Monday, March 7, 2016

More thoughts on games without masters

After looking at the Name of God, I got curious as to how many GM–free systems I have played over the years. As it turns out, I have played at least nine different GM-free systems, not counting playing Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition with no DM.

The list includes the Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchaussen, Fiasco, Microscope, Once Upon A Time, Polaris, The Quiet Year, Ribbon Drive, The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach, A Thousand and One Nights, and Zombie Cinema.

I realize that there are folks who will argue that some of the games, Once Upon a Time for instance since it's a card game for some folks, aren't RPGs. Well, those games don't have to be RPGs for them then :)

But these are all games where folks get together to tell a story together. For me, that is a huge part of why I play RPGs and what defines an RPG for me.

Of course, having a game master is a big part of the paradigm of role-playing games. After all, somebody has to control the world and tell all the NPC's what to do. That's how Dungeons & Dragons works. That's how the World of Darkness works. Heck, that's even how Apocalypse World work.

At the same time, it's not like games without GM's are some wild and crazy new idea that is springing up in a liberal college campuses while stodgy old gray-haired grumps like myself yell at these young whippersnappers to get off my lawn. Baron Munchaussen was first published back in 1998, close to 20 years ago. More than that, I'm pretty sure I remember early issues of Dragon magazine having instructions on creating dungeons as you go for when you didn't have a Dungeon Master.

Personally, I have become more and more fond of GM free systems. Why? Well, frankly it comes down to time and effort.

I have been in campaigns that have lasted years, even decades. They were amazingly immersive and they created lasting friendships that I treasure to this day. However, even before I became the daddy of a toddler who is running around in circles even while I am typing this, it became harder and harder to find the time to commit to a long-term campaign and find the mental energy to really participate in one.

And, heck, I wasn't even one of the game masters. Over the years, I have seen some serious burn out and even bitterness in game masters. Some of them spend hours and hours of work every week for a bunch of ungrateful bastards. And that's me speaking as one of their ungrateful bastards :P

Role playing games without game masters tend to be much shorter affairs, usually design for only one sitting. No one has to do any work before hand, no dungeon masters spending hours working on maps and back stories and timelines. Everyone just comes to the table to play.

Of course, there are some downsides to playing without a game master.

For one thing, almost all of these games are simple and light affairs. You aren't going to get the depth or immersion that you would from playing in a game that takes weeks to years to complete. And if you are someone who really enjoys crunchy  complicated mechanics, this is not going to scratch that itch.

And, while the games do tend to be simpler, everyone has to understand how they work in order to play the game. I was playing Dungeons & Dragons for years before I really bothered understand the nitty-gritty of all of the mechanics. The DM handled all of the fiddly work for me. Heck, Sandman: Map of Halaal was designed to have the game master handle all of the mechanics. The players are actually intended to be ignorant about them.  On a certain level, games with game masters are better for casual gamers.

Playing without a game master can be very helpful if you don't have a lot of time either to devote to a regular game or to prepare for a game. At the same time, I think that it has a bigger initial hurdle for new players to get behind than playing with a game master.

Exceptions work both ways to that rule. Some of the games that I have played, Once Upon a Time for instance, are so rules light that they will work for anyone as long as they are willing to play make-believe. On the other hand, my experiences with Polaris were a multiple-session campaign that involved a fairly intricate system.

When I started poking around, I found somebody had compiled a list of over 200 games that were designed to be played without a game master. ( Clearly, this is an idea that has inspired a lot of people.

And there are some games, like Fiasco, that have made a legitimate splash. There's an audience out there and these games will get played. I don't think GMs are going to go away but I do think there is growing room for games without them.

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