How to GM a GMless Game?

Ok, so this is a deliberately misleading title and could probably be more accurately described as how to facilitate a GMless Prepless game.

Originally I was skeptical of GMless, Prepless games but there are so many great examples of how to share creative control (e.g. Fiasco, The Trouble with Rose, Witch, 1001 Nights and A Taste for Murder) that I am far from worried that a GMless game world will feel flat and paper thin.  However I have noticed there is another aspect of GMless games which needs to be discussed more openly. This is the problem of “mental responsibility”.  Mental responsibility is the phrase I’ve coined to refer to many things in life such as who notices when the toilet roll is about to run out and ensures it is replaced before disaster strikes.

 
Mental responsibility for ensuring a game runs smoothly in GMed games is obvious, it rests with the GM.  The GM ensures a session is organised, that people know what to expect from the game, what dice (or not) they may need and it is the GM, ultimately, who takes responsibility for pacing the game.

 
There is no such obvious role in most GMless, Prepless games and there needs to be.  Just because the creativity is more equally divided up between the players doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for someone to take mental responsibility for the following things:

 
1. ensuring everyone understands the rules;
2. taking everyone though character and/or game world creation and answering questions;
3. noticing when pacing slips or rules are not being used properly and steps in to correct it;
4. actively setting an example of keeping people to a particular tone or ambiance in the game; and
5. noticing when one player is not getting sufficient screen time and bringing them back into the game.

(I am sure this is not an exhaustive list)

This doesn’t mean that you need to do all these things, just take responsibility for making sure they happen i.e. getting someone else to explain the rules.

If I introduce a GMless game to my gaming group then I always ensure I have read the rules, got the right amount of dice, dominos, character sheets and props and then manage the game to ensure it happens according to an agreed vision and in a way which maximises everyone’s fun.

Ultimately this comes down to the old and boring idea that things work more smoothly when one person is actively co-ordinating them. Unfortunately this means that someone has to do all the boring administrative work without getting the cherry of the creative control a GM enjoys. But I don’t think it is really that much of a hardship as you still get to play in a fun game – just one you have put slightly more work into than everyone else.

So my advice for GMless Prepless games is that GMless doesn’t mean rudderless or a total free for all.  GMless means no one person has overall creative control – but you still need to a pick a facilitator to carry out the background tasks which make a game happen smoothly.

My rule of thumb  – if you propose the game then you run it, where running means either GMing or facilitating.

 
This stuff might sound obvious but I have seen even the best written GMless Prepless games flounder without someone taking responsibility for getting it right. It is easy to assume someone else has taken on that role when they haven’t.

 

Baked-in story

So, Pete suggested a while back that I should talk about games with built-in story structure, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it.

The truth is, I’m fairly new to “indie” games, which for the most part are the ones which have built-in story structures. I think my first experience was probably Fiasco, which I think I got about a year ago. This year has been packed with new and exciting gaming experiences. So anyway, what this means is I have a few thoughts on this subject but a lot to learn.

I think the game with the most baked-in structure that I’ve played is, ironically, one I’m writing myself: Disaster Strikes!. The game is split into three Acts and an aftermath, running from the introduction and placement of the protagonists in the context of the disaster site, the explosive emergence of the threat, and the plan to escape or confront the disaster head on. The game supports this with specific mechanisms: the GM and players are required to behave differently in each of the three Acts. For instance, in Act I players are not permitted to notice or comment on the developing disaster – the most they can do is to dismiss it in some way as not that bad. Meanwhile, before Act III the GM is not permitted to kill protagonists that haven’t put themselves in harm’s way. This is all modelled, to some extent or other, on actual disaster movies, and the entire game is written to hand-hold you through the process of running a disaster movie. And this is for a very good reason: it’s a zero-prep game, so you don’t want a blank sheet of paper.

Fiasco is similar, albeit much more versatile (and indeed DS! is influenced by Fiasco). Fiasco’s structure is looser, but it gives you more detailed tools to get started with: every game starts by generating the relationships, objects, locations and (most importantly) needs which will drive your story. It has a two-Act structure and everyone knows that in Act I they’re setting up a grand plan, after which there will be a tilt which throws everything up in the air, and in Act II we watch the plan go seriously off the rails with tragic and/or hilarious consequences.

A different approach is taken by Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World has relatively little built-in structure; the first session is run differently from subsequent ones, but the story very much unfolds organically after that. But the game provides a toolkit of moves the GM can make to accentuate the drama and keep the game moving. It also provides a built-in structure to the GM’s prep, by organising the GM’s plots into fronts, collections of related threats which, left to themselves, will slowly unfold and put the players in danger.

The same designer as AW also created Dogs in the Vineyard and, similarly, the game provides clear guidance to the GM on how to run things. The characters are sort of enforcers for the in-game faith, travelling from town to town to expose pride and root out sin. The game has a built-in story structure of sorts: every new story involves the Dogs entering a new town and being approach by people to sort out their problems, directly or indirectly. Better still, the game provides excellent guidance on how to break down the moral problems the Dogs must deal with, and how to ensure they’ll be interesting (broadly: two people must have opposed interests, so at least one must lose out from whatever the Dogs do, and both must be sympathetic enough that you’ll care who is going to lose out).

Anyway, the point is this: there’s a lot of good shit going on out there in terms of games which help you to make an interesting story happen, be it through clever mechanics, awesome GM guidance, or built-in structures that lead you through the story. These games sort of point you in the right direction, so you can get on with being creative and focusing on your roleplaying without the worry that you won’t get the kind of game you wanted. They also, not coincidentally, contain some great transferable lessons on how to be an effective GM (and roleplayer) more generally.

Any other suggestions on games that do this stuff well? Chuck ’em in the comments section. My spam filter has been concealing comments from me recently but I’m wise to the problem now, so will keep an eye out for them as they come in.

Great Expectations

So, there’s been an interesting discussion on UK roleplayers about how “mooks” are treated in RPGs, and why more GMs don’t treat their mooks as fully-fleshed out (well, not entirely faceless, anyway) NPCs. This led to an interesting comment about genre expectations, which I shall now shamelessly steal and riff off.

Genre is a great tool for getting your audience in the same headspace (or for deliberately creating expectations only to defy them in some sort of twist). The mooks example is terrific. As mentioned in the thread linked to above, it would be a dreadful violation of genre expectations if James Bond were tracked down and sued by the family of two heavies he shot in scene 3 of the movie. Doing this could qualify as a twist on the genre, but if so you’d expect it to be telegraphed in advance. Doing it thoughtlessly would destroy any sense of what the James Bond franchise was about, and most likely alienate the audience to boot.

The same is true for RPGs: you flout expectations at your peril. Indeed, the whole GNS theory of roleplaying is essentially about how we can sort it out so that our games reliably give us the experience that we expect/want. The reason the theory exists is because the authors felt that gamers were frequently not getting the experience they wanted, for predictable reasons. But I digress.

A theme that I’ve noticed in roleplaying discussions over the last year or so is that a good GM is constantly observing his/her players’ behaviour and adjusting the game to meet it. We are told that we should give the players the game that they want. It is bad GMing, we are told, to just plough on ahead without regard for the way the players are, uh, playing. But this is taken a step further by a school of thought that says: don’t plan your game at all, but create it in reaction to what the players seem interested in.

This is all well and good, but it has the potential to be the ultimate in genre expectations fail. You can’t establish a clear set of genre expectations if you’re waiting on the players to tell you (through their behaviour) how the game should be. Worse, it’s possible that different players have different ideas about how the game should be. How are you gonna deal with that, hot shot?

I’m not saying that GMs shouldn’t be ready to give the players what they want, or react to their behaviour. That would be crazy. But if you set out some clear ideas about what YOU want, in the form of genre (or clear explanation of where you plan to break from genre), then you stand a far better chance of your players giving you appropriate behaviour from the get-go. This also has the added advantage that if your players hate the game you’re describing they can tell you before you’re halfway into a campaign, and you can either adapt or find some other players.

What this comes down to is, I like to talk about my roleplaying. I like to discuss it with my players, and find out what they like (and don’t like), and I like to let them know the same in turn. Genre is a terrific way to shortcut that conversation, but the conversation is still worth having – and not just hoping that by masterful GM skills you’ll just be able to muddle through and somehow give the players what they wanted all along.

Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)

A lot of gaming groups have just the one person who does the GMing. And it’s legendarily difficult to get GMs to run games at conventions, even though there’s no shortage of people who want to play. So why is it that some people are happy to play but don’t GM?

Part of the story is that there’s a mystique about GMing. People seem to think that there’s a special set of skills required, and natural talents that most people just don’t have. They think that they would screw it up if they did it, or at least embarrass themselves with a mediocre game. And let’s face it, a lot of roleplayers enjoy bitching about games they didn’t enjoy, even to the extent of hating on the GM who ran them. And the roleplaying community encourages the view that GMing is so, so hard. We write endlessly about GMing techniques you need to use, about the detailed game backgrounds we write and the zillions of complex plots and incredibly, vividly realised NPCs in our campaigns. It all looks terribly daunting from the outside.

But the reality is this: anybody can GM. Everyone had their first time GMing once, and yeah, it probably wasn’t that great. But with practice comes, if not perfection, certainly improvement. And it’s a similar set of skills that you need to GM as what you need to play – imagination, quick wits, the ability to juggle long lists of complex stats (ok, maybe I’m just thinking of playing Exalted with that last one).

And it’s not only first-time GMs who feel daunted by GMing, either. I still get pre-game nerves from time to time, or end up fretting over whether I’ve done enough prep the night before the game. I have bad games, too – everyone does.

So what’s my point? Well, my point is that GMing is like cooking. Not everyone is brilliant at it. It can be hard work. Occasionally you may burn the food and leave everyone feeling a little annoyed. But unless somebody cooks, there’s no meal. And it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will cook every time. If you’ve enjoyed someone’s GMing session after session but never tried it yourself, there really is no excuse not to try your hand at it, and, frankly, to pull your weight.

And if you’re one of those GMs who runs all the games in your group, ask yourself whether there is more you could do to encourage others to step up and give it a try. Fact is, some GMs hog the hot seat, always having a new game ready to replace the one they’re about to finish so that nobody else gets a try. After all, GMing is good fun. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from it, and it has a certain status attached to it. Are you one of those GMs? Might you be discouraging others from trying it by bigging up how hard it is, so others will think more of you? Give this a try: next time your latest game is heading towards the finish line, why not say you’re thinking of taking a break for a few weeks, and does anyone else fancy running something? Maybe you could offer them help and advice if they haven’t tried before.

I’m not someone who thinks that GMing is more important than playing, but it’s definitely the case that GMs are harder to come by than players most of the time. So if you’re a GMing refusenik, consider giving it a try. And if you’re an experienced GM, think about what you can do to help bring more GMs into the fold.

Roleplaying over the internets

Today I ran Disaster Strikes! over Google Hangouts for Indie+. I have roleplayed over Skype/G+ before, but never with anything more than a very rudimentary set of mechanics, and only with people I knew quite well. So this was a new experience for me.

I was feeling pretty trepidatious; nobody had signed up in advance for my Indie+ event. Was this normal? Would there be a last-minute rush, or would I sit like a lemon for fifteen minutes and then give up? It turned out partway between the two. A couple of minutes before start time I got my first sign up. Woot! And then a second very shortly after. I started feeling quite excited – maybe this game would go ahead after all. But I think maybe my second signup had come in via whatever the google equivalent of chat roulette is, because he signed off as soon as we started talking about the game. At least he wasn’t confronted by an image of a penis, which I gather is the usual chat roulette experience.

Undeterred, we decided to go ahead with the game with just one player. I was quite unsure as to whether this would work – the game is really designed for 3-4 people. Well, the good news is that after a fairly tentative start things took off pretty well, with explosion and killer AIs aplenty. Indeed, we had one of the more satisfying DS! finales that I can recall, as our intrepid fire safety officer put the lives of innocent bystanders first, getting them off the oil rig and only jumping into the ocean at the last, on fire and with several broken limbs. We even had the cliffhanger ending as the killer AI seemed to escape to attack the hospital our hero was installed in for the epilogue.

Anyway, I digress slightly. We were using an app called anywhereboardgames, a free google hangout app which I can recommend. It provides you with a virtual tabletop upon which you can create various game objects – in this case, playing cards and tokens. The game comes with a bunch of pre-created ones but it’s reasonably easy to create your own; all you need do is create images for each of the faces of whatever it is you’re using (front and back for cards, presumably multiple sides if you want dice or whatever). It will let you stack and shuffle cards, and you can create a screen to hide your cards/tokens/etc behind. Once one person has set it up in a google hangout, everyone else automatically gets access to it. Basically it’s your ideal tool if you need something more than dice (for which I gather that catchyourhare is considered the place to go). My only complaint is that it doesn’t work with internet explorer, although I may be the last person on earth who still uses IE.

I had hoped to get a sense of how easy G+ roleplaying is with multiple people, which I obviously didn’t do in the event. The brief chat session I had with my mystery person who disappeared seemed to be working ok, but it was quite short and not the best test. We also briefly had a fourth person drop in, which revealed how badly the sound can go if you don’t all have headsets – we immediately started getting echoes from his speakers, which had previously not been a problem. So I would recommend getting headsets if you want to try this at home.

All in all though I was quite pleased with the experience. It was disappointing not to get a full set of players, but getting to roleplay with someone in Latvia more than made up for it, and the game was great fun. Will probably give indie+ a go again next year if I have the time.

Setting the scene

A lot of indie games break the action of the game into scenes. A scene is a slightly ephemeral concept, and generally not well explained in gaming texts (I can’t think of a single one that takes the time to set this out in print). Quite a few uninspiring roleplaying experiences have resulted from not having much of an idea on what a scene should look like. So here’s a short discussion of how scenes work, how to establish and resolve them.

One person, often the GM but sometimes a player, is the director for the scene. That person should have an idea for some kind of interesting situation that one or more of the protagonists could find themselves in.

Examples could include:
– She is having a row with her boyfriend because he slept with someone else.
– He is trying to repair a ventilation unit, which is about to catch fire.
– She hears screams from inside a crashed bus and goes to investigate.

Once that person has decided on a central focus for the scene, they should say where the scene is happening and who is present.

The scene can now begin. The players then play out the action, roleplaying their characters as appropriate. Conflicts may arise and be resolved, either through randomness (dice etc), through the dictation of the director at the start of the scene (“she is having a row with her boyfriend and during the scene they will break up with each other”), or through players making in-character decisions (“screw this, I’m dumping him”).

The scene ends when we have resolved the central issue – the row with the boyfriend, the response to the burning ventilation unit or the rescue or death of the children. The director is generally responsible for calling the end of the scene, but other players are free to indicate if they think the scene should end, or to object, for instance if there’s some loose end they’d like to see tied up. The director has the final call, however.

The director should have some idea of what the central issue is before you start, and therefore what might trigger the end of the scene. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that the scene will wander aimlessly. You might not specify what that issue is at the start, though it’s a pretty good idea to do so if you want the other players to act appropriately. Even though you’ve got a good idea what the scene is focused on, remain flexible as the action may change your view of what the scene is “about”. If so, you may change your mind about when to end the scene.

The location of the characters may change during a single scene – it’s still the same scene as long as the central issue remains the same. (Though it might be that a scene ends when it becomes obvious that the characters are not in fact going to address the issue – don’t just keep following them around until they do!)

In general, when a scene has ended it’s time to think about what the next scene might be. Again, don’t just follow the characters around 24/7 – you want to be there when interesting stuff is happening, just like in a book or movie.

So there we go, that’s my attempt at explaining what scenes are all about. Does that make sense to you? Do you have different ideas? Let me know what you think!

Paranoia and paralysis

It is a perennial problem in games I’ve run and played in that players (myself included) are prone to sudden bouts of paranoia, leading to the inability to take decisions. I call it player paralysis.

Player paralysis can waste hours of game play. I say waste: if you enjoy watching while the players second-guess themselves, it isn’t a waste at all. Many games rely on paranoia for their appeal, and the odd session of this kind can be enjoyable. But for the typical gaming group, pressed for time, probably only able to play once a fortnight or less, provided everyone’s free, etc etc – it’s a pain in the ass if nothing happens because paralysis has set in.

The primary type of player paralysis I’d like to discuss today is the kind that is generated by the perception that the enemy has the group outgunned or outflanked. There are other types of player paralysis, such as too-difficult puzzle paralysis or over-planned mission paralysis, but I’ll save those for another day.

As a player, it’s a good idea to be watchful for player paralysis, and prepared to occasionally take action despite your misgivings. But of course, some times paranoia is justified. Maybe the bad guys really are that bad-ass, and maybe it’s better not to take them on. In that case, don’t just sit there worrying about it – take alternative action. Running away is an option, as are trying to find ways around the baddies that don’t involve fighting them. Presumably that’s what the GM had in mind when s/he set you up against such a challenging adversary. If in doubt, it’s reasonable to ask the GM: are you expecting us to fight this? You might not get an answer, but you’ll probably at least get a hint of some kind as to whether your foe is beatable or not.

As a GM you have more opportunities to tackle the problem. You have a lot of tools at your disposal here:

– Rumours and reputation. You can prompt paralysis by bigging up an NPC’s reputation as a bad-ass killer who is immune to conventional weaponry, and you can help to puncture it by allowing the group to hear of the NPC’s defeat, or some mistake he has made, or a weakness.

– Reinforcements, resupply. If your players are quaking in their boots, you can give them some back-up. Maybe the local militia offer to help, or they acquire a better weapon, or some other boost to their capabilities to improve their confidence.

– Reduce the threat. Maybe the bad-ass NPC has to send some of his minions somewhere else, or perhaps he turns out to be vulnerable to kryptonite.

– Prompt alternative action. Either through an NPC, or prompted Intelligence checks, or straightforward GM hint, you can help the players to spot alternative ways to solve the problem. Is there a way the players could avoid confrontation with this overwhelming foe? Perhaps there’s some source of information they haven’t consulted. Find a way to let the party know.

– Take the heat off. If the group is feeling under pressure to the point where they can’t think straight, give them some breathing space.

– Put the heat on! It’s difficult to stay paralysed when you’re in a plummeting elevator. Have something happens which forces the issue, and maybe the group won’t procrastinate so much next time they get a little breathing space.

You have to be very careful with all of the above. It’s natural for groups to want to spend some time planning and discussing – it only becomes paralysis if it goes on for too long and it’s clear the group are jumping at shadows. Similarly, the group may become frustrated and apathetic if they feel like every time the going gets tough you’ll bail them out with some reinforcements or a heavy-handed hint. If you are patient at first, and use a mix of the above tactics when it’s clear the group really is suffering from paralysis, then you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Above all, learn from your mistakes. If the group becomes paralysed, take some time after the session to think about what prompted it and what you could have done differently. As much as anything this is about understanding the personalities of the people who make up your group. Perhaps they don’t react too well to a particular type of situation, or maybe it’s one individual you need to keep an eye on; it may even be that an OOC chat is called for if one person keeps locking things down.

Player paralysis isn’t something you can entirely banish. If you adopt a flexible approach and get to know your group, you can keep it to a minimum.

Wimping: the black hole of GMless games

I’ve been playing a lot of GMless games lately, and because of the absence of a pre-written plot, these games have a lot in common with improv. In improv, there is a term called “wimping”, which is when one of the actors – without explicitly blocking what another actor says – effectively reflects it back at them without adding anything to the conversation.

There’s an excellent example given here, which I cannot add anything to and so shall quote wholesale:

JEFF: Oh my gosh that thing is big!
MEL: Yeah! It’s really huge!
JEFF: It’s getting bigger!
MEL: It sure is!
JEFF: My goodness, it’s eating the dog!
MEL: The poor dog.

See how Jeff is making all the running in that exchange? Every new element is created by him and merely restated by Mel.

Now, in GMless roleplaying there is typically shared responsibility for creating plot and background elements, so what we have is essentially improv. Each player can add new elements at will, and when someone else adds an element they can either accept it but not do anything with it (wimping) or take it and run with it in an interesting way. It’s not exactly news that the latter is a better way to go, and if you’ve played GMless games you’ll probably be familiar with the situation where someone is throwing out interesting material and it is essentially being either ignored or, at any rate, not added to by others.

There’s a more pernicious form of wimping, where nobody is really creating new material. This becomes an empty conversation, like those awkward exchanges where you just talk about the weather because you don’t want to risk putting anything more interesting into the pot. I’m not sure there’s a term for this: I’ll call it the double-wimp.

This doesn’t happen much in roleplaying because, after all, you’ve usually got some helpful mechanisms and a shared agenda of creating drama, which push you to create stuff. But roleplayers have their own special kind of double-wimp. Many of us have grown up on GM-created mysteries – the black box containing the plot which, as players, you struggle to uncover. The GM knows what’s in the box, but the players don’t. The interest for the players is discovering what the GM has invented.

Now think about GMless games. I’ve more than once seen a player create a black box in a GMless game. It could be a mysterious object (in a recent game there was a literal box with something in it … but nobody knew what it was, even the person who introduced the box), or it could be a vague reference to something that sounds intriguing but which is left undefined. What they’ve done is effectively wimped on their own narration. They’ve supplied what should be an interesting plot element, but left a blank where the interest should be. They’re hoping someone else will fill that blank, but all too often no-one does. In the absence of a GM who knows what the mystery really is, it becomes vacuous, a cipher.

Moreover, roleplayers are used to the concept of ownership. My character is my character – you don’t narrate his actions. Likewise, in more traditional roleplaying the person who introduces a plot element owns it, so others refrain from acting on it. When someone introduces an undefined mystery element, this compounds that natural unwillingness to mess with “their” plot, because nobody is quite sure what it is in the first place.

What you’re left with in this situation is a black hole. By its nature it is intriguing and makes the characters want to interact with it, thus sucking the story into its gravity well. But there’s nothing there to interact with. To overextend the metaphor slightly, the plot is crushed to death with agonising slowness as the flow of time itself is distorted around it. At least, that’s how it can feel at times.

If you’re playing GMless games, my advice is to avoid this phenomenon like the plague. Do not introduce mysterious elements if you can help it. If you must, don’t throw in a mysterious element unless you know what you’re doing with it. You shouldn’t be so committed to your idea of what the “truth” behind the mystery is that nobody else can come in and change it, but don’t just throw it in and hope someone else will run with it – be ready to run with it yourself. And take the earliest opportunity possible to reveal what the mystery is so that others can more easily play off it. It may even be worth telling the other players out of character what the mystery really is, even though their characters don’t know, just to avoid the black hole effect.

Managing campaign endings

I was reading this article on Gnome Stew about keeping your campaign alive during the inevitable breaks you’ll be taking when holidays, life events and other momentum-breaking occurrences happen.

Loss of campaign momentum is a perennial problem. It is typically the result of one or more of the group losing interest in, and energy for, that campaign. If it’s a player, they start becoming harder and harder to schedule in, they stop paying attention in session, and they generally start to make the whole experience feel like a drag. If it’s the GM (and it often is!) they find it harder and harder to motivate themselves to prep and to book the sessions. This invariably gets transmitted to the players, who can tell the GM’s heart isn’t in it. The result is a zombie campaign that nobody is enjoying. To mix my metaphors, such campaigns often suffer death by asphyxiation – without the oxygen of the group’s interest they just wither, and one day nobody books the next session.

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Image by ChaosRampantKaryn

The Stew article presents some great ideas for avoiding momentum loss during a hiatus, chiefly to do with stirring the pot during the break and avoiding shiny distractions that divert you from the campaign. But to some extent this relies on the group still having momentum; nobody will be bothered to take part in between-sessions activity if they aren’t feeling the love.

For me, the way you avoid losing the big Mo is by keeping the campaign within defined boundaries. Nothing can go on forever; we see this in all walks of life, not just gaming. How many times has a TV series overstayed its welcome by one or two seasons, leaving the whole thing feeling tarnished? Well, unlike the TV networks we aren’t in this to make money so there’s no point in keeping going past the point that we’re having fun.

So here’s my suggestion. Plan your campaign in self-contained chunks. 8 weeks seems to be a good number, but YMMV. Choose a period of time where everyone can largely commit to attending sessions, and in which a decent arc of the campaign can be played through. (You may find that things don’t quite go as you expected, and you need a session or two more – that’s fine! Better to exceed your budget slightly than to not have one at all.) Now everyone knows there’s a defined end-point, and everyone is working to reach a satisfactory conclusion in that time-frame. You’ll be more disciplined about your play, focusing on the stuff that really gets you going.

When you get to the end of a campaign chunk, you can pause for reflection. How are we all feeling about the campaign? Is there something else we’d rather be playing right now? Are we keen to continue, and if so what do we want to do in the next chunk? Is there anything we could change to keep the campaign fresh? My group has developed a tradition of going out for dinner once in a while for campaign reflection, and this would be a lovely way to mark the end of each campaign chunk.

Moreover, the end of a chunk gives you the chance to manage transitions and endings more effectively. Does anyone need to step out of the campaign for a bit – maybe someone has had a baby or is going through a busy patch at work? If so, this change will be less likely to break your momentum. Are people looking to try something different? Because you’ve built in a break-point, you’re managing the tendency for campaigns to peter out, and if/when the campaign finally does end it’s more likely to be a nice, satisfying ending that avoids a zombie campaign or death by asphyxiation.

That guy is up to something

When you’re playing a game where there’s no GM throwing plot at you (e.g. Fiasco) or where there is, but they are leaving you, the players, to decide what to focus on (e.g. Apocalypse World) or indeed, where there is but they aren’t creating plot per se at all (any sandbox game), the role of players is different to your traditional GM-as-plot-provider game. And you have to do different things to make those games fun. Things which might even be considered antisocial in another game.

What I’m talking about is having an (in character) agenda. Your character should be up to something. They have at least one thing that they want, and not just in an abstract “fleshing out my character” way, but in a concrete “this is what I’m going to do right now to get it” way.

Fiasco is a perfect example because the entire drama comes from your stupid, short-sighted, out-of-control characters pursuing your goals. The game even forces at least one of you to have a game-generated Need! But it still needs the oomph from the players, the drive that makes the game tick. You can’t be sitting back and fading into the background in a game of Fiasco! Or rather, you can, but you (and the other players) may not have as great a game as a result.

Now I want to be clear here, I’m not saying that you should be constantly pushing your character’s agenda Out Of Character. When it feels like you can’t turn around for character X getting up in your face trying to do their thing, that isn’t fun. Your character is up to something, yes. You, on the other hand, are up to something else – trying to make sure everyone has fun, hopefully.

Fiasco and other “GMless” (or GM-light) games throw the spotlight onto the players in a way that can be a lot of fun. If you’re pushing your character into action to get what they want, while leaving space for the other players to do that for their characters, you’ll get a lot out of these games.