

The party had just entered the City of Moil to pursue a doppelganger villain and end a growing undead plague pouring into Gloomwrought. The party previously received assistance from Shadar-kai servants of the Raven Queen in the Ebony Guard. It seemed fitting to have a Shadar-kai devoted to the Raven Queen and in service of the Ebony Guard serve as a fill-in Cleric for the party. The party discovered her near-death after a battle with a skeleton work crew attempting to rebuild the bridges of Moil, The City That Waits. They revived her and she agreed to guide them to a portal that she suspected led to the source of the undead threat.

I considered two options for creating the NPC. I thought about starting with a monster’s stat block and reskinning the powers to fit a Cleric. I never got far with this idea because it seemed to be more complicated than it was worth. Instead, I used Character Builder to Auto Build a Level 14 Shadar-kai Cleric who I named Olevex. A few clicks and I had a useable NPC to help the party deal with the various threats in Moil while their Cleric of Pelor was on vacation.

The first thing I did was limit her abilities so I did not have to spend too much time taking her actions during combat. Her primary role would be healing, so I eliminated the majority of Encounter and Daily powers including any powers granted by magic items. I limited powers to Healing Word, At-Will attacks, two Encounters and two Daily healing powers only to be used if the party really needed them. I discarded the remaining power options so I could not be distracted by them; she was a legitimate 4th Edition Cleric – but streamlined.

Plot Device

As this was a combat-heavy portion of the campaign, having a NPC “in” the party was extremely valuable because it allowed me to convey plot elements throughout the evening – both in and out of combat. Olevex was able to speak with the party to describe and elaborate on flavor text and engage members of the party in conversation. She was able to speak about local lore of both monsters and the environment including warning of a difficult series of tests before the portal. The tests were an extended skill challenge mixed with combat, and I used Olevex to add flavor to the events. For example, one of her healing powers causes her to sacrifice hit points to heal another player by touch. As a player was recovering from the meat grinder of traps and hazards, I described the following:

Olevex weaves through the fray and stands by your side. She digs her sharp nails through her flesh and blood pours through her fingers from the fresh wound. She whispers a prayer to the Raven Queen and smears the blood over your face. Her sacrifice has allowed you to regain strength. She exhales, “I cannot do that again.”

It gave me a chance to add some flavor while also serving a crucial function for the party. And it was fun!

Why Can’t the DM Play Too?

As I played Olevex during the sessions, I realized that I was really enjoying it. Partially because I’ve wanted to play a Cleric in 4th Edition and have not yet had an opportunity. And also because it changed the dynamics of the session for me; I was not only running the monsters in combat but I was assisting the players as well. Now, I realize this type of behavior on my part is fraught with peril.

“I don’t really care what you do this round, Olevex is about to attempt a courageous manuever to kill ALL the monsters.”

First, playing a NPC as a member of the party carries the danger of overshadowing the players as they progress through an adventure. For example, any time I spend while deciding on Olevex’s actions or speaking through her takes the spotlight off of the players. Second, I know the details about the adventure; as a result I know a great deal more than Olevex should know. There is a danger of using Olevex to act in a perfect way to overcome obstacles or offer too many clues to the players when they face a challenge. Third, I could easily succumb to using Olevex as a tool to railroad the players in whatever direction I want them to go. I certainly did this with Olevex as she suggested a course of action anytime the group was unsure of where to go next.

With those possible limitations laid bare, the question remains if the DM playing a character is a worthwhile addition to a game. It is my belief it can be useful in limited doses to achieve a specific end. I think a DM playing a member of the party full-time would be counter-productive for the reasons mentioned above.


I encourage DMs to explore removing the Non from NPC for a session or two to add something different to the campaign and increase their level of enjoyment. At the very least, Olevex will become a solid and well-known hub for future quests and plot hooks – if she survives.

How have others used a NPC in this capacity? What are your thoughts on the device for a short-term fix or a long-term piece of a campaign?

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

16 thoughts on “Removing Non From NPC”

  1. “For those reasons, I wanted to avoid another player taking on the role of the missing Cleric.” —- OR you wanted to deny us the Prophecy of Doom / Barbarian Critical every fight….. I know where I got my money.. =)

  2. I’ve known another DM, in addition to myself, that “plays” a cleric. And I’ve never known anyone else who wants to. Coincidence?

  3. I like this a lot. My brother and I tried to each play two characters while one of us would run the monsters. It was more difficult, but a lot of fun. While DMing is extremely rewarding, it is always a blast to get the chance to play again.

  4. Interesting post. One long-running game I played in had only 2 actual people playing–besides the DM. For a good stretch (5-6 levels) we each played 3 full characters! It was mentally exhausting and quite time consuming. Then, our DM decided to make Companion characters of the 4 extra characters. They’re simpler to run than full PCs and the player runs them in combat. The DM can feel free to speak through them, but they don’t occupy as much of a critical role as the regular PCs.

    1. I’m DMing with 2 friends who both have 2 chars each – the only downpart is that we don’t get as much roleplaying as each player has more than one PC. For some time i had another character with them but saw that he took too much attention and time so he “got homesick” and left the party.
      I’m taking in hirelings aswell (tomorrow) – but where can i find companions? are these different, covered in other material? feel free to post links to sites:)

  5. Good post. This concept of removing the “non” from NPC reminds me of Chris Perkins’ article entitled “Special Guest Star” ( While Chris Perkins focuses on helping temporary players ease into an existing D&D game, I see the same method used in helping DMs ease new NPCs into existing campaigns to help the heroes. Instead of using the streamlined Character Builder approach, why don’t you just come up with a companion statblock? They are very easy to read and you can be extremely selective as to what powers to include and exclude.

    I also completely agree with all the loopholes you pointed out about the DM playing an NPC that tags along with the heroes for extended periods of time. My solution is the DM’s discretion. First, the DM must take steps to ensure that the PCs remain the stars of the show, but at the same time, offer the opportunity for the players to engage and benefit from the NPC that tags along. Second, as the DM, you control everything the NPC does, say, think and so on. So you can be very selective as to how the NPC can and cannot help the PCs. Remember, even NPCs can be wrong despite the best intentions of the NPC. Don’t be afraid to add twists that make your players think twice before following everything the NPC does just because it is played by the DM. Third, while the NPC can be a tool for railroading, the DM is still obligated to allow the PCs to make meaningful decisions. Remember that the journey can be just as important as the destination. Like I said, DM discretion is the solution to all of these loopholes.

    Just so you know, I’m running a game with lots of NPCs that tag along with my players for extended periods of time. However, I do take into account all the legitimate loopholes you have pointed out and I take extensive precautions to avoid/deal with them. I always make sure that the PCs remain as the primary stars of the show making the big decisions, but at the same time enjoy the presence and assistance the NPCs offer.

  6. In the game I co-run we have an NPC named Barnaby who tags along with the group because of an arrangement with his father and cousin to (essentially) keep him out of their hair for a while. A bumbling young lord used to great extravagance, Barnaby serves as the party’s moneybag (just for upkeep, not for major purchases; his father doesn’t allow him that much money) and generally provides comic relief with his naïveté, flamboyant mannerisms, and pitiful attempts at joining combat. He does, however, give the party some clout when dealing with nobles who haven’t heard of them, and can be quite diplomatic when he wants to be—unlike most of the PCs.

  7. When I play with my husband, (not dirty, I just have kids so one of us usually doesn’t have the option of actually joining a group… finding babysitting is HARD) I usually play two characters and he plays either one or two depending on how the characters fit together. This time ’round, I am doing the DMing, a task I haven’t attempted since my first miserable attempt, so I am playing one character while juggling the world. The fleshing out of the party is really the only reason for me to have a character, but we are creating her like any other PC so she is an equal member since it is necessary for the powers the party has. The characters both he and I avoid when DMing is the ‘face of he party’ and the ‘problem solver’. These roles are always both Meta as you mentioned, as well as SUPER boring to the DM. neither of us actually are that excited about hearing ourselves talk, so when interacting with the plotline, it is not at all fun to have one of the DM’s characters ask teh townsperson a question and then answer it. 😛 Other than that, the options are all on the table, and we have done quite well in campaigns in the past. He actually ran us through the entire Red Hand of Doom campaign and we only stopped when approaching Epic (the ‘save or die’ powers made high level fights in 3.5 really dull for us)

    1. i’ve found that it is indeed smart to let a DMs PC be a really dumb one. And if he/she was to give clues for the campaign to the other PCs, it would’ve been directly to them and not to the world – as you said, asking questions and answering them all by yourself is pretty lame.

  8. I know this problem all too well. I’ve had many an adventure where we just didn’t have the character power or a healer, and had to roll up either another character or a Cleric. In the case of the cleric, it’s okay. Sometimes I forget his actions and movements cause there are 3-4 players and then other NPCs and monsters and what not. But he’s a fun character, and a full timer at that. Sometimes though, it does break down to “Oh, the cleric has that spell to fix that problem” and voila, the problem is gone. Hoard of undead? Don’t bother paladin, I’ve got this. Everyone bleeding to death? Channel energy, biatches! That dragon is going to use its breath weapon? Phht, Wall of Stone. Don’t even make me laugh.” I can’t say he’s EVER stolen the lime light though. Just aided in making another’s brighter.
    The sorcerer on the other hand… this is a bad DMPC to play and not steer attention away with how awesome you are. Though most of the time, the sorcerer, being able to cast 2 fireballs with the Quicken Metamagic feat, just brought an end to encounters that would have just been tedious or dragged on for too long and killed any momentum the game had. That said though, if a sorcerer is super lucky, he can make a boss battle nothing… like casting Break twice a combat on a super powerful artifact… and shattering it into a billion pieces..

  9. NPCs that travel with the party is a primary aspect of D&D. That’s why all previous editions had hireling/henchmen/retainer rules.

    Yeah, you have an NPC Cleric join the party when needed. Or you just have the party find 3-4 healing potions. Or you play 4e where healing isn’t even necessary.

    Lots of options!

  10. I DM a 4e game for my wife who runs 2 regular PCs accompanied by 2 companion characters as hirelings. She decides what they do much of the time, during combat and role-playing. She sometimes rolls the dice for them when it’s dramatic. But otherwise I control them. She’s never even seen their stat blocks. Works out well. Especially since one of them has a dark secret that she doesn’t know yet….

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