In the comments on Help Your Players Hone their PCs During Chargen, TT reader Telas suggested this topic: “Good vs bad GMPCs…” (Thanks, Telas!)
GMPC stands for Game Master Player Character, and most often refers to an NPC that is part of the party, and takes part in all or most adventures with the PCs. The difference being, of course, that this “PC” is played by you, the GM.
There’s a fine line between GMPCs and pet NPCs, but if you steer well clear of that line, GMPCs can be an awesome GMing tool.
The Bad Edge: Pet NPCs
When I first started gaming, I thought GMPCs were all bad — and based on my experiences back then, I wasn’t too far wrong.
In a high school Vampire campaign, for example, our GM had a pet NPC join our party (I’ve forgotten the character’s name, unfortunately — we’ll call him Sven). He was significantly more powerful than our characters, and it didn’t take us long to figure out that we would be going where Sven wanted us to go (and I wish I was exaggerating):
- GM: There tunnel forks up ahead. Do you want to go right or left?
- Players: (After a brief discussion) We want to go left.
- GM: Sven says you should go right.
- Players: We don’t want to go right!
- GM: Sven grabs you, and drags you down the right passage. He’s too strong for you to resist.
Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with that situation (see How to Be a Bad GM: A Primer for more), but the problems started when our GM decided to cross the GMPC/pet NPC line.
Our PCs were overshadowed by Sven’s abilities, and we were only allowed to make decisions that jibed with the GM’s predtermined story — with Sven as his enforcement mechanism when we started to stray. In this case, Sven added nothing to the party — there was absolutely no reason for him to be there. For me, he’s the classic example of a bad GMPC.
The Good Edge: GMPCs
On the flipside, a more recent example: the GMPCs in my group’s current Stargate campaign. With only three players, we don’t have enough PCs for a standard four-person SG team, so we’ve always been accompanied by a GMPC, either Sarah Gardner (Osiris’s host, for those familiar with Stargate SG-1) or Sheila Stone.
Both Sarah and Sheila bring skills to the table that our PCs don’t have — knowledge of archaeology, first aid abilities and the like. Skills, in other words, that we didn’t take because we weren’t all that interested in them. Both GMPCs are also at roughly the same power level as our characters, and are subordinates in the military command structure.
This makes it very hard for them to outshine us, and they never have. Instead, they’ve helped the party — and best of all, become full-fledged characters in their own right. It’s a very character-driven campaign, and we’ve come to care about the GMPCs, to the point that I can’t imagine the game without them.
Sheila and Sarah are perfect examples of GMPCs done right, and props to our GM, Don, for that — he’s never even come close to the pet NPC line.
Keys to a Good GMPC
A good GMPC should:
- Complement, not overlap, the PCs’ skills and abilities.
- Never overshadow the PCs, especially not in climactic scenes.
- Stay in the background when the players are making key decisions (unless asked for input).
- Provide very occasional clues and hints to help the players.
- Be well-defined characters in their own right, not just collections of abilities.
…and should not:
- Lead the PCs around by the nose.
- Be the center of attention, with the game revolving around him, not the PCs.
- Handle the party’s toughest challenges on her own, because only she has the necessary abilities.
- Be in the foreground when the players are making important decisions.
- Be a proxy PC for a GM who really wishes she was playing instead of GMing.
TT reader and RPG freelancer Walt C. tackled this very topic a few years back, in an installment of his RPGnet column “Keeping Kosher”: When GMs Play. As I read his column, Walt is talking more about what I’ve defined as pet NPCs, rather than GMPCs (who can be good or bad).
He suggests some good ways to keep your GMPCs from becoming pet NPCs, like the Blade Runner Rule: “…create NPCs with a specific life span of sessions or adventures in mind.” If you’re wary of using GMPCs for fear of having them morph into pet NPCs over time, Walt’s article makes a great guide to avoiding exactly that.
What are your personal experiences with GMPCs and pet NPCs, either as a GM or as a player? Do you disagree with the basic division between the two that I’ve outlined here? Are there other characteristics you’d assign to either category, pet NPCs or GMPCs?
A knew a GM who always has at least two GMPCs in the party. Trying to “help” us, poor players, all these GMPCs had bags of holding filled with magic items. They seemed like magical closets with high stats and levels.
After the first times he started to try to disguise them as helpless NPCs but in the climax scenes they always took the spotlight and saved the day.
Lame… but sometimes it was funny.
Thanks for remembering; I had almost forgotten about this topic. 🙂
Great analysis. Viewed through that lens, the medic assigned to our Infantry unit was a GMPC – he knew things we didn’t, and was necessary to the mission, but didn’t have as exciting a role. And nobody was bothered by him.
Rather than running solo-PC adventures in our one-to-one campaign, my wife has 2 PCs, and I have 2 GMPCs. Sometimes I let the GMPCs get in the way, but I think the main problem is not the characters but my own general inexperience as a GM.
I think your GMPC advice is spot on. Basically, if the players look on the NPC as filling a role that they want filled– doing something they don’t want to bother with, that’s poorly handled by the system, etc.– it’s likely to be useful, not a pet.
If the characters are supposed to look up at the NPC and the players want to do the stuff the NPC’s doing, they are pets.
The best experiences I’ve had with GMPCs have both been along the same lines; the GMPC assisted in extending the lifespan of the fledgling party (usually with healing options), but once we were self-sufficient, the GMPC faded away. But they never took over the decision making process.
It made it easier to ensure that we lived long enough to enjoy the beginning of the campaign but didn’t take over anything; they existed to support our mission only and left us alone when we no longer needed them.
The worst and most difficult feature of GMPC’s is that they are hard to deal with when you’ve got players to handle. They are a distraction to the players and when you remember about them and the players distract you with them when you forget.
I only enjoy them in games where the players know how to handle NPC’s and, heck, how to have a basic conversation without all trying to talk at once.
We’ve actually stopped playing in one friend’s games because of his pet NPCs, which are always the same guy: A no-nonsense fighter-type who’s stronger and tougher than any of the PCs, always gets to perform “cool moves,” and is always needed to bail out the idiot PCs who persist in talking or thinking (or roleplaying) instead of just smashing stuff.
That sent a pretty clear message about what type of game this guy wanted to run… and we weren’t interested.
(Telas) Thanks for remembering; I had almost forgotten about this topic.
Thanks for the suggestion! I keep a rainy day file for post ideas, and sometimes it takes a little while for them to pop out on the front page. 😉
(Jennifer) The worst and most difficult feature of GMPCâ€™s is that they are hard to deal with when youâ€™ve got players to handle.
I’ve sometimes been distracted by handling my own GMPCs, but I hadn’t thought about that as being a potential downside of GMPCs in general — excellent point, Jennifer.
Calybos: Your GM’s carbon-copy pet NPCs sound like a perfect example of when GMPCs become stand-ins for a GM who really wishes he was playing, not GMing. Did he also play tough, no-nonsense fighter types when he wasn’t GMing?
Telas, the medic may or may not be a GMPC. An NPC can be a constant companion without being a GMPC.
The distinction I see is that a GMPC is more than just a tool for the players. It is a voice for the GM. It does let the GM “play” (to an extent – care must be taken, allowing the GM to enjoy the levelling up process is good, allowing the GM to “compete” for most effective character is not good).
One thing I like to do is try and make sure the GMPCs get less XP, and I’ll retire them if they manage to get ahead (which can happen if player attendance isn’t perfect and absentee XP is lower since the GMPC does have perfect attendance). I’ll also retire a GMPC (or any NPC for that matter) if a player decides to fill in a particular role (and it’s reasonable, in a long running Traveller campaign, we didn’t just put GMPCs off the ship because some new player wanted to be a pilot, but then we already had several PC pilots and only 1 or perhaps 2 GMPC pilots).
freyar: Definitely, for a very small group, GMPCs often work well. In such a group, they can even be more flashy and take the spotlight more often (some people reccomend NPCs never take the spotlight, but in reality, NPCs DO have to take the spotlight occaisionally, certainly your opposition occaisionally takes the spotlight, so will an friendly NPC if it provides an important skill or ability – the key is to balance the spotlight).
Scott: your test is a good one. Another way to test is: “Are the players getting to make their share of important decisions and being in the spotlight, and does their input matter?”
My GM friend runs a GMPC and does a good job at keeping her out of the spotlight. He mixes in plenty of red herrings with her useful input, and it’s all very consistently in-character, so we never take her word as a flat-out direction from the GM.
The only complaint I have is that, because by definitoin she’s at every session, she has the most XP of anyone in the group. (In our group, PCs of non-present players get little or no XP.) Luckily she doesn’t flaunt her power, which (for now) is only slightly higher than the normal PCs.
I’ve got a GMPC in my current game. I hadn’t intended him to be there, but the party press ganged him into their group so they had a guide. I wrote up stats for him, and let him stay with the party. The two things I am using to balance and make sure he isn’t a spotlight stealing character are:
1. Everyone else outranks him. It is a military game and he is by far the lowest rank of the group. So they say jump, and he does, hoping he guessed the height they wanted correctly.
2. If there is something that he would conceivably know or be able to provide information to the party for, then I have one of them make the roll for him. I still do combat and tedious rolls, but if it is a roll to see if they are being snuck up on, or if it is a roll to see if the GMPC can determine something that the party can’t, then I have them make the roll for it.
That doesn’t sound like a GMPC, that sounds like a standard NPC henchman/hireling.
In the past I have heard arguments about the term GMPC, but I feel like it is a useful term to indicate an NPC that receives special attention from the GM and is treated much like a PC (member of the party or whatever structure the PCs form in the game), gains XP and treasure, etc.
Of course, because of the special attention from the GM, there is risk of the character being used to push the GM’s agenda and that’s wrong. Even with care, there is still some risk. One is the GMPC having the most XP (and possibly treasure) because the GMPC never misses a session. Another is that the GM plays solo while the rest of the players watch when the GMPC is the last man standing in a fight (I have considered that it might be worthwhile to have accelerated combat rules to resolve such situations in at most a few die rolls). A third risk is that even with care, the GMPC might stomp on niche protection. Another risk in “designed character” games is that the GM knows the system, and especially his campaign, better than the players and so designs a more effective character.
Note that some risks are possible even for non-GMPCs. A GM can use scene stealing NPCs without them being GMPCs (at a minimum, I would expect a GMPC to be a continuing character that uses the game’s advancement/XP system). A GM can design a one shot NPC more effectively, or a henchman could stomp on niche protection.
Another, not so obvious risk of a GMPC is not that it is favored for protection, but that it is favored for death. I have definitely targetted GMPCs more brutally than PCs in the past. While in general this probably is ok, it may still offend the sensibilities of the PCs, whether it makes the GM soft on the PCs, or just spoils “realism” (why would the monster attack the buff NPC fighter instead of the wimpy PC mage?).
So the main risks of GMPCs are that they outpace the PCs and that the GM doesn’t balance between PC and GMPC.
Ever use communal GMPCs?
More or less, they’re something we use in 3 PC groups. a 4th PC, run overall by the GM, at the same power level of the PCs, and used to fill a vital role (so, if you had a group of thief, fighter, and cleric, the GMPC would be a mage).
However, any time a player wants, they can step in and run the character.
Works, most of the time.
I’ve never heard of that before, Wik — that sounds like a pretty neat idea.
I’m introducing my daughters to role-playing through a vastly reduced AD&D. But ‘two’ isn’t quite enough, and they picked (insisted on) pretty bog-standard Druid & Wizardess characters. Ouch.
So they ran across a male fighter and a female monk who needed a little help surviving a pile of pesky Kobolds. (Fighter skills x1.5 + some thief skills, excellent, what a coincidence.)
The fighter is always “Charge!”, the monk has taken a vow of silence, but is essentially always skeptical of everything the fighter says or does. (Picture a years-long comedy act/rivalry.)
So… I’m able to put forth the “Let’s rush them now” approach, and foil that off of the expression or actions of the monk. When a nudge in a specific direction does come, it isn’t a ‘whack, here’s a clue’ because these same characters pop off with (crazy) ideas all the time. They’re ‘part of the conversation’, but my daughters are more likely to recognize “Ok, _that_ plan is crazy” than to actually nod along with either GMPC.
In combat, each player takes over control of one of the GMPC, so they’re picking targets, rolling the dice, recording the hits, and letting the GM worry about which round the reinforcements for the bad guys might be arriving 😉