Day 12: Best story about waiting for players in a GMless game to finally get to the point in a scene they’ve called for but obviously had no idea why they wanted it in the first place?

Howdy all, hope you had a great weekend.

My thinking about this question: I have played several GM-less games but it’s not my preferred format. That said, I’ve had some amazing good games come out of them. My skills are in dire need of work, although on occasion the psychic channels are wide open and everything is great.

The last time this happened it was me, and it was in Rachel E.S. Walton’s Mars 244 game at Dreamation. It was a late night game, I’d been playing and running stuff nonstop, and I think I didn’t have any A-game left to bring.

Mars 244 works in the same vein as Montsegur 1244, in that there’s a sequence of escalating acts that frame up everyone’s scene for the act. And if that bit of context isn’t enough, there’s also a card you can draw to give you something to hold on to. And finally and maybe most importantly, each character has a question you should aim toward answering in the course of play.

It’s such a different experience than anything else in tabletop roleplaying! There’s no GM there acting as continuity editor/show runner, nor are there strongly incentivized flags other than those character questions. Now, when I played Montsegur 1244 the first time, I got some intensely bleedy, powerful play out of it: I had hooked into juuuust the right combination of character, backstory, relationship web and players. I was, I think, the only one who had such a strong reaction to the game. But at no point did I feel like I didn’t know what scenes to frame or what I wanted out of my spotlight time. It’s my current benchmark for successful play, but it was also such an impactful experience that tbh I’m a teeny bit scared to try for it again.

But different GM-less games offer different menus of hooks and frames and whatever elses to get everyone on the same page for a scene. I think that’s where my skills fall short: recognizing the hooks for what they are, communicating a shared understanding of those hooks to the player(s) I want in the scene, and then making sure we continue down the road together.

More often, it’s like “oh hey it’s my turn! Um. Okay so my character is uh…thinking about uh…home. And you’re there too. Why are you there? Oh you don’t know why you’re there. Do you want to talk about anything.” And then I realize we’re wasting everyone’s attention span and being un-entertaining. I’ve got, at least, good entertainment instincts, so I can usually cook something up at that point that at least gets folks laughing. But that’s such a different level of play than the immediacy of surface-level emotions demanding resolution.

Maybe I should talk about immersion as a thing/not-thing in a separate thread.

Anyway: it’s a skill set I’m very much looking forward to developing. It’s also a skill set that I’m not persuaded most (for certain values of “most”) folks really care about, and I’m not even sure it’s especially transferable to the more mainstream tabletop experience. It’s kind of a GM-ish skill but it’s also kind of not. Maybe because when I’m just another player, I don’t have the same … I don’t know, aura of authority? That aura of GM-ness that says it’s okay for me to tell you what situation you’ve found yourself in.

15 thoughts on “Day 12: Best story about waiting for players in a GMless game to finally get to the point in a scene they’ve called for but obviously had no idea why they wanted it in the first place?”

  1. GM-less games are one of my favorite formats!

    I think some of the games that leave things too open can make for sputtering scenes.

    For example, Remember Tomorrow has a section that basically says “decide who is in the scene and then free roleplay until it comes to a decision point”. That’s super easy to leave someone framing a scene with a brainfart moment.

    On the other side of the coin, the Protocol series of games have you draw cards to determine scene type/location/etc, allowing you to spend some of your chits to change one or more of them. Leaving most of the framing up to fortune seems to make for more solid, directed scenes.

    I posted in Rob Brennan’s answer that my favorite style of framing actually comes from Microscope, where you begin with a single question (“Will Davey kiss James?”) and then it ends immediately when the question is answered (“Huddled in the dark of the cave, hiding from the creature, Davey can feel James’ breath on his cheek. He turns his head and kisses him!. End scene”). What I like most about this is in the structured ending and how it opens up to framing scenes immediately after the end of another scene (“How will they escape the creature this time? Scene opens with James roughly shoving Davey away, right after the kiss”)

  2. Does the “answer a question” thing work in all gmless/ful games equally well?

    I’ve been at tables where folks were trying to set up like…slice of life scenes. And it can work! But I don’t think there was a question at the center of it.

  3. Paul Beakley Part of me wonders if it works so well in Microscope because there’s very little character ownership/investment. You might have favorites, but it’s pretty uncommon in my games to have the same characters present in a lot of scenes, especially if the history is spanning hundreds of years.

    But I also think there’s definitely a place for sort of aimless, purposeless scenes. Remember Tomorrow even has a rule for that, with a different way to resolve a “color scene” if it ends up not resulting in a conflict. And that’s basically what that is, right? A scene without a question is a scene without a core conflict?

    Mark Delsing series of GM-less games based on the same short rules. Uses cards and tokens, as well as questions and random tables that change from game to game. I really like them.

  4. Mark Delsing​​​ I think the name of the series of games is Praxis with Protocol being the first game in the series.

    Or Protocol was the old name and Praxis the new…or version 2.0…or a rebranding. I couldn’t really track it.

    But if it’s the series I’m thinking of, the next several titles in the series are being Kickstarted right now. – King of Storms

  5. Interesting! Yeah, GM-less games are a pretty different approach. I would have many unsuccessful play experiences if I used your benchmark though! I mean, there are certainly games where I know every scene I want to frame or what I’m going for at the beginning of them, but that requires me firing on all cylinders, which is rare. More often, I know some of this up front, and the rest I figure out while in the scene. Gosh, I almost hate to use this tired phrase, but usually I’m just playing to find out. Which is a goal in and of itself, but a very loose one.

    What I mean by this is, I’m not always sure what’s going to stick or be interesting because I’m not sure what the other player is going to do. How they behave and what they say is intensely interesting to me. I fucking love to riff. If I’m exploring my character and how they’re coping or changing or wrestling with something or seeking something or someone, then I want to be open to the other character/player moving me. I want to be a little storm-tossed and affected by their words or efforts, or move in if I sense that they’re storm-tossed.

    That said, I’m bringing a lot of GMing sensibilities with me always, so I don’t tend to do super-long, unfocused scenes. They might start out that way (by just plopping two characters together or something), but I’m always poking around to see what seems interesting and when I find it in the scene or conversation, I zero in and bring it home, so to speak. I love doing this because it keeps me open to truly allowing what happens in play with other people to matter, and I often get to be surprised by what happens.

    Sometimes that results in ultimately uneventful scenes, but even those I use to feed into what’s next. For example, one of the Mars 244 characters is a caregiver & sex-worker and one of his questions is about finding someone who can fill his own need to be cared for. He might go for someone he’s attracted to first, but maybe that doesn’t pan out the way he hoped and he’s bummed, so in the next scene he finds himself chatting with the old drunk chaplain and they end up having a nice bonding moment that reveals both of their broken selves and they end up watching out for each other in the thing that happens next.

    In a number of the GM-less games I’ve played, there isn’t a lot of control over the overall journey of play or a ton of options in the outcome, but the story arises from how you got there and what meaning you bring to it. I was just thinking of Laura Simpson’s clever game A Companion’s Tale where you play the support characters of a heroic-type character who, in the game, is basically a prop that you define together. Like, who the hero is is not in question, but our job is to define how kind or horrible they are and who has influenced them in becoming that way. The scenes we have flesh that out. I love this because it takes our romanticized, easy-to-swallow tales of heroes and explores what’s under the tip of the iceberg. Montsegur 1244 does this with a little-known historical event, and my Mars 244: The Liberation of Sisyphus game does this with a fictional future event. The exploration of what’s under the surface is sometimes something awful, but sometimes it’s something really beautiful, and often it’s a mix of both. Games like these almost always give more nuance and a broader understanding to the end point, which is so good if you like complicated stories and characters (I do!).

    There are areas I’m less comfortable with in GMless games though. And those would be games like Dream Askew that have so much openness, I can freeze up a little. Which isn’t to say those games can’t be great, but I’m definitely more likely to flounder without some sense of what I’m supposed to (or want to) do.

  6. Rachel E.S. Walton should be doing these. Except she can’t, because everyone knows some asshole came up with these questions.

    Also, I can barely remember that game of Mars. I was in so damn much pain by the end of it that I had trouble walking out of the room. So, I highly doubt you were the only one not sticking to your scene.

  7. Brand Robins you’re not wrong that I can’t do these questions. Though I adore the people who came up with them and would not call them assholes. 🙂

    Yeah I dunno…I’m creatively stretched thin this month so I’m jealously guarding my time. But it’s more than that. The effort to translate most of the questions into stuff I genuinely want to talk about is just a little too much. Like I’ll begin composing an answer in my head and it will begin with a bunch of qualifiers or justifications and that kinda kills my motivation. I rather do something else. Like I get the jokes. And I laugh at myself more than is comfortable for other people, but that’s not the same thing that inspires me to write a meaningful answer. And writing joke answers requires me to be in a really particular mood.

    No joke though: the other day I wrote up an entire month of questions in reaction to these questions. (Which…has got to be the most indie gamer thing I’ve done in a while). 😛 They are more directly about why we do this gaming thing (so I don’t get stuck answering my own damn questions). I want to talk about fictional make-outs, and little known games, and risks we took that were worth it. But I’m not trying to status-play or moral-high ground this month, which has turned up some good answers and interesting discussions. So I might give this breathing room and wait for a slow month like January to post them.

    I may still answer some of this months’ questions. We’ll see.

  8. Abstract Machine I kinda love seeing how differently people react to_Dream Askew_ because for some people it’s the easiest thing in the world and for others it’s really tough. Depends what you enjoy in a game. I’m somewhere in the middle, in that it’s tough because it requires making a lot of stuff up in the moment, but I’d also happily play it again because it does some cool things, and like you suggested, once stuff starts sticking, it gets memorable and the rest falls away and that’s okay.

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