I’m a big fan of what is sometimes called GMless gaming. I get things from it that I don’t get from GM’d gaming (whether I’m GMing or not). But there are also problems I or others in my group have experienced with GMless games, sometimes bad enough that it makes the experience unenjoyable. I’m going to use this post to talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and some things I like to do in my GMless design to mitigate the bad stuff.
This is the good shit
So why do I like GMless gaming? The main reason is simply that I love focusing in on one character, creating and developing them, advocating for them and pushing them along whatever journey they turn out to be on; but I also love getting my hands dirty creating and developing a world and situations, using those situations to create problems and opportunities for others and portraying more than one character. Some GM’d games allow me a bit of both, but it’s unusual for a GM’d game to scratch both itches at once. By contrast my best GMless experiences have given me both in spades. It’s a particular issue for campaign play, where I’m effectively committing to stay in one role for a long time – this nearly always leads to frustration that I can’t switch roles.
There’s more, though! A big part of the fun of roleplaying, for me, is when I create something or do something and then others input to that in unexpected ways, and my own creation ends up going somewhere I couldn’t have planned or better yet boomeranging back and hitting me in the face. And while this does happen in GM’d games – everything the GM says or does can prompt unexpected action by a player, and vice versa – with GMless games I can literally create something and have someone else run off with it and make it part of something I had nothing to do with. A character I created could end up played by someone else, could literally hit my character in the face. The potential for creative interaction in a GMless game is particularly rich.
Issues with GM’d play
There’s also an issue that can arise with GM’d play where the fact of one person having a superior position in terms of information and mechanical power leads to the rest of the players becoming kind of passive. At the extreme, it can lead to a sort of spoon feeding, where the GM is responsible for all the fun, and the players are only there to react to what they create. Many GM’d games have tried to break out of this in various ways (see footnote 3 below for examples) but it is devilishly difficult to create the mindset of active contribution once it sets in. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to get a group into GMless gaming, once they’ve got into this mindset – something I’ll discuss later.
Indeed, GM’d play can create a lot of pressure for the Chosen One who must turn up every week with ideas and energy. There’s no rest for them. A player can sit back and be a bit passive on a given session (or even over a whole campaign, if they’re so inclined). As long as they haven’t ended up in the role of group leader (which has some similar issues), they can engage or coast and the game mostly copes. This can be a plus for the individual and for the group, since the game doesn’t fall over if one person is wiped out. But by contrast if the GM is exhausted or not in the mood (or worse, burned out), the game cannot proceed. It dies. So many games have met this fate – I can’t imagine anyone who has played a GM’d game hasn’t experienced it. GMless play carries risks of its own in this regard (see below) but it doesn’t rely on one person to be awesome all the time.
Problems with GMless play
Alright, that’s my two big positives for GMless gaming, and my two big negatives for GM’d gaming. But I’ve said that I have had problems with GMless too – let’s talk about those. Let me say right now that some of these issues aren’t exactly new blinding insights, and there’s lots of tools out there for dealing with them, which I’ll talk about as we go.
Direction, energy and structure
There’s a big one around direction, energy and structure. Sometimes in the absence of a GM there’s nothing to stop the game kind of meandering or stalling. There’s several ways this can happen. One is on a scene-by-scene basis, where nobody really has an idea for what a scene should be “about” or where it’s going, and so it just fizzles. But then, on a story level, a bunch of energetic scenes may not really add up to much, and the overall arc of the game becomes frustrating or boring. This is I think a particular problem if a group includes players who aren’t used to being in a GM-like role, who tend to play passively and not want to push things in any given direction.
On the other hand, the opposite can happen. One person might be so pushy or definite in their ideas that they take over every scene and become de facto GM. Or two or more people may be trying to do stuff at the same time, creating a different type of lack of direction. And one way that this can spill over in the opposite direction is where people feel the only way to effectively contribute to the game is to fire exciting things at each other, in an escalating pattern that is sometimes called Going Gonzo.
Direction, energy and structure problems generally come from two things: a lack of common creative ideas, and a lack of structure in the game design itself. This can easily lead to meandering or chaotic play, and if players aren’t listening to each other and simply pushing their own ideas, it can also lead down the path of Gonzo. Fortunately there’s lots of approaches to help deal with this:
- For the group, discussing and agreeing what the game might be about before the game, and perhaps during as well. Things like Microscope’s palette are simple tools to get yourselves on the same page. Caerllion introduces the neat idea of a Lodestone which tells everyone broadly what the story is going to focus on.
- For the individual, actively listening to others’ contributions and responding to them, as opposed to waiting for them to guide the scene to wherever they might be headed or trying to jump in and provide some impetus of your own.
- For the designer, avoiding an entirely freeform approach to the game’s design, but helping to provide nudges towards the particular kind of play you want to see in your game. This can take many forms: you can create specific types of scene which help the players to focus on a particular kind of action; you can structure the overall arc of the game; you can provide prompt lists so people don’t draw a blank; you can mechanise the way that players contribute, constraining what they can do; and more besides. What you’re trying to do here is make sure that nobody comes to a scene without a clear focus, and perhaps give them a menu of approaches to reduce the risk of drawing a blank and reinforce the tone of the game.
- (When it comes to introducing structure you have to be careful, of course, that you don’t remove all the interest from the game. There has to be player input to the action, else why play at all? The best structured games exert a light touch and leave a lot of undefined space where player creativity steps in.)
- A particular approach I’m fond of is to explicitly call out who is responsible for the direction of a particular scene. I’m not saying someone has an idea and then railroads everyone else into following it (though you could do that). But in every scene someone – mandated by the rules – is responsible for framing a difficult situation, or introducing adversity, or preceding the scene with a question which everyone is trying to answer, or similar. This avoids diffusion of responsibility and reduces the risk of meandering; and as long as this responsibility rotates, it can help prevent one person taking over.
Mysteries, secrecy and black boxes
By the way, a particular subset of direction issues arises from the Black Hole problem, where someone creates a mystery or black box of some sort and then neglects to resolve it. For example, I introduce a character who is clearly up to something, but I refuse to make it clear what that something is and seem to be hoping someone else will make the decision for me. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t do this, and not doing it needs to be a part of every GMless game’s guidance. It can be ok to introduce something and ask someone else to define it for you, but this does generally require you to explicitly ask them to do so, not simply expect them to guess that you’re hoping they’ll do it. So, it’s ok to have a mysterious stranger carrying a black box – but then you either need to decide what’s in it and make that true, or ask someone else what’s in it and be guided by what they say.
Related to the above is the general problem of secrecy. If I want to play a game with a mystery in it, one that is genuinely mysterious, it necessary to have a person who owns that mystery and secretly knows what’s really going on? You might think so, because otherwise two people with conflicting ideas might unknowingly undermine each other, and anyway how can something be really mysterious unless I have no part in defining that mystery? Having ownership of mysteries is not a bad idea – and it doesn’t necessarily require a GM, you could just make it clear when you introduce your black box that it’s yours, you know what’s in it, and everyone else should defer to you in matters black box-related. But it is possible to have a mystery that nobody owns without it not being mysterious. Lovecraftesque does this – at the end of every scene, the players individually and secretly “leap to conclusions” about what happened in the scene, so that everyone has their own pet theory about what’s in any black boxes that may have been introduced. And because only one person is Narrator at one time in Lovecraftesque, there will always be moment-to-moment consistency about what the black box seems to be. This does require you to pay attention in every scene, so that your pet theory remains consistent with everything that has happened! But I would argue that’s a good thing.
Another problem which seems to be more major for some people than for others is the issue of hopping between roles, so that you feel a lack of connection or commitment to any one of them. A particularly important subset of this is a feeling of not being able to “immerse” in a character, because you’re too busy trying to think about things outside of them. It seems as though there can be a conflict of interest – and a difference of mental attitude – between advocating for one character and guiding the “story” or the broader elements of the game world, which can prevent people from really getting into either one.
This, it seems to me, is a challenge that hasn’t quite been answered by any one game as yet. However the approach we took with Lovecraftesque, and which I’m taking with my game Flotsam, is to avoid it by making role changes much more structured and well delineated. In other words, I don’t ask you to play your character and be the GM at the same time – I ask you to do both roles, but at different times. In this way you can dedicate yourself to one job at a time. Flotsam attempts to make this flexible, by giving you permission to step outside your character and make GM-like contributions, but also making sure there’s nearly always at least one person who is on point as GM, who will deal with any GM-like contributions when they’re needed, so that you have permission not to do it when you’re focusing on your character. Flotsam is being playtested at the moment, so it remains to be seen how successful I’ve been there. Another possible approach to mitigate the problem is to make parts of the game off-limits to GMly intervention, safe spaces for “pure” in character interaction where you can focus on being your character. Indeed, When the Dark is Gone applies such an approach to an entire game (I suspect it may also be a common approach in LARP, where GM interventions pose other problems).
Too much like hard work
A final problem to mention is the “everyone awesome, all the time” problem. The problem with everyone being GM is that the issue I identified earlier on, of constant pressure on the GM, applies to everyone. I’m expected to contribute to every scene, I have to be always creatively ready to pick up what others create and build on it. This can be exhilarating! It can also be exhausting. And it means if anyone comes to the game not really ready to contribute, then the game may stall. If a lot of the group are tired or feeling passive, then it can start to feel like a GM’d game where one person ends up taking the reins. It also can be off-putting for many groups who aren’t used to the pressure of being switched on for a whole session, or simply don’t want to have to be. This may explain why a lot of GMless games are designed for one-shot play: short, intense, and over before you get too tired.
I think this last is chiefly a problem for us game designers. We need to find ways to design our games that allow people to step back and take a break. Don’t create a setup where everyone is always on. (Or maybe do, but then make it a one-shot and/or encourage breaks.) You can do this by not having a fixed requirement on who is involved in a scene, so that those with the energy pick it up and get involved, while those who are tired spectate; or you can do it by having a fixed requirement by making sure that it rotates around, leaving everyone with quiet periods they can just watch and listen. Again, in Flotsam I’m trying to design a system that lets people switch in and out in a fairly flexible way, choosing how actively they want to be involved – we’ll see how well it works in practice.
I’ll just finish off by saying that a lot of these problems can be solved on a group-by-group basis through a culture of listening, give and take, common ideas about what’s fun and so forth. Some groups may be so good at this that these problems don’t even arise. That’s great – but not every group has this, and it can be challenging to develop such a culture. As a game designer I want to help everyone to get a good experience from my games by providing tools which reduce these problems regardless of what group they’re in.
Ok! That was long. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences or approaches to cracking some of these problems. Please do give your views in comments.
 “GMless” is sometimes replaced by the word “GMful”, which I believe to be interchangeable with “GMless”, and merely a way of emphasising that in a GMless game, everyone gets to be GM. I have also seen “GMful” used to mean a game where the GM role exists but different people occupy it at different times.
 As far as I’m concerned, any game that doesn’t have a single person who has primary responsibility for describing the world, playing the bulk of the characters (except for the “player characters”) and generating any adversity required for the game, is at least partly GMless. Sometimes that’s because the role exists but rotates, sometimes it’s broken down or structured and handed out amongst the group, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.
 Games like FATE have mechanics that give me temporary ability to narrate stuff outside my character, PBTA games usually include a bit of co-authorship for the world in the form of question-asking, and arguably most GM’d games at least give you some creative input on stuff outside your character such as key NPCs connected to them.
 GM burnout being a good example – though that is also caused by the pressure that a highly GM-led gaming approach tends to heap on the GM.
 There’s a whole set of ways in GM’d gaming where you can create stuff that literally never interacts with anyone else. The secret backstory nobody ever finds out about. The mega-plot that nobody knew was happening. Even the notorious cases where the plot is a railroad, with the players forming a passive audience to it. I’m not going to say this can’t happen in GMless gaming, but the whole setup makes it pretty obvious to all concerned that if you didn’t say it out loud, it hasn’t happened yet, so secret plot and backstories could get nixed by someone else any time; and railroading is essentially impossible. Good!
 These same tools are useful for ensuring a consistent genre and tone as well – which can potentially be a problem, but in my experience much easier to solve.
 I put “story” in quotes there because I don’t buy into the often-promulgated idea that GMless games mean everyone just focuses on the story and everything else is secondary. This is not how I play GMless games at all! It is true that I sometimes take individual decisions differently “for the good of the story” but it’s very much not the main approach. I dedicate myself to the fictional situation and push it forward, while actively trying to get my contributions to engage with what others are doing, and I don’t particularly worry about “is this making a good story”. For me, story is something that doesn’t happen in any given decision or moment, and it’s something that one only really needs to pay attention to when things are going wrong.