Monday, October 24, 2005

Game Master Characters

As I've been contemplating my gamist GMing, I've been wondering why one of my habits seems to work. I almost always have an NPC member of the party that I run more or less like a PC. I get a lot of enjoyment out of presenting the players with a challenge, and then stepping in to help them overcome it.

I have heard some people warn of this style of play, and I have had issues in the past where I allowed my NPC to overshadow the PCs. This was often caused by the fact that they gained XP faster than the PCs since they never missed a session. Then there my high school days where I would often run my NPCs through a new module as my way of reading the module, and they got the XP for that! Then one (or two) of them would get to run through the module with the PCs!

But in some of my recent play, I've been paying a lot of attention. And I've talked to players specifically about their feelings. In my Arcana Evolved campaign, I thought I saw a big red flag when one of the players started moan about how he wasn't the "coolest scrapper anymore" after my NPC pulled a particularly good stunt. Then before I really had a chance to ask the player about it, he figured out how to use a new ability. When I got around to asking him if he felt he was being overshadowed and his character wasn't working out for him. He said "No, my character is starting to be really fun."

I think what happened here is that he didn't see my NPC as cheating, but that I had figured out a particularly good combination of abilities. And now he had a challenge. And when he stepped on up to that challenege, he succeeded.

I know there are a few games out there (can't recall the titles) which have one of the players take on some of the traditional GM roles, though I'm not sure that part has been the creating challenges part. Somehow though, it seems like my play is functional.

This is another contribution to Martin Ralya's 31 Days of Blogging for GMs.



At 1:52 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

I always kinda have mixed feelings about the GM's NPC as part of the party. As a GM, I like having a character to be my "voice" in the game, and to let me be part of the party. On the other hand, I don't like the idea of taking any of the spot light from the players (and I've seen GM's do it in terrible ways).

Generally, the NPCs who I have travel with the party are never equal to the PCs and usually get 1/2 xp if any at all. They exist mostly for roleplaying opportunities and as a plausible way to circumnavigate "non-conflicts"- "We need to get through the jungle to the temple!" "Ok, here's a local who knows the way..."

But I don't like to use NPCs to "fix" conflicts the PCs are in- that's the players jobs to enjoy.

At 7:04 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Martin Ralya said...

I agree with Chris -- GM NPCs are a hard line to walk. I like the idea of using that kind of NPC as a challenge to the PCs, but I think it would take a certain kind of group to make it work well. I'm not sure what kind, but a certain kind. ;)

Out of curiosity, Frank, after seeing how your friend reacted -- enjoying the challenge -- have you tried it again?

At 9:00 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Frank said...

I generally try to have the NPCs fill roles the players don't want (for example, the first NPC in the campaign was a scout, locks, and traps guy, when a PC wanted to play that type of character, I switched to the current NPC who was a scout - though it also ended up being pretty good in combat).

The player challenge incident was very recent, the comments occurred 3 or 4 sessions ago, and the player felt he vindicated himself last session.

It's also important that I don't ever try and solve the adventure for the PCs. I may occaisionally toss out tactical ideas (but mostly those are things the other characters can do - I think I pointed out in the recent flyers battle that the PC could toss a spell from far away, and reminded the player that the non-fire elements were least likely to be resisted). I think I also pointed out he could cast improved invisibility himself (they had previously got improved invisibility from a dragon they are promising to help get out of the dungeon - which plays right into the use of the evolved bits from Arcana Evolved).

As to using the NPC to challenge the players, I wouldn't intentionally make a setup like that, but I admit that I like optimizing characters so I do look for synergies which is why this NPC suddenly stood out a bit.

It's definitely a tricky field to play. I'm actually amazed given the number of real concerns with NPCs played this way that I've had players tell me definitely to include an NPC.

Perhaps it takes the edge off the game being a direct competition between the GM and the players and leaving room for the competition to be at the level of GM as player vs player. Or maybe it just enhances the feeling of cooperative play (certainly one of the things that most attracted me to RPGs). Some of the newer games bring out this cooperative play in different ways. I wonder how prevalent the GM style of try and kill the players (without any systemic restraint - a game of course the GM can always win...) leaves players happy to play with a GM who sees the game as a cooperative effort no matter how that results.

I have used the less XP idea in the past, though with Arcana Evolved, I've been keeping the party at the same level so it's been easiest to just level up the NPC at the same time. Another way I've used to keep the NPCs off the top of the XP chart is to have a stable of NPCs that rotates around, but that made most sense in the days when I had players that couldn't make every session.

I think in our next campaign, which will either be Cold Iron or Rune Quest, I will keep the NPC somewhat behind in XP.

Interestingly, lately, I haven't been using the NPC as a voice very much lately. I suspect that's because my Arcana Unearthed/Evolved campaigns have been such hard core gamism. With more of a simulationist flavor of some of my past campaigns, the GM voice coming from an NPC party member seemed a better way to share some of the setting background. Also, with Cold Iron, it was a way to demonstrate things in the rules (but that gets sort of edgy - on the other hand, you learn chess by watching and analyzing the moves the master makes as much or more than stumbling over them yourself).


At 6:52 AM, October 26, 2005, Blogger David said...

I've tended to shy away from GM PC's since being in a campaign (or two) where the GM's PC became the central character. Doesn't mean that some other GM couldn't do it properly (and it sounds like you do fine), but "once bitten..."

In my own GM-ing, I haven't run a GM PC in years. Once there are more than 2 steady players, I don't see much need for me to provide a "crutch PC" anymore. Since 2000, though, I've never run with fewer than 4 players, so it's been a while since I *had* to. Back in 2004, when running "City of the Spider Queen" with a 4-player party that didn't include a cleric, I created an NPC to fill that role. But then a new player joined the group and she became unnecessary almost immediately.

In addition, I have a hard enough time running the NPC bad guys in combat (remembering skills and items that would be useful, planning and implementing strategy, etc.) that having a PC of my own to take care of too just seems counterproductive. I've found I present a better, more intense challenge when I can focus on just one side of the battle.


At 7:49 AM, December 05, 2005, Blogger Town Gate Guard said...

In our last game we swapped GMs half way through. The old GM became a player and one of the players became the GM. This was our first taste of a game master character as the new GM kept his old character in the group. (if you're curious, the old GM claimed an NPC guide who had been leading us for a while as his new PC)

The experience went so well that in our new game, the GM (same guy) has introduced his own character just as though it were part of the group. It feels natural that everyone around the table has their own character to play.

Also, we tend to play in a somewhat round-robin style. I've already taken over for one session to run an adventure (during which my old character became a GMC). In such a game where everyone has a character, switching GMs is easy.

It's worked so well that in the next game I run, I plan on introducing a GMC of my own.

I have seen it done badly before, but I think the key to avoiding that is simple. Don't treat the character as any different from a PC. If you have a GMC it's not an NPC, it's a PC that the GM happens to control. It should follow the same rules as everyone, get a say in activities (base this on the character's personality though, not your wants as a GM), get a share of the XP and treasure. Etc.

I disagree with bankuei that NPCs should not be the players equals. I think that if someone is travelling with the group, everything is more balanced by them being exactly equal. As for "fixing conflict" just remember that the NPC doesn't have access to your knowledge. They may suggest a terrible plan, fall in love with the princess or any other situation which adds to the conflicts of the PCs as easily as they can "help".

NPCs are only infallible if you as the GM make them so. One of the keys to good GMing is that players view anything an NPC says as that character's point of view, not a statement from the GM.

At 3:05 PM, December 20, 2005, Blogger Frank said...

This is definitely an area where different people have different feelings. I think it also really depends on what the GM's role actually is.

In the GMful narative style games, I can't see a GMC working.

In a game where the GM is telling a story, I can't see a GMC working (though I wonder if the situations those work badly in are not actually that the GMC concept is working badly, but that it's the most visible aspect of the GM's use of force).

In the type of challenge play I run, it doesn't seem to be all that bad that the GM can run a character also, because the game isn't about discovering the GM's plot so much as it is about enjoying the challenging combats. And I think it is possible to set up combat challenges for yourself.

In a play style where the GMs are rotating, of course no one player has absolute control, and a player who gave his character freebies when he was in the GM chair would easily be countered when another player is in the GM chair, so that situation can work.



Post a Comment

<< Home