Behind the Screens – The GM PC

Deus Ex Machina, Generic Cleric, or a Gentle Nudge?

To some players and groups the mere mention of GM PC causes them to hiss like cheesy vampires at sunlight and wooden crosses. Some are completely baffled by the concept, not quite sure what it means or how it works. My group, on the other hand, doesn’t really know RPGs any other way. Settle in, my name is Randal and I have a lot to say on the subject.

I cut my teeth on gaming with a small group of friends. The most we could ever gather for a given game was 5, and only if the stars aligned that one time a year when Stephen was home on vacation. Weekly, we only had 3 of us with the occasional 4th player once a month or so. We all wanted to play, none wanted to be a full time GM. When one story arc would wrap up, the next person would start in on whatever plot he had been concocting at the time. We didn’t generally like changing PCs that frequently, because when we did, we never reached a very high level for any one group. To battle this, we simply kept our PC in the game with the party as normal. I present to you, the three types of GM PCs that I have encountered most over the decades.

At this point, some of you might be wondering how fair it is for the players when the GM knows everything and therefore their PC will as well. They will know who and what to target, when and where to search for traps, etc. This type of GM PC is where you fall into Deus Ex Machina territory. While this can be a very simple and obvious concern at first glance, I would like to point out a few things to the contrary. First of all, if a GM were to do these things with their PC, they would be giving a free pass to the players through plots and encounters, and also giving themselves more spotlight by taking it away from players. “Wait, I thought you were going to try to argue that this isn’t a bad thing …” you might be wondering. My point is this, a GM is there to provide a story and plot for the players and challenges for them to solve through their characters. Using a GM PC in this way pretty much goes against the whole reason for GMing (at least for the majority of gamers) and I would bet money that a GM that does this is *already* doing this in games that they are running without a PC. Therefore, you either play under this GM already and won’t be affected, or you don’t play under a GM like this and also won’t be affected.

And now to overcorrect, I provide you with the Generic Cleric (aka Healbot™) GM PC. The players are looking for adventure and glory and that does not include worshipping a deity, adhering to daily tenets, and simply keeping the others alive during encounters so that they can have all the fun and earn all the fame. Once again, in a game that assumes access to a certain amount of healing, any party without a cleric is often penalized. This is where many faceless GM PCs are born, and how they fade into nothingness. Your party receives their first quest from the local church, and to help on that quest a cleric joins your ranks. He provides basic defensive support in combat, healing during and after combat, and restorations when needed. Due to GM fiat or perhaps the party making a deal with the clergy, the cleric continues to travel with the group. Many times he takes the attacks of opportunity from a baddie so that the wizard can run freely past, other times he simply channels positive to destroy weak undead so the party can focus on the boss. I have been guilty of this at least once.

Extremes aside, I personally feel that a GM PC is an invaluable tool to a small group. It certainly does require more work from the GM, no doubts there. But that extra work will be noticed by the players when they see a completely fleshed out PC that grows along with their own. They will see that you as a GM are invested in the game and the story, even in one offs or prewritten modules. (This last point is not a slam against prewritten modules, but an admittance that many GMs get a bit lazy and sloppy when running prewritten modules because they can simply read the content and color in the lines instead of writing and prepping.) One thing I try to do (but often just haven’t the time for these days) is to go through all the encounters planned for a given night and preroll any and all checks and noting the result in the margins or on my trusty notepad. Lately, I realized that when doing this, it is a very simple thing to roll a save against each spell or effect a baddie has available, and conversely have the baddies roll for saves against any of my PC’s effects. Also, as GM, you should have an idea of party battle tactics, so you can note which actions you might lean to given character motivations. This allows me to stay in GM role and move from one PC to my GM PC to the next PC more quickly, making it look as though my PC is acting in the moment instead of waffling or metagaming like many players do on their turn. It also gives the players the impression that you are still focusing on their characters over your own.

Some of my favorite aspects of GM PCs are as follows (ordered merely how I remembered them). First off, they will have the full set of XP ever allotted to a given group. If you track that with something like HeroLab, it takes very little effort to track all the XP under encounter names. When you run a group through multiple modules or you interject random plots into APs, you can quickly lose track of every single encounter a party has ever faced, and this provides a historical log that any given normal PC is likely to not have if they miss a game here and there. Secondly, after the players have decided on their characters, I get to look at new and interesting ways to build a non-standard PC to fill a niche missing by the party. No trapspringer? I might try an inquisitor or bard with archetypes to allow them to at least try, albeit at a lower capacity than a true rogue. No arcane magic? Try a funky bard archetype I have been dying to test out. Thirdly, and most important to me, is the ability to keep the characters grounded in the moment while providing them with information that the players have simply forgotten to write down (that the characters would not forget). What I call the Gentle Nudge. Roleplaying these conversations and encounters out can help you guide the party back on track, keep up the intensity of the situation, or simply lighten the mood … without ever letting players break character. “Oh yeah, I heard Barren say that his hat was in the next county over” or “The way I remember the legend, they were beset by flavor drakes.” Fourth, and a close runner up as my favorite, is the ability for the GM to recall stories of these games later in the 1st person, instead of simply vicariously. Saying “remember when we did …” is just so much more satisfying and inclusive than “remember when you did …”

I would like to close with a couple (ok, a bunch of) words of warning. If you think a GM PC is not for you or your game, then don’t. Everybody games in their own way and there is certainly no wrong way to game. Behind the Screens is here to help GMs expand their minds and skills for the betterment of their games and their players. Therefore, for that purpose, my first example *is* a wrong way to GM PC, and my second example really doesn’t provide the party with anything that a sack of wands can’t. Even when using a proper “gentle nudge” style GM PC, there are caveats that you should adhere to. Never make a PC that is better than other PCs in their primary field, let them shine. To this end, I always build suboptimal PCs that offer versatility and fun options, but never somebody that can solve every problem or out damage the fighter. When gathering information, feel free to have your PC do so on their own in case there is info the players *need* but are simply not getting it, but never have your character know everything the PCs fail to know, and even occasionally have your PC forget things when it makes for good story. While this is your PC and you can give it as much attention as you want … for the love of the gods make it a more streamlined concept. No summon monsters, eidolons, companions, leadership, familiars, or the like. All of those take away from player time by filling initiative with more of you on top of making the PC harder to play by simply adding option overload.

Thank you for allowing me to fill in for this week’s Behind the Screens!

Randal Meyer

As a lover of crunch (rules and numbers), Randal is always tinkering with rules options. His love of magic users has led him to always fuss with the mechanics of magic and magic items. Years of GMing on the fly have given him vast amounts of ideas and content from which to draw on for adventures (ideas, plots, NPCs). When not working, playing with his kids, bowling, or running a PF campaign, Randal is likely writing some new mobile web app to enhance the experience of playing Pathfinder!

2 Comments

  1. *hisses like a cheesy vampire at sunlight*

    YOU….actually have some good points here and as someone who has had to run games for small groups, I can totally see how a GMPC could be used to improve the game experience for the players. Still I prefer to use NPCs to the same effect and adapt the encounters so that my players’ PCs don’t need additional help from the GM side to survive the experience.
    Regarding your favorite aspects I have to say that I basically did away with XP and let the PCs level up at an opportune moment, so this is no concern of mine. I like what you’re saying about using GMPCs to try more exotic character builds; I kinda do the same with my NPCs because I like to showcase to my players the multitude of options the system offers. But I can see how using a GMPC over a longer time might do a better job (at least for the concept I’m experimenting with).

    And the Gentle Nudge is simply an awesome idea no matter how you do it and might be a good solution to a problem I’m struggling with my group, that constantly seem to forget about important information and while I already use the session intro to summarize what happened and remind them of those valuable bits of knowledge, doing that ingame seems a lot more interesting and would allow me to jump right into the game instead of boring everyone (myself included) with those summaries.

  2. Randal Meyer Reply to Randal

    Thanks for the feedback! To be honest, had I not been introduced to gaming this way, I would likely be against a GMPC in favor of a proper cast of NPCs to fill the role. Back then my group was pretty strict about encounters and XP using RAW. I totally agree to removing XP avoids one issue while properly adjusting encounters solves another. I don’t think I mentioned in my original, but you can still do Gentle Nudge with an NPC that isn’t combat oriented but follows the party. A squire/page or torchbearer could be used to similar effect while not adding combat support and keeping your workload lighter than tracking another PC. Perhaps this is the perfect way to keep reminding the wizard he has a familiar, have Squawky the Parrot give the nudges!

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