The illusory Game Master

I love me some GM-Less games.
But usually they feel much more like GM-Full than GM-Less.
What do I mean with this nonsense?
Just that in most games I've played, when they somehow do away with the GM, you tend to play a lot in Director Stance rather than Actor Stance. So you feel more like a part-time GM instead of a normal Player.

Which is by no means bad! I like it a lot, for example one of my favorite games is The Quiet Year where you don't even have an individual character of your own. But as a game experience it offers definitely a different feel than when you are "just a Player". I appreciate a lot feeling like I am "just a Player" and would like to have it even in games where there is no GM. This is the main reason behind two of my designs: Tactical Ops and FateLess.

Both work without a GM, and both use a series of tricks and techniques specifically aimed at, among other things, maximizing the feeling of being "just a Player". They create the illusion of having an invisible GM at the table.

My point is this: just like good old Philip Fry in the picture at the end of this article, a Player never knows what's going on behind the GM screen. Maybe there is a meticulous plan unfolding, and maybe everything is being improvised as need arises; maybe there are different things behind doors A, B and C, and maybe the GM will present you with the same room no matter what you choose.

Either way you as Player constantly work to give meaning to the information and descriptions that are offered to you. Your play experience doesn't change, even though the reality of facts is radically different. The GM is an illusion, and as any illusion there might be many ways to summon it, to trick the brain into producing the desired feeling. What follows is an example of how I try to achieve such result in my own designs.


1) Perspective is Everything
Players are forbidden from describing anything that is not perceived here and now by a PC present in the scene. No one can say what lies behind a door until a PC does something to discover it. No one can say what motivates an NPC unless a PC does something to discover it. There is no out-game truth, only in-game information offered by in-game sources.
This not only puts the Player in the same position (information wise) as he would be in if there was a normal GM at the table, but actively prevents anyone from imposing himself as a wannabe GM.

2) Minimalist Framing
When you frame a scene you are strictly forbidden from describing anything, except for a list of very specific and very minimal info you need to offer. Once you answer the list, the framing ends. Anything that you might want to add has to be said in-game, while you are actually playing the scene. Also, when you frame a scene your PC must always be present.
All this limits keep the framing as non-directorial as possible, preventing anyone from pre-narrating or pre-loading a scene as much as possible. Simple and uncomplicated, this technique also helps you feel just like if you were telling a GM "so my PC is in this place at this time" and then you start playing normally.

3) No Backstage
If you take away the GM-y task of thinking about all the things that are supposedly happening even if the PC know nothing about them, and that supposedly explain why and how the PCs are in the current situation, then what remains of the GM's job is simply to describe and move the environment and NPCs that are present here and now, in the scene we are currently playing.

This is still a conspicuous task if performed by a single person, but split it among all the Players and it suddenly feels much less GM-ish; structure things so that such contributions can be offered only if a Player is inspired to offer them, and only with as much detail as he feels comfortable with (a bit like you do in Spione) and it all feels a lot less GM-ish.

To an extent this already happens even in very traditional gaming groups where you are "just a Player" but the GM allows or encourages Player input for (supposedly) trivial things. Adding details to the swamp, playing a secondary NPC, suggesting what might happen next to the slave boy.

4) Alea & Responsibility
Part of the magic of having a GM (that you know and trust) at the table comes from the delusion that such person will be an impartial arbiter, a sort of natural principle that will make the fictional world behave as a realistic (or at least sensible) simulation. If your actions succeed you feel validated, if they fail you feel fairly judged.
Without a GM you move the fictional world and sometimes, if you just say what happens, it doesn't feel the same. Sometimes, if a fellow Player says what happens, it doesn't feel the same. Also, the Czege Principle lurks somewhere in there too.

Skipping the cheap psychology behind this phenomenon, the solution I adopt is to inject alea at appropriate times. Making sense of what is comes natural to Players, while deciding what should be is a typical GM task, so in both Tactical Ops and FateLess there are structures allowing any Player to ask Yes/No questions to an invisible GM and get answers, or to have something problematic happen without having to decide beforehand what, how or why.

5) Filling the Blanks
The human mind is naturally addicted to patterns and has an obsessive tendency to fill blanks on its own. This can be leveraged to substitute the feeling of having a GM that, no matter how strange things are now, has surely devised a hidden meaning to explain it all.
With the right support structure (perspective is everything!) all the elements injected through random tools will appear either obvious and perfectly sensible, or mysterious pieces of a puzzle that kind of makes sense but must still be missing a few pieces to actually appear clear. But the answer is out there!

Crucial to this effect is the fact that whatever is added to the game fiction makes sense to the Players. This reinforces the feeling of realism/plausibility of the game events and allows for odd elements to be assumed to have a meaning, even if right now it appears obscure. This can be accomplished through a structure that will handle aesthetic and functional divergences of opinion among Players in an effective and quick way, and of course perspective is everything!


These techniques all work together to form a clockwork frame that helps participants to feel, as much as possible, that they are "just Players". More techniques are used to regulate other tasks that are normally carried out by a GM, such as handling the rhythm and flow of the game; but that's old news as a lot of games out there already achieve this result in various ways.