A common situation:
I’m working on a game design project, and I’m thinking that maybe I want to consider making this one a GM-less game. Sure, it’s primarily a “group of characters working together to achieve a central themed goal” kind of game, but that can be GM-less, right? I start to explore that idea, and I eventually get to musing on the mechanics behind the actual introduction of conflicts and challenges. For a GM-less game, I think I’ll need to make it so that any player can throw in a challenge at any time. I’m thinking each player has both a character in the game/story, as well as an additional role of conflict-instigator for the other characters. I eventually take some of these ideas and bounce them off a fellow game designer, and get a response along the lines of “Okay, but what incentive do the players have to actually throw conflicts at each other? Wouldn’t it be in their best mechanical interests to work together, beat the game, and not challenge each other? What’s your currency, what boon do the instigators get out of this?”
This has happened to me more than once, and each time it happens I don’t have an immediate answer. I think “yeah, she’s right, the instigator needs some mechanical incentive to actually do said instigating.” Then I fret over it and try to come up with a non-character-centric system of conflict-introduction currency… and then I sit back and ask myself: Why?
Looking at the other side of the coin, most GM-run games out there have no such conflict currency. The GM has the right to throw challenges and encounters at the players left and right, and gains no specific mechanical reward for doing so. There is no limited pool of bad guys to use, or set currency of “challenge points” with which the GM must purchase new conflicts. No one is keeping a point tally of who does what, or why, and there is no winner. Obstacles appear when they must, players overcome them, and the GMs get no mechanically-tangible rewards for continuing this process.
And why should they? The (usual) point of the whole setup and gaming experience is for the GM to focus on story and opposition, and the players to focus on reaping the tangible rewards. The GM is rewarded based on their own style, be it by telling a good story, or by mystifying the players, or maybe just by murdering their characters in a sick gauntlet of aggression transfer. None of these reaps the GM any “gamer points” or “conflict enhancements” or “monster totems” or the like. The GM is usually free to throw in what she wants, when she wants, without need for mechanical explanation.1
Now if the established Big Names of the mainstream GM-run games don’t feature such a reward, why should it be necessary to mechanically entice a player in a GM-less game to actually introduce conflict, when both the Social Contract and the innate Situation of the game already establish cross-table challenges as a core game theme? When players sit down to play a game of D&D, they know what they’re getting into. They are aware that the GM will throw challenges out and the players will try and overcome them, for no other reason than because that is just the way the game is played. If the GM-less game establishes this fact up front, then there really shouldn’t need be a reward mechanic in its play, either.2
So I ask you: do you believe that a GM-less game of mostly-cooperative character-driven storytelling should require such a conflict incentive? Why or Why Not?
1 I am aware that D&D and some other games have Challenge Ratings and Encounter Levels and the like that serve to limit the power of most in-game adversity, but those fit more as pacing mechanics than conflict incentives.
2 I haven’t played all that many GM-less games, but the less-than-a-handful that I have played have all tangibly rewarded players for introducing conflict. I’m not sure which others are out there, and which ones do and do not. Please, educate me!