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.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

4 thoughts to “Wimping: the black hole of GMless games”

  1. Glad you found some useful stuff about wimping. ๐Ÿ™‚ It seems very appropriate to the situation your describing.

    Another bit of improv; obviously you are taught not to block (don’t deny/negate what the other person provides) but more than that one of the first things we learn is the basic “yes, and…” accept and add something.

    1. “Yes, and” is totally considered a piece of advice for roleplayers now – I don’t think many of us realise it originates in improv. Having said that, I think it’s mainly held up as “say yes if possible” rather than “say yes and add something in turn”, which I guess is at least half the point.

  2. I’m very familiar with this phenomenon, as I also play a lot of GM-Less games ๐Ÿ™‚
    I have to confess that, at the table, being aware of the problem did not help much… most of my fellow players will still throw “black boxes” because it is both easy and fun, a cheap way to add (potential) awesomeness to the story. But will then wimp, as the alternative requires a lot more creative effort and responsibility.

    A solution that I found to be effective is to allow players to contribute with VERY small chunks of information, and with only partial responsibility.

    One way to do it (which I use in both Tactical Ops and FateLess) is to allow players to ask Yes/No questions and roll a die to get the answer, ad libitum.
    These questions are much less intimidating and actually reveal a lot of the unconscious ideas the players have but don’t yet realise.

    What’s in the box?
    Don’t know… ask the die!
    Ok, is it something common?… No.
    It’s it something horrible? No.
    Mmm, uncommon but not horrible, is it alive? Yes.
    What the… Is it an animal? No.
    A plant? No.
    Maybe it’s a mineral…
    A living statue of a squid-like creature.
    But living?
    Well maybe it kind of pulses…

    What I’ve seen is that (within an adequate framework of player to player communication) just one answer from the die can be enough to break the ice and jog ideas, while a longer chain of rolls can allow the players to “fill the box” in a satisfying way ๐Ÿ™‚

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