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When a GM loves an NPC

Few things are more dreaded when it comes to tabletop RPGs than when a GM pulls out a pet NPC. Such NPCs are cool, awesome, and probably destined to take over a campaign because the GM loves them so much. Such foul creatures are usually frustrating to deal with because as a player you then generally feel like you’re playing second fiddle to what the GM wants to do. At best, you’ve become a sidekick. You’re prominent in the campaign and story, but you’ll rarely be allowed to take the spotlight. At worst, you’re now a mere pawn for the GM to move around to write his or her grand story and showcase how awesome the GM’s character is. In a genre of gaming that tends to revolve around players and player choices, this sort of behavior can quickly lead to bad feelings, dead campaigns, and broken groups.

Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
So, you haven’t run into the dread GM pet? Or, if you have, you don’t think it’s all that bad? Let me tell you two brief stories of my own experiences of when a GM is favoring his own NPC over the rest of the party.  The first was in a Star Wars Saga Edition game, set in the Old Republic. Some of us are playing Jedi and in short order, all of our Masters are gone. We get reassigned to a new Jedi Master… who happens to look exactly like the GM, wears black robes, and is using the black/silver lightsaber from the video game The Force Unleashed. How does this Master introduce himself to us? By very literally carving his way through a small army of Sith and other bad guys to save our characters. Our characters were struggling to stay alive and kill even one enemy, while our new Master was killing literally 1d10 enemies per turn per GM’s rulings. This trend of having the NPC Jedi Master show up and save us would repeat itself several more times, with the Jedi Master even taking on the Big Bad of the entire campaign.

How about another example? In a Shadowrun game, one of our co-GMs brought out his former PC as an NPC. Wait, did I say NPC? No, he brought it out clearly with the intent on playing the character like it were any other PC. This character was the most beautiful, most dangerous, most respected Shadowrunner in all of Seattle. Who was also the best bounty hunter that Lone Star had. And a freelance Red Samurai operative. You get the point. This character showed up and did everything better than we did. The cherry on top was when the GM decided that his pet character would seduce one of the PCs to get information from him. After a lot of dice rolling and a lot of uncomfortable looks from everybody except this GM, the pet PC had her one night stand with the other PC and got what she wanted. When the GM then indicated that the pet PC would remain around, all of us players promptly told him that if we saw her again we’d kill her again right away. Metagaming or not. To which he replied that she’d kill us all in a fight, but nevertheless we never saw her again.

Are all NPCs this bad? No. Not even all GMPCs are this bad. However, if you’ve never seen one first hand, you don’t know how quickly they can ruin an entire game and even cause bad feelings within the group.

To Hunt Your Prey, First You Must Understand It
There are a few good rules of thumb to look for when determining if a particular NPC is on the way to becoming a campaign tumor. A lot of these indicators, incidentally, are the same as if you’re looking for a Mary Sue/Marty Stu in fiction. First thing to look for is whether the NPC is obviously more powerful, more unique, or just outright cooler than your characters are.  Do they have glowing eyes in a setting where few, if anybody, has them? Do they have equipment and other gear that’s impossible for your characters to even think about getting? Do they seem like they could be the star of a Hollywood summer blockbuster or have been ripped off from one? Keep a wary eye if you’re answering “yes” a lot here.

The second thing to look for is whether or not the other NPCs talk about how cool, awesome, or badass the potential pet NPC is. When the GM is really trying to push the idea using other NPCs, it’s a bad sign. It shows that the GM really wants the players to notice the NPC and think highly of it and one of the easiest ways to do that is to have the characters constantly reminded of their cool badassness. While occasionally just really funny, if all the other NPCs sound vaguely lovestruck over this NPC, you’re likely looking at a problem to come.

The third thing to look for is whether adventures, missions, or scenarios seem to revolve around the NPC more than usual. This might mean that the PCs get into a fight that they can’t possibly win in order for the NPC to show up and rescue them like a badass hero. It might mean that the PCs end up doing scut work while the NPC goes to do the more interesting and awesome tasks. If the NPC insists on coming along on an adventure despite having no need to do so, it’s probably another bad sign. Does the NPC seem to be doing all the important things while players get to sit around, watch, and admire? If the NPC seems to keep showing up in situations where they don’t really belong or they seem to be at the center of everything, you’ve got a “winner”.

At this point, I think you’re starting to get the point. If an NPC seems to be more important, more interesting, and better than your characters in a given campaign, you are probably dealing with a pet NPC to some degree. If you ever feel like your characters are sideline plots in a given story or scenario, you’re probably looking at a pet NPC. Though…

Beware the False Positive
Something potentially as annoying as the pet NPC itself is the idea spouted by some players that any powerful or important NPC (especially one that is an antagonist to the group) must be a pet NPC. I see this around a lot when a player gets frustrated that they’re been limited or impeded in some way by an NPC.  In any game, there probably will be NPCs that are more powerful or more important (or both) than the PCs at any given time. The king may be a veteran soldier with years of war under his belt. That corporate executive might be able to buy and sell people like the PCs hundreds of times over. That princess you’re rescuing may be the entire point of the adventure you’re on. Sometimes you may really need to have the cavalry come in to rescue you after you’ve gotten in over your head.

The key difference between an important or powerful NPC and the obnoxious pain in the ass that is a pet NPC is how they’re used and whether they overshadow your character for long periods of time. An NPC can be important without being the focus of every session or scenario. An NPC can be powerful without turning the PCs into an afterthought. An NPC can act against the party without being a walking deus ex machina. Just because an NPC might have some of the traits I mentioned above does not automatically mean that they are being favored by the GM. There are few things that will make a GM give up on making interesting characters for the PCs to interact with faster than to be barraged with accusations that all of their NPCs are being favored over the players.

Light a Candle, Don’t Just Curse the Darkness
So, you’ve got a GM who is going to thrust this awesomely cool and cooly awesome NPC at you whether you want it or not. What do you do as a player?  Despite what you may think and despite how cathartic it may be, killing the wretched thing (even if it’s justified both in and out of character) is probably only going to make the problem worse. Realistically, there’s no in-game solution that you can do which will get the GM to realise that what he or she is doing is taking away from the fun of all the players. Which means you’ll have to try another tack. The most obvious is really the solution that should come up every time there’s a problem with a game: Communication. Talk to the GM and tell him or her how the pet NPC makes the game less interesting or fun for you. You may find that the GM has no idea that their NPCs are taking over the game the way they are. Ask why they want to use NPCs like that. The GM might be trying to inject some spice or interest into the game. Or, more likely, they wish that they were playing a particular scenario instead of running it for others. Either way, until you tell the GM that you don’t like their NPC and find out why the NPC is the way it is, you can’t fix the game and get it back to something everybody enjoys.

So, as a GM what do you do when a player or players come to you and tells you that your NPC is taking over the game and ruining it? First off, don’t get defensive or offended. It’s easier said than done, I know, but you should take a step back and look at what they’re saying. Examine the NPC in question and try to see if it really is dominating the game. As mentioned before, sometimes players will throw the “pet NPC” accusation at any NPC which they don’t like or who frequently gets in their way. A neutral third party who isn’t playing in the game can help you with this. If you ultimately don’t think that the NPC is a problem, talk with the player or players and tell them ~why~. Help them understand how you feel the NPC fits into the game and how it can make things more fun for everybody. And if it turns out that your NPC really has been taking over, you should fix the problem. Reduce how often the NPC appears, maybe even killing them off entirely. Tone down how cool and awesome they are by giving them flaws and problems. Let the NPC or NPCs play up how interesting or effective the PCs are. See if another player can run another game along side yours so that you can get to play a PC and get it out of your system.

The pet NPC or GMPC is, in the end, like any other problem at the gaming table. It can be fixed if everybody involved wants to do so. It’s also sometimes a problem that gets overstated and blown up to epic proportions when it might not actually be so bad. But it’s an emotional and subjective thing, so that’s kind of to be expected. The best way to make it all better is for everybody to be calm, rational, and talk it all out. Sometimes you might not be able to fix it because some GMs desperately want to hold onto their creations and sometimes players will spew hate at any NPC who doesn’t fall into perfect alignment with the PCs. The best you can do at that point is move on to a new gaming group who will hopefully be more mature and less selfish about their gaming.

About

WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.

2 Responses to “When a GM loves an NPC”

  • Luckily, I’ve never had to deal with pet NPCs.
    I’ve been the DM most of the time and if the players didn’t like something, I was sure to know about it.

    Like you say in your last paragraph, it’s all about communication.
    Thanks for this article, hopefully pet NPCs will become less of a problem.

  • Man, have I seen this one… Sadly i was pretty much at the start of my gaming life, and was just a bit too concerned with getting a rep as a trouble maker to get in anyone’s face about it, but it was bad. the pat was an ex PC of the GM, and I’m fairly sure love was in the air…

    http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=475