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Can someone suggest a system and adventures suitable for cooperative GM-less (or GM-lite) dungeon crawling?

Background situation in short: I’m looking for something that could provide my wife and myself some interesting action-filled adventures. Neither of us wants to GM. After some experiments, we've decided that GM-less story-driven dungeon crawl adventures that we could play with tiles and miniatures is something we would love to do. Now I need your help identifying the game system and adventures suitable for such needs.

Needless background details: I’ve been running games for several decades, and somehow I've almost always ended up running the games. And now I’m tired of hosting games. I also don’t have now the time I did in high school, learning D&D, researching the setting, planning potential plot twists, and creating excel formulas to automate my games. I want to actually play a character instead of running the game. I’m also looking for a casual diversion, not a full hobby, so I can’t really spend all my time preparing for a game and would rather have something we could play together for a few hours on occasional evenings.

I’m now an expat in a small foreign town, with limited knowledge of the local language. Thus finding a local roleplaying group is not an option I'm currently interested in.

I don’t want a story-telling/story-sharing game (like Beasthunters, Fiasco or Penny for my Thoughts) or a game with a rotating GM (the point is to have no GM, or for me to have minor GM-like responsibilities together with playing a character). Those kinds of things are fun over a weekend, but not something we could enjoy as a diversion after a day of work.

What I’m looking for:

  1. Simple, yet dynamic combat. Modern D&D (and its Pathfinder sibling), with its complicated combat, doesn't suit me. We don’t want a book of abilities, multiple things to take into consideration during each combat round. In a game that we only play for 1–2 hours after work, we will just keep forgetting that level of detail (and I’ll forget even more, as I expect I'll end up having to control and understand the bad guys as well).

    • Something that will allow us to use tiles and miniatures (so less improvisational story telling, and more exploratory dungeon-crawling). As an example, my brief experience with Dungeon World showed that it doesn't accommodate my desire to use minis and tiles very well.
  2. Pregenerated dungeons, so I can prepare tiles and put them on the table as we keep exploring. Fully-random dungeons are either too random or too generic. Ideally it would be good if the adventure provided us with ready-to-print miniature-scale tiles for the crawl, but we could make do with a location map and match the location map with tiles.

  3. Interesting story that would put some meaning to tile-walking, dice-rolling, dungeon-crawling action.

  4. Well organised narratives that are GM-less–friendly. Something that could work reading out of the book in a GM-less game (for example, the descriptions of rooms or of an encounter).

    As a GM I do prefer long narrative background in the beginning of the book that explains everything in details, and when I would run prepared modules I never read boxed text from the book during the game — the book was there to help me understand the background of events and activities of the groups involved, while players were free to do what they want. But in a GM-less environment I’d prefer it to be structured so I could read it out loud as we get to the next room, when an encounter begins, or when an NPC appears (with some basic guidance so that one of us could roleplay the interaction). It doesn’t necessary have to be in the style of gamebooks (e.g. "if you have the die of fate go to 69, otherwise go to 172"), but it would be good if it provided us some narrative and meaning to the dice rolling. ;)

  5. Adjustable difficulty that provides us with challenge but doesn’t obliterate us. I do like Challenge Rating systems; something I could use as a basis for the encounters. Most adventures are planned for a larger party with diverse skills. We will play it with two characters (one character each), but we still want to have a fair chance while having no cleric, thief or wizard.

  6. Easy adaption. I remember the time I was converting classic D&D modules into GURPS. I don’t want to repeat that. So if I use (e.g.) Dungeon Crawl Classics as the system with a 1e AD&D adventure module, the conversion rules should be already there (not up to me to create) and shouldn’t be too complicated.

  7. Low level, rather then high level. I’d prefer to start at 1st level, or with something like DDC’s 0th-level funnel. We don’t need that many abilities out of the box, and we’d prefer to slowly unlock them during the game.

  8. Simple game system. Same as with the combat. I’m not ready to read multiple source books just to pass some time in the evening with a bit of roleplaying. If it's too much to learn, I’d rather spend that time reading a novel by Neil Gaiman or China Miéville.

What doesn’t work:

  1. Boardgames. I’ve tried several dungeon crawling boardgames (Myth, Shadows of Brimstone, Warhammer Quest) and they are too repetitive and not narrative-driven enough for my taste.

  2. Gamebooks (like Fighting Fantasy). This is definitely something that doesn’t work with my wife. Usually such books only have a few proper endings and lots of "failure" endings, requiring multiple replays.

  3. Mythic GM-less system (too random for my taste).

  4. One-on-one adventures/systems. This requires one of us to be a GM. My wife doesn’t GM, and I've had enough of that.

  5. Online/Computer Play.

  6. Finding a group in this town

Conclusion

So as you see, I’ve already done some research and am already leaning towards DCC (even though getting the funny dice will be much more complicated than getting my first set of D&D dice back in the day), though I’m not sure how well will this system work with other adventures, nor whether it will suit my needs.

As for an adventures — I’m currently out of ideas as to what may suit my needs. So any any help and suggestion for both would be appreciated.

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closed as off-topic by BESW, Purple Monkey, MrLemon, KorvinStarmast, nitsua60 Jan 14 '16 at 13:41

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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like you're assuming a lot of little details that will appear in such a system (like that the game will have levels, how the system uses/makes adventures, etc.) that aren't necessarily part of every GM-less dungeon-crawling non-random-adventure game. Are these details that you've thought about and mean to be required, or are they just assumptions because you don't know what's out there? In other words, are you open to answers that don't fit these little details, if the answer does fit your bolded requirements and overall goal? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 26 '15 at 19:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ SevenSidedDie: All those details mainly indicate the direction where i'm thinking. But i really don't know all those systems and all those adventures. I do have some RPG experience (From AD&D and Deadlands to Call of Cthulhu and Kult) For levels system - it's not something that is a must, i could settle for a point based system as well. But i would love to have some character progression. What is important for us, is that it shouldn't be complete random (as this is the reason mentioned dungeon crawling cooperative boardgames didn't work for us, and i'm looking for other options). \$\endgroup\$ – Edelgul Jan 26 '15 at 20:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried the D&D boardgames like Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon? They seem to be more RPG-ish than WHQ. No experience with them, so not an answer. Just seeking clarity on eliminated options. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Jan 26 '15 at 21:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ You eliminate game books like fighting fantasy - does that include solo adventures like for GURPS and T&T? Still just thinking about your parameters. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Jan 28 '15 at 4:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @glenatron There are actually a lot of GM-less RPGs, and the design techniques to make them work well is becoming an established field of design expertise. The difficulty is that dungeon-focused GMless games are not common among GMless RPGs, and we require answers to have experience with the game in question. (I have plenty of GMless experience, but not with the one dungeon-crawler I know of.) The holy grail has been found several years ago, copied, and put into mass production already. :) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 '15 at 19:23
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I know you ruled out board games like Warhammer Quest, but maybe you want to try what we did when we got from school into the real life (tm) and suddenly were out of a regular group and the loads of time that we once had:

At first, we played Warhammer Quest. It was fun. It was mindless, without preparation, you could play it with a different group the next evening and even non-roleplayers could take part without lengthy explanations. But, as you already noticed, it's way to random to have any roleplaying feel. You get into the first room and beat a band of Orcs. Then in the next room, there's a vampire, obviously living in a happy neighbourhood with the Orcs. And while you are fighting the Vampire, you roll the random dice and wham a demon comes in like "hey vampire guy, I heard noises, everything OK with you and your fellow dead?". It was okay as a game, but it made the roleplayers cringe every time we rolled the random table. And it lacked any mission statement but "loot".

So what we did was to prepare adventures. That means one of us prepared random tables and a boss and a mission. So they actually made sense.

For example, one mission was:

Your city is sieged by dark elves. A dark elf ship is blockading the port and supply route. Your party set out in a small boat and appoached the ship. Your mission is to find the helm, kill the guards and sabotage it, so the ship will run ashore and the supply ships can get into the port.

The bonus mission was to find and kill all 4 of the ships bolt thrower crews. The random table had only dark elfes in various forms and some rats. So it actually felt like we had an adventure on a ship and not another totally random dungeon.

It did take some preparation, certainly more than buying a prepared adventure, but for us, it was okay because we had the time, just not time together.

As you already ruled out Warhammer Quest, if you still have it lying around somewhere, giving it another try with your own adventure costs nothing. It might be worth a try, I know it was a lot of fun back then, once you dropped the stupid randomness in favor of some prepared randomness.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the proposal. As a matter of fact this is what we are doing already (though mainly with Myth and Shadows of Brimstone). Inventing reasons, writing short quests, etc. And that is what forced me to look for more. First for more variety, that tabletop RPG offers, second for more options and better organised level progress. Thirdly i'd rather enjoy a nice written adventure/module, then try to find another reason, why do we have to kill another 20 Orcs after long and tiresome working day. \$\endgroup\$ – Edelgul Jan 27 '15 at 15:15
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Few months ago I was doing almost the same research as you. My findings were that what I was looking for... doesn't exist. So I made it :P It's not perfect (yet) because I need feedbacks on how it should be improved (and I also need time to work on it).

It is made for my favorite/perfect system : Fate Core.

The only thing it doesn't cover is lore. But way better than suggesting one in my rules, I much prefer to take an existing work and use an already fully-fledged one (and certainly more interesting than what I could come up with for a generic setting.)

I also don't provide already-made dungeons as the way the system is made, you don't need to. But you could totally, again, take any premade dungeon map and use it without problems.

Anyway, you're welcome to give any suggestions and feedbacks so I can improve it :) It's still WIP so expect few unpolished stuff.

Here's the link to the resource :

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1s-QTzrDxlhr1Frqt292UYHRSSSFvTThYlJQDLko6VmY/edit?usp=sharing

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer needs a little more detail, particularly covering the specific details requested under What I’m looking for. As it is, we cannot really judge how good an answer this is without trying it ourselves, which few people are likely to do – you’ll get more upvotes if you really sell to us why it’s a good solution for Edelgul’s needs. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 2 '15 at 15:47
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I'm not sure what you consider a board game, since most RPGs are essentially a form of board games, but since your concern was narrative-driven games, I'd point you toward Mice & Mystics. I've played it with my family and the system is dynamic enough to be fun and challenging, but simple enough to jump right in. It has 10 "missions" that tell the initial story and 2 expansions. The best thing I could compare it to is Hero Quest from back in the day, but with more story, especially through each level.

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    \$\begingroup\$ See What's the difference between a roleplaying game and a board game? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 26 '15 at 20:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ While I suppose that's fair in an academic sense, the original question clouds that distinction. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Jan 26 '15 at 21:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can assume that, if a question here is on-topic and unclosed, board/card games are never a topical answer. That stuff goes to Boardgames.SE. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 26 '15 at 22:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I sincerely hope the people down-voting me actually disagree with my Mice and Mystics suggestion and aren't just griefing the fact that I compared RPGs to board games. From what I read, the game is in line with what the question asked for. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Jan 27 '15 at 14:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, my question does clod this distinction. Well essentially i want to add board gaming element to my Role Playing Games, rather then adding Role Playing Element to my Boardgames (we did that already with multiple Arkham Horror games), as well as to minimize the role of GM. For me boardgame doesn't provide that feeling of an adventure i'm looking. But still i want to use nice tiles and well crafted minis for my RPG adventures. \$\endgroup\$ – Edelgul Jan 27 '15 at 15:18
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This might be a bad answer, because I know nothing about it, but given everything you've already ruled out, maybe you should give the Mythic GM Emulator a chance?

Otherwise, I think you'll find that GMless games fall into one of two categories:

1: Not much interested in crawling through dungeons

or

2: Boardgames

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Mythic is good, but it feels like a bad fit to me, simply because it requires the players to ask questions and then interpret the results. "I approach the door, do I hear anything on the other side?". "Yes.", "Is it goblins?" "No." - at which point you have to decide how far you want to take it before just picking something on the other side of the door. It doesn't sound like OP wants that kind of interaction. \$\endgroup\$ – Cthos Jan 28 '15 at 22:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ The question already mentioned Mythic as not acceptable. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 28 '15 at 22:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ugh; My bad. Looks like there's basically no answer then, because the OP has ruled out all the options. Very unclear why they think DCC will do anything like what they want. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Jan 29 '15 at 16:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Airk I know of two GMless dungeon-crawlers and even more generic GMless games that could be used for dungeon-crawling. However, I've stayed mum because I either haven't played them or I have but never as dungeon-crawlers, and the rules of [game-recommendation] require writing from experience. This question isn't impossible; it's just hard to find someone who has played the precise game that will answer it. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 '15 at 19:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Cthos: The problem is - we don't want to tell a story, we want the story to be told to us. Mythic, apart of being random, requires us to tell and interpret the story. So what we need is a system that might flow with limited control from the GM, and well written adventures, that basically give the info and room-per-room basis. \$\endgroup\$ – Edelgul Jan 29 '15 at 21:07
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Finding such a game is a very, very hard challenge.

I've been on almost the same situation. I wanted a game that I could play together with one or two other players, without the need for me or someone else to GM the game. My criteria of what would be ideal to me where almost the same, with the exception of the tiles and miniatures, which I was never really fond of - they are overly scarce on my homeland, and costly, too.

For us, online games even worked a little bit, but online games don't really reward RP, so it was a bit frustrating being forced to choose between levelling up faster or having a more fluid roleplay experience.

A good-quality, self-GMing game is not something easy to come by. In a way, it is not too dissimilar than making a computer RPG, since you need to anticipate what the characters would do and what the consequences would be, without even being sure if they will ever enter that dammed room! That makes electronic RPGs and GM-Less RPGs pretty similar, in the core.

Anyway, when you want to have a roleplaying experience with someone else and don't really have an GM, you start having several less options. Almost always, when you start a GM-Less game, someone sooner or later takes up the role of the GM and starts, even if indirectly, running the game.

I've tried several things already, but two in special gave me better results.

GM a simpler game to your partners, running a GMPC alongside their characters.

This need a good amount of expertise in GMing and a wise plot to prevent your GMPC acting like some kind of demigod in-game. It is hard and can be really stressful if you don't really love GMing. I don't think that would be the best for you, but I cite here because I'm not sure if you tried this.

"The Bookwalkers"

This is something I tried with good results, but need a fair bit of work beforehand.

I created a game where the group (two characters, played by myself and a friend) finds a cursed book that throws then inside another book. The characters are dropped inside the book, replacing the original characters with themselves and reviving a specific scene of that book. For example, imagine the trip inside Moria in Lord of the Rings, replacing any two characters - let's say, Aragorn and Frodo - with your own characters. Anyone else in the "book" won't be able to tell that those characters were replaced. The PCs them run the exploration, using the knowledge they have from "reading the book beforehand" to anticipate events and maybe even alter the course of things.

This is specially good to remove that dammed bitter-sweet taste from reading the Song of Ice and Fire and saving your favourite character from dying.

Once the group finishes a scene, you can go to a next one on the same book or change to a completely different one, even of a completely different style or even a different media, like a video game or an anime. On our case, we saved Boromir on LOTR, managed to keep Ned Stark alive on A Game of Thrones, changed radically the ending on FATE/Stay Night and helped Impa to take Zelda to a safe place in Ocarina of Time, among several other things.

The trick is to pick a book that everybody have already read (or anything equivalent), a scene from that and play it using plot-aware characters instead of the regular ones. This way you don't need to "not know" the history beforehand, adjusting the events of the book according to the new actions took by the players.

To this end, I used something similar to the SPECIAL system used in the original Fallout games. I just simplified it a bit more and changed the scales to use a d20 instead of a d100, and everything solved itself. Level ups would happen once a scene, and you could choose a single item that you got during your adventures on a given book to be permanently added to your inventory, so you could bring it along on any adventure that comes after. Characters are basically above-average humans, with the "contextual powers" of the given universe they are in in the moment (if you are in a Percy Jackson adventure, you would have some demigod powers, for example). You can, of course, pick another system if you want. The "GM-Lessness" of a Bookwalkers campaign is more a thing of style than a system-dependent issue.

This is not really easy concept to implement, and is a bit of work at first. However, it pays itself off on the long run several times.

The major benefit of running book-based games is that most of the time you don't need to create a history per se, so you can use your creative power to actually run the game.

Beyond that, I really have no idea on how to help you. I'm afraid that you will almost surely need to customize whatever you ultimately choose to play. Your set of requisites is pretty hard to meet with a single game!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Glenatron's comment is mistaken; there are actually many "self-GMing" aka GM-less RPGs — if it was ever a Holy Grail of RPGs, it's not anymore. Here's one list of GMless games. We even have a tag for them: [gm-less]. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 '15 at 19:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Hmmm.. maybe I didn't make myself clear. I never said that they don't exist, just that they are hard to come by. Anyway, I edited that out. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Jan 29 '15 at 20:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Anyway, that was enough for considering a downvote? The rest of the answer is... nil? \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Jan 29 '15 at 20:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not bad and would be a good answer to a different question. It's just not a good answer to this one. It's just one vote though, and other voters may disagree. :) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 '15 at 21:08

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