I think being a game master needs to be a voluntary choice. In an ideal world, game masters need to know the rules better than anyone else. They need to know the setting better than anyone else. They have to play a cast of potentially thousands. And they should know what big picture story is.
Man, that is a LOT of work. Back when I was in a regular campaign, managing one character while living the rest of my work could be tricky. Sometimes, it felt like the game master was spending all their time awake on the game.
AND they were the one who ended up buying all the books. I recently heard someone estimate that someone starting off in fifth edition for the first time would need to spend $450 in books before they could start being a game master.I would like to think there’s some wiggle room in that but that is still a lot to put down before you know if you really want to keep on doing it.
That’s why, more and more, I have become a fan of GM-free games. Everyone gets to be in the hot seat and the prep often comes down to just come to the table.
There are plenty of downsides GM-free lifestyle. For one thing, most GM-free systems are designed for one-shots or very short campaigns. That’s not universal. I know that Ars Magica has long had a troupe mode that doesn’t use a game master. However, I’ve never heard of anyone I actually know using it. It’s not impossible but a long GM-free campaign has an uphill climb. Everyone involved had better being willing to take lots of notes.
The other issue that GM-free has is that everyone has to be willing to step up. The two keys are improvisation and collaboration. It’s going to be harder for the folks who just want to show up and roll dice.
That said, one of the best GM-free systems I’ve experienced is Fiasco, the game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control. It was billed to me as the Coen Brothers RPG. And the game is very intuitive to the point in which I would say that it is one of the perfect entry points into role-playing games for someone who has never played one before.
So clearly there are ways that a system can help players adjust to the world without a game master. It may be through simple or intuitive mechanics. It may be through using tropes and archetypes so they understand the shape of the stories that they are telling. Maybe everyone has to do more lifting but it’s not on one person’s shoulders.
GM-free systems have been around, one way or another, since the 70s. I’ve been looking at them in the interest of pickup games or life without a group. However, now I’m wonder if they can make at least one member of a group’s life easier.
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