Common Pitfalls of Tabletop Gaming: GMPC's


In lieu of a condensed, centralized article addressing the numerous pitfalls one may encounter while engaging in tabletop gaming, I thought I'd launch a sort of 'mini-series', to better elaborate upon each individual topic. Hopefully, this detailed and compartmentalized series of posts will serve to better retain your valuable attention span and increase my blog regularity.

The first installment of this series shall draw attention to a practice commonly employed by Hosts worldwide: the implementation and use of personally-created playable characters (GMPC's). The acronym, clearly inspired by the short-hand for a typical player character (PC), refers to a fully-functional avatar under the direct control of a Host. This differs from the various conjured figures at large (NPC's) in that said creation possesses many of the average adventurer's capabilities. For all intents and purposes, they too, are as talented (if not more so), as the supposed 'stars' of the campaign. This drift from NPC to PC in terms of power and importance is the center of much controversy associated with these figures. For your consideration, I shall present the main opposing sides of this debate as concisely as I can.

Against GMPC's

Horror stories abound, the majority of those who protest the use of GMPC's have, at one point or another, suffered from the traumatic encounters often inflicted by an amateur Host and its character. Said incidents, though varying by nature, often come by way of a 'deus ex machina'; an attention-monopolizing opportunity for the Host's custom-made, super-special character to show just how much better they are than the PC's by bailing them out of a tough situation. Such interventions, when used outside of the rare last-minute twist, are not just a poor method of storytelling, but also the quickest way to alienate and aggravate one's players. To be perpetually saved and placed at the mercy of a vastly superior force controlled by a supposedly impartially benevolent force is a highly disconcerting one, as it forces them into a secondary position of importance; that is, to simply drift through the story until someone stronger shows up to ultimately save the day. Unfortunately, this abuse of Host powers is quite prolific with amateur practitioners of the game, a sad fact that serves to continually strengthen the general enmity towards GMPC's.

For GMPC's

Some are fortunate enough to have relatively pleasant experiences with GMPC's, while others have thoroughly endured an intrusive bout of escapism, but both agree that these characters can, and often are, implemented in a constructive fashion. The key, they argue, is to design a character whose strength compensates for a critical weakness of the party. Said weakness, though I certainly can't speak for all cases, typically comes by way of direct player support, such as a healer, or negotiator. In my experience, few players are eager to play the largely pacifist role of doctor/diplomat/etc., so Hosts are often found conjuring some manner of character to mitigate these flaws. For anyone who's ever stared down the possibility of a total party kill, these individuals serve as a highly-appreciated intervention (and a potential plot device, if they become too attached to said character).

Personally, my stance on this practice is entire contextual. If dealing with a group of novice players, I'll have the foresight to rectify any glaring flaws in their team dynamic with a tasteful GMPC. If Hosting an experienced group on the other hand, I shall leave the foresight entirely up to them, as they really should 'know better' by that point. If their lack of inter-party communication should fail them when team roles are called into question, they'll be all the better for the learning experience.



The following post has not been designed to offer a practical tool, device, website, or any sort of the usual contribution to your tabletop game. I have instead chosen to discuss the nature of the game and several matters pertaining thereof in a philosophical context. If such a thing doesn't interest you, please feel free to disregard the contents of this message.

I won't mind, really.

To severely abridge a somewhat long and convoluted story, my personal motivations for engaging in tabletop activities have been recently brought into a scope of deep introspection. Certain influences within my life had forced me to sincerely prioritize the significance of this time-consuming hobby in relation to other, seemingly more productive expenditures of my free time. With my deep infatuation of constant self-improvement looming overhead, I found myself in need of a truly valid reason to continue in this leisurely pursuit. Failure to do so would turn this once cherished past time into something of a guilty pleasure, as I was certain to give myself much grief over engaging in an activity deemed to be 'wasteful'.

Fortunately, I was able to resolve the matter in a timely fashion; as evidenced by the continuation of this Blog, my enjoyment of tabletop activities remains regular and guilt-free. The matter, as strange as it may sound to some, wasn't about refining social ability or improving my basic arithmetic skills, or any of those other commonly-touted reasons; a revelation that came with much surprise when contrasted by my aforementioned love of self-improvement. It was instead a preservation of a less mature 'self', an infantile part of my being that, no matter how jaded, bitter, or disillusioned the 'adult' me would become, would still take the risk to believe that a form of magic still existed somewhere in the universe. My inner child had spoken in favor of role playing, and I was compelled to listen.

I may have lost some of you just now with the admittance of such unconscious innocence and naivety. You may believe that I'm alone in my willingness to preserve this 'inner child', but I've recently become of the belief that everyone, no matter how old or experienced, keeps a flame burning for that one day when destiny may call on them to embark on a journey greater than they've ever known. As children, we learn of these stories in which some ordinary, everyday protagonist is suddenly stripped of their normal lives and thrust into a foreign role to fulfill some task that only they can accomplish, often in a land entirely alien to them. Other times, these stories may detail a special individual that appears without warning, seemingly out of nowhere, and forever changes one's life for the better (or more interesting, at least). This feeling of escape into an exciting realm of the unknown fascinates us, making those who hear these tales yearn for their own adventure of fantastic proportions.

So we wait, watch, and hope for the signs of our impending journey. We dream thoughts and scribble pictures of our glorious quest to be. Birthday wishes are spent conjuring the catalyst that will change our lives forever, but it never comes. Year by year, we grow weary of awaiting the distressed damsel or the shining knight's call and the magic fades, kicked to the side by the inexorable realities of life. The fantasies of escapism that once occupied our every thought are soon placed on the same dust-covered shelf that holds our forgotten toys and undersized clothes.

Most will call this a natural stage in the process of 'growing up' and for the most part, I agree with this sentiment. It's quite unhealthy and unrealistic to preserve the expectation of someday being rescued from one's mundane life (that requires solely personal intervention, but I digress). The part that troubles me is the loss of child-like escapism; that is, to say, there's absolutely nothing wrong with playing pretend, as long as you have a firm grasp with which to facilitate your return to reality. Growing up is fine and healthy and all that, but there's no reason to lose your youthful sense of wonder and curiosity, even if it's seldom used.

Obviously, this is where things like tabletop/role playing games come into play, thus allowing said imagination a structure in which it can take refuge and flourish. This recreational activity, however, is not available to most, due to a combination of widely varying factors, such as insufficient funds, inadequate company, or just simple ignorance of the game (which you just lost). Such inhibitions, while far from the worst fate that can befall a person, are quite regrettable, as these individuals can miss out on the very escape from their 'normal' lives that had been so greatly anticipated by them so many birthdays ago. I'm not going to say that every session around a cramped table whilst flanked by sweaty neckbeards is going to be magical, but when the day comes that an experienced Host is joined by awesome Players, the resulting events can be quite memorable, if not downright moving.

That rare spark of genius, that one-in-a-million adventure that will forevermore stand out in the Player's mind; that is why I play, and more importantly, why I act as my group's regular Host. Not too long ago, through the charitable actions of several individuals now close to my heart, I was introduced to the wonderful world of tabletop gaming. This discovery bettered me as a social individual, revived my once-forgotten sense of childish escapism, and gave me the tools I needed to honor their contributions to my life by passing on the kindnesses they've shown me to others. Whether it be someone who's only heard of 'D&D' in passing or an experienced vet who designs his own miniatures, I've decided to dedicate my career in tabletop gaming to providing the most well-crafted, immersive experience I can muster.

For my Players, the under privileged, the ignorant, and everyone who's never had the adventures they dreamed of as children, I shall press on.

M&M: The Atomic Think Tank

Originally conceived as a post solely concerning the extensive home brew work the website 'Atomic Think Tank' has done over the years, I soon realized the significance of this group's efforts would be largely dulled without having first given some background on the game they so persistently modify: Mutants and Masterminds.

Mutants and Masterminds (M&M) is a modern-era 'superhero simulator' based on the d20 System; a game style most commonly associated with D&D 3.0/3.5. By utilizing a free-form, point-buy character generation system, Players are given relatively free reign to create any sort of superhero (or villain, depending on the campaign) they desire. The information concerning this RPG is already out there in plentiful and detailed supply, so I'm not going to go any further into this background.

Edit: In spite of my previous statement, I'd like to take an additional moment and point out a common pitfall many first-time Hosts of this game encounter: Due to the openly creative nature of the character creation process, it's somewhat commonplace for experienced gamers to slip a 'broken' superhero past you. Though it's admittedly impossible to 'screen' every single concept presented for any unreasonably potent strengths, I've personally found the following hero themes to be most problematic:

1. Duplication/Excessive Minion Control: A character who can duplicate themselves or command a horde of allies to do their bidding will bog down and/or effectively control combat with their abundance of actions per turn.

2. Gravity: It was broken on 'Zatch Bell', and it's pretty cheap in M&M. Crafted well, there's little you can do to stop this hero without making a threat built to specifically counter their abilities.

3. Time: Oh lord, does this guy love to take the spotlight. Done in moderation (see: Dio Brando), this isn't too bad, but when you start seeing potential for rewinding/pausing entire encounters, it's time to suggest another character concept.

With the background of this fine game established, I'd like to draw focus on the initial focus of this post; the works of the group known as the 'Atomic Think Tank'. Now, these guys aren't just amateur aficionados, this prominent online community has been designated as the official board for all things M&M-related. However, what I feel makes them particularly interesting is their extensive work with in-game statistics. Between all their collective years of experience, this group has compiled an impressive database of famous characters (fictional or otherwise) configured for immediate M&M play. Feel like playing as Spider-Man, He-Man, or Optimus Prime in your next session? Wondering who would win in a fight between the Power Rangers and the Akatsuki? Chances are, the information needed for such a match-up is already available.


The Deck of Many Boons

It can be rather difficult to instill good gaming habits in others, even more so to reinforce or reward said habits without appearing to favor one Player over another. The imaginative denizens of 'Stuffer Shack' sought to correct this issue with the rather ingenious usage of a standard deck of cards. This "deck of boons" is quite straightforward, each card (2, King, etc.) has a specific, mostly positive in-game effect when deployed during the session at hand. Said benefits range from the practical and mundane (re-rolling an attack), to the intricately powerful (player fiat).

The real value in this system, however, lies in the acquisition of the card itself; a feat typically accomplished by those exhibiting traits that the dealer/Host may find desirable in an Player. Personally, I make it a point to reward any attendees with the habitual punctuality to show up on-time for the scheduled session with a draw from the deck. Though initially met with skepticism, a particularly impressive use of the 'Ace' card involving a blatant in-game reference to the movie 'Matrix' dramatically improved Player punctuality. Your requirements for such compensation, be they in-game or out, may vary.

Edit: I find myself thoroughly enjoying my blog's visual format. Particularly the font/color/size of the post titles; it caused me to read "The Deck of Many Boons" in a big, booming voice in my head. : P