Are there campaign gmless story games?

Are there? Should there be? I seem to have only encountered lots of one shots, but my limited experience has definitely been limited to one shots so I may have missed out on other approaches.


  • edited August 2017
    I've never played it, but I think FateLess is built for campaigns, and would work well for them.
  • edited August 2017
    Also, Polaris is definitely made for campaigns (although not super long ones).
  • Oh geez. I overheard that about Polaris in passing just yesterday in fact. Totally forgot. Must have planted an unconscious seed that compelled my question!! Thanks Jeff.
  • I'll look up fate-less. Thx again.
  • Hero's Banner might be GM less, I don't remember for sure.
  • Kingdom really shines with 3-4 sessions.
  • edited August 2017
    @davey depends on what you mean by "campaigns"! Most 1-shots I know are actually better as 2-shots, and half of them are better still as 4-shots. I don't think Grey Ranks has a GM (though, man, it's been a while) and that has something like 15 chapters so could easily be a 15-shot.

    If you're looking for something well-suited to years of play and dozens of sessions, though, I must admit that I'm drawing a blank.
  • Haven't tried it, but "Trainwreck Mode" in Fiasco: American Disasters is a system for stringing together multiple Fiasco sessions into a campaign.
  • I never played them, but Archipelago? Intrepid?
  • Remember Tomorrow. You play in Episodes of three or so sessions and there'll usually be some recurring characters and factions stringing multiple Episodes together. We're in our sixth session now and I don't see us moving away from that game soon.

    Sign in Stranger Sadly, I only got to play a oneshot, but there are 40 research questions to answer, which could probably last you for as many sessions.

    I recently played Wilhelm's Okult and got the impression that it could be stretched out a lot if you're really interested in your character's mutual past.

    Hillfolk is not GM-less, but should be easy to play that way (I guess).

    In general: our trad-campaigns usually run for something between 15 and 30 sessions and I'd definitely be interested in more gmless games suited for that timeframe.
  • Can't believe I forgot Sign in Stranger. My favorite answer so far. That game could run 5 sessions or 35 depending on how frequently you roll to answer questions and on how many questions you feel the need to answer.
  • I believe Hannah Shaffer mentions in this podcast that version 2 of Questlandia will have guidelines for campaign play. Something to look forward to :)
  • Grey Ranks has no GM and is divided into 9 short chapters and an epilogue, intended for about nine hours of play across three sessions.

    I've played long games of Archipelago stretching across maybe 16 hours of play.

  • Oops, thanks for the correction, Jason. I shouldn't have said "easily" a session per chapter, I should have said "if you like to go super slow like I often do".
  • Really, worlds created in "microscope" could be infinitely explored. The games subtitle is something about fractal story telling after all.
  • We played a very long Monsterhearts campaign sans GM. Highly recommended.
  • Playing a long campaign without GM sounds really intriguing and something I've been thinking a lot lately. Perhaps, if my next project ever sees the daylight...

    I feel that a good approach would be a sandbox that is explored and defined during the play, thus creating story arcs when the characters interact with the world that is being shaped.

    S/lay w/me played in campaign style would fit the bill, but it is a two player game and quite unorthodox anyway. Even with this, it would not be super long, but only perhaps something less than ten sessions.
  • Is Sign in Stranger available in print?
  • Is Sign in Stranger available in print?
    No, just free PDF from what I know.
  • Is Sign in Stranger available in print?
    No, just free PDF from what I know.
    Thanks for the info.
  • Look no further than Archipelago. The game moves very well from a session to the next. The destiny points move each session toward a satisfying conclusion and next session you pick up where you left off and let the new destiny point take you where you want to go or the story wants to go. This can go indefinitely until the characters or, maybe, the overarching plot have been played out.
    You can set up your world/theme/scenario to be geared toward campaign play. We have an Archipelago hack that we have been playing since May 2016 with sessions happening quite often. We do smell the roses quite a bit, though.
  • edited September 2017
    I've designed Directions Storyplaying System with that in mind:
    You can download the Quickstart Guide and handouts to get an idea. Basically, I wanted to have a modular, universal framework (i.e. like Fate) for playing indie/story games. In playtesting I've got feedback that it is pretty well suited for playing campaigns.

    Before designing Directions, I used to take FU freeform universal with Mythic GM Emulator as a starting point for campaign-style gmless story games.
  • Mythic GM Emulator almost exactly creates campaigns because the random scene generation system in it combined with some other elements of the tool tends to create some very "hairy dog" type stories/plots/event chains.

    You really have to stay focused as group to not end up with a campaign using MGME.
  • edited September 2017
    I don't know what "hairy dog" style means :smile: But I guess it tends to open up plots rather than to resolve them. That's why I never play plain vanilla Mythic GME, I use it to shake up predictable patterns,
  • You have the basic concept of "hairy dog" right.

    MGME tends to throw out results that introduce new characters or plot threads as you go. It can also create situations where you roll randomly for focus characters, which then can create more plot threads.

    Unless the group takes pretty firm control and stays on general concept, it is easy for a group to end up with less a movie, and something more like a TV series that begins to sprawl out in all kinds of directions over multiple seasons.

    OTOH, that could make for a very good campaign, as opposed to the more short form stuff I tend to like.
  • edited September 2017
    Also, apparently the proper term is Shaggy Dog Story:

    Having now caught up on both The Walking Dead and the Game of Thrones TV series, I'd probably consider both of those Shaggy Dog stories from the viewer end of things.

    MGME could likely produce something like those.
  • Yeah, Mythic GME tends to fork in all sorts of directions (new characters, new plots, twists...). On the other hand, "manual" scene framing usually tends to come up with predictable results. That's why I like the combination.

    I also use sometimes a "Surprise Meter" to dial in the degree of Mythic-GME-style randomness we want at any moment in the story game.
  • I like Mythic GM Emulator a lot.

    I think it works best ( for shorter run games anyway) when you have a far bit of imaginative "supplies" defined ahead and a general concept, but you're not entirely sure how those "supplies" will be used or which bits will turn out to be important.
  • Unlurking! This is pertinent to my WIP.

    Ironsworn was designed specifically to support extended campaigns for solo or co-op GMless play. It's actually not that great at one-shots, which has made playtesting a bit of a pain.

    Sessions are structured around trying to complete sworn quests. Tough quests might take up many game sessions or even the complete arc of that character's story. Minor quests will be dealt with in a session or two along the way. Failed vows will tend to generate new quests, so it all sort of snowballs (not unlike the description of Mythic above).
  • Long time lurker, first time poster.

    I'm participating in a 2e Boot Hill campaign with two other gamers, and we've gone smokeless - without a referee - since the inception last summer. The original goal was just to play through the five published modules for BH, but that goal shifted to a long-term campaign involving troupe play, as hinted at in the rules.

    Some lessons learned, in no particular order -
      We make extensive use of written orders and campaign turns, 'zooming in' on the action as needed. If two sets of orders present a conflict between player characters, the third adjudicates, and on one occasion, we brought in a 'guest referee' to help out.

      We keep copious notes. I keep a log of the action and we have an Excel file for storing notes on non-player characters - the latter is especially helpful for keeping track of facts introduced in actual play and to record reaction rolls, which tend to 'ride' until a situation would likely cause the non-player character to re-evaluate the relationship.

      We're starting to use the Profession rules from Sierra Madre Games' Burros & Bandidos to generate events for the player characters - this helps to represent a living world which pulls the characters in.

      We make extensive use of random rolls - reactions, encounters, et al.
    One thing we haven't used is the Mythic Game Master Emulator, which I really like and used extensively in other campaigns - in this campaign, we're more likely just to throw a die for yes or no and maybe roll for a random encounter as a complication. I've really come to enjoy stripping the game down to bare essentials and winging the rest.

    This is a very traditional roleplaying game, and a rather minimalist one at that, so the onus is on us to think creatively and keep consistency. We've been moderately successful on that latter point - without specific rules like an Aspect to define a non-player character, it's important to keep a close track on things like reactions and past history in the relationship with a player character.

    We've made it work so far.
  • That BH campaign sounds like an enormous amount of fun.
  • That BH campaign sounds like an enormous amount of fun.
    It's a hoot.
  • That sounds really interesting, and the writeups on the blog are excellent. Great stuff!

    Can you tell us more about what play looks like? For instance, how many characters are "on screen" at a given time? How do you handle situations when all the players have one or more PCs present?

    It sounds like you're using modules. How does that work without a GM?

    I'd love to hear more about the details of play in terms of situation to situation or scene to scene, in other words.
  • There were five modules published for 2e BH during its run. The first four are sandboxy to one degree or another, with the last skewing harder toward the traditional group of adventurers following the designer's plotted expectations. The first four - BH1 Mad Mesa, BH2 Lost Conquistador Mine, BH3 Ballots & Bullets, and BH4 Burned Bush Wells - are each unique and interesting and in a couple of cases strongly influenced how I approach roleplaying games generally.

    The first, Mad Mesa, is a choose-your-own solo adventure with notes and additional encounters to expand into a group adventure. The modular nature of the solo adventure - it's designed to be played in different orders, after all - made it easy to adapt to ref-less play - when we encountered one of the conflicts presented by the module, we figured out our plan, then consulted the solo adventure to guide to see how it would be resolved.

    It was playing this adventure that we developed something that would prove really helpful later on: each of us would write orders for the way non-player characters would respond to our characters, then randomly chose one of the three after determining our own orders. It sounds more involved than it is in practice - frex, the npcs' plan could be described as 'a fighting withdrawal toward the stable' or 'a mad dash for the horses' or 'the riflemen dig in while the pistoleros attempt to flank around the hotel,' then we make our characters' plan and pull one of the three to see what happens next. We also make regular use of the Morale rules for non-player characters, which frequently makes a mess of everyone's plans.

    The second module, Lost Conquistador Mine, was designed as a tournament module - it is also very modular, filled with situations which could be encountered in any order up through the 'key' encounter which puts the map to the mine in the player characters' hands. This is where we started to head in different directions, as my character was run out of town by vigilantes for 'being good at cards while Mexican.' At that point, I more-or-less took over refereeing the rest of Lost Conquistador while the other two players refereed my own character's experiences in Promise City, site of the third adventure, Ballots & Bullets. Both of the other players' characters were dry-gulched following a false lead for the mine, so Lost Conquistador remains unfinished, an 'open book' (or an open wound . . . ).

    Ballots & Bullets is a sprawling campaign module, a mini-campaign about the twelve weeks preceding a local election. The module includes over two hundred non-player characters, multiple factions and organizations - it also contains something I never encountered in any other module, a series of events involving npcs with no suggested or planned involvement by the players' characters. The players are meant to play the roles of the non-player characters for these vignettes, and they provide a true background narrative to the election.

    It was about this time the long-term potential of the campaign began to present itself, so rather than dive right into Ballots & Bullets, especially with two newly-introduced player characters, we decided that the characters arrived in town a year before the election. The goal was for our characters to become established in town, part of the community fabric, so that the elections' stakes would be more meaningful. As this was fall of 1873 in-game, we decided to run Burned Bush Wells in the winter between our arrival in Promise City and the election.

    Burned Bush Wells, like the other modules in the series, is a small sandbox which includes a traditional linear adventure delivered via random encounter. If you're scratching your head at how all that works together, you should track it down if at all possible - it's a very clever approach. Two of our characters decided to answer the call to hunt wolves in the snows around Burned Bush, but the other player's character decided it was too much risk for too little reward, leaving my character to finish the module. By now all three of our characters were heading in different directions, and week-long campaign turns with written orders became the norm, with the other two splitting up or sharing the refereeing duty for the third.

    That spring we introduced our troupes - my cowboy, buffalo hunter, and mining engineer trio, the Pinkertons, and the hired killer and his compadres. It was then we played Ballots & Bullets, which is dense with rules on how to run the political campaigns of the various candidates - thank Gawd for spreadsheets! - and which proved to be incredibly deadly. The valet of the Pinkertons was killed in action before we started the module, and five more characters - my surviving character's brother and best friend, one of the remaining Pinkertons, and the hired killer and his companion - died over the course of the election campaign itself. (At some point I need to do a postmortem blog post about this adventure.) The Pinkertons' player is bringing in two more detectives as replacements, the other player is talking about a Chinese tong in Promise City, and I decided, rather than introducing two more player characters to fill out my troupe, to take two non-player characters as 'henchmen.'

    The fact that we as players took our characters in three very different directions made running the campaign easier rather than harder. Tracking events and particularly reactions and introduced facts about the non-player characters was critical to keeping a measure of congruity and verisimilitude - part of the fun is then building on what the other player(s) established about the character.

    I also believe group size and chemistry plays a very significant role - more than three players and we risk the potential of characters being sidelined too long as well as too many cooks spoiling the broth.

    I'm taking on the responsibility of running - more-or-less - the last module, BH5 Range War! my least favorite of the bunch. This one is aimed straight at the Pinkertons in their role as 'range detectives' and my character's involvement is most likely to be reactive in his role as undersheriff of El Dorado County, so it makes sense for me to do the job of adapting it to the campaign. Range War! is a traditional linear adventure with ham-handed plot hooks, which makes it my least favorite by far, but with a little elbow grease, it should yield some good sandboxy play more appropriate to the way our campaign's progressed over the last fourteen or so months.

    Sorry to drone on and on - I hope at least some of this was helpful.
  • It has been exceedingly helpful to me.

    I tracked down the full run of BH's 1920s cousin, Gangbusters, and have been trying to figure out how to do something similar with that.

    I'd toyed with the idea of doing a troupe style campaign for that, but hadn't considered pairing that with rotating GMship or similar. I'm also very glad to hear that you're managing it with 3 participants, something that was a concern for me ( but would certainly be easier to do than try to gather up a bigger group for me).

    BTW, if you don't have them, the five module run for GB follows a very similar pattern in module style to what you've described for BH.

    Also, while it wasn't official I the way those BH modules you've talked about were official, there was an early Dragon magazine that had a BH module in it called The Taming of Brimstone.
  • I bookmarked your thread GangBusters thread, kb - lots of good stuff in there.

    In fact, I have a (pipe) dream of playing a multi-generational epic campaign consisting of a hybridized Boot Hill-cum-Burros & Bandidos which carries the characters through 1920 and the end of the Mexican Revolution straight into GangBusters. El Paso was as wild and woolly as Chicago during Prohibition, with mule trains of booze carried across the border via old Indian trails and shootouts in the streets. It would also give us a chance to explore the development of Promise City over decades, which would be a very interesting challenge to sim.

    We used "The Taming of Brimstone" during the three weeks (!) that my character was marshal of Dodge City. "TToB" was the second of two non-BH adventures we adapted while my characters were on the cattle drive. The first was from another Western game, and the adventure was so execrable I refuse to name-check it for fear others might be tempted to subject themselves to it.

    There's a seventh BH adventure produced by TSR, "Dr Brown's Miracle Juice," published in Polyhedron 43. A chap on eBay released three or four self-published modules compatible with BH - I have one of them.

    I'm working my way through the 'gm-less design' thread and I hope to add a comment on some of what's worked and what we could do better in our own campaign so far.
  • Wonderful writeup, thank you. I find the idea of running a GMless campaign using force a traditional rule set and modules absolutely fascinating.

    How did you use the modules in play, practically? Would everyone read them ahead of time, or would you pause play and read ahead together once you hit an important decision point?

    I'm imagining this was easier with PCs in separate storylines, but I'm especially curious how it was handled in parts of the game where all the PCs were on screen at the same time.
  • For Mad Mesa, we randomized the order of the various scenarios presented for group play, then worked from the solo adventure to guide the action. The scenarios are very wargamey - and I mean that in a positive way - in that they are open-ended: 'here's the situation at start, now go'; there isn't much in the way of, 'what's REALLY going on is . . . ' spoilery types of information, though there are some interesting tidbits for the players and their characters to learn here and there which tie into the range war which is the backdrop of the campaign. This is where our three takes on what the npcs are doing in response to the adventurers became helpful, along with reaction and morale rolls - from what I've read in the gm-less design thread, it sounds like what we did was analogous to some sort of cards used to determine the direction of an encounter once it was initiated.

    For Lost Conquistador, I literally copied and cut up the scenarios presented as part of the adventure - these situations often do have information to which the adventurers should not be privy for risk of spoiling first-person, in-character immersion as there are mysteries to this adventure - highlighted the initial situation, and stuck them in an envelope. When we randomly determined a situation came up, we'd read the set-up, then roleplay our response, once again guided by reaction rolls, morale rolls, and 'hmmm . . . I'd say he does x on a roll of 1-4 on d6' discussion. My character got run out of town fairly quickly - call it five days into the adventure? - so at that point most of the encounter-running just shifted to me, right up to the point the other characters got themselves dry-gulched.

    As I mentioned, in Flashing Blades campaign I ran, I prepped open-ended scenarios and then used MGME, which would honestly be much easier to do here, but for this campaign, I just wanted to play as rules-light as we could go, and so this was what we worked out. It's klunky and kludgey but I'm not a game designer or gaming theorist, so whatever works right now is good enough, and if works more than once, we tend to stick with it.
  • Fascinating! I really like the use of hidden "orders" to create unpredictability. This way you guaranteed that two out of three players would be surprised; not a bad ratio!
  • edited September 2017
    I wonder if any of the readers here are familiar with a product named "Ergo"?

    I've only had it described to me second-hand, but it sounded like something which advertised itself as a "game" but was really a companion book, a compilation of advice and tips on running a GMless RPG campaign.

    The idea was to take a traditional RPG (much like the Boot Hill example above), create PCs, and so forth, but share GMing responsibilities fluidly. It doesn't sound like the game had any clear procedural guidance, though; mostly just conceptual advice and some style tips.

    Has anyone ever seen/read/played it?

    EDIT: RPGGeek says "Ergo is a collaborative, GM-less RPG system created by Ian Millington in 1999."
  • edited September 2017
    Yes, @Paul_T, I own Ergo; it's released under CC and is free (just hard to find :smile:). I've only browsed it, I haven't read it yet, but it talks about a character's role being to serve the story and not to be the "avatar" of the player. A lot of the Story Game-ish concepts can be found in its pages. It was definitely ahead of its time. You can get a copy here:

    Also, Paul, here's Ian's original draft if your interested:
  • Also, apparently the proper term is Shaggy Dog Story:
    To no one in particular:

    I'll point out that in Game of Thrones, Rickon's dire wolf was named Shaggydog. I'll let you ponder that for a bit.
  • In fact, I have a (pipe) dream of playing a multi-generational epic campaign consisting of a hybridized Boot Hill-cum-Burros & Bandidos which carries the characters through 1920 and the end of the Mexican Revolution straight into GangBusters.
    If you're not committed to Sim play, might I consider running this using Sorcerer with the supernatural dial turned way, way down (demons aren't actually evil demons, but human foibles and needs that we must feed).
  • edited September 2017
    lot of the Story Game-ish concepts can be found in its pages. It was definitely ahead of its time. You can get a copy here:
    Also, Paul, here's Ian's original draft if your interested:
    Wow, it relies on the same basic premises that are essential to me: sane adults enjoying getting together to collaborratively shape and play a story, taking full responsibility together for the whole story and experience - centered around plots more than "their" characters.

    Is Ian still active somewhere in the RPG or story games world?

    I've found this article by Ian, brilliant:
    EDIT (thanks Jeff):
    Found this thread also:
  • I really like the use of hidden "orders" to create unpredictability. This way you guaranteed that two out of three players would be surprised; not a bad ratio!
    If you're not committed to Sim play . . .
    We're definitely trying to keep actual play as 'traditional' as possible for exactly the reason you mention, Paul - that feeling of surprise, of the setting revealing itself rather than being collaboratively developed, hence the importance of random content generators and the "Sim" sensibilities, Adam.

    Some years ago I used MGME to play Flashing Blades solo and the results surprised the heck out of me. Even as I was guiding the action through my questions, I could never be quite sure what would happen once the dice were cast, and that gave the experience a very traditional feel, much more so that I could've predicted.

    We're really doing the same thing in this campaign, just slimmed down, more ad hoc.
  • @Black_Vulmea Up-thread you mentioned you'd like to create a multi-generational game. One game that I can think of that does that is Pendragon. There might be some useful stuff in there that could be borrowed to help you with that.
  • edited September 2017

    I've found this article by Ian, brilliant:
    Found this thread also:
    I can't seem to get the first link to pull up. Here is another link if others are also having trouble:

  • Black Vulmea,

    If you decide to do the GB tie-in generational game, be aware of that the modules are basically 1 campaign setting module/semi-railroaded set up for a power vacuum among thee gangs ( Trouble Brewing) and then 4 mystery modules ( somewhat hard to work gangster characters into without some work).

    The module that came with the boxed game is really a trainer module, Choose Your own adventure style. It plays very quickly though ( we did a few months back in about 1 hour with four players) and revolves around cops taking down a small dustbowl bank robber gang. It's actually a pretty good intro to all of the core mechanics, however.

    Third Ed GB is a single book. It incorporates the maps and counters from the 1st ed boxed set, and some of thee setting info from Trouble Brewing, along with a brief slice of the Death on The Docks module.

    There is no 2nd Ed. No one really knows why this is. Presumably 'printing' and 'edition' were used as synonyms, leading to the weird designation.
  • @Black_Vulmea Up-thread you mentioned you'd like to create a multi-generational game. One game that I can think of that does that is Pendragon. There might be some useful stuff in there that could be borrowed to help you with that.
    I played Pendragon many, many years ago. I don't have a copy of the rules anymore, but it would definitely be worth a look again.
    If you decide to do the GB tie-in generational game, be aware of that the modules are basically 1 campaign setting module/semi-railroaded set up for a power vacuum among thee gangs ( Trouble Brewing) and then 4 mystery modules ( somewhat hard to work gangster characters into without some work).
    I have the GB box set and Trouble Brewing - I will probably track down Death on the Docks as well at some point.

    I played the introductory module way back when, when I first acquired the game. Unfortunately, I could never find anyone else interested enough to play a full game.
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