GMless Role-playing Games (PAX 2011, part 3)

Our workshop continues from part 2.

Who Gets to Talk

Okay, so we were talking about world creation in Shock. One thing we kind of hinted at is that each of these games approach these critical questions in ways that are sometimes extraordinarily different. Like world creation. If you’re playing Fiasco, which is a massive hit among the PAX crowd, you’re operating in effectively what is the real world, so you’re doing a very different type of world creation than if you’re playing a game like Shock, which is kind of all about making a fictional world. So out of all the different GMless games, they’ll approach this element very differently [points at list] and they’ll approach this element somewhat differently [points at list].

Let’s jump ahead to an element that they tend to answer the same way. Every single one. Who Gets To Talk. Play Structure. You are sitting down at the table and if you’re in a GM’ed game the GM says “hey, you get to go now.” Almost every single GMless game that you’re going to find follow a very simple rule for play structure, which is that we take turns. We go around the table and each person has authority to usually make a scene, create something, something like that. It’s incredibly mundane, but it’s incredibly effective.

And stop and think about that. Compare that to the last time you played D&D or something. You go around the table in initiative order for combat, but outside of that, how are you deciding who goes now?

(unknown): The loudest person

Ben M: Or the person who is most actively coming up with new plot ideas. Because there are some players who…

Morgan: Or a combination of the loudest and most active.

Yes. And then we have the “Lilies of the Field” effect. Where we have people who are really creative and who really have great ideas but they’re socially quiet. And they may not be confident about their ideas. In a traditional game, where the GM is — the GM is doing a lot of work, the GM is under a lot of pressure, right, so be fair to the GM — the GM is looking at the table the going, “who do I think wants to say something? Who do I gotta give time to?” Sometimes the GM will intentionally put someone in the hotseat [who doesn’t look like they have something to say] but you’re the gatekeeper, as was described before. You’re the person who’s deciding who does what. Very difficult. And often times if someone is quieter and has inner thoughts, you don’t even know it. You think they’re bored. You think they’re staring into space.

I think that’s never true. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a GMed game where I actually believed that the people who are quiet did not have very active ideas about what should be going on in the game. They have, in their brain, pages and pages of what the cloak of their ranger looks like. It’s just doesn’t come out. They’re not sharing it with us. And in a normal [GMed] game, because you’re requiring one person [the GM] to read another person’s mind and say “I think you want to talk”, that may never come out. With the rotating play structure, we have a very different scenario. We say, “hey Morgan, it’s your turn. Give us something.” And we kind of sit and wait. You can give us a scene, or it might be… depending on which game it is you might need to make a scene about your character, you might need to provide us some adversity, which we’ll talk about in a second.

Ben M: Is there an expected time restriction?

Good question. Is there? Should there be?

(unknown): If I’ve got somewhere to be…

(unknown): Only if you anticipate it being a problem. Maybe.

Morgan: On the other hand, I don’t know. Like, short… in the same thing with writing, you want to be concise.

You want to be. But the question is not whether you want to be. It’s a question of ability, right? So we go around the table, and some people are like “yeah, I’ve got ideas! It’s awesome! I’ve played a million story games! Yeah there’s a scene! There’s a monster! Rarr!” Another guy has never role-played before and is just sitting down. The question is, do you put a shot-clock on that person. Does that help? And no, you’ll notice we’ve just jumped right back to the social question… [really play structure / who gets to talk]

Ben M: My curiosity was not actually that type of player, but the player who has a very detailed idea that doesn’t necessarily advance the plot for the rest of the table.

We’ll cover that in a second. That’s under Story / Plot. Good question. We’ll get to a whole question of: what is the story? What is the plot? We haven’t even talked about that. How do we agree what the story is. That’s a huge question.

Morgan: So was your question sort of not that they’re going to take too much time, but they’re going to take too much narrative control? Or that they’re not going to progress the story in general?

Ben M: More not progressing the story. Because I know that if Dominique wants to take her two minutes to talk about the fashion business that her character’s running, it’s not interesting to me. But if I know that there’s a two-minute timer and then it’s going to pass to Billy, okay, y’know what, have fun with that. I only have to listen for a few minutes then we’re moving on, whether I’m interested or not.

So let’s talk about that. Let’s jump down. Play structure, like I said, often very simple. Rotating. Taking turns. What you do in that turn can be very different a lot times. It could be, in your turn, make a situation in which we all play. In your turn, frame a scene. Framing a scene is kind of the lingua franca of almost every story game. Y’know, it’s stolen from movies. It’s not about, like playing D&D, what happens at two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock. It’s not a continuum of time, it’s fast cuts to the good stuff. That’s almost always what play structure involves.

Story Without Characters

And to back up even further, a ton of these GMless games are in fact one-shot games. They’re often dramatic games, in the sense that we’re going to play an entire story tonight, in the space of a couple hours. So stuff that’s kind of off-task, that’s really kind of costly. We’re trying to get the critical parts of this character’s life.

Jumping ahead to story and plot… let’s talk about story and plot, because that’s really what your question is about. What is the plot of this game? What is the story of this game? In a GM’ed game, what’s the story and the plot?

(unknown): Whatever the GM feels like…

Whatever the GM feels like. And that… can be awesome. So here’s the thing. You’re the GM and you’re preparing a game. You’re going to play it on Sunday [today’s Friday]. When do you make the characters, when do they [the players] make the characters? When do you need characters? Say we’re playing D&D.

(unknown): At least two weeks ago…

Do you? For D&D?

(unknown): You need them by the time you start.

Do you… let’s make it even worse. Be honest. Take the last D&D game you ran (it’s an easy example because everyone plays D&D). Do you, really, in your soul, need to know who the characters are before you start the intro..?

(unknown): Noooo

Sinners! Sinners! SINNERS! To be fair, I’m drawing stark contrast. Obviously in serious campaign games… I’m not saying there are not GMed games where the GM takes into account the player characters, because of course there are. I’m just saying that there’s a whole continuum where they don’t. Where it’s not even a question. Because as we said, the GM’s preparing a story or plot and giving you the freedom, you could argue, to make whatever you want. And saying “this is going to be an adventure, you’re going to go rescue the kingdom the evil sorcerer. Make a thief, make a cleric, make whatever you want, that’s cool.”

Reid: Soulless, faceless robots…

No, but honestly, it’s not that the GM doesn’t care who your characters is, it’s that the GM makes the adventure (often), then sees your character and says now that I know what your character is, in play I can say, “yeah, that’s awesome, you totally have a crisis of faith!” But that, intrinsically, the plot isn’t really about you.

Ever read any books written by famous GMs? Anybody read any of Gary Gygax’s famous novels? [silence] GMs are terrible writers. Y’know why? They don’t make main characters. It’s not their job. [apologies to Gary Gygax and Gord the Rogue. Being a great GM has its price.]

Facilitators Rule

Ben M: One style of quasi-GMing that I’ve seen though that touches on this is that the GM in question was not very creative, and he knew this, but he was the best person at the table for running the mechanics of the system. So the PCs [players] got together and said “We want a nightclub and he wants to be a bouncer and she wants to be the sexy hostess and blah blah blah. And we want you run it.” And the GM said “Sure, I’ll facilitate.” And the party basically gave the campaign setting to him, but then the GM acted as game facilitator.

The word you’re looking for, and in fact the word you just said (and the word we’re going to get to) is “facilitator.” They’re playing a partially GMless game right there. They’ve chosen to. That’s awesome. And to be clear, these are all continuums. It’s not black and white, one or the other. It’s a vast continuum. I’ve played a lot of D&D that was entirely character-driven, “I need to know who your character is, I need to know how to tie you in to the story” all that kind of stuff. That’s to say it does not have to been one or the other.

We’re going to get back to story and plot, but: rules knowledge and enforcement. We should have done this one earlier because it’s a really easy one to get out of the way. We sit down to play Fiasco, someone has to know how to play Fiasco. We sit down to play Shock, someone has to have read the book and know how to play Shock. In most GMless games and story games that’s the facilitator. You’re not the GM. You’re just the person who knows the rules. You’re going to teach the rules. You’re going to explain the rules. Enforce the rules, in a gentle way, because you don’t really have social power, you’re going to say “hey, that’s not the way the rules work.” and everyone might say “we don’t care we’re having fun!” And that’s where your GM(like) power stops. You don’t get to say “Nooo!” Now it’s just social. Now we agree what we’re going to do or not.

So that’s the facilitator’s job. The key thing about being a facilitator, and it’s often very good to say this right up front when you’re the facilitator: you’re not the GM. You don’t get to say “but I don’t like that bouncer idea.” You don’t have that GM power to choose what the fiction is [any more than anyone else]. You’re only talking about the rules. It can be kind of weird for people who are used to GMs. You start facilitating and they think you’re GMing. You have to constantly remind them that no, that’s not the power you have.

That’s a very easy one to get rid of. Somebody has to read the book. Somebody has to tell us how to play.

Protagonists Spawn Plot

So back to the story / plot thing. Because the GM isn’t showing up with a plot, right, we had that whole discussion where there are these characters, but in a weird way these characters are just kind of filling the void left by the GM. An inversion, in fact, of storytelling logic. In a story, we have a protagonist. What’s a protagonist?

Reid: The person…

You got it…

Reid: … who starts doing actions…

Morgan: …that advances the plot. Who goes through Joseph Campbell’s hero’s cycle…

And in fact Reid’s definition is the critical one. The protagonist is the guy that does stuff. He’s the guy that initiates action. Pro-tagonist. He does stuff. Superheroes are not protagonists, in all likelihood. You almost never see a superhero initiating action. They react. It’s weird.

Reid: Supervillains are protagonists

Supervillains are protagonists. Exactly. So the protagonist is the person who initiates action, or who has desire, has some thing. So if we don’t have a GM, but we have a bunch of players, what do we start off with? We start off with characters in all likelihood. We start off with people making characters. So suddenly we have Morgan sitting down and making a character, and instead of this [prepared] plot becoming the center of the story, with a hole that any character could fit, it all goes completely backwards. Morgan makes a character, and his character’s desires and goals now become the center of the story. That’s the plot that we agree on. You see what I mean?

Morgan: So just like with the game that he was describing, right, I’ve got a nightclub now, so now the game is about this nightclub that I care about.

Precisely. Instead of the GM saying “it would be awesome if we ran a game where you all worked at a nightclub” and the players go “okay, we can work with that,” from the point of view of story and drama, this is more natural. The character’s come first. The character’s desires come first.

Most of these games address that. That is the one thing these games do. If they don’t talk about that, throw them out the window (if there’s supposed to be characters). It’s a question of, who is character? What does your character want? What are your character’s goals? What are your characters fears? What is your character linked to? That is the solid gold nugget in GMless games. If you’ve got a game with characters (yeah I’m looking at Microscope) that is the thing you have to nail down. Of the spectrum of games we’ve got here, they all do it. They all do it different ways. They all do it in some cunning ways and some strange ways.

How many of you have played Fiasco? Fiasco is like the breakout hit of indie gaming. And the question might be: why?

Reid: Because it’s good.

Well, and Wil Wheaton gave it a pitch, which was awesome! But a lot of games are good, but there are a couple of things about Fiasco that highlight what we’re talking about. One is, it’s set in the ordinary world. You don’t have to debate. This whole thing vanishes, world creation. We don’t have to talk about, “are we going to be on a space station, is it going to be ancient Mordor.” We just don’t even talk about that. We say “oh, it’s a small town.” Done. We know what that means. Or, “oh, we’re white trash, living in the South.” Got it. Everybody kind of knows what these settings mean, so that [world creation] kind of falls away. But then we get to the story / plot stuff… oh my god. That’s where suddenly the game has a very simple mechanism that relies almost entirely on the players being, kind of…

Reid: And you don’t have to make a character.

For Fiasco? Yeah, you make a character.

(unknown): Well, you… [blurred]

Oh, you get relationships, you get random seeds… correct, I see what you’re saying.

Reid: You get a framework and you fill in the blanks.

Right, you are given relationships to the people around you and then you brainstorm based on that. Which is, if you stop to think about, a chaotic, messy, uncontrolled, wild and crazy process… and it works great. Right? There’s not a big list of numbers, where you say “oh, my Honor is 5, my whatever is…”

Reid: How do you figure it’s chaotic? Because you’ve got the dice…

Oh right, you’ve got the dice, but think of it, our relationship is drug dealers and over here my relationship is old lovers, and I rapidly turn to both these people and I go “oh who should I be? Should I be the principal of the school?” and you do this crazy brainstorming process. I’ve done it with about six people who’ve never gamed before (maybe five who’ve never gamed before) and it’s amazing because people will, in a very sloppy human way, arrive at human relationships. And it works awesome. And what it gives them is the nuggets of the story / plot. It gives them a lot of stuff to go on. What it gives you is the kernels of the connections to other people around you which theoretically should drive some kind of a story.

But honestly, to be fair, Fiasco is very light on telling you what the story is. The one thing it does do, is there’s a built-in (and this is similar to Polaris as well)… it’s says, there’s an arc. This is going to be a tragedy. Get used to it. And by just saying that, even if it doesn’t enforce tragedy at all — which it kind of doesn’t, mechanically, it doesn’t make you play a tragedy — it just says “hey we agree, because we’re playing this, that it’s going to end up badly for the characters involved.” [aftermath rolls push tragedy, but that doesn’t happen until play is basically over]

Other games, for example Remember Tomorrow and Shock, take a much more direct approach. They say, what is the goal of your character? Write it down. Step one: what’s your goal? What’s your dramatic goal? And it might be like, in Shock, find the cure to the disease that’s wiping out all the people on the space station. Or it might be be reunited with my brother. Or it might be overthrow the theocracy. What’s your goal for this movie? And it’s either going to happen or not happen. [you’ll succeed or fail]

But you’re required, and this is kind of critical… to play these games well, you’re required to tell the other players what it is you want. You’re required to write down a goal and present it to them so they know what it is they’re supposed to be… what you’re interested in and they should be interested in. You’re declaring these things overtly. It’s not a stealth-plot. It’s not a stealth-goal. It’s completely on the table. [to the players, not the characters]

We’re halfway there. Told you we covered a lot of ground. Next up: part 4, Antagonism!

    Ben Robbins | September 16th, 2011 | game theory | leave a comment