I know it probably seems odd to talk about playing a roleplaying game without a Game Master right after we talked about the importance of supporting GMs, but hear me out. Sometimes it can help to play a game without a GM to get a feel for the rules of a game together. More often you have an opportunity where the GM can’t make it (or wants a chance to play) and no one else is prepared/willing to run a game. And sometimes you just want to try something new.
Is It Really an RPG?
Clearly having a game without a GM is never ideal. Having a human that can respond to challenges and player requests is one of the biggest advantages that tabletop RPGs have over electronic games. And more than likely trying a GM-less game is going to help everyone appreciate a human GM immensely more.
But it is possible to play a Role Playing Game without a GM, despite what you may hear on the internet. GMs do not define our hobby any more than a steering wheel defines a car. Just be really careful about where you try to go without one.
I know of 4 different methods for playing an RPG without a GM. If you know of others that work better, or maybe some that don’t work at all, feel free to share them with us!
#1 Find a Preprinted Book
Back before computer RPGs got popular, people were actually printing adventure books where you could choose how your character reacted to different situations. This included simple books where you would make a choice and turn to the indicated page to read the results of that choice to very complicated books where you would roll dice and keep track of a fully fleshed-out character sheet with stats, gear, gold, and items.
These books have a couple of huge advantages if you are looking to go on an adventure. First of all, all the work is done for you. As a player, all you have to do is pick up the book and start reading. Second, there are a LOT of books out there, even some series if you are interested in a solo campaign. Nintendo even made some adventure books if you want to try playing a game as Link or Mario. And third, some of these books included printed puzzles to solve in order to give you hints at the correct choices, an aspect of RPGs that’s very hard to make work if you don’t have a GM.
There are definitely some disadvantages to the books, though. First of all, they are novelties. That means that the best ones are hard to find and can get expensive for little paperback novels. Second, since they are preprinted the adventures never change. Once you figure out a puzzle, you know the answer to that puzzle. Third, most of them have a very high difficulty curve. You have to pick the exactly correct series of choices (and roll high all the time) in order to get the options where you do not die and win the game. This was intentional to encourage people to reread the books over and over until they got the best ending, a strategy that could have arguably done them more harm than good.
In the end, I’d recommend these books to someone that likes to tackle a challenge with high difficulty or someone who loves to solve in-game puzzles.
#2 Use an Encounter Deck
This method is actually recommended in a couple of the Dungeons and Dragons’ Dungeon Masters books. You take a stack of index cards and write encounters on each one of them. Then you explore the dungeon, drawing a card each time you enter a room. The card tells you what you encounter.
Unlike using one of the books above, this method can work for solo play or for a group, so long as you scale the encounters accordingly. The rules for building an encounter deck are easily spelled out in the books, so it is fairly simple to set up. And if everyone in the group contributes a few cards, there is still plenty of room for surprises. Best of all this method can actually fit into a campaign with a GM as a side adventure, so it works great for those days when the GM gets the flu but everyone else wants to play.
The disadvantages of this method are probably obvious. First of all, there is no room for change. Once you have the encounter deck built, there is no room to deviate. The deck can’t handle clever ideas or hidden secrets unless you’ve already anticipated them ahead of time. Second, there is not a lot of room for roleplaying. The monsters have a fixed strategy, the social encounters have a set difficulty, the ‘hidden’ traps are printed on the cards that everyone reads, and the treasure variety is limited to a table roll. Lastly, this method only works for encounter-heavy games like DnD, Pathfinder, and so on, so if you are not playing one of those games this will take a LOT of work to make it work.
I would recommend this method for adventurers or groups that enjoy hack/slash challenges or groups that want to be covered for a short absence of GM.
#3 Having Journal Prompter
This is another method that focuses mostly on solo games, but I have found it to be highly effective (especially in November). The premise is that you have a set of prompts, rather than encounters, that inspire you to come up with an encounter. Then you write about it in journal format, thus having a place to role play the scene as both author and audience.
The biggest advantage to this method is that it is a great balance of the 2 above methods. The prompts tell you what happens to your character, but you still have the freedom to interpret what happens creatively. It can also work as a continuing series of stories, with a new character picking up the journal and continuing the story after the old character dies. And since you are already writing down what happens in the adventure, it is very easy to share your exploits online with other people.
There are some disadvantages to this method, however. For one, it really has to be a solo game. Two or more people taking turns writing journal entries will slow down the pace considerably, and talking without the writing makes it a hurried conversation rather than a game. Also, there are only a few genres and themes you can use to make this mechanic work effectively. And finally, the prompts leave so much openness that if you don’t feel any inspiration for the story then you are pretty much stuck in the game.
I would recommend this method for people that prefer roleplaying, survival settings, and those that really enjoy creative story writing.
#4 Games for Groups of Masters
One of our community’s responses to the GM problem discussed in my last post has been to produce roleplaying games in which the responsibilities of the group has been divided among the different players. These games often include high risk for high reward mechanics, encouraging players to push their luck to try and succeed, or they give everyone an opportunity to bring themselves or other players down for the sake of the story, trading the traditional cooperative play for the traditional GM vs player point of view (with everyone being both GM and player, of course).
The biggest advantage to these games is that they are designed for games without a GM, so there are no special rules or modifications to play them that way. They are also a great way to share the responsibility for the direction of the game, since everyone has a strong say in what happens. And if you are playing a PvP game, everyone knows that going into the game so there are no bad surprises.
The biggest disadvantage I see with this method is that these games have to be designed to be epic 1-shot adventures. Either the entire party dies, or most of the party dies. There’s no room for a campaign or even a short series of adventures with the same character. Also, there is another game going on outside of the game, where people are socially strategizing how to make the game work for themselves without making it obvious.
Still, if you like cutthroat cooperative games or really want to make an epic one-shot with a group of friends, I would highly recommend one of these GM-less games for you.
If none of these methods appeal to you but you still want/need to find a way to game without a dedicated GM, I would recommend board game shopping. There are quite a few board games that try to simulate the RPG experience where you play against the game as the GM. Again, there is a limit to how much freedom you have as a player and the rules are often quite complicated, but you will probably be able to find a dungeon delve or a miniatures campaign game that you can enjoy.
And I will say again that if you really want to play a Roleplaying game (why wouldn’t you), the best option is to find an encourage someone to GM. It really is the best way to experience our hobby, and I still firmly believe that we need to do whatever we can to encourage more people to run more games!
If you agree or disagree or have something completely unrelated to say, feel free to let us know. Post a comment for everyone to read, or send us an email with a private comment or question.