What if I told you that you don't need a game-master to play a tabletop role-playing game?
Ten years ago, if you told me that, I would have said, "That's crazy, man."
One year ago I would have said, "I know that, there's Universalis, but still, it's more fun with a GM."
Then I played Geiger Counter, and had more fun in one evening than I ever had in an evening of D&D.
And now I've played so many GM-less games that I have trouble remembering why I thought a GM was so important in the first place. Because the way these GM-less games work is simply that everyone acts as a GM.
But wait, some of you ask, if everyone's the GM, what stops everyone from just awarding themselves fat loot?
Answer - all the other GMs.
But then don't you need rigorous rules to prevent people from abusing their GM power? You'd think so. That's how Universalis works, and looking at its rulebook can be daunting (though it's really simpler than it looks) and resolving what happens can involve a lot of writing and a lot of dice.
But no, Geiger Counter shows it doesn't have to be that way. Geiger Counter gives us a recipe for creating a story in which we act out the parts of the characters - and it can work in any setting - but it's designed for one kind of fiction, fiction where the characters get picked off one-by-one by a growing menace.
Archipelago II doesn't even have that restriction.
Ever since I saw the rules to Archipelago II I've been fascinated by them - they're one of the simplest, most minimal tabletop role-playing rulesets I've ever seen. Your characters have no stats - tasks have no difficulty levels - you don't have to prepare anything ahead of time - and yet you can play in whatever world or setting you care to - wtf?
Archipelago also flies a bit in the face of improv theater theory. One of the cardinal rules of improv theater is you never contradict what another player contributes - you always build upon it. Archipelago gives all the players powerful veto rights - even more powerful than Universalis, where you have to spend game resources. I thought, wouldn't players abuse that, try to steer the story in their direction?
Could a game as minimal and yet as flexible as Archipelago actually work? I played it several times with my daughter and had a lot of fun with it, but that almost wasn't really playing, that came close to "me making up a story for her."
Well, I finally got to play it for real, and it really did work.
How was it we were able to get real roleplaying out of such a freeform game? Why didn't it devolve into a game of exquisite corpse or a tale full of sound and fury that signified nothing? I have some theories:
- 3 game-masters are better than 1.
- Destinies - in Archipelago, one of the first things you do is set up destinies for the characters, and then you use these to drive the story. You know how it ends, you just have to figure out how to get there. (And that doesn't mean the suspense is lost - although you know you're going to hit your destiny point, you don't know what it will cost you.)
- Indirect relationships - one of the rules is you have to set up indirect emotional relationships between your characters. So it kind of starts you off with a love triangle between every player and every other player. Depending on how much jealousy sets in, this either creates some conflict or a bond.
- Expressive cards instead of binary dice - instead of "you hit him for 5 damage" or "you missed" we get results like "Yes but only if you make a certain sacrfice." The cards have plot built right into them.
And, for me, this is all yet another reminder -
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery