Under the Hood – A Party Without A Host?


A Party Without A Host?
By The Warden

Let’s cut straight to the chase, shall we? This week’s instalment of the Hood deals with a highly debatable topic (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it incites flame wars). It’s about the values of roleplaying traditions versus the fresh exploration of modern design. There’s a minority of a belief that has swayed many a traditionalist into the fold and that can threaten some, but it’s a topic we must discuss or else ignorance will only lead to flames.

I’m talking about GM-less games. No GM whatsoever. A roleplaying game played out like a board game.

It’s a style of gameplay that’s taken off recently and provides an immense hurdle for traditional game design. At least, that’s how I see it. After reading and replying to some tweets from a designer friend about choosing between a traditional GM-enlisted design or a complete GM-less one, I’ve been pondering about it on the drives home this week. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on this matter.

Obviously, all game design success is measured by one constant: gameplay. If it’s not fun, it’s not working. Therefore, since people are really enjoying GM-less games, it’s successful. So my stance is not based on facts; it’s more of a personal uncertainty. Everything I know about game design is hinged around a central figure hosting the game. For me, roleplaying games have been about a gathering – a party – of a very small size in the physical world with immense possibilities and those possibilities were planned and co-ordinated by the host. The GM. Wrapping my head around a design is like planning a party at my house and I’m not going to be there for it.


Perhaps it stems from my love of gamemastering. I have more fun as the storyteller than the actor and I think most of it stems from the fact that I want total creative control in a game. My love of RPGs comes from hosting more than playing. (It likely has something to do with the large number of PCs lying in my imagination’s graveyard. Yeah, that’s a big chunk of it.) The concept of games without a GM leaves me with this thought: someone has been denied the experience of gamemastering.

There does appear to be a pre-conception about the GM’s role. That’s it’s labour intensive and incredibly time consuming for prep work alone. There’s no doubt about that, though there are “tricks” and tips to simplifying the process, as taught by Sly Flourish (http://slyflourish.com/lazydm/) – all hail Sly Flourish! Regardless, the overall role of the Gamemaster is considered a hefty responsibility and it’s not for everyone.

Those who do take up the mantle experience a different view of the game, one of a vision coming to life or evolving into something better. Sure, it can all implode on you and someone screws up your home rule that you spent all weekend drafting up, crunching the numbers, and perfecting in your mind for the weeks afterwards until your group is finally able to play out that scene and it’s all over in a heartbeat because someone realized you can just make a called shot against their head and chop it right off. Nice one, Kurt.

Ahem, anyways, when I think about GM-less games, I have difficulty understanding the value of such a game because I can appreciate the GM’s role more than the player’s. Is it wrong to feel that way? Perhaps, and that’s what has been stewing in my noggin for ten half-hour drives.


Here’s the perception of GM-less games, as I interpret it. It’s GM-less. Perhaps that’s not the way to look at it. Maybe it’s player-less.

Consider the duties of the GM and what it all comes down to in the end. They exist in traditional games to provide the challenge for players to overcome. That challenge is the key to the game’s success, but traditional RPGs use the GM as the tool to introduce and maintain the challenge for the necessary amount of time. These “GM-less” games are designed to allow for each player to provide that challenge to their fellow players while simultaneously countering the threats introduced by themselves and other players. In other words, these games are designed for everyone to be the GM.

Many complaints I’ve heard about these games involves concerns about structure and enforcement of the rules, but that’s because they’re looking at it as a GM-less game. A GM loaded game doesn’t have anything to worry about co-operation and comprehension because every GM (ok, the good ones) is built to use these skills in every game they run. There is no “be a dick” guideline to running a game unless that’s the objective of the game. Putting multiple GMs into a single game to play together, now that I think about it, is genius. A battle of wits and imagination as each GM fires off a volley of creative details and background details, only to respond in kind to the volley launched by the previous GM. Brilliant.


This newfound acceptance and anticipation to try out a GM loaded game leads to the next step in any designer’s head: construction. How would I go about switching my brain around to this new way of designing? As much as the concept sounds exciting, there’s still that one hurdle to overcome: rules management at the table. The mechanics have to be foolproof, either through simplicity or complexity and simplicity is the way to go for many GM loaded games.

These games are modernized versions of ancient storytelling practices and exercises performed in improv classes around the world. (See, it all comes back to improv and drama. Seriously, if you want to become a better GM, find an improv class in your area and join in the fun.) If we understand this as a foundation for any such game’s design, then it comes down to turn management. What does each player/GM get to do on their turn? How do they engage and counter, act and react? Mechanically speaking, what are their actions?

These games are about equals. No one person has a greater advantage or access than the others, which is what makes turn management in these designs so crucial. Having a turn to play and what you can perform on that turn is the defining aspect of tabletop gameplay versus everything else. They are the great equalizer of game mechanics, especially in traditional RPGs. The fact that a GM can use multiple actions in a single round to manage multiple NPCs or spread out their turn to handle such variety is balanced by the number of players acting before and after their GM. Turns set limits on what a single player or GM can accomplish at once; it’s the breadth of that player’s options which defines the game’s experience.

Whatever you want to call them – GM-less or GM loaded – these games trust their players and use turn management to maintain the fair play and balance required to pull off a theoretically difficulty pursuit.

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