GMless Role-playing Games (PAX 2011, part 2)

Continued from part 1. In case it wasn’t clear, the section titles weren’t in the talk. I added them to make it easier for you to follow the conversation.

Which Things Do We Need?

Okay if the GM does all of those things, what’s the next question: Do we need these things?

Morgan: Without antagonism, it’s going to be pretty boring.

Let’s start from — I agree — let’s start with the ones I know we can do without. [taps the board] Social Control. Do we need somebody to be the boss of the room in this situation. Do we need one individual?

Reid: I say we either need one individual or we need a pre-arranged agreement about what sort of means of social control we’re going…

Morgan: Like a contract… [laughter]

Let’s examine that. [late arrivals enter] We’re talking about what does the GM do. To get rid of the GM we have to establish what does the GM do. We’ve gotta know. So we made a big list of what the GM does and then we broke it down into a couple of things.

Reid: So look, I think you could go ahead and suggest that everybody understands the rules knowledge and they’ll be beholden to…

Totally different thing. Totally different.

Reid: How so?

If we play in a game and you just piss me off — nothing to do with the rules, I’m just sick of you — in a normal game the GM kicks that person out, eventually. Or the players go to the GM and say “we are so sick of playing with Freddie” (I hope there’s no one here named Freddie) “Freddie is killing me, let’s get rid of him.” And the GM makes that call. No one else gets to make that call.

Ben M: I would disagree in the strongest terms actually. Several times, in groups I’ve been in both as player and GM, it’s been the entire group makes that call, because either the GM themselves felt like “I will seem like a tyrant if I just say ‘you suck Freddie, go.'” Or the GM was a very non-confrontational individual outside the game and didn’t want to get on Freddie’s bad side, but if multiple people could come and say “Freddie, that whole ‘I’m a Nazi’ shtick is getting a little old, we need you to leave.” No one takes the blame individually.

Yeah and what you’re getting at is kind of where we’re going. It’s proof that it’s not necessary to have one person do that. It is in fact not a requirement. If you look at any social situation we’re in day-to-day, we don’t have a designated parent figure. We don’t have designated authority. We’re out at dinner: who’s in charge?

Reid: Conversely our culture is full of individuals who have those roles.

Yes. Like why am I standing up here? Because for the purpose of this [workshop], amongst strangers, it can often expedite the functionality of a group to have someone be in charge. So you’re getting to a very interesting point. There’s a functional value to it, but can we live without it? What happens if we get rid of it?

(unknown): I think we can just say it’s important among strangers, right? But it depends on whether you’re gaming with a bunch of random people at PAX or whether you’re gaming with people you’ve known for years and years.

You’re very correct.

(unknown): So all of my role-playing, almost, is with these guys and some other people and we’ve playing for years and years together. And already have sort of a social…

You know each other. Right. You trust each other.

(unknown): Yeah

If you hated each other, you would have solved that problem by now.

(unknown): So I think most people who are friends outside of the game don’t necessarily need a GM to tell them how to behave in a game. They already know how to behave.

The depressing point is that if you are strangers and you get together and there’s a GM, he might be the asshole. You don’t know. We’ve all been in that game. We’ve all been in that game where we’re like “guys, this’ll be awesome… oh crap, I signed up with the wrong GM and I’m sorry.” Here’s the thing. If there are five people at the table, there is no guarantee that the one person who’s been given the authority is the nice guy at the table, or the guy who’s the most successful. You just don’t know. You’ve picked the guy, he’s the guy.

So the social control thing. Let’s see if we can agree that by taking that responsibility away from one person we do enter an interesting landscape, that is much more like normal life, where you walk around. It’s going to be less controlled than if you had one person who that authority, but it might be a brave new world. You cool with that?

Morgan: Okay

Reid: I would say that it immediately puts the onus on every player as individual.

Yes it does. And is that a bad thing? Or is that AWESOME!

Reid: I’m here aren’t I? [laughter]

But here’s the thing, right. So playing every week with total strangers, if you go up to people and say “hey, come to my game, sit down, I’m in charge,” they’re like “oh, okay” and sit quietly and stare at you, much like you guys have to do now. But if you say “hey, we’re all in this together. We’re all adults. What’cha got? I’m counting on you to participate.” you put them in a whole different stance. To some degree, by taking social control, you potentially undermine… no undermine is too strong a word. Let’s say you put everyone else’s game playing, their creative participation, in a more secondary role. You’re saying “I’m the GM. And you may participate — I want you to participate — but I am the final arbiter.” The social role bleeds into the game authority. Does that make sense? You cool with that? It’s a fuzzy thing.

Okay. So let’s agree, let’s give it a shot, let’s say “hey, let’s play GMless games and let’s have no designated social control” except that which normally exists in society. Which is that, if we’re pissed off at people we go “you’re driving me crazy.”

Agreeing On Setting & Issues

Ben M: So are we assuming then, if we’re starting a new game, and the players are sitting down together, is it just going to be group vote, do we play an intrigue game, do we play a hack-n-slash game, do we play a very adult mature themes or a game that is very light and fluffy?

Yeah. I think that’s exactly what it is. Would you even want a GM who just told you which one to play? You wouldn’t. You would say “but I don’t want to play a hack-n-slash game.” You would have that conversation even with a GM. Because that’s not even a social control thing. That’s a fictional thing, right? It’s in the fictional sphere.

Xander: That’s often a problem with conventional games, is if I think I’m playing D&D, three players could walk to the table. One’s like “hack-n-slash!” and the other’s like “oh it’s going to be this crazy fantasy world” and the other one’s like “I’m going to be a wizard and it’s going to be all about spell-casting…”

If we eliminate that, if we stop having social control, we in some degree force that conversation. We have to have that talk now. We can’t just say “oh, the GM said that’s the game. The game is cyberpunk. We’re playing cyberpunk. Yeah, I don’t want to, but I’ll do it because the GM said so.” Now we do have to have that conversion. We have to step up and take responsibility. We’re getting more into the game sphere, less than the social sphere, but we’re on the right track.

Ben M: One thing I could see this leading to is, with the classic, Ben’s running a game. Ben says it’s going to be Shadow Run. Certain assumptions come into play, and Ben can talk to these people and say this is the style of game. With this, if we’re all having the say “meeting zero” to decide what to play, we just need a larger group, because if I say “I really want to play a Shadow Run game focusing on abortion politics. I want to discuss that in-game.” And three other players are like “that’s bizarre. No.” But then we might need a larger player group.

Shouldn’t that be the same way in a GM’ed game? Should you be allowed as a GM to walk in and say “we’re playing a Shadow Run about abortion, and I don’t care what you think.”

Reid: I think it’s really interesting, what you were talking about is social control, and you eliminate that. You had that hazy space, where they’re not using their full creativity, it’s because it puts them in a responsive position.


Reid: You say “I want to play Shadow Run with baby murdering” and the response is yes or no. When you say “let’s play a game together” you’re asking what game, which is an open-ended question.

Yeah. So jumping ahead, we’ve kind of left social control and we’ve moved to the effects of social control, so let’s shift the conversation slightly. A couple of other categories. Let’s say world creation. When I say world creation, I don’t mean world, I mean fiction. It could be “oh we’re going to play a gangster game set in the 1920s and it’s going to be set in a country estate.” That’s the world. We often call it “the fiction” because world is too limited a term. We often not making a world, just making a setting.

So world creation and agreement about tone, agreement about what the hell we’re doing today, what game are we gonna play, that is square one. That’s step one of any game.

So the question is, if we don’t have anyone telling us, how do we do it? Depending on the game we’re playing, some games, of the games we have here, have a very simple way of solving that problem: they’re games about one thing. One thing. Like literally, one thing. Polaris for example. Polaris, as written, has one setting you’re playing in. You’re playing as a mythic knight, in the far North of a forgotten people who’ve unleashed demons and you are a knight of the order of the stars. And your job is to protect the people from the Mistake. When we say we’re playing Polaris, we’re done. We know what the setting is. We don’t have to have that discussion. Other games you play… Contenders. Contenders is a game about being a boxer. If you play a game of Contenders, it’s about being a gritty boxer striving to make your fame. When we agree to play Contenders, a lot of those conversations have again been taken away.

There are pros and cons to this. On one hand, you might go “okay, well now we’re playing Contenders, that’s all we can really do with it” but on the other hand we potentially eliminate a lot of this discussion.

But the goal is not to eliminate this discussion. To be clear. There are some games that do that. And then other games, like end of the spectrum, Shock and Microscope, where the very discussion of what the setting is that we’re going to play is a big part of the game. Let’s talk about world creation in Shock. That’s a good example. How many people here have played Shock? Shock is awesome, for those of you haven’t played it. So, your example, the abortion thing. That’s a good example. Because we don’t have one person who is dictating what it is we’re playing, we can decide… we can say “hey, do you want to play this thing.” And you’ll see if people want to or not. You’re taking a poll. You’re testing the water. Shock, the first step of game play, the very first step, is you decide what issues you want to talk about. Each player picks one issue. Issue meaning an issue about humanity or society… [enforcers check in] Something that impacts humanity or society. Shock players, give me an issue.

(unknown): Abortion

Good call. Pollution. Mine’s pollution. Who’s got the third one?

Xander: Over-saturation of media

Over-saturation of media. Those are our three issues. We picked them secretly, without conspiring. And then we’re going to brainstorm a sci fi setting that address those three issues. All three of them. And we’re going to play those issues.

The Veil


Ben M: A question then? I could see setting it up at a con where I’m playing with complete strangers and just saying anything is on the table we’re going to totally decide this. But with a home group where it’s the same six people every month, and I’ve gotten to know these guys. And I know John really hates talking about politics, or Beth really hates anything that deals with children in a negative light, should there be a sort of gamer etiquette, where “hey guys…”

Is that even a gamer etiquette? If you were at a party with those same people… [would you bring those issues up]. It’s not even just a game thing. If you know those people, it goes beyond gamer. But you do raise the question, we normally wouldn’t talk about it at this point, but since you brought it up we’ll talk about it.

Ben M: Sorry I’m throwing you off

No, no it’s okay. It’s not even really relevant to our discussion but I’ll bring it up since it’s addressing this sort of thing.

Reid: He’s not a GM… [meaning me, laughter]

It’s true, it’s true. The big thing, that sits above and around this [draws around the social circle], which is The Veil. It doesn’t really do that, but let’s draw it that way. Because of this exact process — Boom! Pollution, abortion, over-saturation of media — we’re all coming up with ideas, but somebody, just as you said, might throw in an issue (like abortion) that bothers somebody. We have one rule that is — we’re getting ahead to what GMless games are versus how we arrived at them — but the rule that has evolved is called The Veil. And this is a cardinal rule. Anybody that is bothered my material, where it actually makes them uncomfortable (not just you don’t like it creatively, like I don’t like talking about politics, that’s a preference but you might not actually be bothered by politics) but if something actually makes you feel uncomfortable you’re always allowed to draw the Veil. In fact we really hope you draw the Veil.

All you have to say is “I’m drawing the Veil on that.” Done. And we, everybody else at this table will say “awesome.” We will omit that from the game. We will respect your discomfort. You don’t have to justify it. That’s a key point. We don’t have a big discussion about why you’re bothered by shooting dogs. We don’t have a big discussion of why dolphins scare you, or midgets looking like children stealing children… We don’t have that discussion at all. We actively do not have that discussion. We say awesome, good and we move on. Because we’re adults and we don’t need to have it turn into a therapy session. There are another spectrum of games where people do that and they intentionally turn them into therapy sessions, but that’s not the default.

(unknown): I will not abandon you!

“I will not abandon you.” But you have to agree to do that. The default is, don’t. You all have to be on the same page if you’re going turn it into a therapy session.

Ben M: And with the very focused games you mentioned that could also help I imagine. If I say I’m playing Little Fears, the role-playing game of childhood terrors, then I’m automatically saying I want a group that’s okay with child endangerment, so if you want to Veil that, this is not the time to do GMless Little Fears.

Yes. And more importantly… Dreaming Crucible, right… you’ve got to really make sure they understand exactly what you mean. “It’s great, it’s fairy tales! Wait, when I said fairy tales I meant childhood endangerment…” Argh! Crap!

Honesty Is Your Friend

Again, we’re kind of getting ahead of ourselves, but that raises one really important underlying thing about all of this, which is not so subtle once you think about it. Which is that, the only way a GMless game is going to work — think about it, right, we’re all adults, we’re all sitting down — is honesty. Honesty. Blatant, crazy, honesty. Not subtle, like “oh I didn’t like that but I kept it to myself”, “oh that bothered me but I kept it myself”, “that’s not the game I wanted to play but I didn’t speak up”, “that’s not subject matter I wanted to get into…” You have to be honest. In fact the more honest you are… and I don’t mean critical, or rude, I just mean not having that thing at the table where you just sit there and silently pout and then later on on the internet you’re like “doh frickin’ Dreaming Crucible! Frickin, dark spirit, taking my kid away!”

So we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. But you could look at those as ways we make the social contract work amongst people at the table. The way we, as peers, maintain not social control, but social balance, social equity.

next up: part 3, the surprising sin of making stories without characters…

    Ben Robbins | September 13th, 2011 | , , | hide comments
  1. #5 Joel says:

    I guess it was the “unknown” voice shouting out the Crucible and IWNAY that threw me. If it was like, Morgan or somebody shouting “I will not abandon you,” I’d be like Oh sure, of course! But as is it sorta felt like some stranger mentioning it. :)

    RE Veils, I get the point of simplification, for sure. As someone invested in exploring the I Will Not Abandon You approach, I’m keen on the nuances, though. For IWNAY play it’s especially important to have tools for softening the explicitness of troubling content without cutting it out entirely. I’m reminded of what Ron always insisted: that Lines and Veils aren’t antithetical to IWNAY play; they’re foundational techniques whithin all play, even within I Will Not Abandon You.

    But that’s beyond the scope of your talk, of course. Just something i’m tangentially interested in.

  2. #4 ben robbins says:

    @ Joel — Ha. The Dreaming Crucible shout-out shouldn’t surprise you. We had a room full of the hip kids. They know the cool games. ;)

    We’re really just using one term to encompass the function of both lines and veils (as Ron described them, back in ’03). It’s a big header for boundaries we should talk about and respect if they come up. In the longer version of that speech, we say “we’ll either fade to black or cut it out entirely”. In most play with strangers, Veils come up extremely rarely, so getting into a complex discussion of all the theory and moving parts would be overkill. Knowing the safety net is there is the important message.

  3. #3 Joel says:

    Wow, a Dreaming Crucible reference, out of the blue! I couldn’t be more tickled. And it’s definitely an apt example. The Dreaming Crucible is predicated on the idea–I Will Not Abandon You–that it will likely go into touchy places, and that shying away from that will diminish the game. But it IS important to be clear that this is what you’re signing up for, which is why I made sure to put the “I Will Not Abandon You pledge up-front in the game.

    Man, I would LOVE to know who shouted out “I will abandon you” at the panel!

    Aside from that–you’re saying great things here about the social dimension of roleplaying, with the circles inside circles and such. I think it’s telling of a dysfunctional game group (at least one kind of dysfunctional group, the kind I’m familiar with) that they act as though the circles are inverted–the GAME is important, and letting personal issues disrupt that is NOT OKAY…and any unpleasant feelings the real people have can never be addressed directly, only “worked out in play.”

    When I played Daniel Wood’s Game Chef entry “My Daughter, Queen of France,” it struck me as a potent metaphor for that.


    PS I really love your Veil speech. I need to learn to incorporate something like that into my welcoming and facilitating routine.

    I’d like to discuss your Veil concept and how it differs from Ron Edwards’ original concept.

  4. #2 ben robbins says:

    That sucks Aaron. I think if anything the Veil discussion is even more important in situations like cons or gaming with people you don’t know as well. That’s when you absolutely should talk about it before play. That’s part of the trick: bringing it up before you need it. We explain it every week, even though it rarely gets used.

    Take a look at this intro for Fabricated Realities. It’s written specifically to get everybody on that same page. It’s based on the welcome I use at Story Games Seattle:

    We Are Here to Game

  5. #1 Aaron Sapp says:

    Two years ago at GenCon I signed up for a game of Penny for My Thoughts. My understanding was the Veil was an explicit part of the setup for that game, but the person facilitating it skipped that part. The other players were making everyone’s memories be about sexual violence and animal abuse in the “good” memory. I initially tried to steer it away from that “in character.” When that didn’t work I just left.
    I’d be interested in some discussion of the Veil as a meta-rule for the community. I’d feel comfortable with that in a game with friends, but at a con game where I seem in the minority I was less comfortable calling a time-out and asking everyone to change direction.

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