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?

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.

The clash of character and context

I was prompted by a post over on Department V to go furtling through some old Forge articles, and I stumbled upon this bit of text tucked away behind some musings about coherence.

“In most Narrativist designs, Premise is based on one of the following models.

A pre-play developed setting, in which case the characters develop into protagonists in the setting’s conflicts over time. Examples include Castle Falkenstein and Hero Wars. Pre-play developed characters (protagonists), in which case the setting develops into a suitable framework for them over time. Examples include Sorcerer, Everway, Zero (in an interesting way), Cyberpunk 1st edition, Orkworld, and The Whispering Vault.

I have observed that when people bring a Narrativist approach to Vampire, Legend of the Five Rings, or other game systems which include both detailed pre-play character creation and a detailed, conflict-rich settting, they must discard one or the other in order to play enjoyably.”

This is interesting to me. It makes a kind of sense: if you set up an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) setting and an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) set of characters at the start of a game, chances are good that these are not going to work well together. The players don’t know all of what was in the GM’s mind when writing the setting, the GM doesn’t know all of what was in the player’s minds when writing their characters, and if everyone insists on staying faithful to what they pre-decided, chances are you’re going to get some friction.

In fact, I have observed this in many games. The GM writes an awesome, detailed setting that they just can’t wait to set the characters lose in. The players read a light summary of the setting, this triggers a cool idea for a character and they go wild writing up a history for them. All too often, one or t’other ends up feeling their vision is being compromised, or that what they have created doesn’t quite “fit” with the rest.

Certainly from a narrativist point of view it seems relatively high risk – is this going to create interesting issues to resolve in play?

It seems to me that the design of Apocalypse World very much plays on this observation. The players create their characters and then, collaboratively, seed the world. The GM adaptively brings the world to life and introduces elements of conflict, reacting to the characters the players have created. The exhortation to the GM not to plan anything out seems like it must have at least partly had this thought in mind.

Anyway, interesting. I’m pretty sure a lot of my campaign design has totally broken the above advice. I’m not saying this has ruined my campaigns, far from it. But I and my players have certainly had to be ready to adapt things over time to avoid disappointment.

Structure vs Mechanics

So, Dan Maruschak recently posted to Story Games (the G+ community, not the forum; which you would think they were the same thing, and they are – except they aren’t) about the frequently expressed view that too many/too complicated rules are bad in a roleplaying game. Now, his post had a point all of its own, which I shall ignore because I want to talk about something else. Take that, rules!

Anyway. In discussion on the said post, I arrived at the view that there were two types of “rule”, which I shall here call structure and mechanics. Why is this relevant? I shall tell you if you would accompany me to the next paragraph…

Glad you could join me! The point I was responding to in making the above distinction was that sometimes, rules make roleplaying easier. Take a simple example. Fiasco has almost no in-scene rules. It essentially leaves the job of running scenes completely unconstrained – sure, one person sets the scene while another bunch of people decide the broad outcome (or vice versa) but everything else is down to whatever you collectively want to do. And the thing is, that works for some people, but for others it leaves them lacking direction and unsure when they should jump in. You have to develop the kind of culture that improv groups make use of all the time, and developing that culture can be challenging.

In contrast, Fiasco makes generating the overall scenario for the game much easier by providing a basic setting and a bunch of simple rules for generating story elements. You take turns, and nobody is in doubt about what they can and can’t do during this stage of the game.

So, weirdly, the most rules-heavy bit of Fiasco is in some ways the easiest and smoothest part of the game. All those rules didn’t get in the way after all!

…which brings me back to my point about structure and mechanics. See, I think Fiasco’s set up phase is not really a “rule” as traditionally conceived in roleplaying games. This is a bit of a vague concept which I’m having trouble articulating, but what I call a mechanic – the traditional RPG rule – is a very well-defined procedure for taking a well-defined input and generating a well-defined output. “When you are hit by a short sword, roll d6 and subtract it from your hit points.” “You can take two half actions or one full round action every combat round.” …that kind of thing.

In contrast, the Fiasco set up isn’t really like that. It’s all “before you start the game you should create some elements to use in play”. Now, I’m contradicting myself here slightly (did I mention I’m having trouble articulating this?), because the element generation tables have all the hallmarks of what I’m calling a mechanic, and the rules about how you arrange relationships and other elements around the table look like that  too. But the overall effect is merely to guide play towards a relatively ill-defined form: a structure, if you will. Similarly, Fiasco’s two-act structure and its token-based scene resolution are designed not truly to constrain play but to provide a framework on which to hang your story. Likewise, defining roles (is there a GM? What do they do? If there isn’t, how does that work?) is more about setting a framework rather than fixed procedures. This is all what I call structure, and although it kinda fits in the category of rules, it serves a radically different function.

Now apropos of Dan’s discussion, I’m not saying that structure is good while mechanics are bad. But it seems to me that roleplaying games have historically had a tendency to major on mechanics and leave structure to the GM to work out. And, furthermore, they have tended historically to err on the side of too much mechanic (for some people’s tastes) but very rarely got even close to too much structure. Even Fiasco, which is quite a structured game by RPG standards, is in my view not structured enough.

So in principle: more rules is neither good nor bad. But in practice, more mechanics is often going to turn out to be too much, while more structure is very unlikely to be too much. That may not stay true, if RPGs continue to develop and diversify, but even post-indie revolution it’s still the case for most games , in my opinion.

Points of drama, part 2 – FATE

So, I felt the need to follow up my post on drama points after playing FATE last weekend. FATE is an open source rules system, so there’s a lot of variants out there. I haven’t read more then a couple and last weekend was my first go at playing, so take this as a comment on the particular version I was playing – Age of Arthur – rather than necessarily on FATE generally.

FATE is a fairly bog-standard skill-based system, albeit with the funky FUDGE dice to make it all feel a bit different. The bit of the system that I’d like to talk about here is the game’s use of fate points (I suspect that should be FATE points, but I’m damned if I can be bothered to press caps lock that many times). Each player has a pool of them, and the GM has a pool as well.

Fate points can be used to activate aspects, which are short phrases (or even single words) describing something about your character. Examples from our game were “boastful”, “thinks like a roman general”, “secretly prefers the company of pagans to other christians”. The important thing here is that they can be used in a positive way (to get a bonus on a skill roll) or a negative way (much like Leverage‘s distinctions). But in this case, a negative use of fate points means someone else compelling you to act in accordance with your aspect.

Here’s how it works. The GM can offer a player a fate point to act like their aspect says they should – so e.g. could force a boastful character to, uh, start boasting. If the player accepts, they get to keep the fate point. If they turn it down, that’s fine, but the GM gets the fate point instead. But in addition (and this is the important bit IMO) a player can offer another player a fate point from their pool in exactly the same way. In this case, turning it down just means the fate point stays with the player who was offering it.

The result of this is that players are encouraged to start spotting opportunities for other players’ characteristics to get them into interesting situations. And there’s an incentive for them to do so – there was a noticeable tendency in our game for people to try to funnel fate points to the person who needed them most for generating bonuses. It also means that the GM can encourage players to enter into situations that objectively look like a bad plan for their character, and reward them for doing so (which has the added bonus that it’s slightly easier for them to extract themselves from said situation).

It still felt like a slightly uncomfortable halfway house between completely sharing out GM responsibility a la (say) Fiasco, and centralised GM power in the more traditional mold. But the incentives meant that there was actually a good reason for players to use fate in a GM-like way, which could not easily be duplicated by any other means. Fate points didn’t feel counterintuitive or like a third wheel in this game; they fulfilled a definite niche. I begin to see the potential in mechanics like this.

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!

Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.

A deadly game

In my ponderings around combat systems, I have realised something that somehow escaped my notice previously. Virtually every combat system I know of is designed with just one thing in mind: implacable foes beating seven shades of hell out of each other with the intention of killing their opponent.

Most systems give some consideration to unarmed combat, and usually to grappling too. Knocking an opponent out is covered perhaps 50% of the time, and is often accomplished by simply beating the target character with your fists until they run out of hit points and collapse. These options are usually significantly harder to achieve than a kill, which creates an incentive to resort to lethal force.

Capturing an opponent is usually not considered at all (beyond the grappling system), nor is the possibility that an opponent will decide discretion is the better part of valour and try to surrender or run away. Systems often include a mechanism for a character to exit melee, but that isn’t quite the same thing – and again, it’s often much harder to escape combat than it is to carry on fighting. Surrender and flight are generally left to the GM to decide on, with no guidance given and no mechanic for helping to decide when an opponent might decide to flee. All this alongside systems which are often ludicrously detailed about wounds and death.

Why does all this matter? Well, the result of this bias towards lethality is that most fighting in roleplaying games is, well, lethal. Yet the most interesting stories we read, and many (not all) of the movies we watch involve trying to capture rather than kill the main villain, and a satisfying outcome often involves an antagonist being surrounded, pinned down by gunfire and forced to surrender, rather than taken down in a hail of bullets. This leaves open more possibilities, too: interrogation, escape, recurring villains (you can’t have a recurring villain if the villain is killed at the end of every story). I’ve lost count of the number of times that key clues have been lost in games I’ve run because the players shot the clue-bearer. Games have become so deadly that some of my GMs have been forced to resort to giving every villain a teleportation ring or similar so that they can live to fight another day!

I want to see more systems that include express consideration of, for example, how to handcuff the villain. That include mechanics for (or at least consideration of) morale, and grappling mechanics that don’t cause my brain to explode. I want games where killing is the last resort rather than the normal modus operandi.

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.