One of my biggest peeves in role-playing games is the phenomenon we refer to as the “PC Glow,” in which the player characters can look at a crowd and pick out fellow PCs at a glance. It’s as though the word “PC” were written on their foreheads in big glowing letters.
Yes, it’s useful to be able to get the PCs together quickly and efficiently, especially in action-oriented games like D&D when the players are eager to skip past the introductory bits to get to the meat of play. But any game that falls under the RPG rubric demands a certain amount of integrity in its fiction, however flimsy that fiction may be, and abuse of the PC glow can violate that fiction most egregiously.
In an example from my Glantri game, several players had replaced their deceased PCs with members of a small mercenary band that they’d taken on as hirelings. One of those hirelings-turned-PCs, Francois, made himself the de facto leader of the party, which he renamed the “Company of Crossed Swords.” Seeing their longtime comrades doing well for themselves as members of the party, the remaining NPC members of the mercenary band approached Francois:
Henri [NPC]: Francois, now that things are working out so well with the new mercenary company, Guy and I were thinking that perhaps we could become full members and get shares instead of our usual fee.
Francois [PC]: Ah, no, I do not think so. I do not think you have earned this thing.
Henri: But… I don’t understand. We’ve fought at your side as long as Isaac and Emory [two other PCs], and they’re full members now.
Francois: Ah, yes, but you see, they have demonstrated vision and initiative! Perhaps, after a few more months as hirelings, you will also demonstrate vision and initiative. Until then, we will pay you the usual fee, eh?
Henri: You’re an ass, Francois.
[The NPCs leave; two new PCs arrive.]
Francois: Gentlemen! You look like fine examples of adventurers. How would you like to be full members of the Company of Crossed Swords?
In retrospect, the problem began with my decision to have the NPCs demonstrate a specific ambition that lay outside of our group’s social contract. We have a house rule whereby PCs gain additional experience points by “squandering” gold on things of no material value, so any treasure going to an NPC is a loss of potential experience points. It’s no wonder that Francois’ player found the notion distasteful!
Thus far, the best solutions I’ve found for PC glow abuse—or for any sort of metagaming, for that matter—are as follows:
1. Foresight. Don’t use rules that encourage metagaming, or if you do, try and avoid laying the groundwork for a conflict between the fiction and the players’ cupidity.
2. Communication: When a PC does something that makes little sense in the shared imaginary space of the game, don’t just block it or let it slide by; step outside of the game for a moment to talk directly to the player about why they’re doing it and whether they (or you) could take some other action that makes more sense in the context of play.
3. Justification: If a PC acts uncharacteristically, work out a worthwhile justification for that action with the player. In the example of Francois, we could invent a prior incident that caused Francois to distrust Henri and Guy, or to feel some personal animus toward them. Such additions to the fiction take a potential problem and use it to make the game more interesting!
Of course, old-school D&D being what it is, Francois died later that session, before I could even consider working in elements of his relationship to his NPC comrades. But the peeve—and the potential solutions to it—remains on the table, waiting to be tested again in play.