Wednesday, October 20, 2010

GM PCs

So, the other day I was reading issue #23 (October/November 1980) of Judges Guild's The Dungeoneer Journal. In it, there's a lengthy interview with M.A.R. Barker by Rudy Kraft. A lot of the questions and answers are old hat to anyone who's knowledgeable about Tékumel and Empire of the Petal Throne, but one exchange really stuck with me:
Judges Guild: Do you do much playing of characters as opposed to Judging?

Barker: I've never played a character.
Common sense would, of course, dictate that what Barker meant was that he'd never had what we typically call a player character in his Tékumel campaign. Certainly, he's played characters -- non-player characters -- over the course of his campaign, many of them in fact! However, he's never created a character who was his rather than part of the world in which other people's characters adventured.

What's interesting is that Professor Barker's answer is the one I'd generally give too. Back when I first started gaming, we all considered it a no-no to both play and referee in the same campaign. That's why we generally had several campaigns running at any given time. If I wanted to play D&D rather than run it, then I'd do so in someone else's campaign, not the same one I was running for my friends. When I read about the Lake Geneva Greyhawk campaign, I always thought it odd that Gary Gygax was both a player and a referee in it. Somehow that seemed to be "cheating."

In the early to mid-90s, I did play in several campaigns where referees also had characters of their own in the same campaigns. The results were uncongenial enough that I continued to feel the practice was one to be avoided rather than embraced. One of the biggest issues I encountered was the tendency of the referee to treat his PC as an important NPC and use him as a central element to an adventure -- a way to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak. Looking back on those campaigns now, I honestly don't think they were improved by allowing the referee to pull double duty; indeed, I think just the opposite.

Now, like all such practices, I don't know that this has to be the case. I'm sure there are many examples of campaigns where the referee's also being involved as a player hasn't had dire consequences. Still, I can't shake the feeling that there's something wrong with it. I guess I just prefer a stronger separation between the roles of referee and player (in the sense of player-of-PCs anyway) than this seems to provide, but perhaps I've just been very unfortunate in this regard.

44 comments:

  1. These are what we call "Pet NPCs". I've seen these done well and done poorly. When they become unkillable, unstoppable, or otherwise just so overpowered that there's no point in playing them as the PCs just say "Might as well let Jacko the Death Machine take care of this problem for us as he'll do it anyway!".

    This happened allot to us in our early teen years or when we first started playing. I've found that by running certain NPCs over the course of time that the PCs incorporate them over time into their group they have a life of their own. I've given them backstories, plot hooks, and adventure ideas all from what the PCs come up with from what my interpretation of the statblock and whatever I come up with at that time. All are flawed in one way shape or form and very able to be killed, driven off, or has it's own agenda. None are critical to the story and that's why these types of characters can work well. Give them a small place in the story but not be over critical to the end game plot.

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  2. I've run PCs to fill out a short-handed party (i.e. no one wants to play a cleric), but I often find that the players try to use him to game the system and find out secret information. I soon find myself repeatedly answering the question of what this character thinks about the situation, with the players hoping I'll divulge clues in my responses. Now I just make them play the characters they make and suffer if no one will roll a healer.

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  3. I'm on the way to work so I'll be brief (for once). DMPC's seem to work well in "troupe" style play, where different players take it in turns to DM different adventures in the same campaign. When your Dming, your character is the one left behind to guard the camp/castle/loot stash or whatever. Works quite well.

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  4. Is MAR Barker referring to not playing a GM PC, in that quote, or is he saying that he's never played a character in someone else's campaign? Up to that point in his gaming experience.

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  5. Personally I managed a shared world for many years, with many GMs in it. Virtually all GMs also played PCs in the world. Usually this worked fine. And even if the GMPC actually took part in adventures, this usually worked well enough - as the GMPC could never gain xp in such an adventure. I think this is an important rule to avoid the "cheating" issue.

    However, I must also note that our games tend to emphasise story line over dungeon delving. Very much so. That may also make a difference.

    As for pet-GMPCs? The trouble was more with a few pet- GM NPCs. They proved so undefeatable and unlikeable that players quit playing with those GMs.

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  6. The general consensus I've seen, and that I more or less agree with, is that GMPCs are a bad idea because anything that they're doing could be something a player could be doing instead. One of the central conceits to a sandboxy or non-railroady is that the PCs are the focus of the story (not necessarily of the game world, but at least of the story being created by play), and to introduce a GMPC is to unavoidably steal some part of their show. Rounding out the party with a cleric or something can be okay if it's because nobody else wants to do it, but even then the cleric really shouldn't be doing any playerish-things other than just healing party members.

    Also, having to listen to the GM have conversations with himself between his GMPC and a NPC involving plot that has nothing to do with you or any of the other players is sort of incredibly horrible and boring.

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  7. I almost always DM and always run a PC. It isn't a question of whether you run a character or not, the question how do you run a character as GM.

    When I run a PC, the PC is effectively a Man@arms/NPC. The character plays no role in party decisions and the group decides where s/he goes in the part order, etc. If there is ever a question of what the character should do I defer to group consensus. If I need to communicate to the group it's great to have the character handy. I always seem to get hosed on treasure though :)

    Doing this allows you to switch DMs easily without rolling up new characters. I think it makes for a more consistent party of PCs.

    Running a PC has never been a problem.

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  8. I did a lot of this (GM PCs) in the 80s. It worked because we rotated GMs for a single campaign. We had 3 GMs that we rotated through, and each of us had a character. When one of us GMd, it was understood that our character would take a backseat/supportive role. In turn, we would have more to do when we rotated back to player.

    While it may sound unusual, this was actually one of the best campaigns I have ever played. The shared storytelling made it fresh and dynamic. I have never had a single GM campaign run as well as that one.

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  9. Sadly, I've had my share of GMstein Monster Characters. Terribly discouraging for players. They hogged all the glory, had the best magic, etc.

    When I DM'd, I made a point of using characters which I've played in others' games, and when something killed them they actually stayed dead. I wouldn't play them in others' games again either. They also never got the lion's share of treasure.

    It helped establish a level of trust and honesty in my games which my players could respect. I think it helped them accept the death of their own characters better.

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  10. "I guess I just prefer a stronger separation between the roles of referee and player (in the sense of player-of-PCs anyway) than this seems to provide, but perhaps I've just been very unfortunate in this regard. "

    My experience has mirrored yours. GMs just shouldn't have their own PCs in a game. The conflict of interest is just too great.

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  11. I've run GMPCs in the past. I would say that it's a very mixed bag. I think it does detract from the players in most cases, though there are some advantages. One of my biggest issues these days is having time to both GM and play. As GM I miss out on the advancement part of RPGs. Back in the day, I tended to avoid being a player because of various bad experiences (and probably some power/ego tripping on my part - hey, I was young).

    Sometimes they seem almost appropriate when the number of players is too small to field a viable set of characters (either some niches will not be filled, or the group just won't have enough numbers). Also, with a small group of players, they provide an additional voice of role playing.

    Interestingly, Burning Wheel which I am currently running DOES allow recurring, important, NPCs to participate in the advancement mechanics. The trick though is that an NPC NEVER rolls a skill (or whatever) unless that roll is opposing the PCs (I see a few possible borderline cases where an NPC roll might be important even if it isn't directly opposing a PC).

    Frank

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  12. We've had rotating GMs through the same campaign world and I've played a PC in that world - but they fade off to deal with a side issue while the rest of the PCs continue. When I had my GMing back, the PC returns.

    As a GM I'd never consider keeping my PC active in the game, that is just asking for trouble - it's worse than having pet NPCs.

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  13. I try to avoid the GM PC thing. It usually has bad results.

    On the occasion the party is short handed its better IMO to toss in a regular NPC to help out. Less conflict of interest that way.

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  14. The only occasion for which I thought a GM PC was appropriate was when starting a new campaign, especially with new players. The GMPC starts as the focus of the group e.g. the Wizard who hires some adventurers to accompany him and his apprentice (a PC) on a quest/whatever. It brings the group together, gives them some direction and an outlet for background and exposition. But at a certain point this character has to go away (die, kidnap, etc.).

    Think the old wizard in Dragonslayer.

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  15. We're playing troupe style (though its me GMing 95% of the time.) So I have a character in our current campaign. Luckily, its King Arthur Pendragon, so there are rules for how to deal with a player knight who is out of the action for a session.

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  16. As a DM I had a recurring NPC named "Conan" who was always a multui-class barbarian and whatever other class the party was lacking. "Conan" would usually die (I low-balled him on hit points and gave him cheezy gear) and he would usually get resurrected and re-appear sometime down the road (as a barbarian multi class) only to die a horrible yet humorous death. It was a good comedy relief.

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  17. I've never run a GM PC. I've had plenty of NPCs, some who were very important, but I've always felt it was important for me to distance myself from the players by making it clear that there is no conflict of interest.

    I think my feelings on this topic stem from a number of campaigns I played with a particular DM back in high school. Each of them followed roughly the same format: a powerful NPC (the GM's PC) wanted us to do something that they probably could have done better on their own. Said NPC dragged us through a series of adventures in which the party acted as supporting actors to the NPC's storyline. The players in the group constantly felt marginalized and railroaded. The final straw, for me, was when my character tried to do something against the NPC's will, and as a result, books flew off shelves and hit me until I rejoined the party. I left the game after that particular episode. I have played with that guy again, and I'm happy to say that he's grown up quite a bit since then.

    The end result of these sort of campaigns, though, was that I began to see GM PCs as a sort of crutch at best, and a fun-killer at worst. Thus, I avoid using them at all costs.

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  18. I always thought it odd that Gary Gygax was both a player and a referee in it. Somehow that seemed to be "cheating."

    It because in some ways the early campaigns were LARPs with multiple GMs running separate plots in a shared setting. You can see this in the many GMs, many players, and anecdotes they give on how they dealt with it.

    I written a post on this for tomorrow.

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  19. I don't run GMPCs because I have always thought that the focus of any RPG should be on the PCs. I have run a ton of NPCs who OCCASIONALLY travel with PCs, but even then, I tend to reduce them to background types. These characters may offer advice based upon their own personalities (which aren't always helpful, or right), but the decisions taken are always the players'. This goes double when you're in a setting that has 'Feature Characters'. If you include Han Solo in your Star Wars adventure, for instance, it should be done sparingly to avoid him overshadowing just about everyone (Han is pretty bogus, after all).

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  20. My main AD&D play group would often have DM-run PCs because we rotated DMs for different adventures in the same campaign. When a player went behind the DM screen, he would loan his PC character to another player or run the PC himself but only act "in the background."

    We had a close-knit group who understood that the DM needs to focus on the adventure, not let their PC hog the spotlight.

    Much of the fun of adventuring is the interactions between the characters as a team. Just because Aaron is taking his turn at being DM, that doesn't mean that we want to leave Aaron's character behind at the inn while we delve into the dungeon.

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  21. The best instances I've ever seen of GMs playing in the games they are running are LARPs with multiple narrators. Unlike most tabletop games, LARPs tend to be driven by players, so a narrator's character has just as much impact as everyone else. Plus, additional narrators allow everyone to play, while providing a third party to adjudcate rules disputes that involve a narrator's character.

    On the flip side, every table top GMPC I've ever experienced has caused the game to self-destruct, similar to how the "GM's girlfriend gets the magic sword" problem caused problems back in high school. ;) I'm sure GMPCs have worked for some groups, although I've never experienced it.

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  22. Nothing wrong with a GM playing a PC, only you have to be completely unbiased to any possible situation and allow the players own characters to be the focus of the sessions. It takes a disciplined GM not to intervene knowing his PC is going to die knowing what's up ahead for the party.

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  23. "When I read about the Lake Geneva Greyhawk campaign, I always thought it odd that Gary Gygax was both a player and a referee in it. Somehow that seemed to be 'cheating.'"

    Reading "campaign" as "setting/milieu", this doesn't bother me. In other words, if Gary plays Mordenkainen in games run by Rob Kuntz, both of whose games are set in the larger World of Greyhawk, then that's fine.

    But a DM with a PC being used in the same game that he runs, that would be anethema to me.

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  24. I shudder to think about how grievously I violated this rule. Throughout middle school, my players most have experienced my games as "listening to Brian talk to himself for an hour." (C.J., you were a better friend than I knew.) And even in college, I often recast old PCs as NPCs who invariably knew what to do in the worst situations.
    Even today, I worry that I allow the party too many henchmen and that I "play" the henchmen as GMPCs. But the alternative would be to let them be PC-directed automatons and that doesn't work either.

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  25. In my experience, GM PCs tend to become crutches that the other players come to rely on too much. Also, as a GM, I'm busy running the rest of the world; running a PC properly is a distraction from the GM's primary responsibilities.

    Ed Green

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  26. Agreed; a DMPC means extra dice to roll, at least one more combatant for the DM to think about, and overall longer encounters. That said, I try not to fault other DMs for running DMPCs--because most people would rather play than DM, so it's only natural that a DM would want to have a little PC fun too.

    Of course, I've never experienced a DMPC horror story. The worst that can be said of any DMPC I've seen is that they increase encounter time, without adding anything valuable to the game.

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  27. I've never seen it work. There is too much of a tendency to "write" the adventure for the character you know best: yours.

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  28. @Delta That's what my group usually did. I was one of two DMs who shared the World of Greyhawk for many of our games. We had two separate parties. When I DMed, the other DM was a player in Party A. When he DMed, I was a player in Party B. The parties pursued their own goals in separate campaigns in different parts of Oerth and had no contact with one another except when a (non-DM) player switched parties because one party was in need of a particular class. (We had a small group.) So, we occasionally allowed for PC crossovers, but we never had a DM play his own character in the game he was DMing.

    @KP I was wondering the same thing. I almost suspect he meant that he never "plays characters," but "channels people from another dimension." Metaphorically.

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  29. In one of my groups the DM usually had a PC. This was supposed to be so that we could switch off DMs while keeping the same PCs. I only recall one time that we actually did that, and it wasn’t much different than when we switched DMs and made new PCs. We even “gated” into a whole new world with the DM switch. Also, in practice, the DM PC would be forgotten most of the time. The DM was never really playing them. They were just silently along for the ride.

    So, to me it seemed pretty pointless.

    (The impression I’ve gotten about Gygax’s PCs is that they really adventured in Kalibruhn. It was just that when Rob started co-DMing Greyhawk and they started publishing Greyhawk material, the lines between the two were blurred. By that time, I expect Gary didn’t have much time for playing or DMing.)

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  30. I've never really seen a bad version of the GMPC. One GM I had brought in "guest stars" from whatever novel or series she was reading or had really enjoyed in the past.

    Others just had what appeared to be there for rounding out the party (in an EarthDawn game I was in) and one was placed there for my cleric to try and talk him out of a spiritual crisis (in 3E).

    I've run GMPCs in quite a few games. There were some games where my best friend (can you believe it's been close to 40 years!?!) and I were simply playing by ourselves, and I would bring in another character to round out the party and/or get the thrill of playing myself. The same rules apply to those guys as everyone else.

    There was one time I ran a dwarf to round out a party. I wanted to highlight the lethality of a flash flood that washed through a ravine. When they had navigated out of that particular nasty, they found that he had been crushed beneath a landslide dislodged by the torrent. He was carrying all their gold! I made someone else as a replacement who only talked in one-word answers and liked to gamble, and was in trouble for it. No one ever hogged the spotlight, they were just there for fun, as I was GM more often than not.

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  31. When my original AD&D campaign started having "co-DMs" I finally got to have my very own PC. In general, I didn't use my character in the same games as I was the DM...unless, it was as an NPC for my fellow co-DM's PC...and vice versa.

    Does this make sense? Our (DM) PCs were two poles with the other group members the chain between...ugh, but it could sure cause resentment, not helped by my own diva-ish arrogance.

    In non-D&D games (Ars Magica, Vampire, Amber) I created PCs with the hope that the games would eventually open up and I'd get to "play." They didn't, and including them as NPCs just made the other players...well, not like it, more often than not.

    These days, I do NOT make pet NPCs or my own PCs in games I'm running. Even if the GM can keep appropriate boundaries (which I certainly had difficulties with when younger), even if the GM CAN, it's not something that breeds trust in new players.

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  32. In my games we never really had GMPCs except in the very beginning when my friends and I were running Red/Blue box D&D. Everything was new and we had fun when we rotated the GM role.

    I was the primary GM, though, as I had bought the sets and liked gamemastering (or dungeonmastering) more than the others.

    This continued until I was in a hospital for a couple of weeks and during that time the other players had run easy adventures with lots of treasure, so every character was now 15th level (or the maximum, for non-humans) and had millions of gold pieces. I seem to remember the cleric had three castles on an island and a flight of dragons to defend them...

    The adventures were something like "in the first room of the dungeon is a gold dragon. As it's good, it gives you its treasure of five million gold pieces."

    That campaign ended pretty much at that point as we were running pretty much by the book. In retrospect, we could've changed the campaign to a larger level game, but I still wanted to run wilderness / dungeon games.

    I had an another group of friends who took things more seriously, though, and I continued to play with them.

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  33. A. I suspect a lot game designer spend too much time designing and running games and not enough time playing games, as the published material often feels that way to me, as though it is indifferent to players.

    B. GM PCs usually feel like "Mary Sue" characters, even if they are not. And they can become a target of players who want to punish the GM for the way the game is going.

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  34. For the most part, games during my early gaming years were one-on-one events, usually with myself and my nephew. It was standard fare for us to play at least one PC each, as well as another one or two NPC's - more or less as men-at-arms - while also running the game. However, when doing so, the DM's PC was rarely involved in the decision-making process. He was present to assist in combat, partake in character interactions, and share in the awarding of XP. Of course, our style of play was very much that of the dungeon crawl variety - kick down doors/kill monsters/take stuff, repeat as necessary. There wasn't a lot of "role playing" in this, so the arrangement worked very well. (The DM was less of a Dungeon Master and more of a Dungeon Manager in our games.)

    We had tons of fun. And how can you be "playing it wrong" when you're having tons of fun?

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  35. I've been fortunate not to run into any Mary Sue GMPCs. I almost never include a GM PC when I run.

    The exception that I can think of is when I ran Twilight:2000 for a group that didn't include any wargamers. I stuck in a "wise old sergeant" to hand out bits of tactical advice or setting exposition that the veteran soldiers (like the PC were supposed to be) should know. "Uh, sir, you mean you want the machine gun over there, with a wider field of fire, than right here, right?" I must have done something right; he was able to fade into the background after a few sessions and become more of a man-at-arms or extra pair of eyes.

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  36. Agreed; a DMPC means extra dice to roll, at least one more combatant for the DM to think about, and overall longer encounters.


    That is certainly a valid issue. It's a significant reason I would really avoid trying to run a GMPC in Burning Wheel, just too much complexity to handle running extra NPCs (which of course are double, the GMPC PLUS extra opposition to challenge it). Burning Wheel also really highlights the problems with making running a GMPC really successful, too many mechanics that just plain would be boring and tedious when the GM is playing against himself...

    That said, I try not to fault other DMs for running DMPCs--because most people would rather play than DM, so it's only natural that a DM would want to have a little PC fun too.

    This is ultimately the reason I ever had GMPCs. So to me, the question is how to get the GM some of this fun without the GM running GMPCs.

    I think Burning Wheel actually addresses this. There are shortcuts the GM can use when stating up an NPC, but the GM is always free to do a full "burn" (chargen) of an NPC. Recurring NPCs can also engage the reward mechanics (improving skills, artha (hero points), and trait votes).

    Perhaps the most important change I would make from my gaming of old - really work to make sure there is room for recurring NPCs. Obviously in an old school dungeon, most of the dungeon inhabitants will only appear once, and then they will be killed. But the GM could put in NPCs that don't need to be killed, and the GM could find ways to change that NPC as the PCs change. Perhaps on the first level of the dungeon there is a hermit who gives out a bit of information. As the PCs start exploring deeper as they gain levels, the hermit advances in some interesting way, and can be found on the deeper levels, still being an information source, but perhaps also doing other things, perhaps even sometimes causing the PCs trouble - but not so much they kill him, or maybe they do kill him, but that's ok, the GM gets to create new characters much easier than the players.

    I'm looking forward to how Burning Wheel facilitates recurring NPCs that can grow.

    Frank

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  37. I thought I'd also post some of the most abusive things I've done with GMPCs when I was younger.

    Perhaps the most abusive was what I would do when I purchased a new module. I would solo run my group of NPCs through it, and they would get to keep the treasure and experience. Then, when I ran the module for the group, I might have one or two of those GMPCs along on the player exploration of the module...

    Another time was when I had my NPCs attack an underwater city. They had a nuclear bomb and used it to wipe out the city and gain experience for all the monsters killed... Yea, that was absolutely low, not even any justification. At least the solo running the module had the claimed purpose of being a good way to study the module.

    I've also certainly used GMPCs to try to push the players towards certain courses of action and that's inexcusable.

    Would I never have GMPCs again? I can't say never, but in the future, I'll certainly be a lot more careful. I think a key is that NPCs should be used in a way that pushes the PCs to be their best and challenged. Sometimes that might mean an NPC trying to convince the PCs to do something. The fine line is making sure the action is about the PCs. Sure, the GM should get to have fun (don't forget, he's a player in the game too), but make sure the GM's fun supports the players rather than the other way around. If you push your players to be the best, their fun will support the fun of the GM.

    Frank

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  40. I ran four different 1st edition campaigns back in the 1980's, and I was always careful to avoid FrankeNPC's. That is, my NPC's never had any major impact on the events in the campaign. They provided hints, a little money, and the occasional spell. But all of the important decisions and actions were in the hands of the actual PC's. Perhaps I took it to an extreme, but I really wanted to avoid the kind of situation where the players were basically watching resentfully while a bunch of DM-controlled characters created a story. When I start my retro 1st edition campaign next year, I'll probably handle NPC's the same way: colorful personalities yes, major impact on the story no.

    And as far as playing an actual PC in a game I was running - never. Not in a million years. I have enough to do playing all the monsters and NPC's without also playing another character who's "onstage" all the time.

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  41. When I'm required to babysit a PC for a player who is sitting out that week, I'm reminded of Mr. Spock's remote-controlled, mindless body in the Star Trek episode "Spock's Brain": http://bit.ly/ahM8ZH [youtube.com]

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  42. I have Gm'ed and had a character in quite a few campaigns. In a core group of 4 persons, I often grew tired of being the GM all of the time and wanted to partake in some of the PC heroics as well.

    It worked very well, as each GM would take the helm after a 'chapter' was complete. Some NPCs were 'off limits' and considered to be sacred to each particular GM.

    And as far as GMPC's went, the unwritten rule was that none were allowed to have any real interaction with the primary PCs. If I was Gming a session, my PC couldn't have any real impact on the current adventure. It worked very well.

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  43. chuckle, Barker when he says he has never played a pc means it, this comes from his belief that there are no NPC's or PC's on Tekumel. The persons who inhabit Tekumel are real to him, and he see's it more as the "players" are stopping in for a visit. In Barker's Tekumel if you game once a week, your character still goes on about his business, when you are not playing.

    Barker sees the characters on Tekumel as real people and so the real question that should have been asked in the interview was "how did you create the characters on Tekumel"

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  44. We had tons of fun. And how can you be "playing it wrong" when you're having tons of fun?

    I don't recall anyone claiming otherwise.

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