Rotating GM Campaigns

Hello all! I am doing a little research for my RPG newsletter, Murmurs from the Cloven Pine. In the next installment, I’ll be discussing campaigns with rotating GMs.

I’ve had a little experience of this myself, but only on the level of having a player step in a guest GM for a few sessions of a campaign I was running, while I dropped in as a PC. Do you have experience with more fully-rotating GM responsibilities? What’s gone well or badly for you in a campaign with multiple GMs? And what can game designers do in their design work to facilitate the possibility of GM rotation? How about players at a table?

Thanks for your thoughts! I’m excited to hear about your own experiences or what you wish to see more of.

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We played a rotating GM Champions campaign back in the days. So each GM had a colourful mission-giving GM character, and a playing character. Everything went well. We played from modules the other GMs ignored. We were always fresh as GMs and as players it brought variety, too.
Having our playing characters not totally left in the freezer when we GMed was a sine qua non. Maybe you can keep this idea.

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At one point, I designed a “procedure” for a “rotating GM campaign” for the the game Red Box Hack. Unfortunately, it was housed on a wiki which, as far as I know, is entirely lost.

The concept, though, was that the group of adventurers would have other missions and concerns. At the beginning of each “adventure”, they’d pick one member of the group to go away to accomplish something important (deliver the letter to the Princess or whatever). That character’s player would then become the GM. (The game had a series of prompts for determining the adventure that were structured as a conversation/debate between the adventurers. You might say, “I think we need to go to the Dark Forest,” and I might answer, “I don’t know, my friend, I heard there are giant spiders living there!”, and so the adventure would take form.)

I never got to playtest it, though.

I’ve seen one consistent “rotating GM” campaign, and that was the Grey Sands campaign, using B/X D&D. Many people in the group had adventures on the go, and a stable of characters. So any given person in the group could just say, “Hey, there is an expedition to the East. I’ll be running it at 9pm.” And then whoever wanted to play could join in. If their character(s) wasn’t/weren’t available, then they could still join in by rolling up a new one (and adding it to the character stable).

This meant that there were multiple storylines and adventures going on all the time. However, it was definitely facilitated by the structure of the game - multiple adventures and a character stable - rather than one, single, ongoing story.

There is a game called In a Wicked Age… which is intentionally structured this way. The first two sessions (Chapters) must be GMed by the same person, to set the tone, and then you’re free to rotate as you wish.

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In Night Witches it is suggested to change the GM when the group advances to the next duty station, a character is hospitalized, arrested or institutionalized or when the GM needs a break.

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Interestingly, the game Ryuutama treats the GM as controlling a character - namely, a dragon. And different color/season of dragon presents different kinds of “flavor” to stories given to the players. It’s not coded as such in the rules, but I can see this fitting very nicely into the idea of a rotaing GM situation, with each person taking a different dragon and rotating in “season.” I like this idea a lot but I don’t think my group has 4 people wanting to share that kind of responsibility :smiley:

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Ooh, fascinating. Do you mean each player essentially had two characters: a main PC, and a favored NPC they used to give missions while GMing? Or do you mean something else I’m not understanding about PCs not being “left in the freezer” while you took your turn GMing?

I like the conceit of your Red Box Hack idea! You could even have the next GM do a “love letter” for the previous GM, resolving what their character had gotten up to offscreen.

I clearly need to check out In a Wicked Age… also!

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I am glad you understood what we did. I can add that players who didn’t intend to GM also had two characters, so we could rearrange into various formations suited to different moods and approaches of the (superheroic) genre, and keep the whole troupe within the same XP range.

I’m the lead GM for the podcast “Let’s Start Over, Shall We?” and we’ve just pulled in 3 other GMs.

So far the biggest issues are keeping everyone informed and up-to-date on “continuity.” It takes a lot of organizational work, but even more importantly, it takes a very clear communication style, almost in the form of teaching sometimes. While everyone gets the tone, there’s also the fact that these are beloved characters, so it’s very easy to assume the players will do something specific because “that’s what the character would do,” but…that’s not always how it works out in the heat of the moment.

On the players’ side, it’s mostly about getting everyone to accept that GM styles can be different. What flies in one session may not in the next. There’s a lot of communication that goes with all of this, so it’s definitely a bigger workload for whoever takes point on the organizational and communication side. I excel at that stuff (or at least enjoy it), so I’m good with that piece as it gives me the chance to steer the ship and readjust without having to run sessions as often. But there are moments when other folks can take things personally that aren’t meant to be, feeling negated when it comes down to someone being either an equal, or even viewed as higher, authority than a GM in some instances. That sort of thing has had at least two potential GMs flame out before they even ran a session.

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I only have experience with rotating GM roles where it was an explicit feature of the rules.

  1. In Lovecraftesque you rotate the role of the Narrator in every scene.
  2. Fiasco and Protocol are generally the same.
  3. In Swords Without Master hack Gamma Thrones every motif card is overplayered by someone else.
  4. In Vast & Starlit you always ask a third player to arbitrate a situation.
  5. In Dream Askew everyone is both a player and a semi-MC who is responsible for different parts of the setting.

Most of these are thoughtful and well-written procedures. They need some routine but nearly always worked very well for us.

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