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Troy’s Crock Pot: It’s OK to join the party

If you’re the GM, you accept the fact that you are the monster guy. It’s your pleasure and privilege to bring to life the bad guys in your world.

Invariably, though, the pace of the game can rob you of that fun — portraying evildoers, that is.

You are the devious designer of hundreds of snares and pit traps placed throughout the underground warren by the mad kobold king … which the PCs just sidestepped, outright avoided, and foiled on lucky rolls, not triggering a single one.

You are the cackling scheming witch, eager to chew a little scenery while menacing the characters in front of her walking hut … “Oh, you rolled a 20 on an attack and hit for max damage? Yes, she is dead.”

You are the fuming, wicked king … “Silence spell? It worked. I’ll sit here quietly now.”

So, the PCs keep thwarting your chances to be the big bad evil guy/gal? Heck with that. Be a good guy! Join the party!


Hey, wait! Before you send the GM police after me, hear me out.

I don’t want to be the hero. I just want to give a little personality and character to an NPC or monster before their life gets all-too-abruptly snuffed out by the players before the first turn of initiative is completed.

Being a character in the PCs’ company can be great fun, so long as you don’t forget that it’s the players whose characters belong in the limelight. In fact, it can be an effective way of making sure the spotlight keeps swinging around, catching each PC in turn.

Prisoner gambit

I recall a podcast discussion some time back that featured Wizards of the Coast designer James Wyatt about the playtest for the Forgotten Realms module City of the Spider Queen. The GM played a drow prisoner. Being a prisoner in the midst of the party was a great way to introduce plot hooks, create tension and scheme through player interaction. (A fresh example of this, clearly, was how a captured Loki sowed dissent in the “Avengers” motion picture). In the podcast they said the drow prisoner kept the information flowing without forcing the PCs to leave the dungeon and go back to town. Besides, the GM said the fun part was being deliciously evil in a party of do-gooders.

Nodwick approach

Not to be overlooked is the overworked henchman. The henchman is a great way to introduce humor into the interactions. And if the group is so gung ho they’ll leap into any danger, the henchman might be the only person around to offer some common sense. “Five-headed dragon? What are you dolts doing? We have to run away. Now!” Of course, the trick is getting the PCs to agree to hiring a henchman in the first place. (The more your group adheres to rules requiring one to keep a 10-foot pole handy, the more likely they’ll see the need for a henchman.) While this might sound like undue bookkeeping for the GM to assume (“Great, now I have to keep track of the PCs’ gear too?”), the fact is the equipment they want will either be there or not on your whim, primarily based on the henchman’s qualifications.

Delivering destiny’s child

It might be unfair, but for this adventure you need to foist upon the party a living key to the adventure. The person is usually a privileged, pampered pup who is required to reach the end of the adventure — meaning they have to keep them around until they do their thing (retrieve an item, morph into a butterfly, claim the crown). The whole plot of “Conan the Destroyer” (and to a lesser extent, “Shrek the Third”) used this device. Ever want to play a spoiled brat and bug the living bejesus out of the players? Follow this road.

Gandalf the Grey

Then there is the babysitter. I think this can be used effectively, in moderation, maybe for a session or two. Usually, though, a party will eagerly add a character of notoriety to their motley assembly, just for the fun of interacting with a “name” NPC. I picked Gandalf — all knowing, all bumbling (smoked too much hobbit weed?) — because he’s the most familiar. In my Wheel of Time game I’ve always found a place for Moriaine Damodred to visit, mainly because she may not be as powerful as Galdalf, she certainly has fewer scruples and a greater dedication to her mission. Rather than having an all-powerful NPC plow through orcs, though, they are really effective and steering the party’s course ethically or storywise.

What’s your story?

Have you any experiences using NPCs in this fashion? What’s your story? I’d love to hear what you have to say on the subject.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: It’s OK to join the party"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On September 19, 2012 @ 1:57 am

I had one of these happen by accident. During a game where a fight broke out just outside the party’s boss’s house. The players were doing pretty well, but the boss had a body guard who was around, and when it looked like they could do with a hand, I sent him in. he was just above average with a rifle, and on a horse – something quite rare for the lower classes in a city based Victorian game – and due to some frankly amazing rolls on my part, he ended up saving the day.

I was happy for him to then fade back from the spotlight, but the players thought he was awesome and convinced the boss to send him along too. Due to my luck holding out for a long time he became a big part of the group, with a loving relationship started between him and a player character that outlasted the initial campaign. Top stuff.

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 19, 2012 @ 8:47 am

That’s so true. Often the best retainers and NPC advisers do come along as happy accidents. I think that goes to the issue of party need.Looking back, I think a lot of GMs will see that such a character occurs because a gap has to be filled. Does the party have a hole in it? Either alignment or skill-wise? This is where the classic NPC cleric — you know the one that heals (with no questions asked) but never picks up a morningstar to help bash things — comes in.

#3 Comment By Svengaard On September 19, 2012 @ 5:38 am

I’ve done it a few times and have found that pet NPCs tend to steal the spotlight if you’re not careful.
What I do with them if they’re going to be in combat is to keep their stats and abilities vague and to send them off to a flank to deal with reinforcements/guard the rear. That way the pet isn’t affecting the main part of combat and the heroes get to shine. Using phrases like “He’s keeping two guards busy in the side alley” seems to be good enough for my players.
Outside of combat, I like them providing a role that the players don’t fill. Have them healing the party or picking the locks if there’s no cleric or thief around. Obviously, they’re going to succeed or fail when you want them to, or have a 50% chance if you don’t really care one way or the other. This way they’re ‘useful’, but not going to be the centre of attention.
Oh, and a big thing to watch for: if you’re using a Child of Destiny type NPC then don’t give them an annoying personality. When the players have had enough then it could derail the campagin if the players decide to eliminate them. Now I’m not sure where the fault lies there, but over the years I haven’t had very many good-aligned PCs.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 19, 2012 @ 8:44 am

Oh, yes, the last thing you want is the boy king dumped on the side of the road because these “adventurers” have had enough.
Sometimes imposing an oath on the players can have a mitigating effect on this behavior. “As much as we’d like to leave the toad king in the gutter, we PROMISED to see him through it.” I think the key for the Child of Destiny is matching the party’s overall alignment to the mission. After all, it’s unlikely the safety of a child of destiny would be placed in the hands of a band of chaotic pirates — though that would be fun to try!

#5 Comment By shawnhcorey On September 19, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

If I were to add a Child of Destiny to a group, it is far more likely that he wouldn’t want to follow the group. “But I don’t want to be king. I want to be a ninja pirate!” He would try to convince the party to abandon their oaths and go have some fun. XD

#6 Comment By MuadMouse On September 19, 2012 @ 6:36 am

I used a mix of all four types in a 3-year-long Dark Heresy campaign, and I was very happy with the results. This NPC was the key to the salvation of that sector of space (Child of Destiny), but this meant that the party had to hold on to her at all cost (Prisoner, although a mostly willing one). She also played a supporting role through her knowledge of alien technology (Nodwick) and political factions (Gandalf); the latter was most useful because my players started out completely new to the Warhammer 40k universe.

I found it handy to have an NPC be the central character of the campaign – she would die only if the PCs explicitly so wished (I don’t advocate plot armour for PCs). Since I wanted to keep her around, I played her in as sympathetic a fashion as possible. I also made her capable of fending for herself against minor threats so the PCs wouldn’t have to do escort duty all the time, but kept her weak enough to make it clear that she would not be able to finish her journey alone.

All these made the practice of running the GMPC quite painless, but my favourite thing about it was to be able to interact and influence the PCs in-game without taking from them the Big Decisions of the campaign. The GMPC was knowledgeable enough to be confused by the Byzantine nature of Imperial politics, and relied on the PCs – whom she saw as the God-Emperor’s unwitting emissaries – to point her in the right direction. Her role was to assist, advise and to ensure momentum, unless of course the PCs had made an intentional attempt to abuse her confidence somehow (in which case she would have become an enemy).

It was no secret that I had tailored this NPC to appeal to the players and their characters, but this didn’t seem to bother anyone overmuch. In fact, the relationships turned rather juicy, as we’d all hoped.

The key to this GMPC’s success I think was that she appealed to the players without overly hindering the party or solving their problems for them. A useful damsel in distress, if you will.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 19, 2012 @ 8:40 am

A useful damsel — the prisoner in reverse. That does sound like a useful way to include an adviser npc in the party. It might have been intrusive, at times, but because it was always story-based, it worked. Thanks for sharing.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On September 19, 2012 @ 8:05 am

“I kill Gandalf”.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 20, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

He comes back, clothed in white, and even more annoying.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On September 19, 2012 @ 8:13 am

Clive, my first GM (White Box D&D) once stuck a party with a Wyvern after they cleverly talked it out of eating them and joining the party (THINKS: “This thing will be an awsome foe-slayer”).

It carried a chest with it. Every time the party won an encounter it insisted on fairly sharing the loot, counting each copper piece out by hand: “One for you , one for you, one for you, one for me. Two for you, two for you…”. It took forever.

White box D&D only had Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic alignment choices. Wyverns were Lawful, as you might guess from this behavior.

It wasn’t long before the party were giving all the treasure to the Wyvern (who needed persuading to take it every time) just to avoid the share-out process.

Eventually they bid the creature goodbye. It took forever to reassure it they would be alright without its help.

They were still taking about it disgustedly and rolling their eyes months later.

Clever GM, Clive.

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 19, 2012 @ 8:38 am

Now THAT’S a clever solution to party treasure distribution. Clive, indeed, was thinking ahead.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On September 19, 2012 @ 10:03 am

Oh, and while I be here, how come no-one be a-talkin’ like a pirate? Be this a haven for scurvy bilge-rats and pasty-faced landlubbers? Yarr!

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 19, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

I can’t speak for all gnomes, but this one has an aversion to large bodies of water — like those whose shoreline can’t be seen beyond the horizon. 🙂

#14 Comment By randite On September 19, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

Garr! I believe he be referrin’ to National Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearty.

#15 Comment By randite On September 19, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

I’ve had excellent luck with GMPCs so long as they take a backseat to the PCs. A good GMPC needs to be crafted so as to be an interesting personality to interact with and bring some usefulness to the party, but who would never take the lead or dictate the direction of a campaign. As an example, the grizzled, alcoholic, amoral veteran who may offer advice about tactics and certainly offer his sword arm, but won’t decide whether to side with the Baron or the King. “I’m just a soldier not a courtier. I’ll be at the tavern; let me know when you’ve picked a master.” or “The King’ll have the numbers but the Baron’ll have mountains and their tribes on his side. Either way I’ll need a stout drink before we go.”

#16 Comment By Senexis On November 28, 2012 @ 9:52 pm


I ran an almost identical GMPC in what has become a legendary Gamma World campaign back in the day. I couldn’t even tell you his name now (although I’m sure I’ve got the character sheet in the garage…in a box… somewhere).

Visually he was a Jonax Hex kinda character, a little bit drunkover all the time, disheveled, didn’t give a damn, the one thing he did any good was he was 50% to hit anything, anytime, anywhere, with his rifle. I created him to get the 3-man PC group out of trouble since they were light on shooters.

He formed a pretty effective partnership with a mutant rabbit with a crossbow, and between the two of them they could generally guarantee a 125% hit rate (ie 1 hit + 25% chance of a second) and dubbed themselves “The Turkey Brothers” and did the Spaceballs hand-tickle-gobble thing whenever they blew anything away.

But he never suggested a damn thing.

#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 20, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

GMPC experts are great. GMPC berserker kings are not.

I’ve had a lot of luck with an elven cleric GMPC in fantasy games. She buffs and heals, doesn’t engage in melee (elf = bow), and doesn’t direct the party, but will question their judgment at times.

#18 Comment By drummy On September 21, 2012 @ 11:00 am

Great topic.

I like to use GMPC’s because I want to have a person to play at times but mostly because my party of four usually needs to be a party of five.

So I ask the same question another poster did above, which is “What does this party need?” Last time I asked it I figured it was a tank, so I now have a stolid Dwarf who mistakenly believes he’s the end-all of his people’s Stone Prophecies taking up the middle of the melee. Strong, blockish, deluded, and jealous. Lots of fun.

The group, however, just were cursed to endure a three-year jump in time, so the world they’re coming back to has changed significantly. The party is also much tougher than they were 8 sessions ago, so it’s time for the Dwarf to pursue his prophetic ambitions and have a doctor/scholar join them in order to give them relevant information about the times.

When they’re up to speed, I’ll switch it around again (if I don’t die by then…). Whatever helps the party tends to help the game, in my experience, so long as my GMPC not more important than they are in the main story.


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#20 Comment By 77IM On October 2, 2012 @ 8:14 am

The best character I ever ran as a GM was in a game of secret agents with super-powers. The PCs were a team of secret agents, and the main NPC was their “handler,” who would give them their assignments and stay on the radio during missions for backup and support.

…But he was a complete incompetent slob. “Agent Bulldog” had basically been demoted into the handler role for laziness and bungling. If they called him on the radio for backup, he’d usually be sleeping, or surfing the web looking at porn. Then, when the PCs did succeed at a mission, he would take all the credit! They would get back at him by ditching him in foreign countries, etc.

It worked well because it turned what could have been an overbearing authority figure into a source of laughs.

#21 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 2, 2012 @ 8:37 am

That totally sounds like Officer Farva from Super Troopers. Gotta steal, er ‘acquire’ that one.

#22 Comment By overlordTNT On March 20, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

I’m currently planning to introduce a GMPC to my players party of a stuffy paladin and a goody-twoshoes cleric( FYI we are playing fourth edition). for hilarity’s sake, she’ll be an evil tiefling warlock with a penchant for murder and her eyes on asmodues’s throne.

#23 Comment By Silveressa On December 10, 2015 @ 12:07 am

I’ve had great success with this in my current scifi campaign by providing the group with an ship A.I NPC called Angel, short for Artificial Nanometically Generated Electronic life form.(Similar to Rommie from the Andromeda series as far a range of emotions and personality complexity goes.)

She’s proven to be the voice of reason among the crew, and helped mediate some otherwise potentially heated disagreements between a couple crew members who were at odds and has been a readily available source of information and advice when the situation requires it.

(She’s also handy for managing needed crew stations in the event of a unexpected player absence)

With other NPC’s part of a party I like to assign them a “handiness die” that varies depending on the level of helpfulness the NPC is supposed to have. (roughly a d6+2 for run of the mill NPC’s up to a d12+2 for especially competent or helpful ones.)

How it works is anytime the NPC in question is in a position to help I roll the die against a dif of 6, if the result is 6 or higher then are bright enough to think of a useful piece of advice, or succeed on their requisite skill check.

If they failed the roll the dice value would stay the same, but every success during that session meant the die value would drop a level, (d12+2 to a d10+2, d10+2 to a d8+2 etc) meaning it was progressively less likely they’d be steadily useful every opportunity during the session, but still useful enough to be valuable.