Joining the Game

Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about GM PCs.

One of the most common things that I see GMs rag on is the idea of the GM PC. In a nutshell, GM PCs are full-fledged characters that “play” the game alongside the player characters. Mechanically they function like any other character, except the GM plays them. We touched on this idea briefly last week and the general consensus seems to be that most players don’t appreciate GM PCs and the practice is often frowned upon.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the GM joining in on the adventuring action. That said, it takes a different mindset to run a GM PC and honestly, I’m not convinced that the term “GM PC” is a very good one to use for this type of character. Let’s get on with the show.

So You’re Playing in Your Own Sandbox

There are plenty of good reasons to want to run a GM PC. One of the most common reasons that I’ve seen is that GMs are able to craft a game that they will personally enjoy, something that other GMs may not provide them with. For example, if my buds love the Forgotten Realms setting and I can’t get them to run Golarion, then running a game in Golarion and putting my dream PC into the mix might be my best shot of actually getting to play the character I want. In that respect, having a GM PC can scratch an itch that you’ve been dealing with for a white.

But as we touched on last week, there are plenty of inherent dangers in playing a GM PC. The biggest one is spotlight syndrome, the temptation for a GM to use his position as rules arbiter in the game to give his GM PC an unfair amount of power or importance in the campaign setting. For example, I had a friend GM a game for us that was set in the Wheel of Time world. His GM PC was captain of our ship and in our very first encounter with an enemy ship of pirates; the GM very heavy-handedly constructed the encounter so that we (the PCs) needed to do exactly what this character said in order to win. Sure enough, when we went below decks at the captain’s behest, he used some super powerful teleporting McGuffin in order teleport the ship away from the raiding pirates, causing anyone left aboard the boat to explode into grisly bits. Meanwhile we were actually doing fairly well in the combat until the GM flat-out told us that we would need to do what the captain wanted in order to prevent becoming overrun by pirates.

Obviously, this is not how you run a GM PC successfully. So, how do you do it? First, you need to accept this one, teeny little fact:

You will never be a PC

This is the most important rule of being a GM PC: you will never be a PC, and frankly the phrase “GM PC” isn’t all that correct, anyway. To be called a PC assumes that your abilities will be roughly equal to those of the other PCs, and you should NEVER be as powerful as your players. It paints an image of you as a GM with his fingers stuck into too many pies. Instead, if you want to play in your own campaign it is much better to do so as an unassuming character. The best choices that I can think of are party buffers (like most divine spellcasters), healers (like clerics or oracles), or story exposition bots (bards are especially good at this, but so are inquisitors). Let’s talk about why those roles make great GM characters quickly.

  • Party Buffers: You make the party better at what they want to do well. In that sense, you’re valuable but often contribute very little on your own. You add to your PC’s power without overshadowing it. Bards, Clerics, and Oracles are really good characters for this.
  • Healers: Hey, look! It’s that role that over 70% of players never want to do! Your players will love you for giving them a healer and better still, THEY WILL DEFEND YOU WITH THEIR LIVES. Plus you can throw even harder encounters at them because you know they’ll have a healer at their backs.
  • Story Exposition Bot: You ever want to tell your PCs something cool, but they either they lack ranks in a crucial Knowledge skill or fail miserably at their role? Your GM PC can know whatever you want it to know without needing any dice at all. This is a great use of a GM PC because as G.I. Joe always said, Knowledge is Power! Your PCs will love you for this extra look at the world.
  • The Red Shirt: Although I didn’t list it above, killing off a GM PC can have a powerful psychological effect on a party. It is a great way of showing your players that the kid gloves are off, no one is safe, and the encounter will likely kill them too if they’re not careful. However, this strategy only works if you build up an attachment for the GM PC. If the PCs don’t care about him, this eventual goal is worthless.

And that, my GMs, is how you run a successful GM PC. Sorry for this week’s shortness; I’ve been scrambling to play catch-up after that massive eight page article on fighters vs. slayers and needed a quickie. Sue me. Anyway, what do you think? Would you ever consider running a GM PC or is there too much negativity surrounding the idea to appeal to you? Have you (as a player) ever had a run-in with a GM PC? How was it handled? Leave your questions and comments below and until next time!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue; his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune red shirt. Not sure why, though, because the red shirt’s only class feature is to give PCs a morale bonus when he dies.

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6 thoughts on “Joining the Game

  1. GM PCs are a common thing at our tables, sometimes even PC-PCs! (One Player playing two PCs)

    I think the only campaign I’ve ever played in that didn’t have a GM PC of some sort is Kingmaker, and only because Kingmaker started play with, I think, 8 players at the table.

  2. I usually have a GM PC with the groups I play with because of a variety of reasons. One campaign I ran started with only 3 players and they wanted a tank…so they went to town to recruit one…so I brought in a Paladin. They grew to love it. It died. They went to extreme lengths to get it brought back to life…and ended up with a replacement anyway. The other campaign has a GM PC with because the game is an AP started by someone else that got dropped in my lap. I tried to retire the PC and the players protested and wanted him to stay. I don’t always have one…it’s mostly a situational thing. The PCs will go find one if they want one. They aren’t any more powerful than the PCs ever (well…except the tank I brought in is a little..but that’s because the party has disproportionatly given him gear to make him better…not by my choice. He’s kind of dumb though.) I do enjoy having one that can give the party a different view of situations or the ability to put in a bit more knowledge…or to push the story. I always give the character a personality and will play it that way all the time…not always to the party’s benefit.

  3. We started playing Pathfinder about four months ago using the Beginner Box with 3 PCs (fighter, rogue, and wizard) so I brought along Kyra as an NPC cleric. In short order, we moved to full rules and added an alchemist and a bard as PCs, taking them through a couple of homebrew adventures, then Hollows Last Hope. Based on the Leadership Feat, I did not level up Kyra when the PCs leveled. It basically got to the point where Kyra was a healing robot, although I did once let her channel energy to wipe out some skeletons. The party liked having a healer along, but she was a bit of a distraction to me.

    Now we’re heading into Rise of the Runelords with a party of five level 2 PCs, three of which are very close to leveling again. I decided that removing their cleric might keep them from completely overpowering the opening of the Adventure Path. I’d already used Kyra as the Macguffin to move the party from Sandpoint, accompanying her to Qadira, with a caravan stop-over in Falcon’s Hollow. So, at the end of that adventure, Kyra told them that, after watching them help a town they didn’t even know, she had decided that she was still needed with her people in Qadira, but the party needed to go back and finish what they’d started in protecting Sandpoint.

    I was not prepared for the looks of shock and dismay on my players’ faces (every single one of them) when Kyra made her announcement. Now they know they’re embarking on their biggest adventure yet (I closed the session with a cliff-hanger ending from the opening of RotRL) and they’re going in without their trusty healer. At a meta-gaming level, they all understand they’re more powerful than the AP’s design, but as PC’s they clearly feel the gravity of this undertaking. So overall, I’m pretty happy with how this party NPC turned out, but I’m also a little relieved to be moving on without her.

  4. On “The Red Shirt”
    It was the first major PF campaign I ran that went from level 1 to 17 over the course of a year or two. Every Tuesday with some missed here and there. Aziz was a monk/bard from old Kather, Qadira. We was just there to act as the “Absalom sponsor” for the new team. Giving advice when asked and offering it for training. Most the time he would sit out of combat and help when needed. He was always outside smoking a pipe as a Gandalf like character, always with a smile on his face.

    Well about a year to a year and a half in, I was tired of keeping track of him and decided to use him as plot device. They had to travel cross the Inner Sea to the next adventure, they picked a sailing ship the commandeered from slavers. He stood at the helm and while they slept, and they all woke up to the ship crashing and running a ground. Once they all got top side, etc etc ship wreak stuff, they found Aziz stiff from rigor mortis standing and still holding the helm like a statue. He died sailing with a smile from a heart attack. At least this was my reasoning. Died doing what he loved, watching over his “children” as he called the PCs.

    I didn’t realize the effect that it had on the players, and their PCs. They had a mirror of speak with dead that had one charge left. They used it to speak with Aziz and asked what happened, etc. Aziz always one to say it was his time etc. They all said their good byes, used gentle repose, and put him into a bag of holding. Nothing else was allowed in the bag except his things. They continued with the “mission” and once finished about 4 to 5 sessions later they returned to HQ, then requested leave of absence to bring the body to his family for burial.

    That was when I realized they as players and characters, where really into the story. So they spent a session “paying respects” and discovered this and that. After that story arc ended, it was a while before I used the Red Shirt method you mentioned.

    But it is my favorite plot device when used.

    ~Any how, good read and blog Alex. /end derailment.

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