How have you found GMfree/full/less PbTA Games?

I’ll start by saying I’m remaining to be convinced that PbTA works well as GMless (and I say this as someone who loves GMless games). In context I have been hosting some games of Noir World recently - the MC (called the Director) shifts ownership in each scene. In principle allowing the table to explore the themes of the shared story and create tight narrative scenes.

In practice - there is a real gap in success - and I think this comes down to a few key problems:

  • Although the players are bought in to play their characters if they understand PbTA they don’t know the MC move. To get to that level they would need to read and understand that aspect of the game. I find that many players, in all sorts of communities are not willing to do that. If not it puts a high cognitive load on the MC to marshal and adjudicate.

  • When we’re saying GMfree/full/less really what we’re saying is a table full of GMs. One weak link breaks the narrative and flow. Although it shares the cognitive load - it places some of the unique table responsibilities of an MC on everyone’s shoulder.

  • PbTA by its nature is often Genre emulation, structuring stories and playing stories in a genre requires a slightly different approach.

  • It is particularly unsuited to one-offs. The world build (which really can’t be shared if you are co-owning the setting).

There is some amazing game design out there - but this is a theme I’m seeing whenever a PbTA GMless game comes to the table.

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Does Dream Askew count here? It’s at least PbtA-adjacent, I guess.

Because your first point is something that Avery addressed extremely well by putting everything people need to know on the character and setting element sheets. There is indeed a lot of aversion to reading game rules and an expectation (coming from GMed games) that only one person should ever have to do that. With handouts that tell people exactly what moves to make and when, Dream Askew has a solid way of dealing with that. I’ve been in a con game of it for example, where even the facilitator almost wasn’t necessary anymore.

I don’t agree with the second point at all. I have a blogpost on it here: https://tearlessretina.blogspot.com/2018/11/english-criticism-of-gmless-rpgs.html

Could you say a bit more about your last two points, maybe, and how they are problems GMless PbtA games face? I’m not quite sure what you mean there.

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I agree with everything you laid down here, David, which isn’t terribly surprising since I think we both arrived at these conclusions partly by playing together in the same games!

I’ve never had a really satisfying experience with GMless pbta, and that includes Dream Askew where I’ve gotten closest but still fell short. Avery’s trick of distributing the world-building responsibility means people can self-select for what they’re comfortable with, but it still requires a level of in-game attention and being ‘on’ for the entire session that just doesn’t work with some players.

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From blog post:

There’s a cult around GMing.

True, there is a unspoken hierarchy of “Player -> GM -> Designer” which I disagree with. I think you can do only one of this or all three and none is better than the other.

More from blog post:

Look for the support mechanisms and use them.

Yes, I think we should, but I personally feel that sometimes those support mechanisms are lacking. Yes asking for help from others is a simple method to assist a player who may be struggling with the creative load put on them. But it’s a clumsy tool. I’ve seen it fall flat many times. When NO ONE has a good idea. When the asking player doesn’t like any of the ideas suggested. When ONE player is consistently the only person who comes up with suggestions. When the only player who comes up with suggestions, realizes they are talking too much, shuts up and then no one has any suggestions, but they keep staring at the person who use to be talking a bunch.

I would love to be in a world where games with no hierarchy didn’t have to refer to a GM at all (whether it’s free/less/full). BUT we don’t live in that world (yet). I think jargon has it’s place, when talking to other people who share the same language, and trying to speed up conversation with shared knowledge that does not have to be spelled out completely if everyone present knows the same background information. It allows conversations to become more in depth more quickly. What I have discovered, for myself, when referring to GMLess games, is that I’m better off not using GM at all. When talking to someone who has never played a role playing game, they don’t know and don’t care about the term and it doesn’t speed up conversation, so I’d have to fully explain the game anyway. When talking to folks who know the term, I have to explain it anyway because we’ve so often screwed up the jargon lexicon anyway that saying something is “GMLess” means different things to different people and I have to use more words to explain exactly what I mean anyway.

I do think it’s important to set proper expectations for what will be done in the game and what creative loads will be placed on the individual players. If each player is going to need to set scenes I try to include that in my pitch. If players are going to need to pick up other characters that are not their primary character, I try to include that in my pitch. If players need to pick up and play the opposition/antagonism I put that in my pitch. If the there is going to be collaborative world building, I put that in my pitch. Etc.

To me, trying to use “GM” jargon, almost always just bites me, and I have to use more words anyway.

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@Stentor_Danielson, I’m summoning you. As I think you will have some valuable insights here.

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I think that’s the thing Jim - the group matters immensely and there is an active GM state which requires some really shared load thinking. Less experienced people other than the people I played the first Noir World game with would have fallen apart.

Julian - I was specifically gomign from a PbTA position - Dream Askew (and Flotsam) I like - but face the same issue. If I get people in front of Archipelago, Microscope or Fall of Magic we’re up and running in minutes by an hour in you can be having some of the best game time ever. PbTA has a specific set of responsibilities for a MC/GM that are baked in - you have to be true to the agenda and know our moves to direct the game onwards. It is the truth of the system right? So as a result anyone who doesnt know those moves can break the flow of the game. When I hosted Noir World as a game with a rotating Director role - I said I would act as ‘producer’ and help facilitate even though I was also playing. This ultimately meant I had my attention divided.

In a one off that’s hard to get going with if people have not read the game - but if you are a GM facilitating a PbtA game you can get even new folks up and running quickly with the right PbTA game. Where appropriate you can have ‘adventures’ to get you fast into play very quickly.

Where that doesn’t exist you need to spend at least an hour building characters, hooks, ties that get you into play with the shared framework, at least this is a common PbTA trope - I’m not saying its universal. However - I’ve seen far better games which do away with the need of a ‘arbiter’ figure completely and share the load more evenly, and structure - I’d point to Good Society as an example much more effectively manages this as ‘masterless’ play with a clear structure for play.

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I read the blog BTW - and it puts a hell of lot of assumption starting with the proposition that a GM is a hierarchical position in a table (and frankly I can tell you I’ve never considered the designer as someone present in any table I’ve ever been on).

I don’t consider aby gaming table hierarchical - its a flat structure with specialist roles. One of the things I like in Flotsam is that it shares out the world (similar to Archipelago) - I’d still argue it wouldn’t work as well as it could if everyone had not read and understood the rules.

I think of it as if I was standing up a Scrum (Agile) team - there is no hierarchy at a table but some people have special roles. Even if you want to call yourself the facilitator/host etc… you still have to explain the structure of play, help where rules calls are needed.

PbTA puts a specific ‘playbook’ and set of moves in front of an MC in the same way a player does. When you take on that unique role around a table with a playbook or a MC set of moves you have a shared responsibility and a personal accountability to play. The issue with the MC responsibilities shifting is that the interpretation of hard move calls, the way you cut a scene, portray an NPC shifts as well.

Specifically this post was about that unique position of the MC as a reactive player role to others on the table - its a specific set of responsibilities and duties. Not a conversation on whether games with no GM work (they do).

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I can’t agree with this enough. Scrum turned my love of GMless games (like Fiasco) up to 11, while letting me see the MC as simply different and all hierarchy as essentially against human freedom.

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appears in a puff of smoke from @yoshi’s pentagram

I’m designing a GMless PbtA game (and find myself pretty much always designing GMless games in general), so I guess I have a few thoughts.

I think that, in general, GMless games require a different attitude to play than do GMed games. You have to think of yourself a storyteller rather than just a role-player in the narrower sense. Conventional PbtA is geared toward the latter – you’re immersed in your character’s point of view, coming up against challenges from the MC’s moves and trying to overcome them with a good roll (or at least one that lets you pick your own poison). On the other hand, a lot of good PbtA MCing advice is about inviting your players to step up to a slightly “higher” perspective – I’m thinking of things like Paint The Scene or the way you can ask leading questions of players about the situation (Sarah Doombringer is a master of this).

So to pull off a GMless PbtA game, I think you have to gear the mechanics toward putting your players in that storyteller mode from square 1. I actually found the Dream Apart/Askew system a bit difficult on this front when I played it. Having the separate playbooks for different parts of the world that get passed around meant we were constantly shifting perspective – from my character to the world playbook and back. In many cases, we largely ignored the mechanical aspects of the world playbooks and used the moves and questions on the character sheets to drive the story forward.

(As I’m sitting here typing this, I’m starting to think that GMless games require a sort of postmodern sensibility. If you have a GM, then the rest of the world is an objective entity that exists independent of the characters. Whereas in a GMless game, that world should exist only insofar as characters interact with it.)

In light of all this, one of my design goals with Get Ready 2 Rock is to integrate everything players need into a single set of play materials, so that players can maintain a consistent perspective on the world.

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There are a couple other assumptions that are happening here that I add some complexity to the narrative.

Are you playing your collaborative game as a one shot, or as longer game.

Because a lot of the problems that come up with a collaborative game is that most of them are either meant for single use play, or they’re in a convention setting where people are trying them out and the host ends up with a larger facilitation role because people who are playing are generally more used to directed games which historically have a hierarchical structure (individual epiphanies not withstanding, the history behind the role has been one of paternalistic authoritarianism and while that’s changing it’s not a “universal change”) and so run into those problems.

I think the longer term fix for a lot of issues is one of those culture changes. Where eventually, over time, we have more discussion about how collaboration is used in directed games which then carries over into larger audience games which then reinforces the idea of shared work when it comes to playing games.

Sorry, trying to add without reiterating other people’s very good points.

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Noir World is a 1 shot by design - Flotsam and Drew Askew have similar issues when run as a 1 shot from my experience (not in an experienced PbTA game group over multiple session though). Specifically its a question about PbTA.

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@StreamMonk What is it that you dig about Ironsworn that you think makes it a good example?

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Yup - but even more so than other examples all players have to learn the game and play with a ‘GM’ hat on. If you have a group who will all learn the rules and prep prior to play then a number of the problems reduce I find that rare!

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True but it’s going to suffer from all the issues that plague any collaborative game, which is what I feel was being more mentioned than it being something specific about PbtA games.

Like your first point goes back to the idea that people don’t want to handle MC responsibilities that are shared in a collaborative game, but that goes back to the general sense of how RPGs work, which is the directed model and it’s not unique the PbTA.

Your second point talks about the cognitive load, and the “weak link,” which again I think speaks to the same structural issues to point one. We feel that someone has to “be the GM” in a scene when they’re responsible for that work which creates that kind of paralysis and lack of desire for people to reach out for help … because that’s not what the view of the GM position.

It all goes back to the idea of how we have traditionally viewed directed games and the emotional, social, and performative elements of being the MC in a game.

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I don’t think that was my point (and again specifically this was a question about PbTA rather than letting it wander off topic)

I disagree - the experiences I am addressing are from a group of experienced PbTA players and MCs - I think it is one of confidence and fear of breaking the flow. Even in games which have no presence of a GM role someone still has to act as a facilitator. I would continue to position that the MC is a special player role but not a hierarchy in a PbTA game - they have principles, moves and a clear mandate no different from any other player. Its not something that happens in an Archipelago game as the load and ownership of the world is shared through a narrative framing that is really light and effective - failure resolution is also passed around in those areas of ownership.

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I almost exclusively play in GMless games with people with little experience playing GM’d games. We have similar issues with Archipelago as with Dream Askew: the world elements controlled by players are mostly ignored. That phenomena is more pronounced in Dream Askew because there are so many more mechanics around that role whereas in Archipelago the mechanics around world elements is so light. So in terms of those games, I don’t see much difference.

However, when we played Noir World I could see that not having read the rules was holding some players back from performing their Director role successfully. I think genre-emulation was a factor here too. I don’t think everyone was comfortable enough with the genre to know what to do in a GM like role, especially we don’t usually have GMs so some didn’t have much reference for what someone running a scene should do. And PbTA is focused primarily on genre-emulation, so perhaps the lack of familiarity with the rules has a bigger consequence in PbTA in an unfamiliar genre. PbTA usually provides enough scaffolding to help those unfamiliar with the genre to run an emulation of it, but when you’re playing a game like Noir World that requires you to be GM for a scene, the Directors sheet may not be enough because it can’t unpack the concepts necessary to make use of the guide. To a non-GM, what are principles and agendas and how do you use them? I think that is mysterious to a typical player.

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Coming back to this and trying to digest some of the conversation here: I can see at least two components to the typical GM role that take some careful design work to translate over to a GMless game within a PbtA framework: GM-as-world-player and GM-as-facilitator. (Note: talking here about fully GMless games, where nobody is in a distinctive GM-type role at any point – games that rotate the GM role among players raise somewhat different issues, I think.)

GM-as-world-player means that the GM controls what’s happening with the rest of the world outside the PCs. I dealt with one side of this in my earlier post, talking about immersion vs authorship as perspectives. But another aspect to it is that PbtA is typically set up so that players are engaged in a give-and-take with the GM. You roll a 7-9, and you look to the GM to give you a hard choice or nasty bargain. You roll a 6-, and you look to the GM to hit you with a hard move. If there’s no GM, that move structure doesn’t work. You have to write your moves in a way that enables players to create their own adversity. You can also go the route of reducing the importance of what the rest of the world is doing. Star Crossed isn’t PbtA, but it has enough similarities that I think you could easily write a PbtA game on that model. And what makes SC work is that what’s important is the conversation between the two partners, not the actions of NPCs and such.

GM-as-facilitator means the GM is the one who has read the rules and knows their ins and outs, and ensures that they’re being followed at the table. Writing a game that requires all players to have read the rules before play is unrealistic for 95% of play groups, and I can’t think of a game in which there is GM but the GM doesn’t need to have read the rules – there’s no “GM playbook” that lets one player step into the GM role as easily as if they decided to play the Witch or the Fae as a PC.

When I think about Fiasco (and I’ll admit that a big part of my fondness for GMless games is because I came to RPGs through Fiasco, and it olds a place in my heart similar to what OSR people feel for old-school D&D), I think one of the things that makes it work so well is that the rules are dead simple. You can get new players up to speed very quickly, so there’s no longer the need for the rules expert. For The Queen is another good example – reading the entirety of the rules is built into play, so you don’t need one person to have read them already. The hurdle with PbtA is that the rules are usually a good bit more complex than Fiasco or FTQ.

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I definitely see the issue the OP raises. As I see, it GMless PBTA games pose a number of distinct challenges.

Challenge one is around rules mastery / teaching.

  • Without structure, you get the loudest voices dominating
  • But structure implies rules
  • There’s a need/expectation that if you’re taking on the GM-equivalent role, especially around generating and resolving threats, you’ll have full mastery of those rules
  • So teaching/communicating the rules is hella important
  • PBTA GMless games tend to take a relatively structured/rules-heavy approach, hence this is particularly relevant to PBTA. (But also relevant to other more heavily structured GMless games IMO.)

Dream Askew has fabulous structure for the Playbooks, displaying everything you need to know in one place (albeit I’ve found with some cognitive load issues). In my experience it does less well on the Situation side, where things are less structured and therefore more freeform by default. That may explain experiences described above with the Situation side fading into the background somewhat.

Flotsam provides core mechanics for both the Playbook and Situation side of the game. This is meant to reduce cognitive load, but it does mean you have to learn that stuff - the information isn’t all there on the Playbook. On the upside, they’re very simple core mechanics and there’s a Teaching Guide to help communicate them. It can be a lot to learn in one go though, especially for one shot play.

Flotsam definitely benefits from having a facilitator who knows the rules inside-out and is watching out for opportunities to support the other players as they learn the game (and having one is explicitly called for in the text). I think this is pretty crucial for any game (GMless or otherwise) that has any real level of rules complexity. Even if everyone did read the book (and they won’t), someone needs to provide that support.

Challenge 2 is getting players who aren’t used to the GM role to be comfortable generating and pushing forward strife. I’m talking here about threats and challenges outside of the player characters’ relationships with each other. I think this is a particular challenge for PBTA GMless games, because they do tend to assume a degree of outside challenge/threats that don’t exist in the same way in (forex) Fiasco. This is culturally just a thing that is seen as hard. Knowing how hard to push things, when to step in - it is a skillset that isn’t that hard to acquire IMO but the prevalence of the GM model means some people have practice at it and some don’t.

What both Dream Askew and Flotsam do that is neat is hand the levers for generating strife over to the playbooks. You gain tokens by doing stuff that will cause you trouble, effectively inviting the Situation players to kick you. That open invitation is less daunting than simply having to make it up. I think that’s a key piece of technology here. But I definitely think there’s more scope to develop approaches that help people unlock the GM mentality.

Challenge three is around agreeing the details of a world and situation. It’s actually wonderful to do this as a group, rather than have it given to you on a plate. Doing this is something that tends to happen in PBTA games of all stripes, not just GMless ones. It’s challenging because it takes time and space, which you might not want to give, especially in a one-shot format. I’ve played quite a bit of PBTA one-shots and they either require a load of prep online to generate the shared creation aspects, or just do it more trad-style and have the GM tell you what’s what. That or go in with a fairly well-understood setting/situation “you’re modern day monster hunters” “you’re teen supers” and go from there.

What I think PBTA needs to do more of - I’ve done this in Flotsam and plan to do it more in future designs - is provide pre-packaged setting/situation stuff that has gaps in it for you to define details, but does a lot of the work for you. It’s a crucial tool that trad games know how to do and PBTA seems to routinely assume isn’t needed. But it’s particularly valuable if you need to get started in half an hour. So more of this please PBTA designers.

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(By the way, I hope the above doesn’t read as defensive - I’m relaxed about people discussing any problems they’ve had with Flotsam. It’s a very tricky design space and I doubt I’ve created the perfect solution!)

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Not in the slightest @rabalias - I’m a fan of Flotsam - but I think you’ve just answered my question - everyone has to RTFM. If the MC role is shared - everyone has to get the game more than a MC lead PbTA game.

Oh an dI would want to give something like Flotsam at least 4 sessions to breathe

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