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I find myself prone to creating GMPCs.

For the unfamiliar, a GMPC is an NPC that the GM has a special fondness for, much like a "Mary Sue" in fiction. They are often overpowered, have plot armour, a key role in the story, and might be played as smug, superior, mysterious, or all three. A definite sign of a GMPC is that the GM expects the group to react favourably to it and takes offense otherwise. GMPCs can result from a GM secretly wishing to play this character, but not having the opportunity as a player.

Of course, I don't like to admit that my NPCs are Mary Sues but indeed I have at least one NPC that evolved from a player-character concept to a fully-fledged NPC. This has happened that I realised that the idea for the guy was very powerful, but also that I will never be able to play him properly, as he's too incompatible.

The problems and how I am mitigating them:

  • My GMPC is flawless, but in a way that he is a very powerful entity with a few major flaws, that can be exploited once discovered, but that would be very hard.
  • My GMPC is extremely powerful in comparison to the PCs, but they are never going to be directly confronting him.
  • My GMPC is invincible, but it's because the plot does not equip the players with the means to destroy him (they could get them, but only by actively seeking), he is instead supposed to be a force of nature.
  • My GMPC is not there as a central part of the story, but a meddler, who comes in, has his own separate agenda and disappears. The players can strike a deal with him or oppose him, but they can very well avoid him and still emerge victorious.
  • My GMPC acts all smug and mysterious, because he is a self-important jerk. He is usually kind to the PCs as long as it keeps him entertained. He will not kill them for telling him off and he actually would very much like to be surprised (think of a thousand-year old elf, who has really seen it all, and meddles with humans to make his life more interesting).
  • Well, I would indeed like my GMPC to see the light of day and that's the only way I can think of to make that happen.

The GMPC will not accompany the group. This is not a person who would "hang out", but rather pursue his own business in the same area—so the party will stumble upon him from time to time. He might help them if they request it (or lure them into a trap if they annoy him), but he's not supposed to take part in the adventure. If the party was The Fellowship Of The Ring, say, this guy would be a wizard trying to harness the power of a volcano. He doesn't give a **** if they throw some ring inside, but if they lead the orcs away, that makes his life easier, right?

What should I do to have this kind of a character in the campaign without spoiling the fun?

What are the common pitfalls that I failed to recognise?

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A note: the term GMPC isn't from 1d4chan. It's just a term in the RPG community. I'm going to edit out that caveat. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 8 at 16:58
    
I am aware of that, but the definition that I presented is pretty much consistent with 1d4chan's one. Caveat was that the GMPC in the scope of this question is a NPC that mirrors GM's desire for putting a deus ex machina character that represents his will to play, that is disruptive and unwanted, not the perfect innocent definition that GMPC is simply an NPC that complements the party that lacks a certain capability. –  eimyr Jul 8 at 17:26
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The missing-party GMPC definition isn't the only definition outside 1d4chan either. It can mean that, and it can mean a super-awesome NPC the GM is emotionally invested in. The definition you wrote is plenty to clarify which you mean. In the end, 1d4chan simply has nothing to do with the concept, except for being one of many places online that talks about GMPCs. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 8 at 18:00
    
Fair enough, point taken. –  eimyr Jul 8 at 18:20
    
If he's an arrogant powerful jerk, don't be surprised if you're met with groans every time he shows up. This doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't use him - PCs and even players don't need to like an NPC in order for him to add enjoyment to the game. Just avoid the pitfall of getting angry at your players for not falling in love with your Mary Sue. –  MartianInvader Jul 8 at 21:35

10 Answers 10

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I, like you, am guilty of this. I have different ways to handling it, some are combinable, but not all.

The main purpose of all of this is to make the game more enjoyable to your players, because the problem with GMPCs is that it tends to ruin the fun for the players. So you have to ask yourself (and/or your players) what specifics are to be avoided. I had groups that enjoyed being the guys that hang around Mr. Coolguy and listen to the story and I had groups that shot him dead.

If the character stays with the group and is important to the story, tell your players directly that you are going to play a PC with them.

So, now my advicelist: He must be coherent to the rules of the game. He may be twenty levels above the PCs (or whatever concept for power exists) but he still is within game mechanics and thus beatable by game mechanics. If he is injured write that down on his sheet. Don't go over it like 'that scratch wouldn't bother him'.

Make him super-whatever but gamewise unimportant. The one who gives the group their adventure may come over like a young god, yet to the actual story it doesn't matter at all. (The Johnson)

Give him some social problems, small, shy, geeky, clumsy. He actually needs the PCs because he just can't handle the world despite being awesome otherwise.

Handle him like you would have your PC handled by another GM, that makes him more like a character and less like a plot device.

Let him leave the group for prolonged periods and return after that. So there should be multiple sessions without him, then he returns only to leave again after that.

If you want him important to the story let the players try to recruit him into their team (and succeed) rather than forcing them to take someone with them they don't like.

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+1 for letting the players recruit him. What's "The Johnson"? –  DCShannon Jul 8 at 20:45
    
@DCShannon I think he meant the "Mr. Johnson", a common name for Shadowrun fixers. –  Wesley Obenshain Jul 9 at 3:40
    
@DCShannon "The Johnson" is the metaname for the recruiter of the adventuring party in Cyberpunk / Shadowrun settings. –  Angelo Fuchs Jul 9 at 7:53
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+1 Don't bend the rules! Make him a believable character, and no plot device. And if he screws up and the group kills him, or finds a way to exploit him, don't get angry don't fix it somehow but congratulate the group ;-) –  Falco Jul 9 at 11:31

As described, I don't think your character actually meets the definition of a GMPC.

[The GMPC] starts out an important NPC to travel with the party and fill any missing roles no one else wants to play. It's almost like the GM has a Player Character of his own, thus this concept has come to be known as the GMPC. (emphasis mine)

The character you have described can work fine in a game, so long as he stays on the periphery. The most important thing to keep in mind to prevent developing a GMPC is that the story of the game is about the players' characters, not the GM's characters. If you can remember that, you'll be fine regardless of how you set up the NPCs.

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Oh well, I just typed an addendum with that info... Thanks, that is actually very helpful bit of definition that I somehow forgot about. But still, would such a character spoil the fun, fitting the definition or not? –  eimyr Jul 8 at 15:26
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The important thing to focus on is the last part of my answer. As long as the story is about the player characters, it doesn't matter if Captain Awesomesauce has eleventy-jillion spells of "I win forever and ever." He's just background, just a tool to put interesting situations in front of the players. –  Grubermensch Jul 8 at 15:33
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Cool. I'll keep that in mind, seems to be a recurring pattern in all of the responses. –  eimyr Jul 8 at 15:38

I don't personally think there's anything inherently wrong with an invincible, super powered NPC, provided that the limelight remains clearly centered on the PCs. The players want to feel like the heroes of the story, and any time you introduce a non-malevolent being who is significantly stronger than they, there's a chance that this feeling gets squashed.

What would I do to reduce this character's overbearing shadow?

  • Limit his screentime. The GMPC should stay away from the group most of the time. The more he appears, the more the PCs feel like the GM cares more about his character than theirs.

  • Make him a resource. If the PCs are on amiable terms with him, they should be able to call for favors from time to time. I would find a way to put him in the party's debt. Then they'll feel like they "own" a valuable asset instead of the party being the GMPC's plaything. From one of your comments I've gleaned that you intend to tempt the players to "deal with the devil". This is highly encouraged because, once again, the GMPC becomes something the players get something from.

  • Bonus Points: Having a super-powerful NPC is useful if you want to make the Big Bad look really scary. The PCs know how strong he is, so they'll be super scared when the Big Bad cuts the GMPC down in one or two hits. I personally would kill him off at this point.

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I find this question somewhat difficult to answer because you're essentially saying you want to introduce a god-like character as your personal avatar into the game. My personal recommendation is to detach from the character personally. I have been in several games where the GM in question (even myself for small tables) has said up front "this is my character", and in these instances they only know more than the players as a device to get them on track when they are obviously stuck. Otherwise, they are made exactly as the main party is made which bypasses the power issue, and they interact with the party like people and not just pawns in a larger game (IE smug and mysterious).

That said...

Presently it looks like you are entering a god-like character into the game and that's always a can of worms.

What can the party do that the GMPC can't?

If he's invulnerable to most conventional harm, what's stopping him from doing the job without meddlesome mortals? A vampire trying to steal a relic from a cathedral, for example. Or even just that Baron von Evil has the shield that can only be bypassed by the pure of heart, or people who were born on a Thursday.

Why would the GMPC care about the party, and vice-versa?

For whatever reason, this self assured jerk is willing to associate with the party, why would it matter if any of them was squashed under a dragon's claw or vaporized by a laser? More importantly, if he gets into a bind of any sort, why should the party bother to drag him out of it? Egotistical characters tend to be at their most enjoyable when they are just simply emotionally stinted and don't know how to show what is obviously loving concern for others.

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Thanks for the answer. My reaction concerns: no, this is not a personal avatar. It's a character that I know and like well but if they decide to ignore him, I will not mind. What's stopping him? Well, nothing, apart from the fact that he has other business and is completely uninterested in the party's objective. I'll amend my question to reflect that. The reason to meddle is (device-wise) create an opportunity for some characters to make deal with the devil. Plot-wise, he meddles because he recognises something unique about the party and he wants to see how they do. –  eimyr Jul 8 at 15:14

Since you tagged that as system agnostic, I will go for an answer that might not satisfy those who plays D&D/Pathfinder and closely stick to the rules. Also, I have seen many GMPC and most of the time things went very bad for the PCs, only the GM enjoyed himself and he was unable to understand players frustration. I will try to make you avoid that particular pitfall, although this will probably require changing the whole way GMPC is made and played.

In a nutshell, don't create a GMPC just as a private joke for you. It will collide with the players and they won't have fun at all. Find a way to make it an interesting NPC for THEM.

Here is why/how:

World is unbalanced

This is kind of a prerequisite to what follows, I think you must accept, and make your players accept the fact that their character are not in a video game with NPC level-scalling. They are to encounter very weak foes as well as overpowered people. If your whole universe does not abide by this rule, and you introduce a GMPC, then he will be an almighty deity and you will have failed. Your GMPC has its own foes and troubles that keep him busy, else what is the point of the evil existing if they can be crushed by GMPC.

Make some more

Ok, here is step two. You have a very interesting NPC because he actually have a real history, motives, relationships... Congrats, you have made a NPC as they should all be (except the OPness). Make another one, just for the fun make it an antagonist of the previous one. When it's done, make more, at different levels of power. Now you have a side story involving lot of interesting NPC, seems pretty cool. Oh, and by the way, if the players do not react favorably to your first one, well they won't feel threatened since they know other NPC that can protect if they refused your first GMPC generous offer and he took it badly.

Another good thing about that is that since you now have many GMPC, you will tend to be less possessive and more likely to allow him a deadly fate (if the players act very smartly), or at least not make him so openly god-like that the players will feel jealous.

Share your knowledge stupid wizard

So I heard your GMPC act all smug and mysterious. Hope there is a reason why (if not I think you are totally immature sorry), and it's cool because that imply secrets and hidden knowledge. Now is your GMPC blinded by pride and despise the weaker or more the bragging one? If your players ask why being so mysterious, what's the big secret, they should be able to learn (not necessarily right now or by him but there must be a way). If they feel that you will never let them know, that it's a kind of private joke between you and the setting, they WILL feel bad and have very negative reaction to your GMPC. Even if the GMPC say nothing, give them some other way to understand why this guy, why this OPness.

Make it a strength

Actually, I think that the whole "not get involved" thing is not such a good idea since the sight of such a powerful character who does nothing while knowing whill generate much frustration for the players. If you introduce such a guy, there is a chance he learns about what the PCs seek to achieve, and will take a stand. So well, I suggest you prepare carefully his motives and introduce the GMPC as a wildcard, and set equally powerful antagonists. Your players are now in the midst of a confrontation they can balance and maybe decide its outcome.

I once made a whole campaign with the evil-guy manipulating two GMPCs to clash and trying to benefit from it. The players really liked both of them and there was really challenging roleplay debate between players to know which one was a "good guy", which one they should betray if one. Even when it was over they talked about how siding with the other one would have been, or trying to re conciliate them, or investigating enough about their motives to see the bad guy before it was too late (it ended by one of the GMPC death). That was one of my only good GMPC experience.

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I like The "Make some more part". That's... that's actually a brilliant idea, it's just that I truly and honestly believe I will never be able to match the concept of this guy. It's not that he's my personal favourite - no, I actually hate roleplaying him, he's too taxing on me. He indeed has a reason to act like that (more developed than "he's deranged") and it can be gained, but if the players do not pursue his past, they will probably stay clueless as to why he behaves like he behaves. –  eimyr Jul 8 at 15:34
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Then you are on the good road if the players can investigate his past. All the other you make do not have to be all mysterious or like him, actually what I'm trying to say is that if in time you manage to create this level of detail for a handful of NPC, you will end up with very interesting NPC (and maybe the GMPC/NPC line will blur and you will not have the drawbacks of classical GMPC). I think this can be achieved with practice. –  Dargor Jul 8 at 16:02
    
Note: I removed the system-agnostic tag, since it didn't seem critical. Nowhere does the question hint at a system, let alone d20 systems, so it really isn't needed to prevent people from answering system-specifically. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 8 at 17:10

You seem to be describing something with a similar impact to Q from Star Trek (and similar smugness).

The players can enjoy this fine, provided they appreciate that their characters are supposed to be alternately terrified, bemused, and frustrated by his actions and by his excessive powers.

To avoid the players being too terrified, bemused, or frustrated you need to signal that this character doesn't pose them serious danger. Even something as simple as saying, "I like you. You've got personality", just before putting them all in a tight spot, will show them that the character is someone that they (the players) are supposed to enjoy, not a problem that the players need to solve in order to survive or progress.

The fact that the character helps them as well as sometimes hinders them will also contribute, but make sure he's not a point-and-click mega-weapon that they can use to solve their problems too easily. That's fun about once.

Also, make sure that maintaining the inherent coolness of this character doesn't get in the way of the plot. OK, the players might find that if what they're trying to do will harm his pride then he'll obstruct them, but don't make it a law of the universe that they have to pander to him, because that feels like pandering to you.

Basically, if you're going to mess the PCs around, make sure it doesn't feel to the players like they're failing at the game, or that their own abilities and actions and goals don't matter in this game.

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If you're going to mess the PCs around don't make them feel the GM is messing with them, but rather the character - and that the GM can be their ally against this annoying prick –  Falco Jul 9 at 11:33
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I like the Q reference because that is a wonderful character to model intermittent high level beings, but he had more of a Loki-type effect: Yeah I'm gonna mess with you, but if you're a good sport you get something good –  CatLord Jul 10 at 1:59

I've found there's exactly one criteria for whether an NPC becomes a problematic GMPC or not.

Do the PCs have a say in whether or not this character is a party member? If you're imposing your own character into the party and the players don't want him there, he's a GMPC and potentially a bad one. If he's someone they want to be a part of the group, he's a hireling. It's all about PC choice.

From the sound of things your NPC isn't trying to be a party member so I wouldn't worry too much.

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Best way I could picture the GMPC as a working concept is as "the tutorial guy" in some video games. He's inexplicably unkillable until the plot calls for it, he knows the weaknesses of nearly everything in the game world but never actually fights anything, and for the most part his purpose is more to help advance the story missions in ways the players wouldn't be able to themselves than actually accomplish anything himself.

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I've done something like this multiple times. –  CatLord Jul 8 at 18:28
    
I've done something like this multiple times, and players didn't like it. –  Pavel Jul 11 at 11:29

While I mostly agree with the other sentiments expressed here, you need to be very careful about how often and in what ways you present the character. Be sure to take a cue from your players as well. For example, having Elminster (or Fizban) show up in your Forgotten Realms (or Dragonlance) campaign can be fun at first but the more often they show up to provide free heals or answer the unsolvable riddle the more agency it takes away from the players.

It almost sounds like you should just make this character a recurring villain. Remember, not all villains are evil necromancers raising hordes of undead who need to be slaughtered. Often "evil" (or naughtiness or self-interest) is much more subtle than that, and killing, or even trying to kill, them can present serious problems for the players. After all, even most D&D heroes live in some sort of society.

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Thanks for the reply. Indeed, the GMPC is supposed to appear as a neutral, meddling and slightly malicious guy, but he is a full blown villain. The whole character concept was that I'll try to create a character that should be by all means considered the staple of evil, but his every action would be reasonable and justified within his motives. Also, his goal is selfish, but non-evil, only his means are. If dreams would come true, the players would identify him as a villain without me establishing him as such and try to hinder his attempts and bring him down eventually. –  eimyr Jul 9 at 7:38
    
This is what my brother did as a GM: he introduced a vampire high-priest much more powerful than the PCs, and more powerful than any other recurring NPC. She wants to use the PCs as pawns against her powerful enemies, and to corrupt one of the PCs to become her apprentice, so she has no reason to kill them before they grow too strong. Players hate her, but knowing that there is someone much more powerful than high-level PCs really enhances the game - the fear helps atmosphere and every minor victory against her makes players more happy than killing some other powerful villain. –  Pavel Jul 11 at 11:52

See, you're asking quite a few questions here, but I will try to address the one in the title. You need to take a step back from D&D and approach this problem from a more fundamental level.

Step 1: get a chessboard.

Step 2: proceed to beat yourself senseless at chess.

Step 3: repeat step two for a week or two.

If you can honestly play chess against yourself, playing with the full intent to win on both sides, even with full awareness of your own plans, then you have taken a large step towards being a better GM. This is much harder than it sounds if you are being honest with yourself. After all, being a GM is not about winning, but playing the game. Winning is for PCs.

Your goal is to provide challenge and motivation to both the allies and the enemies of the PCs, and a GMPC is only a tool in that effort. If you have made him godlike and unassailable by mortals, then you need to find an effective counter for the villains. It can be another godlike figure, or a more Joker-like enemy that the GMPC can't quite understand or bring himself to stop. There has to be a reason that the party can't simply hope that the GMPC will be there to catch them if things go all pear-shaped. That way, the party is still relevant to the fight at hand.

Looking at chess again, the queen could be seen as a GMPC. She has ridiculous power, and can do more than any other piece, right? But she has her perfect match, and she can even be toppled by a mere pawn if she's careless. This keeps her from being a Mary Sue in chess.

tl;dr, to sum up, for any advantage you give Good, you have to find a poison or weapon that Evil can use to match, counter, sidestep, or nullify it.

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Does not address the question or its circumstances at all. –  Wesley Obenshain Jul 9 at 18:39
    
I'm trying to answer the bigger problem. A GMPC is only useful if it forwards the conflict. It seems to me that this GM has trouble staying objective and neutral, of which Mary Sue GMPCs are a symptom, so I suggested an exercise to help. –  Emmett R. Jul 9 at 18:43

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