Actual Play - [Campaigns] Rotating the GM

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Jul 22nd 2010 edited

I thought I would spin this off the extremely productive Campaigns or One-shots thread into a thread of it's own. A lot of really productive discussion came out of that thread, and I'd like to draw out a few things that were raised there. In particular, it would be good to look at techniques we have used in actual play to keep a campaign game running while playing in a game that offers a great deal of player authorship, flexibility, and changing character/story goals.*

The thing I would like to concentrate on as a technique is rotating the GM role around the group.

This is based on my experiences playing a long term game of Dogs in the Vineyard in New Zealand. Four of us were playing (me, Steve Hickey, and Simon and Emma Carryer) and we had agreed from the outset that the Gm position would be rotated. Emma chose not to GM, as she didn't feel comfortable in that role. All good.

Dogs provides a natural break point for this kind of play. Once a town has been investigated, you move on to the next town. This is the point where the GM can switch, setting out their own town, their own situation. There's also a fictional break for the characters: one might go off to deliver mail to a different town, or be called back to Bridal Falls. So, there's no playing of PCs as NPCs.

The agreement was that each town would be played out across two or three sessions, which worked really well. We got through seven towns, over 15 or so sessions, which covered something around four or five months. One of the things that this arrangement did that really kept our interest alive was that the different GMs brought different tones and themes into their towns. Simon gave us some really claustrophobic, sexually charged situations. Steve brought forth the impact of change and the spit between the youth and their elders. My towns were more at the horrific, damaged end of the spectrum. But none of this jarred, and there was a sense of anticipation about what the next town would hold for us.

So how would this translate into other games? Well, thinking of Hot war in particular, it's my feeling that break points come when:

a) A particular story reaches its conclusion
b) A character completes an agenda
c) A character has a crisis point

All three of these provide moments where one player could step back from play their character and step into the role of the GM, either continuing with the current story or establishing a new direction with the collaboration of the players. I should note that this is stuff that I have been toying with as part of the design process for Okhrana.

Likewise, in Duty & Honour/Beat to Quarters, the natural break point could very come at the end of a Military Mission or, for an individual character, at the conclusion of the Mission of Personal Importance.

I'd be interested to see how other people have used these techniques, or how they would use them in their own long term games.


*Obviously, many of these techniques can be, and have been, used in more 'traditional' styles of game. If anyone has experiences relating to rotating GM duties in those games, then I'd welcome input from those experiences as well.

Posted by: Iain McAllister On: Jul 25th 2010

That sounds like a really interesting way to run a Dogs game Malcolm. I am looking to run it myself in the not to distant future, and may use the opportunity to persuade some of the players in my group to take up the GM mantel.

I just finished up a campaign of D&D and I could see the possibilities of having a different GM for different towns you visited, allowing everyone to have a shot at playing and giving each town a unique feeling, much like in your Dogs campaign. Maybe I shall suggest this in the new Monday night game I am running.



Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Jul 25th 2010 edited

From my experience with Dogs, it is certainly worthwhile. One thing you have to take note of is that the people co-GMing must all be enthusiastic about the prospect and, when they are playing, to sit back and let the other person GM their town.

I'd also recommend making sure that your towns play through in two or three sessions. For me, two is best as it allows the dramatic build-up, then a powerful denoument. Dogs is often run as a one-shot, but taking two sesssions over a town really pays off.

And, in terms of your character with Dogs, GMing a town really gives you the chance to sit back and reflect for a period. The way the characters change during an extended game can be dramatic and intense. Having that spell away from the character was, I found, a great benefit. Oh, and I'd recommend allowing a character who has been away from play while someone was GMing to take some Reflection Fallout before they come back into the game. We found this reflected (pun fully intended) their experiences away from the group and provoked a little bit of fiction about what the character did while they were away ("Oh, yes, Brother Caleb delivered the mail to Iron Canyon, that's about fifty miles away. He met a trader by the campfire one night and we stayed up until dawn swapping stories. He gave me this book of tales. So, I'm adding a new possession 'Story Book' at d6, because it's fairly ordinary. I'm also going to add a d6 and a d10 to my unused relationship dice.")

Like I mentioned above, for other games you need to have some sort of distinct break point where GMing roles can change. And I think it goes without saying that for certain games, this technique wouldn't work: ones that rely on the GM slowly revealing secrets over the length of a campaign probably wouldn't function so well.


Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 26th 2010

It sounds like a good way to keep it fresh, but how do you cope with the shift in GM style? Of course, it's exactly that that makes the idea appeal to me: a way of creating jarring shifts in tone and style.

Me, Scott and James are brewing up something similar - three linked Dead of Night games, with shared premise and characters, played out as a horror movie trilogy. For each one we'll shift GMs, deliberately creating a shift in tone and style reminiscent of how a trilogy shifts and shapes under different directors.


Posted by: Neil Gow On: Jul 26th 2010

We tried this once with D&D and I think it would be fair to say that it didn't go too well. There was a distinct jarring of GM style and campaign theme after one change that pretty much killed the enthusiasm for the game. I think that the game requires quite a deep understanding of themes and commitment to those themes to execute it properly.

If you wanted to have this as a formality in a game, you could have it linked into the predominance of, say, a faction that the characters are connected to. Using Cold City as an example - although it could work for Okhrana - if, at the end of the scenario the British are in the ascendency amongst the occupying powers, the British player could become the GM. This would naturally allow room for the other players to attend to their own factions power and thus the ascendant faction would change. You would need some mechanical way to measure the political power of the faction or whatnot, but it could work.


Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Jul 26th 2010

From my (admittedly limited) experience, having jarring tonal shifts would be disruptive. I feel it's beholden upon the people co-GMing a series of games not to have sudden, jarring, irritating shifts in the tone. We found that although the three GMs in our Dogs game brought different themes and tones to the table, there wasn't a feeling of disconnectedness. We all appreciated the overall tone of the game and our place within it. There was an agreement that we wouldn't have sudden and bizarre tonal shifts.

And, for me, that's the main point: there has to be a very strong level of agreement and understanding between the GMs. Using the Dogs example again, that comes with agreeing how the supernatural level is set, what extent it will go to, and so forth. But much more than that, it's also about respecting what has been created before, in terms of story and character. A sudden gear change in tone seems to me to be disrespectful of the fiction.


Posted by: Sebastian Hickey On: Aug 15th 2010

This then begs the question, what can tool can you place in Okhrana that will establish that kind of storybuilding contract?

If you know that a GM could rotate in your game, is there a way for you to bind the stories well? Is there a mechanic that you could use to bind them? Like, when you change GMs, could you bring out the template you agreed at the start of the campaign which said mood = dark, theme = hope, etc. Or should players have rights over elements they brought in as GMs in previous sessions? In short, do you need a contract? And if you do, how could you disguise it and how could you make it fun? Could you introduce an economy that would let people vote on narration, for example, or reward a GM for sticking to a theme you like?

Or is that important? Is this, what I'm probing for, just trying to fix social problems at the table?

Posted by: James Mullen On: Aug 15th 2010

I'm hoping to make use of a tonal shift between GMing styles in a campaign I have planned, which is loosely inspired by source material like The Illuminatus Trilogy and The Mothman Prophecies.

Each player will be responsible for a character caught up in the weird events happening, who has their own paradigm for explaining them, e.g. "It's aliens!" or "It's a shadowy government agency." When not playing their character, each player will have a chance to sit in the GM's chair and run the game according to the paradigm their PC believes in. Thus, the game will frequently shift in tone and style, with new explanations retroactively editing what has taken place and laying the groundwork for what will follow. I fell that this will perfectly suit the 'paranoid conspiracy theory' game I want to take part in.

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