Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tommy's Thoughts: In Defense of GMPCs

First off, let me preface by saying that I'm pretty sure there's nobody out there that actually hates the idea of using NPCs, but its all in HOW they get used.
Tanjlock Sarlon - but you can call him Marty.

I use NPCs a lot...and sometimes in ways that are generally frowned upon by Joe Q. Gamer. You see, for years now I have indulged in the horrible phenomenon called the "GMPC"...and at times, early on in my GM career, anyway, I was pretty horrible about it.

I actually started gaming life as a GM and not a player, and so I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. I played one mini session as Tanjlock Sarlon, my Wood Elf Fighter on AD&D2e, who didn't even have a last name at the time, and when I took over GMing duties after that "getting to know you" session, Tanjlock hung around...and oh dear GOD what a Mary Sue/Marty Stu he was.

Scene-stealing, showboating, rule-breaking badass. It was the worst. Nary a new set of characters came into the game that didn't cross paths with him...frankly, I'm surprised no one revolted against me.

Other NPCs came along as I got more splatbooks and saw more cool character concepts, and at the time several of us DMed our own D&D campaigns, so occasionally those characters would slip in and out of worlds. None of them got the Tanjlock treatment, mind you, but they were all definitely on the level of the PCs and beyond henchmen and hirelings and such. Sometimes they were there simply to fill a slot if I was running a module with an assumed number of characters and we were down a chair. After a while, Tanjlock aside, that became the norm.

When I started running Marvel, the NPC phenomenon was entirely a product of being enamored with the random character creation. I had notebooks of heroes and villains, and they were all over the place. One of our teams, The Sideliners, existed most of the time with one PC and a team full of NPCs, though the one PC definitely got the spotlight. When I began to work the NPCs out (after converting to Marvel SAGA, due to how unwieldy it was to run NPCs), he actually got rather annoyed as he had grown attached to the characters.

These days, I still use GMPC-style NPCs a lot, but I definitely feel like I have a much better grasp on it...and I only do it now when I need to balance the proverbial scales and fill out a team, as most RPGs still assume a baseline of at least one more character than what I usually have at the table. If a plotline revolves around a GMPC-like character, it is only because that character needs the PCs to help them out because the problem is too much for them to handle, rather than the vice versa of my younger days.

  • Necessary Evil: I had two prominent NPCs/GMPCs: Kale and Bully. Kale was an Atlantean Magician who served as the team's Swiss Army Knife, using his Super Sorcery pretty much however the team leader, Mindstorm, directed it. Bully was the drinking buddy and Bash Brother of Socks, the team scrapper. The two of them could be counted on for most of the damage. In one memorable session, the team was brutally ambushed by a hit squad, and Bully (who had the Berserk Edge), was unable to retreat due to his rage...the team had to reluctantly leave him behind or they would have all wound up dead. I have killed PCs and gotten less venomous glares from my players than I received that night. In another adventure late in the campaign, in one of the opening fights, Kale was attacked and was dying...Mindstorm's player used his Natural Leader Edge to give Kale every one of his bennies so Kale could stay alive...while still having a war to fight. An adventure or two later, when Kale was possessed by an Atlantean God and the team had beaten him back, Mindstorm refused to take the easy way out and kill Kale, instead summoning the God back and destroying it. I definitely think the use of GMPCs enhanced our Necessary Evil game.
  • Our long dormant Solomon Kane campaign only has one PC...the entire rest of the party are NPCs, and the one PC is the only one with no combat ability...but he directs traffic for all the troops, deciding who does what when, with me overruling them if he gets out of hand (but one is his sister, another his mentor and the last is his bodyguard, so he treats them with much concern).
  • When I ran Star Wars for my son, I took a Knights of the Old Republic-like approach of providing him NPC allies and allowing him to decide who to take along for each mission. The intent would have been a Bioware-like approach in which half the scenarios would have been motivated by the NPCs...and how the PC can solve their problems.
  • I did not intend to have a GMPC in my Deadlands Reloaded campaign, but the PCs practically forced Professor Mathias (a Snake Oil Salesman) along, and after he was killed they adventured without one for a while...until one player did everything in his power to bring my dearly departed character Marshal Kidd back from the dead (he had long assumed Kidd was alive and in Hell...when he found out Kidd was dead, I think he would have killed me if I hadn't provided SOME means to bring him back...and he pushed the issue to make it happen). One of the highlights from the grand finale of that campaign was when one of the players used an Adventure Card to force the ghost of Professor Mathias to appear, and take them on his spectral chariot to catch The Big Bad for the final showdown.
  • In our current D&D5e game, I've had full blown GMPC Halfing Warlock Finnan alongside the group for a few reasons: 1) Hoard of the Dragon Queen largely assumed a party of about four PCs, and I have three players. 2) One of the themes of the adventure is that the Cult of the Dragon is so dangerous that they are fighting hero and villain alike, and so allying the PCs with a character who was obviously evil, but bore THEM no malice, seemed to fit the theme. This led to a great standoff in Episode 4 (Actual Play not yet posted) in which one PC had to choose between killing his Very Much Evil ally Finnan and blowing his cover as the bodyguard for a member of the Cult of the Dragon. There was very real tension in this exchange, and I absolutely maintain that if the choice would have been between killing a PC and blowing his cover, there is no tension in that situation at all (and the player agreed). In the absence of the GMPC, a revolving door of "regular" NPCs have taken his place, usually two at a time (as they are largely less capable).
Yes, an NPC who is uberpowerful, overbearing and subject to a whole different set of rules is a bad thing, and you don't want to put the players in the position of watching two NPCs have it out in big, dramatic encounters...but in the right situation, GMPCs can totally enhance the story...so long as the spotlight falling on them is actually serving as the PCs' time to shine. I've gotten all of the truly wretched stuff out of my system years ago, but as long as I'm running a smaller table (and since I don't actively recruit new players, that's all the time), very prominent NPCs will continue to be a part of my games, so long as they seem to be adding more than they are taking away.

I would have no issue with turning them over to my players (for the most part), but my table tends toward the more casual sort these days (with me the STARK exception, obviously), and they tend to have enough trouble keeping track of their various powers and abilities. Of course, I sometimes remember to make some NPCs more "present" than others, which usually leads to "Oh yeah, that guy's here" comments (minis and other visual aids are a huge help here).

I really love the Loyalty score from the 5th Edition DMG, and like the idea of adapting it to other games...I've been using it behind the curtain in my D&D game since I got the DMG, and will continue to do so in the future, I'm sure.

What do you think? Have any NPCs played a prominent role in your games? Is the phenomena of the GMPC inherently evil? Should I have my GM screen taken away? Does it matter if everyone is having fun?

For everyone still reading, thanks for taking the time. I kinda wanted to start blogging about more than just game reviews, so here we are.

But the reviews aren't going away, don't worry.