Roleplaying with No GM?
I came across a video by Guy Schlanders at How to Be a Great GM where he was talking about the use of random dice tables, and he made the comment that if the goal of the group is to always use random encounter tables, you might as well not have a game master (or "GM") at all: the players could roll for what they come across, what loot they get, etc. And that got me thinking what it would be like to play an RPG without a GM, and that meant it was time for another blog post!
If your friend group is small, everyone is busy, or you all just want to be on the same team for a short campaign, here's some thoughts on how you can play a tabletop RPG without a game master. This post will be system agnostic, though where it may make a difference I'll note game system specific notes.
We should note upfront that this is different from having a rotating GM where each person in the group takes a turn being the GM for the group instead of having one person in the gaming group game mastering the campaign from start to finish. We will address rotating GMs in a future post, but just know for now that our advice will be different (albeit with some crossovers) for that style of play, so don't apply our advice here to that scenario as written.
I. Still Run a Session Zero
First off, before you launch into a "No GM Campaign," make sure you run a Session Zero to set the parameters and expectations for the campaign. We recommended in our post on Session Zero that you should set the expectations for character creation, character interaction, the overarching world and story restrictions you expect, etc.
While necessary when a game master is building buy-in for the campaign and establishing the rules and expectations for players, you can technically live without it if you have a game master (albeit with a greater chance of conflict). When you don't, though, a Session Zero is absolutely essential. Since you do not have a person designated as mediator of disputes (more on that in a minute), one guide for the plot across the wider world, or a dedicated person with agency over non-player characters (or "NPCs"), you need to set the rules for what players around the table are allowed to do unilaterally, and how disputes will be settled.
So if, for example, some people around the table want to do a mystery investigation campaign, you'd better discuss that with everyone and get buy-in from the rest of the group lest you end up with a player going around randomly murdering people as they "try to find the killer." If specific topics, scenes, or actions are off-limits (due to past personal trauma, personal taste, or just not feeling like doing specific things), talk about this and set those rules first.
If a Big Bad Evil Guy is going to be the Big Bad Evil Guy, that had better be decided by the group in advance. Similarly if someone doesn't want, say, elves in the world, you should talk about that first.
Plot, style, parameters - all of that is stuff that GMs help to govern and maintain as the story progresses, so if you don't have a GM, take the time to talk about this to make the campaign smoother and more enjoyable for everyone.
II. Mediation: The Forgotten GM Duty
As noted above, mediation is always going to be an issue when players, who may not always agree on a course of action, don't have a neutral third party who can make a call (the GM). So something you should work out is a simple mediation system for potential disputes.
Some people just use majority rule: you take a vote, and the majority wins. The issue with majority rule is 1) what if you have an even number of players, and 2) what if the majority of people around the table don't feel like they want to choose either side? What if there is more than two opinions or courses of action? There are issues that arise with something as seemingly simple as majority rule.
Alternate options is to come to a consensus, play a match of Mexicali/Liar's Dice, arm wrestling, Jan Ken Po (or Rock-Paper-Scissors for you non-Hawaii people who don't speak Japanese), a quick round of Quelf - whatever your group says works best. You could even come up with a system that involves bidding: if you want to have control, give up something in order to justify you taking the reins of the story.
Another critical thing to keep in mind: don't let dispute mediation take too long. We don't want to lose the energy of the scene - let alone the fun of the game - in the name of settling a dispute. Make the resolution quick, go with whatever the result is, and keep in mind that this is a game: help each other have fun during the game, and that includes how we settle disputes.
III. Scene Crafting
Since you don't have a GM describing the world to you as you change to a new scene, scene crafting becomes a potential issue without one. How do you decide what you see in a scene, when all of you are player characters looking at the scene?
My recommendation: you all choose.
Start with one person, and that person gets to give one sentence describing one part of the scene. Then the next person gives one sentence about one part of the scene that does not contradict what the first person has said. You keep going around until everyone has added something to the scene, and then the player characters get to act. So an example:
Amy: You see a faerie dart behind a tree in a streak of light.
Bradley: The tree looks gnarled and twisted, as if struck by some blight or disease.
Chris: To the left you see a fallen beehive in the direction the faerie came from.
Derringer: You hear no buzzing or droning of bees coming from the beehive.
Elisabeth: You smell a putrid scent on the air, coming from the hill in front of you.
Everyone has added something, the scene has no doubt changed in their minds, but none of the ideas conflicts with the others. And then from here the party takes their actions: they investigate the tree, try to talk to the faerie, and discover that the forest is blighted with a mysterious disease, and she needs their help to fix it.
Scene crafting is going to be constant. You'll build the images, scents, sounds, and feelings of the scenes, but you'll also be building NPCs and their backgrounds and motivations (as you don't have a GM to do that for you). My recommendation on this point is to give each player an NPC to describe. Don't take turns with this one: let a player take control of who that person is. This will result in both more cohesive NPC characters, and will also give greater buy-in for the players as they have more stake in what is going on and who is with them.
IV. Skill Checks
A lot of games have skill checks: to perform a task successfully, you need to hit this difficulty. If your game has "tiers" of success (like the Zurn system does), you can just agree what the tier of the difficulty would be, and then shoot for that difficulty. This keeps it fast and simple.
You also have a rough idea of how hard a check is. If you are using a 20-sided die, a 15 or higher is a hard check: 3 out of 4 attempts would fail. So if you know that most players are getting a +5 or +6 to something they are good at, would a DC15 be enough? Maybe, maybe not. It might seem too easy, as they'll succeed at this "hard task" more than half the time.
So for skill checks (as I don't think we need to belabor this point), find out what the perceived difficulty should be, and then use that as the standard for the check. If you pass, you pass. If you fail, find another way, and come up with another plan.
My recommendation, though, is to not let people make the same check twice. If a good idea fails, don't allow people to try it again: find another way. This removes the potential question of, "Well, if we don't have a GM to tell us to move on, and we can do this as many times as we want, can't we just 'Take a 20' and say we completed it." No: you get one chance. If people around the table want to buff you before you attempt the check, by all means do it - this is a team game, after all. But no: you get one shot. Make it count. If it doesn't work, be creative and come up with another solution.
V. Combat Encounters and Difficulty
And finally, combat. Combat is actually one of the easiest things to do without a GM interestingly enough. You can pregenerate encounters (various websites allow you to do this, GM guides and books often have random tables for combats), randomly pull NPC cards (which can be really fun), or just agree on what NPCs are present in a fight. There are lots of ways to do this, and that's one route.
And again, this is where it will differ from "King for a Day" theory on combat design when you have a rotating GM: in that system a different player plans out what encounters will happen on a given night, and then runs the combat encounters. Each person gets a difference chance to run the combats, gets to decide what monsters to use, and roleplays them for the group. But you can do a version of this without a GM if desired as well.
The big thing to remember about random combat encounters (or "King for a Day" for that matter) is the fear of incongruity. Why is there a water elemental chasing us one day, and then a group of orc headhunters that live just up the hill the following day? Maybe there's a good reason (and the party can work that out), but it can feel disjointed if you go with either of these routes.
The alternative to try to provide a sense of unity is to use a module or setting for your NPC selection. Not necessarily playing through the module, but using the NPCs from the module for whatever your story is. Typically these pre-written adventures are thematic, giving you a consistent flavor and theme for your villains, and since they tend to scale up, as long as your player characters are within the proper range for the NPCs, you can use them handily.
Running a game without a game master is not easy, but it is doable. And it can give greater freedom to the players because they all have a say in the plot. What is more, if you find that you are having trouble getting a group together, this can allow you to play in a single player group by yourself - but more on that in a future post.
Until next time,