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I'm forming a group of new players along with myself to play D&D 5e together. The DMing will probably fall to me, and maybe another friend. However, I'd also like to sometimes have my own character and play as that character.

What are my options for my character to still level up and influence the story, if I DM and play?

If we rotate, does my character just go on vacation whilst I'm DMing and level up accordingly? Or do I do the quests, playing my own PC along with the group whilst I DM? (Will that spoil the fun?) Do I join in as a player in the next episode, and receive double XP to compensate for the sessions my character missed out on?

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I think the question is asking: (a) Should the GM's character be present during normal play along side the normal characters? and (b) How should the advancement of the character be handled in either case? –  ironboundtome Jul 25 at 3:13
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a) is already handled by the other linked questions and so the scope of this question needs to be constrained to b). –  mxyzplk Jul 25 at 3:19

5 Answers 5

In terms of how to handle your character's advancement: Your character has XP equal to the lowest xp of the other players. This way you are not advanced beyond your peers in the group, and also not penalized for being the GM when your character is returned to active play.

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I would highly recommend that if the game comes with a module, that whomever is the DM at the start should stay the DM throughout. If you wish to rotate in an episodic fashion for each quest, then that is a perfectly fine way to do things. I have seen this done two ways:

  1. The person who is DMing levels normally, but they can't just sit around and do nothing as the DM's PC while you run the game. You also have to limit what they do to what they would know in character - don't be afraid to roll an INT check for some Knowledge/Lore or another and if they fail, then tough cookies. The trick when being the DM and having a character is not to Metagame, which is using knowledge that the person knows to influence an otherwise ignorant character's actions (E.G. Your dim-witted fighter knowing what spell a wizard is casting even though they don't have any Spellcraft, just because you as a player know the hints). However, if your PC doesn't know what to do in character, it's not like you're the only player there. Other players can say "Hey, Haley the Rogue - could you search this door for traps?" and put them into action.

  2. The person who is DMing gains no XP, because after all, if you're not prepared to harm or even kill your darlings as well as any non-DM played PC then don't reward them for the danger and challenges they aren't really facing. You can't "not know" what you're up to and if you care anything about your character how do you justify that every other character is expendable or less valuable and think that's a platform for getting the same rewards? Incidentally, I have seen DMs dock their XP by a quarter or more for awarding themselves temporary "Plot Armor".

I hope this addresses your concerns.

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I've done this both ways.

In the early 3e days we decided we were going to rotate GMs throughout the entire group, and I bought the first batch of adventures available (Death in Freeport, that WotC twigblight thing, various forgettable third party adventures) and we rotated. In that game, the GM's PC didn't just disappear, he/she took on a background role and often found excuses to go do something else, but generally "lightly participated" so as to keep up with the group's XP level.

Nowadays in Pathfinder when we do this, since we don't bother with XP tracking any more and just advance the entire party when appropriate, it's easier to just send non-player PCs off on other errands and level them when then come back - there are no "XP police" who will contest your allocation of levels in your game. It's similar to the problem with players with absent PCs, except for the additional drawbacks if you as GM are tempted to "Mary Sue" your GMPC - the other questions SevenSidedDie linked address that concern.

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As you mention, there are a couple of ways to handle this. What's most important is that you chat with your group and they agree.

The rest of this answer is largely opinion and personal experience.

Leveling Up

If your character doesn't level up, that puts you in a worse position than the other players when you rejoin the game. This doesn't exactly make people enthusiastic about running the game, in my experience. "So you put in the hard work GMing for three sessions, enjoy being a level behind forever!"

The idea that because your character was not at risk they should not advance has some merit, but I think that because you waived the opportunity to gain the advancement so the others could play you deserve it. Obviously, this has a little to do with play-style, if you're playing a hardcore "if you die you restart at level one" type game, then this carries less weight.

Being There

As a GM you have a lot on your plate. You should, you need to concentrate on running the best session for your players, balancing focus, keeping play flowing, dropping clues and plot hooks, tracking NPC knowledge and agendas.

Adding in your PC on top of that, as CatLord pointed out, is just asking for horrible information leak, as well as a split focus that can be very harmful for the game.

Even having your PC fade into the background can be dangerous - I once had my PC accidentally derail a whole bunch of plot threads because another PC asked them to do something they had no good reason to refuse and it spiralled out of control, dragging them further into the plot.

If this means your party hasn't got a rogue, for instance, cut down on the trapped doors. Simple. If the adventure was likely to need one they'd have brought your character, after all.

Influencing the Story

As GM you already influence the story. Write a story starring the other PCs, give them the limelight, and let them do the same in turn. If you aren't running the game for the other PCs the players are going to have trouble engaging with your game

In my view your character's plot arcs are better handled by someone else (though you could possibly drop some hook, but if you do be sparing with them), that way you can enjoy the exploration and discovery modes of play.

Game Structure

My advice would have a mission-based format, possibly from a higher authority. This way you can have a rotating cast (the ones who are right for the job), excuses for missing characters (doing another task), and keep interplay between adventures run by different GMs minimal if needed.

Also, drop loads of plot hooks, even ones you don't plan on using. If other GMs want to claim them, let them, if not drop them or link them into your main thread. At worst, someone else can GM for a bit while you figure it out.

This kind of game can be a lot of fun, but there is a tendency to tread on other people's toes. Talk to the other GMs about what is permissible, what they should ask before doing, and when surprises are OK. Also, be flexible and willing to rewrite something when another GM does something that would be contradicted by it.

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I frequently run a Game Master PC of my own. Here are some of the things I do in order to ensure that they aren't the true spotlight, but they are important to the story:

Your character isn't always able to give sound advice.

Most of my DM run characters are relatively passive in nature when it comes to making decisions. Those that aren't are likely to make incorrect/bad decisions due to their own goals/motives. Failing these, the character may actually be actively endangering the players (the NPC that is a hiding villain). If you aren't careful, the players will try to take the cue that your GM-PC is the carrot that guides them through the campaign. Ensure the players know that they can't always trust the decisions of this character and they will just see them as another character. The character shouldn't come across as an avatar of the DM, but shouldn't only be a stooge (unless that's why he's there), so don't overdo this part either.

Role playing based rewards immunity

If you are allowing any form of rewards for good role-playing (inspiration comes to mind for 5th edition) do not give it to the GM-PC. It doesn't make sense to do so, and your players will possibly assume that you are favoring you're favoring your character. If you want the possibility of these rewards, then let the players decide when you can have it. In fact, in a game like this, you may want to allow the players have a vote on anyone getting a reward like inspiration. It will cause your players to actively seek the opportunities to get the advantage by active role-play and participation and no one will feel like the GM-PC is being favored. Since you are rotating GM's, this is a very fair way to do this.

Favor players for gear most of the time

If your PC is not intentionally antagonistic and designed to be part of the party's challenges, do not give out an equal amount of gear to that character. Once again this has to do with feelings of favoritism. Either have the character abstain waiting for specific pieces of gear or give them a lot less appropriate gear. If you do this, the players will likely (in my experience) try to bring the GM-PC up to the rest of the party for gear, keeping a modicum of balance, while leaving the decision up to the players, not you.

Let the players influence the PC drastically

Design the character so its entire outlook can be influenced over time with the right motivators. An example of a time I took this approach was a 4th ed game (though the theory still translates) with a Paladin that had 7 generations of infernal warlocks in his ancestry. The character started as a goodie-two-shoes with bad dreams and a penchant for accidentally lighting things on fire in his sleep or while enraged. Over time I allowed his personality to slowly be influenced by the PC's and he ended up being a Witch-Hunter multi-class Paladin-Warlock that used the powers of his fiendish abilities inherent in his blood in order to hunt down those that used the same methods to dark ends. His personality became one of the major aspects of the story because of his initial descent and eventual rise to his final position.

This kind of character, one that has a rich background but is highly influenced by the players to become the type of character he will eventually be, rewards the players by having a character that they have molded as well as you by allowing you to have an interesting character with depth.

TL;DR: Make the parties the catalyst for a character like this. Ensure they feel like they are the ones in power, and you aren't favoring your 'pet NPC'.

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