Gamesmasterclass: your voice in the party

Chris Cunliffe

Gamesmasterclass: your voice in the party
September 9, 2020 Chris Cunliffe

If you were to go online and look for stories about poor ‘gamesmastering’, or GMing, many of those would be about the dreaded Gamesmaster Player Character. GMPCs are almost universally hated, to the point where it might be dangerous to introduce one at all. However, they have their advantages, and there are ways to use them well so that they are a benefit to your campaign rather than a detriment. 

What do we mean by GMPC, and what makes them different to other non-player characters (NPCs)? The GMPC is the character that the GM inserts into the game not as an NPC but as a fully-fledged character. It might be the character that they would be playing if they didn’t need to GM, or a fan-favourite NPC who has evolved; it may even be their player character from a different campaign (many of the original Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms NPCs, such as Elminster and Mordenkainen, originated this way). 

The GMPC will, typically, travel with the party if the campaign is a travelogue (party moving from place to place) or, in a more static setting, they may be closer to the party than is normal (perhaps part of the same superhero team). They will be a part of the action, rather than a support role (for example, another agent rather than a ‘Q’ providing equipment). Essentially, they are another member of the party, rather than somebody the party sometimes runs into.

The GMPC also has their own agency. They aren’t a servant to one of the player characters (PCs), or a familiar; these kinds of NPCs have a natural subservience to a PC which sidesteps many of the problems. The GMPC is an equal to the other members of the party. They have a vote in what to do and they get a share of the treasure (or whatever else is appropriate for the campaign in question). This isn’t to say that NPCs shouldn’t generally have agency — obviously your antagonist needs to take action! It is where these two aspects meet that we find the GMPC.

So, why are they so hated? The general reason is that they often suffer from being a Mary Sue (or a Gary Stu to use the less-commonly heard masculine version), which means that they are far “too good to be true” and wander into the realms of GM wish fulfilment (if you want to know more about the concept the Wikipedia article on the subject is a reasonable start). They may be too powerful compared to the rest of the party, or receive more opportunities to be awesome — especially if this is the character that the GM wants to be playing. In an earlier article I discussed the concept of ‘screen time’ (the idea that balance of opportunity is more important than actual power), and if the GMPC (literally a glorified NPC) is getting more screen time than the actual player characters that is a problem. Similarly, they shouldn’t be sidelining the rest of the party when combat comes around.

Of course, the GM has an obvious advantage: you’ll probably know the system better than the other players, so you might quite naturally end up with a stronger character. 

You also know all the stats of the monsters or other enemies, and you know what you have prepared for the players to face. You know the solutions to the puzzles, and if the players aren’t getting it, biting your tongue and not providing help can be really frustrating. In combat, it’s difficult to fight a natural urge to try to do well when it’s your GMPC’s turn, so you might quite naturally end up with a character who performs better than the other PCs, even if they are the same level. The GMPC might also have abilities that the rest of the party lack, which can make any imbalance more obvious. The end result? A hated party member who must be dragged around, and growing resentment against the GM.

So why do it? What could possibly justify the risk? Well, it can be worth the effort. I’ve been GMing for over twenty years and, personally speaking, I’ve largely been far happier when I’ve had a GMPC. For me, the primary purpose is to get a voice in the party. However, that isn’t because I want to influence player actions or decisions; it’s because I want to have a way to join in conversations in character. Those idle roleplaying moments that, frequently, the GM watches from afar but can’t actually participate in. When simply watching, I find I become less engaged and the game suffers.

There are other benefits. If you’re using your own setting, a GMPC can be a good way to get some exposition out to the other players about the world. If the party lacks a crucial ability, a GMPC can fill that gap (though you should also try to minimise the need for that ability, otherwise you are actively giving your GMPC screen time). Perhaps nobody wants to play the healer, or one player really enjoys using abilities that require teamwork but the rest of the party aren’t interested; you can step in to improve the game for everybody.

Of course, even if you don’t intend it, an NPC might drift into becoming a GMPC. Perhaps one of the characters has an ability that provides them with an NPC (the Leadership feat in D&D 3.5, or various incarnations of a Trusted Companion advantage in many other games). Perhaps a PC becomes romantically involved with an NPC, who then travels along with the party. As you roleplay that companion NPC, they will develop more of a personality, and you’ll probably start to play and enjoy them more. Even here, care is needed; I’ve had experiences where a servant provided by an advantage was more important than the PC themselves and, in one example, a character’s horse proved to be more popular than the character themselves! Some games keep the abilities of NPCs fairly vague, or use monster-style statistic blocks for them. Others will use the same rules as for a PC, at which point the line between these NPCs and a GMPC is very thin. Whatever the reason for your GMPC, they can add game value — so how do you make them an asset?

Avoiding these problems is actually fairly straightforward in theory, but harder in practice — because you’ll need to ignore some of your natural instincts. The first and most straightforward principle is to always ensure that GMPCs are no more powerful than any PC. They should be the same level, with the same amount of XP or whatever other metric is useful for the game in question — and that is an upper limit. You might be better keeping them generally weaker, especially if there is one area where they particularly shine.

When it comes to combat effectiveness (often an integral part of a player’s sense of fairness and balance) you can also look at party roles. Players rarely begrudge a healer, though a player with healing might (justifiably) complain about niche (or spotlight) stealing. Similarly, a character who focuses primarily on providing advantages and benefits to the PCs will generally be better received than a damage dealer. A fighter who is good at tanking may only be a good choice if the party lacks somebody that can take the defensive role. They should absolutely be willing to take orders from others in the party, and shouldn’t gravitate to a position of leadership or authority themselves.

Out of combat, balance can be harder to achieve in some ways, especially if your campaign involves any kind of puzzle-solving or strategic decision-making. Obviously, you know all the answers to the puzzles, you know what the antagonists are doing in the background, and you know what rewards and threats lie along each path before the party. It is absolutely essential that you allow the party to decide on these things and to try to solve the puzzles themselves. They might ask the GMPC for their view, or for an idea, but it’s important to know what they are actually asking for.

In some cases, they will simply be treating the GMPC like another character who should have a view or might have an idea. If this is the case, try to limit your knowledge and decision-making to what the GMPC themselves would say, in a similar way that your players should be separating in-character and out-of-character knowledge. Be careful though, as your players might actually be asking for help. They might have no ideas left for the puzzle, or they might be deadlocked on a decision or simply not have (or remember) the information needed to make an informed choice. 

If they need it, then give them help — but don’t take it too far. Don’t solve the puzzle; try to put them on the right track. Don’t tell them which kingdom to visit next; point out a setting detail that they might not have considered. If they’ve forgotten something, a simple “Didn’t we discover that…” can act as a great reminder and get things flowing again. Of course, if these requests are repeated, or frequent, you may need to go further and provide more detailed assistance.

You may be wondering how to tell which of these they are asking for. Here a GMPC has another advantage: by keeping you involved in the discussion, it stops you drifting off while you wait for their decision or solution, so you have a better idea of how to help. But if you still aren’t sure (and that’s probably the default state unless you know your players very well), ask them: “Are you asking the NPC, or are you asking me?”

You also need to be very careful that your GMPC isn’t seen to be taking sides in the party, although any actions they do take need to make sense both for their own motivation (they still need to come across as a three-dimensional character) and with respect to how the other characters have treated them. If a player versus player situation arises, it should be absolutely obvious (even if only in hindsight) why the GMPC has acted the way they have. Similarly, when it comes time to hand out GMPC support, don’t always provide advantages to the same character unless there is a clear reason (shoring up a weakness, for example, or an in-character relationship). And again, your GMPC can always ask who needs healing or could make use of a particular spell.

The key to this is probably the most important advice that can be given to a GM on any matter: you should be the biggest fan of the players and their characters. You should be rooting for them to succeed, and to look great doing so. Even if you run an adversarial game, using every advantage the GM has to make things difficult for the players, you should still be celebrating when they ultimately win. Your GMPC should have the same attitude; they don’t want to succeed for their own sake, but are there to support the party and to help them to succeed.

But don’t confuse helping the characters to succeed and helping the players to succeed. If the former were important, then the GMPC would do everything they could to help. However, you (and, by extension, your GMPC) should be more interested in ensuring the players succeed. That means sometimes holding back, and sometimes waiting for them to act first. It means making sure that they get their moments of awesome, and that you avoid taking those for yourself. You have lots of characters in the game that can be awesome — a whole world of them. Let the players do most of the awesome on the protagonist side.