Playstyle 102: The Problems of GMPCs and Bait & Switch

There are times when they corrupting hand of the Dark Side takes hold of an enterprising Game Master, creating two of the biggest threats a campaign can ever face: the Game Master Player Character (GMPC) and the Bait-and-Switch campaign. It doesn’t matter what level of experience the GM is, as the temptation can strike down anyone, from the newest of the n00b to the most jaded and experienced of Extreme Dungeon Masters.

Can these things be done and somehow work without killing the campaign? Well, they are tempting because a lot of GMs out there would probably say, “Yes! And I’m just the GM to do it!” But most GMs would probably be wrong. It’s possible, just not easy at all.

Let’s take a look at these issues, and consider some solutions.

DMPC show the players who's the boss

“I backwashed into that bowl, too. Drink it!!”

GMPCs

Some GMs have an itch to run a character alongside the player characters: a GMPC. This character might be there just to round out the party’s access to certain abilities, or they might be a plot-important character that can provide information the players couldn’t get by themselves, or provide heavier firepower than the players can bring to bear.

Keep in mind that this not the same as a recurring NPC or clearly subordinate characters like henchmen and hirelings; this is a character that, by design, is as powerful or more so than the PCs, and at least as important to the direction of major adventure or campaign plotlines.

Whatever the purpose of this character is, a GM needs to stop himself and reconsider thoroughly before introducing a GMPC into their campaign.

The players should be engaged in every facet of the plot, as they are the important characters in the world when it comes to solving the threats presented in the campaign: their choices, for good or ill, should always matter. Removing their agency in any way — firepower, knowledge, spotlight — is no fun for the players, and they’ll make that no fun for the GM very, very quickly.

In light of that, examine these facets of play with consideration toward the GMPC vs. the Player Characters:

Does the GMPC know more than 1 piece of information that the players can’t get some other way? Consider splitting that info across many minor NPCs, or even major NPCs that don’t need to play “babysitter” with the group. Consider providing that information through some other means, like a piece of text the characters find in a letter, through scrying, or as part of a reward for solving a puzzle.

Does the GMPC have access to powers the players can’t get? If he outshines the players for more than a single encounter, the players may come to rely on his abilities to solve problems in the future, and become disheartened if the GM manufactures some reason for them not to do so. Likewise, the players may simply wonder why they can’t get such powers, or find themselves motivated to tackle issues they can handle, leaving the big stuff up to the GMPC. Consider re-balancing encounters and issues in the campaign so the GMPC isn’t necessary for the party’s success.

Does the GMPC have an important part in the larger arc of the plot for more than a single session of play? If the GMPC is more of a focus than the players, this is a sure way to kill their motivation, or lose their interest in the stakes that are at play. Consider changing the focus of the plot on one of the player characters instead of the GMPC. Or, place an even more important, longer-term arc of the plot on what the player characters can offer this GMPC that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, highlighting that the players are the true heroes of the plot.

Successful GMPCs

Say you’ve examined your proposed GMPC thoroughly in light of the above considerations, and you still feel this is a character that provides a unique and interesting role in the campaign without squandering even better, more unique and more interesting roles for the player characters. You’ve still got some work to do; here are some tips for keeping a rein on things so the players don’t get offended, or suspect trickery.

Don’t Get Married to ‘Em; Make ‘Em Mortal

While there might very well be exceptions to the “make ’em mortal” piece of this (i.e., maybe the GMPC — like the player characters — is a vampire, and therefore technically immortal), the key is not to get married to this GMPC, making them undefeatable and so interconnected with the long-term plot of a campaign that they absolutely can’t die until such-and-such time. Chances are, the players will get them in a situation that kills the GMPC early on, or the PCs will try to kill them directly. Having a GMPC that can smack down the players with ease is disheartening, as well as ruinous in terms of their motivation towards any plot that the GMPC is a part of. Why should they risk their necks when this obviously superior guy can do it?

(The answer of, “well, because the bad guy is even MORE POWERFUL!” is a bad one, because it becomes a game of escalation. The players will either seek out more people like the GMPC to help out, or will want to steal the powers of the GMPC so that their actions and efforts might matter to the plot. Either way, it’s a crapshoot for the players, because they are discovering their characters are ineffective twice over now, rather than just once.)

Hello my name is Mary Sue

The little talked about name badge on Gandalf’s cloak.

The Temporary Help, or “The Gandalf Principle”

Gandalf wanders off so much in the Hobbit that Peter Jackson’s movies had to go nuts adding in side-stories and tales from various appendices just to give Gandalf some screen time to chew up. There’s a reason for that: he’s the ultimate GMPC. And he’s a bad one, because he keeps showing up just in time to pull the heroes out of the fire, making them seem superfluous most of the time.

What weccan learn from it, though, is that a temporary companion GMPC is okay, as long as they truly serve a purpose. The patron that pulls the party together, the captain of the boat that takes the party where they need to go across the sea…those are fine, and if they aren’t much more powerful (relatively speaking) than the PCs, that’s even better. They become a comrade, a leader, a friend…all things a GM can play on later when that guy leaves or gets killed. Lots of drama there, and no butt-hurt players. Give them a very specific, short-term role (even if it’s reoccurring) and don’t overplay how they are better than the PCs, but rather are a useful tool towards some end every so often.

Don’t Use “The Great Betrayal” More Than Once

I once had a DM who would have a GMPC with us at the start of every single campaign. And every single time, they betrayed us, turning into either the Big Bad End Guy or one of the BBEG’s main henchmen.

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

It was clever once, but not even in that DM’s campaigns! It’s really something that — as a player — can be experienced very rarely, or else it becomes stale very, very fast. Additionally, when a player comes to automatically suspect any GMPC, hireling, or henchmen of betrayal, that teaches them a very specific, very paranoid playstyle that is impossible to get out of unless the GM is up-front about these issues (and likely avoids using them for a good, long time to retrain the player).

If a GM is going to run “the betrayal,” it’s often most fun to do so with a planted player character that will betray the group rather than an NPC, because this creates a much more effective metagame paranoia, and considerably more dramatic material for the playing group to work with. A GMPC becomes an immediate antagonist, and can lead to feelings of antagonistic GM vs. Player gameplay, which is an even worse problem to handle without loads of out-of-game conversation. Some games are even setup with adversarial player vs. player advice, such as Cortex Plus Drama and Fate, so a GM can vary how public or secretive the knowledge of a traitorous PC is.

Bait & Switch

A Bait & Switch is when the GM explains their campaign, adventure scenario, setting, or some other aspect of the game as one thing, but surprise!, it’s actually something else. While campaigns and adventures should have surprises and mysteries, Bait & Switch is often a much more fundamental aspect of the gameplay or genre expectations that the Game Master plans to change without telling the players.

A true Bait & Switch only occurs when the players are not aware of the “switch” portion of things, not just their characters. A mash-up campaign, adventure, or setting is fine, but when the players expectations are fundamentally flawed due to oversight or willful misinformation from the GM, that’s a Bait & Switch.

Most often, we see this when…:

  • The GM plans to introduce an out-of-genre faction, technology, or location change at some point later in the scenario, one in which the players won’t likely be able to access any benefits from (at least, not for a while).
  • Allowing players to spend resources on traits that will then be negated or severely penalized regularly, or when such traits are most likely to come up in play. A prime example would be explaining that hirelings and henchmen will be a major part of the campaign, and then having an event in the game pre-planned to kill them all.
  • The GM plans to do a mash-up of two games, settings, or genres, but only provides the players with knowledge about one of them at the start.

Any one of these things isn’t automatically detrimental to the playstyle of the group (the players can request just such a thing to see where it goes!), but all of them can go off the rails very quickly, even with the best of intentions.

Bait and switch

In fairness, I like both beer AND air conditioning where I live.

Don’t Do It!

This is the simplest answer.

If you want to mash-up Star Wars and Shadowrun, choose one, figure out a way to thematically add the coolest element of the other thing without sacrificing the “feel” of the original, and stick with that. So for Shadowrun, maybe you just want megacorporations to be the focus rather than the Empire; that’s fine, and the Corporate Sector Sourcebook actually kind of does this, but in a Star Wars way (no major focus on cybernetic implants, bioware, street samurai, and spellcasting Orks).

Work with the thing that you and the players all agree that you enjoy the most. Design by committee — in this case — is your best answer.

Okay, Do It with Great Caution

If you’ve just got to do it, be very, very cautious with how you proceed.

First and foremost, consider telling the players of the twist upfront; the journey will be the exciting part, after all. If the plot twist is the only cool thing about the adventure or campaign, you’ve got other problems anyway. The players should be engaged by the conflicts they face and the decisions they will make in order to change the world they inhabit, regardless of whether or not there’s “kewl stuff” over the horizon.

If you don’t tell them, find every way possible to mitigate the aforementioned problems.

  • Keep it contained, the focus of a sole adventure or affecting only a small location.
  • Give the players access to the stuff once it’s introduced in a way that doesn’t negate their previous choices in the campaign, nor their interests in their characters.
  • If you’re drastically changing genres or settings, give them the tools to operate in that new paradigm as quickly as possible. Players don’t want to have to rebuild characters, throw away their cool toys, or have to spend lots of resources and time in the game “retraining” their abilities so they can be viable in the new paradigm you’ve thrust upon them.

Regardless of whether or not you tell them, consider how you can keep the focus and “cool factor” on the parts you do inform them about. In the Star Wars-Shadowrun mashup, if the players are starting as Star Wars characters, make sure you don’t make any cybered-up Street Samurai Orks more powerful than the Jedi in the group; Jedi are supposed to be the iconic “I’m good at everything” Force-user character out there, so don’t make him play second fiddle to something the players can’t ever make use of.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He’s been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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