Player Advice For Gm Less Games

This is advice that should apply almost equally well to GM-Less Play in games like Archipelago, Geiger Counter, Fiasco, Polaris, Universalis, and even some GM'd games like In a Wicked Age, Lady Blackbird and Primetime Adventures. These games tell you how to set things up, how to create some conflict, how to put your characters in a scene, and then they all kind of say, "Okay, go!" So this is supposed to go beyond the minimum instruction nuts-and-bolts and help people "bring it" — meaning, have fun and tell good stories. I'm imagining it's something you could hand out to newbies, (I'm a newbie myself — this is what I've learned so far, and also some reminders to myself of things I should remember to do when playing) so it has to be short as well. That said, playing this way is kind of like surfing. It's something that can't really be taught; you have to practice.

  • It's not that different from traditional RPGs. When playing your character, say what your character does and says.
  • But when not playing your character, act like the other players GM. Embellish what happens to other characters and create and play NPCs for them.
  • Resist the urge to shoot down other people's ideas. Try to say "Yes, and…" or even "Yes, but…", but confirm and build upon their original idea. That's what makes these games work, what gives them their momentum and flow, and is why it's so much easier to tell a story in a group than when you're sitting by yourself at a word processor.
  • That said, if you really don't like a contribution, you should probably speak up. Universalis has its challenge mechanism; Archipelago has <Try a Different Way>. There's no reason why you can't say "Can you <Try a Different Way>, please?" with other GM-less games. (Although they won't have the same rules-backed authority as they do with Archipelago.) Striking a balance between encouraging others contributions and trying to keep stuff you don't like out of the story is one of the fundamental challenges of story RPGs. Shoot down too much and you kill the magic; shoot down too little and you end up with a story you don't like. But you should probably err on the side of shooting down too little.
  • Give the other players air. If you have a suggestion on their turn, bite your tongue and give them a chance to contribute before poisoning them with your idea. Wait for them to say <Help>.
  • There is no try, there is only do. You don't have to say "I take a swing at him" or "I try to convince him to let us go." Go straight to "I cut his frickin' head off" and "'Sir, you know in your heart it is wrong to keep us here.' He hears the passion behind my words and lets us go." It's the other players responsibility to challenge or call for conflicts if they don't think you should get away with what you just said you did.
  • Bring adversity to other players. It's tempting to just bring adversity to yourself because you don't want to piss people off, but bringing adversity to yourself is boring. (Czege principle.) You are the other players GM; you are their antagonist. Create obstacles and antagonists for them and make them go to the conflict resolution mechanics.
  • If you're stuck:
    • Go obvious. Use the first thing that pops into your head. What sounds cliche or trite to you might be surprising or compelling to the others at the table, and most stories are built on tropes anyway, with just a few unique elements to set them apart.
    • What does your character want? What destiny are they headed towards? How can they get there?
    • Does the game have mechanisms to get you unstuck, like the fate cards in Archipelago?
    • Ask for <Help.> "<Help.> I'm stuck. Any ideas?"
    • End your scene.
  • Use "<And scene>" to end your scene. It's okay to suggest to other players when you think it's a good time to end their scene. A great place to end a scene is in the middle of a conflict, or right before you're about to resolve a conflict. If the other players aren't going to conflict resolution when you think they should, "<And scene>" will give them a second chance when your turn comes around again. (And in Archipelago if they've already used their <That might not be so easy> it'll give them another opportunity.)

The Next Level

Think about your favorite novels, shows, movies. What do you think makes a great story? Why does one story speak to you and another story fall flat? Thousands of how-to-write-fiction books have been written, each with their own opinions. The topic suffers from a “Blind Men And The Elephant” syndrome. One blind man says “stories have conflict!”; another blind man says “stories have subtext!”: another blind man says “stories have metaphors!”; another blind man says “stories have theme!”; yet another says "stories are all about changes in status!" And so on. One of the things that's so great about collaborative storytelling is you can decide for yourself what's important and make sure that gets in. So, fwiw, here's a far-from-exhaustive list of some things that may or may not be important to you. I couldn't care less about some of these. Others, I want in every story.

  • Allegory, Metaphor - think about a real-world issue and try to represent that in your story
  • Aristotelean Unity (hey, it was important to Aristotle) — don't have time jumps
  • Conflict — to drive conflict, put an obstacle or character with a conflicting goal in their way
  • Choice — give characters multiple goals or flags — sometimes they have implied goals you can play against (they want to be famous, but presumably they don't want to kill their sister to get there)
  • Climax — keep escalating
  • Comedy (in the Greek sense) — antagonize, antagonize, antagonize, and then let up at the end
  • Dialog — do it
  • Epiphany / Character Growth — change your goals. narrate why you had this growth.
  • Goals — "All stories begin with someone wanting something, even if it's just a warm place to sleep"
  • Likable Characters — make sure at least one person isn't playing an asshole. maybe it has to be you who plays the nice guy
  • Motifs — reuse images, ideas
  • Mystery — introduce elements without explaining them. Someone was shot! Who did it? The bible is blank! Why? A strange figure leaves the scene — you don't get a good look - who was it?
  • Originality — challenge cliches
  • Subtext — have one in mind. don't reveal it lest it become the text
  • Status Changes — take down the noble. elevate the weak.
  • Symbolism — have your details signify your themes
  • Theme — This is a tough one
  • Tragedy — spot the hubris. punish it. don't let up.
  • Twists — draw fate cards. go nonobvious; tilt.
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