GM-less gaming is a form of gameplay which is exactly what it says on the tin – a game without one player at the table whose responsibility it is to be the “Game Master” and responsible for both the state of play and the creative narrative contributions during play.
Ultimately, the goal of every game design philosophy is to provide a better experience, a better game, for everyone that plays it.
In particular, GM-less gameplay looks to avoid the failure and friction points of more traditional RPG gameplay while bringing unique opportunities to the table.
Many people who are firm supporters of the traditional game structure find that GM-less games have some significant drawbacks for their preferred style of play. One of the first objections to this style that often arises is that it deliberately privileges the authorial point of view rather than a more immersive, character-level view of the experience. Others point out that when authority is distributed across a group, there is more opportunity for any given individual to damage the experience of the group. Lastly, some worry that because everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to issues of tone and content, GM-less games are more prone to people not taking the game itself seriously and the settings that take shape as a result of communal action not being as “pleasingly coherent.”
All these things are true, so far as they go.
Now we get to the part of this article that I have really been chomping at the bit to write. We’ve talked about all kinds of narrative theory and design intent in the context of gameplay, we talked about selling points and failure points. We’ve talked about burdens and how they can be distributed. We’ve talked about a lot of things which may be absolutely new to a lot of people.
Let’s talk about games. Let’s talk about games with no GM, with distributed narrative authority in one form or another, and which are just freaking cool.
Never underestimate the value of that last point. “Just freaking cool” can turn any game from a typewriter abortion into the best game you’ve ever played in your life with people who will go on to be your friends until you die, and up to that very moment you’ll be able to say “remember that time when…?” and they will grin and nod.
Everybody wants to play good games. Let’s dig some out.
Full blame for inspiring me to write this monstrosity goes to @not-a-bird for expressing just the faintest whiff of interest in GM-less gaming. You poor bastard. You never expected this, I know.
@FknMayhem for sitting around in the Discord channel while I made weird noises in text along the way. You probably don’t even care about this stuff.
@illuminaughti . You know what you did.
Ben Robbins who very well may never read this, yet has had a huge impact on my gaming career.
Ed Teixeira for being an incredible find many years ago in a surprising place, and yes, one day I’ll get around to writing a book for you.
The krewe of Operation BSU. For over a decade, on and off, you’ve been my enablers. You poor bastards.
I fully acknowledge that this article could have gone on twice as long with twice the density and I’d still be short of fairness for the subject.
Story Games - A forum where indie game design is a pretty much constant thing.
The Forge - One of the old school originator sites where much of the early GM-less play ideas were kicked around.
RPGNet - Home and hive for a lot of RPG discussion, and occasionally indie GM-less work. Sometimes. Occasionally.
In traditional forms of gaming, the GM is the sole arbiter of “what happens in the game space”, informed by the actions and decisions of the other players at the table who are solely responsible for their own single characters (occasionally including hirelings, if we go back to the original Chainmail). The flow of interaction goes from GM (as he describes the world within which the players operate) to player (who react to the situation as described by the GM) and finally back to the GM (who adjudicates the results of the expressed intentions and actions of the players in the context of their characters). This repeats until the GM decides that the story/experience has come to a stopping point.
Abstractly, the burden of responsibility in traditionally structured games falls wholly on the GM, just as the burden of being the creative voice and the burden of controlling mechanical resolution fall on the GM.
In GM-less gaming, narrative and directorial authority is spread around the table either equally to everyone or to those holding certain roles with authority over certain parts of the game experience and/or game world. Typically, the spread of narrative control is accompanied by a much more interactive and organic spreading of “spotlight time” for every player, keeping engagement very high, which some see as both a boon and bane.
Once spotlight time is more of a shared resource and player engagement becomes a constant rather than intermittent thing, game designs can capitalize on that freedom, leveraging it into experimentation with elements in ways that you simply couldn’t do within the framework of a more traditional architecture. Games become more open, typically less about the individual-as-event-engine and more about the interplay of players and the story-level considerations of the interactions of all the characters involved in the story.
It is without a question true that distributed-authority narrative-first GM-less games privilege thinking about the game and the ongoing experience of the game from a position where you think about the story and how your choices connect with it. For some people it can be extremely difficult to feel immersed in a character, making decisions as that character, when there are these entirely more abstract things to keep in mind at the same time.
I would agree. If your primary interest in playing games is so that you can immerse yourself into a single character, seeing the world as they do, affecting the world as they would, and being limited to only interacting with the other players through that contextual lens, then GM-less gaming is probably not for you.
Other people find that being free to talk about and reason about their characters with a little bit of remove creates an environment in which they can make decisions which are more “realistic” or have a greater “verisimilitude” to a given character concept for that character because of the extra communication that goes on with the other players. This is a very different kind of interaction than a lot of game players are used to. In some ways it’s a lot more demanding.
The distribution of narrative authority, vesting it in more than one place, absolutely puts part of the power to bring or destroy your fun at the table in the hands of someone else. Where in traditional games a disruptive player can fairly easily be isolated by the GM, in a GM-less game the responsibility for keeping everyone together and engaged positively with one another falls on everyone’s head. There is a much higher level of communication necessary between players in a GM-less game. This is an issue of trust, as most concerns about playing with other people usually boil down to.
The traditional response from the GM-less crowd is fairly simple: don’t play the game with people you don’t trust. Some people, because of circumstance or preference, find that to be a difficult requirement to meet. Perhaps your potential pool of players is amazingly thin, and you really want mechanics and structures in place so that the one person that you do trust has authority over those whom you don’t trust. Or maybe the majority of your gaming is in the context of gaming stores or gaming conventions where you don’t have an opportunity to establish bonds of trust, and you’re uncomfortable with the risk involved. All of these are perfectly valid reasons for this to be of concern to you.
Questions about whether or not a GM-less system can result in a coherent narrative are legitimate. Especially with larger groups, getting everyone to communicate about their expectations and what they want in productive ways can be very difficult. Many games provide structures within which that initial negotiation can happen, and by which adjustment as gameplay goes on can occur, but being concerned that “default silly” is truly the default setting in town for a lot of people when they are just learning about how to play together with others within this new kind of distributed authority architecture – reasonable.
As above, the usual response is to point out that communication is the most powerful thing in the most powerful tool that we have available in the context of our games, and you should never, ever downplay the power and effectiveness of just talking about what you want and how you feel when it comes to getting what you want and feeling better. In many ways, it’s just one more question about “how can I trust all the other people at the table?” “Can I trust them to make a coherent story with me?” “Can I trust them to enjoy invoking and experiencing the same feelings that I do?”
In a traditionally structured RPG, all of those questions are piled on the head of the GM. It is the GM’s responsibility to organize and discharge trust. It is the GM’s responsibility to communicate with the group about tone and story. It is the GM’s responsibility to enforce those agreements.
Some people prefer that very clear delegation, whether it be to them as GM or away from them as player, and those people would probably not enjoy GM-less play as much as others.
Universalis can probably be thought of not only as one of the true grandfathers of GM-less play but an early originator of the entire indie RPG movement – one of those rare pieces of work which is massively influential but almost never written about. Not only was it a pioneer when it came to breaking the expected GM/player relationship, it has no default setting – putting the creation of the world in the hands of the players, to detail as they will.
It’s that mechanical system for resolving not only conflicts within the narrative but conflicts about the narrative that makes Universalis one of my favorite games.
It’s also one of the games that I’ve had the opportunity to play the least because despite the fact that there is no setting to convey to a potential set of players nor a really complicated set of mechanics, the sheer intimidation factor of having that much power over what happens at the table dropped into your hands seems to really put people off. And when I talk about having “mechanics for resolving conflict both within the narrative and between creators,” I’m not kidding. Universalis defines a mechanical architecture for directly modifying the mechanical architecture. That’s right, you can change the rules of the game with the rules of the game.
I suppose it might be reasonable to be slightly intimidated.
Even so, this very well could be one of the best games ever made and should be one that is in your collection, if only because reading it and understanding it very well may alter your fundamental approach to role-playing games in general.
Did I mention that it’s 15 years old?
(Yes, that’s the best cover image I can find online without actually pulling a copy off of my shelf and shooting a photo – and I’m terribly tempted to do that just so that the Internet has better picture of this book living on it somewhere.)
Capes. Where do I even start to talk about my long-term love affair with this game? It’s been such an intense, on and off thing that it’s hard to even get a grasp on.
Look, let’s start with a not particularly flattering review on RPGnet of the game.
At its core Capes is about telling stories, perhaps more so than other RPGs. The rules here focus on who has control of the narrative more than what happens, and for a group of friends that just want to take turns adding to a story this is great. Don’t think that there are no mechanics or strategy elements here, however. Capes has its own strategy elements, but they’re more subtle and revolve around a player getting what they want out of the characters they’re most interested in.
Lets start out with character creation. While players can change characters between scenes, and even take on the role of villains and neutral characters, many players will still want a Signature Character all their own. Super powered characters have Powers and Attitudes while normal characters have Skills and Attitudes. The difference between Powers and Skills involves their cost – Powers cost more to use. Characters also have Styles, which are signature moves that apply to the character. Players choose up to 12 abilities in three categories, and abilities in a category must be rated sequentially (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
If players want to build a character quickly they might use the Click and Lock system this product introduces. It’s really simple, the back of the book has a whole bunch of partial character sheets. These sheets, which contain lists of Powers, Skills, and Attitudes, can be mixed and matched to get just the character the player wants. Alternatively, the player can just spend points on whatever values they want to create for themselves.
Example: I want to build the super hero Mondeus, Master of Magic. I imagine my character as being a smart ass sorcerer who never shuts up and uses his occult knowledge to get the best of his opponents. I flip through the Click and Lock options and decide to take a element here and there while mostly creating my own Abilities. I decide to have four Powers, four Attitudes, and four Styles (thereby totally 12 Abilities). For my Powers I purchase Magic Blast 1, Read Minds 2, Magic Wards 3, and Knowledge From Beyond 4. For my Attitudes I buy Wry Humor 1, Inspired 2, Selfless 3, and Talkative 4. For my Styles I buy Ricochet Blast 1, Ward Against Violence 2, Know Someone’s Secret 3, and Know Weakness of Something 4.
Yes, yes – that’s a long excerpt.
But here’s the thing.
Superhero RPGs are a delicate balance of influences. You want to create situations in which characters are challenged, because without characters being challenged there is no story and beyond that without characters being challenged no one at the table feels like they are getting what they came for. But you also want the characters to feel powerful, to feel like they are competent within their field, that they are important to the story for reason. Because of that, superhero RPGs are one of the best test beds for new ideas in game design. Trying to strike that balance, to cancel out those opposing pulls is not only hard, the attempt has been failed innumerable times.
Comes now Capes – or at least comes 2005 Capes.
Here is a game which takes as its primary character descriptors the thematic ways that the character interacts with the story. They aren’t rated in terms of power, the descriptors are rated in terms of how often they become narratively important. The character design system has both a completely free-form method and one in which you take half of the traits from one profile and half of the traits from another profile, cross out a couple, and you’re ready to go. If you want to be a “Genius Blaster,” you take Genius and you take Blaster, maybe you tinker with a couple of trait names to fit an idea that you have, and you go.
Then you pick some emotional drives that your character manifests, tag them on the character sheet, and you’re ready for the next step.
Put that character sheet in the middle of the table because you don’t own it.
Yes, Capes takes as one of its central conceits that all characters are shared. Anyone at the table could play any character at any time. Structurally, the responsibility for setting up a given scene rotates around the table and the player responsible for setting up the scene can frame any of the characters into that scene that they want and they get first pick. People who aren’t in that scene can spend a token to bring a character that wasn’t specifically named in and play them. Any characters which are framed into the scene which no one has chosen are there only narratively – they have no mechanical influence over the way that the scene plays out.
Let me repeat: there is no character ownership.
In this sense it is much like Universalis before it which also lacked an idea of character ownership.
Already we are out in the woods and the weeds when it comes to traditional game design. We have players responsible for framing scenes and deciding what characters are there. We have a lack of direct character ownership, keeping the player focus on the idea of what would make for interesting story in terms of elements which interact.
But here’s the big deal:
“Conflicts” are a reified first-order object in game. Conflicts are an element, usually a 3 x 5 card just like the character sheet, which a player spends a token to bring into play in a given scene because they expect other people to want to take sides as regards the Conflict, and those who engage with the Conflict have the chance to earn more tokens and thus have more influence over the flow of the game.
This is brilliant. This is critical. This provides a self-guiding mechanical context for determining, experimentally, what kind of stories people at the table are interested in playing. Not only that, it highlights explicitly that Conflicts that people care about can be very different than the obvious conflict which is at the heart of the scene.
As an example, let’s say that we are playing and I create a scene in which Conan the Barbarian is in deadly combat with a giant snake summoned by a dark wizard. Your immediate thought is that the important conflict is whether or not Conan takes the head off the snake.
But maybe because the people at the table are fairly familiar with the Conan setting, there is no real question about whether Conan kills the snake. Of course Conan kills the snake. If he didn’t kill the snake we couldn’t keep telling stories about Conan (or at least this story about Conan), and we totally want to keep telling stories about Conan. Conan kills the snake. That is no conflict.
But does Conan manage to intimidate the dark wizard into letting the Love Interest of the Week (TM) leave his tower because Conan was so freaking awesome taking out that snake? That’s an interesting conflict! Maybe that’s the one I actually introduce onto the table when I frame the scene.
So you might take the Snake as your character – and because character creation is so quick and easy, you grab a Giant Animal template, make a few changes, just to make it more snake-like, and away we go.
The third guy at the table knows that you’ve been spending a lot of time building up the local village and the people in it as interesting features of the story as friends of Conan. You’re invested. He knows that anything that has people invested in it conceptually can be milked for potential profit! As such, he burns two tokens, the first to bring in a new Conflict, “the villagers are terrified of the enraged Conan,” and the second to bring in a random villager who sees the combat and, implicitly, will spread the horror of what he’s seen back home.
Now we have real choices to be made. Real choices that have real impact. Where do you put your resources? Do you focus on the conflict between Conan and the snake and whether or not that leads to having the love interest freed or do you put resources into keeping the villagers from being terrified of Conan and thus derailing some of the ideas you may have had? And what does Conan’s player do? Maybe he would really like it if the villagers were terrified of Conan because he wants to do a scene which focuses on the emotional distance between the anti-heroic Conan and the friendly villagers.
You can’t do this sort of thing in a game with a GM. This isn’t the sort of thing that can happen. But it’s exactly the sort of thing that can and does happen in Capes.
Despite the cover and the description, don’t think that you’re limited to games about superheroes. It works equally as well if you’re doing a tight, emotionally fraught family drama where the conflicts are all about parental disappointment, self-image, and whether you can stand to look at yourself in the mirror.
This is the kind of gameplay that GM-less mechanical design facilitates. And it’s one of the reasons that Capes is one of my favorite games of all time.
All right, we’ve established that GM-less gaming has a couple of really strong contenders that provided the groundwork for a lot of indie game development that followed. Now let’s get into more modern designs which reflect the descendants of those honored agents of change. I’m going to talk about two games from the same author in quick succession, because they represent some of the best gaming and some of the best design that I believe is available today.
First up, one of the games that people who know me think of as my “go to” system for dealing with anything new, Microscope.
That’s a weird name for a game, isn’t it? Microscope. What is that all about?
Certainly going to the website and reading about the game from the authors blurb perspective is actually unusually helpful. Ben Robbins is very good at talking about his game, and he’s very good at playing his game. He is a well-known figure in the Seattle indie games design scene and every bit of it is deserved.
Microscope might be the most important game that I write about in this article. It might be one of the most important games of all time – but I’m not quite emotionally ready to make that kind of statement. What I can say is that the game does things that no other game before it really had, provides truly lightweight mechanics for dealing with conflicts on an epic scale, and managed to do all of that in 2011 in under 200 pages.
In Microscope, you have no personal pawn. There are no “characters” as such in the game. There is nothing that you move around within the narrative that you can think of as “owned by you,” and you are not intended to engage with most of the game from that perspective of immersion.
Not only that, time is meaningless. Or rather, gameplay does not occur in a linear sequence of events, one after the other where your interaction with the story is utterly dependent on all the things that have been established to have happened beforehand. Quite the opposite. Microscope is built around nonlinearity, not only of time but of scale and scope.
At the beginning of the game, you and the other players sit down and decide what elements are going to be part of your story. Is it science fiction, is it fantasy, are there aliens, are there absolutely no aliens, what elements do you absolutely want to see and what elements do you absolutely not want to see? Everybody gets their input. Everybody gets on the same page.
Once the elements are established, you have an opening Period and an ending Period. Everything that happens occurs between these two chunks of time, and each of them represents a large span, decades to centuries. Yes, you know how the story is going to end (at least in general terms) from the very start.
The rest of it involves everyone at the table taking turns adding new Periods, adding new Events within those Periods, adding new Scenes within those Events (which involve characters which may or may not ever be seen again, each Scene focusing on answering a single question), and thus does play continue.
In practice, people tend to start by sketching in the space between the Periods which are at either end. Entire civilizations can rise and fall, cities can be built and burn, generations can be born and turn to dust – but if people at the table are so interested and inclined those Periods can be as mayfly short as a character’s first summer of love or the opening battles of a major war.
Essentially, Microscope is about zooming in and out – pulling back to look at the broad sweep of history and forging things at that level, and pushing in as closely and intimately as you would like to follow what happens to individuals, to places, even to things within the contexts that the players have created.
Conflict resolution, when it becomes an issue, is generally done by simple voting. It’s not going to come up a lot. As in improv, the default mode in which you should be playing is “yes, and…” Sometimes “yes, but…” But the game is not designed to involve “no.”
Nobody really has the authority to say “no.” If it ever comes up, only everybody has the authority to say “no.”
That’s a big thing. That’s a huge thing.
I absolutely love Microscope. It is one of the few games that actually gives everyone at the table real power and then challenges them to entertain each other with it.
Again, this is not the kind of game that can exist in a traditional GM-led RPG sense. Centralized authority cannot do this.
We’ve done the incredibly broad sweep of history, but what if we violate certain other basic assumptions about traditional RPG play? What if we bring back characters, and even character ownership? What if we bring back in linear time? What if we keep the idea that the player has influence not just over themselves but, by representing a character’s actions, are speaking for a much larger group? What if the player characters are not just the player characters – what if they are the narrative representation of a larger community?
Having talked about Microscope, shifting over here is like dropping from low Earth orbit into someone’s living room. Every Kingdom game involves a kingdom – a group of people who are in similar circumstances. They might be the inhabitants of a space station, they might be the people that live in a small Western town, they might be the people that work for a corporation. There is a larger group than just the player characters which is important and which the PCs have a direct, actionable connection to.
Already we are over in the territory which most RPGs avoid – actual palpable connections to other characters. Not just characters, not just other player characters, but a community of people. The relationship between the player character and the community can be adversarial; not everyone is a happy member of their community. But the relationship is always present and the feelings and thoughts of the player characters always represent the feelings and thoughts of some portion of the community.
You can almost think of it as another aspect of the Arthurian legend (and European myth in general):
The King and the Land are one.
Characters in this game do not have stats. They have specific places that they often are associated with, they have other characters that they have a personal connection to and care about, love or hate or anything in between, but they have no specific traits which control how they can interact with the story.
The traits are attached to the player. And there only three of them.
The Perspective has the ability to say things about the future which will happen. Maybe it’s the facility engineer who says, “unless someone makes a spacewalk and fixes the antenna, we’re going to lose power.” Having said that, it’s true. Maybe it’s the bitter grumbler that says, “Mark my words – he’s going to be trouble.”
The Touchstone reflects the will of the people. What they want is what the people want. Maybe they are the wide-eyed innocent child who wants the best for everyone. Maybe they’re the vile anarchist who just wants to see the city burn; everyone wants to see the city burn – or at least most people do.
The Power represents authority, the power to make things happen. The captain of the starship, the mayor of the city, the head of the guard, an influential businessman. The Perspective can tell you what’s coming, and the Touchstone can tell you what people think about it – but only the Power can do something about it.
And that’s it.
Everything else is about figuring out what the current Crossroad is, the question that faces the community as a whole. Do we close the doors against the red death? Do we engage the enemy fleet, and devil take the hindmost? Do we bring the farmers in from around the kingdom and have them executed as a warning to provocateurs and terrorists?
Everything has repercussions, and over everything looms the Crisis – which if it’s not the end of the world might just be the end of yours.
This is a much tighter game than Microscope. Character continuity makes a difference. It’s almost like a game designed to be played inside a series of the Events from Microscope, and you absolutely could play the game very much like that, entwining the two into a more complicated, more alien game experience.
Kingdom is the second game which people often refer to as my “go to” for almost any kind of role-playing experience. It combines the character immersion potential of traditional play with the emphasis on the story as the primary driver of mechanics. In part it does that by establishing in no uncertain terms that the player characters or part of a much larger community, and it requires that for the game to work.
As the page says:
For 2 to 5 players. No GM. No prep.
It’s definitely not kidding about that.
So now we get to a really awkward part of this experience, because I’m going to talk about a game that isn’t a game. Or rather, I’m picking a single game out of an entire suite of different games which use very similar mechanics and have very similar underlying RPG-like architectures – even though they’re not really role-playing games either in the traditional or the indie sense. And yet, these are absolutely and without question GM-less games in the sense that we have been talking about them; no single authority dictates the intersection of the player and the narrative.
For the sake of picking one, I decided to go with All Things Zombie, which is exactly what it says on the tin – a zombie survival game which focuses on a group of characters trying to survive, scavenge their surroundings, make it through the zombie apocalypse, and maybe – if they’re very lucky – create both the home and a community.
But it’s a wargame. It is a game intended to be played with cardboard or miniature representations of your characters, terrain on a table, little buildings, and if you’re like me - swarms of plastic zombies. It’s a game where you roll dice to see if you hit a target, roll dice to see how much damage you do, and roll dice to see if you can sprint far enough to get across that opening between buildings before the shambling hordes catch up with you.
But there’s no GM. Not only that, you don’t even have to have a single other person to play. If you do have someone else to play with, you can both play on the same side, as survivors or groups of survivors who are doing the best they can to get by, and you can meet other survivors, gangers, ex-military guys with big guns, fixers… Frankly if it exists somewhere in the zombie apocrypha, you can probably meet them.
But no GM. How?
THW have one of the most consistent and flexible core mechanics when it comes to task-level conflict resolution that it’s been my pleasure to encounter in all of my time as a ludophile. It’s fast, it’s easy, characters can be put together in five minutes, written on a 3 x 5 card, and you can be playing and deeply immersed in seven minutes. I know this because I’ve done it for 20+ people at a time for 7+ hours at a run at conventions.
I wasn’t running the game. I was just facilitating the game, helping people make their characters, guiding them into understanding what dice to roll when.
It was the game running the game.
There are two very broad types of narrative-first RPG architectures, and these are very broad, very fuzzy definitions. They are at best a rule of thumb and probably a rule of fist.
Firstly are the games which require player creativity to engage in each scene. A player has to make a decision for something to happen, which then instantiates. In a real sense this is the descriptor not of just traditional RPG architectures but the GM-less ones we’ve been talking about, too.
Then there are the Oracular systems, mechanics which depend from a Oracle. An Oracle is some sort of random generation system, typically hinging on what would classically be thought of as table-driven play. A list of things gets randomly picked from and the players incorporate that dictate into play.
I am dead certain that the designer of the THW systems has never had a discussion about Oracular design. I’ve talked to Ed, he’s a great guy, he’s really on top of truly enjoying designing and sharing great games – but he has come to this world from the universe of wargames, not really the universe of RPGs and definitely not from the part of it which has its roots in very modernist, narrative-first interaction design.
And yet, that’s exactly what he’s put together.
The THW systems are Oracular GM-less games, where the player can certainly play against “the machine” of the mechanics, which decides where there are enemies to be found, which decides where there are friendlies to be found, which decides how the interaction between the players and the NPCs (nonplayer characters) goes down in a general sense – and then it leaves the explanation of that narrative back in the hands of the players.
There’s two things going on here.
It’s a wargame, so you know up front that characters can die fairly easily. That’s the nature of the beast. Expectations are set. In fact, expectations go even further because it is explicit that you are expected to be running more than one character at a time. Your “character” is your group, one of which may represent you, personally. The system allows for specific characters to be Stars and have a privileged position in terms of things that they can do and live. You may very well not take out the same group of characters on a “mission” from session to session once you have a large enough community that such decisions become useful. Characters may be recovering from injury or disease. As a player you may decide that multiple things need to be pursued at once – and the system allows for that.
The experience is mechanically driven, but at any point you as a player are aware of all the information that can be now. If you’re playing alone, you know everything that’s on the board. When your character runs into a couple of guys holed up in a backwoods shack, you know they’re there. You know what the chances are. But the mechanics will tell you whether they react violently or whether they want to make a deal for some resources. You don’t know what will happen it’s from that uncertainty followed by external clarity that stories can come to exist retroactively as a narrative built off of what has been your experience.
THW games avoid being too specific and their Oracular mechanical contrivances. As a result it’s easy to tell people about the things that happened to the characters that you were controlling and it have the air of an actual retelling of events – because you are just as surprised as the characters are.
Throw in other players engaging in the same scenario and you have a recipe for complete insanity, and it doesn’t have anything to do with wargaming at all because it’s simply a result of a consistent, trustable substrate underlying the interactions between you and other people. That’s how you can end up with 30 people standing around an 8 x 8 table for eight hours straight with constant turnover and people dropping in and out of the same game, and everybody is engaged, everybody is paying attention, and everybody cares about what’s going on on the table.
The funny thing is that ATZ isn’t even my favorite THW game, it’s just the game I’ve run the most and played the most. My favorite would be the 5150 line, which covers everything from squad and character-based tactical operations up to entire companies of mechanized infantry and mecha, up to fighter jocks in deep space, up to carrier operations, up to entire Navy taskforces and planetary invasions. All on the same core mechanical system with the same Oracular drives, and all with that same magical power to make a story happen – without a GM.
And if the zombie apocalypse or science fiction doesn’t float your boat, you can play Warrior Heroes which leverages the same tools for not-quite-Tolkien-esque fantasy or NUTS! for a serious, down in the dirt view of World War II – including the Coffee and Cigarettes part of the book which is almost a self-contained RPG intended for you to use your World War II military squad/personnel to engage with at an individual, personal level.
No one expected the evolution of wargames to end up dropped off on the doorstep of exciting independent role-playing game design – but here we are. A conflux of evolution.
(If you’re interested in buying the original Chainmail rules, you can — and probably should if you think of yourself as a pervy rule fancier. Knowing the history of the industry is never wasted effort.)
We’re actually describing a recursive set of narrative behaviors within which traditional GMing operates. The loop is true at a high level story/chapter level, at the level of individual scenes or exchanges, and down to the resolution of individual tasks within a scene.
That the GM is the one who decides when the “context shift” of gameplay occurs is a huge deal. Being able to repeatedly and successfully judge when play should shift from one chunk of experience to another is one of the hardest parts of being a successful Game Master, and one that is a true separator of the long time and well loved GM from the newbie.
Let’s make no mistake – these are burdens. They provide operational friction between the game and players. That they fall primarily on the GM in traditional game designs is one of the reasons that we see so much “GM burnout,” so much focus on prepackaged scenarios as a big chunk of the RPG industry in traditional game design areas, and so many traditional game designs which lean heavily on game mechanics which may have been repeatedly improved on over the years but which people continue to use because having learned where their failure points are it’s easier to continue using them than adopt something better that would require cognitive friction to pick up and use.
Not all GM-less games allocate authority the same way.
Some go for a traditional-style experience but with an explicitly round-robin rotation of GM authority so that the burdens fall on every player at the table at some point. Likewise, everybody at the table gets to engage with the world “as a player,” which can go a long way toward alleviating GM burnout.
Some more actively and consciously break authority for individual parts of the world (conceptually or physically) into portions that players at the table possess, and then a more traditional GM facilitator defers to those other players at the table when issues which involve those fields of delegated authority come up.
Some completely eliminate the idea of a centralized authority, breaking that power down into a more meta-textual authority of anyone at the table able to introduce new elements or talk about how they function. Mechanics in the systems tend to be about managing spotlight time and providing ways for the group to modify or overrule any additions.
“Spotlight time” and keeping table engagement high are two of the most important elements that go into the motivation for players to be involved in GM-less games.
How many times have you, in a more traditional game, been sitting at the table with six other people, aimlessly stacking dice, knowing that it doesn’t really matter much if you’re paying attention because someone else is acting and nothing that you could do or say at the moment would make any kind of difference? How many times have you felt that the GM was spending just a little too much time with one of the other players for content that wasn’t going to make a difference to anybody else? How many times have you been sitting there listening to the GM tell you his favorite story while you occasionally do something that won’t change it?
What happens? You check out. Everyone at the table who is not currently engaged checks out. Maybe at the end of the night you say you had a good time because you didn’t have a good time – hanging out with your friends and socializing, with the game just a pretext. On many occasions, the game itself just doesn’t have enough engagement or spotlight time for you to feel engaged to really deliver the fun.
This is just as important for the GM. If you have been a GM, how many times have you come to the table with stuff that you’ve been working on all week – documents, props, plot ideas – for none of it to matter how many times have you felt like you’re the only one trying to make things happen with a table full of people who don’t actually have any personal investment into what’s going on? How many times have you wish that you could just play the game and enjoy it as much as everyone else seems to be while doing none of the work?
I promise, I’m not bitter.
For some people, having a game in which they don’t have to pay attention 100% of the time, where there responsibility to everyone else at the table is relatively minimal – that’s a bonus for them. Especially if the other players are interested in doing some sort of story that the player in question is not, whether they want an intense, emotional journey of discovery and the odd man out just wants to hit things with the sword and make Monty Python jokes, or vice versa – the lack of responsibility and engagement at one remove can’t seem very protective and allow a lot more depths of engagement, as it were. Some people can be very into the game while other people at the same time are just cruising along.
In the vast majority of GM-less games, that’s just not really possible.
It’s probably better to talk less about “characters” and more about “player controlled entities,” because once authority is distributed around the group, it becomes much more reasonable and much more possible to think about narrative authority being applied by a single player to a larger portion of the universe. Those entities may be as concrete as another group of people or as abstract as “the pressure of time”.
(For extra comedy value, here’s a bit I wrote on Universalis only 11 years ago, treating a critical scene in Battlestar Galactica. This piece is important because of the way that it breaks down the actual structure of describing elements of the scene and distributing them between players, which was a key and pioneering technique found only in this game for quite a while.
Don’t worry, I’ll get back to talking about the other game system that comes up within shortly.)
(Remember how I said that “that other game” would come up again? Here it is. And here is the original scene-translated-into-an-RPG post that I did converting the BSG scene into Capes.
Again, this is not the sort of thing that happens in a traditionally architected RPG. In many ways, GM-less systems are more effective at generating stories which carry the verisimilitude of being like other stories.)
(Are you interested in watching my krewe and I play Microscope? You’re in luck! Or you poor bastard, as appropriate. I have a whole playlist for that.
A good place to start might be here, though:
Microscope has an entire expansion devoted to other variants, exploring the idea of alternate branching realities, focusing on a single object or place, and a tonne more in Microscope Explorer. If you’re interested in the base game, get the supplement. Trust me.)
(You’ll probably not be surprised to hear that I have video of my krewe and I playing Kingdom as well. An entire playlist of it, in fact – but again, if you’re looking for a good place to start:
There are currently no expansions for Kingdom but there is plenty of discussion available through Google if you’re really interested. Or ask here and I’d be perfectly happy to point you in the right direction.)
(While there are a fair number of videos of my gameplay of various THW games, I’m not going to link to one of them here. Instead, I’m simply going to note that if you’re really interested in 5150, and you enjoy things like detailed wholesale mercenary companies or RPG-light conversions of old-school Traveller, I have a few things that I’ve written and a collection that others have which you might enjoy.)
This kind of reflective self similarity is one of the strong points of traditional GM game design. At any given point is very clear who should be making decisions and how they should be making those decisions. The usefulness of the clarity of that kind of game design should never be overlooked – though early on in the exploration of the GM-less gaming space it certainly was, leading to game designs which felt as if they were simple collections of guidelines and not mechanical descriptions at all.
But that may be a discussion for another day.
For fine examples of mechanical systems which are less than ideal but continue to be the focus of quite a lot of gameplay, you really need to look no further than one of the grandfathers of the industry, Dungeons & Dragons – not just in one manifestation but in five.
Old-school D&D Cyclopedia players still exist. And they are looked down on by old-school AD&D players. Who are, in turn, divided from those devoted to D&D 3rd Edition and V3.5 players, and their offshoot Pathfinder game players. While no one likes the D&D 4th Edition players, as they are seen as playing the “lesser” edition which tried to capitalize on the MMORPG games which were so popular at the time of release. And on top of all that – nobody knows how to feel about the D&D 5th Edition players, because that iteration of the game franchise started to fold in a little bit of the distributed narrative design movement which was catching fire in indie games.
That’s just one singular (if important) traditional game line.
If you really want to know how heavy the pressure of burdens on traditional GMs are, consider the entirety of the OSR movement which is effectively predicated on actively rejecting game innovation (for the most part) which occurred after D&D 3rd Edition, industry wide.
Once decoupled from the expectation of “one player, one character,” and accepting that more abstract groups and forces can be the agent of a player’s actions within the narrative, some games take it further. Some games make the conflicts between characters explicit in-game objects which can be manipulated with mechanics. This lets the players themselves play off one another in order to determine what kind of story they want to tell at any given point in what kind of conflicts interest to them as a group. Where in a traditional game the GM is responsible for making an informed guess/decision about that level of story structure, in a GM-less game the group as a whole is responsible for entertaining the group as a whole.