Where did modern GMless gaming come from?

Where did modern GMless gaming come from?
As part of something else I'm doing, I got curious about the origins of modern GMless rpgs. Which ones were the first to dispense with the concept of the GM, which were the first to embody the different types of GMless games and which were the ones that sparked the imagination of other designers and properly established the practive. I made up a partial list of modern games on RPGgeek that are category of GMless.

Just from this, it looks as though the first big splurge came in 2005 though I'm not sure if they were reacting to something released that year or something from 2004 or something not on the list!

(Note, the two dates are for games that had a public release significantly before their final first edition.)
1998 1998 The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
2001 2001 De Profundis
2002 2002 Universalis
2004 2006 Polaris
2004 2004 Faces
2005 2006 The Shab Al-Hiri Roach
2005 2005 Capes
2005 2005 Breaking the Ice
2005 2007 Contenders
2005 2005 Best Friends
2005 2005 Bacchanal
2005 2005 Engle Matrix Games
2005 2005 It Was a Mutual Decision
2006 2006 Mythic Role Playing
2006 2006 Shock
2006 2007 The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries
2006 2006 Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan
2007 2007 Grey Ranks
2007 2007 Dirty Secrets
2007 2007 How to Host a Dungeon
2007 2007 Until We Sink...
2007 2007 Stoke - Birmingham 0-0
2007 2007 Heart of the Rose
2007 2007 Archipelago
2007 2007 Hikikomori
2007 2007 Fuck Youth
2007 2007 Zombie Porn
2008 2008 Zombie Cinema
2008 2008 Western City
2008 2008 Shooting the Moon
2008 2008 Geiger Counter
2008 2008 Under my Skin
2008 2008 It wasn't me!
2008 2008 The Father
2008 2008 Drunk
2009 2009 Fiasco
2009 2009 A Penny for My Thoughts
2009 2009 Kagematsu
2009 2009 Montsegur 1244
2009 2009 Annalise
2009 2009 Ribbon Drive
2009 2009 Ocean
2009 2010 Umläut: Game of Metal
2009 2009 The Orc in the Well
2009 2009 Sweet Agatha
2009 2009 Joe in Ten Persons
2009 2009 Blood Red Sands

Comments

  • great list!
  • I think to understand where GMless games came from, you also have to look earlier at games that had a GM but were starting to question or change what that meant, like Ars Magica and The Pool.
  • I want to say Ars Magica may have been the first to have a troupe/"rotating" GM position, but I don't have an early edition to look at. I DO know that it made its way into Vampire: the Masquerade 2ed in 1992.
  • I want to say Ars Magica may have been the first to have a troupe/"rotating" GM position, but I don't have an early edition to look at.
    It was certainly the first place I came across the idea in a game, but not sure which edition/what year that was.

  • edited July 2015
    I think Ergo, by Ian Millington, 1999, deserves a place in this timeline.

    Though I don't know whether it was ever played as an actual game by anybody (the text itself off-puttingly states it's not a rules set and suggests using FUDGE), it was widely circulated as a reading essay over the then-infant Internet. The essay describes a collaborative role-playing framework which does away with the GM altogether (there's no concept of a "GM rotation" here) and in doing so it sure anticipates a number of features of play which became staples of 21st century RPGs, such as shared ownership of NPCs or agreeing on a purpose before playing out a scene (I'm thinking of this in a PTA way, though I can't quite remember how it exactly shaped up in Ergo). I do remember there was a lot of pre-negotiation of things going on in Ergo's framework, which sounds plain and unexciting by contemporary standards but was back then a necessary piece of groundwork and, if you think about it, is still the baseline of sorts we test the specific strengths of a new system against.

    I'm not sure how aware of Munchausen the author was, but Millington was apparently coming at this from a different angle.
  • Oh, yeah: according to Wikipedia the first Matrix Game by our resident Chris Engle was created "c. 1988", not 2005, though I didn't check whether it used a fixed referee.
  • Matrix Games often stilled used a referee. Going Ref-less in them is a more modern thing.
  • edited July 2015
    Great topic Richard. It's interesting seeing how various games fit in the timeline, and how old some of them are, forex Universalis, 2002 - I'd never have guessed.

    To the question in the OP: from what Ben_Robbins and JDCorley are saying, it's definitely worth looking up the Ars Magica rules from that time, as I think where a game has a GM but appears to be questioning his or her role, that's where you'll get your answer.
  • The thing about the timeline that struck me was the 8 games listed in 2005. Something must have happened at that point that gave so many designers the idea to go GMless in some manner.
  • I would also point out that data points, release dates are potentially red herrings. A release date doesn't tell when the designer first got the idea or started working on the game.
  • The thing about the timeline that struck me was the 8 games listed in 2005. Something must have happened at that point that gave so many designers the idea to go GMless in some manner.
    Matrix games way pre-date 2005.

    2005 was also when The Forge was in full swing and people were really starting to share lots of info on methods of self-publishing on a shoe-string budget.

  • There's also this list of GMless games that unfortunately doesn't have the dates readily available but does list some things not on your list, such as Apocalypse Girl (Nov 2005, for the Ronnies). Probably has other early ones, but you'd have to go through it manually to find the years. (I'm presuming you didn't deliberately skip any early ones when you made your list.)

    Your list is also missing Sea Dracula (2007?, released 2008), which affected some people.

    1km1kt.net also lists Chance Encounters (August 2005); if there's an earlier GM-less game on there it isn't called out in the description.

    Absent someone who was around at the time chiming in, it might be interesting to sift through the Forge archives, pre 2005-ish, and see what the conversation around GM-less roles was.
  • edited July 2015
    Pantheon, by Robin Laws!
  • What happened in 2005 wasn't anything dramatic, it's just that in 2003-2004 a bunch of people had been designing GM-less games at the Forge, and those came out the next year. The interest on the topic in 2004 basically originated in the analytical deconstruction that'd been going on in 2002-2004 on the nature of the roleplaying game act; the way I remember it, many of those games were natural outgrowths of the deconstruction of the GM that was done at the time, and reactions to e.g. My Life with Master and other such games with highly structured (and therefore deconstructable) GM roles. (Look at Contenders for an example of what MLwM looks like without a GM - I've got a similar thing in my desk drawer, as I imagine many people who followed the discussion at the time do.) Universalis as well, of course - it caused a lot of excitement for raising so many questions about the nature of creativity in roleplaying.

    At the time the GMless games weren't considered particularly special in comparison to GMed games. Three years on people would be talking about GMless as a specific technical preference even, but it took time for that perception to grow to its current extent.
  • Heck, these days if you ask 10 RPGers what "indie RPG" means, 6 of them will say it means "GMless".
  • edited July 2015
    I myself have a "GMless" game I wrote in 2005. Like (I'm sure) many others, I thought I had invented the idea.

    I was inspired by some of the deconstruction of the GM/player role at the Forge. Someone (almost certainly Ron) said: "Look, here are all the things a GM does. Is there any particular reason all these duties have to be united in one player, in this particular way? No."

    I thought, "Ha! I have an idea for a really ground-breaking thing I can do with this."

    Naturally, I later found out I wasn't alone, not at all. I think Polaris was one of the first games I saw in this vein, only a few months after I created and playtested my game.
  • I was inspired by some of the deconstruction of the GM/player role at the Forge. Someone (almost certainly Ron) said: "Look, here are all the things a GM does. Is there any particular reason all these duties have to be united in one player, in this particular way? No."
    Yeah, that was Ron - I remember the post you mean. He was more summarizing the zeitgeist than clearing fresh ground, but as has often been the case, his particular summary certainly stuck with me, it was quite interesting to realize how many GM tasks there are, and how even traditional games have some subtle differences in which of those tasks they actually require to be centralized, and which can be distributed.
  • Didn't some of that discussion of GM duties come out of discussions of social level GM duties? Like, basically, why should a GM have to act as social secretary and/or baby sitter for grown adults. Then the rest kinda followed, as discussions wound around towards splitting up in-game functions.
  • Yes, most definitely. There was discussion of how the GM role became conflated with tasks like scheduling the session, providing dice, providing snacks, even cleaning up afterwards, and so forth.
  • Fastaval started experimenting with gm-less games in the early 2000's. Earliest I can find through a short search is Blodhævn by Alex Uth (2002)
    It's available for free and in Danish here!
  • Yes, most definitely. There was discussion of how the GM role became conflated with tasks like scheduling the session, providing dice, providing snacks, even cleaning up afterwards, and so forth.
    I don't recall whether those conversations got into it or not, but I remember thinking that lumping all of those non-game duties into GM duties also tended to encourage a sort of Viking Hat GM mentality.

  • edited July 2015
    In 1975, En Garde! is an interesting GM-less game (with diceless combat).
    Whether it's a true RPG or not is not relevant, because it was one of the 4 first so-called-RPG's (with D&D, T&T and EPT), and might have started another branch of the RPG family...

    A few years later (1977), the second RPG from GDW, Traveller, also had advice for solitaire and GM-less play. In fact, GM-less and GM-full play are both adressed in many parts of the first edition books (IIRC). Also, it borrowed a few things from En Garde! (military advancement, for example).
  • En Garde! is one of those games I hear people talk about that I never had access to and rarely encounter people face to face who've owned or played it.

    Any ideas about when and where it was popular, and what later game designers had it as a happy youthful memory ( and something to be inspired by n their designs)?
  • In my group of players we played a gm-less VtM inspired campaign waay back in the mid-1990's. The reason it worked well was that we all trusted each other, but I think that's a general requirement for GM-less.
  • In 1975, En Garde! is an interesting GM-less game (with diceless combat).
    Whether it's a true RPG or not is not relevant, because it was one of the 4 first so-called-RPG's (with D&D, T&T and EPT), and might have started another branch of the RPG family...

    A few years later (1977), the second RPG from GDW, Traveller, also had advice for solitaire and GM-less play. In fact, GM-less and GM-full play are both adressed in many parts of the first edition books (IIRC). Also, it borrowed a few things from En Garde! (military advancement, for example).
    Good point.

    I think it may also be relevant that the GM role developed out of the wargaming referee. Solitaire play has a long history in war games. Solo play was pretty common given the difficulty of finding an opponent. There are apparently non-miniatures commercial wargames that date to 1974. Don Featherstone's Solo Wargaming was published in 1973.

    And, of course, while the referee is critical if you're running a free kriegspiel, the free kriegsspiel referee was a development from von Reiswitz's much more constrained confidant. And from there you can trace kriegspiel back to chess, which hasn't ever had a referee. Though this is admittedly getting rather far afield from the original question about modern gmless games. It does show that the gm-role has evolved in myriad different ways.

    I suspect the mostly-unstated-in-the-rules Braunstein-derived free kriegspiel elements of D&D were the catalyst for the game catching on like it did, so the GM-as-god-of-the-game thing became the assumption. I'm not familiar with any evidence that suggests that players or designers at the time recognized that, though someone who was there might have a better idea. I'd guess that it was more unexamined assumptions forming the play culture piecemeal as they found things that worked.
  • T&T had solo play also
  • There's probably a bright line to be drawn between GMless play and solo play, the latter usually meaning "programmed instruction", which as I recall is what T&T offered. The paragraphs are effectively your GM. I love that style of play!
  • There's probably a bright line to be drawn between GMless play and solo play, the latter usually meaning "programmed instruction", which as I recall is what T&T offered. The paragraphs are effectively your GM. I love that style of play!
    Yeah, there's definitely a qualitative difference between games that give one or more players narrative authority--Free Kriegspiel, D&D, Modern GMless--and no-GM games where the adjudication is entirely down to the rules--Solo Wargames, Fighting Fantasy, Referee-less wargaming. A no-referee wargame, where the rules theoretically simulate every possibility, is a very different kind of thing than a group-as-co-GMs thing.

    Not that that stopped some players from actively narrating their after action reports, but that's definitely a story-later thing, with first person accounts after the fact rather than roleplaying in the moment.

    Solo adventure books have seen a bit of a comeback recently. There's a new Fabled Lands book being Kickstarted, the Fighting Fantasy mobile gamebook apps, and so on.
  • edited August 2015
    I want to say Ars Magica may have been the first to have a troupe/"rotating" GM position, but I don't have an early edition to look at. I DO know that it made its way into Vampire: the Masquerade 2ed in 1992.
    Prince Valiant: The Story-Telling Game, from 1989, had rules where the Storyteller could turn the story over to one of the other players for a while, who would be the Storyteller for story within the larger narrative. When control returned to the original Storyteller, the temporary Storyteller would get a certificate that they could cash in later to power a special effect.
  • The paragraphs are effectively your GM.
    Yep, exactly.

    Oooh, good catch on Prince Valiant. That one slipped my mind.

    There was also some discussion about how Gangbusters (TSR, 1982) mentions playing without a Judge (aka GM), but from what I gather GMless play was more for just running skirmish PvP combat. The book says you must have a Judge for campaign play.
  • (What a thread!)
  • Yeah, there's definitely a qualitative difference between games that give one or more players narrative authority--Free Kriegspiel, D&D, Modern GMless--and no-GM games where the adjudication is entirely down to the rules--Solo Wargames, Fighting Fantasy, Referee-less wargaming.
    YES to this distinction, that's super important. Sorry for the goof, folks. TBH I wasn't super familiar with T&T. If it's like Fighting Fantasy, then no.
    I though it was more like Mythic GME.
  • edited August 2015
    I was just re-reading Gangbusters yesterday actualyl. Love that game.

    Yes, the basic GB rules are basically Prohibition Era skirmish rules*. It can be played GM-less, just like a wargame. It does include a CYOA style training module as well, involving cops tracking down a Not-Dillinger Dustbowl bank robber and gang.

    Campaign play needs a Ref, and gets a little weird. I understand the original game that it developed out of was a bit more like an ongoing, open-ended Braunstein. It hints at this style of play, but I can tell you that as a kid playing GB, those hints went right over my head. Instead, we played it essentially like any other sort of team RPG, deciding early on whether we were playing cops or criminals, not a mishmash of both with whole gobs of players being involved.

    There are a number of semi-rpg wargame campaign systems that have story before/after/between play elements, with players often adding some characterization that comes out during play, if that makes sense. Fro what I can tell from running down some of these and their predecessors, they seem more like a parallel line of game development alongside RPGs. They may or may not have GMs at all, or ad-hoc refs only. It's a bit all over the place.


    *A number of TSR boxed games included some kind of "training" skirmish scenario meant too be played to learn the game, prior to a proper GM +PCs type rpg set up was engaged in for further play.
  • Good call on En Garde! Got the book right here ;)

    @Komradebob It's still being play out across e-mail and forums. There is a semi complete list of current games here: http://www.engarde.co.uk/games.html#Active

    If you poked around for En Garde games on google you can dig up a lot more.
  • edited August 2015
    Thanks all for your contributions. It's been a great help.

    Regarding definitions and solo play, that's kind of the reason I named this thread 'modern gmless' gaming. Going back, I could find the odd game from the 70s and 80s listed as GMless. What we have today, though, is a pretty clear tradition of GMless games and I wanted to use this thread to go back to where we didn't have such a tradition and find where this most recent incarnation gathered cohesion.

    Based on these posts and having done a bit of digging around on the Forge and other places here what I'm currently feeling:

    Several of the '2005 crop' were from designers active on the Forge. It seems likely that their games came from the discussions there about breaking up the GM role. Those discussions in turn may have arisen spontaneously, but I think it would likely have been influenced by the publication of Universalis. Mike Holmes has told me that in the creation of Universalis they were pointed at Nomic.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomic

    One thing I'm still wondering about is the influence of Ian Millington. This interview (by our own Andy Kitkowski) around collaborative roleplay published in Jan 2002 http://ptgptb.org/0020/coop.html
    sums up several elements of what I consider modern GMless gaming.
    And this from 2000 going into Ergo in more depth
    http://web.archive.org/web/20020209085841/http://www.agon.com/ergo/collaborate.html

    I will also check out the Danish Fastaval tradition (of which this article is a good start )
    http://www.fastaval.dk/the-best-one-shots-in-the-world-the-danish-scenario-tradition/?lang=en
  • Has anyone considered tracing the roots of GMless roleplaying beyond the world of RPGs?
    Could i.e. improvisational theatre or psychodrama have been influences in that direction?
  • Ah, yeah, that does make a lot of sense, BeePeeGee.
  • As one of the people who designed and published a GMless game in 2005, I can tell you that technical discussions at the Forge played a very minor part for me, personally. The biggest factor for me was playing another GMless game (Polaris), which capably demonstrated that such a configuration was not only possible but desirable. Maybe the origins of Polaris are technical discussions at the Forge, I don't know.

    Honestly I think just hearing a particular bit of gaming technology described - "you can make a game where all credibility and authority is distributed evenly" - is enough.
  • OK, now, here's an interesting question, that Jason's post raises: do we want to differentiate between GM-less and GM-ful? In my personal opinion, I'd say it's worth making the distinction; they feel pretty different to me in play, though *of course* there are also shades of grey.
  • I don't know that they in any way have ties to GM-less games, but having experience with a couple of TSR games from the 80s made me more open to accepting a rotating-by-scene GM position.

    The ones I'm thinking of were the Marvel Superheroes game and the Indiana Jones Game. Both games early on had modules that were divided by chapter. Chapters tended to be 1-3 pages long, and there was no actual reason that you couldn't rotate the GM spot from chapter to chapter.

    So for me, a lot of GM-less games were just a step or two further down that path.
  • OK, now, here's an interesting question, that Jason's post raises: do we want to differentiate between GM-less and GM-ful?
    Sometimes either of those two words are used in a way that includes both. I usually use GM-less, but say things like "and everyone's the GM, sorta!".

  • edited August 2015
    I can tell you that this series of Forge Threads was one of the inspirations for Polaris, mostly in a "Vincent and company sure make things hard for themselves" kind of way.

    If you're keeping count of the subtleties, this means that while Ars Magica influenced Polaris, Polaris' co-GMing was more a reaction against Ars Magica's than a straightforward development of it.

    -Vincent
  • I started doing Matrix Games in 1988 but used a weak referee for a long time. Now they are totally GMless. I think the reason my stuff is listed in 2005 is that is when I started posting on the Forge and thus came to this communities attention.

    I agree that En Gard is an influence on me. It is so different from DnD, another influence. I never played Ars Magica. I played a lot more miniatures games in the late 80's and 90's. Some minis game rules are very simple and fast (more are not). I imagine it all comes back to what made us begin to trust the player's creativity and let go of anal control.

  • edited August 2015
    I started gaming around 1990 and within a few years, I knew dozens of people who played original games or games so heavily homebrewed that they might as well have been original. Not most, but certainly some of those games were GMless, floating scene GM, diceless, etc.

    A potentially big difference is that I don't remember anyone remotely considering publishing back then - partly because most of these games were the hobbies of teenagers. Certainly their ambitions grew as they grew, but the ubiquity of the modern internet also played a big part in turning a sort of diaspora of hobbyists doing their own things into a public community. How much The Forge plays into the publishing dates is something I can't say, but it's difficult for me to put much credence in 2005 or any other single year in the last 20 or more years as a particularly meaningful one in the evolution of the form.
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