Author Topic: GMless games  (Read 2162 times)

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Offline ephemeralstability

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GMless games
« on: May 05, 2004, 07:40:01 PM »
In the last eleven years I have been a GM many times, but a player only very few. I don't know if other people find this, but I suspect it's a common phenomenon. I for one enjoy GMing, but it would be nice to have a night as a player every so often. So I have been led to ask: are there alternatives to the GM-based game?

The most obvious alternative is not the most radical. It simply replaces the GM with a computer. I have used this twice to good effect:

# I wrote a VB program which simulated the economies of six countries and allowed people to take charge of them. Inspired (to the point of ripping off!) by Lords of the Realm this meant that the computer would randomly generate events like floods, plagues and barbarian raids which took their toll on the countries while people tried to grow enough to eat, fortify their lands and conquer each other. I could take part as one of the six rulers because the game had no plot, it was determined in runtime by the actions of the other players and by random events.

# I wrote a flight simulator which allowed people to fly around space having adventures. Though I did have to program events beforehand (and therefore couldn't act as a player), the program was (in theory) capable of being modified by others so they could easily program their own adventures. In fact I never got around to making the code clean enough for that, but the idea was there...

The basic principles here were:

# Generate events randomly. This only works up to a point: an adventure consisting entirely of random encounters would not be adventurous at all! There must be a coherent framework in which the randomness takes place.

# Get the players to create the adventure for themselves. This can mean that you give them more control over the stroyline and it develops dynamically in "runtime" or that you give them a system for making their own adventures and running them.

There are many situations where the computer cannot act as a good substitute for a human GM. So how can these principles be put into practice? Here are a couple of thoughts I've had for developing games based on this basis.


This first game is more like a board game. There is a generic set of floortiles of streets, squares, buildings, shops, rivers, parks, palaces, etc. and each type of tile has a number (e.g. a 2-by-5 street tile may be number 6). On every tile there are numbers written around the edge, corresponding to the types of neighbouring tiles. These tiles are then selected randomly from within that tile-type and a semi-random cityplan emerges. Care would have to be taken in designing the tiles to ensure the resulting map didn't have any impossible things going on (like streets extending into buildings). The cityplan is generated as the players move around.

Every turn a die is rolled and if the result is a 5 or a 6 then an encounter takes place. Players take it in turn to pick an encounter card with details of what happens. For instance "On the far side of the street there erupts a cacophony of squawking and feathers. (A chicken hutch, being transported by cart, has fallen. Maybe the owner will be grateful if the PCs help to recover the chickens, or maybe the PCs can eat the chickens themselves)". It's then up to that player to act as GM for that turn. S/he acts out all the NPC parts. I like this because it encourages roleplaying by all players: the ones who usually stay quiet are forced into action when it's their turn.

Obviously someone has to design the encounter cards in the first place (which inevitably brings a GM back into the picture). But the point is that by breaking down the adventure into encounter-sized chunks, it can be compiled by a number of players all of whom can them play (they will not know all the events that will happen to them) without the onus being on a single GM.

The main difficulty is coming up with an overall plot. The adventure would become a sequence of random events unless someone imbued it with plot. The encounter cards can be designed for a specific plot (maybe NPCs know things relevant to the storyline, or there is an encounter with a known villain).


The next idea exploits randomness without becoming a series of unconnected events. It is a murder-mystery type adventure, where the group is assigned predesigned characters (the Colonel Mustards and Miss Scarlets of Cluedo spring to mind) and each is handed a piece of paper which tells them if they were the murderer. The point of the game is to work out who killed (unspecified dignitary) but also to come up with red-herrings and convoluted subplots (about who was having affairs with who else, and who owed who money and why, etc.). This is a game of pure improvised roleplaying. In that way it lets the players control their own game, with a certain element of chance involved.

I have only started to scratch the surface of the possibilities and difficulties in devising GMless roleplaying games, but it's getting late and I have supervisions tomorrow...

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Offline Strolen

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« Reply #1 on: May 06, 2004, 06:57:02 AM »
I wonder if you could do a freeform type game in real life. A discussion recently had with Moonhunter suggested that each person adopt a bad guy, create their motivations, and run them separately then the hero. This depends on all to be good DMs and not abuse the extra knowledge, but if everybody played a good guy and bad guy and took turns steering a few incidents in the world, basically taking turns DMing, I think you could have a rather complex and intricate thing happening. At first it would be awkward with each on their own agenda, but I think they could slowly intertwine as the game progressed. Either way the good characters would have to react to at least a few of the different actions the bad guys take under each DM.

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Offline Iain

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« Reply #2 on: May 06, 2004, 08:45:50 AM »
Another idea (this is along the lines of some of the ideas suggested by Ephe) would be to have something like the following scenario:

The players meet before hand to design the (basic) map of a small hamlet (20-30 buildings). The plot is that the hamlet has been attacked by raiders/orcs etc. who have occupied the hamlet and killed quite a few of the inhabitants. However, some members of the hamlet (the players) managed to escape and have got together in the wood/isolated farm house outside the hamlet.

Each player then goes away and designs his section of the hamlet (the players pre-agree on who they are (e.g. "The blacksmith") and which sections they will design. They design the interior layout of the buildings, decide any damage that has happened in this area (e.g. a building burnt) and work out what has happened (e.g. are people killed; did the raiders largely go past this section, who lives/lived in the houses nearby, etc.). They also work out events (e.g. "two raiders have got a barrel of beer and are getting drunk in the upper floor of X's house. X is tied up and gagged in a room nearby). They should also work out what raiders there are here. He should also write down how much of this his character knows (this is why each person does their own area: they would logically only know stuff in their area (but wouldn't know all of it).

Back at the next session, the players then get together as a group and do all the normal roleplaying stuff, presumably deciding to go back to the village to see if they can rescue any survivors (some characters may of course be less willing than others here, and each will have their own objectives: i.e. "we must go to this house first to see if my brother is OK". People will have to be honest and not make use of the extra knowledge that they have. Each person then acts as GM for the bit of village they have done: this will mean paying attention; for example, if the PCs get involved with a fight in person As area, if it is near the edge of person Bs area then he might say "three raiders in the house next door here your scuffle and you see them coming towards you.

Two optional things you could do with this:
1) Have people write a few larger scale event cards (in the style of Ephe). These would then be picked up and turned over on a throw of a 6 (or whatever) and would effect things. These, of course, would have to compliment the overall theme and be careful not to be likely to mess up too much any individual person's mapped out area.

2)i) Instead of just mapping out your area with events as you normally would, all the players should write cards with events (e.g. "Two raiders in this house") or whatever and put under each building. Each turn, a random two (or more) cards are swapped; this represents the changing situation and means you really won't know what is going on. It would be possible to have some "fixed" cards as well that weren't movable. No-one would know what was in a building until they came to investigate it. (I'm not sure how well this would work which is why I've put it as an optional one).
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Offline MoonHunter

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« Reply #3 on: May 07, 2004, 05:37:06 AM »
Just a couple of thoughts from the Depths of Gaming History

There have been many attempts to create GMless adventures, dungeons in specific.  The one that sticks most in my mind is "Death Trap" and "Death Trap II" adventures for Melee and Wizard (mini-games that eventually evolved into the Fantasy Trip and then Gurps).  It was a flow chart dungeon, with numbered sections of flavor text.  There were some other ones for Tunnels and Trolls using dice to randomly determine which option was next in the adventure.  

If you set up some prescripted events that can spring up randomly, you can get much the same effect.

Ars Magica suggests a troupe style play where all decisions were supposed to be run by the group.  That allowed anyone to be the main "story teller" for the run/ adventure. The process of performing this act was left vague... and became unusable.

 People would design adventures that would benefit their characters, even if other people where running it at the time their characters were active.  So you institute a rule that your characters can not come along... then what does that player do (besides run minor npcs) when someone is running the game.

Group decisions on rules mechanics became long discussions.

WE really tried to do this group GM thing, but it really went south quickly.
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Offline manfred

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« Reply #4 on: November 16, 2004, 10:38:35 AM »
Some of these examples make a roleplaying game approach a board game, and I would like to show an opposite example: how a board game can get close to a rpg.

A friend of mine, and a player in my group, created a monster of a board game. Featuring lots of monsters and a large game plan, magic, many items and quests and whatnot, some time ago it was considered unfinishable by other than insane players. If after a whole night of playing the PCs were still too weak to battle the main dragon (game was called 'Dragon's Hoard', guess what the main objective was), the players have mostly given up. After much hardcore playtesting, and tweaking of the system, it can be finished now in about 3-4 hours. Sometimes. ;)

But I digress; when in a turn a player moves the PC, a card is drawn. The effect is most often a hostile monster, so combat ensues. It is usually the player sitting opposite to him, that GMs the encounter.

However, the players choose sometimes to negotiate (with too powerful/dangerous monsters or the few friendly NPCs), and in these moments the game gets a special shine. They roleplay it out. In the game, the PCs are potential allies as enemies, so you don't want to harm the other too much, but allow no easy growth either. Quite a GMing approach, huh?

So even a board game can be what the tired Game Master seeks.
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Offline MarktheAnimator

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« Reply #5 on: November 21, 2004, 02:47:15 AM »
Here is a game that does not use a GM.

Scarlet Wake


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Offline Kinslayer

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« Reply #6 on: December 23, 2004, 03:27:07 PM »
I have long-term plans for a "GM Helper" that would be an interlinked series of modified charts to provide inspiration & add random elements to the campaign.  In essence, this would assist the GM with the mundane elements of controlling the game world, such as weather or changes in economy.  I'm wanting to make this both stand-alone (and suitable for coding or for loosely moderated forum games) and highly tweakable, so that in-game elements can have large scale & long-term effects.  I envisioned this as a separate publication, but could perhaps speed things up by including it in the Conquest--The White Horse book.  

It's not exactly GM-less, but could (at least in theory) be used to maintain some element of immersion in a dynamic game world & provide new plot complications.
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