Game Design: shared GMing in a cooperative game?

edited August 2013 in Story Games
So I'm working on an RPG that's centered around a racing team travelling around various tracks and competing in a league. I want it to have shared GMing, but I haven't played any such games before so I'm after a little insight from those who have.

All the players will have a character on the team, and everyone will be hoping the team does its best during the race. After making the track and before the actual race, there'll be a part of the session where the players call for scenes so they can improve the vehicle, build motivation, and develop their relationships.

Now, I would like to introduce some conflict to these scenes, because otherwise they will be kind of dull if everything goes the PCs' way. I am planning on having one of the other players act as temporary GM so they can present the world and the NPCs. However, I'm worried that people would not want to introduce problems that could seriously threaten the team's success in the race.

Essentially, the game is about working together as a team and doing as well in the race as you can, but I want to introduce drama through complications and conflict. While it might be OK to have players take on adversarial roles if the game was about the drama, I'm a little concerned that having a player introduce a scene that makes the team less likely to win (one that results in actually sabotaging the vehicle, for example) could be seen as a "dick move".

So, I have a couple of ideas that might hopefully fix this, and have all the players working together while at the same time being willing to introduce meaningful conflict.

The first is to tie the gain of an essential game resource to suffering setbacks during the scenes. Each session, the driver in particular builds up motivation to win which gives more dice during the race. If I link this motivational buildup to a conflict resulting in a setback for the team, then it provides a reason for the current GM to present challenges that might actually result in the PCs suffering at least a partial loss. This also has the advantage that the current GM can tailor-make conflicts depending on the exact situation in the game.

The second would be to take adversity out of the hands of the players, and have it mandated by rolling on a table of potential complications. This has the advantage of allowing the game itself to set the difficulty to overcome, and stops any one player from having to work against the group. The drawbacks are that the tables may not be comprehensive and may not always generate appropriate results, and also they may still need a players' interpretation to introduce the result into the fiction. The second thing, at least, isn't too big a problem though.

Other alternatives could include assigning a traditional GM, or splitting the group between two (or more) rival racing teams so there isn't a conflict of interests betwen trying to win and introducing complications. These could be good alternatives, but I'd really like to explore the concept of shared GMing if I can get it to work and not create a game with incoherent goals! So, as I'm still in the early development stage, any thoughts, ideas, or feedback would be appreciated. Thanks! :)


  • edited August 2013
    Have the GM be the player on their turn, and the other players, during that cycle, play members of a rival team, and the system a 'yes but', where the player/GM sets up a scene to improve their vehicle etc., then each of other players has a chance to interject a 'but', like 'You improve your vehicle, but the mechanic has bought dodgy parts and you will crash and burn on the next leg of the race'. Resolution is a simple opposed dice roll, but with the players (including the current GM) able to use bennies to offset their opponent's roll. After the roll, the player/GM dishes out bennies based on the coolness of the various ideas, and when the player receiving the bennie comes to be GM, they have that bennie to use also, as well as any others they might have been given by other players during their turn. Etc.
  • edited August 2013
    Double post :P

  • Why don't you try annalise and polaris and universalis a little before returning to the drawing table? A bit of direct experience works miracles in almost all human activities...
  • I can't fault the suggestion of direct experience; although I haven't played a dispersed GM game, I have read a couple (Panty Explosion and Eternal Contenders; Bliss Stage also comes close, apart from the Authority). I do need to actually try one out, but I hope I have a reasonable idea of how they're supposed to work. The rules distribute narrative control between the players, and mediate the conversation (who's allowed to say or establish what, and when). Often, one player gets to be antagonistic or narrate bad outcomes (your Rival in Panty Explosion, other fighters in Eternal Contenders).

    But the reason this works is because everyone is there to create an interesting narrative - and, in the case of Eternal Contenders, everyone can express rivalry towards other PCs and cause bad things to happen to them because it's the nature of the game. It's not important if your character fails or even dies tragically, as long as it creates a compelling and moving experience.

    The game I'm working on (Neon Burn) works a little differently though. It has a rigid session structure:

    - The team turns up at a new race location, and randomly works out the track features.
    - Scenes, where characters try to improve the team's chance of winning the race.
    - The Race, where everyone engages with the racing system and tries to get the driver to win.

    The race pretty much takes care of itself; that is, once you've established things like dice pool sizes, NPC racers can be run automatically like a computer program. Everyone at the table will be cheering on the driver and using various metagame tricks to improve their performance, using tokens gained during the pre-race scenes.The race is a challenge that everyone in the group is trying to overcome. While the team might not win, the point of the race is to overcome the challenge, not tell a compelling story of tragedy and loss.

    I think the challenge aspect at the end creates a conflict of interest with attempts to introduce story elements that might reduce the chances of winning. To counteract that, I'm trying to explore options that mechanically require conflict to be introduced in order to increase the team's chances of victory.

    Having read reviews of the three games mentioned by Domon, I already have one new idea. I could begin the dice pool representing the field of opposing racers with large-sized dice. Introducing conflicts into the scenes allow you to reduce the size of the dice in that pool - the larger the challenge, the more the dice are reduced. That was actually inspired by the idea of spending coins in Universalis.

    Thanks for the thoughts so far! Keep them coming! Have I explained my problem clearly? Does anyone think it will be a problem at the table if there's no incentive to introduce conflict? I think most of the more trad-minded gamers I know would tend to soft-sell chalenges that are likely to hurt the group, unless they have a good incentive to introduce them.
  • I stopped reading when I got to "I haven't played any of these games". Go play some. Build on what you learn.
  • I'll add:

    Jason is entirely correct in saying that you should play (or at least read!) those games, you'll learn a lot.

    However, having said that, I'd add that you're exactly on the right track. As long as you set up your incentives right (so that creating obstacles and drama in those scenes contributes to the ultimate success of the players responsible), it should work very well.

    Simply saying that there *has* to be a serious conflict in these scenes, and then making sure that the people involved get to benefit somehow from the conflict being a real conflict (rather than an empty threat) should do the trick. For instance, maybe it's really important in your system for the players to gain experience points in order to do well in the race. Well, then, the harder the conflicts the more experience can be gained (maybe by overcoming them, maybe just by facing them).

    Here's one easy way to do something like this:

    * A chosen player describes a conflict for another driver.
    * There is some incentive to make it *hard*: perhaps the player who introduces the most difficult conflicts gets extra points for some other area of the game, or something like that.
    * When a conflict is introduced, each uninvolved player must choose: if they think the conflict is easy, they can reduce the difficulty level of the mechanical danger by one. If they think it's really hard, they can leave the difficulty level as is, but instead increase the experience reward of the conflict for the driver by one. Each player must choose one option or the other.

    Working against the system (as it seems you've set the Race portion of your game), with ever-rising levels of challenge, can also work, as you point out.

    That's the purely mechanical side of things. You've also got to worry about how to make it *feel* creatively rewarding in play, but that's a more involved process and will probably only sort itself out through playtesting.
  • Playing other games is always good, but what I don't quite understand is why you've decided to make your game like this. If the theme (in the board game sense of theme) of the game is teamwork to win, why have the players make the race track themselves? It seems like this would be an ideal situation for a competitive, not a collaborative, style of game.
  • (I had the same thought. But, hey, sometimes picking your parameters and sticking to them is good for the design brain, too.)
  • I have read through a couple of distributed GMing games, but as you say, there's no substitute for actual play experience. I may even be able to wrangle a game of Eternal Contenders tomorrow night.

    It's possible that collaborative play may not work for this game, but it's something I want to explore. I'm making this game to fit some of the preferences of one of my local game groups:
    - They like longer campaigns, but I prefer punchier one-shots, so I'm using an episodic structure that can deliver a narrative punch while still allowing for extended play.
    - There's often large gaps between play sessions, and sessions are occasionally pretty short, so I'm developing the session structure to tie in to real-world time. The episodic nature also makes it easy to pick up or put down, or to play in a session where we don't get enough people for the regular game.
    - A lot of my local players don't like intra-party conflict, so I thought I'd explore the possibility of having no antagonistic player at all.
    - We often only have three or four people in attendance, so assigning one of those to the GM role reduces the size of the character group.

    Racetrack creation is based on a series of random rolls, so the players don't choose the structure of the track itself. However, given the environment the race is in, they can come up with evocative descriptions for track segments, and visualise how the course works - for example, a really difficult corner with a narrow track might be a "tight hairpin" or a "zigzag chicane". A jump with a fluid surface might be a "waterfall jump" or a "lava dive". Did I mention the default setting is an antigrav racing league?

    So yes, partly this is a design exercise. It may be that I'll have to fall back to using a GM, or splitting the players into two (or more) teams (although with a small group that doesn't seem like a great solution). I'm just seeing how I can push things to try something new, so I'm looking for ways to get the system to mandate conflict. None of the distributed GMing games I've looked at have quite the same situation of a climax at the end of the session that everyone in the group wants to win, so it may just be that distributed GMing is not a good fit, but at the very least it's a fun mental exercise to see if I can get it to work. :)
  • I don't know of any GMless games where all the characters try to win something together (as a party). I've designed a couple, but never got to playtest them. I don't see why it wouldn't work in theory, but I don't know anyone who's done it, either. I think it's an interesting exercise!
  • I can see that it doesn't immediately play to the strengths of GMless play - using a variety of human inputs to collaborate on creating drama and conflict, with the goal of creating a compelling narrative. Having "play to win" in the endgame is kind of counter to happily and voluntarily making things harder for yourself and everyone else, unless the system creates the proper incentive.

    It'll be interesting to see how it goes when I've got it in enough of a shape to playtest.
  • 1: You don't NEED to play a bunch of GMless games. It's nice, but not necessary.
    2: I've made a GMless co-op game and it works fine, but it uses a lot of constraints. Basically, the game itself presents the challenges in mechanical terms and the scene setting player simply interprets them in the fiction. The player doesn't decide how the challenge looks mechanically. This works well for that game, but that game is very light on story. It's basically a dungeon crawl where you compete against the game. If you want the fiction to matter in the challenges, it'll be more difficult.

    Here's what I'd try: I'd make it so that the team wins points by overcoming difficult challenges. These points are then used to win the races. If the players softball the between-race challenges, they're low on points when racing time comes around. So the challenge becomes to make difficult challenges that the team can still overcome. Call the points "team spirit" or something.
  • edited August 2013
    I don't know of any GMless games where all the characters try to win something together (as a party). I've designed a couple, but never got to playtest them. I don't see why it wouldn't work in theory, but I don't know anyone who's done it, either. I think it's an interesting exercise!
    I've played one (Drakar och bananer by Simon Pettersson), and my own This Is Pulp can as easily be played without a GM as well as the GM as the adversary (I don't want to use that word, but it works as a short description). Both games are played as the game against the participants - much like Pandemic and Arkham Horrors. All you need to do is to take turns to frame the scenes with the mechanics in mind.

    (I was going to talk about how wrong this is: "Now, I would like to introduce some conflict to these scenes, because otherwise they will be kind of dull if everything goes the PCs' way." - but then I realized that this thread was reanimated.) [edit] added re- to animated.
  • (I was going to talk about how wrong this is: "Now, I would like to introduce some conflict to these scenes, because otherwise they will be kind of dull if everything goes the PCs' way." - but then I realized that this thread was animated.)
    Not sure what you mean by "animated"..? ^_^

    But to respond to that, perhaps my wording was not precise enough. I meant that if a player gets to frame a scene and say what happens - "I work on the car and make it a bit faster" or "I'll set up a promotional event where the media can interview the hotshot driver and we can attract more sponsorship" - then if there's no complications or conflict it will be fairly straightforward and not very dramatically interesting.

    Sure, you get to see the characters express themselves and develop their relationships, which can be entertaining in itself, but if the entire group wants the race to go well I don't think they will voluntarily introduce much in the way of complications.

    There is no incentive to create problems if the game is not about exploring the drama created by problems. And personally I think that problems are interesting, and conflict is a driving force for drama, so I would like to see it in the game. I want to see the team not always working harmoniously together.
  • edited August 2013
    @Shiro: A conflict is nothing more than an uncertainty, and that's what makes stories interesting. But uncertainties can come in many different shapes; conflict is just one of them. If you and I played a collaborative storytelling game about school girls, and I added an elephant on a rampage, that would probably come as a surprise to you. That kind of social contingency is one of many examples of uncertainties. Yes, it's easy to think in conflicts, but that's only because we're are, from other roleplaying experiences, used to create those. I made a list of different kinds of uncertainties that can be used in roleplaying games. Sadly IMHO, social and, most of all, stochastic contingencies are largely overused in roleplaying games.

    What is also IMHO sad is that conflicts in indie games are both created and solved in each scene. A drama book, that I've recently read, talked about that each scene must have at least one of three things: a decision, a revelation, or an escalation of a conflict. Not solving a conflict. Escalation. Decision and revelation can be part of social contingencies. Escalation can be stochastic but also (see link above) incomplete information, performative contingency, escalation (as an uncertainty), potential barrier or complexity. This is why I don't agree with what you wrote about the game must have conflicts to not make it dull. It is dull without uncertainties however.
    Not sure what you mean by "animated"..? ^_^
    Don't mind that comment. It's just me and my sleepless weekend that's spooking. :)
  • Thanks @Rickard, that was very interesting. It's definitely something I'll take away and think about. You're right, I may have been aiming too hard at "scene-framing -> conflict -> resolution" as a standard approach, which in itself could become repetitive and boring over time.
  • edited August 2013
    You might want to check out John Wick's Yesterday's Tomorrow.* The Peril mechanic might be a good fit for what you want the players and/or GM to do.
    In order to earn your dice, you have to first earn Peril. Whenever you expose your character to the risk of injury and danger, you get Peril.
    Anyone can put your character in Peril: you, another player or the Game Master. Whenever your character is in a situation that is dangerous—regardless of the Style—you get Peril. And once you have Peril, you can spend it to roll dice and narrate the outcome of your risk.

    * The game is now pay what you want here:
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