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I have never played an RPG, but I've been interested for a long time. In fact, I often say that my childhood play would've eventually led to my writing an RPG if I hadn't heard of existing RPGs first. The first RPG book I read was simulationist, and that's the direction my design tendencies would've gone anyway. More recently, I've wondered "Is there an RPG that plays like the one way I know how?" That is, is there anything that replicates the nature of my childhood non-game role-play, just with more rules?

The requirements:

  • GMless. Specifically, there are no role distinctions between players, even temporary. Nothing like the rotating spotlight scenes of Polaris, Scarlet Wake or Archipelago. My play did sometimes have one informal shifting role - the player who railroaded the others who willingly went along - which I want to prevent. (More on this in a later point.)
  • Multiple characters per player. Unlike many indie storygames, there isn't a tight focus on interaction between central characters. Okay, I may sometimes choose to play a story like that, I don't want it to be default/required. Supporting and guest characters should matter. In some rotating-spotlight games, minor characters are swapped around. In my play, even extras were owned by a player, and I want to maintain that. So I definitely don't want a storygame on the far end from conventional RPGs where no character is owned by anyone (I think Universalis falls under this).
  • Narrativist. Our play was narrativist, if you categorized it in RPG terms. (EDIT: The important point I wanted to make was that we mainly perceived it in terms of "make a story about these characters" rather than "play as these characters". Rules mostly governed what players could control and establish as true, not what "actually" existed.) It was purely collaborative storytelling; gamist/competitive elements are undesired.
  • Supports campaign play without character advancement. No fixed scenario playsets, "endgame" mechanics, etc. The latter should be self-explanatory... not that I expect a game like this to have advancement.

That's what's necessary just to replicate the style I know. There are a couple improvements I wanted to make a long time ago and probably wouldn't play without now:

  • Mechanical support for keeping players on the same page. I fear unintentional humor or gonzo in GMless storygames. As a child, my tolerance for silly humor was much greater, and I only played with people I trusted to not break my extremely rubbery suspension of disbelief. I have much stricter requirements now. Something like Microscope's Palette would help here.
  • Support for representation of in-world status of story elements. Things must have an in-game-world existence apart from the narration that describes them. Remember what I said about railroading? Though the Czege Principle was in effect in our play - solo role-play was inconceivable - a corollary wasn't. It was acceptable for one player to solve the problems he created. Over time, this in fact became the preferred option for at least three reasons. One, as we got older, our spontaneous creativity declined. So problems were created with a solution in mind, but you couldn't rely on another player finding it, so one of your characters had to. Second, almost all our rules concerned the players and what they could do. A lack of rules governing what could happen in the fictional world left no support for problem-solving. There was no rule for determining whether solutions could succeed, and the person considered best able to make the ruling was... the originator of the situation. Third, the "no competition" rule discouraged trying to resolve problems started by another player, as it could easily lead to trying to "top" their input. The result of these was increasing boredom. So, in short, the game needs a way to define task difficulties, or something equivalent, so my characters can gain traction on the fictional world. On a related note, I want stats for world elements other than characters simply because I don't want that laser-sharp focus on characters' internal states, particularly not in a game predominantly played in Author or Director Stance. (I was reminded of this by a comment I once saw about Burning Wheel, something like "there are no 'Large' armies".)

I haven't said anything about setting or genre yet, because I'm not sure a game that even fits this basic structure exists. I have tried to write this game myself, but it's sufficiently far from anything I know that I can't.

(Here's hoping I correctly used the theoretical terminology and references to games I obviously haven't played.)

EDIT: Does the Mythic GM Emulator have anything that could facilitate this style of play?

EDIT Sep 28: Ideally, I want a not just a game that can be squeezed into this shape (even if Universalis or Microscope can), but a game where this is the assumed mode of play, RAW. I want to be able to say to other players, "I want to play _" and have them understand my goals and preferences by that.

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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3038/… –  mxyzplk Sep 26 '13 at 13:50
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3 Answers

Microscope may be a good solution for you. You create stories in a nonlinear way, focusing just on what the group wants to. People pick characters for each scene, and while characters can recur, they by no means have to.

It is GMless.

It is self-moderating through the use of index cards which represent Periods (broad swaths of time), Events (shorter, specific durations), and Scenes (which are actually played out). They're organized chronologically to keep canonical history. It keeps players in balance very well.

While it lacks the difficulty measure you're looking for, it still very effectively keeps things in check. If things get out of hand, the game has a mechanic to retcon recent actions (called "Pushing"). This same mechanic is used if the game gets out of hand to push it back on track. Also, while one player temporarily has the power to set the focus and create things in-game, the game doesn't differentiate them as being special for it. Hopefully this helps!

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But Microscope has no character ownership by players, correct? And your last statement sounds contradictory - I'd count having "the power to set the focus and create things in-game" as being "special". –  Tristan Klassen Sep 26 '13 at 14:31
@Tristan While there is no character ownership per sé, you can respect the creator's desire to play their character, which serves the same purpose. To your second point, it's hard to explain the context of the game; effectively, they're a player briefly given more influence than other players over the game. This isn't by fiat, though, so they're really still just a player. –  Emracool Sep 26 '13 at 15:05
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My personal experience with Universalis actually leads me to believe that it might suit your needs very well. All the mechanics are focused on the ebb and flow of story control and how to represent persistent objects in the fiction, but the style of play the mechanics are designed to (and succeed in, in my opinion) support is very close to how freeform roleplaying normally feels.

On the subject of characters, they're not owned by default, but ownership of a strength and flexibility that suits your preferences can be added to the game via an in-game process. This can be done at the very beginning of a game, so you can avoid ever having a moment where everybody owns characters.

It sounds like you're already passing familiar with Universalis, but I'll run down your requirements, and a few more details, for completeness, and to describe in detail how character ownership can be added fairly easily via the normal rules.

  1. GMless. Everyone is an author with shared authority. Exerting your authority reduces your ability to continue to exert authority, and creating twists and moments of conflict (in the story sense) are rewarded with renewed authority "in the bank", so to speak.

  2. Rules may be modified by the group. This is not required though, as the base rules are complete enough to play with just fine. The rule-adding rules ("gimmicks") are advanced methods of modifying the game to accommodate unexpected needs, and the process is mechanised so that it's not entirely freeform. (See the next point.)

  3. All things (called "components" of the game), including characters, are not owned by anyone, by default, but everything has a creator and controller. Having multiple characters is well supported and the right to do so is supported as well. Components have no owner by default, but components having an owner is a rule that can be easily added as a gimmick, and the details, flexibility, and permanence of that ownership is up to the exact gimmick(s) you choose to add to handle ownership.

    The book contains a simple example gimmick altering control of components ("Friendly Control", p. 52) that allows paying no influence to take over a component if the current controller agrees. (Normally, it takes at least 1 "coin" to take control even with permission.) You can use this as a basis for an equally simple inversion of the gimmick, say, "Permission Control": you must pay 1 coin and receive the owner's permission to take control of a character-type component. You can further elaborate this to taste, such as adding that control reverts to the owner at the end of the scene. Adding further gimmicks that allow for transferring ownership, joint ownership, cascading ownership of a character's major possessions, etc., can be done without much more effort.

  4. Universalis is definitely narrativist. There are some gamist elements as well, in that the rules imlicitly support players who want to actively jockey for authorial control, but this is only as strong as your group's gamist tendencies are.

  5. Character advancement is not presumed or built into the rules. Character development is entirely up to your choosing whether and how to change a given character, and therefore isn't necessarily "bigger and better".

  6. Being on the same page is handled much like Microscope's Palette: at the beginning of the game, players take turns paying influence to create Tenets, which are used to establish genre, tone, and other such overarching elements of a story's framework. Tenet-breaking choices later in the game are given mechanical penalties during play that discourage them from being proposed and/or encourage altering them (possibly with negotiation) to not fall afoul of the Tenets.

  7. Avoiding railroading is easy, since everyone is a peer but exerting one's preference is a limited resource. There is an in-game process for resolving unknowns and disagreements. Players advocate for what will be true (for example, what will solve a problem) and back it up with currency from their pool of influence. Whichever truth gains the most support (moderated by the currency each player has available at that moment) is what happens. So your example of solving problems is solved: the original problem-creator's idea of what should work has exactly as much weight as everyone else's idea, and they don't get the final say unless they're willing and able to pay for it more than anyone else. In this way, they can be surprised about how the problem is solved, and even about what its underlying cause might be.

    This doesn't add in-world simulation to solve problems without bias, but it does tackle one type of problem you're were assuming could only be solved by in-world things having fixed stats.

  8. Regardless of (7), components do have defined "stat" equivalents. Unless anyone wants to intervene to introduce exceptional circumstances (via their limited-resource authority) or previous-unknown character details, character can be pitted against each other and you can determine the outcome largely by their attributes. This handles everything that isn't handled by (7).

Effectively, Universalis is a game engine with an in-game mechanism for developing it into new game engines. Its basic state is sufficient to play games and gives a middle road between complete freeform roleplaying and completely rules-bound roleplaying. Its basic rules for changing the rules gives a structured way of altering the engine, avoiding the wide-open paralysis and abuses of freeform gaming, while also having just as much flexibility in the end.

Given the description of your preferred way of playing, I think it might suit you very well. My preferred style of playing sometimes touches on what I think yours is, and I found that Universalis was very close to what I wanted when I was in the mood for that kind of play. Your mileage undoubtably will vary, but I think you owe it to yourself to give the game a closer look, to see if your impressions from a distance are overturned on closer inspection. At the very least, it may give you a few bits and pieces you can steal to solve the troubles you ran into with your original freeform play style, which sounded like it suited you fine if only you could avoid those difficulties.

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First, I'm not looking for anything close to freeform. It worked for me at age... as early as I can remember, still worked at age 10, didn't work so well by age 15, and after over a decade out of it, my tastes have changed. Second, I was aware there were games (including Universalis) with means to resolve disputes on the player/metagame level. I was trying to make clear that such solutions were unsatisfactory. "Pushing" to make your truth right is very unappealing. This was the problem I mention in the OP: I couldn't write a GMless game because I couldn't see a way around this. –  Tristan Klassen Sep 26 '13 at 20:20
@Tristan Ah, yes. Its focus on push mechanics is definitely a drawback of Universalis' design if you want more pull mechanics. There are meta-level pull mechanics out there, but they're rarer. I'll chew on that and see if I can think of an RPG that does and fits this. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 26 '13 at 20:25
Even though I used the term "push" (partly to fit my comment in the character limit), I'm not sure what you mean by "pull" mechanic. –  Tristan Klassen Sep 26 '13 at 20:41
@TristanKlassen It's the difference between imposing a game fact onto the other players and enticing the other players to adopt your proposed fact. If you're familiar with Apocalypse World, lots of moves set up a situation where if you do something that someone else wants (usually contrary to your character's interests) you mark XP. The effect is that you can ignore a contribution, but you have an internal motive that makes it a meaninful choice. Rather than push mechanics, which are merely "yes! no! aw, the dice chose you." –  SevenSidedDie Sep 26 '13 at 21:09
@TristanKlassen Ah! I found Mo's original article that created the terminology. The analogy that it begins with is long, so if you feel like cutting to the point, you can skip to the paragraph that begins with "It's a lesson that over the years". It's exactly what I think you're talking about when you say that "pushing is very unappealing". You prefer pull. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 26 '13 at 21:19
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I suggest you might be interested in freeform gaming, particularly on IRC or message boards. Often, in a small enough group, the moderator's sole task is to keep people on the same page rather than to necessarily control the plot; often, people create multiple characters, and often, things like wikis or newsletters serve to keep everyone informed as to what everything is doing when they're not looking.

As an example, this game (now finished and replaced with a new one) has a rather large wiki, a long record of sessions played, and periodic newsletters to keep everyone on the same page. Furthermore, it's not unusual for people to be chatting in private or in a public "ooc" room during a session, cluing each other in on where they're going with something.

That game did have people taking turns running a given plotline, but not all games do; some support a strict GM/player divide, while others are more egalitarian. If you already have a group, you could easily start your own; my private games with my friends are highly egalitarian because the trust is already there and we're familiar with each other's playstyles. We decide where we want the story to go and then play out the scenes needed to get there, and if it veers off course, we adapt and plan a new ending.

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I need something I can consider a "game" and not just a "mechanism for moderating stories". I want more rules, not less. Furthermore, I have no interest in internet gaming: I'm uncomfortable with non-face-to-face communication, I find speaking much easier than writing... –  Tristan Klassen Sep 26 '13 at 18:22
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