The theory and practice of GMless/GMfull games


#1

A vibrant discussion of GMless/GMfull games got going over on Slack, so I’m transposing it here. I’ll more or less copy-paste some of my contributions and let other folks add their thoughts under their own names.

I think the question of how traditionally-GM responsibilities are handled is an important one, but I feel like labeling games as GMless [game mechanics handle GM responsibilities] vs GMfull [GM responsibilities distributed among players] dichotomizes what is really a spectrum.To me, what GMless connotes is the lack of “GM” as a distinct role in the game. A GMless game to me is a game in which no one player is set apart from the others as a GM – which is true for both “GMless” and “GMfull” games in the framework suggested by Yoshi and Mathias. And it’s the desire to get away from the GM-player asymmetry that motivates me to write GMless games.

I think this also gets at the issue (which came up somewhere else the other day) of whether we can distinguish games that are role-playing games in the strict sense from storytelling games. The need for a GM (whether as an individual player or as a distributed set of roles) comes up when you need the rest of the players to be fully inhabiting their character’s role, making decisions solely for that character. But talking about a GM or lack thereof wouldn’t make any sense for something like The Quiet Year, The Companion’s Tale, or Microscope.

I also think that while GMfull was coined as a way of sounding more positive, it can have the ironic effect of discouraging players who are new or lack confidence. For a lot of people, GMing feels like a huge responsibility and burden, and they feel they could never do it. So pitching a game to them as “GMfull” is a good way to get them to nope out from ever trying it. It’s something I’ve had to contend with when running Laser Kittens. But once they’re in, they often pick right up on it. I’ve also had great success running Fiasco with RPG newbies. I think there are a lot more people who mistakenly think they can’t GM than people who mistakenly think they can.


#2

I like the term GMless because it’s easy to understand. Most people who know rpgs have a good idea of what a GM is. These rpgs (Fiasco etc.) don’t have one.

I don’t use GMful as I don’t know any indie rpgs that the term would fit. To me a GMful game would be a trad game that’s run by multiple GMs as seen occasionally on conventions.

I have a post on my blog about some aspects of GMless rpgs that I think should be highlighted as opposed to common assumptions: https://tearlessretina.blogspot.com/2018/11/english-criticism-of-gmless-rpgs.html


#3

I don’t think it has anything to do with making something sound more “positive”.

Using the term gm-full when already talking about gm-less games is just a short hand of saying “this game has less of a guidance and structure in play” so typical tasks that are often handled by a GM fall to everyone. These tasks often include things like pacing, scene framing, scene calling, introducing conflict and adversity, world building, etc. They become a thing we all do to make the game run, so when we are all using gm-muscles to some extent, we are making this game full of gms.

It’s about seeing differences in gm-less games. Some are tighter and stricter in their structure, some are looser. One over the other doesn’t make them harder or better, just different. Being aware of those differences can help having a successful game.
That the term gm-full feels a bit clunky is helpful in drawing attention to this.

This is not about having a water proof nomenclature; it’s about helping set expectations.


#4

I totally agree.

For me, terms and jargon are useful for conveying information quickly with the same knowledge and context. When you are unsure of the classifications or what term to use, or there is a disagreement on what term to use, I have always had more success dropping the jargon completely and just using more words to explain what I wanted to say.

For me, a lot of games which do not have GMs how I describe them changes depending who I am talking to. If it is someone who primarily plays more trad RPGs, I’d probably use GM-full or GM-less depending on the game.*1 If the people I were talking to had never played a table top role playing game I’d tell them it was a collaborative story telling activity, “pretend for grow-ups”.

For me using GM-full with people who know what a GM is, gives them the expectations of the types of activities they will be expected to perform. Some people might come in with some built-in hesitation or fear at performing those tasks. To me, it’s more important they know what they are getting into, rather than tricking them into thinking they won’t have to do those tasks.

I’ve had quite a few mediocre and pretty bad experiences with GM-full games. When players struggled with those “GM” tasks. Often these tasks are creating the world, setting scenes, providing opposition, or improving a new side character on the fly. The game did not really provide structure and guidance for the player and was relying on the the player to just be able to “do it cold”.

Yes I think these “GM” tasks are things you can get better at, and I think playing games where those responsibilities are distributed is a great way to practice those skills with less pressure and less at stake - but it’s not NO pressure and NO stake. It’s collaborative, others will be relying on you to perform those tasks. You can get help, and it doesn’t have to be great, and you might be really disappointed in the results. To me, this is a feature not a bug, learning you can mess up or fail, that you don’t have to be “perfect” is one of the best ways to improve. I want to give people credit for the skills they are developing. Let them build that confidence that they can do some of these things that were (falsely) held on the “GM” pedestal.

*1: I think as of right now MOST GM-less games are actually GM-full, even if they call themselves GM-less. But if terms are not clearly being understood, I’d just drop them too and use the same language I would with someone who had never played a table top role playing game.


#5

I think the question of how to get people on the same page regarding the demands of a given rpg if they haven’t played it yet is very interesting. An unsatisfactory answer would be that - whatever the label - people will only be able to see if the game is for them by playing. Trad games have a huge advantage there because unlike GMless rpgs they’re mostly campaign games where a little time to get a feel for it is a matter of course.

I advertise games at conventions or club meetings with the label GMless. In doing that I don’t feel like I’m “tricking” the people who sign up for them. The culture is that when someone sits down to play, they expect a GM. In these games this won’t be the case. Framing this the other way around, this idea that in a GMless rpg we’re actually all GMs, sounds absolutely horrifying to me and that wouldn’t at all be something I would want to communicate to people about a game like Fiasco or whatever have you. I want it to be: We all play. And I would love to be able to put this in a way that didn’t reference GMing at all - I tried to do something like that in another article: https://tearlessretina.blogspot.com/2018/12/why-to-play-gmless.html - but the culture being what it is, I don’t think I can.


#6

Question. While I am all for the terminology discussion (my advocating goes towards removing GMfull and GMless completely though I did appreciate the differentiation above), I would like to shift to the throw out a practice question.

How do we feel we can improve the play experience for collaborative games? Because while mechanization of tasks is a thing because we are not making computer games at some point the people at the table have to become involved. What are some good ways avoid “having them go in cold” as @yoshi said either as practice at the table or as guide in the text?

Side note, and self promotion: I am slowly working on writing a guide for playing collaborative games.


#7

That’s a great question, Jonathan!

I think for a lot of games that rely on people coming up with lots of fairly involved stuff on the spot, the answer is simply more pregenerated content. Characters, worlds, places, scenes, prompts. Brandon Leon-Gambetta recently said on twitter that the best thing indie rpgs have forgotten is the module. I think he’s absolutely right.

Another more general point would be to ask how we want to deal with silence. Whether improvising or working off of a prompt, should people be encouraged to take their time to find something to say, which can turn into an awkward pause? Are we ok with that? Or do we prioritise not breaking the flow by advising to go with the first thing that comes to mind, asking for help, skipping a turn or picking from a list?

It should also be as easy as possible to listen to other players and take notes in various forms, because knowing what happened in play is the greatest resource you could have in a game like this. Instead of trying to come up with new stuff all the time, what’s there should be used extensively.

All kinds of tutorial or easy mode scenes can be an option. Just trying things out in a completely different context like Love in the time of Seið suggests or by having Introduction scenes like in The Final Girl or Remember Tomorrow, where it’s all about introducing characters, so not much content but you still learn how a scene works.

My preferred mode of play and what I advise people to do, is to avoid thinking about “story” in any way playing these games. Make a connection to your character, to other characters, to the world, to a scene and be true to them. Don’t think about where things are or should be going.


#8

Another more general point would be to ask how we want to deal with silence. Whether improvising or working off of a prompt, should people be encouraged to take their time to find something to say, which can turn into an awkward pause? Are we ok with that? Or do we prioritise not breaking the flow by advising to go with the first thing that comes to mind, asking for help, skipping a turn or picking from a list?

I love trying to tackle the idea of silence @Julian. That’s so hard because we’re so used to in a directed setting to have someone who handles that part. Without a director who is doing filling up those silences, it goes against what we’re used to and it can quickly get uncomfortable even when it’s not.

I know I have a hard time with it and personally I feel that silence is a good sign that maybe you need to have those meta conversations. Do you want to talk about what happened and what do we want to do next? For me I like taking those moments that are already breaking the flow and turn them into discussions about the game.

How do you feel about silences?


#9

Silence is good, in my mind. But this is not just for gm-less games. I think we sometimes forget to let games breath when we are playing in hard framed 3h slots with two breaks at the top of the hour.
Silence also enables us to use check-in tools.

So the goal for silence would be, for me, to make it comfortable—not to eliminate it. But I also don’t subscribe to the idea that talking meta is flow breaking by itself.


#10

re: terms

I do agree what you use for advertising a game is different than what you use in a detailed description and in expectation setting. Gm-full would just be confusing for someone new.

But when in conversation or longer texts… see Yoshi’s answer how and when to use it.

What I can’t follow is the notion that gm-less and gm-full are inherently bad terms? Unless you view the term gm itself as problematic (as in recent Twitter discourse discussed). Then, fair enough… but I feel that’s beyond the premise of this thread, or am I wrong?


#11

Personally, I think it would be a good thing to assure people that they’re not holding up the game or anything when they’re stuck because they can’t answer to a prompt, have no idea for a scene or don’t know what their character would be like. I know that I get uncomfortable a lot when I feel everyone’s waiting on me and I imagine that about other players, too. I would like to enjoy these silences more and lately, I’ve certainly been leaning towards just letting them stand. Of course, there should be checking in with people, because the silence might be for a more serious reason and even without the pressure described above, not finding anything to say can still ruin the experience for someone. Tools to get unstuck should be available to people beforehand, obviously. Also, the other players should be clear on what to do and not to do when there’s silence. But again, all that should be based off of the assumption that people taking their time to think is perfectly normal. Playing a GMless rpg isn’t a race to the finish line or live theatre.

As to turning a moment of silence into “discussions about the game”, I can certainly see how that would help some people and I like, for example, how Avery frames that as “Idle Dreaming” in Dream Askew. But she also writes that it is common to do that once for the Setup and then no more. I think for most games having these kinds of discussions muddles things, is way more than the game actually requires, makes play more difficult than it needs to be.


#12

In my view, there are distinct skills and modes of play. I want to tease those apart and keep them separate.

Skills: Player immersion, meta-game techniques, scene framing, etc. A player who is great at immersion might be bad at scene framing, or at using meta-game techniques. These aren’t quite independent skills, but they can be picked up at different times. Similarly, the ability to direct your character’s desires and intentions in a way that is positive for the game is a skill and one that is often at odds with immersion, especially when learning the skills.

Modes of play: Evil Hat published this recently:

Without the clickthrough: Play in such a way that your fun increases everyone’s elses.

Combining these two: If you have the gaming skills and are doing generous play, there is very little a GM is doing that you are not.

I hold this is true regardless of system; while the heavier systems (Pathfinder, etc) may require more work and especially pre-work from a GM, the social work is essentially the same. When a game designates one person as a GM and gives them positional authority, that’s, well, a bold choice.

I think it’s really important to focus on player skill and modes of play, and to chose systems for the level of skills and mode from those at the table. Something like Fiasco (or Dream Askew, the Quiet Year, Microscope, or anything that intentionally removes player differentiation and admits we are all just folk) works best with high player skill and generous mode, while anything with a GM has declared that many of those skills need only be with one person at the table.

I think it’s clear which I prefer, but YMMV.


#13

So I think (possibly wrongly) that GMless and GMfull refer to two different types of game both of which are outside the traditional GM model.

GMless games for me are games like fiasco in which someone might frame a scene at the start of the scene but then the action within the scene is entirely improvised from the perspective of the players within the scene (e.g. there is no one person responsible for playing NPCs, introducing conflicts or obstacles etc.

GMfull games are those which have a GM for a single scene (doing those meta-tasks of playing NPCs, introducing conflicts, obstacles etc) but that GM rotates scene by scene so that everyone gets a turn.

In addition to the above one of the things I did in the design of When the Dark is Gone (and which I’ve done to a lesser extent in other games and would like to get back to). Is the idea of a GM as a facilitator. So my favoured designs as those where you set up really juicy and complicated inter-personal drama between the players and a clear premise. Then as GM you faciliate the heightening of that drama with the aim that 1/3 to 1/2 (if not more) of the session runs itself as the players have cascading conversations to resolve those relationships. The GM would be there to move the action on, or occasionally poke those relationships (possible with NPCs or plot, possible just with OOC questions) but they are more a facilitator than creator. The existence of the GM in this role allows the players to fully inhabit their characters without keeping one eye on ‘looking for a cool idea for the next scene’ as can often happen in GMless or GMfull games. But the GM is not doing anywhere near the level of creative heavy lifting as you would expect in a normal Trad style game.

I also have thoughts on silence in games. When I’m GMing in the facilitator style above I have a rule that you should hold off talking for a few seconds longer than you are comfortable with - in order to give a player the opportunity to fill that awkward silence rather than filling it with GM talk to move on the action. I think that some of the pressure of ‘improvising cool stuff’ is lessened if we all get more comfortable with a pause or silence and I try and aim to create a mood at the table where those silences feel supported and don’t become a millstone around the dynamic of the group (although that is pretty hard!).


#14

What about something along the lines of “centralized GMing” vs. “distributed GMing”?


#15

@terminology question:

Because this comes up, my preference is for collaborative vs directed. Because it’s a general description of where the process of moving the game forward comes from.

Directed means that there is a person who is responsible for moving the game forward. Now depending on the game that process can be collaborative, but there is very much “a person who is directing”

Collaborative means that the group is responsible for moving the game forward collectively. No one person is in charge.

I feel I want to remove GMless/full as a term because it creates a barrier to entry. They were good when we need to first come up with a term, but they also create a barrier to entry. If you are introducing a game to someone who hasn’t played they won’t know what a GM is and so it either adds a layer of explanation, or becomes a jargon barrier for entry.


#16

As a way of getting away from the presumption of “players each control just their character, GM controls everything else” as the default reference point for discussions of game structure (which even terms like GMless and GMfull do), I’ve been trying to talk more in terms of games having symmetrical vs asymmetrical roles.

The terminology comes from board games, where the default is that all players have basically the same role within the game, and it’s less common for a game to give one (or more!) players a distinct role and set of responsibilities.


#17

My thoughts on how we make it more accessible for people to play GMless/GMful/whatever are that games need structure, and they need tools.

My first experiences with GMless were that I loved it - the freedom, the shared creativity - but that for many people around my table it was intimidating, caused people to freeze, led to a lot of mistake-making, and so on. And this was, in my opinion, because we were playing comparatively freeform games where the rule was: it’s your turn to frame a scene, so do that. Now we roleplay. The scene ends when it ends. Really “sink or swim” in nature.

What I’ve been trying to design towards is to help break down the tasks involved in being a GM (or doing GM-like tasks, whatever).

For example, when framing a scene, how can we help people to think about what scene they might want? I do this in Flotsam by breaking it down into a series of questions

  • Is there something that obviously ought to happen now, springboarding off the last scene?
  • If not, have you got someone you want to talk to or a task you want to accomplish as your character?
  • If not, has someone got a threat they want to throw at you, or do you want to see one of your weaknesses come to the fore and cause you problems?
  • If not, someone who is curious about your character’s everyday life should ask you a question about it.

Once you know the purpose of the scene, it’s easier to frame it.

Similarly, we can help people by giving them tools. “As someone else a question” is a great example, because any time I’m stuck I can do that. If the game gives me permission to do it, I’m much less likely to flounder.

Of course some people will be happy with freeform but to my mind if we want more GMless games and more people playing them (and I really, really do) then we need to make it easier for people. Structure and tools is my approach to doing that.


#18

As a curious example of structure and guidance to help players not have to ‘do [GM tasks] cold’ as @yoshi mentioned, I’d love to recommend Ironsworn as a cooperative (GM-unecessary) game that is very accessible for people familiar with more traditional GM-led model games. I’d call its mechanics more GM-unecessary or GM-optional than any other term, since you can have a GM, but you don’t need one, and neither do players explicitly need to take on many deconstructed GM duties. They can play through a satisfying story while feeling like ‘just a player.’ I’m not fully sure how, but it works.

Players all have a pretty traditional PC/protagonist, with stats, goals, etc. The game’s systems—especially the moves and oracles—provide nearly all the direction and authority that a GM typically provides, so players don’t tend to feel like they must invent on the spot, or take up GM authority in any particular way. It handles typical GM tasks subtly in a way that feels like there’s almost always a next step to move forward, either mechanically or narratively, depending on how inventive players are feeling.

For instance, if anyone doesn’t know what to say or what happens next, we can disclaim decision-making and either use the Ask the Oracle move, trigger another move that seems appropriate and seek inspiration from its outcomes, or just cut to the next moment we can think of that could serve as a milestone toward one of the many goals mechanically in play.

Likewise with scene framing or world-building or opposition, the game is intended to guide you to introduce these things organically based on either move results, or if you have questions—like “Is anyone here?” or “How dangerous is that thing?” or “What do they want from me?”—ask the oracle with a die roll. A series of yes/no, either/or, or even keyword oracle rolls can produce surprisingly apt and gratifying directions no individual person would have driven the details, which, wth the help of human minds always seeking patterns, eventually makes the story feel like it really has a weight and will of its own. It’s pretty wierd.

Granted, many players have trouble conceiving of the mind-shift necessary to play it entirely solo, though I would argue that is usually because they undervalue the importance of firmly and clearly committing to declared truths or ‘on-screen’ actions (vs potential/hypothetical action options), since play gets awkward if a solo player leaves too much ‘in their head’ and thus tries drawing story out of a growing heap of noncommital, nebulous, Schroedinger’s Cat non-details. That’s an issue for solo only though, because as soon as you’re collaborating with someone else, you have to talk and declare things out in the open, as it were, and commit.

That said, I’ve seen far fewer players, even from traditional backgrounds, have issues with the core cooperative play that doesn’t need a GM, but also doesn’t really require anybody to take most of the main GM duties. I think there is a lot to glean from Ironsworn’s setup in terms of GMless/GMful theorycrafting. It somehow works to create coherent stories while letting players feel like they’re ‘just’ players. I wish I could analyze to the heart of how it achieves this, but I have yet to put my finger on it.

For the record, I have no affiliation with the game or its designer. I just like it. :smile:


#19

Pertaining more to the theory of GMless rpgs: I’m thinking about a blogpost where I give an overview of recent (2010s) thought on GMless rpgs (there will also be a list of games but I think I’ve got that covered). What should be on the list of theoretical pieces?

I have:

Arjoranta, Jonne; Hitchens, Michael; Peterson, Jon; Torner, Evan; Walton, Jonathan; White, William J.: Tabletop Role-Playing Games, in: Role-Playing Game Studies. Transmedia Foundations, ed. by José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding, New York 2018, p. 79.

BeePeeGee: Die Kunst des spielleiterlosen Rollenspiels, in: Das Erzählspiel-Zine 1, 2018. URL: https://www.erzaehlspiel-zine.de/ausgaben/ausgabe_001/kunst-sllos/

Kluge, Julian: [English] Why to play GMless, 2018. URL: https://tearlessretina.blogspot.com/2018/12/why-to-play-gmless.html

Kluge, Julian: [English] A criticism of GMless rpgs, 2018. URL: https://tearlessretina.blogspot.com/2018/11/english-criticism-of-gmless-rpgs.html

Fox, Joshua: Some thoughts about GMless gaming, 2017. URL: https://blackarmada.com/some-thoughts-about-gmless-gaming/

Robbins, Ben: “I just like saying ‘overthrow the government’” (GMless RPGs, ECCC 2017), 2017. URL: http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/884/gmless-talk-eccc-2017/

Morningstar, Jason: Ropecon 2015: Jason Morningstar: GMless design and play, 2015. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnVgDDCleNk

Baker, Meguey; Morningstar, Jason; Paoletta, Nathan; Prince, Joe; Rogers, Richard; Truman, Mark Diaz: Indie+ Panel: GMless Games Panel #gamenight, 2013. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKt2WjP7ax4

Boss, Emily Care; Morningstar, Jason; Vaghi, Ivan: Beyond the Game Master, in: States of Play. Nordic Larp around the world, ed. by Juhana Pettersson, Denmark 2012, pp. 163-169. URL: https://nordiclarp.org/w/images/a/a0/2012-States.of.play.pdf


#20

Here’s that blogpost: https://tearlessretina.blogspot.com/2019/05/english-recent-theory-of-gmless-rpgs.html