Musings on GMless Games and Giving Up Control

Posted: January 9, 2014 by pointyman2000 in Roleplaying Games

GMing used to be about control. In early RPGs, the GM is the ultimate End-all-and-be-all, the Alpha and the Omega. As the ultimate authority in a game, the GM enjoyed the final say on how things were in a game.

Recently however, that attitude has begun to relax, as systems start shifting towards games which share control among the players to varying degrees, ranging from giving players the ability to edit a scene or change elements in a game, to removing the need for a GM altogether.

As a GM who became fully committed to the hobby back in the 90’s, I’m not quite old enough to say that I’m an old school GM, but I can say that the systems with a much more relaxed attitude is new to me.

Ultimately, the difference between both schools of mechanics is an issue of responsibility and control. In the traditional setup, the GM is beholden to the players. Since he’s responsible for everything, he has to spend his free time plotting and planning and statting up challenges that will entertain his entire group. As payoff, he gets to make the final call on how things happen, as that power is necessary for him to fulfill his responsibility.

With the other method, the players share this load of responsibility and control upon themselves, with each one now having to think not just of how their characters behave and react, but now have to find ways to engage their characters in adventures as well.

My personal preference lies towards the traditional method, as it preserves the ability to surprise people. In a shared system, there are no real surprises beyond the dice roll. Without a central GM to think up of plots and schemes that you don’t know of, the element of surprise and discovery is muted. Certainly there can be entertaining twists and a game of that method can be entertaining, but sometimes being taken by surprise is a good thing.

That’s probably why I like the traditional method best. I enjoy the fact that I can’t tell what the GM has planned, and have many great memories of when a GM pulls a fast one on me. I’ve not played that many games (having GMed most of my gaming career) but the moments where a GM springs a surprise are among the most memorable and entertaining to me.

But that’s me, what do you guys think of relinquishing control? Is it better than the traditional method? Do you have any stories to share about how a game like that turned out great? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

  1. dbro36 says:

    It’s been a while! Happy New Year!

    I am more of the relaxed train of thought, but I don’t think it has to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Relaxed games still need a GM for general direction, and GM’ed games still have player input.

    Think of it this way though, you have fond memories of a GM pulling you a fast one, but do you have fond memories of a player pulling you as a GM a fast one? I do! As you may know I have been developing a rules light RPG system for a long time now, and when someone was playtesting it for me, he wrote up a review of one of his playtests. He used the Perform skill I had devised on his Flame Wizard. In his review, he described how the Flame Wizard used his flames to make a sort of “fireworks” show to entertain the people. That was not how I had envisioned the Perform skill to be (being more a bardic thing) but the entire scene played out in my head without me even being part of the game. And it surprised me greatly. I still enjoy his write-up.

    Maybe you should try to add some player input in your GM’ed games and see how you like it. Use off-time in a town for them to do something out of the box. Though I am sure that secretly, you already do that.

    • Hi dbro36!

      Great to hear from you again! Good point on being surprised as a GM. I have to admit that I’ve had my fair share of surprises from the players pulling off something that I could never have planned for.

      • dbro36 says:

        I figured as much. Like I said, the one way of playing never completely excludes the other. Roleplaying is and will always be an affair of players and GM reacting to one another, and whatever you prepare for your players, there are always countless ways to Rome, which is where players WILL surprise you, but that doesn’t mean that your preparation as a GM is not invaluable.

        At the end of the day though, the only thing that matters is that you and your players have an enjoyable time, and as everyone has different tastes, it’s always a bit of a puzzle to make sure everyone gets the most out of a game. But that’s also part of the fun of being a GM I suppose, making sure everyone has an enjoyable time (yourself included), and I suppose it also helps you grow as a person…

        But that’s a whole different type of topic, I guess.

  2. th3muser says:

    It’s been a while! I’ve just started a gaming blog once again and will try to post something from time to time. Haha. I think a GMless system works well with a group that is experienced enough and comfortable enough with each other to let each other take control of the story. I’ve played in some games like Fiasco which does this pretty well with the right group. As you guys have mentioned, it is nice in a way to be surprised by one another, and for the whole concept of ‘collaborative storytelling’ to really come to the forefront.

    That being said, I do still enjoy a good GM and player type game, and will gladly run a game when I have to. At the end of the day, I am happy when my players have had fun, and that is all that really matters.


  3. th3muser says:

    I highly recommend it! Great with 3-4 players.

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