Words written on paper giving orders to an agency member

Roleplaying games are superficially similar to novels. We follow a grand epic story of people changing the world, which is pretty common in fantasy novels or YA fiction, or any number of other genres. However, one big difference is that in a roleplaying game, you’re sharing the spotlight with the rest of the people at the table. Sometimes people fail to understand that.

Some time ago, I put out a post on sharing the spotlight. This is exactly the opposite of that. Main character syndrome is what happens when you have a spotlight hog. A player with main character syndrome thinks the story is all about them. The grand epic plot of the campaign is their character’s personal goal, and theirs alone. The other PCs are at best supporting characters, and at worst are obstacles or competitors that need to be shut down, defeated, or reined in. Again, this is a problematic point of view, because it neglects the enjoyment of everyone else at the table.

As a GM, you should be doing your best to dissuade this. Try to avoid painting a single character as the main character for an extended period of time. It is fine to temporarily spotlight one character over the others, so long as that attention doesn’t linger too long, and everybody gets their turn. So try to avoid using tropes like hero prophecies, or at least go to the effort of doing hero prophecies right. Likewise, don’t write your campaign around one player. If your party has a devout paladin and a group of rogues and fighters with no interest in religion, doing a campaign with heavy religious themes might not be the best choice. Planning aside, execute your game in such a fashion as to avoid inadvertently “main charactering” someone. If you fudge dice rolls for one play, fudge it for all of them. If the monsters target one player too much, spread the damage around. In short, don’t play favorites. And if somebody starts acting like they’re the main character anyway, then a serious talk needs to be had.

Now, here’s a little something for when the GM is allowing main character syndrome to flourish. Maybe the player in question has played with the GM for a long time, or maybe they’re the GM’s significant other, or maybe the GM just likes the way they play. Whatever the reason, a lot of GMs will pick a favorite unintentionally. It’s a lot like being a teacher. You’re not supposed to have favorites, but you kind of develop them anyway and then try to account for your own biases. Because it’s just human nature to prefer people who turn in their work on time, or make a good grade, or participate in class, or even are just friendly as opposed to people who don’t do these sort of things. Likewise, at a gaming table, if a player shows up on time and everyone else is late, the GM will probably be happier with them. Or if they always have their character leveled up an ready. or if they turned in a backstory before the campaign. Or even if they just don’t murderhobo their way through the game. GMs are going to pick favorites, whether justly or unjustly. A good GM, like a good teacher, knows how to manage that.

But some don’t. When that becomes the case, you need to have a talk with the GM. Preferably away from the table. Often, we want to address the injustices as they happen, so if somebody is stealing the show, we want that corrected right away. And in a perfect world, that’s how it would happen. But in practice, lots of people tend to get defensive when called out in the moment. And the more cynical GMs might think that a player calling them out for allowing this might just be angling for an advantage of their own. Regardless, talk to the GM if they emphasize one character too much. And if a player is intentionally hogging the spotlight, talk to them too. They need to know that their actions are negatively impacting the game for everyone else. Assuming everyone involved can be mature and level-headed, the issue would be resolved here. If not, you might need to bring it up with the rest of the party, or perhaps even find another game if the GM consistently backseats your character in favor of someone else.

Lastly, if you’re the player taking or being given main character status, do your best to invite the spotlight onto other players. The whole game benefits when everyone gets to enjoy it, and even if circumstances or GM favoritism keep pushing you to the forefront of the story, try to find ways to make the game more fulfilling for everyone else around you. In a roleplaying game, all of the PCs are the main characters, not just one.

Tell me about the worst case of “main character syndrome” that you’ve encountered.

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