Players on the Boundary

When we think about the line between GM and PC blurring, usually what we think of is the infamous GMPC, apparent center of the universe. And certainly, that is a prime example of too little difference between one and the other.

But the blend isn’t always negative; neither is it always necessarily the GM’s role shading into the space usually occupied by the players. I’ve seen two ways in which a player might begin to overlap with the GM, and some interesting hazards that come of them.

The first is as adviser/muse/confidant. This happens a lot, particularly when the GM in question is new, and the player has GM’d for the GM at some point. So what does the GM do but ask for advice? It’s a reasonable thing to do, and often it makes for better plots—not only does the player serving as adviser know things the GM doesn’t, but she might have a better sense what’s going on with the other players, and pass on suggestions like “If what you’re doing is what I think you’re doing, it’d be really epic, but you might want to consider the effect on so-and-so’s character arc” or “Hey, you’ve got a couple players trying to figure out who the antagonist is, so you might want to push that one thing a bit more.” Or in some cases they’re more someone to bounce ideas off of. Either way, problems might come up when the player’s OOC knowledge and the character’s IC knowledge start clashing, particularly among players who are used to playing from their wits rather than their stats.

On the other hand, you have the plot device PC—a part I’m quite partial to, I admit. This is when the GM specifically designates a player to do something that will ensure the plot goes in something approximating the right direction. Most often, the player’s effect is negative—party traitor just waiting to happen, for instance. But sometimes, you get ones who are designated to be motivated towards a useful plot point, or just there to make sure the group doesn’t get too far off track.

I’ve done both—a lot, and I’ve learned something in the process: that it does matter which of the two (if not both) you serve as. It’s possible to be a muse without being a plot device, or to be a plot device without being a muse. But my experience indicates that it’s a lot easier to be a plot device without being a muse than vice versa, particularly for someone with my playstyle.

If you’re a plot device, but not a muse, you still have wiggle room—for instance, the character I first plot deviced as followed the rails up to a certain point, then jumped madly in the other direction with the GM’s approval, creating a more interesting experience than if she’d stuck to the script past getting the basic necessities taken care of. If you’re a muse, but not a plot device, though, you know the secrets, but you can’t really do anything with the knowledge except try to hint the other characters toward it; the last time I was in a situation like this, I even made a character who didn’t bother with a lot of the knowledge skills I used to stock up heavily on, just to make sure that he wouldn’t be stealing plot knowledge from people who’d work for it but who were guaranteed not to skip three or four steps through already knowing the answer. If you’re both, you’ve still got a lot of secrets to keep, but there’s a sense in which you can act on your information to make yourself a better—or at least, a more interesting—plot device, particularly if you’re plot devicey in such a way that your character knows the majority of what you know.

In sum, if you’re going to spend too much time plumbing the deep recesses of the GM’s mind, make sure you know what you’re going to have to work both with and on. Being a muse but not a plot device isn’t always going to mess with your play, but it might have an impact if the impact of the game itself isn’t strong enough. Think ahead!

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