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.
2 thoughts to “How to GM a GMless Game?”
I think there is a natural tendency for the person who brought the game to do some of this stuff, but as you say they may not take mental responsibility for all of it. Pacing, for instance – it’s a collective creative endeavor so one can feel the need to sit back with hands off, to avoid making anyone else feel bossed around.
Some games e.g. Archipelago have ways for people to flag these kind of issues (e.g. the embarrassingly phrased “harder!” is aimed at stopping the game meandering around an important focal issue). I’m not sure anyone has it quite right yet, but I think it’s useful for the game to provide an approved means to signal, because that gives everyone permission to intervene when needed rather than feeling it’s someone else’s job.
Although I do like that aspect of Archipelago I still think it (like the others) suffers from the reverse problem. Not that people don’t feel they have permission to intervene but that everyone assumes someone else will take responsibility for doing it.
So whilst I think it is good to have elements encoded into the game system, that doesn’t change the need for someone to step up and take mental responsibility of for the group to agree who is the facilitator.