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...