I Need help getting closer to a distributed GM game system

Hi everyone, I think I’m at the edge of something, but I’m still having problems to put things together, perhaps you can throw me a line here. I’m back to my old game design and I wanted to try something else. It’s the old distribute GM chores among players, except that I’m really keen on making it so nobody feels them like chores.

Like, I spent a few years investigating and testing stuff for quick cooperative worldbuilding, until I got a 20-min minigame where players draw a map together, get a few questions and random tables to get them going. I also went the Fate Accelerated way about letting players come up with their skills, powers and items during the game, so at the start of the game they only need a concept for their character and establish bonds between their characters and the world they just made up. Everything ties back into worldbuilding and adventure creation thightly so far, but now I’m searching for two things:

1-get players to help in creating interesting challenges (Could those be tied to their character bonds? Also, I was watching the gameplay of Vast, a tabletop game where one player gets to play the dungeon, another plays the orcs and another plays the dragon. It’s competitive but it got me thinking, what if I could get players into the proper mindset and have a simple move they could pull out to flesh out some good challenges here and then?. I already tested something similar, a deck of cards anyone could take whenever it wasn’t their turn that let them add details to the scene, like sounds, descriptions of minor objects, take control of an NPC or even a monster, where the GM provided a goal for such character to the player and it was up to her to explain how they confronted the task. Still needs work, but maybe I’m missing simpler options?

2-get players to second-guess parts of plot development so the GM can take those suggestions up to 11 and into the next level. This is nothing new, like mountain-witching the players has been there for ages and I’ve totally been using it, and there’s just listening to players ideas when they are excited and sprout something like “hey, wouldn’t be fun if…?”. Yet I’m sure other designers have already come up with more tools to help players accomplish this. My goal here would be to have some sort of procedure where players can eventually come up with the solution to a mystery the GM hasn’t invented yet, based on the accumulation of details and facts they have feed the setting with since the beggining of the session. It needs some way to filter pieces that don’t fit into a plausible solution, branding them as red-herrings to keep results coherent. Have you heard of some game mechanic that already does this?

Thanks everyone for your time, whatever you can throw me here would be really appreciated.

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There was a game I wanted to recommend you take a look at and I’m having a devil of a time remembering it. It was a sci-fi rpg where each player controls a character but also controls a narrative concept. So one player might get to dictate what happens whenever space pirates come up. One player gets to dictate what the Cthulhu aliens do whenever they show up. One player gets to control what happens whenever robots show up. Etc. I think that might have some good inspiration if anyone can help me out here.

My second idea is I think what your game might need is mechanics that motivate the players to drive the narrative. It’s a given that everyone is sitting down to collaboratively create a story but if you do not create roles or limitations to what each player mechanically “wants” everyone might run into the same pitfalls group brainstorming does.

I would suggest having either predetermined or self-determined narrative twists that are unique to each player, either codified as moves or something like an alignment from DnD. Say the characters need to pilot their ship from one planet to the other; player A might have the intrigue narrative role so they want to create some kind of sabotage in the ship that the characters won’t discover until they’re out in space. player B however has the space horror narrative role so they want some kind of extra-dimensional being to invade the ship on the journey. If there is a system for determining who gets narrative control you have a mechanized way to let players chuck monkey wrenches into the narrative. If you trust them to do this for the enjoyment of it that’s perfect but there could also be some kind of reward system so that there is a mechanical drive to push your narrative.

A twist on this idea might be to have each player not controlling a specific character, but the relationships between characters. Say in the story there are characters A, B, and C. Player 1 might be assigned the role of have character A die horribly, Player 2 has the role or having characters A and B fall in love, while Player 3 has the role of ensuring all the characters complete their mission successfully.

I feel like I’m starting to ramble so I’ll cut off here. Let me know if this is going in the direction you’re looking for.

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I think of the Murder of Mr. Crow. in that the murder mystery is not predetermined. Maybe @Rickard has some advice.

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yes, more or less, thanks! at least it’s giving me ideas. I’m also seeing some potential pitfalls and remembering others from my previous playtests, so I’ll rephrase your ideas here to adapt them to my current system and avoid the mentioned pitfalls.

I think I can have a really short deck of cards that give players control over two different game aspects: Assets (NPCs, Monsters, objects, sounds, etc) and Moods (ominous, tension, danger, relief, etc), where the mood you get gives you a goal for how to use the asset you get. I can put both side to side on each card so players draw two cards and chose which mood and which object they want to use.

Also I’m using a Palette in the worldbuilding phase, a list of things players would like to see in the game, made by brainstorming ideas with everyone. As a GM I write them down to help me take mental note of what type of game and atmosphere the players are looking for, but then the list itself sees no further use during the game. So now I’m thinking players should write them down on their character sheets too and whenever they get to add details through the cards they can choose to either use anything related to their words or take an asset suggested by another card.

As a relief technique for players I could explicitly introduce some sort of ritual phrase, like “give me a hand here” whenever anyone needs help or gets a blank page syndrome.

I guess that’s all I have for now, but thanks a lot for the help, it definitely helped me shape things in my head a bit better.

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Isn’t the SF game Shock?

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Yes that’s the one. Thank you! My earlier description is not quite right but people interested in distributed GM systems should definitely check it out.

Non character player agency is something I really like in SF. Sadly I never played it, but the design is there. You can look up Claims in Annalise on the topic, too.
For Goals, my goto game is Capes. Just add a safety quorum of 2 to validate a goal and you’re set.You dont need the betting part.
If you want to dig into the betting part, Law’s out is simple and is compatible with your freely authored traits.
Speaking of which, if you don’t go the obvious route of non character player ressource (“disconnected” interpretation of skills or plain “fate” points), Devil’s bargain is good for #2.
To elaborate on map drawing, you can have mystery encounters only one player is in charge of prepping, a local GM. It works best if : the adventure is a tour (or quest) and every encounter will be played ; the GM player’s character is put on the side (for business, imprisoned, etc.)

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reminds me of something I used in an old Anima campaign. In the previous arc the PCs became evil, so for the next one they made new characters and the old ones became the generals of the BBEG. On each session one of them got to play their old character, now under specific orders from the BBEG. Their main PC went out of action for some excuse and the player was given a silly devil hat to play their evil PC. There was always a punishment the BBEG gave them whenever they failed to carry his orders, but otherwise they were free to try to become good again, which some of them tried. It was hilarious.

Coming up with a good excuse for their PCs to went out of scene was the main pitfall here, unless the game embraces a zany take on this or finds another formula.

Thanks for all the references! Still giving them a good look to connect the dots.

EDIT: Actually, this could solve a small problem I’ve got in my current campaign. The previous campaign was a cyberpunk that finished with a couple of loose ends, which prompted a new campaign, 1000 years in the future where things have taken an Horizon Zero Dawn turn. Their new characters want to find out what happened to the old civilization, and now they are just discovering their old PCs were involved, as they are finding now the ruins of places from the previous campaign. I had a few ideas about the whole mistery, but now I’m eager to find out what are the players thinking the mistery could be. At some points they will find old recordings from their previous characters, personal objects, signature weapons and things they have prepared.

How about instead of prepping those, I give the players a chance to play their old character in the recordings and a fixed number of things they can either prepare, give to their new characters, tell them about or find out about how the mess started? I can have them roll a die to see how well preserved things are or roll it in secret to see if the data their old PCs found was accurate. Or if it’s way too cool, give it to them for free.

Since those days in the old Anima campaign, I’ve become more and more convinced that letting players come up with stuff always ends up being way better than burning myself up to come up with cool stuff and railroad the players into finding it.

I’m stumped, and can’t really come up with a good answer, because it seems like you want to design a game without a game master (participants comes up with twists and challenges) but you still want to have the ordinary(?) game master.

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Heh, hi Rickard! Well, maybe it’s a different Rickard but I remember seeing your name at SG. Anyway, sorry for being such an Ahab but I can’t help chase this white whale once in a while.

I give you that making games without a game master and still have the ordinary RPG experience is like having your cake and eating it too; everybody and their uncle have claimed it possible, tried, failed and been laughed at, or attained a middle ground where the experience sorta does what it should but in a way that everybody feels like something is missing; like the designer got a purple whale and painted it white to sell it.

If it were possible in the real sense of the words, tabletop and video games could have got there already, but they haven’t (correct me if I’m wrong). There are however fun things that have been done that get halfway there in both of them and in tabletop RPGs too.

So, what I’m trying to accomplish rigth now is just being an even more lazy GM, make even less prep that I’m used to (because I’ve got a baby girl now, more responsabilities, less time, can’t deal with the stress of prepping chores and just want to have fun, etc) and let players come up with stuff but without overloading them… while still act the ordinary GM part. With SG gone I’ve been having trouble to find out how are games progressing in terms of mechanics, procedures, rules and theory, so the next best thing I figured was to ask around here. It’s been quite informative so far, thanks everyone!

Hi! Yeah, it’s me from Story Games. I even have the same avatar. :slight_smile:

Trouble I’m having with your premise is that the game master’s role is pretty traditional, and players will think that they are starting to treading too much on the game master’s territory when they start making up plots. I even had this experience with hardcore collaborative storytelling players. You need to set up the correct mindset for them to start contributing in the right way, but even that will diminish after a while if you don’t reinforce the mindset (of contributing) - mostly because of the outspoken game master role.

That said, I know of a couple of games that successfully managed to enforce, and keep, a high level of player influence.

The playtest documents for The Coyotes of Chicago is pretty unclear when it comes to how to play the game, but it’s almost like there everyone but one are game masters. The last person is the player, and the game masters have agendas and stories that they try to fit together with each other.

Kagematsu have a game master in form of a ronin that the players need to convince to save their town. Everything evolves around the ronin, but the players can suggest scenes to play out, based on a clear structure on their character sheet.

I burned myself out as a game master fifteen years ago, and almost abandoned roleplaying games, but then I discovered InSpectres, that presented a structure of play that made the game master mostly ask questions and come up with challenges, and then the players can do whatever to solve it. First half of the game is basically the players coming up with a lot of stuff, which will give you enough input to create a (silly) adventure for them to play.


I also think it’s easier to break a certain way of thinking by introducing specific moments in the game where the players should act in a certain way. For example, you could have specific roles in your game that introduces different elements. The jester just wants to create confusion between the players, the spider wants to create conflicts; you can even let these be gods that uses the ordinary character roles as token.

Or you can call for a specific scene type in your game where you take turns coming up with stuff that makes it harder for the player’s characters. “Come up with something about the player’s character on the right, that will make his/her life [xxx] (depending on the style of the game). It’s OK to pass.” I actually had a dedicated round like this, in a tactical game, because I wanted the players to collaborate more, and it worked great. It constantly reinforced the mindset I wanted.

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I came here to see if anyone said Belonging Outside Belonging as a system which distributes setting elements to players, but it began with Dream Askew / Dream Apart and I quite enjoy Before the Spire Falls and Venture!

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I did sooooort of what you ask in OKULT. However I didn’t offer much in the way hand holding in the mechanics.

The players were expected to track the clues themselves and make “reasonable” interpretations. Experienced GMs who found themselves playing it had no problem, beginners however were quickly overwhelmed by rapidly branching story, sometimes giving up on the mystery-portion of the story, being content to play their characters in a more supporting role, leaving the tough stuff to the players who “seemed to get it”. Or just doing things at random, causing more wildly branching story trees for the players who were indeed trying to keep track.

Perhaps not much help to you, but still, at least got to know about about the issues I faced.

Perhaps you could make a set of prompts or questions to answer during the game, so that everyone get on the same train. Like the game board in Zombie Cinema, which shows event, but with points in the investigation. I think it would curb the rapid expansion of the possible endings to a more manageable level.

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One possibility is to “outsource” or “externalise” your distributed GM roles.

What I mean by this is for you to make the roles physical.

If you have five different roles that you require your players to inhabit as GMs, make five distinct tokens. Those tokens get physically handed out to the players.

The presence of the physical token becomes a mnemonic device, reminding all of the players that they’re meant to be doing whatever it is their tokens require them to do.

In addition to the tokens, you need to systematise the roles. Turn them into “moves”. ‘If THIS happens, do THE FOLLOWING ACTION.’

And, you need to systematise passing the tokens from one player to the next. Among the lines of, ‘When this turn is over. Hand your token or tokens over to the next player, going clockwise.’

With everything systematised, and with external tokens, it becomes easy for the group to know what’s expected of each individual, at what point in the game, and for what purpose.

While I haven’t done this in gameplay, I’ve done it in brainstorming sessions with groups. I have each person make a newspaper hat. We all have a bundle of different coloured slips of paper. Each colour represents a specific thinking skill to use in the brainstorm. (Blue=explorer, yellow=artist, green=judge, red=warrior – these come from Roger von Oech’s CREATIVE WHACK PACK.) When we’re exploring the issue, we all pop a blue slip of paper into our hat rim. Or, if we want all four creative archetypes present in the room, were choose the slip of paper that best represents our view. This works really well. So I’m assuming it might translate into something that’ll work in gaming.

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Sorta did something similar in a game and I’m planning . The players had a deck of moves they could draw whenever their characters weren’t on the scene. I was amazed how quickly the players got into the mindset of using these cards to GM stuff into other player’s scenes and the amount of awesome material we got to keep things going. In time this feeds my own inspiration so I can throw curve balls back at them. Whole interesting narrative twists begun from scenes the players made up using these tools. I still need to improve these cards to get a wider arrange of scenes and make limitations on each card use more clear.

The way we used it the card got discarded once the player had given their input on the scene and it was left for me as a GM to finish connecting the dots from that scene to the next. I’m still ok with this, as I’m not aiming for total GMfull game, just one with a very lazy GM.

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I hear what you’re saying, @Warriormonk (and I’m also a familiar person from SG!).

I think we’ve all spent time thinking about such things, but the issue here is, as @Rickard says, a lack of clarity in terms of your goals. You need more constraints in place and a more clear idea of what you want before you can create an implementation. It sounds like you’re grasping for something, but you’re not exactly sure what it is.

Here are three things you can try:

  1. Give a long, hard thought to what shape you want the game to take. What are the roles of the players? What is their relationship to their characters? What tools is the GM (you?) happy to use, and which do you wish they didn’t need to use at all? Etc.

I’m not entirely sure, from your writeup so far, why the game even has a GM, for example.

  1. Or, from the opposite end: just try a variety of things. Don’t worry about the end goal, but grab for one vision, technique, or tool at a time and throw it into the mix. Some will stick and some will not. (This may demand an understanding and easygoing group.) Play a variety of games, too.

  2. Start typing up or otherwise recording moments in play that are just right, feel good, or bring you joy. Write an example, whether from your actual game or from your imagination, and then throw it at us to see if it might inspire an implementation. That’s much easier than a vague prompt to making your game “different” and “more distributed”, which is very hard to pin down.

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All right, I’ll try to narrow things down. It’s clear to me where I’m right now with the design as it is.

Right now the game works like a platform to help players create a setting and create characters bound to that setting. I run it as an ordinary GMed game but I have several procedures and a few techniques/ ritual phrases that allow me as a GM to get the players come up with stuff on the go, with no creative pressure. My impro skills are already honed to say yes to their input or ask them for a roll and then proceed to build upon it. I’m listening to them as we play, I identify the player’s agenda as we come up with stuff and get to add a bit of my own.

I can keep things going pretty fast so players keep focused and it turns things into a hectic fun brainstorm; yet I have identified the amount of material needed to start and keep things going, so I ask the players just the bare minimum instead of stopping everyone in their tracks when they throw too much stuff at me (this happens sometimes anyway, but then players know they are going too far and are ok if I say no. We barter a bit, I may still add extra input if I find a good place for it.

I’m not focusing on a genre or anything too narrow in the theme, since the player’s agenda may vary a lot with the worldbuilding procedures I’m using. I do add custom mechanics when we play a long campaing and players decide to focus on something, like a cyberpunk setting or replicating Horizon Zero Dawn main mechanics in a similar setting. But I won’t use those custom mechanics for this particular version of the game (and I think I can replace most with a few generic mechanics that can have different esthetics according to the game)

For example I’m using some old school durability mechanic (blackhack or whitehack, can’t remember right now from where I stole this one) where items start with a durability of 4 and each time it gets damagedm, it’s charges get used or ammo is depleted, player rolls 1d6. Over 4, she still has enough charges or item is undamaged. If the player rolls under, the durability goeas down by one and GM describes the damage or the PC has to waste their turn recharging, etc. If it hits 0, the object is destroyed or no longer can be used until the PC finds charges/ammo. The same mechanic can be applied to bonds, so now it covers a wide array or genres, and can be skipped for some items if the game’s agenda is more about power fantasy/princess play.

You can say that right now the game has a GM because it makes players feel less pressured on creating content, or creating quality content. The GM takes their input and builds upon it, connects the dots and gives it back at them so they can do the same. Things scalate and again the GM is here to keep some degree of control, to avoid a branching that could derrail the story. The GM does have ordinary functions in the design, but should be able to skip some of them here and there, be lazy and come unprepared to the game. On another level, the GM presence gives the players enough confidence to start giving their input, as it is comforting enough to stop fearing blank page syndrome.

About #2 & 3 yes, that’s been the way I’ve been working until now. I’ve been reading, playing, hacking and stealing from many indie RPGs for years, and I’m still hungry for more, I just wanted some new recommendations. I was hoping someone else had invented somewhere a procedure or some mechanic to help a group come up with a feasible mystery/whodunnit without having anyone prep stuff before the game. I’ve seen some good ideas on the links posted here.

It’s a bit late, so let me know if there’s anything else that I can clarify to get better feedback, I’ll try to answer it on the next days. Thanks a lot for your and everyone’s time, help and interest!

That’s a really good description! And very helpful.

However, it also sounds like it’s working well already. What’s missing or not working as well as you would like? How would your ideal version of the game or play style be different? Where is it less than satisfying?

Hello, WarriorMonk. I like that kind of design, Resourceful and all.
I guess you want to write down the procedures so that other players could take the Facilitator role you play. After all, they already are competent worldbuilders.
I’d say your problem is
1° facilitation requires attention to multiple factors so that a linear procedure misses the point and an agenda of principles runs the risk of being too vague. Decision making requires sophisticated technology and you’re not ready to take the GM-ful leap, given that …
2° you want an aesthetic unity and a narrative closure (“to avoid a branching that could derail the story”) GM leadership can give.
Also 3° For murder mystery a GM serves you asymetric information on a silver plate.

I follow a parallel path but have decided from the start that the cost of having only one GM is too high. Using Capes’ Goals mechanic, I let players come up with all kind of challenges in little time, only some of them being validated, then fought for, sometimes left on the side and reserved for later. Providing “ready made” challenges and outcomes, I expect my players will hone their narrative and dramatic skills. (and it works, except for those who like Princess Playing, Tea Party, Tactical simulation and Playing Shop, the game pulling strongly toward crisis and resolution and being too dirtyhippey to care for fictional resources management)

Thanks! actually writing things down helps me get things clearer.

And yes, it’s working fine so far, except when the player agenda includes a mystery. While I can do that on prep, I mean, create the material and make a trail of crumbs to get the players to discover something while the criminal runs circles around the PCs always one step ahead… or come up with a misterious event that leads the PCs into finding out something amazing… both ways require a creative effort that I can rarely have enough time to make, or stress me up since it requires an amount of illusionism I’m no longer comfortable with (I used to be good at theme park railroading but got burned up and later felt terrible for taking away player’s agency)

So that got me thinking about how good players are at coming up with amazing and interesting twists and conclusions then they are presented with partial data, and how easy is to take those ideas and narrate them up to eleven back to the players. The result has always been amazing both for me and the players, as I get surprised by the story as much as them and their expectations are not only meet but exceeded. Now I’m searching for a way to turn that into a proper mechanic.

I believe the mechanic has to include a way to create a kick, a starting event. Then it has to help players create interesting partial data (clues) that their PCs can explore into branching scenes. There must be a limit for such scenes (I’d go for 5, as the 5 room dungeon. This number is actually great to have in mind to keep one-shots or single sessions from overextending or getting boring). Finally it has to consider that some of the partial information presented to/generated by the players can be red herrings or coincidences, so the full data doesn’t need to be used to create the final solution to the mystery.

Most if not all of these things have been done before either by crude random tables or more refined procedures. I’ve been reading some interesting options I could add in this thread so far, that make me feel it’s possible. Now I need to codify all this into a somewhat simple move the GM can use to guide the players to create a mystery, come up with a solution and narrate it back to the players turned up to eleven.

So far I tried the random tables at the start to create things, but it’s still a slow procedure for me and an interruption in the game flow, as the GM has to stop talking with the players, roll dice, consult some tables, take notes and laugh maniacally to finally get back at them, 10 or so mins later with something half-cooked that can blow up the moment the players decide to take a different path.