Friday, April 13, 2012

Game Masters All

My favorite tabletop RPG (Mage: the Ascension) gives players the power to alter the game setting in fundamental ways. Although the game master--or 'storyteller', to use White Wolf's lingo--still has the final say, players wield a stupendous amount of power compared to 'traditional' RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons.

Eight of Wands
Mage does give the GM tools to keep overly ambitious players in check. Seriously, there is a mechanic called 'Hubris'. However, I have the fortune of GMing for a group of very cooperative players in that game. Their eagerness to portray PCs in a balanced and immersive fashion gives me a lot of freedom to world-build with them rather than around them.

I allow the players to contribute, both knowingly and unknowingly, in and out of character, to the shared reality of the game. I incorporate elements of the PCs' machinations and the players' wild speculations into the story--sometimes directly, sometimes retroactively, and sometimes in barely recognizable form. In effect, this inflicts a limited version of the Bard's Tongue flaw on every single character.

As I do this more and more, I realize that I will eventually hit a wall, which is the fundamental structure of a game like Mage--and most other tabletop RPGs--that separates GMs from players. Every now and then I halfheartedly investigate game systems that either distribute GM responsibilities (e.g. Prime Time Adventures) or have no GM at all (e.g. Narrative Cage Match), but so far I have not found exactly what I want.

What exactly do I want? I want a fully collaborative storytelling game system where each participant is both a game master and a player. The Narrative Cage Match system for the game Patheon is fairly close in concept, being a kind of themed Exquisite Corpse with dice and counters. Its mechanics, however, are centered on competition and scoring, and gameplay seems heavily reliant on the scenarios (essentially modules) presented in the rulebook. I am looking for something a bit more free-form than that, but not so free-from that it devolves into the Oldest Game.


  1. Something that may be interesting is the Graceful Wicked Masques book for Exalted. Its set in the exalted world, but Graceful Wicked Masques centers on the Fae (rhaksha, etc whatever they feel like calling themselves). In the Wyld, Narrative IS. Combat isn't stabbing, its Description. Shaping Combat is all about controlling the narrative of the Wyld to do as you wish, and as a Fae, you already are what you wish to be in the first place.

    1. The GWM book was very confusing for me. It took me a long time to wrap my head around the various mechanics they used, which I thought were overkill for what was essentially competitive storytelling.

  2. The main reason why you can't have all GMs is that you need a way to adjudicate disputes. When two people want to control the same outcome differently, who wins? That's why taking turns GMing or giving people different spheres of influence is often the best way to resolve this problem.

    1. I disagree (in part).

      You can resolve conflicting outcome with something as simple as rock-paper-scissors or as complex as the bidding mechanic in Narrative Cage Match. This requires that all parties agree on and adhere to a system for adjudicating disputes, of course, but the same is necessary in a single-GM game. I do think that an all-GM game would require players who have a certain mindset, and that it might well be a very different experience.

      I do agree that rotating GMs and co-GMs are a good idea, but I am curious to push the boundaries of the traditional roleplaying format.