Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The GM PC vs. The Favored NPC

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.


  1. Interesting post. Only very rarely have I ever ran a GM PC when it was only me and one other player. I never had fun with it. I'm a unitasker and trying to switch between GM and PC made my head spin.

  2. The 'slippery slope' argument always bothers me. The GMPC debate is always accompanied by this argument and it is as weak an argument here as it is anywhere else.

    Yes, a GMPC can become a serious problem in the game if not used correctly. But this isn't unique in any way. There are tons and tons of different things a GM can do that become problems with the game if not used correctly from treasure, to adventure hooks, to plot devices and even simply managing the table.

    Why then is the GMPC uniquely brought into focus as damning the instant he appears? Completely ignoring the good aspects that one can bring to the table with one? It can bring balance to an unbalanced party covering roles the rest of the party hasn't covered. It can be an easy way to introduce story elements and plot to the campaign. Its an easy target choice when you need something bad to happen to the party but don't want to make a player feel like you're singling them out.

    The key is to use it responsibly, just like EVERY tool in your GM's toolbox. If you use him to do as the blog suggests that steals the spot light or causes your bias to shift, then you have a problem.

    So dont.

    But that doesn't mean that every possible GMPC should be banned from the get go.

    Be a good GM. Make sure your players have fun, no matter what tools you use to make that happen.

  3. My group and I are currently running a game of Pathfinder. It's our first time using the system and our first time as a group using something that isn't 4E D&D.

    When we made the switch, it was because I, as the GM, was tired of running every week. Sometimes it just wears you out, so we decided to each take turns running a session. We rotate GMs each week and it's worked for the past two weeks. Because of this, we each have our own GMPC for the sessions that we run.

    We've only had two sessions of this campaign so far and the GMPC has been handled about the same with both sessions. The GM only brings the GMPC in when he's around or in combat and generally tries to keep his control simple.

    There has been one incident where it felt like the GMPC was set up by the GM to directly interfere with the plans of another party member (Neutral/Evil party), but it was justified and was played in-character and did not steal the spotlight from anyone, so it wasn't so bad.

    Really, the GMPCs have taken the role of a supportive NPC, there only when they're needed. The campaign hasn't gone on for too long, so things may take a different turn.

    My point is that sometimes they're not all bad. With a group of five people new to a system with rotating GMs, it is a great idea. We have enough people in the party to assure that we can survive each combat. Outside of combat, they are useful for their skills if nobody else is trained in them.

    As far as the favored NPC, I've never seen it happen, so I have no opinion.

  4. Interesting article.
    I happen to agree with you on this. I am personally aganist GM PCs. Personally, I have never witnessed a case of this occuring where the GM hasn't had his/her PC the center of attention. GMs are there to run and tell a story. If they want to be a player, then step back as a stroyteller. The idea of even having a GM PC is rather ridiuculous to me because by the simple fact of being a GM, you would have too much OOC information about the game to be able to seperate. While we all know logically that we are not supposed to metagame, by the pure fact of having the information is going to affect the way that GM will play their character whether they are aware of it or not. As a GM your role is to assist the players and by creating a PC, you are detracting from your responsibilities as a GM. Pick one or the other, I say.

  5. I really REALLY wish this site wouldn't eat my first response whenever it is more than a paragraph.

    Perram, my point was that GM PCs can be done right. I also don't like slippery slope arguments, but I couldn't think of another way to word it, so let me try this.

    A GM PC is flat out a conflict of interest. As the GM your job is - among other things - to be a fair and impartial judge of the rules and final word on conflict. This simply can't happen in some situations with a GM PC. For example, the thief goes to rob your GM PC and the rules are vague on what happens in this specific situation. There's now now judge, because the judge is involved in the PvP that is going on.

    If you say "Handle it like you would an NPC" btw, that makes the character a prominent NPC, not a GM PC. By definition a GM PC doesn't get treated like an NPC. Meanwhile, you're also taking over the game with the very things you've mentioned. You use the GM PC to introduce the tough plots, that puts them as the key start for those tough plots. You do bad stuff to them. That makes them a prominent figure in the drama aspect of the game, as theyr'e the one to get sniped/etc/etc.

    It /can/ be done right. However, in every situation I've seen, the cons far outweigh the pros. Others mileage may vary, but it is a very dangerous road to walk.