Where did asymmetrical GM-Player system come from?

edited September 2015 in Forum Discussion
In Original D&D, both players and GMs roll dice. The outside world is represented similar to PCs ('stats'), and the two player role (GM, Player) share most of the subsystems (HD/HP, Saving Throws, etc).

In Apocalypse World only the players roll dice and they have very different options regarding the system then the MC (even the harm system means different things to PCs and NPCs).

This could help the MC concentrate more on his actual job. Also the players usually dont feel the system to be 'too minimalistics/too rules light', which IMHO happens a lot when someone creates a system from GM perspective.

Where do this idea originate from?


  • I am not Vincent Baker, but if I had to take an educated guess, it feels like the natural extension of realizing that when the players interact with an NPC, they don't see "Okay, so his strength mod is +4, and he's got weapon focus for +1 and a masterwork longsword, and..." they see "His attack bonus is +7" So immediately, people who are tired of doing all the work start creating stat blocks that don't HAVE strength mods and feats or whatever, but instead just have the things the players actually see/interact with. So suddenly, the PCs and the NPCs AREN'T actually represented the same way in a lot of ways.

    So the system is already asymmetrical, and Mr. Baker just took it to the next level.

    That's my WAG.
  • If you look at pre-D&D referees, the roles were inherently asymmetrical, though in some versions of Kriegspiel it was the ref, rather than the players, who rolled the dice. But that was mostly a player-vs-player, with a ref adjudicating, so when they brought it into the dungeon crawl the opposition force got rolled into the DM's responsibilities as NPCs.

    From a historical perspective it might be useful to look at how civilians and noncombatants were handled in the pre-D&D era, or if the big play-by-mail Diplomacy campaigns had any non-player mechanics.

    That doesn't necessarily tell you much about why the modern PbtA roles are asymmetric, other than the detail that the GM-role has always been an amalgamation.
  • PbtA is hardly the first game to have "players roll all the dice"! (And, as Isaac points out, we've since lots of games that do the opposite: players never touch rules or dice, but the GM does.)

    There are lots of possibilities here, all along the spectrum, and I think they've been there all along.

    (In early D&D, the rules monsters and NPCs operate under were completely different than player characters, for instance.)
  • Who suggested that PbtA is the the first game to have 'players roll all the dice'? I'm not following.

    I also dont know anything about early D&D's PC-NPC differences, but would like to hear more about that!

    I dont' think that asymmetric GM-player roles are the endpoint of a linear process. I think it was always there to some degree, games show a wide variation. But I'm sure somebody can point out games where these roles were radically differentiated. I'm interested in finding these!
  • Well, in Braunstein-style games, the ref typically doesn't take much direct action at all, which is pretty radically differentiated. Because they were an outgrowth of player-vs-player wargames, the referee typically is just there to adjudicate the free-kriegspiel style interactions between the players.

    In Callisto, which is an epistolary Braunstein with distributed narrative authority, the ref doesn't even have typical GM-authority over the world and is mostly limited to reporting on what the players have declared. I'm not sure if that's more asymmetrical or less than a free-kriegspiel ref.

    There are quite a few games like STALKER, where the PCs have detailed stats and inventory and the troubles they encounter in the Zones just have descriptions and a single toughness number. This makes the game about the PCs and their actions, and focuses on the fiction of the enemies rather than their stats.

    Mouse Guard and Torchbearer are a bit similar to Dungeon World, with enemies mostly defined by their Nature rather than detailed skills.

    In Golden Sky Stories, the GM is explicitly a storyteller and most NPCs are defined mechanically by their description and 4 main stats. The NPCs are mechanically symmetrical with the PCs, except that most NPCs are likely to be human or kami rather than henge, and thus on totally different ability scales.

    Ryuutama, on the other hand, has the GM leveling up alongside the PCs.

    At the far other end of the spectrum, Fate games like Diaspora have the GM make up a PC and suggest that the group consensus is the most important thing, reducing the distance between player-roles and GM-roles. And in Fiasco, everyone is on an equal footing.

    I'll let the OD&D experts talk about the early D&D experience.

    As to what specifically lead Vincent to use it, I couldn't say. (Has he said, somewhere? Seems like the kind of thing that might come up in discussion.) Though "It worked better in playtesting that way" seems likely.
  • Another notable example is "traditional gaming" with a GM aimed at total "virtual reality" for the players, full "immersion". There you have a strong GM-figure who presents a complete and "real" world to the players, where they may do anything they like. Sometimes this concept goes so far as to let the players play *themselves* in the resulting game.

    In reality, the GM has rulebooks and stats and so forth, including stats for the player characters. The players, however, are given the illusion that everything is real, and no dice or rules are involved.

    While the GM might have stats for opponents and the characters themselves, the players only have access to the fictional descriptions of the GM, as well as likely a plain English write-up of their character (no numbers or stats here).

    The GM interacts with the nuts and bolts of the game and rolls dice. The players, however, only experience the "fictional" reality of the game, being completely "hidden" from the rules engine running underneath.

    This is, in a way, the opposite of a game like AW.

    I don't know of any published examples, but it's certainly a thing that a lot of people who tried to do.
  • As for such things arise, I've always figured it was a natural evolution born from practicality.

    Everyone can see that GM and player roles are not symmetrical in an RPG - that's hardly a controversial point. Pretty much every RPG (until recent times, anyway) presents different rules for the GM and the players - in D&D's case, it's actually different books!

    Whoever was designing this stuff must have noticed pretty quickly that, from a perspective of practicality, the players and GM have different needs and different levels of attention. For the GM to have two-page write-ups on each NPC or monster is simply too much to handle. For players, however, it works just fine, since that's all they have to worry about.

    So I'd imagine that assymetry is, first of all, "native" to the medium to begin with, and, second, the desire to have different rules for GM and players is very simply a practical matter (as the GM is controlling multiple characters as well as tending to other duties).

    I can't really see RPGs evolving any other way, given where they started.
  • In early D&D, the referee's characters, even adventurer NPCs who supposedly occupied the same in-fiction niche as PCs, did not follow the same rules as PCs to any degree; the stats weren't randomly generated, their items broke the rules for magic items, they had powers and spells not accessible to PCs, etc.
  • edited September 2015
    I was in a mailing list discussion group about Ars Magica back in the mid and late 90s, where the consensus was that the game's rules should work equally for PCs and NPCs. Statting up your NPCs meant going through regular character creation, then cycling them through the experience system until they were as old as you wanted them to be. When you wanted an NPC to travel from one covenant to another, you should make skill rolls for them to find out whether they made it and how long it took.

    I thought this was poorly considered then, and I still do.
  • The asymmetry property here is intimately tied with the question of whether the game features character-vs-character resolution more or less prominently than pass/fail resolution. This was a big discussion topic at the Forge at one point, with e.g. Heroquest and Sorcerer as showcase examples of games that choose to structure all resolution on a vs model, as opposed to e.g. Call of Cthulhu or D&D, where pass/fail is the primary resolution mechanic, and opposed contests are resolved with further rules to compare the individual passes and fails.

    Obviously enough the question of whether the GM rolls dice ties into this issue of mechanical perspective, as often enough it is the GM who would provide the mechanical opposition in an opposed force resolution system. Even My Life with Master, a game with very abstract opposed conflicts, if any at all (you can play through the entire game without any character-vs-character conflicts occurring), has the GM constantly rolling against the PC to provide the variable resistance the pool-based dice mechanics require.

    Historically dice pools are associated with opposed force resolution, because they make it so simple to measure opposing forces in the abstract, and bid them against each other. Similarly, simple pass/fail resolution has usually associated with task resolution systems where you'd resolve individual tasks and then compose a general outcome out of the accumulating fictional positioning. If I had to name where the notion of using character-centered dicing without active counter-force came into conflict-resolving games in a big way, I'd have to go with the aforementioned MLwM; it has a nominal counter-force as a feature of the mechanics, but it's not active in any way - you could get the same practical results with a single dice roll performed by the player alone. From MLwM to games like Polaris and Under the Bed, and thence to Apocalypse World as a sort of a halfway house between these "one roll resolves the whole scene" games and traditional task resolution systems.

    The other way to look at it would be to say that Call of Cthulhu was the first game where "only players roll" was prominent. It is true that the game includes procedures for GM-controlled NPCs to do the same things in theory, but in practice it's all set up exactly like something like AW in this regard: NPCs are there to provide information and pressure that force PCs to make skill checks; you wouldn't really miss it if the game just outright told you to have NPCs succeed in everything they do, except if the GM wants otherwise, or a PC acts to foil them. It'd be mostly combat that would run a little bit differently. Probably an improvement over all those NPC stat blocks for most purposes, frankly.

    Or, if one blanches at the idea of CoC as a game where the GM doesn't roll, then the next candidate historically speaking would probably be Paranoia - with that game it's completely explicit that the GM does not roll dice, only the players do. It's all player-facing mechanics, all the time, and NPCs explicitly do not follow the same rules. A major step away from even CoC's kinda-sorta departure from stringent rules symmetry.

    In summation, we can point at various origins for this idea. As is often the case with cultural history, there is necessarily no single point of origin for something like this - it has probably been invented again and again as the need arose, more or less unconscious of the prior art.
  • In early D&D, the referee's characters, even adventurer NPCs who supposedly occupied the same in-fiction niche as PCs, did not follow the same rules as PCs to any degree; the stats weren't randomly generated, their items broke the rules for magic items, they had powers and spells not accessible to PCs, etc.
    I'm curious where that came from? I don't read that from the Original D&D books, nor from AD&D.

    True, there were some special NPCs defined in Gods, Demigods, and Heroes and Deities and Demigods and a few other places, but by and large, my understanding of the rules was that NPCs of PC races all ran the same way. I guess the "monster" descriptions for elves and dwarves etc. were different, but they were all equivalent of at most 2nd level PCs. Oh, and in the Dragon, they started publishing new character classes as "NPC Only" without experience charts, but those weren't "official".

  • Well, in AD&D and BECMI, for example, stats for monsters were completely different from PCs. Monsters had "hit dice" while PCs had "levels" and PCs had "ability scores" while monsters just had various bonuses. Some stuff was shared (AC, saves, hitpoints) but a bunch of 'back end' stuff was not.
  • Yeah, just look at any module you happen to find.
  • Yeah, just look at any module you happen to find.
    Sure about monsters, but you mentioned "even adventurer NPCs who supposedly occupied the same in-fiction niche as PCs".

    Hmm, just looked in G1 Steading of the Hill Giants, I see an elf with the same sets of stats as PCs.

    I agree, monsters work differently, but what I was exposed to in early D&D was that there were levelled NPCs that had the same stats, levels, spells, etc. as PCs. Of course even with all that there is an asymetry that the GM is not expected to "play" those NPCs until they reach the level desired.

    Now later I think there was more inclination to stat out an NPC fighter or whatever differently.

    So I was just trying to understand what the basis of that statement about even adventurer NPCs.

  • If all we're quibbling about is the time frame of "early D&D", I agree, there were some NPCs that did follow the rules.
  • Certainly in OD&D as played where I played it we stat'ed up the humanoid NPCs and opposition like PCs (not that this took much effort in that system). However, since monsters could be, and often were, highly intelligent, they could and sometimes did end up interacting with players as NPCs, so that approach was somewhat inconsistent anyways.
  • Back when I first started playing D&D a lot of GMs I gamed with rolled all the dice.
  • edited September 2015
    The long-standing D&D rules asymmetry is between people, including the PCs, with class levels and the accompanying power increases, and monsters with hit dice, ad-hoc attacks, special powers, etc.
    Most NPCS, or rather most killable entities, are monsters, but it's only a consequence of the characteristic D&D meta-style of fantasy setting: a large variety of random and diverse wondrous creatures, with no strong reason for restraining the DM's palette to people-type characters.

    Differences in stats are negligible compared to the far more important common level of combat and interaction mechanics: both people and monsters have hit points, armour class, attack bonuses, saving throws, a limited number of things they can do in the same rounds.

    Further evidence that the split isn't essential includes:
    • many hybrid stat designs, from "monster levels" to deconstruct the lack of variety between monsters of the same species (early 3E) to hacks for adapting monsters as PCs (notably, late AD&D)
    • settings and adventures where "people" NPCS are prevalent, like the wizard-rich Forgotten Realms
    • other rare stat systems and stat system variants, like epic levels and spells or Immortals
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