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I have started my first 3.5 campaign and had the idea that as the GM I could still enjoy playing by making a character using the normal rules and running it as the villain. It would gain the same experience points as the party and level accordingly.

It would not be a part of the party and would not travel with them. It would show up at points in the story, first time being in the first dungeon by killing the boss and replacing it with his Eidolon. I have been told it is normal to make NPC like this in D&D but in my experience GMing other games you could never make an enemy using the same rules as a PC.

The concept is a summoner/paladin that is trying to save the plane but but has become more and more acceptant that the ends justify the means and has fallen form being a paladin but has not noticed as it was gradual. The players will see his evil actions and eventually decide to take him out, learn the truth and finish his quest in a less blood soaked manner.

My idea was to give villain the same exp as the party, not take a cut but juts the same as what the leader gets form each encounter. This way I can enjoy growing a character like everyone else.

I was planing to play it completely straight so no GM fudging for my character, if I get a bad roll I get a bad roll, no cheating.

What problems would I have playing a straight character like this? How would I balance it against the party as an effective BBEG? For example, what starting level would people advise for a summoner/paladin against 4-5 level one players? I want him to last at least 2 encounters and be a fun challenge.

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Now that this is clarified, there are two questions here: one about problems with this approach, and one about how to balance NPC villains. The second should probably be its own question. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 14 '13 at 16:24
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6 Answers

What you are describing is not a GM PC, it's a normal NPC villain. In the system you're using, building villains using the same character-creation rules as the PCs is also normal. Neither of them makes the villain "your PC".

It's hard to tell why you call this villain "my PC", though:

  • If you just wanted to be clever and make them use normal character-creation and levelling rules, then that's fine, and it's not unusual. They're not your PC though, they're just an important NPC. Treat them like a disposable pawn like every other NPC.

  • If you want a character to call your own and put the same care and attention into their levelling-up development, stop. Don't do that in a game you're GMing. If you want the enjoyment of being a player, be a player in someone else's game. Even GMs with years of experience mostly can't pull that off without "playing favourites" with "my PC", and a novice GM is certain to ruin the game trying to have a GM PC. The GM has a job to do, and doesn't have time for "being a player" in their own game.

As the GM, the entire world is your character. Choosing one NPC to be "your character" means they get too much of your attention and the rest of the world and game gets neglected. As a new GM, learn to walk first: learn to run a whole world, learn to build flexible plots that respond to player actions, learn to create memorable characters (even unimportant ones), learn how to pace a session.

If your game revolves entirely around your plans for this one NPC, you've created your own Achilles Heel, and one unexpected turn of the game will undo all your plans. But if you have a whole world that you've been tending to, with loose plans scattered across it, then one villain dying unexpectedly won't wreck the game at all – instead, it will be a moment of triumph your players will have earned through their own skill, and they'll remember that moment and game for years.

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From a rules' perspective:

This is actually standard, especially in D&D 3.5. You might have to give him less wealth, but that's about it. The rule say "a Lvl5 character is an appropriate challenge for a group of Lvl3 PCs", you make a Lvl5 character, and you go for it.

You will have to build it differently than a normal PC, though. Take only skills that will be useful, feats that are sure to come into play. Don't focus too much on the details. You can even 'cheat' a bit, and leave some feats blank, filling them during the game (or with a wizard, do the same with spells - representing how super hyper intelligent they are).

From a GMing perspective:

This is where there are the biggest issue with your approach. By defining the character as "your PC", you put him in a weird situation. When normal PCs do something, the GM is the one who decides in the end if it succeeds or fails.

Will you allow your PC to fail?

Will you allow the PCs to defeat your PC? I am not talking about "they fight him for ten rounds, he laughs and accepts to leave", I am talking about "in round 2, the barbarian gets lucky and cuts his head off". Would you allow him to die a bad and meaningless death? Or would you simply rule "well no, he's not dead." ?

Will you let the PCs be more important than him? Remember that they are the main characters of the story, the bad guy is there to make them shine, not the opposite.

Will you make a lot of special rules for your character, because "he's just cool"? Make him a half-dragon half-demon half-god paladin-wizard? And/or make him "actually good, he was the real hero of the story"? This is a very common tendency when starting as a GM, even more if making "your PC", and one to be very careful about.

Mary-Sue is a bad name for a paladin

As I see it, the main risk you have is to make the PC a Mary Sue or an Invicible Villain. Your first example tend to go this way: the PC shows up from nowhere and defeats in one-shot a monster that the group had been fighting for a while? And then just disappears with a laugh and leave them to fight his familiar?

Why? And how? He's a paladin, have him sit in the shadows, and throw buffs on the monster. Have the PCs realize someone is buffing the monster, without seeing who. And give him a reason to do it.

Rather than having "your PC", remember that you have literally infinite characters under your control. The world is your PC, technically. So why focus on one character?

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In D&D 3.5, what you're proposing is standard procedure for characters with class levels -- you build them just as you would a character of the appropriate level. Choosing to tie their advancement to that of the other characters is an interesting choice, but not out of the question. (As a clarification, if your character is not taking a share of the XP, and you're not modifying the Encounter Level to match the presence of this character, then you're not really "levelling up with the PCs" as such. You're just choosing to advance them in a parallel way.)

The main difficulty here is that your character goals and your goals as a DM are divergent. You're choosing to make an active, aggressive, hostile character whose goal is to challenge and stymie the PCs. That's fine. That's an NPC. But you also want to be able to play that character in a completely free way, like a PC, and it sounds like you expect the other players to treat this character as part of the group, like a PC. That's not fair to expect of them, and it's not fair of you to do, since you have an amount of creative power in the game that they do not -- as referenced by your last paragraph. If you're using your DM powers to define the encounter, then you're not acting like a player.

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I'm going to come right out and say it. You should not aim to be both a player and a GM in the same game of D&D, certainly not in my experience. (This might not be quite so much the case in some other systems though).

I can understand your motivation for wanting to do so as someone new to roleplaying, but it is a dangerous thing to do and is likely to cause all sorts of problems, particularly as you are an inexperienced GM.

Running a party NPC is fine, and can allow all sorts of interesting story developments if you choose the NPC's personality, goals and skills carefully. The difference between this and what you are suggesting though is that a party NPC is no different from any other that the PCs meet during the play. It very specifically is NOT your character, and you have to be careful here for a number of reasons:

  • Being too attached to a particular NPC makes you unwilling to let them die.
  • You will find it extremely difficult to seperate character knowledge from knowledge you have as GM, and players will find it even harder than you to accept the character as credible.
  • Whether you like it or not, your players will not treat them like another PC, simply because it is being run by you the GM.
  • There is a danger that a character that is 'yours' will overshadow the players and steal the limelight. Yeah you have a great plot twist involving your character, but that's not the point. The idea is to allow the other PCs to experience the twists and turns directly. This is far more effective and empowering.

At the end of the day, your role as GM is to work with the players to create a story that they and their characters experience and that you and they enjoy. There will doubtless be countless NPCs they meet as part of this story, but at no point should any single NPC overshadow the PCs and what they are doing. The route you are considering going down is dangerous, and unless you are experienced as a GM, is likely to have this exact problem.

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All good points. Personally, I think GM's, especially new GM's, should be very careful even with a "party-NPC" for all the same reasons you list for avoiding GM-PCs. But there are ways to do a party-NPC well in a way that helps the story, as long as it is approached carefully. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 13 '13 at 20:29
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As a general rule, I think GM-PCs are a bad idea. It is far too tempting to have them overshadow the group. The simple act of declaring one character to represent the GM tends to warp the way you play them and the way you adjust the world around them. For the same reason, author inserts/author surrogates tend to be the hallmark of bad fan-fiction and your writing (whether original or fan-fiction) will tend to be better if you avoid them. L

In short, by all means tie the level of the Villain to the level of the party. That helps keep things balanced in a simple and straightforward way, but focus on the needs of the story/game rather than viewing that Villain as "Your PC". Mikalichov said it very well when he said that for the GM, "The world is your PC."

[Edit: I will say there are a few times I have seen GM-PCs done well, but they were the exception to the rule and they involved an experienced GM with just one or 2 actual players. In general, I recommend avoiding them.]

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As others have plainly stated, GM-PCs are a bad idea. Trying to develop a NPC in the fashion you've described, however, isn't a bad way to start. I wouldn't make everything up to chance if you're planning on running a campaign. Here's what I'd do based upon the information in your post.

  1. Determine how high of level you want the PCs to be before they have to confront the NPC
  2. Determine what the NPC ultimate plan and why (e.g., Destroy Demon/Devil X; exterminate the orcs/goblins due to killing his family).
  3. Have the NPC known to the PCs, and possibly be respected by them (e.g., the NPC saved one or more of the PCs when their village was destroyed. The NPC was a friend/relative to the PCs.)
  4. As the PCs start thwarting your NPCs plan, have him leave unexpectedly (e.g., kidnapped by monsters, visiting his mentor, off on a pilgrimage) In actuality, the NPC is having to revise his plans due to the PCs actions.

Here's an example of a NPC "friend" who's really a villain from a campaign of mine:

Rita Blackwood, human female sorcerer
Rita is the daughter of a human merchant. She lives with her father in Rivertown, a small but blooming town in the shadow of the Demonsgate mountains. Rivertown is the town where all of the PCs are from. The PCs know Rita and her father as one of the two merchants in Rivertown; the other merchant is a dwarf. Rita has been away from Riverwood and visiting her rich aunt in the city of King's Landing, the closest human-centric city.

Background on Riverwood. Humans are relatively "new" to this land (e.g., only been around for 100 years). In the past, the elves ruled the land until the dwarves came from the mountains around 1000-2000 years ago. The dwarves and elves had a few conflicts, but mostly got along; there were other miscellaneous monsters to deal with. Unfortunately, the dwarves dug too deep and let loose a Demon. The Demon enslaved the dwarves and started a war against the elves. After 1000 years of battle, the dwarves were able to imprison the Demon into a soul-gem with the help of the elves. Unfortunately, there was a disagreement about where the soul-gem should be kept (Elves wanted it and the Dwarves wouldn't give it to them) and they went to war yet again.

Due to a war of attrition, both sides lost. Population was down on both sides, and many settlements were destroyed, with the dwarves sealing themselves off at Demonsgate and the elves scattered in small settlements throughout the woods. Humanoid populations began to repopulate the area in great numbers. The humans came to the land at this time from the Empire, not knowing about the dwarven-elven war, and started settling the land. They started settling and taming the "wild" lands, fighting off many incursions of humanoids that had settled during the dwarven-elven truce.

Riverwood was founded about 50 years ago. It was built as a support center for an outpost fort 5 miles away (the farthest human outpost at the time). It has grown in those 50 years, with a mostly human population. There were a few small conflicts with Elves and Dwarves during the early days, due to the human trespassers, but each side liked the idea of a human buffer zone. A few dwarves live in Riverwood, including a merchant (one of the richest people in town) and a beardless dwarven blacksmith.

The dwarves have allowed human access to the Demonsgate Mountains for mining because the humans will kill any humanoids (e.g., orcs, goblins, the occasional giant) living on the surface of the mountains. Unfortunately, Rita's brother stole the soul-gem from the dwarves. He was able to steal and secretly hide the soul-gem in a package to his sister, Rita. He was eventually caught and killed by the Dwarves. The Dwarves haven't made it public that the soul-gem was stolen, but in retribution are demanding all humans be searched and evicted from their lands. Humans are only allowed if they are working for a dwarf.

Once Rita learned of her brother's death, she swore vengeance against the Dwarves. While grieving for her brother, she finds the soul-gem (due to the influence of the Demon calling to her). The campaign begins with Rita working for her father and coming under the influence of the soul-gem. The soul-gem gives Rita her powers, and influence over humanoids. Rita's goal is to make the dwarves suffer as much as she has; the Demon's goal is to be released from the soul-gem. Rita will be a friend to the PCs by being one of their suppliers and by giving them quests (the hidden purpose of the quests being to recover artifacts to release the demon).

The PCs first adventure will be to escort the Dwarven Merchant back to Demonsgate. On their return, Rita's humanoids will attack. There will be hints of some leader from the humanoids (e.g., notes or plans) to give the PCs a hint of some enemy NPC.

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+1 for being positive :) And good campaign too, good job. –  Scrollmaster Feb 15 '13 at 6:56
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