GMless Role-playing Games (PAX 2011, part 4)
Continued from part 3. We’re halfway through the workshop. We started off by making a list of all the things a GM does, then condensed that list into a few core activities. We’ve been going through each item and looking at how games with no GMs get those same things done, or in some cases deciding if we need those things at all.
Ben M: With that, one of the things I’ve found in some of the, I guess they’d be called partial GMless games, I’ve played, popularity comes into play. Not necessarily of the player but of the idea, and how much control it has over the table. If I have a very plot-affecting goal, like the kingdom is being invaded, but someone else has put forth another plot-affecting goal, the ancient ruins have been disturbed, generally speaking it’s going to be difficult to work both of those in evenly. So, in my experience, part of that was, which plot do the players at the table think is interesting.
Alright, go back to this step. Play structure. We’re taking turns. If we’re playing Shock, we’re going to go in rotating pairs and play each person’s story an equal number of scenes. Equal. Remember Tomorrow actually does do a weird thing, which I think might be a little bit of a problem, where you do actually let, to some degree, the popularity of the plot kick in, which can be good and bad. But in a lot of these games, not even a question. Like Fiasco: it’s your turn, you make a scene about yourself. It’s now your turn. There might be more or less interest or motivation in that based on how much desire people have for a particular plot. Absolutely. And there should be, frankly. I mean — Microscope — I absolutely agree that people should go to what interests them.
Reid: In Fiasco it usually ends up being the popularity of one relationship or another.
Oh sure, absolutely. And I think that’s an intentionally smart design. You want to give people choices so they can decide what interests them. But as far as social popularity, like “I just don’t think Xander has good ideas,” he still gets a turn, and we’re going to advance the story. And we might even be bored during that story, but…
Ben M: So how does this work for Xander is for his plot line, he really needs your guys’ support, but you’re all interested in another player’s plot line and that’s where your characters are off doing stuff.
Which actually gets another point… you’re actually doing a great job of exposing things I forget that people don’t know. If you watch a movie… well let’s skip the movie example. When you make characters in a lot of these games — Fiasco doesn’t do, but a lot of the others do — instead of saying you’re a party a la D&D, you’re a team together, you’re interacting — a lot of them throw that out the window. They say, you’re going to have separate story lines and they’re often going to be completely non-touching stories. Much like if you read a William Gibson book where there are interlaced chapters. That can be good or bad. There are pros and cons to that. In Shock, that is absolutely the mechanic. If we have three players we have three protagonists and we play one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. We see three separate stories. The nice thing is you can have effects where you can get a domino effect of things that happen… things you do that affect the world. Like the thing you said, if you find the ruins and the ruins unleash a thing [monster, elder god, etc], that world event influences other people’s stories. But generally speaking, when it’s your scene, you are the star of the movie. They’re built to do that intentionally, to undermine that question of whether you get as much spotlight time as everyone else.
Reid: So you’re saying in Shock, you end up with a movie for each player?
But they’re all happening at the same place at the same time. I’m trying to think of a movie that…
Morgan: Game of Thrones.
Perfect. Most movies don’t do it, because in two hours you couldn’t have three stories very easily, but Game of Thrones would be a good example.
(unknown): Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction is even weirder because you have the time problem, but you’re right. If you eliminate the achronology of Pulp Fiction, exactly right. They’re separate characters but their actions affect each other’s world. Particularly with a game like Shock where you potentially…
(unknown): Do they meet up tangentially at some point?
No. You can, but often it’s much more fun just to see the consequences of your actions. Like we’ve had crazy catastrophe Shock games where one person on their turn released the slaves and overthrew the government. Well, if I was the Governor… man, my next scene gets a lot more interesting. Suddenly I’m in a government in hiding.
But here’s the underlying thing about that, by doing that, by giving other people that kind of control of the creative space, potentially they can ruin your story. You’re trusting them. You’re saying, “hey y’know what, I could play it safe, and I could live in a little walled off space where I control all my stuff.” But one of the underlying things of this kind of game is that instead of saying “this is my guy and I control him,” you’re saying “this is a guy, or this is a story, we’re going to do together.” You’re kind of taking your character sheet and pushing it to the middle of the table and saying this is something we’re all in together. And in some games, like in Polaris for example, you actually do that. You actually push your sheet to the center of the table and that’s the character we all play together.
(unknown): Is that a multi-session game?
It can be. We play it one-shot a lot. It’s an older game — older being 5 years — but it’s initially designed for multi-session. But we play it one-shot all the time and it works fantastically.
You have a question?
Ben M: So play structure then, is it usually assumed that I can interact with your character and I can even control him and say drastic things may happen to him. Maybe he loses an arm in battle or maybe his girlfriend says “I’m leaving you.” And as long as I am respecting the basic ideas of what your character is, then I have the freedom to do that?
That’s getting to our next question. Antagonism. Jump back a step. We have this protagonist. We know the protagonist wants something, which is awesome. It’s great. Cool for the protagonist. BORING! Because he says “I want to overthrow the government.” “Yay, you do, done! Raaah… this is not very fun…” We desire a challenge, even in D&D (even more so in D&D). In fact in any kind of game, we want the correct level of challenge. We don’t want too much challenge, we don’t want too little challenge. We don’t want an easy fight, we don’t want a stupid fight that’s incredibly hard. We want just that perfect level of push-back, right? That’s what the GM does. The GM scales good fights. When the GM’s good, you go “That was awesome!” We felt like maybe we could have failed, even when we don’t. We don’t fail but we feel like we could have failed. We don’t feel like we’re on a railroad.
So we have this protagonist, we have this guy, and we need an antagonist. We need a challenge. We need someone to give him a hard time. Who’s it going to be? We don’t have a GM anymore.
Ben M: Everyone becomes the antagonist.
Reid: Yeah, in Perfect, there’s a game called Perfect where you play the antagonist of the person to your right.
And in fact, Perfect is the Shock pattern. That is in fact one of the most common solutions. To say, we’ll pair off. You will have a designated antagonist. You have somebody who’s job it is to make your life difficult. And I’m looking at Xander, but I really should be looking at Pat. [laughter]
Morgan: In Fiasco, is everybody your antagonist?
No! No! No! And this is why Fiasco bends… This is why the spectrum [of game books] is laid out this way. This is my “What the Hell” spectrum. So on one end… so Microscope we’re not even going to talk about because I don’t even know where I’d bring it into this conversation. It feel like that would just be weird because it doesn’t obey any of these rules. Fiasco, which is again fascinating because it’s been this break-out hit, and I think there’s a lesson to be learned of why it is so popular even among people who haven’t role-played ever. It does not designate antagonism! No one is your designated antagonist. You have relationships. Those might be antagonistic, they might not be. But there is no… it’s breaking all the rules… there is no designated antagonism. None.
Reid: But all the other players, any other player, can push that die forward…
And that’s not antagonism. That’s not antagonism.
Reid: No, because you have to take it
Let’s break it down a little bit. Antagonism is the person who says what it is that makes it harder for you to get what you want, or why you can’t get what you want. Let’s put it differently. The player who is the antagonist is the one who makes up fiction that says why you can’t get it. You want to get a bunch of money? They’re the one who says “hey, the bank is foreclosing on your house…”
Reid: I agree…
Yeah. So there’s no player whose job that is [in Fiasco], which is fascinating. And people do it just kind of ad hoc. People just mess with you. And often, I think because of the subject matter, you create antagonism for yourself. Which is again, something that for years now, people have said… it’s the Czege Principle… people say that doesn’t work. You can’t do that. You can’t make up a challenge and beat it yourself. [meaning, it’s not satisfying to do that] It’s like a golden rule. Czege Principle. Write that down.
(unknown): Who came up with it?
He did. Well it’s something he said at one point and everyone said “yeah, that’s right!” It’s make sense right? If you present a challenge for yourself…
(unknown): But what was he talking about?
Games in general. It’s a game design principle that if you both set up a challenge and then beat the challenge, it’s not very much fun. [pause] Argh! Right! I don’t know if I agree! But it’s a good… most of the time it’s a good guiding principle. Somebody else should make something challenging for you and then you overcome it. And there’s other arguments. Like Vincent Baker, who is down the hall, would say one of the functions of game rules are to subvert our natural inclinations. To make us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. Maybe that’s true too. I don’t know.
Reid: He made Dogs in the Vineyard?
He made Dogs in the Vineyard. And, in fact, a little game called Apocalypse World. Yeah. I hear that game’s popular.
Ben M: One mechanic a game called Houses of the Blooded had that I saw was used very well in a GMless game, was at the start of the session, all players have the opportunity to ask for enemies. It doesn’t have to be a carrot. I step forward and say “I’d like to have three enemies, who here wants to hate me for some reason?” And someone might step forward and say “I’d like one enemy.” You could step forward and say “I want no enemies. I want everyone to love me.”
Right. And in fact, one could argue that by not deciding which of those is the right answer, the game design has kind of punted. It’s thrown it to the players and said “oh you guys figure it out.” If zero or three are all a good answer… there should be a chapter explaining what those decisions mean.
But effectively that is what a lot of games do: designating somebody who will be your antagonist. It’s their job.
Here’s an important distinction: it’s not that your protagonist is their antagonist. In Fiasco, it could be. In Perfect it’s not either — Perfect is the Shock pattern, it’s the same logic. Polaris, same way. It’s that you’re a second character who is the antagonist. So when you’re putting on your antagonist hat, you’re not saying “my protagonist is an antagonist to your protagonist” — your protagonist is a protagonist — you’re a different guy who’s “bad.” Does that make any sense? Lot of ‘tangonists in that situation.
Simple example. I’m a knight of the order of the stars. Yay! I’m going to go save the kingdom. Morgan also has a different character who is a knight of the order of the stars. He’s going to go try to save the kingdom. We’re both separately going to try to save the kingdom. At some point though, when we flip roles, I will be his antagonist. Now I’m playing demons. They have nothing to do with my knight. I’m a totally different guy. And when I put on that hat, when I put on the antagonist hat, my job at the table has now completely changed. My job is now to care about his protagonist.
And this is a big thing, this is a big mistake people make. People think their antagonist is a protagonist. They think their antagonist is a main character and they start to care. “Oh, but while you’re gone, my antagonist is going to go build a secret lab…” NO ONE CARES! You’re not the protagonist! Stop doing that! Just die in a volcano already and stop doing that. Make a new one [antagonist]. It’s about the protagonist.
And the whole question, like we talked about before, of what is the right level of challenge… there’s the whole question of how do you challenge people, how do you antagonize them in ways that they enjoy. Because that’s the thing. You don’t want them to not enjoy it, right? You could easily… it’s like “rocks fall, everyone dies.” Classic, right? We know that’s bad GMing. We know that’s bad antagonism. The GM is in fact picking a careful level of antagonism the players like. Same thing with GMless. It’s just now more people are doing it on the fly and they’re doing it in reaction to the things one person wants. So in a way it’s a harder job, because you’re having to think on the fly and you’re adapting to what they say they want.
Reid: See, that’s where I disagree. I think it’s easier. When I’m playing Fiasco, and I’m playing my character…
You’re not an antagonist in Fiasco…
Reid: I’m a protagonist. And I’ve got a relationship with you and a relationship with you. And I frame a scene, where maybe one of these guys is in my scene and maybe some other NPCs who can be played by other people. And they can just jump in, and he can just decide to be an antagonist. And be like “I’m not going to give you what you want!” And then somebody else can be like “We’ll I’m somebody else who’s arguing on your side, so dammit you should give him what he wants.” There’s always that balancing act between… and that becomes part of the social control.
No, completely. And in fact again, one of the things I think that’s really critical about Fiasco is, because it is a real world setting, and you don’t have a set goal but you have effectively real world desires: “I want some money.” Okay we get that. Then we go over to Shock, where your goal is to prove that the world computer that everyone thinks is a god is really a machine, and we’re antagonizing that story goal. It’s a different level of complexity, because here you saying “oh I’m a guy and I just want some money.” It’s more understandable.
Reid: The point I was making is that’s easier for four players to play my antagonist than one player.
Maybe. But you also get the case, and this happens in Remember Tomorrow…
Reid: The reasoning is that I think that four players can more adequately… and at a constant rate… find my perfect antagonism level. Whereas one player is going make a guess and they’ll be right or wrong. Four players are going to be constantly tuning.
Let’s say it’s the difference between auto-fire versus a sniper. I think the scenario you’re describing is more of an auto-fire situation. Where you want something and what you want is pretty obvious, and a bunch of people are trying to hit you back, and kind of bombarding you with opposition. Which can be cool. Which can be awesome. But you’re rarely going to get as poignant of an opposition because you have multiple people maybe stepping on each other’s toes. That’s another problem. Of the people there, nobody knows who has the ball, who’s supposed to be antagonizing. Whereas in some of these other models you say “No Reid, it’s your job. You’re going to antagonize.”
And in fact part of the game is seeing what you think is interesting antagonism and the mental bond the protagonist and antagonist [players] form. A game like Polaris, where you do this very careful interaction to reveal what you care about. You basically do this jockeying / phrase / discussion thing and you come up with very surprising results, where you didn’t quite think that’s where you were going.
But if you had a bunch of people… Remember Tomorrow suffers a little bit from this problem, where because it’s not designated sometimes no one takes the ball. Maybe in Fiasco you have a guy, but no one really cares to antagonize you. And that’s back to a social problem. We all look at that guy and go “I’m just not that into your character.” And that’s the thing. It is important that we’re into your character. So some of these games make us be into your character. “Hey it’s your job. You’ve got to be into this protagonist.” Because like in Fiasco. Maybe there’s one character who is just not that interesting, and that guy just kind of gets… he has a chance to be on screen, but maybe nobody takes him up on his story. And he kinds of fades away. And we don’t remember that guy that much.