Thursday, 14 October 2010

RPG: The Curse of the GM PC

Ahoyhoy internets, DaveHowitzer back once again with something a little different. Something gaming related.

Yes, dear readers, today we shall be delving into the world of the RPG, more specifically the pen and paper RPG -even, even more specifically, I'll be discussing this from the standpoint of a Dark Heresy GM- and to be really specific I'm going to be talking about the man we all love to hate. The GM.

Now, being a GM is tough business, I know, I was a Dark Heresy GM for 2 years until teenage stupidity, gossip and the insatiable need to smoke weed of some members broke the group up, which was very sad. I think it kinda gets to good GMs who have an excelent story planned out if they don't get to bring it to a conclusion -but I digress, that's for another article. The GM has to come to the table each week with at least a rough plan of what is going to happen; even if it's a sandbox game; has to balance the power of the players against the foes they face and most importantly juggle the real life personalities in the room and make sure people get with the proverbial program. -which trust never easy-

So apart from random abuse of the GM's power -in our case in the Daemonhost strategicaly employed to threaten those who weren't exactly concentrating on the game at hand...we all recall the incident with the 7 critical hits to Fat Adam's face in game one...damn that Priest never had a change against warp fuelled awesome- I think one of the most important ways that the GM can influence the players and the shape of the game is by the introduction of a GM PC. Let's use Dark Heresy -part of FFg's amazing 40k Roleplay experience- as an example: in DH the PCs are only acolytes in the Inquisition and thus under the command of an Inquisitor (who will obviously act as the quest giver). In this case where there is a central quest giver it can be at the GM's disgression the amount of involvement that that character has with the players - they can be a mysterious force delivering orders by letter or you could take the cursed path of the GM PC.

Now, GM PCs are nothing special at first glance, in fact every other character in the game can be classed as a GM character. Where the distinction comes is that the GM PC is a persistantly recurring character who offers aid or hinders the PC's efforts in game. Generally the GM PC will be a supremely overpowered character who will intercede at moments of peril, when the GM doesn't feel his group of players is up to a particular task, or abismally bad luck strikes them and a tactical insersion of an overpowered NPC is the only way the group will survive an encounter.

So perhaps our GM intends to use a GM PC at the start of a campaign as a mysterious force only appearing at moments of great importance -you know...planets blowing up, funeral of a PC, those two chicks from Superbad doing a Playboy spread....awesome...- and as a quest giver who acts through indirect means, such as main, telecommunications or other such device. Perhaps they meet the PCs in the first game of the narrative and show off some supercool badass skills. Awesome, the GM feels the satisfaction of taking out 20 of their own imaginary baddies at once where the players are finding it difficult with one.

-The obsession begins-

As the game progresses, maybe the next session, the Pcs have a stroke of bad luck when in combat. The GM thinks to themself: "Crud...It's game two...if one dies fair enough but I don't need a small breeze to be causing critical hits on my entire group." So WHOOSH! Enter the super-pimped GM PC with some blat blat save the day action!

As the games go on, the GM makes a connection to the character, as the other players are to their own PCs, partly becuase of the power, partly becuase they have begun to flesh their story out. Eventually they become a recurring character, jumping in every game to guide and kick ass FOR the PCs.

This my friends, is the curse of the GM PC. I know this well because I've been guilty of using a GM PC in this way. It starts as a convenience but then you start to plan your games around the character. You being to take the story away from the mission of the group to the mission of the character. Perhaps, eventually, the other personalities in the game become an inconvenience to the story you want to tell of that character. This is the wrong way to GM.

So as I said, I was guilty of this in my Dark Heresy days. Over two years the story gradually shifted from that of a group of extremely different personalities somehow falling into the control of the Inquisition to the tale of one Inquisitor's vendetta against another.  Perhaps for us storytellers and those who love the Black Library -or any literature for that matter I suppose- it's tempting to give your character the Gregor Eisenhorn/Gideon Ravenor treatment, or perhaps the player in us yurns for a chance to play the game with our mates on their level.

-or well...a slightly better-than-them level-

I'll give you my example as a warning...

Our PCs are roped into working for the Inquisition after meeting with Interrogator Thaddeus Drake and his team and finding they have a "mutual disagreement" with a certain gangland member on Scintilla. Thoughout the sessions that follow the players are sent to investigate instances of suspected cult activity on the planet, interacting with their new Inquisitor, Hastus Wolf, through Drake. As the investigation progresses it seems like cult activity is in the increase, prompting an impromptu visit from the Inquisitor Lord. Over a few more sessions this escalates to such a degree that the world is on the verge of daemonic apocalypse should a rutual not be stopped. The team start working with Drake and his team to try to stop the ritual of summoning, but are met with opposition from an unusually powerful daemonhost, Hedrodaal.

-Can you guess who my GM PC is yet?-

Eventually they fail, and the archenemy are alerted to the Inquisition's involvement and a full scale war erupts on the planet. Skipping a few more sessions with Drake and Wolf both taking involvement, a final confrontation ensues with the Daemonhost. In a heroic feat of power, Wolf defeats the Daemon in single combat but a darker enemy steps from the shadows to replace it. Wolf's old prodigy, Inquisitor Igance Hydra slays Wolf with a daemon weapon of immense power and turns on the rest of the group. Drake, wounded and distraught at his master's demise -fuelled with hatred of his old ally beckons the PCs leave in a strategically placed Chimera, he will take care of Hydra.

The PC's flee wisely, not wanting to be destroyed by the big bad guy. We do not learn of the combat or its aftermath, we merely join the group again, licking their wounds along with countless other acolyte cells and kill teams in an auditorium of the Tricorn Palace, the great bastion of the Ordos in the sector. Drake and his team march solumnly into the room and announce the death of Wolf, and Drake's sudden promotion to the rank of Inquisitor. He pledges an oath against Hydra, even going so far as to switch Ordo (Hereticus to Malleus) to combat the rogue Inquisitor's daemonic allies.

This is where the story of Thaddeus Drake began, and the story of my PCs died. To the guys credit they did very well to create interesting characters who worked great int he story. They made their own heresies and redemptions, made their own relationships with PC and NPC alike, but it never really got back to their story.

Its all very well to write a story about a character, to love them like your own and care about what happens to them. But if you are a GM, do not make my mistake. Make every game about the PC's story, because in the end, you aren't doing this for you. You're doing it for everyone.

Perhaps in a later post, I'll start telling you the story of Inquisitor Thaddeus Drake, because when we played, he became and interesting, complex and diverse character. He means a lot to me, and perhaps he is a part of me, his strengths and his weaknesses mirroring my own in some perverse, gothic, futuristic way.

You know what internet, I'll enjoy telling you. Because I fell for the curse of the GM PC.

And I friggin loved it while it lasted.  -selfishly, never forget that. Completely selfishly-

Love, Dave


  1. Good story.

    I think a lot of the GW RPGs would work well in a multi-game format, where each person gets a chance to be the central character, with others as supporting cast. Game one Bob runs the Inquisitor and others are his henchmen/acolytes, game two Bob takes on a support role to Mike who's playing the Rogue Trader, game three both Bob and Mike are operatives supporting Carl who's running the Alpha Legion marine, and so on.

  2. I've seen way more than my fair share of this sort of NPC and cussed them all the damnation and back. I think it takes maturity and common sense to let the PCs fail or not according to their own actions and the dice. Many GMs are sadly lacking in both regards. That's when you get your big friends to take them out back and knock some friggin' sense into them - er- I mean- when you talk to them that it is NOT cool and to stoppit now.

    And if that doesn't work, the big guys. Really.

  3. Excellent story and confession. Walking the fine line between controlling the storyline for continuance of a solid series of plots and plot hooks, and giving the characters too much power is rough. I fall too often in the trap of giving the PCs too much power too soon. Great read.

  4. *rolls up my sleeves, showing the scars from my LARP years*

    I have to agree on your premise, but you need to be clearer on terminology.

    NPC - anyone the GM uses as a plot device, especially when overpowered is an NPC.

    GM PC - in LARP, we storytellers also had our own PCs from time to time, on the same playing field as PCs. Since we usually had 15-30 people at LARP who could get up to plenty of trouble by themselves without ST involvement, games were usually run by a couple storytellers and some narrators. Having multiple STs and players who could keep themselves busy allowed us STs to have our own PCs. (and we usually informed the players what characters were PC vs NPC)

    That said, yes, you need to make sure the story is about the players, not the NPCs. We had a game in the area at one point where everyone just basically ran after NPCs and watched epic battles they couldn't get involved in. (in fact, trying to help got you dead because the STs were just enjoying doing whatever they wanted with uber powerful NPCs) While technically telling a story, it's also excluding people who want to be involved, turning your players into an audience rather than participators.

    This game signaled much of the decline in our LARP years as people loved all the free stuff for zero work, which another game copied. The games that required players to actually put effort into them waned until lack of attendance forced them out. And of course, people soon got tired of roleplaying games where they just had to show up, watch the storytellers run around, then get free stuff.


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