“Party Support: For whatever reason, sometimes you’ll want a character in the party that’s controlled by you. Party Support is the ability to integrate a GM-controlled character (GMPC) into the party without hijacking the leadership or stepping on toes. I’ve seen a lot of advice against having GMPCs, but sometimes they’re necessary and, when used properly, they can add a lot to a campaign…” Walt Ciechanowski
That quote comes from a comment on the The GM Levels Up from John Fredericks over on Gnome Stew. I have a link for the article in the other piece from today.
Your characters are rarely going to be working alone. They’re going to want some help from time-to-time from that NPC that has skills they need, or they just plain like and want around on an adventure. Maybe your setting is someplace where they are always going to have access to this character — a starship exploring the galaxy, a military unit on patrol, a spy agency with a team assign to aid them. These NPCs can sometime take on a life of their own, and sometimes the GM gets attached to them as much as the players do their own characters. These characters can sometimes straddle the line between NPC and PC — what Walt is calling the GMPC.
We’ve all encountered it, and every GM to some extent is guilty of this: that support character you created really is your PC, just not in name. I had a major NPC in our Battlestar Galactica game who became a major plot device and was arguably more important to the story than the heroes. However, the heroes were still in charge of their lives, and still got the majority of the screen time. This character had a certain deux ex machina moment…but other than that, she rarely got to “do her thing.”
Some GMs and players hate the idea of the GMPC, but I would submit, to a certain extent, you can’t avoid it. There’s always going to be the NPC that just speaks to you as a GM and you will want to keep them in your pocket for whenever you can. If the players also took to the character — no issues. If they don’t, issues.
Example: I have several NPCs currently supporting the party in our Dungeons & Dragons group — a few of them are well fleshed out, already: Steven, the Down’s Syndrome horse wrangler who is a savant with animals and if he ever gets into a fight is gonna cream someone. I like the character concept but he doesn’t seem like a first string support character. His father-figure is a gruff scout for the legions, but he has a soft spot for the troubled young man and recognized his talents. He even got a full name, Titus Germanicus, and a full write up. (But on the last point, so did the others…) Carona, the troublesome satyress, on the other hand is the sort that is on the cusp of GMPC — she’s teaching the bard new spells for his panpipes, and she’s a thief. She’s already a point of romantic interest for a few of the characters, and well…I like the character. She’s also the only NPC I have a visual for.
I didn’t choose her to be in the party. They did. It was originally supposed to be an encounter to have the monk have some doubts about his quest to battle demons and tielfing, when presented with something that looked like the enemy, but was — essentially — good.
That’s the points of contention, I think. If there’s a GMPC that all the players like, it’s less likely to be an issue than, say, an obnoxious addition no one wants around but the GM is always finding ways to include. The other point of failure for the GMPC is when tey start taking the limelight away from the PCs, or they are obviously “better” at things than the PC. The PCs are the ones “in the credits.”
It’s alright for an NPC to be that mentor that is better than the characters for a time. Obi Wan Kenobi should have been light years better than Luke Skywalker at, well, everything, but he’s an old man and he has a role to play. Mentors have to let the players go, at some point, or be struck down as a motivator. That’s just good drama. But if the GM is playing Obi Wan as a quasi-PC for himself and decides only Obi Wan gets to do cool stuff…well, he’s just being a jerk.
Don’t be a jerk.
I’d submit the GMPC isn’t an issue if you reign yourself in and let others play. Just like, if you are a player, you don’t hog all the air and time.