Conflict Incentive: GM vs GM-Less

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!

4 thoughts on “Conflict Incentive: GM vs GM-Less

  1. I’m a little hesitant at the idea of DM-less games. I can’t help but think it will end up like Toon or Paranoia, where the sole situation is screwing over the other player. And while that can work for a board game, or a one-off situation, a campaign of ‘it’s Thursday night, time for the game where Bob screws with me all night’ doesn’t sound that appealing.

    I’m also puzzled how such a thing could work, as there has to be someone who comes up with the basic plot to unleash upon players. Draw a random situation from a pile of generic conflicts? Have everyone take turns bringing something that time? A DM is much more then a conflict generator, or the other that the players are conflicting with. He is the arbiter of unclear situations, adapts situations to the group, comes up with new situations, and provides the hundreds of other personalities that are not the PCs. Frankly, I have no idea how a DM-less game could work, unless it was something isolated from everyone else (Everyone in a liferaft. Thunderdome).

    As for GM rewards, there are a few. Savage Worlds, for example, gives bennies to the GM. Descent is a boardgame, but does a great job of giving the GM doom tokens that build and let them buy bad things and monsters. Actually, that could be an interesting system, give GMs a ‘budget’ of points that slowly accumulate over time, letting them buy upgrades or plot complications over time… Not sure how it would work in something that wasn’t a dungeon crawl…

    I personally hate challenge rating systems, as they don’t give a good overview. PCs vs. One Kobold? PCs will annilhate him. PCs have to capture, not kill that Kobold? Harder. PC’s have to track the Kobold down through his maze of Kobold-sized tunnels, including traps, switchbacks, and hidden passages which the Kobold knows well? That’s a different story altogether.
    I once ran a game where the group of PCs ran into a group of bad guys in a library. The PCs massively outpowered them in terms of level and power. But I had the baddies run smart. The ‘rogue’ of the group kept sneaking up and backstabbing, then running and hiding. The archer sat in the balcony above and sniped whenever the PCs stuck their heads out for too long. And the ‘fighter’ type, who would have been mauled had he stood and fought, instead kept knocking bookshelves over onto the party. Altogether, it wasn’t very dangerous to the party, but with the GM on their side, and a bit of smart playing, three throwaway characters sparked a quite interesting battle and a challenge much higher then their level would suggest.

    The problem is defining ‘conflict’. A group of Orcs, sure. What about winds while the PCs are climbing a cliff? How about the evil mastermind getting a proclamation from the king? Enemy spies breaking into the secret lair? Random things, like their car breaking down or portable computer batteries running out?

  2. StJason:

    A good example of a GM-less game, for this discussion, is one called Ocean. Each player has equal narrative authority, and can take the reins of the story at any time. In Ocean, each player has a character, and due to the setup of the scenario, each character has one other character that they feel the need to protect, and another character that they instinctively distrust.

    Ocean’s in-game currency takes the form of “Bonus Dice.” Bonus dice are spent to insert usable tools, aid in future tests, and buy “clues” to what is going on in the story (allowing the player to narrate a concrete fact). You only ever get bonus dice for yourself, however, when _other_ players win or lose tests. If the character who feels the need to protect you wins a test, you can get bonus dice. Likewise, if the character who distrusts you loses a test, you can get bonus dice.

    This creates a hard-coded incentive for players to introduce conflicts for other players to overcome. Thus if you want to get some bonus dice, you need to make sure that both the character who trusts you and the character who distrusts you have a lot to do, and plenty of opportunities to roll the dice. Everyone at the table has that same incentive. It works well.

    My question, though: is such an incentive always necessary? Why would the joy of creating a good story and fulfilling the social contract not be incentive enough?

    As for the GM’s other roles, those can just as easily be shared by the group as a whole. The group should be trusted to arbitrate its own disputes. The group should be trusted to create its own situations. The group should be trusted to collaborate. And each player who buys into this social contract should be expected to bring their weight in ideas and imagination to the experience.

    Something to consider is that GM Bennies in Savage Worlds are not an actual reward for the GM. They’re merely another specific tool at her otherwise limitless disposal. The GM doesn’t really need those bennies so much when she has limitless authority to throw more bad guys into the fray. After all, the “dungeon” is stocked with as many monsters as she sees fit, and she can throw in more without pause, to her heart’s content. The bennies are just another tool to allow those monsters more chances of success, but they aren’t rewards. She doesn’t earn them by actually doing anything other than existing at the table. She doesn’t gain any kind of tangible benefit from introducing more conflict, other than the personal joy she derives from creating adversity.

    As for your definition of conflict, yes, all of those indeed apply. Essentially, a conflict exists when there is something you want/need to do,and something else is in your way. If you need to get to the end of a dark hall and you are afraid of the dark, that is a conflict. Strong winds while climbing can be a conflict.

    I get the impression you don’t play all that many indie games =).

  3. I think you use a mechanic similar to Ocean in CC. It’s alright, but it does make a constrained framework that I find a little odd (moreso then the ‘hey, I met these five guys in the bar, now we are off on adventures!’). It frankly is more fun when rivalries develop naturally.

    As for conflict… Not sure where I was headed with that. Obviously they are conflicts, I think I was meaning to tie the idea to a challenge rating system. That’s the problem with brain dumps…

    The more I think of it, the more I like the Descent ‘buy bad things’ idea. Less as a GM incentive, but it could be rigged to be a player de-incentive. Say that the ‘doom count’ increases by one token per turn. For any adventure/game, the group (or nominal GM) sets up the encounters. If the count reaches X point, then the game ends in a spectacular fashion (Nazis invade, ship loses power, rocks fall…) so the group wants to spend the points to prevent that from happening.

    Example: You have a group of five people trying to get across the forest. There is a deck of say ten encounters that could happen. In the first few turns, they get rid of the ‘easy’ challenges. Crossing a river, wolf attack and so on. But toward the end, their points are building up, and only the hard encounters remain. So they have to decide whether to risk facing the dragon or try and barrel through before the time is up.

    …It still sounds boardgame-y to me.

  4. In Cannibal Contagion, the GM-Player paradigm is present. The CiC (the GM) has no real mechanical incentive to challenge the players, other than to kill them. If the CiC does well, she _might_ get some extra challenge tokens as post-conflict boons, but that is pretty random, and not at all guaranteed. The social contract of CC sets the expectation that the CiC will try and kill the survivors often, and in horrible ways, so the primary incentive for playing up that role is the sheer joy of leading the characters to a suitably gruesome fate.

    I think you might be talking about the whole “Mad Half” part, though. In that case, there still isn’t all that much mechanical incentive for the Mad Half to play their part. Their role is to tempt the other player with power, in exchange for that character going more insane. It gives the Mad Half no mechanical boon, however, outside of the integral joy of screwing with another player. But again, this is all part of the game’s established premise, and as such the cross-table screwing is expected and encouraged by everyone present; in other words, it’s the whole reason they’re paying that specific game.

    Thankfully, CC has no real “challenge rating” system. The closest things are the _extremely_ (and intentionally) eyeballed “Threat Ratings” of the game’s enemies, but even those are random enough so that the weakest zombie could wipe the floor with the party, and the Big Boss might actually turn out to be a total pushover. But again, that’s intentional, and all part of the fiction of the inspirational material.

    While I’ve never played Descent, what you describe sounds a lot like RuneBound, which I have played, and which I understand is something of the “Descent Clone” style of board game. Or more specifically, the Midnight-themed version of that game, where there’s this doom countdown thing, and if it ever reaches the end, the evil god wins. But in that situation, the guy playing the role of the Evil God obviously has a mechanical incentive for the players to lose: each time they fail, he gets closer to winning. Again, this guy works more as a GM, despite it being a board game.

    This does all tie into my current design project, but I’m not totally ready to go into bigger detail on that just yet.

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