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.

 

Further combat thoughts

So, further to my last article. I have been thinking about this a bit. I think that many of the criteria I set out are, fundamentally, compatible with each other. But I darkly suspect that my first and second criteria (Drama; and Colour and Impact) may not be entirely compatible with my third (Tactical Depth). This is because tactics implies detail and precision on positioning (whether spatial, temporal or otherwise within the fictional space) and, importantly, time to carefully consider combat decisions. Shall I attack this opponent, or that one? Shall I use this combat move, or this other one? All of this makes the fight more interesting from a strategy/gaming perspective, but crushes any sense of atmosphere and pace.

On a related note, I have been doing a bit of thinking about how fight scenes are portrayed in books and movies, and how this differs from the way it typically works in RPGs. One big thing that I notice is how <i>bitty</i> RPG combat is. It’s all “your turn, now my turn, now Bob’s turn” and nobody gets to build up a flow. A really dramatic fight scene in a book or movie is more likely to focus on a single character or small knot of fighting for a comparatively extended period, like a paragraph or two, and so we’re on the edge of our seats as that fight develops and we wonder who will live and who will die. We never build up that sense of anticipation in an RPG because when Bob is down to his last hit point we have to wait for everyone else to take their turn before we find out what happens to him. This is another area where incorporating this insight into an RPG system would tend to push us away from a tactics-focused system, because if we’re focused on one small part of the fight scene for a longer period, there’s less chance for other combatants to make tactical choices to break off what they’re doing elsewhere in the scene to intervene.

So, question for any system designer: which of these do you most care about? Drama or tactics? It isn’t like they are totally incompatible; you can have a sort of “summing up” phase after all the gubbins of tactical decision-making have been sorted to bring back the rich description of the action, or you can blend a kind of light-weight tactical system in with an otherwise more freeform affair. But there is a limit to this, and trade-offs to be made. I think there has been a lot of work in the first space (heavy focus on tactics, with description sort of crowbarred in), but less in the second – combat systems (as opposed to generic systems, remember) focused on drama, with less focus on tactics.

Whenever I think about operating in that second space, I start to get worried about descending into the generic. What I mean by that is: combat starts to feel like it doesn’t matter what decisions you are taking, as they are all mechanically the same. Does it matter whether I’m trying to kill this person or KO them, capture them, drive them off? It feels like it should. But in order to keep things simple and pacy, I find myself starting to design out those distinctions. I end up with “roll the dice, if you succeed impose a condition – give it a name, move on”.

I really want my fight scenes to feel dramatic. Grinding through a tactical battle scene can be fun – I enjoy war games, after all – but I’d like to be able to breathe life into fight scenes so they really feel edge-of-the-seat.

What games have you played that gave you a real sense of the excitement of a fight scene?

What I want from a combat system

So, if it wasn’t apparent already, I’m a system geek. I obsess about rule systems for RPGs. And none more so than the rules for combat.

Combat rules can be anything from “the players and/or GM describe what happens based on what they think would be cool and dramatic” to a sort of hyper-detailed miniature wargame. No matter. There are a list of things that I want to some degree or other from any combat system. Now, I think there’s a separate discussion to be had about whether some of these might be incompatible with each other; that’s for another day.

1. Drama. The whole point of having a separate combat system (as opposed to just using the bog-standard conflict resolution system for your game) is to deliver the suspense and excitement that a fight scene in any book or movie can provide. Will the hero live or die? Unlike most books and films, in an RPG that might be a question that could have more than one answer. The system needs to deliver that sense of drama and risk.

2. Colour and impact. A combat system needs to promote description that is rich and exciting. I want to feel like I’m in a fight. You might think any combat system can do this; it’s just down to whether the players and/or GM can manage to describe things in a sufficiently interesting way. Probably true to an extent – but there’s no doubt that a combat system can kill this off by encouraging a mechanistic “I hit him he hits me back” type dynamic.

3. Tactical depth. Being able to make interesting tactical decisions in combat and have them affect the outcome is an important part of why you bother having a combat system at all. You can do this (and many systems have!) through hyper-detailed battlemaps and oodles of options for special moves, feats and whatnot, or you can do this through a system-light approach where the GM and/or players assess the effectiveness of the tactics chosen and reflect this in the outcome described. The latter poses a risk, of course – I make what I consider a sound tactical judgement and the GM decides it wouldn’t work, for their own inscrutable reasons. Meanwhile the more “crunchy” approach ensures that there’s an agreed framework for making tactical decisions, but risks requiring unmanageable mechanical complexity in order to support a range of possible strategies. There are other ways of introducing tactics, through a kind of system-focused approach (like Dogs in the Vineyard’s see-and-raise approach), but these often lead to a focus on the dice at the expense of the fiction.

4. Realism. Controversial, this. It isn’t strictly necessary, but many of my gripes with commercial systems stem from a perception that they aren’t realistic in some way. Take D&D3e’s rule that smaller characters get a bonus to their hit rolls and a bonus to their armour class. Right: so in any given fight, the smaller fella is going to prevail, on average. Right? Let’s try putting the world’s best featherweight boxer in the ring with a mediocre heavyweight and see what happens, shall we? Of course, realism doesn’t mean you have to be hyper-detailed; there’s an argument that the players and GM are the best arbiters of what they consider realistic, so their own judgement is the best tool for ensuring a combat that has verisimilitude for them, without the need for reality-simulating mechanics.

5. Quick, smooth, easy to understand and reference. This is a basic requirement for any rule system. Systems which address tactical depth and realism best are often so mechanically detailed that they can be impossible for anyone without a maths degree to understand, take forever to look up and require five minutes just to count up the number of dice you have to roll. Needless to say, I do not consider this to be a good thing.

6. Supports a range of outcomes. Far too many systems are all about one party or the other being killed. Yet the majority of fights in real life are fought to subdue, intimidate, prove a point, force the defender to run away, and so on. For example, most RPG combat systems use rules for knockout and grappling which make these approaches very challenging in character (low chance of success) and also hard to handle out of character (mechanically complex). Again, not a good thing. I want it to be as easy for my cop character to cuff a perp as it is for my sniper to blow away a terrorist. Or whatever.

Phew! It’s no wonder I spend so much time thinking about this stuff – those are some challenging criteria. Anything else you look for in a combat system that I’ve missed out?

Intriguing…

Lately I have been mostly reading A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. It’s a pretty trad game as these things go, but what makes it stand out is the machinery provided to enable you to play politics. And one particular aspect of the game that’s interesting is the Intrigue system.

In essence, it’s a social combat system. I want you to do something and there’s mechanics to enable me to get you to do it, that go beyond “just roll persuade”. Indeed, there’s a plethora of techniques and actions you can take in aid of intrigue, defence scores and hit point-equivalents, and a ten-step system of exchanges (the social equivalent of combat rounds) to make it all work.

This is something I’m pretty interested in: I’ve often wondered what a really well-designed set of detailed social mechanics (as opposed to “just roll” or “just roleplay it”) would look like, and never really found anything that fits the bill. Too often these systems tend to generate piles and piles of dice rolling, but no feeling of “I am taking part in social combat right now”. Worse, they tend to place the emphasis on “combat” rather than “social”, so I have loads of options for moves but little sense of how it relates to the roleplaying I’m doing. Any system where you feel like you could pretty much dispense with the roleplaying altogether isn’t doing the job in my view.

Sadly, SIFRP doesn’t make the cut either. While it provides some nice mechanics for reflecting how character are disposed to each other, and requires that the actions you choose match what you have roleplayed, it otherwise feels very much like a jumped-up combat system. Most of the action revolves around wearing away your opponent’s Composure (the social equivalent of hit points); and during this process, what type of technique you select from the admittedly fairly extensive menu is irrelevant – it just determines what dice you’ll be rolling. Only at the end, when your opponent is out of Composure, does it matter which technique you’re using or what it is you’re trying to achieve. In the mean-time you’re roleplaying away but like stunting in Exalted it all feels a bit superfluous.

Moreover, like most combat systems, the rules don’t draw any connections between what the characters are doing. They’re just slugging away at each other – it’s more like a race than an interaction, and whoever crosses the Composure finish line first wins. So for instance, there is no scope for me to take your attempted seduction and work it into my intrigue – a sort of social judo, if you like – the fact you’re trying to seduce me is more-or-less irrelevant to what I’m doing.

I’ll probably give the game a go to check that the experience of play bears out my initial impressions, but I fear this is another fail. I suspect some of the above will be ameliorated by the use of bonuses and penalties for “appropriate roleplaying” and “circumstance”, but when a system is relying on the players to fix the system with more-or-less arbitrary modifiers, you wonder why they don’t just skip the system and “just roleplay it”.

What I’d really like from a social “combat” system is something that focuses on the roleplaying and on the characters. My social approach to your character depends on who they are, what they believe (or what I think they believe), and must react to their approach in turn. Just like a physical combat system requires me to think about tactical placement – flanking and charges and so on – with reference to what all the other combatants are doing, social “combat” should require me to think in the same way. But not literally in the same way: the mistake so many systems seem to make is to think they should try to find an analogue between physical and social combat, when the real aim should be to make the social interaction rules as richly detailed as the combat rules, not the same as them.

Obviously if you want a job doing properly, you have to do it yourself.