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A question about transitioning players to GM-less gaming already exists (and it's a good one). I, however, am looking for a more exhaustive description (thus CW) of approaches to GM-less gaming. As such, I'll describe the traditional effects associated with the GM role, and answerers can help out describe how gaps that arise from the removal of the GM role can be filled.

Note: the GM is not automatically the host of the session: I'm going to ignore location / snacks / agenda's, etc.

Traditional elements of the GM role:

  • Cohesive story (generation)
  • Appropriate threat / challenge levels, both strategically and tactically
  • Neutral arbiter of inter-player dispute
  • NPC acting
  • Story / scene pacing
  • social cohesion / group makeup selection / spotlight distribution (this one may fall outside scope, but is often associated, I think)

If I missed antyhing, please let me know in the comments and I'll edit the question!

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6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Cohesive story (generation)

GMless games tend to have mechanics that are specifically aimed at generating a structured story. Often this is accomplished by giving the players choices and rules-assigned powers that directly or indirectly are about story elements instead of focusing on character actions. For instance, instead of having the player choose where to move their character and which enemy to target with an attack, the rules may instead ask the player to choose one of: 1) decide what's at stake in this fight, or 2) whether they succeed; and the other players together might be given the other option to decide. That's just one example—there are as many ways of handling such story choices as there are GMless systems.

By focusing the rules on the twists and turns of story and letting the players freely describe what goes on apart from the plot developments, a cohesive story can be made from everyone's input.

Appropriate threat / challenge levels, both strategically and tactically

GMless games generally pin difficulty levels to something other than the strength of the characters. It might be related to which of three "acts" the game is currently at; it might be based on a limited currency that the other players can use to set the difficulty.

GMless games tend to be very non-tactical. Many are strategic, but the strategy often lies more in managing the player's resources that govern story control or decision making rather than in-character strategy. Strategy and tactics for the actual characters is more often handled as a plot element than a player-challenge element.

Neutral arbiter of inter-player dispute

Most GMless games are structured such that it is always clear who has the final (or only) decision-making power at a particular point in the game, or over a particular game-mechanic or in-fiction decision. One game I know has a "no it happens this way" rules structure, where as soon as someone disagrees with what is happening the roleplaying is paused, everyone has a chance to offer a counter-proposal for what should happen, and then each player has up to five points to split among the proposals. The highest-ranked proposal is then played out by everyone together.

By making sure there is both a clear decision-making authority (and that everyone gets their chance to hold that authority as the game goes on), many games prevent the players from ever getting into a situation that can be argued over.

NPC acting

In GMless games, the player characters will as often be together as apart. NPCs are often controlled by players who either don't have characters active right now, or by players whose PC isn't the centre of the action.

Other games will give players the ability to decide the actions and choices of NPCs in their own character's favour if they are willing to spend the appropriate "plot resources" to "buy" that decision-making power.

Story / scene pacing

Some games leave this up to the group, knowing that the group will quickly get a sense for their preferences for scene and story pacing.

Some games make story and scene pacing integral to the rules. The end of a scene, or the beginning of a new act of the story, might be triggered by unrelated player decisions, by some kind of "decision power" resource falling to a specific level, or according to certain in-fiction milestones that are obvious or pre-determined during scene setup.

Some games have a rotating scene-framing authority, and a scene is over as soon as that player whose "scene turn" it is says that the scene is done.

social cohesion / group makeup selection / spotlight distribution (this one may fall outside scope, but is often associated, I think)

GMless games are rarely set up so that the PCs form a "party" or cohesive group. They often make it very natural to have PCs that are split up or even each other's enemy. So, group makeup in-game is rarely relevant.

Spotlight distribution is most often a part of the rules, either as part of a scene-framing turn mechanic, or as a "spotlight time" resource attached to characters, or some other organic way of regulating spotlight time.

Social cohesion of the player group is rarely addressed, except by making sure that the setup process of the game gives everyone a lot of buy-in to the story premise and characters. If everyone's excited about the game they're about to play, keeping everyone on-track is rarely a problem.

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People know stories. It might even be built in. It's part of our pattern-recognition system, I think. When you play GM-less games, the players are all working together to make the story cohesive. If you play the first two scenes of Universalis with very little cross-over elements, it is very likely that the third scene will be framed to unite the first two. There is nothing the rules to make this happen -- because nothing is needed! So sure, players could generate an uncohesive story if they wanted to...but that means you're either playing something kind of avant garde or you're playing with the wrong people -- they have no intention of trying to make it work.

Balance isn't all that. If some things in the game turn out to be too hard, the characters can bail. What does "appropriate" mean? As long as it's fun, that's what matters. Even if the game were something like the modern D&D incarnations (more or less a battle sim), each player could take turns providing an encounter and use the same tools the GM does to provide balance.

Players can reach consensus or vote to arbitrate outcomes and disputes. Or players can have arbitration responsibilities for different segments of the game so that all players control a domain (either rules or setting). Or you can have a rule like: the player to your right has final veto/GM/arbitration powers when it's your go. Etc.

Everyone can play NPCs. They can be dynamically assigned as they enter scenes. They can be bought with an in-game currency. They can be played by the person across the table from the active player. Or rules can dictate that certain players play certain classes of NPCs.

The story can be paced by consensus. Or by following a mechanical arc-tool. Or players who bid to win scene-framing rights can decide on their own. Or one player can be narrating and the others can make suggestions.

Etc.

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Here are a few mechanics I've seen in the GM-less games I have played.

The first thing I've seen are games where the game itself is the GM. For example there might be a box of cards or a book that acts as the GM. The players just follow the instructions and turn pages, or draw new cards, as instructed. In games like this, everything is pre-scripted, and player choices are limited, but you can still role play and have fun without a human GM. They're like text adventures, but on paper, and for more than one player.

Another mechanic I have seen is collaborative scenario/world creation. At the start of the game all the players would work together to setup the game. Maybe they would take turns picking a different aspect of the world, or maybe they would spend some points on it. The point is that the GM's duty to create the initial hook becomes a shared task amongst all players.

Many GM-less games I've played are turn-taking games. This means that the spotlight moves from player to player around the table, and people take turns having scenes. When someone is taking their turn, the rest of the table is basically the GM, acting as NPCs or mechanically opposing the current player in conflict with dice/cards.

One game I played, Shock, has a mechanic where each player "owns" an aspect of the world. So I might own cybernetics and another player might own a political rebellion. If any questions come up pertaining to cybernetics, I have the final say in how that part of the world works because I own it. If any questions come up about the rebellion, the other player has the final say. Of course you still discuss it with the table, in case someone has a really great idea. It's basically dividing the GM's rules arbitration duties amongst all the players.

So really a GM-less game is not that much different from one with a GM in my eyes. The keys are just to either offload the duties of the GM to a system such as a book or computer, divide them equally amongst all the players, or play a game such that most of the typical GM duties are not even necessary.

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There is a product called Mythic Game Master Emulator which seems like it might work out. It's available on RPGNow or DriveThruRPG. I've been following a couple solo adventures that Risus Monkey has been doing (www.risusmonkey.com)using this GM emulator.

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Mythic is a quite decent gmless system, I've used it several times and there's lots of AP threads on rpg.net

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I think that this answer addresses your question for the Dirty Secrets game.

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