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Gaming Logic: DMPCs

They’re like any NPC, but better–because the DM likes ’em more.


Before I say this, remember that D&D is a lot of things to a lot of people, and so my opinions won’t necessarily be yours. And that’s ok. It’s a flexible game with lots of potential, and you can make it your way. It’s fine.

Now then:

PC vs. NPC vs. DMPC

First, some terms:

PC” stands for player character. These characters are controlled by the players (usually each player controls one PC) and are, typically, the most developed and sophisticated characters in the game. They have ability scores, attack and defense mechanics, spells, skills, and feats.

They have the most screen time and are rightly considered the main characters of most (if not necessarily all) campaigns.

They usually have backstories and often very detailed physical descriptions. Odds are the player or maybe the DM has looked online for a picture that matches their conception of the PC, or maybe even commissioned a pic of the character.

The game is typically understood to be an ensemble story about these characters.

They are the main characters of the game.

“NPCs,” on the other hand, are non-player characters. These are essentially every other character in the game and are typically controlled by the DM (Dungeon Master).

Depending on their significance to the plot, one NPC might be really developed, while another might be just a name and a couple personality traits that sells the PCs a new sword or some potions.

Villains are NPCs, some minor, some major.

Regardless, NPCs aren’t usually supposed to be the focus of the story in a typical D&D game.

(Note: you COULD play a subjected sort of game where the PCs are all support characters to a NPC that is the “hero” the main story, but even then, odds are most of the game will still be about them.)

So what’s a DMPC?

As commonly understood, a DMPC is a NPC (controlled by the DM) who is elevated above the level of most NPCs both in their mechanical maturity (often they’re about as articulated as the PCs, perhaps having a full character sheet) and their relevance to the plot. They may be there to help the characters directly, fill out the ranks in combat, or maybe they just hang around.

This character is essentially the character the DM would be playing, were they a player. In a very real sense, they ARE playing this character, in addition to DMing.

DMPCs are frequently considered quite negatively, and many players will not play in a campaign that had them.

Some players get REALLY pissed about DMPCs being included in the game, and even if they tolerate them, there are usually a lot of jabs and jokes about these characters. But why?

What’s Wrong with a DMPC?

DMPCs get a bad rap for a number of questionable DMing behaviors, and it’s not entirely unwarranted.

it is incredibly easy to screw up a game by using a DMPC poorly, and it’s even easier to use a DMPC poorly.

We’ve all been at a table where a NPC swoops in and does something super important before the PCs get the chance. Or a NPC who is part of the party but somehow always has the spell they need or never actually fails at an attack or skill check or something. Or a NPC seems to be invincible, constantly surviving for story reasons.

(Don’t worry, guys—I’m not from the DM’s novel or anything! I’m sure I can be hurt just as easily as you! Art by Raymond Swanland)

Maybe a DMPC gets a full share of treasure and XP, which can make the PCs feel short-changed on their own accomplishments.

DMPCs can bog down combat, especially if they have the same level of complexity to their abilities that the PCs have. They have a specific initiative marker and attack numbers, armor class, and sometimes even spells and other abilities that require you to look in the book.

If the DM has to adjudicate all their abilities, that further divides their attention, as though there were another player at the table, eating up an entire turn.

Sometimes the DMPC will be the driving force of the game. And I don’t just mean when the DMPC talks to NPCs, and it becomes a one-man show. They come up with the idea to get into the palace, they talk the party past the guards, they sing the key song at the ball, and then they are the one that finally challenges the big bad evil guy (BBEG) to a duel. The PCs essentially become spectators in the game.

It’s easy to interpret this NPC as getting extra favoritism from the DM, as if they want to make their own character awesome at the expense of the other PCs.

These are obviously bad behaviors on the part of the DM.

What’s the Proper Way to Use a DMPC?

Generally, the PCs should be the focus of the campaign, not any NPC, and that includes the DMPC. They should serve the same purpose as any NPC: to support the story of the overall campaign, whilst not getting in the way.

What’s important to remember is that they should NOT bog things down. Use Narrative Combat techniques: Don’t roll for all a DMPC’s attacks or checks–just narrate the effects. Have your DMPC fight more enemies in the corner or the room or go off into a tunnel to cover the retreat–only roll for their actions if a PC’s immediate status depends on it. Otherwise have them recede into the background while the PCs battle the real threat or conquer the real challenges.

Also? Have the DMPCs fail from time to time. No one ever succeeds at everything they do, and a NPC who never blows a check will just irritate the players and break the immersion.

Reasons to DMPC

There are several key purposes DMPCs can and should serve, if you’re gonna use them, which I’ll illustrate with the aid of some examples from games past.

1. The party needs specific mechanical support:

Sometimes the players build their characters and no one wants to run the cleric or the rogue or some other important archetype the campaign requires. In this case, sometimes the DM needs to run a regular, generally mechanically straight forward companion character who will be with them basically all the time.

For instance, I ran a witch/pirate sort of DMPC in a Seventh Sea campaign whose role was to be the “face” of the party, since no one else was a talking/charisma sort of character. What she would do was go distract guards or hosts or whoever while the rest of the group sneaked in and did their stealthy-stealthy, stabby-stabby thing. And it worked fine.

2. The DM needs an organic voice:

If your group has a lot of discussions and scheming, and/or your campaign is very RP heavy, you as the DM may want a means to participate in the deep party mechanic in an organic way, rather than the voice of the omniscient narrator.

You’re playing the game too, after all, and you can really enrich the experience by being involved directly through a DMPC.

Care must be taken here to avoid violating player agency here. You can steer them or toss out hooks they might be forgetting (your DMPC reminds them about the shrine they saw in the way into town, for instance), but you can’t and shouldn’t make decisions for them. DMPCs should always be secondary to player decisions and even if they really disagree with the decision, they should drop the subject and move on. The last thing anyone wants is a nagging NPC reminding the PCs of their mistakes, as the NPC sees it.

3. You take turns DMing:

Some campaigns are structured in such a way as to have multiple players taking turns as the DM, in which case each DM usually has a designated character they play when it’s their turn to be a player.

My first log running D&D game saw the advent of Whisper, an elven thief (2e) who I would pick up and run when one of my fellow gamers wanted to DM for a while. She was kind of an outsider and occasional backstabber to the group, but her role and presence were very good for the team, I think.

4. Guest players need a character:

Sometimes you have guests who sit in at the table for a session or two, and it can make sense not to have them build their own character (who you then have to incorporate into your game) but rather to play this DMPC that the group has been adventuring alongside for years. That’s instant team-building there, and it can give a new player a chance to see a team at work in the game without a clunky integration process for their first game.

Generally speaking, if that player is gonna join the campaign for the long term, it’s best that they build their own character at some point, but sometimes new players love a NPC so much they keep playing that character, and that’s fine.

5. The story demands depth:

Some games require extremely deep characters who go along with the PCs and need to be very significant to the plot. For instance, in my Persona tabletop campaign (based on the Shin Megami Tensei spinoff games of the same name), the whole concept is a growing group of characters whose number often exceeds that of a D&D party–no way am I gonna have 20 players in the game, but I need that many deep characters, some of whom will be adventuring alongside the PCs.

A key here is that I will only have one or two DMPCs actively participating in combat alongside the PCs. Too many and it’ll get bogged down. (See what I said about narrative combat above.)

Example DMPC:

In my current 5e Realms campaign, I have introduced a character called Red Rosalyne, who is the half-sister of one of the PCs (himself the half-brother–other half–of one of the other PCs), who is a half elf bard/paladin. She has important healing skills, provides a useful perspective in party conversations as a DM insert (I can inject good humor and suggest considerations), and she enriches the story for multiple PCs. Her noble background provides useful ins to certain noble NPCs, and her religion (devout Sune worshiper) leads to all sorts of compelling discussions with the other PCs, one of whom (her brother) is kind of not religious but obviously blessed with near divine charisma and another who is kind of a reincarnated goddess (it’s complicated).

(Red Rosalyne, artist Dan dos Santos)

I like having her in the game, and she provides an important support and voice without distracting from the business at hand. She never takes center stage, and she’s only there to deepen the PCs’ story. She’s also a NPC that a guest player could jump into without much trouble.

Ability Scores, Stat! About Charisma

Charisma is like pornography–I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

Erm, let me start over.

But first, a caveat: Dungeons & Dragons is intentionally open-ended and subject to interpretation. It is meant to spark decades-spanning debates, foster a sense of camaraderie, and sometimes destroy friendships. (Ok, not that last one.) The point is, all this is my opinion and my perspective, honed over 25 years of gaming, since grade school.

What is Charisma?

Let’s talk about what Charisma isn’t.

For a lot of its history, D&D has fostered this impression–not exactly a misconception, but an oversimplification–that Charisma is a measurement of how beautiful you are.

That your physical appearance is the primary factor in how well you can convince people of things, how well you can persuade people, how much people like your performance when you’re rocking it out, and how good a leader you are.

Or, y’know, how effective your sorcerer spells are. Or your paladin smites. Or your warlock invocations. Or basically any magic you do unless you’re a wizard or cleric and thus not one of the cool kids.

Hot damn. She looks like her fireballs would be hard to dodge because she’s so pretty. Wait, what? (Artist unknown, found on Fjcdn.com)

I mean, yeah, beautiful people *are* often very good at lying, and we believe CHA-focused characters (like movie stars) way more than INT-focused characters (like scientists) about things like 1) Is the Earth round? and 2) Do vaccines cause autism? and 3) Who should we elect as president, a racist yam or a competent woman who looks a bit tired?

Ahem. All right, that was too easy. Ahem.

Charisma isn’t just skin-deep.

But what is it?

History of Charisma in Dungeons and Dragons

In the early, halcyon days of kicking down doors, killing people, and taking their stuff we call early D&D, Charisma, that 6th ability score on the list, was an easy dump stat. It typically wasn’t relevant to your adventures, except for the occasional social encounter, when it would give you a static bonus or penalty to the check to determine whether randos wandering across your path would like you or not. Ostensibly, this would determine whether the randomly determined table of prostitutes (no lie, look in the back of the 1e DMG) tries to get you to hire them or tries to stab you and leave your corpse in the gutter.

I’m just saying, game designers can be lonely. And sexist. (Source: D&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide)

Otherwise, a high charisma served three distinct purposes: 1) allow you to qualify for the paladin class (Prerequisite: CHA 17? WTF?), 2) fuel how many followers you attracted at high levels (higher charisma equals a better leader, equals more hangers-on, you know, like in real life), or 3) indicate whether a character was female (without fail, every female character in an early D&D book has Charisma 15 or higher–fight me).

In 2e, Charisma didn’t have much purpose other than what I’ve outlined above, and some Nonweapon Proficiencies. You’d get a reaction bonus or penalty with NPCs, so you’re well served to have the charismatic PC be the face of the party. This didn’t always translate into “make the player who can talk good” into being the party leader, and often the more interested and forward roleplayer would end up with the low-to-average charisma bruiser and your kid brother who just wants to be included ends up playing the Chaotic Evil fighter/mage with the high charisma who starts ALL the fights. (True story.)

High Charisma, Zero Chill. (artist unknown, found on Gameforge.com)

When WotC rebuilt D&D for 3rd edition and later for 3.5th (rd?) edition, they decided to make Charisma more significant. They introduced the sorcerer–like a wizard, but for players who didn’t want to do all the tedious spell management and preparation and just liked a few spells they could use to blast things. They introduced the warlock, whose magic worked similarly but was largely dependent upon how clever they were in negotiation their pact with some evil eldritch entity (#Cthulhu #HighCharisma #Chosen). And there were a lot of skills, many of which actively used Charisma. No longer was it the dump stat of yore.

At this point, it became clear that Charisma wasn’t just “how much people like you.” It was still that, obviously, but it had to tap into this RAW STRENGTH OF SELF POWER. You were literally (er, figuratively) walking around with a ring with a heart symbol on it, and you did things BY THE POWER OF HEART.

Around this time, when they were picking races for 4e, WotC decided that Charisma had become so important, and that it was more about COOL than BEAUTIFUL, that tieflings went from having a Charisma PENALTY (in 3e) to having a Charisma BONUS (in 4e)*. Also because darkness is cool, kids. Eladrin (or high elves) had a Charisma bonus. Half-elves had a Charisma bonus. All the races who are cooler than you, a mere human, became literally cooler, on average, than you.

* Note: Tieflings also had a Charisma bonus in 2e. Because those designers knew darkness was sexy.

In 4e, Charisma became important also because it was significant to your defense. You could resist enchantment, compulsion, fear, and other such sorts of effects based on your Will defense, which was calculated either with your Wisdom OR your Charisma. Yes, you could literally tap upon your massive ego to ward off a wizard commanding you to perish with a death spell. Or to remember that you are, in fact, a high level monk on a mission to find a lost scroll, and not a small squirrel that you were just polymophed into. (Though to avoid the polymorph, that’s actually a Fortitude thing.)

High Charisma squirrel. (Found on Tumblr, because Tumblr)

(Come to think of it, I think that’s a DM ruling and not a RAW example, but anyway, you get what I’m saying.)

In 4e you could also take Combat Training (Charisma), which allowed you to use your Charisma modifier AS YOUR ATTACK MODIFIER. You could literally out-cool, out-beauty, out-insult, or out-fox an opponent. With a sword. To death.

5e tripled down on the “Make Charisma the New God-Stat, GTFO-Dexterity” quest, and now, well, everyone can stand to have a few points in this big, complicated, important ability score. Bards (the OGs of Charisma) use it for their performances and magic, sorcerers and warlocks channel it into casting spells, while paladins and even clerics (really? clerics!) use it to reflect the strength of their faith while channeling divine power.

I predict that in 6th edition, everyone will use Charisma all the time, and it will be a primary ability score for all classes. Because social skills are important, kids. Stay in school, but mostly for recess and extra curriculars. (Go Rams!)

What Charisma is, 5th edition:

Charisma is this murky combination of physical appearance, social skills, ego, self-confidence, and awareness of self.

A charismatic person is instantly likeable, instantly noticeable, and draws your attention, affection, or jealousy. They may be eloquent with words, persuasive, charming, or just deeply, emotionally supportive. You’re more likely to click with someone with a high charisma than a low one, and become friends with them quickly. If they ask for a favor, you’re likely to go right along with it, no questions asked.

High charisma people are the people you’re constantly talking about, whether in a good or bad way. They may be drama factories or cool, controlled badasses you want to emulate. You probably believe them easily and want to think the best of them, or if they’ve wronged you, it’s easy to feel manipulated or toyed with by them. This isn’t to say that you instantly fall in love with everyone you meet with a high charisma, or that anyone just becomes a stalker around a person with high charisma. But the odds are you’ll have a more favorable impression of them than some other rando you meet on the Internet, er, street.

You, man. YOU. (Fallout 4, Bethesda)

The higher the charisma, the more pronounced the effect. It’s like fame: the more famous you are, the harder it becomes to avoid notice, and the more stalkers will be drawn to you. Really high charisma becomes a curse in its own way–a lot of people like you, but it becomes difficult to tell if they like you FOR YOU, or for how charming, powerful, beautiful, popular, etc. you are.

Charisma also represents your inner strength and force of will in an offensive sense. In D&D, sorcerers can literally manipulate magic that wells up inside like a spring, and obviously Charisma is the force that does that. Warlocks are much the same way, though that power originally came from the eldritch entity they somehow convinced to give them power. Paladins use Charisma when smiting things. Etc.

Charisma is great. Important.

So what do various Charisma stats mean?

I’m gonna say a few things about each level of charisma, and try and give an example that we can all relate to. We’ve all seen the Lord of the Rings movies, right? Welp.

Charisma 0 is an object. If you have Charisma 0, you don’t know you’re not an object. You can’t tell yourself apart from the world around you.

A sentient plant is CHA 1. If you have this level of charisma, you sort of know you exist, but mostly you’re an automaton.

An animal is probably Charisma 2-3. At this level, you know you’re a separate being from the world, but you see yourself as being a part of others. Your pack, for instance, is also you. You serve a purpose in that pack. The wargs in LotR have this level of Charisma.

Brutish humanoids have Charisma 4-5. At this level, you’re a bit more settled than an animal and you sometimes disagree with others of your own kind. But generally, you do as you’re told by those you see as superior and you don’t even consider having a conversation. What would be the point? The orcs and goblins in LotR typically have Charisma around this level.

Most humans range from:

Charisma 6-7: You have low social skills and limited emotional affect. You avoid others, and they avoid you. You have difficulty relating to people and a weak sense of self. Gollum has this level of Charisma, as do most Uruk-hai (augmented orcs).

Charisma 8-9: You’re gruff, brusque, rude, irritable, just some person most people don’t like very much. People don’t like paying attention to you and look forward to escaping a conversation with you. Gimli the Dwarf has this level of Charisma, as does the leader of the Uruk-hai (y’know, that jerk with the bow).

Charisma 10-11: You’re average, competent, can carry on a conversation, and are kind of forgettable. Many stranger don’t keep track of you if you don’t hang out a lot. Most hobbits in the Lord of the Rings have this level of Charisma, including Frodo and Sam.

Charisma 12-13: You are sunny, interesting, charming. You’re the one people want to be friends with. There are things about you that others want to learn or experience, such as your excellent singing voice or your inspiring bravery. Merry and Pippin have this level of Charisma, as do Eowyn and Faramir–likeable enough, but easily overshadowed by greater presences.

Then you get into the higher tiers, which are increasingly rare and make a big difference. At these tiers, you’re the kind of person who can walk into a room and all the attention goes to them, regardless of what was happening–unless someone with a higher charisma is there:

Charisma 14-15: You are magnetic, compelling. You’re the popular one in the class. You set trends, even without meaning to. You are a competent leader, but you don’t inspire fanatical loyalty. People trust and admire you and try to emulate you. You have your moments of greatness. Arwen and Boromir have this level of Charisma, and Gandalf is probably about here.

Charisma 16-17: You seize people’s attention without doing anything. You might be the beloved leader of an entire community, a great hero, or perhaps a person of great faith or principle. People may get flustered trying to talk to you, and you who can talk most people into doing whatever they want. You can lead a fellowship into battle and they will follow you into peril. This is Legolas’s level of Charisma, and it has most to do with how handsome and graceful he is.

Charisma 18-19: You are a star. People grow happy at seeing you and start crying when you’re upset, people can’t help but love you. You’re the beloved king of a nation. People have a hard time focusing on anything else while you’re there, and often people lose track of what they were saying when engaged with you. You can lead armies into battle. Aragorn has this level of charisma.

Charisma 20-21: You have an unnatural appeal and power that exudes from you like nothing most people have ever experienced. Yours is an otherworldly presence that makes most people either nervous or distracted around you. It takes a similarly strong sense of self to question you or argue with you. Galadriel has this level of Charisma, as does Sauron.

Examples of High Charisma

James Bond, for instance, has high Charisma.He’s very good at getting people to like him, and it isn’t just his sparkling personality. He’s an excellent manipulator and well known as a womanizer, which he couldn’t accomplish without high charisma.

I’ll have those dice shaken, not stirred. (image copyright MGM)

His actual attractiveness is up for debate. I mean, I’m not really much to judge, but I do know that Sean Connery and Roger Moore look fundamentally different. Daniel Craig has a hard, predatory look and riveting blue eyes that might have been chipper from an iceberg and… ahem, like I said, I’m not really much to judge. Regardless, James Bond is one charismatic asshole, emphasis on the asshole.

Speaking of charismatic assholes, Tony Stark. Sure, he’s handsome and all, but it’s mostly the money and the attitude. He just projects self-confidence, which is why he’s most compelling (IMO) when he’s at his weakest in this respect, in Iron Man 3. But I digress. Generally speaking, Tony Stark is the charismatic face of the Avengers.

Lots of money, mostly. (Image by Marvel Studios)

Tony’s charisma doesn’t always help him. Sometimes it gets dangerous people involved with him. He attracts lunatics, and I don’t just mean the big green ones. Whether they’re jealous business partners, dedicated assassins, or creepy stalkers with bad hair, many of Tony’s worst enemies are envious of his success and charm.

Speaking of charisma not always being a good thing, Galadriel.

Yes, yes we will. (Image from New Line Cinema)

Seriously, mostly people can’t even act normally around her, she’s so beautiful and graceful and serene and then when she goes DARK, it just gets MORE and… you know what, I’m going to move on.

I think you get what I’m saying.

Examples of Low Charisma

High charisma is all around us. Kings, queens, paladins, everywhere you look, there’s some charming dude or steely-willed lady commanding hapless rubes to their deaths.

And most people around us just have average charisma. Most of us also have average charisma. We take care of ourselves, we hang out with friends, we try to be attractive if that’s what we’re looking for, etc. But most of us are just a crowd, and the high charisma people are the ones who stand out in the crowd.

What about LOW charisma, though? How is that represented in the game?

There are lots of ways to explain a lower charisma.

A character or creature with low charisma suffers from a significant deficit in one of the things Charisma represents. They might have zero social skills. They might have very little sense of self or be extremely timid, lacking confidence. They might have hideous deformations, scars, or other wounds. These might all combine to produce a low charisma character.

For example, a low charisma character might have grown up far removed from society and have no ability or interest in that society. If your wood elf has a charisma of 4, for instance, then odds are they really aren’t good with people at all.

If I were designing this character, I’d go the feral route. Your wood elf would be little more than a beast and probably doesn’t have much interest in being treated otherwise. Completely out of their depth in etiquette, social interaction, or even basic conversation. They frequently offend people even when they’re trying to be nice. They might not be house trained or able to stop themselves from making a mess of their surroundings. They might relieve themselves in public or just take their clothes off without regard to the situation.

Did you ever play Final Fantasy III/VI? Do you remember Gau, that wild kid who lived out in the wilderness, was raised essentially by wolves, and could emulate enemy attacks? IMO, that’s an example of a low charisma character.

Remember me? Me friend! (Image by Square Enix)

Privilege Feats

I’ve said something like this before, but I was thinking about it this morning.

This is just my perspective, but I think of sorts of privilege as being like initial feats your character has. You don’t choose these feats–they are assigned to you and operate whether you want them to or not. 
(Though you could in theory take actions later in the game to modify how they operate, more on that later.)

All of them have different effects, and some are more broadly useful than others.

Having the “white” feat is almost always to your benefit, except in certain situations (wandering through a street in a black neighborhood late at night, trying to discuss racial issues with a room full of POCs, hiking in the mountains of Afghanistan or Iraq, etc). As with “straight” and “male,” it’s a pretty great, extremely OP feat that is almost always useful. (Possibly the only more OP feat is the relatively rare “Wealth” feat.)

If, on the other hand, you have say the “black” feat or the “gay” feat, it is of much more limited utility, and you run into significantly more situations where it either doesn’t help or actively injures you. Worse still if you have a bunch of underpowered feats, like a “POC” feat, “female,” “trans,” etc, which have a chaining effect. Your character’s going to run into a lot of issues in the adventure. 

As I said above, you can’t modify what feats you start with. You’re born white, you have the white feat. You’re born gay, you have the gay feat. You may be able to hide one or more of your feats (particularly the “not-straight” family of feats or “trans,” “NB,” “genderqueer,” etc), but over the long term that hinders your character quite dramatically.

You can take additional feats and skill trainings to modify how these feats operate, however. You could take the “ally” feat (which is more complicated than one might think before taking the feat) or the “feminist” feat (whose prereqs are easier if you have the “woman” feat, but doable for all). If you have skill training in Diplomacy and Empathy, then your “white” feat can be put to good use, and you might be able to take the “wealth” feat at some point despite not having the “white” feat, but it’s really, REALLY hard to get (mostly because other people with the “white” and “wealth” feats actively discourage you from getting it).

Anyway. If you’re trying to wrap your head around privilege, that might be a useful way to look at it. 🙂

Facets of Alignment: Chaos

Standard caveat: Alignment discussion is an ongoing, unending battlefield morass of discussion and debate and argument. (And, I would argue, it’s been purposefully set up that way.) You can and should develop your own perspectives on this subject, and if you disagree with what I say here, that’s cool. By all means, let’s talk about it.

Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good people run the gamut from political revolutionaries struggling against an oppressive regime to good guys who don’t much care about the rules to rugged individualists soaked in beneficence. They consider the good of people more important than the actual law, which they view with distrust or contempt. They’re often impulsive and disorganized, trusting instinct over planning, and often never run the same con or strategy twice.

Chaotic Good aims to misbehave, but always for a good reason.

Chaotic Good individuals are susceptible to their anarchic influences, and can easily end up skirting that moral line. Chaotic Good adventurers tend to be good at improvisation when their loose plans inevitably fall apart, and they consider adaptation more important than strictures. They tend to run from responsibility or authority, though sometimes they embrace it in the end because it’s the right thing to do. Their loyalty is to a cause, not to an authority.

Examples: Aragorn is Chaotic Good. Robin Hood is Chaotic Good. Zorro is Chaotic Good. Malcolm Reynolds is Chaotic Good. The Dread Pirate Roberts is Chaotic Good. Elminster is Chaotic Good. Garin Ravalis (from the World of Ruin series) is Chaotic Good.

Chaotic Neutral

Chaotic Neutral revels in chaos and disorder. A Chaotic Neutral person is unpredictable in the extreme and rarely repeats the same stratagem–if they even see it as strategy. They act on their whims and feelings and rarely edit themselves. They rely on themselves alone, take people by surprise, and often take pride in doing both. A Chaotic Neutral person generally has no use for law or authority and make go out of their way to frustrate the efforts of lawful characters and institutions.

Chaotic Neutral is independent, free, and only relies on itself.

A Chaotic Neutral person is marked by a streak of amorality–rarely do they side with a good cause, nor do they let the evil of an action make them hesitate. They need more compelling reasons than “it’s the right thing to do” to prompt them to action. However, despite its reputation, Chaotic Neutral isn’t intended to be carte blanche for “do whatever you want, whenever you want.” Yes, there is that, but Chaotic Neutral goes further. It is a lifelong commitment to defying expectation, trusting your instinct, and undermining expectations.

Examples: V from V for Vendetta is Chaotic Neutral. Deadpool is Chaotic Neutral. Harley Quinn is Chaotic Neutral. Catwoman is Chaotic Neutral. Ilira “The Fox-at-Twilight” Nathalan is Chaotic Neutral. Mask (from the World of Ruin series) is Chaotic Neutral.

Chaotic Evil

Chaotic Evil is our classic sense of what evil is–unpredictable, monstrously bad–and that seems to be intentional in the setup of the nine alignments. In truth, though, it’s no more or less evil than any other evil alignment–just often more obvious about it. This goes to how we pathologize mental illness, and we often make our villains out to be “crazy” and “chaotic,” but that’s another discussion for another time.

Chaotic Evil: Because some people just want to watch the world burn.

Just as Lawful Good isn’t necessarily Lawful Stupid, neither is Chaotic Evil necessarily Chaotic Stupid. We’re all familiar with roving, mad monsters that sow destruction and chaos for pleasure, but one can be quite a bit more subtle. There’s nothing about the alignment that says you have to be loud and bombastic. As long as you work toward the common ill, sow confusion and revel in setting people off their ease, pride yourself on being unpredictable and only serve your own interests, odds are you’re Chaotic Evil.

Examples: The Joker is Chaotic Evil. The drow, orcs, and many monsters are Chaotic Evil. Demons are Chaotic Evil. Ramsay Bolton is Chaotic Evil. Lilten Dlardrageth is Chaotic Evil (though he’s urbane about it). Fayne is Chaotic Evil, though she evolves to be more Neutral over time. Alistra Ravalis (from the World of Ruin series) is Chaotic Evil.

Gaming Logic: Hit Points

Caveat: Very little about Dungeons & Dragons is intended to be clear cut. There are literally dozens or even hundreds of interpretations of how any particular mechanic works to simulate the real world or something else, etc. This is mine. YMMV.


Ah, the classic dilemma. How to present when your hero is up or down in a battle. Is it health, endurance, stamina, vitality, fatigue, guts, body, etc? Is it a red health bar that shakes and diminishes when your character is hit, or is it a more abstract measure of your combat prowess? If you take a grievous wound, do you lose a lot of hit points or do you lose just a few and instead end up with some condition (slowed, attack penalties, etc)? Why does the WotC writer’s handbook specifically state that you will never use the term “hit points” in a novel? (Ok, that one seems kind of obvious.)

Basically, it depends what you’re trying to simulate. It’s possible to build a system where you cover everything in excruciating detail. When you’re struck in combat, what kind of wound does it produce, how does that affect your combat effectiveness, how many such wounds can you take before you’re down, etc., etc. Various games have attempted this–think of hit tables, wound location tables, system shock rolls, etc.–with varying degrees of success.

Some games don’t want to do this, however. They are more interested in simulating a cinematic or pulp experience, where the heroic, gritty warrior fights in the middle of a swarm of baddies and emerges out the other side with a few bruises and carefully torn armor/clothes, a fierce look in her eye and blood all over her blade. In real life, of course, if you get attacked by 3-4 armed assailants, even if you’re an excellent fighter, odds are hilariously good you’re going down hard.

Think of the Lord of the Rings movies–yes, there was some brawling there, but it’s basically stylized, interesting-to-watch combat, not real battle. (And there’s no way Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas can fend off 50 orcs with just their personal weapons. No matter how live a machine gun Legolas’s bow can be.) The Princess Bride depicts fencing, but it’s stage fighting at about a quarter speed of real fencing. Most real fighting is over within seconds, or you’re going to lose the fight. Most fighting is done from ambush and is what we’d call dishonorable in the extreme–if you’re fighting for your life, you don’t have any time for flair or showing off. People who do that get killed really quickly.

Ask yourself: What experience are you really looking for in your games?

Gaming Variants

D&D and games like it (Pathfinder, Shadow of the Demon Lord, etc) tend to go with a more abstracted interpretation where Hit Points are the sum total of your ability to keep fighting. It’s a murky combination of health, fighting ability, endurance, will, grit, etc. When your hit points are positive, you’re up. When they’re 0 or below, you’re down and may be dying/dead. You typically have an attack roll in these games opposed by a static defense number (armor class [AC], defense, etc) the attacker has to meet, which is increased by things like wearing armor, using a shield, being really agile and thus hard to hit, etc.

In some games, your armor soaks (absorbs) damage, reducing the amount you’d take if you were struck rather than increasing your AC, and if it’s heavy, it might make you easier to hit (see the AGE system, Iron Kingdoms, etc).

Some games have dynamic defense rolls, which is a pretty good facsimile of actual combat. This was in vogue for a bunch of d20 games, where you’d roll your defense rather than have a static AC–as if a static AC was “taking 10” on defense checks. For instance, Jamie Lannister has like a +12 to hit because he’s such an awesome swordsman and you have +5 to your defense (because you have a shield and a Dex +1), and you both roll a d20, add your bonuses, and determine the result, which is that Jamie cuts your throat in one blow and you were supposed to be the tank, oh snap, TPK imminent. (True story.)

It can get more complicated, such as in Vampire: the Masquerade, Mage: the Ascension, Werewolf: the Huntering, Jason: the Teen-Stomping, and other World of Darkness Games (ok, only those first two, but you get the idea), where you do damage by means of an attack roll (producing a number of successes), a defense roll (if they have an action to try to dodge, roll a number of dice, reduce the number of successes–if one success gets through, it does damage, plus any extra successes), a soak roll (where the number of successes reduces the damage of the attack), and damage marks wound boxes depending on the difference between these two results. It’s quite swingy in that way, or it can produce battles where two tough vampires just flail at each other for hours. Which can be fun in a way. 🙂

Games do this in different ways. The Cypher System (Numenera, the Strange, etc) has three ability tracks–Might, Speed, Intellect–which are mostly a pool of points you can spend to do things (limited resources representing fatigue) and also where you take damage when you’re hit by an attack. The pool that’s most appropriate is the one damaged (mental stress hits your intellect, poison hits your might, strikes to your limbs affects your speed, etc), and damage can be carried over if the primary pool it damages goes to 0. When one pool goes to 0, you are impaired, which means you function poorly. When two pools are exhausted, you’re disabled, which means you’re barely limping along. And when all three pools are spent, you’re incapacitated.

Cortex games like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Firefly, etc, handle damage in terms of giving a character a higher and higher stress die, which applies to physical, mental, or emotional stress. For instance, when someone hits you in combat, you take a die of physical stress, and future attacks against you can exploit that physical stress to enhance their die pools, i.e. increase their chances of harming you. Though if it’s only a little physical stress (d4), trying to exploit it is just as likely to screw up their attack and help you as actually harm you. It’s a complex, potentially very powerful system.

Games that are Powered by the Apocalypse… You know, I don’t really remember how these games do damage. Marking wounds? Probably. I should really get on playing that recently acquired copy of Monsterhearts 2 one of these days.

But I digress. Here we were talking about the classic, popular, occasionally embarrassing to the kids Daddy of RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons.


Well here’s what Hit Points (HP) are to me. (Again, YMMV.)

Hit Points are your character’s staying power in a fight.

They represent primarily skill at fighting and stamina. This is why warrior types (fighters, paladins, barbarians, etc) have more hit points than wizards, sorcerers, bards, and other such squishy friends. The better you are at defending yourself and the stronger/tougher you are, the longer you will last in a battle.

This comes out of my own fight training and experience. Part of what marks a superior fighter is how long they can keep fighting at a high level of expertise. Most amateur fighters exhaust their hit points quickly and take a knock-out blow early on. More experienced fighters are better at turning blows into glancing strikes, essentially soaking more damage than lesser fighters, and continuing to perform at or near their peak efficiency.

Go ahead, keep hitting me. (Artist unknown [?])

HP are not a measure of your health… not exactly.

They aren’t some health bar floating over your character that measures how much raw vitality is surging through you, rawr! They *are* a measure of how many hits you can take before you go down, however. Or more accurately, how many *near misses* you can sustain before you take a serious wound.

When your armor turns aside a blow, that’s it hitting you and reducing your hit points. When you parry a strike, that’s it hitting you and reducing your hit points. When you narrowly *dodge* a fireball, that’s it hitting you and reducing your hit points–unless you have evasion, which represents a knack for not being there at all when the fireball hits. Because what happens is that the weapon or spell hits your weapon or armor and weakens you but doesn’t really hurt you. You shrug it off and keep fighting, but the sum total of a series of hits like that are going to wear you down. Hence your HP dwindles, and eventually you’re going to mess up defending yourself from a blow and go down (when they hit 0).

Injuries happen when HP are low.

In my games, a PC doesn’t actually get *injured* until their HP drop precipitously low. Low HP mean you’re more likely to falter in a block and take a serious injury. It’s you, dizzy, exhausted, rattled, breathing hard, about to go down. Look at a boxer or MMA fighter in the later rounds of a fight. That’s low HP. Their combat effectiveness is still high–they can still land good hits, sure–but the chances they’re going to get clobbered and put down are much, much higher than they were right out of the gate.

A lot of games have some sort of death or fate mechanic for below 0 hit points. You roll a die to determine if you’re dead, bleeding out, or stable. This is because the hit that dropped you might not have been a lethal one, and it’s difficult for others to tell, sometimes, if you survived the hit or if you’re gonna die if left unaided. Losing consciousness by violence is never a good thing, but it can be extremely unpredictable. Sometimes you wake up with no obvious ill effects, sometimes you end up in a coma for days or weeks or years.

(The moral is, be careful out there, and watch your hit points. If you’re getting low, extricate yourself from the situation.)

Don’t mind me, just taking care of this bullet wound. (Art Tomb Raider 2013, Crystal Dynamics)

Well then, what does Healing Magic do?

For some, healing magic represents some unseen magical force that reknits your tissue, sets broken bones, closes wounds, etc. And kind of it does–it certainly CAN do that.

But to me, the effect of healing magic is to soothe your aches and fill you with revitalizing energy. It lets you fight on longer and harder than you otherwise would. It restores your hit points which, remember, are a measure of your fighting ability and stamina, not your actual health. A healing potion is more like a Red Bull than some sort of wound antidote.

(Particularly if you’re drinking a flying potion. That gives you wings. Eh? Eh? I’ll show myself out.)

And when you use your muscles in a battle, you create small tears and strains in those muscles. That’s how you build muscle mass: you work the muscles, stretching and tearing them, and they grow back stronger and bigger. Healing magic expedites the recovery process–basically, your muscles rebuild instantaneously (to the extent of the healing spell).

If you receive a healing spell when you’re down, it does basically the same thing–heals that strained muscle tissue, suppresses pain, reknits flesh, etc. But the most important thing is that it puts you back on your feet to continue the fight. Just as it would do if you never left your feet.

You don’t really have hit points–you have a fighting status.

I once had a brilliant 4e D&D DM who kept track of our characters’ hit points–we never knew our exact hit points–and only gave us updates on our status based on hits.

  • At 100% HP, the character is uninjured.
  • 75% to 99% HP? Bruised.
  • 51% to 74%? Winded.
  • 25-50%? Bloodied.
  • 11% to 25%? Injured.
  • 1% to 10%? Grievously injured and about to go down.
  • And of course 0 HP is unconscious.

I do something like this in my games, too, though I’m happy to have PCs track their own HP. What I’m saying is, you only really get *bloodied* in my games when you’re at half hit points or lower, and it’s not really a major wound that you take.

Um…. cleric? (Art by Rodrigo Gonzalez, 2013)

D&D 4e did this, and I think that was one of the best things to come out of it. It’s that turning point in a fight where you take the first wound and have to react to it in some way. The fighter takes a wound across his exposed thigh and staggers, barely blocking the next blow, then winces and takes stock of his dire situation. The barbarian retreats from a hammer strike to her midsection, spits blood, and her frenzied smile broadens into something truly terrifying. Etc. These moments of drama are important in a story, and I think RPGs are fundamentally about telling a collaborative story.

When you’re low on HP (around 25% or lower, say), I’ll say your character is wavering.

When you’re at 0 HP exactly, you are disabled–reduced in the actions you can take and a stiff breeze could put you down.

When you’re below 0 HP, you’re unconscious and possibly injured and possibly dying.

A note about Attack Rolls: Power vs. Consistency

Gaining levels and gaining a higher attack bonus doesn’t necessarily mean you’re just luckier or that you’re a better warrior. Or, perhaps, it *does* mean that, but in the sense that a better warrior is more consistent than a n00b, and that’s what a higher attack bonus represents.

Take your standard guard in medium armor (AC 15). A starting fighter (level 1) is going to hit this guard, eh, about 50% of the time (+4 attack bonus, roll an 11 or better, that’s 50% odds). An experienced fighter, however (level 5, say) might hit the guard 75% of the time (with a +9 attack bonus), which is a pretty reliable rate. A masterful fighter (level 10) might hit the guard 95% of the time (+14 attack bonus), and make super short work of the guard.

Any kid with a sharpened stick can get in a lucky hit (roll a 20), but it takes training and practice to hit well, pretty much every time. And that’s what a higher attack bonus translates to.

This is also why I think defense should go up as you get higher in level, to reflect your ability to reduce being hit to match, but D&D chooses to represent this by increased hit points. It’s not that you are able to avoid being hit, exactly, but more like you know how to lessen the impact and minimize the damage.

It’s just a flesh wound, promise…. (artist unknown [?])


To me, hit points are more about fighting prowess than health or vitality or something like that. There’s stamina involved–how long you can keep fighting when you’re taking hits–but mostly it’s about skill and experience. The more fights you’ve been in, the better a fighter you become. It’s just like anything else–practice, practice, practice.

Example: The Paladin and the Thief

I read a story once about a D&D game in which the DM had a PC who was playing a 5th level paladin (50-60 hit points or so) and a gang of 1st level bandits who ambushed the party. The paladin, being brave and boisterous and arrogant as paladins are wont to do (see my previous entries about Lawful Alignments and the pitfalls of playing a paladin). The bandits threaten to kill them all if they don’t hand over their gold. The paladin’s player takes a quick look at his hit points, opens his arms wide, and say “ha ha, take your best shot, knave! I’ll not even resist!”

The DM rules that the bandit walks up, slits the paladin’s throat, and the paladin dies on the spot. (He was telling us this story to ask whether that was “fair” to his players.)

Now. If you’re playing a game based on gritty realism, then yeah, probably that’s totally fine, and maybe the game should allow for that. You as a DM can always rule that a coup d’ grace is an automatic death blow, regardless of the target’s HP–but if you do, watch yourself, because the heroes WILL exploit that ruling. Next time they sneak up on a sleeping dragon and coup d’ grace it, your whole campaign will unravel.

To an extent, that’s what critical hits are for: in D&D, if you inflict a coup d’ grace on a helpless target (or someone not defending himself), then it inflicts an automatic critical hit. Which is typically enough to kill a regular person.

But if you’re playing a game about pulp or epic heroes, then you’re probably not dealing with normal people. That bandit who slit the paladin’s throat? Maybe he was TRYING to slit the paladin’s throat, but the paladin was just so tough and quick that he jerked aside and the bandit only cut him shallowly or missed the artery. Maybe the knife even broke off against his skin. Maybe the paladin is bleeding copiously but still fighting, because he still has some HP left. But basically, the deathblow didn’t happen, because the character still has hit points to chew through.

Guns and exploding damage weapons do this as well. A gun typically inflicts d10 damage, and if you roll a 10, you roll again. You could in theory keep rolling 10s and one-shot anything. That’s something to consider when rolling a critical hit.

Think about what you’re trying to simulate.

Gritty D&D Coup d’Grace

I’m gonna recommend a one-hit kill rule, if you want to use it in your games.

I call it the “Wade Grimdark” rule.

It comes up when a character for some reason can’t *use* their hit points. Can’t put up a fight, can’t brace for a blow, can’t resist, etc. If that’s the case, give the attacker an automatic critical hit, and compare the damage to the character’s Constitution score. If it meets or exceeds the CON score, the character is reduced immediately to 0 hit points and is dead or dying, depending on how you resolve such things in your game. If the damage *doesn’t* meet or exceed the CON score, multiple the damage inflicted by half the character’s level (round up) and reduce their hit points by that amount. Then proceed as normal.

For instance: Bandit hits the helpless 5th level paladin and inflicts 14 damage. If the paladin’s CON score is 14 or lower, the paladin dies instantly. If the paladin’s CON is 15 or higher, the paladin takes 42 damage (not quite enough to drop him) and is still in the game.

Just a suggestion.


What do Hit Points represent to you?

How do you do health/HP in your games?

What sort of games do you prefer?

To you prefer armor to increase defense or soak damage?


Further Reading:

Wikipedia has a thing on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_(gaming)

Jonathan Tweet–a good friend and smart guy: https://plus.google.com/+JonathanTweet/posts/LXCKdDqaZUy

One of the thousands of online discussions about the topic: https://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/63613/hit-dice-vs-hit-points

Thinge I learned at GenCon 50

1. I’m getting older but I can still stay up drinking and talking about totally random stuff until midnight every night. Because GenCon.

2. Even when I think I’m not networking, I am. People want to hire me for things. Just last night, I ran SotDL with some friends, which turned into a couple Sentinels of the Multiverse games, which turned into a good little chat with my oldish friend Christopher Baddell, the creator of the game, who may or may not need some design for his forthcoming Sentinels RPG. (Can neither confirm nor deny.) I have a bunch of threads there, and if you’d like some work, hit me up. I’m always open to chat and I rarely say no, because I love writing.

3. The Writer’s Symposium continues to be one of the best things about GenCon every year. This year we sold 10k tickets (yes–ten thousand!) and had all kinds of huge names and crowded events. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it.

4. Elaine Cunningham is as cool as I expected, and it was excellent to meet her in person (finally) this year. Also read the book “How to be a Tudor” on her recommendation.

5. If you want to make a splash on the con floor, run a manually operated (as in people inside it) vending machine as your storefront, ala the Exploding Kittens people. See the video (on twitter until I can get it embedded here).


6. My perpetual roomie Brian Cortijo is one of the nicest, hardest working guys in the industry and the Forgotten Realms community, and he always takes good care of me. Highly recommended as a friend. (Does Facebook do reviews?) Also, we should all be rooting for him to win the powerball because of reasons.

7. I was a writer panelist at one of Zombie Orpheus’s Gamers Live events, and it was fantastic. Must contact Chris and Sarah to do that again.

8. Larry Dixon and Mercedes Lackey are just as cool as the last time we hung out 10ish years ago. Larry remembered me and my work, too!

9. It never becomes less awesome to meet a stranger who has heard of you or likes your work. I’ll never get over that feeling.

10. If you want to push artists over the edge from “breaking even” to “turning a profit,” buy their stuff! That’s what I did with Claudio Pozas, whose work I will be displaying on my office wall shortly.

11. Food: Marriott breakfast is a bit better than the Westin’s, primarily because you can order a fresh omelette. Didn’t eat at Palomino’s this year–must make that a priority. Keep Sunday lunch at Granite City and Monday breakfast at Patachou’s an annual tradition.

12. Demo more games! It’s fun and energizing. And you never know what cool things you’ll discover. It’s so worth it.


World of Ruin SotDL characters

Hey all–particularly players in my Shadow of the Demon Lord-powered World of Ruin games at GenCon this year!

I’m posting the premade characters for your perusal. It’s first come, first served at my tables, so if you see one here you really want to play, make sure you let me know as soon as you can.

These characters exist over a 15-20ish year span, so they each have two versions: a 0th level version for ESCAPE FROM LUETHER (set during the fall of Luether in 961 SA) and a 3rd level version for BLOOD TIES (set sometime after the fall of the Winter King in 976 SA). The backgrounds of the 3rd level characters have been updated to match the canonical outcome of the first session (assuming the character survives. I would say “likely outcome,” but the likely outcome is character death. 🙂

You’ll notice none of the characters have a gender attached to them. This is because I like my games to be approachable for everyone, and this is an aspect of character creation I will happily leave up to the players.

(Note that the character sheets are subject to update and change.)

Amara the Ice Viper, a courtesan from Tar Vangr and eventual slayer in the Circle of Tears

Amara Ice Viper L0

Amara Ice Viper L3

Ithicus the Imbuer, an apprentice artificer who perfects their talents over the years

Ithicus the Imbuer L0

Ithicus the Imbuer L3

Nameless Summer, a Ruinscarred child growing up on the mean streets of Luether

Nameless Summer L0

Nameless Summer L3

Nassae the Warding Angel, a Tar Vangruyr soldier and hunter

Nassae Warding Angel L0

Nassae Warding Angel L3

Nori Nine Fingers, a world traveler and scholar of ancient religious lore

Nori Nine Fingers L0

Nori Nine Fingers L3

Vandranil the Venerable, an elderly godly Luetharr possessed by living magic

Vandranil the Venerable L0

Vandranil the Venerable L3

Splintering Bone Spur, a barbaric Child of Ruin turned gladiator

Splintering Bone Spur L0

Splintering Bone Spur L3

Aesir the Changeling, a shapeshifter warped by the magics of Ruin, destined to become a High Druid

Aesir the Changeling L0

Aesir the Changeling L3