Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s post about classically bad GMing, My Girlfriend is AC 100, let’s look at another slippery slope: The powerful canon NPC.

  • Crappy GM: “Having already knocked out Frodo and Samwise, the orcs are about to overwhelm your position.
  • Player: “Oh man, we’re really going to have to roll some 20s to get out of this one!
  • Crappy GM: “Suddenly, Gandalf rides down on his gold dragon. Its breath incinerates all of the orcs, and Gandalf does a touchdown dance on their smoldering corpses.

Sweet! Oh wait, no, that was actually pretty boring.

And as with the AC-100-significant-other, this is also a bit of a tarbaby — as a GM, it can feel like it’s just a chance to flex your muscles, bust out a really cool character and maybe avoid a TPK.

Those are really two separate concerns: Doing cool stuff, and trying to correct a game-ending mistake.

The problem with the first part (the cool NPC) is that the game isn’t about cool NPCs — it’s about cool PCs, and only secondarily about the world around them. It doesn’t matter if it’s D&D, Mage or Burning Wheel: The PCs should always be the center of attention, and the story revolves around them.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be cool NPCs in that world, though — just that they shouldn’t overshadow and outshine the PCs. (This is a problem a lot of GMs have with running games in the Forgotten Realms, which is why in the TT forum thread on bad GMing that inspired these posts, I called this one “Elminster rides in…”)

Trying to avoid a TPK (total party kill) — an event that could potentially end your entire campaign prematurely — is a bit trickier. It’s fairly easy to misjudge what the PCs can handle, and if you misjudge it badly (or the players screw up royally), and recognize it, bringing in the canon NPC cavalry can seem like a good idea.

And it might be, if you only do it once. Doing it over and over, however, is a big problem.

Unlike the AC 100 girlfriend, I’ve never had this problem — although I’ve come pretty close. A few of my games have definitely featured NPCs who flexed their muscles too often, but not quite to the “riding in their gold dragons” level.

I’ve seen a fair amount of it as a player, though, and it’s been a universally disappointing experience.

Is there more to it than that? Have you done this yourself, or seen particularly egregious examples of it as a player?