GMless Role-playing Games (PAX 2011, part 5)

Continued from part 4.

Don’t Fear the Reaper & Antagonism Face

Ben M: One of the initial fears I had the first time I was approaching GMless gaming was “oh shit, if Xander doesn’t like me, he’s going to spend the entire time killing character. This is going to suck.” But what actually happens…

Right. Xander does do that.

Xander: It’s just how I am…

And you get to another important point. I’m going to interrupt you for a second to say that most of these games take death off the table. It’s not physically possible [for the protagonist] to die. Not physically possible. There’s not even a roll for it. Banned. Not an option. Keep going.

Ben M: But what actually happened was that out of game the players realized the way we could become more popular at the gaming table was by giving each other cool stuff, whether that cool stuff was antagonism or protagonism. If you said to yourself “I want to oppose Ben’s character, but I’m going to do it in a really cool way that furthers the plot line, that furthers PC involvement or motivations,” then all of a sudden there was this massive carrot on a stick that became sort of the self-check. Don’t just be a dick antagonist…

Is that a rule?

(unknown): Rule zero, don’t be a dick.

Ben M: Because then they were getting the same reward that traditionally the GM got. I’m GMing, I run an awesome game, everyone’s like “damn Ben, that was a really good game. Thank you.” But it’s like “man, Xander. You were such a great asshole to my character today. Thank you so much.”

The thing we love, the thing we’re always looking for in these games, the antagonism moment, is the “my face when” moment. When you’re going back and forth, say it’s Shock, and someone’s like “okay, my goal for this conflict is y’know, free the slaves.” And the other person is like “yes, but only if your wife leaves you, because you haven’t been spending time together.” And the other player is like “ARGGH!” It’s not that they hate the idea. It’s that they simultaneously hate and love the idea. They can see that development in the plot like “Argh!” and it gets them right in the gut. And they kind of like it. And they kind of really want to stop it. They want to stop it so much, but they also feel that going down that path would actually be awesome.

And that’s an important design element of a lot of these games too, is that there’s no GM, there’s no guy saying “let’s make something cool happen” so the rules have to in many ways enforce a positive result. [meaning, no one person has the authority to take over the fiction and make sure it is entertaining]

One of the good examples is that in a conflict, where two possible things can happen, it’s bad design to have one of the results be nothing happens. “Well we try to do something, what happens?” “Nothing, zero.” Why did we bother? So almost all of them take an approach where there are two sides to the coin, two things could possibly happen, but they’re both going to something. And ideally both should be interesting. Failure should be interesting. If you try to overthrow the government, it’s not just that you don’t, it’s that you don’t and you’re thrown in jail and your wife leaves you. The negative path has to be just as interesting as the positive path. No middle ground.

Ben M: And it also really helps to prevent Mary Sue characters.

Often in a game like this, it’s not even possible to be a Mary Sue character.

Xander: The rules of Fiasco, you’re going to die. [laughter] Die, prison, it’s your choice.

Right, you’re going to die.

What About Microscope?

Reid: When are you going to talk about your game?

I… y’know what? I’ve got to say honestly… someone [talking to me about me running the GMless workshop] said “oh, you’re just going to talk about your game.” and I was like “Really? I don’t think so.” Microscope is weird and I’m not sure it fits in a lot of these categories… Okay, I’ll talk about Microscope.

(unknown): Yay…

Here’s the best I can say about Microscope. I GM’ed for decades and I loved it. Had a great time. But what I really enjoyed was… I enjoyed running the games, but any serious GM will tell you that one of the biggest funs you have as the GM is making and preparing the game. You have this whole world in your head. Wherever you are — at the bus stop, walking down the street, working your job — you’re scribbling on envelopes. Because you’re working on your game constantly. That’s the fun part. It’s so great. It’s so good. And then players ruin it. Y’know, players come in like “I’m killin yur doodz!” [laughter]

But this thing happens, right, where you’re this GM and you’re making this world and you’re doing all this stuff, but the players aren’t. They’re just watching you, going “That’s fantastic! I love your world!” And you start to recognize there’s a weird dichotomy of creativity. The more creative you are… it is very possible for a lot of people to become less creative, because they’re just watching you, going “It’s mesmerizing! Tell me more about your world!”

So you could say in some ways Microscope is an attempt to make everyone at the table be as creative (even when they don’t want to be). To take the fun of GMing, of making cool stuff, and to put it everyone’s lap and say “You are going to make cool stuff, even if you never thought you could.” Even if you never had the confidence to think you could make cool stuff. And the whole time thing, the whole a-chronological / being able to move backwards and forwards in time, are really social mechanisms to diffuse the scariness and danger of making things. Because we know in a linear game, where you’re going forward in time, when you make something that’s what we do next. If I say “Your turn! Reid, what happens?” And you say “hey, the city burns down.” And Pat’s like “oh crap! I wanted to do something in that city! You screwed me!” There’s a social problem there. Your actions have consequences. And Microscope, by intentionally permitting you to go anywhere you want in time, if you burn down the city, Pat can still do something in the city [before it was destroyed]. He’s not really bothered by that. It’s an intentional escape valve. You have a question?

(unknown): You just answered it.

Whole other slew of stuff. I find that people who’ve never role-playing games or only played D&D, they respond to it great. But as far as discussing GMless games or what are GMless games are like, it’s not typical. It would be a weird place to start a discussion. I don’t think it’s typical. Does anyone thinks it’s typical? Is it indicative of normal GMless play?

Reid: Why do you think that is?

Why did it turn out that way, or in what way do I think…

Reid: Why do you think this game exists separately from these other GMless games?

Character. Plot. Total lack of that. Lack of antagonism. In fact there is antagonism but it is actually between the players. It’s creative antagonism.

(unknown): Social conflict

It’s not even social. It’s just you have a creative vision…

Surprise and The Unknown

We were going to talk about Surprise. Let’s bring this in. Surprise and the Unknown. Often people say, “GMless games cannot have the same impact as GMed games, because in a GMed game the GM has a big plot. He’s written it down. It’s a big mystery he’s been working on for years.” Done that. I agree. It’s absolutely true.

Reid: The Big Reveal.

The Big Reveal. Thirty games I didn’t tell you that your sister was the same person as this other character and you’ve been talking to them both… yeah, freaking out. Right. Awesome. Love that. And to some degree it’s true that a GMless game will not have that same impact. In fact secrets are disadvantageous. We don’t like secrets. They don’t help. If we know what you want to have in the game we can help you. If you hide it from us, we never see it. But, here’s the thing, the surprise and the unknown, the other players — and this very much where Microscope comes from — the other players are the biggest surprise you’re ever going to run into. Their cool ideas — because no one prepared this game, we all just sat down at the table together with nothing in hand — and from our brains made something. The cool stuff that people say is what’s going to surprise us. That’s going to be the stuff where we go “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” It’s surprise and the unknown, but on a much faster and shorter scale. You’ve got a question?

Feiya: Well it’s not really a question, I think I disagree with that a little, because I surprise myself. I think there’s the whole [muddled] they say “okay, go!” and you’re like “okay, I’m going to start talking” and suddenly you’re like “whoa!” [surprising yourself]

You mean in a GMless game?

Feiya: Yeah

Oh totally, I agree. Other people surprise you but you surprise yourself too. I agree completely. We’re on the same page. You’re thinking of your Remember Tomorrow character, aren’t you?

It’s a different species of surprise than one person having a hidden secret they’re going to reveal, and you know they have that secret. In fact that’s one of the stock [tools] of any GM, is convincing the players that there’s this huge world they’re delving into mysteriously. And we know when we sit down for a GMless game — that’s like a pickup game that we all started an hour ago — nobody has a secret they’ve been working on for years for this game. They can’t. We know that. That’s right off the table. So you’re never going to have that same belief, so it’s a different type of surprise. I think it’s great. You’re being surprised at a much faster pace by people’s immediately creatively, versus being surprised by something somebody prepared a year ago.

Ben M: If I may elaborate on that then?


Ben M: I think we should differentiate between the surprised players, such as the big reveal that the GM traditionally gives, versus the surprised characters

Oh yeah. I don’t care about the characters. Right. [how’s that for a quote out of context?]

Ben M: Because what I’m thinking of as one of the advantages of open secrets could be, using White Wolf for example, you can take flaws. I have the flaw Dark Secret, I have some dark secret on my character, which in a GMless game is me telegraphing to the other players that I want my dark secret to either be revealed or be in danger of being revealed. So while the characters may be surprised “oh my god, you all found out I was actually the Lindberg Baby…”

Morgan: Dramatic Irony. The authors know something that the characters don’t know.

Yeah. And in a GMless game it’s exactly that. You would often tell people flat out what your dark secret is that’s going to be revealed. “I’m really a werewolf!” Love in the Time of Seid. One of the characters is a werewolf. We all know it. Our characters don’t. But if we didn’t know that and midway through the game “surprise, I’m a werewolf!” we be like “WHAT?!? The Hell…” [laughter] How can we say ironic things like “I feel so safe with you! Let’s go walking in the park in the moonlight!” How can we say that if we don’t know that we need to set you up as a werewolf? By knowing these secrets, by knowing people’s flaws that are supposed to be secret, it empowers us to help them set up those beautiful scenes of like… the guy we know is the traitorous spy, that’s the guy you turn to and say “Y’know what? You’re the only one I trust. Bros. Bros forever.” That’s the guy! You gotta do that. That’s the best. That is the most fun. But if you didn’t know that guy was a spy and you play and you play and the guy goes “hey, guess what, I was a spy!” You go, okay, I get that, but as a story… as both audience and author, I would have to watch that again, because I don’t really see how that all played out. You missed the story. So different types of surprise. Surprise of our creativity is awesome when it happens. There’s nothing but surprise from creativity. You’re always surprised.

Morgan: You don’t feel bad for Harvey Keitel if you don’t know that Tim Roth was a cop the entire time.


Xander: He wasn’t a cop.

Reid: He wasn’t a cop? He was totally a cop.

Xander: He didn’t *die*. That was the part… I’m forgetting what was ambiguous. [laughter]

Morgan: Someone needs to watch Reservoir Dogs again…

Movies Are Not Games

There’s some argument I had on the internet (on the internet!) where a guy was talking about Aliens. The second Alien. Talking about character creation. I was trying to explain that movies are a terrible way to learn how to game. You look at a movie and say “yeah, I’ll imitate a movie!” But you can’t really imitate a movie. Movies do things like they have cut scenes, where a character walks in a room and they’re doing something, and we don’t know why they’re doing it. But we’re the audience so we don’t have to know. But if we were players, we would have to know. “Why am I in a room?”

(unknown): Movies show, they can’t tell.

Yeah. And also if I’m playing that guy doing something mysterious and I don’t know why I’m doing it, I don’t have a script to follow, I go “why am I in this warehouse?” “Just trust me.” “No, I need to have some concept of my motivation.”

Ben M: …then it could be, “you see my character washing a piece of crystal in a fountain of green goo.”

But you know why… . And that’s a totally different technique, “fishing”, where you say “tell me why I’m doing that.” That’s a different form of collaboration. You’re essentially saying “I don’t have an idea, so you tell me.” That’s awesome too. It’s a different form of brainstorming. But the point is that you can’t just imitate a movie, with its weird cuts and assumptions like “well how did he get there? What happened in that last scene?” I don’t know how the transition was made.

Like the example of Aliens. At the beginning of the movie we have no idea… in the director’s cut she has a daughter that died while she was away. Cutting room floor. And the person [on the internet] was like “no, we don’t need to know that, that’s not relevant.” Well no, as an audience we don’t need to know that. But if I was the guy making the character, that would be on my sheet, that Ripley wants a daughter. That wouldn’t be something I made up part way through the game. It could be. But that would more likely be a stated / yelled flag you raise to the other players, “I think her arc is maternal instinct…”

(unknown): Otherwise no one knows to play Newt.

Yeah! Why’d you bring in Newt? And maybe it’s serendipity. That can happen. Serendipity is totally awesome. I just happened to bring in Newt, it just happened to click. That’s the difference between a played-to goal (Shock, Remember Tomorrow) versus a ‘see what happens’ (Polaris, Fiasco).

next up: All good things come to an end, even this workshop. Part 6, the big finale.

    Ben Robbins | September 23rd, 2011 | , , | show comments