GMless Role-playing Games (PAX 2011, part 1)

Friday, PAX 2011. About a dozen people piled into a tiny room to talk about GMless Role-playing Games. This is the transcript of that workshop in all its unexpurgated glory.

Instead of a rigid lecture, I opted for a lot more audience participation. More chaotic, yes, but did it pay off? In spades, I would say. We covered a ton of ground in only an hour and half. Where I could, I identified who is speaking, but farther from the microphone (anywhere past the first row of tables) it’s impossible to tell who’s who. There’s some excellent stuff in there. To everyone who attended: thanks for making it so fun and thought-provoking.

Welcome to the Workshop

The topic today is GMless RPGs. Everyone’s here for that? You’re on the right airplane? I am Ben Robbins. I sometimes write a blog, Ars Ludi, which is about game theory. I’ve kind of dropped off on that. I do it less nowadays because I’m spending my time playing, which is better.

And in that light, the other thing I do is run a weekly Story Games Seattle meetup which is open to the public. Every week we have people come in, people who have never gamed before, people who have never played story games before, people who have never played any role-playing games before. Every single week we have people come in and we sit them down and we introduce them to games and we get them to play. That’s a venue in which we play a lot of GMless games, which in fact is where a lot of the stuff that we’re going to talk about kind of comes from.

And lastly, I’ve also written a game recently, Microscope, which is a GMless RPG. Which is another thing from which [audience hooting] I will share some knowledge. Forgot to bring out all my demo games. [lays out Fiasco, Shock, Remember Tomorrow, Polaris, Microscope] These are some of the games we will talk about or reference…

What Does A GM Do?

Okay, so who all here has played RPGs? Everybody? How many of you have played RPGs with a GM? How many of you have played an RPG without an GM? So most of you… How many of would say you’ve played a lot of RPGs without a GM?

So you have some experience. Here’s the thing. I started gaming a very long time ago. For decades, the deal was, if you played an RPG with a GM. A GM was essential. There was not even any question of playing an RPG without a GM. In fact, I’m not even sure what the first GMless RPG was. There probably was one in the 90s but they didn’t really become a thing until the last ten years and more so in the last five years.

So to understand, to even think about how you could play a game without a GM, there’s one big question we have to answer first, which is pretty simple actually: “What does a GM do?”

So what do guys think? Let’s make a list, make a big list: functions that a GM performs. [writing on post-it posters as participants answer]

Reid: I think they’re the antagonist.

The Antagonist. What else do they do?

Morgan: Seems like a lot of times their job is to know all the rules and stuff like that.

Rules. Rules Knowledge.

Feiya: Make up the story.

Make Up Story. What else?

(unknown): Build the world.

Build the World.

(unknown): Keep people on task? If they lack focus…

(unknown): Only when you’re playing…

What else?

(unknown): Introduce randomness, or, they have information that’s integral to the story that if people knew it would be boring.

The element of surprise. Or Suspense. Does everybody not love these post-it notes? Are they not the best thing ever?

Morgan: That is pretty amazing. Is that a 3M product?

I think it might be a patent-offending… So we have surprise, I’ll write suspense as well.

(unknown): Keep the games fun.

Keep the games fun. What else? There’s more. Think about it, you’re at the table… or, how many of you GM? I should have asked that. How many of you call yourselves hardcore GMs — like you GM. Okay cool, about 50/50, perfect. So what? What do you do as a GM?

Morgan: Make sure that the tone stays appropriate.

Tone Enforcement. So what else?

Reid: All the NPCs.

Yeah. Play the World. What else?

(unknown): Doll out experience.

Ehhh… [some games do that, some don’t]

(unknown): Loot, reward / punishment.

Reward / Punishment. Now here’s a good question: the players or the characters? Who are you rewarding, the players or the characters?

chorus: Both

Both? Both?

Morgan: Sometimes you have a player character… [ha ha]

Points to Morgan. So would we agree those are two separate activities? Let’s cross that out and let’s say reward characters, reward players… you’re going to come back and you’re going to say “What did I just say when I said that?” and then you’ve got… [writes punish character, punish players]

(unknown): That falls under things fun…

It might. We’re going to collapse these, we’re going to do a Wicked Age thing where we’re going to go back and collapse [ideas into groups]. Yeah?

(unknown): What about note-taking, homework.

Reid: Oh yeah, keep a log.

Tracking the game, keeping track. [late arrivals are lovingly welcomed] Call it uh, what do we call that, game documentation?

We’re making a list of things the GM does. It’s like a quiz: “What does the GM do?” Anything else?

Reid: They resolve arguments

Morgan: Arbitrate, yeah

That’s a good question. Are they resolving rules arguments or or are they resolving personal disputes?

Reid: All of the above

All of the above. Correct. That’s both 1) Interpersonal — and tell me when my handwriting becomes completely illegible — and 2) Rules. And that’s going to kind of get back to rules knowledge.

Anything else? They’re pretty busy. They’re doing a lot of stuff. How will ever live without them. It will be crazy. Is that it? [Silence. I look over my notes]

Reid: I’ll guess there’s more on that list… [laughter]

My list is potentially very different. Or actually my list is pretty much the same. The only things I would point out, I think we might have actually covered, one thing they do in some systems — and this might fall under resolve disputes — is they maintain balance of power between characters. For example say you’re playing D&D, three different people make characters, one guy makes a character that is much better than everyone else’s, the GM says “hey wait, not cool, we’ve got a problem.”

But more critically one thing they do which might fall under one of the other things we talked about: they decide who gets to talk. Big thing you do as a GM. You say, “hey, I want to know what Xander is doing now” and you say [pointing at different people in room] “you, don’t talk, because I want you to talk”. They are the floodgates through which all action passes. So what do we call that? [assorted suggestions] What is it? Gatekeeper? Pacing? What did you say?

(unknown): Game Master…

Game Master! [laughter] We could call it Who Gets To Talk.

(unknown): Who gets the conch.

Con-ch? Con-k? Con-ch? It’s going to sound bad?

Morgan: Is that… do they set scenes? Are they the scene-setter?

More than that. I mean you’re the GM! Someone says “Hey, I wanted to do this thing.” You say “Wait… it’s not your turn right now.”

Feiya: They run the show.

They run the show. I’m going to say [write] Who Gets To Talk / Gatekeeper / Who Runs the Show.

Wow. We’re up to four [poster-sized] post-it notes. Is there anything else they do? So tomorrow, you’re going to run a game tomorrow. You’re going to show up. You’re going to play. What are you doing the night before?

Xander: Prepping

Prepping! And is that… you’re making the world, you’re building the world, you’re preparing some of the stuff we spoke about before. You’re preparing antagonists, you’re preparing a plot, you’re building a world. But you’re preparing, you’re bringing the game to the table. And not all GM’ed games do that of course but a lot do.

(unknown): GM takes the blame when it goes boring.

Funny you should mention that. So you talk about a game — Morgan ran a game last year, we were in it. What do we call that game? Morgan ran Burning Wheel. We say “we played in Morgan’s Burning Wheel game.” We use the possessive. Which is kind of weird if you think about it. [assorted humor ensues]

So we’ll call it Responsibility. That’s a big one. I’m not sure that’s how you spell responsibility… Yeah, you, you’re responsible. You’re responsible for what happens at the event. People show up… Kind of like how you guys are right now, you’re looking at me like I’m running the show. You’re like “Hey, Ben’s workshop sucked.” Or “his workshop was good,” but it’s like I’m responsible.

Whoops, almost dumped an entire thing of water on your phone.

What else? Anything else? We might be done.

Morgan: Pretty close.

Reid: You’re the GM… [implying I should decide, laughter]

I used to GM a lot. I mean I used to GM a ton. I don’t GM very much at all anymore. I’m a little rusty.

What A GM Does: Condensing the List

Okay, so this is our big list. And some of these are going to overlap. Let’s condense these now. Because I’ll bet you… my theory is… that we can condense these down to just a couple of things you’re doing, the GM. A couple of related tasks. Which of these do you think go together.

Well let’s put it this way, there’s kind of two levels of what’s happening at the table. Two big, big, important levels. And you guys all know this, you just might not know you know it. It’s actually remarkably fundamental. [drawing] Here’s a big circle, right. This is the social circle. This we’re all here, we’re all people, we’re all in a room together, we’re all interacting. And then then within that is the game, rules, all stuff. The fiction. One is definitely inside the other. If Pat steps up and punches me in the face, it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the game. That has become moot. On the other hand, if in the game, Pat’s character jumps up and punches my character in the face, life goes on. We continue playing. Problems in the social sphere completely completely outweigh things in the inner [game] sphere. So if you take that in mind, and say hey there’s this big social circle, which of these things are social powers the GM has…

Morgan: Resolving interpersonal disputes


Xander: Controlling who gets to talk

(unknown): Tone enforcement.

[switching markers] Can you see that?

(unknown): Reward the players

Reward the players. Yeah and that’s a really weird question: rewards the players? Rewards the players…

(unknown): Yeah, like patting on the back. “Good job!”

Let’s get something out of the way right now. This is very important. I GM’ed for like a zillion years. There will be a lot of things that sound like we’re dismissing GMing, like we’re saying it’s bad. But that’s not our agenda at all. Our agenda is to identify what actually happens. There are cases where the GM can be a complete tyrant and that can be extraordinarily beneficial to having a good time. You show up at a game and somebody says “I have responsibility for making everybody have a good time. I’m responsible for making sure everyone is going to behave and I’m literally going to be a dictator and say ‘no, you be quiet, it’s someone else’s turn to go’.” If I want to show up at a game and relax that’s awesome, because then I don’t have to worry. All those responsibilities have been taken away from me. I can just chill. Someone has now said they’re going to run the show. That can be a very pleasant thing. So it’s not to say that these things are necessarily bad, they’re just part of the deal.

Sorry, what were you saying? Reid?

Reid: I said ‘people on task’

People on task [writing]. Any others?

(unknown): Keep game fun

Xander: Arbitrate

Keep game fun and arbitrate. [rules knowledge or social thing] I’m going to say rules knowledge is not a social thing. I mean, obviously all the rules stuff is within the social circle, but I’m going to keep that in the game circle.

So those are all of our social activities, right? Those are things that are purely social, that almost have nothing to do with the interior of the game.

Okay, so how can we condense the rest of these? What are the things these break down into?

Reid: The story and the plot and building the world are kind of connected

Xander: Antagonism

Let’s keep those separate and let me tell you why. You can make a world, and you have the world be active, without antagonism. And you can have an antagonist without a sense of the world. They’re separate tasks in the game space.

If we break these down, we already know we’ve got. Social enforcement / social control. We know that someone, to make the game interesting, has to provide a challenge, has to provide antagonism.

And we know we need a fictional world. We need a world to play in. We need both Making the World and we need Playing the World. We need somebody to have people talk, to breathe life into it. Those are really two separate activities.

So which of our things have we not now covered, based on that?

(unknown): Uh, documentation

So here’s a good question: is it necessary to document a game? Do you always document your games? Or is it a perk?

Morgan: I think it’s a perk

It’s a perk? We’ll put it under things that you might want to do. Maybe not documenation. What do we call that?

Morgan: Homework

It’s afterwards.

(unknown): It’s kind of part of world creation, because you’re just updating what you’ve created.

Well the question would be, say you’re playing a one shot game of D&D, is the function of recording it, is that because you need it, or because it fulfills a nostalgia purpose?

(unknown): Even just more than note-taking, it’s like the game master is the memory of the game world. Your players may come and go or not show up one week, or they just aren’t paying attention, and they’re like “oh, the Red Wizard said we should go where?”

Yeah. And I think if we unpack that further that also tells us a lot about what’s going on. What does it say when the GM is both making the game and then having to motivate the players to be interested in the history of it.

Okay, last one. Very critical one. Who Gets To Talk is a social thing but it’s also full-on something you have to have within the structure of the game. You have to know who is allowed to do what. What authority do people have. Let’s call it the Structure of Play.

Morgan: Where does rules knowledge fall in there?

Oh. Absolutely want that. Both rules knowledge and enforcement.

I think that’s all of them. I’m not sure. And if we’re missing any we’ll jump up. So all of these… oh Surprise/Suspense. That’s the missing one.

Xander: The GM is like a secret keeper.

What’s that?

Xander: Just someone has to know something other people don’t.

Okay. We’re done? That’s what the GM does? Twenty minutes, we’ve broken it down, we now know exactly what a GM does. Oh Story/Plot, we left out Story/Plot. Which is very different than fiction.

[final list has only eight items, condensed from the original twenty: social enforcement, rules enforcement, antagonism, making the world, playing the world, surprise, story/plot, and who gets to talk]

next up: part 2, which of these things do we actually need..?

    Ben Robbins | September 12th, 2011 | , , | show 8 comments