Apr 082013

Everyone in their gaming life has had that one awful game, the one that totally ruins the system and setting for you, even if the fault is with neither of them. Today I will talk about my own, and hopefully steer any budding GMs who happen by this page, the hell away from making the same mistake as one certain GM did. I don’t want to name names here, so for the sake of anonymity, the GM in question will henceforth be known as ‘Betty’.

werewolf-rpgBetty made a mistake that it’s all too easy to do when you’re starting out in a game. She fell head over heals in love with a game based on her experiences with it while playing one particular character. The games was Werewolf the Something, and she had created a kick-ass Garou we shall name ‘Philip’. (Creating random names is not my strong suit as a GM.)

Betty had a marvelous time playing Philip, for the whole month that game lasted. It was meant to go on longer, but the GM and all the players were a tad unreliable, and after a month the whole thing just fell apart. It happens, and there really was no one to blame. I was only aware of this game after it had collapsed, and after listening to young Betty wax lyrical for some time about how awesome a game it was, and how sorry she was that she never got to get any further under the skin of Philip, a few of our mutual friends suggested she pick up a rule book, and take a shot at running it herself. One thing you want – if not need - from a new GM is a certain level of enthusiasm. Betty had this in spades, and due to her infectious enthusiasm, it wasn’t long before about half a dozen of us were looking forward to playing it too.

At this point I already had some experience in the World of Darkness, having spent around a year playing in a live action game of Vampire, the thing-a-me-jig, and it is there that I acquired my now permanently in place nick-name. So, I had a vague idea of what to expect, but there were still surprises to be had. What shouldn’t have been a surprise was how short a time it took for the player characters to meet a certain wolf named Philip.

Click for image source

Click for image source

I couldn’t tell you the mission we were to be involved in, all the fine details of that game have faded from memory, replaced by one very tragic fact. Betty loved Philip a hell of a lot more than she loved the game. And by game, I mean the system, the setting, and the actual sessions she was running for her players. We first met Philip about one round into the opening fight scene. I have since been led to believe that it is possible to run a game of Werewolf without there being fights in every other scene, but at the time I would have found that hard to believe.

As a player group we were holding our own, but getting a bit bruised. Then, out of nowhere, sprang Philip, and we watched in dumb amazement as he tore his way through the enemies leaving behind him a fine red mist and enough hair on the floor to cover 17 barbershops. I don’t think we were quite as grateful as we were supposed to be though, as a very big deal was then made about cool it was that he’d saved our lives, and that he was going to help us get to where we needed to be. When we got there, some high ranking elder wolf told us that the mission we were to go on was obviously too dangerous for us, so it would be best if Philip tagged along.

Now, if Werewolf the Roleplaying is not a game you are familiar with, it will be difficult to get across how much a pain in the arse this was. Imagine a similar situation in a D&D style game. All the player characters are half way to picking up that fabled second level, and the GM thrusts a level 9 fighter into the mix and says that it’s because we’re not good enough. That my friends, is not cool.

Any time a GM feels the need to pull the players out of fire, it shows that they might not have done such a good job of setting up the game – I’m going through something similar myself in my Tuesday night game, so I’ll report back on that later – but this was a very different problem indeed. There might even be an actual term for this kind of thing, but at its root, we go back to the article title; Player characters make for terrible NPCs. Betty didn’t want to run a game, she wanted to carry on playing Philip, and when that happens, you need to rethink your motivation for picking up a whole fistful of dice.

If this has happened to you; please, back away from the character sheet. Put it in a clear plastic envelope and restrict yourself to sharing stories about how rad they were. True, this will still be a bit annoying, but it is a far better solution than alienating your players.

As a post script to that session, I turned up the following week, hoping it wouldn’t be that bad again, to find that only one other player had shown up at all. And it was worse. Betty didn’t even bother rolling for the other characters who were without players, instead letting Philip do just about anything that needed to be done. One week later, I was reliably informed that no one turned up to her game. Poor Betty. I hope her and Philip were happy being alone together…

  14 Responses to “Player characters make for terrible NPCs”

  1. I once had a GM who came up with a really elaborate Vampire the thing-a-me-jig setting and a ton of NPCs. It would have been awesome, only he loved his NPCs so much that the players were not allowed to touch one of them. Whatever we did, if if would have harmed one of the NPCs, it failed. We were allowed to fight the enemies he gave us, but intrigue or political play? Forget it.

    • Over protective GMs can be a major problem, but not just those that don’t want their NPCs getting a hair out of place. GMs who feel the need to mollycoddle their players all the way can be just as infuriating.

  2. Now let me get this straight: she made a mistake and you never actually talked to “Betty”? You never told “her” you had issues with the way she ST’ed the game but rather walked away thinking “Oh my…”? Why? The way she ST’ed the game may not have been great but every ST/GM/DM deserves a second chance. You know, people put a lot of effort in their games and just walking away without ever giving constructive criticism… well, you most certainly shouldn’t cite “her” as a bad example, as you yourself didn’t react exemplary. ;-)

    • You’re spot on there sir, and painting myself in the light of someone who didn’t make a mistake was wrong. If you look back through previous posts, or have followed my activities on the RPG.net forums and RPG sub-Reddit, you’ll know that I’m always in favour of talking about problems that occur around a table, whether they are to do with the game or not.

      All I can due is claim that the person I am now, is very different indeed to the person I was over fifteen years ago. Proof – if it were needed – can be found here.


      • to add a little more context to Shorty’s post. I was a fellow player of his back then and we had such a wide group of players/gm’s/groups available to us that I was quite easy to simply quit one game and join/start another. so yes we ducked out of the responsibility of players to give feedback to the gm but we saw it as the easiest option at the time. luckily as Shorty mentioned we have all grown up since then. well he has anyway.

      • I had forgotten about your letter to your younger self. I’ve been following your blog for quite some time now and I’ve always enjoyed your posts, that’s why I was so surprised by this one as I felt your reaction to bad GM’ing because of a PC as NPC didn’t fit the other posts.

        BTW: I still think a former PC can work as NPC but you have to be very careful how to use him/her for exactly the reasons you mentioned in the original post.

  3. It’s my belief that the only way that a powerful NPC can be in a group is if they are temporary and if the players get to control them.

    To put it in other terms, river-magic creating Arwen (or even more powerful, Glorfindel from the books) can come in to save Frodo when he gets in over his head with the Ringwraith, so long as the players get to roll for that NPC Elf during the chase scenes and such and only if they part ways at Rivendell. (I think the GM properly concluded that adding some new PCs in Rivendell was the right way to empower the party).

    • I did a 3rd ed conversion of Hero Quest a few years ago. The party completely botched the rescue of Sir Ragnar. On the fly, Sir Ragnar went from dying incapacitated knight to powerful savior of the party. This change happened before they opened his cell door, so fortunately it wasn’t too jarring.

  4. Forgotten Realms. Elminster. ‘Nuff said.

  5. remember Mick?
    Well he has an NPC in his world named after himself….who is a half god…of one of his old characters. So….it is not a rare thing for GM’s to find it hard to let go.

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