Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Giving Up Power

No, not another superhero post.

This post has been a long time coming. Last Autumn, probably round about October I started to feel something akin to burnout. At the table. Frustration with gaming…with gaming itself. Feelings that I’d rather not be doing what I was doing on Thursday nights.

This is somewhat reflected in my lack of blog posts stemming from this period, though mainly my lack of output the last few months have been caused by my busy schedule and the overall stress of my daily life. My writing suffered from a lack of focus, not a lack of desire (and now that I finally have some time to write, I find I’m a little rusty/out-o-practice). But my gaming itself…yeah, it was getting harder to drag myself to the table, even when I had the evening free to do so.

Kayce down at Gary’s Games actually helped me figure out what was going on in my brain…I was tired of running games. I was tired of play-testing. I was tired of being in the puppet-master position…I wanted to game, I wanted to participate, but I needed to stop approaching the thing like a 2nd job…especially when I already had a 2nd or 3rd job (depending on how you count the work nannying my own child and trying to get the writing biz off the ground). 

Kayce suggested I let someone else run a game…unfortunately she wasn’t available to do so, and the games that were available to me (I’m on a couple regular mailing lists of Thursday meet-ups) were not playing anything that piqued my interest.

Fact is, I was still interested in many aspects of the GM chair, enjoyed them even…but I wanted to be a player participant in the game as well. I wanted a chance to play the hero for a change…whatever the genre. But who was going to run 5AK (or Cry Dark Future or Boot Hill or Star Wars or DMI) for me? I was writing and creating games that I wanted to play…as a player!…and I was the only one not getting a chance to play.

It was about that time I started thinking seriously about GM-less games. Giving up the power of the game "master" for an (equal) place at the table.

Collaborative role-playing games (I believe this is the P.C. term) have been around for a while, but they are certainly a small, small part of the RPG market. Many of them feel more like storyteller type system (the card game, Once Upon A Time comes to mind), lacking a true feeling of characterization, character identification, or (God forbid!) role-playing at all…at least in the “traditional” manner of speaking.

But I knew it was at least possible to bridge the gap…previously, I’d had the chance to play Capes, an indie superhero game that works without a GM and yet still has strong character construction/identification (one of the coolest takes on chargen I’ve ever seen in an RPG, actually). The game itself shares the narration and normal GM duties between players (like challenging PCs), by setting them up in a competitive environment with a system of bids and points for control of narration. The competition level is certainly on the “light” scale…little is risked/lost when chargen is as throwaway-easy as Capes (still cool, though). Part of the reason Capes doesn’t work for me is that “little risk” factor, but mainly the system (how the game plays) is a little clunky and slow for a genre I think should be slam-bam fast. Competitive, nuanced bidding structure for narrative rights? This isn’t a bull session in the Marvel editor’s office!


Anyhoo, back in October when I was in the throes of this “burnout” thing, I stumbled across Western City, another GM-less game with a much less complicated bidding system of narrative control and stronger “character attachment” (players each have a main character/protagonist and then get to bid for control of minor characters and antagonists) then what is found in Capes. Western City’s method of bidding and splitting chips is an easy way for a group to determine narration rights and ensures that this control will be shared between all participants  by the nature of the spend. It still holds a few problems for me (a slow setup time, an overly complex skill system, a weird way of scheduling the day’s conflicts) that make me hesitant to actually try the thing…but just reading it got me thinking (back in November), and thinking started getting me out of my funk.

Unfortunately, my life conspired to prevent me from really sitting down and hammering out my own thoughts and concepts in the way I wanted…or writing about my blossoming ideas as they started growing in my brain. Knowing that I would be moving to Paraguay, the holidays, and tying up the loose ends at the job I was leaving (not to mention my wife’s continued travels to South America)…left me struggling for air, let alone writing time. I started and abandoned more than half a dozen blog posts during the time.

But I kept reading and researching…stuffing info into my brain in hopes it would become a digested, useable thing. I borrowed a copy of Polaris off of Tim, a game I’d been meaning to look at for a long time anyway due to my interest in the subject matter (it has a real “Fall of Ancient Atlantis” type feel…doomed tragedy is a favorite fantasy concept of mine. Well, so long as there’s some rebirth/hope that arises from the destruction). Polaris is also a GM-less…um, “collaborative” RPG that incorporates ritual beautifully, in a way that is highly reminiscent of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, another game that straddles the border of RPG and collaborative storytelling.

[as a side note, any book that incorporates the purchase and consumption of alcohol into its gameplay is a must have for this gamer’s library!]

Polaris is the basic model for a game I tentatively started designing ‘round about Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, that design has had a stunted growth, being mainly composed of half a page of notes and a headful of prosaic “color” text. Part of the problem is I haven’t actually had a chance to figure out the tone…part of me wants it very, very dark (though it is not a doom & gloom game) and the other part of me wants something much more light-hearted (albeit snarky). And, no, that one has nothing to do with superheroes, either. More on this later (probably).

To continue my story: at the same time I was really starting to groove on the idea of creating a GM-less game, one of the gaming newsletters to which I subscribe sent me a list of articles on “collaborative role-playing.” These are old articles, and the list was unsolicited…it was simply that serendipitous kind o thang that sometimes happens when you’re mind is aligned in a particular direction.

Ian Millington is the one responsible for most of these articles, which were penned more than decade ago. I’ll post the links below for folks who are interested…as I write more on the subject, I will be referencing back to some of thoughts, concepts, and ideas Mr. Millington was developing:

Shifting the Paradigm of gaming (with pictures).

Ten Principles for Mr. Millington’s concept of collaborative role-playing (not sure I’m on board with all these, but they aid in understanding his work).

An essay on “Avatarism” and a new way of looking at “why we should play role-playing games.” This one is sure to raise some hackles, though I found it quite mind-blowing.

An interview with Mr. Millington (interesting...and mentions some of the limits to collaborative role-playing he sees).

Four actual games by Mr. Millington incorporating his principles of collaborative role-playing.

Okay, that’s enough to chew on for now...more on the subject later. I hope to write individual posts about two very specific collaborative games as a follow-up to this post: Fiasco and Blood Red Sands, perhaps later this week.


  1. One game you might want to check out is the Pathfinder Adventure card game by Paizo. I was pretty cynical of it at first, but Ive warmed up to it as we have been playing it. It uses one of the Pathfinder adventure paths (Rise of the Rune Lords), tells a story, allows everyone to play and participate and their actions guide the story, you level, gain items, lose items, etc. It lacks a little in the role playing aspect, but this element can easily be brought to the table with the right group.

    I have also thought about doing something similar with Warhammer Quest Game. Since you all get to play characters, and the quests and game boards and monsters are all random as you go along. If there were a way to work this system idea into an aspect of role playing that worked well, id like to do it. The problem is keeping a regular narrative that everyone contributes to and has reason to ( perhaps exp based narrative for example).

  2. You should consider Mythic. For myself, I prefer to hook up the Mythic Game Master Emulator to my rules of preference, but the game itself is not bad, as such things go. Unlike those other games, it works like a traditional (or what I'd call "real") RPG, but builds a mechanism that makes every GM decision subject to the "oracle of the dice", as it were. It also includes elements that help to tie everything into a coherent narrative, without being all "story first" about it. It's just about the best compromise between actual RPGs and Story Games that I've been able to find.

  3. I've used Mythic a fair amount to run GM-less games both on its own and with other systems. I've also tried the 9Qs solo gaming system, both alone and in group. However, I don't know that I've played another game specifically targeted at GM-less gaming.

    1. Oh, and I should probably mention other things I've found useful: Rory's Story Cubes, random adventure generators, various random NPC generators.

  4. Thanks for the suggestions, folks. I've heard of Mythic but don't know anything about the game, really. I'll check it out when I have a chance.

  5. Wasn't there a viking themed game called Rune where the GM position shifted with each scene? Not GM-less, since you passed the role around, but definitely collaborative.

    Based on the computer game Rune if I remember correctly.