How is a collaborative story game without a GM different from one with a GM?

gaming, writing

This is a revised and expanded version of my earlier post comparing Dungeons and Dragons (a collaborative story game with a GM) to Fall of Magic (a collaborative story game without a GM). While the previous post attempted to answer if it’s possible to make a “truly” collaborative story game, this one will explore how my experience playing the two games differs and why. I’ll also theorize how players with different backgrounds than mine (for example, those less experienced with TTRPGs) would experience each game, and end with my thoughts on how I might design my own non-GM collaborative story game. If that sounds interesting, read on–the actual post starts below. (It is about 3k words, so be prepared!)

When I say “tabletop roleplaying game,” what do you think of? Probably Dungeons and Dragons, one of the most popular and well-known TTRPGs. But maybe you’re more indie than that, and your mind jumps to Pathfinder, Dread, Apocalypse World, Fate, or any number of other TTRPG systems. You could also call these games “collaborative story games,” as in a game where all the players work together to tell a story. Something that all these games have in common is a Game Master, or GM, who essentially controls the narrative, while the other players react to that narrative.

Probably all collaborative story games you can think of have a GM role—one might even argue that a GM is necessary for these kinds of games. However, collaborative story games without a GM do exist. Once Upon a Time is one such game and Fall of Magic is another. How is playing with a GM (D&D) different from playing without a GM (FoM), and why?

With a GM (Dungeons and Dragons)

For those of you unfamiliar with D&D and other GM-based TTRPGs, I’ll take a moment to explain what part of its story-telling might look like. The GM starts by narrating the scene, and then the other players react to what happens as their character. For example, the GM might say “You enter the tavern. The room is dimly lit and there are only a few patrons, sullenly nursing their own pints of ale. A lone bartender wipes the counter.” I might say in response, “I approach the bartender and say, ‘Hey, do you have rooms to rent?’” We then continue the scene in character, the GM acting both as narrator and all the non-player characters in the scene, like the bartender.

In D&D, players create their characters wholesale—personality, backstory, abilities, etc.—before even starting the game. The GM usually tries to work character elements into the story they’re telling. Because in the end, while it is collaborative—the players are the main characters of the story—the GM is ultimately in charge of the world, plot, NPCs, and literally everything besides the PCs themselves. The players can rarely, if ever, make up their own places, NPCs, or stories on the fly.

I’ve played D&D both as a GM and as a player. While the amount of control a GM exerts over a narrative can vary (a simple example is that sometimes I narrate my players’ killing blows on creatures for them, and sometimes I let them narrate), players rarely expect to be given much control and sometimes will flounder even in cases of the example I gave of narrating what attacks look like in a fight. Some of my players’ favorite moments has been when they tried something that they didn’t think I would allow as a GM. The point I am trying to make here is that while all players contribute to the story, the GM has ultimate control over what happens. This is not the case in Fall of Magic.

Without a GM (Fall of Magic)

I sat down to play FoM with two of my friends with whom I normally play D&D. In addition to being experienced D&D roleplayers, we’re also all Creative Writing majors, and so are very familiar with the conventions of storytelling and character arcs. Before we started playing, we had to make our characters—but unlike D&D, our “character sheets” were simple index cards with a name and title chosen from a predetermined and limited list.

I named my character “Caspian, Heir of Stormguard.” Stormguard is a location on the map that comes with the game and is illustrated with a castle on some rocky cliffs, so I imagined that Caspian was something like a prince, and if he had a weapon it was a rapier—he’s not a fighter. (Yes, I was inspired by another fictional Prince Caspian.) Other than that, I made up Caspian’s backstory, family, and most of his character on the fly in different scenes or had parts of his character attributed by other players. For example, while our characters were camping during our journey, my friend narrated a scene with his character Harpo that at the end assigned the trait “kind” to Caspian.

FoM gives a very loose narrative to the players: “Magic is dying and the Magus is dying with it. We travel together to the realm of Umbra where magic was born.” In each round, players move the tokens that represent their characters to a new area of the map, and then to a location in that area, which has a prompt for a scene. While nominally a player is in charge a scene on their turn, FoM encourages the other players to ask questions, give suggestions, play an NPC, or interact in the telling of the scene in some other ways. “It’s like a conversation,” the rulebook explains. The story beyond the two-sentence prompt and the single-phrase prompts for each scene is completely left up to the players, and no single person oversees the world or plot, unlike D&D. In theory, everyone has equal control over scenes and plot.

One scene in which we did as the rulebook suggests was in Barley Town. Harpo and Raven, my friends’ characters, went to the Farmer’s Market without Caspian. While technically this was Raven’s turn, Harpo mentioned the presence of “the Barley Man” in the market and I seized the opportunity to jump in as a mute NPC—a scarecrow-like figure made completely of barley who danced and capered around the two PCs. The Barley Man was one of my favorite moments in the whole session, as I joined the scene completely on my own initiative, as compared to other scenes where the player in charge asked one of the other players to play specific NPCs.

Our journey took us from the Ravenhold, through Oak Hills, Barley Town, and the Stormguard Mountains, to arrive at Castle Stormguard. On the way, we made up character details like Raven’s ability to absorb evil magic, Caspian’s family and hobby of sketching, and Harpo’s mysterious knowledge of various arcane substances, as well as details about the world like the ancient Giant Wars.

When we arrived at Castle Stormguard, I had specific ideas in mind for Caspian’s home and certain story beats I wanted to hit—but it was Harpo’s player’s turn to introduce the location, and he had a completely different idea in mind. In the past, we’d narrated opening scenes merely to give an idea of the setting and tone of that location, but he presented the plot of a castle under the control of a powerful and evil sorcerer. “I have a cool idea,” he told us, “if you’re okay with letting me do it.” Of course, we agreed.

For the duration of that section, Harpo’s player essentially acted as GM: taking on the role of all NPCs and narrating story beats, as well as roleplaying his own character. The rest of us still had more narrative control than we would have had in D&D—Raven’s player invented an area of the castle with mysterious inhuman skeletons embedded in the walls, and I narrated an entire climactic duel between Caspian and the evil sorcerer—but he was still doubtless in control of the plot. We were all fine with it, because we were excited to see where his story went, but it strayed even further from FoM’s intention of a conversation-like game.

Castle Stormguard is a bit of an extreme example, but we followed similar patterns in every other scene. The player whose turn it was narrated the scene and their character, and the other players just responded as their characters, rather than making up other NPCs or adding to the scene (the Barley Man was an exception). When we wrapped up the game, we agreed that while we’d had fun, we had deviated far from the game guidelines and fallen back on our D&D roleplaying habits. The next time we play, we said, we should try to contribute equally to all scenes and to share narrative control, rather than merely rotating GMs.

How does it feel?

I tried to outline the key mechanical differences between D&D and FoM in the above section, but just to recap: D&D has a GM who controls the narrative; in FoM, everyone controls the narrative. You don’t even have complete control over your own character. There’s also far fewer dice rolled—the outcome of the duel mentioned earlier was affected by a die roll, but that was one of two times we rolled dice in the entire game. Control of the story is truly in the hands of everyone, not a GM, and not the dice.

Emotionally speaking, it was strangely nerve-wracking but also exhilarating to play FoM instead of D&D. The more I played, the more it felt like a series of trust falls—I had to trust that my friends take the narrative elements that I added when I spoke and continue to build with them in a direction that I liked. Castle Stormguard is a great example—I wanted to reveal that Caspian had hidden magical powers (something I had decided only once we arrived at the Stormguard Mountains, more than halfway through the game), but I also had to work it into the narrative of the evil sorcerer, and trust that my friend would give me the space needed to do so.

By this point, I had added enough details to Caspian’s character and history that I was truly invested in his story—I wouldn’t have felt as nervous earlier in the game, when Caspian was just a collection of names and the “kind” trait. I suppose the anxiety and exhilaration was something like a rollercoaster with higher and higher drops as our investment in the story and the stakes of its outcome grew. The anxiety builds as you go up the rollercoaster and are trying to figure out how to add to the story on your turn, and then the exhilaration hits once the coaster drops and you successfully complete the story beat you wanted or otherwise tell a story you like and are proud of.

Playing D&D, in comparison, feels a lot safer. I know that the GM won’t let my character die (in the kinds of games I play, at least), and that I don’t have to worry if I’m telling a good story or making my character develop. That’s all the GM’s responsibility. As the GM, it’s a different experience—you are responsible for any screwups to the story, and any deviations your players make to what you have planned goes beyond nerve-wracking to panic-inducing. You can’t pass off the narrative to another player and say “you figure something out of this mess” like you can in FoM.

What if you’re not an experienced roleplayer?

Part of the reason why the trust falls of FoM worked, I believe, is because my friends and I are all experienced roleplayers and storytellers. I could trust them to do good things with the story and leave room for my own character and narration because we’ve had a lot of practice improvising stories together. When I imagine playing FoM with someone inexperienced with roleplay, I picture them freezing up and asking the others what they should do every time it’s their turn, or narrating their scenes in brief, dull sentences that don’t add to the world or characters.

This may sound harsh, but it’s based on my actual experiences playing other kinds of RPGs (like D&D and LARP) with inexperienced roleplayers. Playing with a system like D&D can help inexperienced players because at the most basic level they have a list of things they can do—in combat, they have their action (usually an attack), bonus action, and movement; outside of combat, they can talk or refer to their skill list for other actions (I have literally had inexperienced players do this). Friends of mine who are used to non-improv roleplaying (like play-by-post or longform forum RP) would also struggle with being asked to describe a scene or come up with a character arc on the spot. Many of them avoid tabletop RP exactly for this reason.

Someone who is experienced at improv would have a better time, I think, even if they aren’t used to collaborative storytelling or RP specifically—the “Yes And” mindset of taking what the previous person has said and rolling with it would definitely help them figure out the setting and feel of the game, especially since they don’t have to learn any complicated systems like in D&D. But I would hesitate to invite someone inexperienced with roleplay or improv to play FoM with me.

That isn’t to say that someone inexperienced with both wouldn’t enjoy the game. The lack of systems to learn is very welcoming to newbie TTRPG players (since I know that the rules of D&D are very intimidating), and everyone knows how stories should go even if they don’t spend a lot of time telling them through books, movies, and other media. Most people played “let’s pretend” as kids. And if you’re playing with friends, you’re a lot more comfortable trying something new like improv roleplay.

My instinct is that I have different standards for the kinds of stories I like to tell in TTRPGs, and that inexperienced players’ stories might be shorter or sillier or otherwise different from mine. But as long as you’re having fun there’s no “right” way to play, and I think anyone who wants to tell a story with their friends would have fun playing FoM.

How would I design a non-GM storytelling game?

So, based on my experience playing FoM, was it a successful non-GM storytelling game? I’d say yes, although the lack of structure still worries me—my friends and I did end up adding more structure to the game than was built in, by taking turns GM-ing scenes. What lessons have I learned from FoM? What might I do differently if I made my own collaborative storytelling game?

One thing that definitely helped us start playing FoM was the examples written in the books of different scenes, including how you might assign a trait to another character or incorporate a dice roll into your story. We also frequently referred to the examples of ways other players can participate in scenes when it’s not your turn. I might take those examples up a notch and provide an explicit list of actions other players can take to participate in other characters scenes or during your own scene, although the list wouldn’t be exhaustive. So, something like the skill list in D&D, where the players can always do other actions but have a reference for the more difficult, important, or common ones.

I’d also want to add some way to help players keep track of their improvised world and characters. In D&D, the GM has notes on their story and world. In FoM, you just have your character index card, in which you write down nothing beside their name and any traits. I as a player started writing down important plot threads, character traits, and other details as we created them, because it started to become too much to just remember when making up a scene. I’d design worldbuilding or character sheets for the players to fill out as they go along, to refer to as they continue the story to make sure it stays consistent.

Another thing I might do is specify that something must happen in each scene. Not just the prompts, which are things like “What you left behind” or “A battle fought long ago,” but something I learned in my creative writing classes, which is that each scene must add to the plot or character. You can have something silly like the Barley Man if a character’s reaction to it reveals something about that character, even if it’s just “Oh, we had a Wheat Man in my home village.” It’s a good guide to make sure you’re continuing the story instead of spending half an hour on silly nonsense. I know some people might like spending half an hour on silly nonsense, but if I’m designing a storytelling game, I want to make sure the story is told.

You might notice that these ideas all add more structure to the game, because as I said, my chief pain point in FoM was the lack of structure. I’d hope that adding these changes help the players tell a better story and also provide enough structure for less experienced players to try playing (although it might backfire, especially with the last point—having people plan for a plot point or character moment in each scene is a tall order). But as an avid storyteller, roleplayer, and game designer, I’m excited to think about how I could continue to add to the RPG world with a non-GM collaborative storytelling game.

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