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If there was a group with only 2 characters, and an NPC with a missing skill set was presented, would it be feasible at all for a player/the players to control the NPC in question, or should this only be done by the GM? From what I know, the GM normally controls the NPCs.

But I am just wondering if it would add a nice flavor to the session, perhaps always maintaining the spot light on the player(s) choice, direction, etc. Is it legitimate to let a player control a NPC in the party?

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But if you made the terms generic (i.e. 2 dps characters and a support character...) it would potentially be, so I'd almost consider doing that instead and making it a truly theoretical question. –  Kyle Willey May 2 '13 at 4:45
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Agree, this is a better system-agnostic question - there's little meaningful difference in "does the GM let the players also run NPCs sometimes" from game to game. –  mxyzplk May 2 '13 at 12:26
    
Actually, some RPGs encourage players to control ally NPCs (e.g. Savage Worlds) while others do not (e.g. DnD). –  sergut Jul 24 '13 at 14:07

6 Answers 6

Traditionally, not really

I mean, aside from stuff like dominate person, you typically play only your own character and the DM controls the rest.

But, especially for small groups, you can change that

It’s entirely up to your DM, and since you’re new players it may not be a good idea, but especially when there are only a few players in the game, often times people will do “unusual” things like having each player control two characters. This is especially true with things like Familiars or Leadership, where often a DM will allow a player to directly control his familiar or cohort even though these are supposed to be NPCs, but you could extend it out to entirely separate characters if the group wanted.

So you could ask your DM, and fellow player(s), if they’d be interested in doing something like this. There are a variety of reasons they may not want to (especially if someone is feeling like one character is already a lot for a new player), but it can’t hurt to ask.

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Some small groups give each player more than one character to play. Other small groups solve the problem by, yes, having NPCs tag along with the PC party. Sometimes, to simplify things, the GM will let one or all of the players control the NPC(s) that have joined them, but it's not common. Usually the GM retains control of NPCs that join up with the PCs' party, and even when the GM lets the players control the NPCs, the GM still has the authority to "take back" the NPC for short or long periods in order to make them take appropriate actions or when speaking with the PCs.

It's not strictly necessary to fill out a small PC party with NPCs either – it's entirely possible to run the game with a very small party. That kind of small game presents the GM with different sorts of challenges to keep it interesting and challenging to the PCs, though, since they can't rely on D&D 3.5's default methods for creating and balancing encounters.

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There are a number of ways I've seen people handle this:

Democratic NPC Control

This is perhaps the most schizophrenic option out there, since the NPC is literally following metaphorical voices in its head, contributed by the players. It essentially becomes a GPC (group player character), with some noticeable downsides. If players don't agree, a resolution system must be settled upon (though if the NPC is insane in-universe, they could just have an in-character breakdown, but that's typically not what these try to do).

Timeshare NPC Control

Basically, each player controls the NPC for a session, then hands off control to the next player. There's a fair degree of flexibility in how the NPC is handled, but for the most part they won't directly contradict themselves as the players change their minds (since, after all, they don't have multiple people disagreeing about courses of action trying to justify their actions to each other). This system works less well when sessions are somewhat irregular in length, or when the NPC is sort of an "in-and-out" character. Some of this can be negated if the NPC simply replaces an absent player.

Corrupt Democratic NPC Control

Essentially, the way this system works is similar to the first method, but instead of simply letting everyone vote, everyone gets a certain amount of tokens per session that they can use to make their vote count more. "Everyone is equal, some people are just more equal." It gets rid of some of the problems, with the only issue being how to handle the bidding (First-come first-serve? Or highest bidder?) and the amount of tokens distributed, and what to do when people run out or if a majority votes for something but a single person offers tokens for an alternate course of action. I'm actually going to try something like this with one of my groups for an experimental game I'm planning in which all the players control only one character.

In Universe Control

Players must control the NPC with their characters, whether it be with magic, coercion, or persuasion. This gives characters with high social skills an advantage, but has the downside of making it so that they can easily monopolize the NPC unless they get bad rolls. Naturally, NPCs would be using normal resistance against these things, and may turn hostile if mind control spells fail, so that would be a potential downside. Alternatively, a MacGuffin magical artifact could do this as well, but would be slightly iffy for playing RAW, which is essentially the typical goal of this method. Essentially, whoever last succeeded in influencing the NPC controls their actions. Alternatively, he could "self-guide" under the DM's supervision, only following explicit orders from characters and sort of doing the rest on his own (for things such as walking with the party, attacking or healing in combat, etc.).

Mind you, all of these are things that are not conventional in tabletop games. Traditionally, there's a reason that NPC's are called NPC's, and it's because the "N" stands for "non". Usually when I see characters like this, they're just handled as DM/GMPC's, and that's what I do 99% of the time myself.

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re: Your final italicized paragraph, my experience is that "GMPC" is not normally used as a synonym for "NPC". "GMPC" generally means a character played by the GM as if that character were the GM's personal PC. The term tends to be something of a pejorative, due to the perception that the GM's control of the world as a whole tends to lead to GMPCs becoming Mary Sues. –  Dave Sherohman May 3 '13 at 12:00
    
Yep. I tend to use them as a synonym for NPCs that take the role of a PC and aren't controlled by their inputs. As to whether or not they become broken depends on the GM, and how much metagaming they do and whether or not they break character rules. I ran a Dark Heresy GMPC who served as the combat monster for the party. When he got killed in two turns, they knew something bad was coming. –  Kyle Willey May 3 '13 at 12:55

It is completely within the rules and traditions of RPGs for the party to be given control of an NPC.

That said, it might help to divide the control based on what's going on, and why the NPC was added:

Within a combat scenario of a tactically-focused game wherein much of the fun stems from the tactical decisions made by the players, then by all means, give direct control of said NPC to a particular player, or have it controlled by group-consensus or whatever makes sense for your group. Putting an NPC under the party's control makes for one less element that the GM needs to deal with. Obviously, the GM can intercede if they feel the NPC is doing some completely out-of-character, but it can be simpler for basic combat coordination for the NPC to be controlled by the party.

On the flip side, roleplaying an NPC outside of combat is an entirely different matter - is this NPC going to be a permanent member of the group? Does said NPC have motivations outside of the group's motives? In most cases, if the NPC is going to be permanent, you might as well just give it completely over to a player and consider it a full-fledged PC. For a temporary , it usually is best to have the GM retain control of it, lest the players start doing munchkin-like stuff such as having the NPC give the PC all their loot.

For example: Lothar the Paladin decides to join-up with a rag-tag bunch of roguish-looking adventurers because they seem to have a common enemy. When a gang of orcs attack, Lothar will defend his compatriots valiantly (as he is being controlled by the PC's). He suddenly gets a little uptight when they want to sneak into the Governor's mansion to steal his weapon collection (as he is being controlled by the GM). The GM can use this wrinkle to add a little more interest to the story.

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In the specific case mentioned here, I think it would be better for the game if the GM retained control of an NPC who travels consistently with the PCs. If one of the players consistently controls an NPC who's always there, then that NPC will tend to become that player's secondary PC and either languish in the shadows or exist solely to help out the player's primary PC. As a GM-controlled NPC, however, they can develop a strong personality and engage in solid roleplay with either or both of the PCs.

In the more general case, players can absolutely control NPCs for shorter times, particularly when their PC isn't able to participate in the scene for whatever reason. (Not present, incapacitated, etc.)

  • One of my best roleplaying scenes ever was in a game of Ars Magica when one of the PCs stumbled across a group of faeries and I had all the other players roleplay the faeries.

  • I'm currently running Tenra Bansho Zero, which explicitly favors a style of game where you split the party constantly, then the extra players can either pay Aiki (TBZ's metagame currency, similar to bennies in Savage Worlds or Fate Points in FATE) to bring their PC into the scene or the GM or another player can pay them Aiki to come in as an NPC. Our first session, one of the players commented favorably on me "bribing players to outsource NPCs".

The key is to decide, for each NPC and situation, whether the game will benefit more by having them played by the GM or by someone else. My heuristic for this tends to be "non-GM players should usually be running exactly one character", but other considerations can overrule that in some circumstances.

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In groups I've been in, we do this a lot, following several different models. Now you're right that in a trad game the players only have uncontestable direct control over the PCs and anything else is being delegated to them by the GM. (There are other games, like Ars Magica and its troupe style gaming, or indie games where people can affect other characters' actions in some way, where this model doesn't hold.) It's legitimate to delegate running NPCs to PCs, but there are pros and cons that I think make it a better fit for different kinds of NPCs.

Dependent

If the NPC in question is a dependent of a specific PC - an animal companion, eidolon, intelligent sword, cohort, etc., we usually allow the player to run that NPC full time, with the GM reserving the right to "chime in" if they believe the player is taking advantage.

Secondary Character

If the NPC is a standalone person attached to the group, or one of a crowd of minions then I tend to just roleplay them as the GM, to maintain the layer of mystique there and since they aren't too much of a burden on me. I will often farm them out during combat, however, to reduce the complexity (as GM I usually am having to run a bunch of people already, and + a couple adds to that load).

In the pirate campaign I'm GMing, the group has a big crew of low level NPCs and some more closely associated full level, high relation NPCs (one PC even married one of them). I generally choose to run them all in general roleplay time - with the pirates, just showing flashes of personality from time to time and otherwise doing what they're supposed to be, but doing a lot more with the secondary characters. Often there'll be an "away mission" or similar where I give the players the pirates to run, and during large combats I tend to give the pirates and the secondary NPCs to them as well. I usually don't do this until they are very, very familiar with a secondary NPC, though, to keep them guessing about their exact capabilities, personality, and alignment (I've even been known to put lies on the NPC's character sheet to mislead the PCs about their true mission). New major NPCs stay in my hands for a while.

Just Plain Two PCs

In some games I've seen people just play multiple PCs. If you have two players and need a four character group, then the GM just says "roll two." I strongly dislike/discourage this because it interferes with in-character roleplay unless the player is really, really good at it. But if you're playing a kick-in-the-door tactical combat game, you may as well.

Unrelated NPCs

Shopkeeper in town? Quest giver? Well of course I run these at my sole discretion and would never delegate them out - not knowing exactly what everyone around is/can do/is about is a major part of creating a realistic feeling game world. If someone spends some kind of in-game currency to affect their behavior that's OK (we use Infamy Points, a kind of Hero Point, so if someone wants to spend one of those to say "that noble takes an inexplicable liking to me" I'll roll with it).

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Thanks for bringing some different flavours or player-controlled NPC to the table :) (+1'd) –  Gaxx May 3 '13 at 13:58

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