If you hang out in pretty much any RPG forums for any significant amount of time, you’ll see threads on so-called DMPCs or GMPCs – a character that’s in the party and is played by the GM as a PC. This is wisely generally considered a no-no. Even if the character is made with the same rules as the rest of the PCs, oftentimes the GM will run the character as being somehow better or more special than the other PCs a lot of the time and this will understandably create hard feelings and cries of “Foul!”
However, it’s undeniable that sometimes an NPC winds up in the party and sometimes it’s almost necessary for it to happen to cut down on GM headaches. A D&D party with no healer, a cyberpunk party with no hacker, and a spacefaring setting with no pilot are three stereotypical examples.
It’s certainly possible to work around these limitations. The D&D party can find a lot of extra healing potions and wands. The cyberpunk party can focus on jobs that don’t involve a lot of hacking like sabotage and HUMINT, and the spacefaring party can stick around a single space station or travel on transport ships.
But sometimes it’s just nicer and less work not to have to work around a missing role that game generally assumes is filled and you want to fill that empty slot with an NPC. In order to avoid having that party NPC turn into a GMPC, I would respectfully submit that this is what you need to do.
1. The NPC needs to be likeable and trustworthy. Interestingly, this means likeable to the players rather than their characters. A good example of this principle in action in Grant’s D&D game is Rishi, an NPC sorcerer we interact with on a regular basis. Rishi is fairly likeable to the PCs – he’s shown genuine concern for the well being of not only his village, but the colony and especially the PCs. And while he has certainly made a bunch of mistakes in his life, he is not the sort of person to ever, ever intentionally betray the party. At the same time, the PCs probably finds him a little less fun to have around than the players behind them do – Rishi is a loudmouth, a smart alec, and is prone to mild violence like thwacking people with sticks and (in one case) shoving them out of trees. In a number of ways, he is a lot like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back; undeniably friendly and helpful, but you’re sometimes kind of glad there’s a level of narrative separation between you and them. Of course, there’s nothing that says the NPC has to be any sort of pain in the neck at all – Kaylee Sanders from Firefly and Serenity is probably the most well-liked character in the entire crew and for good reason: not only is she an incredibly kind, sweet, and genuine person, she’s also an ace mechanic who keeps the ship flying even when the rest of the crew is hard on it and constantly pushing it to its limits in various ways.
2. The NPC should be a support character of some kind and also needs to protect the niches of the PCs. The party NPC role is no place for a class or archetype that’s going to overshadow one of the PCs in the thing they do. In D&D terms, not only would I recommend the NPC be a support class like cleric or bard, I’d recommend they lag a level behind the party and have an intentionally sub-optimal build. A multiclassed bard/cleric who serves a god of music or is part of a holy order that glorifies a monotheistic god through song will be interesting and chock full of support abilities, but there’s no danger that they’re going to one-up the fighter on the frontlines, the wizard in the spellcasting department or out-stealth the rogue. At the same time, if the NPC is good at making the PCs better at what they do via some sort of help (turning the rogue magically silent or invisible, bootsing the fighter’s armor and weapon with magic or putting up protective spells so the wizard is safer in a fight) that’s not only fine, but recommended. The trick is to make the character unable to use those same abilities on their own behalf – or at least unwilling. To put it a shorter way, they should be really good at making PCs better and not all that great at doing adventure-y stuff on their own; a hacker in a cyberpunk game should be the type who stays home and hacks in remotely, then gives the PCs the data they pulled for them to work with. A pilot should be good at piloting, but not a full-on Han Solo character who is also good at stealth, combat, and navigating the criminal underworld. And so on.
3. The NPC should be able to provide hints if asked (or if the party is clearly frustrated and stuck) but is not especially inclined to. This doesn’t mean the NPC should smugly lord “how obvious” the next course of action is over the PCs and make them beg for the knowledge. The NPC should instead be too shy, too taciturn, or too distracted to chime in unless asked. A cleric that’s actually a shy acolyte without a lot of self-confidence and a severe case of Impostor Syndrome, a hacker that is constantly browsing Reddit on his phone, or a pilot that’s an old-school “man of few words” type and sits there chewing a toothpick while everyone else is animatedly debating the next course of action are all good ways to handle this.
4. The NPC should be subordinate to the PCs, not their equal or boss. In addition to the NPC not being constantly chiming in with courses of action, the PCs should not be compelled to listen when they do. This isn’t to say the PCs can’t have a boss, but that boss should send them off to do things while they stay behind. Governor Warwick in Grant’s colony game is a good example: she sends the PCs off on all kinds of errand and they report in when they come back, but she never leaves the colony. She’s the governor! She’s a little busy to go galavanting off after monsters and treasure.
5. The NPC shouldn’t be a hindrance or a source of hosing for the party. In addition to being helpful, likeable, and trustworthy, it’s probably also a good idea not to have the NPC be so bumbling, hotheaded, impulsive, or curious as to get the PCs into trouble they didn’t make for themselves. Every adventure should not revolve around getting them out of trouble and dealing with their issues. In fact, very few if any should. They shouldn’t carry a contagious plague or curse. They shouldn’t be a wanted fugitive. They shouldn’t have somnambulism or Tourette’s Syndrome. If you make the game about the NPC constantly getting in trouble, either the game will become about them, or the PCs will rid themselves of the NPC somehow (or at least wish they could).
6. Perhaps most importantly, the NPC should be unimportant to the setting. You want the NPC to be interesting, with friends, relationships, a family, contacts, quirks and surprising things about them and that’s all fine. It’s fine if you’ve made it so if your NPC was to die, their funeral would be well-attended by a lot of sad people with a lot of kind things to say. However, in the big picture of your setting, they should not a figure of major historical significance. Things like prophecy, destiny, and lines of succession should be the purview of PCs, not some pet NPC. It can be tempting to keep the good bits for yourself as a GM, but resist the temptation and use it as more ways to make your PCs awesome. They also generally shouldn’t be special in some way the PCs can’t be. One of the most egregious examples I’ve run across online is a Star Wars GM banning all force powers for PCs and making their pet NPC the last Jedi in the setting.
7. Finally, you as the GM should have an exit strategy. If the NPC is ill-liked or starts taking over roles better left to the PCs, you should have a way of getting them off the stage, be that another job somewhere else or an unfortunate “adventuring accident.” Inertia should never be the reason you wind up with a toxic NPC your party can’t rid themselves of.
You can make an occasional or mild exception to these rules with a good enough reason; one of the PCs in a game I ran had a magic sword haunted by a ghost that was very friendly to the party and who wanted to help them. I didn’t make ghosts available as a PC option during character creation, but I compensated by having him mostly hang out in the sword like a genie in a lamp unless the party had want or need of him somehow. I also gave him an aura of intense cold that he couldn’t turn off. So while he could walk through walls like any ghost, if he did, he’d leave a silhouette of frost on the wall, which made using him as an invisible, wall-walking scout risky and something he wasn’t particularly keen on. Him being out of the sword also shut off its frost damage, so there was an incentive to let him stay in it. And he’d been stuck in the sword for so long that while he had some interesting things to say about history, he wasn’t very useful as a source of intelligence about what was currently going on in the world. His presence still wasn’t implemented perfectly, but it worked well enough. Also, it’s okay to have someone important in the party temporarily – escorting an important VIP is a time-honored quest archetype. But the rightful king, if he’s going to be in the party long-term, should be a PC. And if there’s a Chosen One that should definitely be a PC. Probably all of the PCs, really.
As always, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with this stuff. What have you found works or doesn’t for an NPC that sticks with the party?