Thursday, October 3, 2013

[RP Musings] On GMless Roleplaying

Having played Our Last Best Hope again this week, I thought I'd have a bit of a ramble about GMless games: why I like them so darn much (and why I recommend people try them at least once) and talk a little about the common criticisms and problems some players have with them.

Why I Like Them
The simple answer is that I'm a writer and, as such, the emphasis that GMless games tend to put on the storytelling and improv acting aspects of the hobby has a great appeal to me. A lot of GMless games are referred to as 'story games', because their mechanics tend to push towards creating a story, and usually a very particular kind of story. For example, Our Last Best Hope emulates the story structure of a disaster movie, and Fiasco emulates the style of a Coen Brothers movie where ambitious plans go horribly awry.

The real fun isn't just in the creation of a story though; I could do that by sitting down at home and working on one of my own writing projects. The fun is in the act of creating a story in collaboration with the other players, bouncing ideas off one another, introducing plot twists to see how the other players react, and riffing off of the elements other players introduce.

In most cases the games are fairly rules-light, and require little or no prep before play begins, so they're a great standby for when your regularly scheduled RP campaign has to be called off for a week due to GM or player illness/unavailability. The rules-light aspect also gets the mechanics out of the way so you can just get straight to the roleplay side of things and in many cases the mechanics that are present even encourage drama between characters, providing prompts for how your character interacts with others.

Also, in games such as Fiasco, The Final Girl, and Our Last Best Hope, the game's setting is either randomly generated or brainstormed by the players themselves at the start of the game, making every game a unique experience even for those who have already played it before.

Common Complaints/Problems
A lot of the issues I've heard raised are also some of the same things I actually like about GMless games, so it's perhaps a matter of differing tastes.

The first problem is the fact that, well, there's no GM. Sure, there's usually at least one person facilitating the game - usually the person who owns the game and/or is most familiar with it - who helps guide the other players through the game mechanics, but other than that all of the creative responsibility is shared among the group. This can be daunting for players new to roleplaying, or to players more comfortable letting the GM handle all game elements that exist outside of their character. The creative freedom offered by such systems can also carry the risk of more confident players dominating the game narrative, or others introducing elements which cause discomfort within the group. The latter issue, of dominant players and the potential for uncomfortable subject matter, can be resolved by the facilitator. In this sense, the facilitator still fulfils the traditional GM's role by reining in players when they go a bit too far, or by helping quieter players get their moment in the limelight. As for the difficulty in running GMless games with new roleplayers, I'm willing to admit it might be a bit of a steep learning curve for them. That's not to say some newcomers won't take to it like a fish to water, but it's probably best to wait until they've got used to the more traditional GM/player dynamic before introducing them to this style of game.

Another complaint I've heard is specific to Fiasco, which is the lack of mechanics in comparison to trad games. In Fiasco, there's no 'conflict resolution' as such: scene outcomes are chosen at the appropriate moment in a scene from a finite pool of white and black dice, with a white dice being a good outcome and a black dice being a bad outcome. There's no dice roll, not in this part of the game, and some find that frustrating. The thing is though, I actually like this about Fiasco, because a) it gets rid of the roll-play aspect and leaves you free to just roleplay and see how things work out, and b) it reflects the shifting of fortunes that is central to the movies the game emulates. The better things seem to go for characters earlier on, the worse they're likely to get later on, or vice versa. Anyway, not all games are so rules-light as Fiasco; Our Last Best Hope has a very definite means of conflict resolution, for instance.

One might also complain about how these games are almost never built for campaign play, and it's true that a lot of these games are designed specifically for one-shot play. That's not really a negative for me though. As mentioned, they're a good alternative when your regular game falls through and you need something to replace it one evening. Also, whereas campaigns might grind to a halt and leave the characters in narrative limbo, or players might have to drop out midway and not get satisfactory closure for their characters, the one-shot format of GMless games ensures that the players experience a complete story arc from start to finish.

Finally, a criticism I read on Twitter - which, as I recall, annoyed Jason Morningstar something awful - is that GMless games are not really roleplaying games. That one sounded a bit ridiculous to me. Sure, it's true that there's more of a focus on storytelling in a lot of these games, but most of the time you're still playing as characters in these games. You're playing a role; you're role-playing. Besides, call it what you like, whether it's a roleplaying game or a story game is not the point. It's still a game, so give it a shot even if you're not sure, and hopefully you'll have fun. I know I do.

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