A Flaw with Dispersed GMing

By | May 16, 2015

Hi everybody!

Lately I’ve been steeping myself in reading (and playing) more narrative-based games, games where the majority of the content flows from the other players rather than through a single game master.  I think of these types of games as “Dispersed GMing” or “Distributed GMing” games, because the traditional functions of the GM (sovereignty over the story and NPCs, absolute authority over the rules in use) are broken up and shared among the players.

There are multiple categories of these:  “Weak-GM” games, where the role of the GM is curtailed by explicit rules (Apocalypse World); “GM-less” games, where there is no actual GM role and the players collaboratively structure scenes (Fiasco); and “GM-ful” games, where everybody takes on the role of GM (or the closest thing the game has to it) at some point (MicroscopeShock).

The line between GM-less and GM-ful is delicate and to a degree rather arbitrary; both types involve players who must at some point be comfortable with and creative enough to take control of the narrative (as a GM normally would) and express their ideas to the other players.  To my mind, the major difference between GM-less and GM-ful is one of collaboration vs. sovereignty: is the decision made by the current speaker/narrator absolute and immutable (making the game GM-ful), or can others immediately interfere or append their own suggestions (GM-less)?  In my experience, GM-ful games are much more plentiful than GM-less, so much so that many folks use the terms interchangeably.

Universally, though, I’ve encountered a flaw with the dispersed-GMing design that impacts my thinking on the development of Forthright:  there are players who simply are not comfortable taking control of the narrative.  This can come for many reasons: they don’t want to step on anyone else’s toes, they want to make sure the gamescape is consistent and don’t feel confident enough to make that consistency decision themselves, they’re concerned about their idea being rejected or overruled, they’re not the creative type, they just wanted to show up and experience something cool instead of having to make up that experience themselves.

And that flaw is at the heart of games that distribute narrative control.  It is not a limitation in the design, but rather a limitation in accessibility.  Because some people will love the design, embrace it, and move forward – and other people, not so much.  The very abstract nature of developing your own story to play through limits the breadth of the audience.

Because there is no awe or wonder in a story, visual or event that I as a player had to make up myself; there is no surprise in it, it comes from me.  And if I came to the game to experience awe, wonder and surprise. . .yeah, not going to happen when there are points in the game where I’m doing that myself.  I have to wait for someone else at the table to take narrative control before I can experience that.  And if I’m at a table with folks who are uncomfortable seizing that control, then I might be waiting a long time.

And this concern is strong enough that the Guide role in Forthright is going to exist somewhere on the spectrum of authority far below the traditional GM, but slightly higher than the weak-GM of Apocalypse World.  Vincent Baker articulated a lot of the advice that we were also articulating in Beta 2, but the design we’re going for won’t have the Guide badgering players with quite so many constant questions.

Thanks for reading!  We welcome your comments, questions and concerns 🙂