• Game Mastery Files: the no GM debate

    by , and  • November 6, 2012 • Design & Art • 2 Comments

    Welcome, dear readers, to our first GaW duel! We here at GaW have opinions and we all know what that means: pistols at dawn!

    Our Code Duello is quite simple:

    1. The Moderator  rules with an iron fist and a generous disposition. Her job is to steer the conversation if it wanders too far afield and ask questions if the conversation appears to be flagging.

    2. Duelists will direct their razor wit and cutting insight on ideas, not each other. Shake hands at the beginning and don’t do anything to ruin the post-duel tea date.

    Today’s topic is GM vs GMless roleplaying games. Our duelists are Jessica Hammer, who comes in with a preference for games with GMs, and Giulia Barbano, who comes in with a preference for games without a GM. Our Moderator (should she be needed) is Kim Lam.

    Let’s jump right in!

    Opening Shots – Scutwork, Narrative Vision and the Burden of Responsibility

    Jess: Whether it’s playing or running, I prefer GM-ed games to GM-less ones – and there are two reasons why.

    First, a pragmatic reason. There’s a lot of scut-work that goes into role-playing games: scheduling sessions, learning the rules, managing turn-taking, handling hurt feelings, and more. While some GM-less games minimize some of this work, most of it still has to get done. In the absence of a clear alternative, the most socially powerful players will end up doing the parts they like the best, and the rest of the work will devolve onto the people least able to avoid it. That’s not something I ever want to see at my table. In my experience, assigning a “GM” makes someone explicitly responsible for all this peripheral work.

    Second, an aesthetic reason. When I run or play, I want to do it in the context of a clear narrative vision. That doesn’t mean I need to know how the story turns out – but I do need someone to look at the game with an editor’s eye, to decide whether a particular backstory or item or cultural feature feels right for the larger experience we’re building. I don’t particularly care to outsource that work to genre conventions, as many GM-less games do, or to try to do it by committee. I want to play in a larger and stranger aesthetic world than I can imagine alone – but once we’ve collectively established what that large-and-strange aesthetic is, someone needs to do the hard (and sometimes unpopular) work of maintaining it. A GM does that really well.

    Giulia: Full disclosure: I am lazy. Or, to put a more positive spin to it, I am efficient. I like to get a good result with the minimum effort. When applied to role playing games, that means that I like the playing part. The rest, not so much – I’ve never been one to take up the GM role, because I could see all the enormous amount of work that entailed: being the keeper of the rules, shining equal spotlight on all the players, listening to everyone at the same time, noticing non-verbal cues, remembering character sheets, wondering about social issues that people could bring over to the table, playing NPCs, and I’m getting tired just by making this list.

    I remember that it was a bit of a frustrating time for me. I liked playing, but as a player I had to limit myself to my own character, and avoid stepping on others’ feet – I wanted to contribute more, but the alternative, being the ultimate keeper of everyone’s enjoyment, was simply terrifying to me. So naturally, when Polaris came along, it was the best thing since sliced bread for me. (And then Shock:, and Fiasco, and Penny, and on and on and on.) As it happens, per their nature, games without GMs are zero-prep, so I could brush off a large part of the work to dedicate all my game-related time to playing. Also, the explicit turn-taking mechanics cancelled the fear of having to manage people’s contributions as equally as possible, and several of these games let me say something beyond my character and about the world.

    All the while, I still play games with GMs, I have started to act as a GM in some games, but that’s not my primary choice – for example, I love Misspent Youth, and being the Authority is fun and well documented, but it has a certain amount of responsibility that still makes the role a bit too heavy for me. Another game I enjoy being a GM in is How We Came To Live Here, and I strongly suspect that’s because there are two players with GM-like roles, so the responsibility is shared. Currently I’m reading Monster of The Week (powered by the Apocalypse World engine), and I’m thinking I will organize some games and be a Keeper, but in general I find that, given a choice, I naturally tend towards games without a GM role in the traditional sense.

    Jess: Giulia, you bring up some interesting points. It seems that I, too, am rather lazy! I have spent the past decade perfecting a minimal-prep style, and practicing GM-ing with my partner. When I do “prep,” it’s almost always in the form of collaborative world-building sessions or conversations with players. I’m most interested in games when they’re improvisational – when I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and neither does anyone else at the table. I generally present the players with a situation they care about, and let them take it from there. In my experience, my style of GM-ing is often a lot less work than playing is!

    Here’s what I mostly do when I GM:

    • create interesting characters who have horrible problems
    • portray characters the PCs care about and want to talk to
    • come up with situations without an easy answer and see what the PCs do
    • ask the players questions, and go back and forth until we come up with answers that fit in the game world
    • say yes to player choices, and then invent consequences
    • listen carefully to what the players are talking about
    • take notes of what the players said and did
    • make sure everyone at the table has a chance to participate

    All of these things are super fun and relaxing for me. Nine times out of ten, it’s much more fun than being a player. Yes, there are times when being a GM is stressful – primarily when players have a conflict with each other, and they need my help to resolve it. And I’m lucky that my partner really enjoys some of the things I don’t, like getting everyone to session and helping people with character sheets. But overall, I love it – and I also love it when someone knows how to be a really good GM for me.

    You’ve made me realize, though, that “division of social labor” is something that could be addressed through rules design. (“The person who organizes the session begins with extra resources for their character.”) I’ve seen a lot of GM-less games that do a great job with dividing narrative authority, but I can’t offhand recall any that directly address the social side of the GM role. Maybe that’s a new frontier for design?

    Tilt – Spreading the Roles

    Moderator: It sounds like you’re talking about two things: play and scutwork, where play is directly responsible for the stories that emerge and scutwork makes play possible (ranging from getting the game organized to all the paraphernalia necessary to make play happen).

    So far, the focus has been on scutwork with some talk of play intertwined. Do you feel that there’s some big differences in play?

    Jess: So, that question gets at my second point, above. My experiences with GM-less games have ranged from some of the most amazing play I’ve ever experienced, to some serious dreck. The difference? For me, it’s number of players. A two-player GM-less game can be a remarkable creative collaboration, but each additional player increases the chances that play will devolve to the lowest common denominator and lose narrative coherence.

    I think that happens because going for the joke, or the ridiculous over-the-top moment, or the pop culture reference gets you an immediate burst of approbation at the table. It’s a quick and cheap way to feel good about your contributions to the game. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily good for the game as a whole when everyone starts doing this. It’s a bit of a tragedy of the commons. A GM has the authority to work against this trend, and to stop the cycle before it starts. In two-player GM-less games, either player can easily intervene. The more players you have, the better the odds that someone is going to start that cycle going, and you end up with shlock.

    I think it’s possible to design against this trend, or to exploit it. Polaris, for example, does both – encouraging you to be over-the-top in your tragic melancholy. But the more people in my GM-less games, the more likely they are to be mediocre, precisely because everyone is trying so hard to be “awesome” all the time.

    Giulia: Yes, I agree with Jessica that your question, on the differences in play, addresses the precise breakdown she made above: a list of roles at the table. To me it’s a perfect point to explain how my experience diverges dramatically from Jess’.

    All those GM activities require different skills. Some require creativity; some patience; some careful listening; and finally, some require awareness to the enjoyment and interest expressed by the other players.

    Let’s be honest: Jess is a multi-tasking genius. I could see that when we played Nobilis, she could handle all these tasks simultaneously and with grace, which is why I don’t have any trouble believing her when she says that “all these things are super fun and relaxing”. I don’t have that ability. I need time to ponder a good response, I listen carefully to what one person is saying, and I easily forget what has happened in the past few minutes. So, when gaming, I find myself preferring those games which distribute authority over these roles differently – instead than focusing all of these activities on one person, the GM, some require all players to engage in them; others assign these activities to different people at different moments in the game. In either case, the result is a lower load on all players, which I find makes everyone more invested in the game’s development and frees up more mind space for creativity and to make the experience enjoyable for all the players.

    This shared responsibility has to be embraced in full to achieve its maximum potential. I believe that those moments where every player is disengaging from the game, by participating to a spiral of exaggerated jokes and over-the-top descriptions, are the ones where the difference between games with and without a GM come to light. In the case that Jessica describes, the GM has the responsibility to shut down this kind of derive. But when the GM is socially less powerful, or maybe just averse to interpersonal conflict, they might not want to confront the rest of the table. While in GMless games, the shared responsibility means that everyone can speak up against something they find detrimental to their enjoyment – which in turn implies a more equal footing on the social level at the table.

    Jess: I’ll take compliments from Giulia any day! But it’s important for me to point out that I didn’t start out as a multi-tasking genius. I’ve been honing my GM skills for years. What looks effortless is actually the product of directed practice and deep commitment to excellence. Some of the things I’ve done to improve my skills include taking improv classes, reading a ton of fiction, researching different ways to portray characters, adapting classroom management techniques to the game table, observing other GMs, speaking regularly in public (whether to my game design classes, to academic conferences, or to the business world), and most importantly asking for regular feedback from my group.

    Maybe in some groups this attitude would make players feel less responsible for excellent play. “Jess is doing all the work, so I don’t have to!” But in our case it’s fostered a culture of shared excellence. We’re all committed to developing the skills we care the most about, because our group rewards excellence in play. My players go into other games and wow everyone they play with, because they treat play as a serious skill while still having a damn good time. (Admittedly it helps that they were awesome to start with.)

    That’s not to say one can’t practice skills in GM-less games. In fact, I’d say that while there’s overlap with both GM-ing and playing in GM-ed games, GM-less players have a skill-set all their own. If I wanted to be as good at that as I am at GM-ing, I’d have to do some pretty intensive practice! But I also bet that becoming excellent at GM-less play helps you build some of the skills that make a GM truly great. I’d certainly love to try playing GM-less games with you, Giulia – and if you ever want to practice your GM skills, I invite you to practice on me!

    Moderator: Well, thanks, ladies, for sharing your thoughts and dueling with such grace and aplomb. Audience members, if you have any questions or comments to add, please chime up in the comment section below. If you have any ideas of topics that you think the ladies at GaW ought to duel about, let us know!



    Game scholar, game design educator, game designer, and most of all enthusiastic game player!




    Player of all sorts of games, tabletop roleplaying games publisher, engineer, and amateur designer. Based in northern Italy, I live with a pretty cool artist, a ton of books and too much technology.




    I'm a tabletop roleplayer, a larper and a video gamer. I run games, play games, remix games, talk about games, critique games, read games and have opinions about games. Sometimes, I do that online. I also have a passing fondness for making food.

    2 Responses to Game Mastery Files: the no GM debate

    1. avatar
      November 6, 2012 at 20:43

      Jessica said: “I think that happens because going for the joke, or the ridiculous over-the-top moment, or the pop culture reference gets you an immediate burst of approbation at the table. It’s a quick and cheap way to feel good about your contributions to the game. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily good for the game as a whole when everyone starts doing this. It’s a bit of a tragedy of the commons. A GM has the authority to work against this trend, and to stop the cycle before it starts. In two-player GM-less games, either player can easily intervene. The more players you have, the better the odds that someone is going to start that cycle going, and you end up with shlock.”

      That pretty much nails it for me. I do enjoy a goodly amount of distributed narrative authority, but I prefer it to be coordinated by a GM, and I like a good talk with everybody at the table to get on the same page. Even so, too many of these games turn into slapstick. While I enjoy the occasional GM-less game, I find that they magnify the problem.

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      • avatar
        November 7, 2012 at 18:10

        That is exactly the passage I was going to quote in reply to this post. Great stuff! I think Giulia presents a pretty good rebuttal to this—i.e., that sometimes a group can do a better job shutting down unwanted content than a single person—but I have not seen it nearly as often in my experience as the behavior Jessica describes.

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