I've seen, and heard, a lot of discussion lately about GM PCs and what they are. This is a bit troubling, as the general consensus is that GM PCs are bad (I don't disagree here, mind), and if it is becoming a prominent discussion than their must be a resurgence of the trend. However, in reading, and listening to, some of the arguments made, I'm not convinced that every case I've seen lately is the GM PC. With that in mind, I wanted to take a chance to go over what my personal views of a GM PC is, and why it is bad, as well as talk about its close kin the 'favored NPC'.
GM PC, Not Just A Mash Of Terms
So, what is a GM PC? Well, it is exactly what the two terms put together say. It is a Game Master Payer Character. Alternatively, if you want it in other words, it is a PC that happens to be played by the GM. So, basically, if the cleric in your group is played by the GM, then that is a GM PC.
This in and of itself may not sound like a bad thing, after all, if your group is shy a cleric than having one following you around can be a good thing. I'd caution that this is a slippery slope though, and can bring up a conflict of interest as suddenly the GM finds himself controlling and playing one of the stars of his own story. When you want story points to happen, it becomes easy to assign them to your own character. It also becomes easy to start telling that PCs story more and more, until they're the sole focus of the game. Before you know it, the other PCs are just sitting around to catch the awesome of the GM's character, and that may not be very fun for anyone involved.
More Than Just a Helper
Now, to be clear, don't get confused with a helper being the same as a GM PC. If there is a hired help that one of the PCs hired, and the GM plays them on occasion. That may not be a GM PC; it could just be a helper. Even if the GM plays it some in the downtime. Now, this is a fine line, but basically, if the character isn't one of the main characters of the show it probably doesn't qualify as a PC, and therefore it is not a GMPC. Trust me, you'll know the line when it is crossed, even if it is hard to define otherwise.
The Favored NPC
Now, quite different from the GMPC is the Favored NPC. This may still be a major character in the story, but it isn't part of the player's group. They show up, they help, they shake the world, but it is clear that they're still an NPC from the roles they play in the story. They may be an antagonist, a fellow protagonist, but either way, their screen time is a bit lesser and well, not to keep saying it over and over, but they still don't count as a PC.
However, despite this status, you won't be able to do anything to this NPC. If they're the enemy, be prepared to have to wait for a specific time to thwart their plans. If they're on your side, be prepared for them to save your ass and be a bigger help than you time after time. Either way, you aren't doing much, so enjoy the ride.
So, Where Are They Similar?
If the two are different, why so much confusion? Well, quite frankly, because the symptoms are so damn similar. In both cases the character becomes a show stealer, and it will seem like you can't do anything to ever outshine them. In both cases, they'll likely save the day time after time, or be the big deal that can't have anything done against. Honestly, the symptoms are so similar that it isn't even an offense to get the terms mixed up. However, it is nice to know just what crime was done in the game - hence this post.
Where They're Different
So, where are they different? Well, mostly it is in the details. The GM PC is a player character, and is always present with the group as a player character. This means the problems can be much greater exacerbated, because as a PC the character can take over the lime light a bit more. The favored NPC on the other hand, if an enemy, can be more frustrating as you simply can't beat them. Nothing you do works. The heavens literally open up to protect them in some cases, and well, you just have to wait for the right time to do anything. You know, the time when you're allowed.
So, What Do You Do?
If you're confronted with either one, the only real recourse is to talk to the GM about it. Say you feel that the NPC or GM PC is stealing the spotlight, and you just don't know what you can do about it, and it is taking away your fun. If it is a group thing, then perhaps the group should talk to the GM. Stay polite, and try to be courteous. It is doubtful the GM is trying to be hurtful to the game, and may think they're doing a good job. Either way, they've put a lot of work into the game and you don't want to make this into something more than it is. So, be direct, but be cool about it.