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Game Masters have plenty to do; no need to enumerate the tasks here. But should a non-player character be a 'regular' in a party?

By gaining a voice in the in-character interactions, the GM taps a source of fun that is otherwise denied. Such inclusion may help fix the common style flaw of "GM vs Players". But, if the role is not exercised with discretion, a poor GM may adversely affect leadership and problem-solving, and may disastrously shift the focus of the game away from the players.

So... should a Game Master be a Player too?

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Many of these answers just restate what the first answer said. Please consider whether you are adding value in your answer or posting for posting sake. If you are merely re-clarifying or adding to the first post use the comments. –  anon186 Sep 11 '10 at 21:56
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11 Answers

up vote 34 down vote accepted

Whether the GM should run what I identify as an (N)PC depends on the DM and players. I do it all the time. It works well for me. There seem to be a few keys to success here.

  • The (N)PC must not overshadow the PCs. I recommend multi-classing (if possible) since that allows the (N)PC to fill in holes, but not to dominate.

  • The (N)PC shouldn't have a "strong" personality. I find the best kind of personality to be the easy-going "whatever" kind of person. S/he should be a follower, not a leader.

  • The (N)PC can serve as an insightful member of the party when needed, but can't be the go-to person for answers. Contributions should come in the form of, "if I remember my history correctly" or "I think there may be someone who can help us", rather than "Eureka, I've solved the puzzle!"

  • The (N)PC can become a great tool for promoting good drama in a more narratively-oriented campaign. When the (N)PC starts wielding shadow magic in a dominantly good-aligned party, that's fodder for great character interaction. So too, when the patriotic crew has an (N)PC who suddenly starts to say "maybe Cylons are people, too, not unlike us."

On the other hand,...

  • If the players start to rely on the (N)PC too much, then the (N)PC should probably go.

  • If animosity begins in-party over the (N)PC, or if there is perceived favoritism, then the (N)PC should probably go.

In short, if a DM isn't able to accept a back seat for the (N)PC in the party, then it's probably best to not have an (N)PC in there at all. If the players don't deal well with the DM having an (N)PC in the group, then again it's probably best not to go there. Otherwise, consider the option of injecting an (N)PC as a possibility to enrich a strongly narrative campaign.

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Bah. I've never seen a GM-played PC used this way without turning play into a fantastic railroad, with nothing but good intentions. Remember, the question isn't whether the GM should have NPCs--she should! and must! The question is whether the GM should have a PC of her own. However, all of this advice works fine for NPCs: don't let them overshadow the PCs, etc. –  Adam Dray Sep 16 '10 at 14:36
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I've often seen multi-classed characters dominate parties of single-classed characters. –  aramis Sep 16 '10 at 16:31
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In general, no, but it depends upon the game.

In games where the GM plays an adversarial role or adjudicates rewards, also playing a character creates a conflict of interest. There will likely be questions of favoritism toward her own character. There's no getting around this. Even if the GM says she wants the players to succeed, then that suggests she may be more likely not to play her GM role to the fullest.

When is it okay? There are games, like Misspent Youth, where the GM isn't in an adversarial role and doesn't have any say over rewards. In these cases, the GM's role is pacing and narration. The designer could have said, "Hey, the GM gets a character, too," but he didn't. Why not? Because he wanted the GM to be free from "player stuff" to watch over "GM stuff." So there's less of an ethical problem in games like these, but still a duty problem. Your game may not be as good if the GM isn't focusing on GM stuff.

If you're the GM, ask yourself, "Why do I want to have a PC?"

  • You miss the experience of being a player. Consider sharing the GMing role with your friends. Trade off every other week or something.

  • You miss developing a character. Well, you can do that as a GM with your NPCs. Just don't let the game become too focused on them. Don't make them protagonists. They have to stay in roles that support the PCs.

  • You want to use the GM-PC to guide the story. Maybe you are a frustrated story teller or writer. Consider putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) and just writing a short story instead. Let the players guide the story. As GM, you can write some back-story, but don't try to write out what happens at the table. That just makes every player choice meaningless. Don't use a GM-PC (or NPC) to railroad!

  • The GM-PC is a tool to give information to the PCs. This is probably a special case of the bullet above. Carefully controlling information is sometimes a subtle kind of railroading. Give the players the information they need to get them into the game so they can make meaningful choices.

  • The GM-PC fills a hole in the party. If you're short on players, or need a cleric or something, it's tempting as GM to just play a PC to help out. It's almost always better to go without or let a player run a second character. Or adjust your game to accommodate a smaller number of players. In games like D&D, you can hand out charged magic items that fill in for almost any missing role.

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+1. I'm with you entirely. In game with trad roles, I'm at a loss to understand what inspires such a question. GMs already have NPCs, and sometimes they hang out with the PCs, at least for a while. What does the idea of a GM-PC add to this? An NPC who can be guaranteed not to stab you in the back, and who is implicitly guaranteed a place in the party? Well if that floats your boat, fine. Not my idea of fun. Games with non-trad roles, well maybe. That's a whole different question. –  Dave Hallett Nov 18 '10 at 0:33
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Yes, I do this frequently. Here's a few rules of thumb I use to keep it sane...

Sprung from Canon

Every one of the PC's I've run as a party member was originally an NPC that was introduced as part of a module. They usually ended up having a little more face time because they had an important job such as being escorted, being an escort or holding a McGuffan of some significance. The party works with them to overcome their own objectives, during which the PC's personality and usefulness to the party is revealed.

Invited by the Party

When the fit is right, your party will extend the invitation to join them in their adventure. It's best to let this happen, and not force the hand of the DM with this. You control EVERYTHING else in the world, the ability to control whom is in the party is a privilege they are entitled to. The NPC can express great gratitude for the party's help and even pledge their sword, but no means no here.

If they choose not to take in your NPC/PC, return the NPC to his day job. If you really have a spot in your heart for him, you can plan a later module to give him more screen time. Elsewise, start rolling up your next candidate, and look forward to the session where one of your PCs is recruited permanently.

Silent Partner

This has been mentioned many times in the above posts. I agree totally. Don't make any major decisions for the party as a PC.

Compartmentalized Knowledge

This is important. When you run the PC you are NOT the DM, all DM knowledge must be compartmentalized. When your PC is being addressed, you have to answer with only the knowledge the PC possess unflinchingly. This is a developed skill, that only comes with practice and forethought while preparing for your games. This is probably one of the most challenging and truest forms of roleplaying, so good luck!

This can be an extremely rewarding experience. It allows you to play the game from the other side, and helps bolster a party with very few players. In addition, in a group that rotates DMs, it provides a vessel for you to later step in as a player.

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Applause. Tho apparently our out-of-the-box views run contrary to more orthodox pov's. And yes, you have to be a good DM to avoid the obvious pitfalls, and really good to compartmentalize. But obviously you 'get it'. ;> –  ExTSR Jun 1 '11 at 22:28
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In my opinion Yes, if they want to. I do it all the time and it works like a charm.

In most of the games that I run, I have at least one GM-PC and they are great for a number of reasons:

  • They are extremely helpful for sorting out in game fights in game,
  • They help keep the player focused on the task at had provided you are a subtle DM,
  • They can make for some hilarious party dynamics/ situations.

I also find it helps the players forget that I am their Dungeon Master which I know is an odd thing to want. I want them to forget that the action in the game is being made by an external source and I want them to believe that everything is happening, not preplanned. The most important thing is to have that GM-PC not steal the spotlight ans there are a variety of techniques for this.

  • Don't let the NPC be the deciding vote on ANYTHING, they can have an opinion but let it be an opinion that has already been voiced. (I agree with him/her, lets do that.) Helpful if your players risk leaving the plot behind or are making the VERY stupid decision.
  • As the NPC, don't take party loot unless it is offered by the other members of the group and if it is, take the cheap stuff.
  • Let the party react as needed. I have no idea why but there is a character who hates one of my GM-PCs on principle. I have taken the player aside and asked them if they want me to remove the character on a few occasions but they refuse. The RP that is effected is sometimes hysterical because both of them are Chaotic Rogues.

In my opinion, if the party you are DMing for will not fall over because there is another member they have to occasionally share a bunk with, then why not?

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No. The GM should just cede the GM chair occasionally, and be a proper player. Mixing the two successfully is possible, but it's going to be so rare that the answer to this "should" question is "no" for almost anyone who might consider it.

(All that's assuming a traditional GM/player split, of course. Some games are designed to let the GM play as a player too, but then there's no question of should or shouldn't.)

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There are several issues here... not one. Breaking them down, and answering each in the bullets under each numbered issue:

  1. Should the party be allowed to have NPC members
    • is yes, it's fine. In fact, in D&D, they have a special name: Henchmen and Hirelings.

  2. Should the GM play NPCs as if they are PC's
    • This is generally a "No"
    • certain games (Burning Empires, for example) have mechanisms to allow running NPC's as GMPC's. But in those cases, there is almost always some inherent limitation on the role of GM characters.

  3. Should NPC's be allowed to provide input on party direction
    • is a matter of group taste. If your group does not like it, don't do it. If they don't mind, fine as well.
    • I've seen few groups that like it

  4. Should NPC's ever take the spotlight
    • "Exceedingly rarely"
    • it is best when they are not also part of the party.
    • The NPC being in the spotlight should be a matter of either saving their bacon by heroic self sacrifice, or some other one-time-only type action.
    • If the GM is using the NPC as a Mary Sue, the players should be looking for a new GM.
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Many might have different answers, and while I as a DM long to play. In a lot of parties, the DM player somehow ends up the leader as well, as the players defer to the DMs intimate knowledge of the campaign to gain advantages, in the end, it ends up frustrating as players hole up and go 'I dunno what to do, what do you think?' and then they get angry if you mislead them purposefully or your npc character somehow provides the wrong solution. It's not even a poor GM that creates this shift, the players create it for themself.

A particular example is if you have a group of players that play mostly for the combat or the like and not for the exploration, if you create a puzzle, and they're not interested in solving or investigating it, or simply not capable, they'll often turn to the NPC. If you're the one that created the puzzle, there's not a whole lot of fun in solving it most of the time.

I don't ever particularly play as 'GM vs. Players' but, when you're on the inside of the story and part of the excitement is discovering what's going on, it becomes a frustration rather than an aid to play when the players put your NPC/GMPC in the spotlight. You're not creating the story for yourself, if you were, you wouldn't need players.

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This answer is similar to what I was in the process of writing, so +1. To further clarify this answer is for very straightforward GM style games like D&D or World of Darkness. As you stray beyond it to say a troupe style game like Ars Magica or to gm-less games this answer is no longer relevant. –  anon186 Sep 11 '10 at 16:27
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In games with very few player characters, particularly 1:1 games, there are some NPCs that recur frequently enough to be GM-PCs. This is a delicate operation but can be quite valuable. For example, if the single player character is a wizard then a henchman bodyguard who follows orders is a pretty good GM-PC. The bodyguard will often be with the wizard in their adventures and be the muscle while the player character is the brains. 1:1 games with GM-PCs also allows for in depth interaction between player characters that can greatly enrich a story line.

Some game systems make allowance for GM-PCs. For example, Ars Magica or King Arthur Pendragon have great ways to handle this issue. Ars Magica just has GM-PCs sit out while the GM is active. When another GM in the troupe picks up then the GM-PC activates. KAP can also be played troupe style (in fact, its quite beneficial when player knights reach the level of banneret or peer.) In KAP the rules have mechanics for what happens to the knights when they sit out adventures, which can be used for the less active GM-PCs to keep them nearly equivalent to player knights in abilities.

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Yes - in certain styles of game. I mainly run World of Darkness, and then only very social campaigns, and I've found that having a GM-PC in the fullest sense of the word is an amazing experience - if you are willing to stay out of the plot driven spotlight.

I think the main points to remember, as have been re-iterated by many above, is that your character needs to go along with what the party wants to do, and not make any decisions that are based in what you know will happen, but also not be the go-to character for problem solving (be it puzzles or skills/powers). This does not mean your character has to be irrelevent to the plot, or a complete push over - for example, in one campaign I ran, the players encountered a young girl who was an insanely powerful vampire (my GMPC). She never used her powers on the players (except when amusing for everyone to do so), but nor did she ever use her powers in their favour. She used them for her own motives - which turned out to be deciding to amuse herself by following these two completely inept new vampires. It meant that I could interact with the characters in the same way another player would, and added to the "shared story" feel that I love in games.

In summary, I would approve of GMPCs when the GM knows how to take a backseat.

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Also (sorry, forgot to add this), another way to make GMPCs work is to have them be a character at the PC's "home base" - be that their house, their ship, their favourite inn. That way, the GMPC isn't out adventuring with the party, but still gets regular screen time, and (most fun) downtime interaction with the party. My current campaign has a GMPC maid in the players' house, who has made it her 'mission' to fix the emotional problems of one of the PCs. It makes for very fun roleplaying. –  English Petal Mar 9 '12 at 15:51
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If the total number of players (including the GM) is 3 or less, then yes - most systems expect a party of 4 or more, so even just 3 or 2 is pushing it. Once you have 3 players apart from the GM, it really isn't necessary anymore, and it's something I think should be avoided. In the instances where the GM does play a main character, it should always be filling in a necessary role that the others haven't taken. In AD&D where nobody wants to be the walking first aid tent as the Cleric, the GM should naturally be the Cleric, and usually stay out of the way. Alternate options would be the Diviner/Loremaster/Oracle type character, who is good at gathering information necessary to make the plot move on, and can serve as a voice for the GM. If the setting is a new world that not everyone is familiar with, having the players play outsiders, and the GM character be a native guide is also a good option.

In all these cases, the GMPC isn't the typical Mary Sue, but instead fills in an important gap in the party.

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In some systems I somewhat agree. But that is very system dependent, not all assume a party that works together at all. Even in systems that expect a proper party, I would generally recommend tailoring the challenges to the group instead of adding in GM-PCs as filler. –  TimothyAWiseman Dec 19 '13 at 18:34
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This seems to be turning into a series of opinions. Also, things like the game in question, the status of the game, and the playing styles.

But, I think the best answer is an almost never, with some caveats.

First, to deal with the almost. It can work and indeed might be needed if you want to do certain types of games with very few players (1 or 2 players, with 3 I wouldn't do it).

And then the caveats. There are a lot of things that have some of the traits of the GM-PC, but not all. And I think most of those others are fine. They include:

  1. NPC henchmen. These can serve many of the benefits of GM-PC such as being an information font and a way to ask "are you sure?" entirely in character. But they are run very differently. They have minor parts, don't feel like a PC, and are substantially less powerful than the PC, and there might be a whole bunch of them. Some game systems almost demand them (Ghouls in V:TM, followers for high level fighters in AD&D....)
  2. Short term fillers. It often works well to have someone temporarily join the party to serve a specific. This someone might even be substantially more powerful than the PCS. But what differentiates it strongly from a GM-PC is that it is temporary and often specialized. For instance, one advanture in Ravenloft might have the party be hired to assist Van Helsing himself (or someone similar). He would then travel with, and even direct, the party. But he has his own motivations and it is clear he is short term from the beginning. Alternatively, a hireling or ally might join to provide a very specific, such as if they need not just a cleric, but a Cleric of Sune for this particular mission. But that one is both short term and possibly specialized.
  3. Cameos. I have used previous PCs of mine for cameo purposes just because it was a well fleshed out character already at hand and tied multiple campaigns together. But normally they showed up very briefly either to hire the PCs or as a short term mentor and did not travel with or join the party.

As the diversity of answers makes clear, there is something of a matter of taste to it. But as a general rule I think GM-PCs are very rarely a good idea. They detract from the actual players who should be the center of the story.

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