Round-Robin Gamemastering

September 8th, 2008

Sometimes, nobody wants to be the game master.

This presents some obvious problems in a roleplaying game.  Most systems — all of the most popular ones — rely on the presence of a GM in some capacity.  The GM sets up the story, runs the NPCs, awards any rewards, makes judgement calls regarding rules, and perhaps mediates any player disputes.  What do you do without one?

It’s possible to jury-rig some form of randomized system.  The first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide included a random dungeon generator.  The fourth edition, coming full circle, also includes a much-abbreviated random dungeon and encounter generator.  There’s a short segment entitled “Playing Without a DM” too, which reads in part:

If all you’re looking for is fun and exciting combat, with no more than the barest hint of plot or purpose, a random dungeon with a random encounter deck is all you need.

This is true, and it can be a fun one-shot.  But if your group is like mine, you want plot and purpose — it’s just that, for whatever reason, nobody can commit to GMing.  Burnout, the demands of work and other real-life affairs, GMing “stage fright”, any number of things might contribute to wanting to pass on the role.

One solution is a multiple-GM campaign.  The 4e DMG mentions this option, suggesting that each GM could run an adventure in turn.  But adventures can span multiple sessions.  Perhaps none of your GMs can (or want to) commit to that.

Then maybe you could try rotating every session.

Set up a GMing rotation as usual between those who are willing.  Everyone creates a character.  The first GM runs the first play session.  The second GM runs the second session, picking up on the first GM’s plot.  And so on.

Decide in advance what will be done about each GM’s player character when that player’s turn to GM comes up.  My group usually uses the “fade into the background” method.

Each GM will run with the plot as it stood when they became GM.  The first GM might have had something specific in mind, but if the second GM has a plot twist or interpretation that still fits what the players knew of the plot, then that becomes the “official” plot.  The third GM can add elements, but can’t delete without explanation elements that were already in place.  Retcons are allowed only if the entire group agrees.  This strengthens the sense of continuity while still allowing for everyone to be surprised by plot twists.

It also leads to interesting conversations after the game, along the order of “I can’t believe you thought of doing X!  I was kind of thinking that would lead to Y, but that was so much cooler!”  A little round-robining can provide lots of inspiration for future games, just because people get to see their NPCs and plot elements used in ways they hadn’t considered.

One strength of the round-robin experience is that it cuts the preparation time any given GM needs to dedicate.  For a system like 4e, where preparation is made easy, this could mean just a couple of hours a month.  Even for a system that requires more prep, any one person’s contribution is cut down thanks to having multiple GMs.

The main weakness is that the game will be heavily improvisational.  Each GM will need to juggle the plotlines the previous GM passed to him.  It’s very possible one GM will forget about a plot point, or minor continuity errors will occur.  Some GMs might feel frustrated at the lack of plot control.  All of this can be addressed, but the campaign will have a different feel to it than a single-GM game, or even a multiple-GM game that switches off by encounters.  (Frustrated GMs, by the way, should be allowed to resign without pressure.  This style of GMing isn’t for everybody, and you don’t want that GM coming to resent the campaign.)

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6 Comments

  1. jonathan, Sep. 8, 2008, 5:39 pm:

    this is a bit like Troupe-style or entourage style gaming. I’ve actually been collecting articles related to this on my Google notebook (LINKED HERE). I plan on writing up something for The Core Mechanic related to this topic soon, but i’m waiting on a few articles about this that appeared in in OLD White Wolf and Polyhedron magazines – which I found and bought on ebay recently.

    Nice post! I’ve also added it to the same notebook I mentioned.

    jonathan’s last blog post: RPG CARNIVAL LOGO CONTEST – Win Prizes, Bragging Rights, and a Free Critical Hit Coupon

  2. Scott, Sep. 8, 2008, 5:50 pm:

    @Jonathan: Thanks. It is a variation, of sorts… I don’t think I’ve ever seen any group but mine run this way, but it’s a fun and very different experience. You really do have to enjoy the improvisational GMing style, though.

    I read a blog post recently (just the other day, because I commented on the coincidence — I’d had this article written and queued at the time) where someone did something similar to this, but switching GMs every room (or, I’d extrapolate, every encounter). That’s crazy, and I want to try it. I wish I could remember where I’d read it — I spent some time going through the RPG Bloggers links looking for the post, but I couldn’t find it again. ;.;

  3. Rob, Sep. 8, 2008, 10:05 pm:

    I played with this method for about 14 years with a group I was in. Each GM got a chance to run a series of scenarios (enough to finish his part of a story) in the world. Granted certain NPC villains were the exclusive property of one person (uh oh, Chris is running – I bet we’ll run into “Vichama” again!) but everything else was fair game. It made for some very fun and interesting gaming.

    Rob’s last blog post: Pathfinder D&D – A slightly deeper analysis

  4. jatori, Sep. 9, 2008, 2:36 am:

    Great bloggers think alike, do they not? I recently posted about one of the results of such a round-robin ‘campaign’ back at my blog. Each group always seems to have their own spin or take on the concept. For example, my group didn’t even try to focus on a main plot of any sort.

    jatori’s last blog post: Charity

  5. Scott, Sep. 9, 2008, 4:36 am:

    Yes — it seems the Echo Chamber effect isn’t always intentional!

  6. Animeted, Sep. 10, 2008, 10:33 am:

    A solution my friends and I have used, specifically with DnD 4e is splitting up the tasks of a GM among multiple peoople. One person will come up with the story, and roleplay the NPCs. One of us will design any maps, coming up with environmental details, history of the location, etc. One person will come up with the encounters, i.e. which monsters we will use, etc. One person actually plays the monsters in combat, taking their turns, etc, and finally, we have some one pick the treasure. This approach works very well for us, because we assign based on player style, but sometimes switch it up. For instance, I prefer tactical combat, so I frequently run the combat. Another one of our members is an architect, so he handles all the building stuff. We have a theatre member– guess who handles the NPCs? Anyway, just an idea for playing without a “full” DM, that we have used before.

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