Level One Wonk: There Can Be Only One (GM)

Welcome back to Level One Wonk, where together we will wonk out on various and sundry gaming topics! Now that you’ve finished gorging yourself on turkey (and maybe checking out some Burning Wheel characters), it’s time to look down that home stretch of the year, get ready for the holiday season, and maybe even make some New Year’s Resolutions. Instead of thinking about the game today, let’s think about the gaming group. While playstyle, system, and campaign all play into a gaming group having fun, there are even more basic structural elements that are key, and it all comes down to who’s doing what.

We can imagine a gaming group where Person A has a great idea for a game that they want to run. They invite B, C, D, and E, who all want to play in A’s game. Everyone has a great time. Realistically, though, that’s rarely how groups go, or at the very least it’s rarely how groups stay. Within any given game, there is typically one GM and 4-6 players, but outside of the game there are only 5-7 people who have varying degrees of interest in assuming the two roles that exist at the table. In order for everyone to have fun, everyone must be given equal opportunities to assume the roles that they want, which can be difficult for a group playing even games of modest length (Games of modest length, ~10-15 sessions, can still take a year to play). When it comes to figuring out who gets to GM (the most scarce role by definition), groups typically run into one of two problems.

The Two Basic Problems

The two basic problems for gaming group distribution of labor are that either nobody wants to GM, or everybody wants to GM. Nobody wanting to GM is fairly self-explanatory: when it comes time to start a game, everyone clams up, and eventually one person either begrudgingly comes up with something or is otherwise coerced into running. While a group starts with an appointed GM typically, sometimes a group of friends gets together and wants to play, with nobody taking a particular interest in running the game. Other times, a long-running group, especially a well-scheduled one, simply burns out several GMs at once and no one else wants to step up. What’s rare in this case, though, is the literal issue of nobody wanting to GM at all. You are more likely to have reluctance or burnout driving a lack of GMs than outright refusal to run.

Everybody wanting to GM is less literal still, but it typically involves 2, 3, 4, or maybe an entire group of people all having competing game ideas. Coupled with this is the very real anxiety of just how long you’d have to wait to run your great idea if you’re second or third in line. In some ways this is a great problem to have, especially if all the ideas are well-liked by the group. That said, asking someone to wait literally a year or two to run their game is a great way to cause a lot of resentment which may bleed over into the current game.

Opening the Floor

Like in any group with multiple people, the first thing you must do in a gaming group to resolve either of these problems is to open the channels of communication. In the case of having no GMs, it’s important to understand why people don’t want to GM. This is especially important for those who either aren’t regular GMs or maybe have never GMed before. Running a game doesn’t have to be difficult but it is still nerve-wracking, especially for someone who isn’t comfortable with public speaking. Even if you aren’t putting yourself out there with goofy voices and really emotionally intense scenes, you’re still being the center of attention for multiple hours, and faced with everyone around (hopefully – Ed.) paying attention to you constantly. This isn’t something to be downplayed. That all said, a gaming group should be a supportive environment. The easiest way to find a new GM is to be encouraging and help everyone feel safe to at least try the hat on.

When discussing the issue of too many games, you’re probably going to have to dive a bit deeper into the sorts of games that everyone wants to run. Also be sure to figure out what sort of games the prospective GMs want to play. A game that one person wants to run which everyone else is interested in playing can soften the blow of waiting for a GMing turn a bit. Additionally, knowing what your slate of games looks like will help you come up with a plan, which can not only help future GMs feel more comfortable that they’ll get their turn, but also help the group mix things up and avoid burnout.

In the end, while communication will help you approach a better solution to your GM mismatch, neither putting a reluctant GM in the chair for months nor making enthusiastic GMs wait their turn for months are ideal solutions. There are some logistical structures that can help.

Alternation

If your game meets once a week, play one game every other week and then a second game in the intervening weeks. Two games doesn’t require that much more headspace than one, and you’ve both given double the people GMing time as well as given the whole group more variety. This also helps with reluctant GMs by giving them time to breathe and halving their prep workload, as well as letting them see another GM in action. Most importantly, though, this setup means that everyone is a player at least every other session; many people will be less reluctant to GM if they’re still getting opportunities to play (and some particularly intransigent GMs will be less reluctant to play if they’re still getting opportunities to GM as well).

Alternation isn’t limited to simply 1-2 switching. Throw one-shots in to give GMs a break and throw your GM bullpen a bone. Play Fiasco one week if your GMs are really burned out and just need some time off. Keep it fresh, and keep the group going.

Round Robin

This one’s a little more complicated, but helps spread the GM love around. This can lessen burnout, help new or reluctant GMs to start gradually, and of course give many or all of the group members the chance to GM a game. Round Robin GMing is just what it sounds like: the group plays one game and switches off GMs. This switch can happen as infrequently as once per major campaign arc, or as frequently as every session. What’s important is to set up the game in such a way that it will work with a round robin style. There are some definite limitations to this arrangement:

  • The game must tolerate absences. In a round robin game, everybody will have a character. Therefore, the character of the GM for that session is gone by definition.
  • The game’s story can’t rely on in-character knowledge or secrets. If everyone is GMing, that means that everyone knows what the GM knows. While in theory dramatic irony can still drive intrigue in a game like this, in practice that’s very difficult to accomplish.
  • The players must all agree generally on the story they want to tell. If multiple people are GMing, all of them should be driving the story in generally the same direction, or at least change that direction at agreed-upon points near the end of story arcs. A story going in a different direction every session is exhausting and frustrating.

Beyond these limitations, some games will work better for this setup than others. Any game with player-facing story mechanics is immediately better because the knowledge gap between player and GM is lessened. These games typically also have rules which limit a GM’s ability to change story directions arbitrarily. You could imagine a campaign of Apocalypse World, where each GM is working off of the same threat map. Even if each GM may favor different threats and have their own conflict ideas, the underlying environment stays the same. Similarly, Fate’s Conflict rules keep the story direction in full view, giving guidance to a GM picking up where someone else left off.


The two GM mismatch problems have the same basic solutions. Figuring out ways to have multiple GMs both gives more people the opportunity to run games, and reduces the load for these GMs and makes running a game or part of a game easier and less stressful. The other big thing you can do is be encouraging to your group members whether they are GMs or Players. More good experiences in both roles encourages everyone at the table to be more flexible and helps them have fun. And ultimately, having fun is what it’s about.

3 thoughts on “Level One Wonk: There Can Be Only One (GM)”

  1. Each potential player chooses a die. It can be anything from a d2 to a d20. Roll the dice. The high roller becomes the DM, using whatever world the DM has ready.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In the case of “No GM”, there are plenty of systems out there that are designed (or allow for) GM-less play, or even frameworks for running most any other game on this fashion. This style of play may even work for “too many GMs” if they can agree to collaborate.

    Usually this involves heavy use of randomization and /or (perhaps problematically, in the case of introverts) round-robin storytelling/GMing.

    Mythic Game Master Emulator is one such tool. A new game (in testing) called Ironsworn is designed to be run traditionally, GMless, or as a solo player. Don’t despair, as there are options out there!

    Liked by 1 person

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