To be a game master in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons or Apocalypse World is both a privilege and a burden, creating marvelous worlds and stories but also being saddled with the responsibilities of book-keeping and arbitration. The following no-GM RPGs have special gameplay modes that let players collaborate to create a game setting, interact with NPCs and enemies, and tell a dramatic story without any need for a GM or Dungeon Master
The concept of a game master emerged around the same time as early 19th-century tabletop wargames like Kriegspiel, games of military strategy that tried to simulate the complexity of then-modern warfare with intricate rules pertaining to terrain, unit morale, stealth, ranged artillery, hit points, and damage dice. To keep track of in-game variables and arbitrate disputes over rules, “umpires” and “referees” swiftly became fixtures of wargaming matches and meetups. The Dungeon Master of Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game, was a twist on the concept of the wargaming referee – a firm but fair enforcer of the rules who also told stories and acted out scenes to players
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The following tabletop roleplaying games, generally narrative rather than tactical in form, have special dice tables, detailed campaign modules, and story prompts in their rulebooks designed to do the work of a game master for their players. More importantly, each of these games is designed to be cooperative, above all else (although in-character competition is more than fine). Players trying to play these RPGs without a GM will have the most fun if they treat these games not as challenges to be won but experiences to be shared.
No-GM Tabletop RPGs – Cosmic Patrol
Cosmic Patrol - made by Catalyst Game Labs, creator of Shadowrun and Battletech - is a retro-futuristic space opera RPG inspired by 1930s pulp sci-fi, such as the Lensman novels, sci-fi film serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and dash of the “Captain Proton” holodeck program from Star Trek: Voyager. Each player character is an agent from the Cosmic Patrol, a rocket ship-riding, ray gun-toting space force dedicated to exploring the cosmos and protecting the solar system from Moon Men, Venusian Automen, clone soldiers from the Eiger Empire, Neptunian Mind Plants, and other deadly dangers. The cue-based mechanics of Cosmic Patrol encourage players to take turns being the “Lead Narrator,” telling tales of derring-do with the aid of “Mission Briefs” published by Catalyst Game Labs, each of which contains opening narrations, lists of enemies and obstacles, and scenes players can navigate together.
No-GM Tabletop RPGs – Fiasco
Fiasco, a self-described “game about powerful ambition and poor impulse control,” is the go-to RPG for gamers who want to roleplay stories in the vein of Coen Brothers movies like Burn After Reading - stories about extremely flawed individuals who hatch get-rich-quick criminal schemes that go horribly wrong. Instead of using a game master to generate stories, the Fiasco RPG uses an intricate array of charts, narrative structures, and bowls of black and white dice to spontaneously generate stories of heists, cons, and other criminal plots with unexpected outcomes. During the setup phase, players roll dice and choose options from charts to create their characters and setting. In “Act 1,” they plot and pull off their heist. During the “Tilt” phase, something goes wrong. And in “Act 2” and the “Aftermath,” the players play out the consequences of their characters’ greed, self-centeredness, and stupidity.
No-GM Tabletop RPGs – Flotsam: Adrift Amongst The Stars
Science fiction RPG Flotsam: Adrift Amongst The Stars, is about people who live on a space station (specifically, the grungy, neglected, run-down and tight-knit underbellies of space stations seen in shows like Babylon 5 or The Expanse). The Powered By The Apocalypse-inspired mechanics of Flotsam use neither game masters nor dice. At the start of a campaign, each player creates a character based around playbooks such as Cast-Off, Sybil, and Hybrid, then goes on to design a unique situation imperiling life in their space station community – situations related to poverty, gangs, wayward spirits, or threats from “Outside.” Players then, through the exchange of tokens, switch between roleplaying the actions and choices of their characters and narrating the situations other players must overcome.
No-GM Tabletop RPGs – Gun & Slinger
An unconventional tabletop RPG created by Nevyn Holmes, Gun & Slinger is a game designed for two players. One roleplays a Slinger, a tough-as-nails, troubled wanderer who hunts bounties, unravels the mysteries of their god-twisted land, and tries to stay ahead of an enigmatic entity called “The Thing That Hunts.” The other roleplays the Gun – literally a talking, magical gun. The default mode of Gun & Slinger assumes a “Maestro” who narrates and has players resolve challenges by playing modified versions of classic card games like Go Fish or Blackjack. Special game tables with questions and prompts, however, let Gun & Slinger players create stories on their own, based (again) on cards they draw from a deck.
The core rulebook for Gun & Slinger contains three alternate “setting hacks” of the Gun & Slinger system: The Demon, a game about a hapless wanderer and the demon possessing them; Sword & Bearer, a Dungeons & Dragons-style “Dungeonpunk” RPG about a hero trying to protect their magical metropolis with a living sword; and Mech X Pilot, a mecha game about an ace pilot, their sentient mech, and the giant monsters they fight.
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