Round-Robin GMing is a lot like Swinging, everyone’s taking a turn and there is a chance for some uncomfortable touching to occur if you are not careful. Much like Swinging, having upfront rules and good communication before the dice hit the table will make the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved. So how do you manage a campaign when everyone is going to be the GM? Put on your smoking jacket and have a seat at my red, velvet-covered table…
Question From The Plussers
Today’s article (not the uncomfortable Swinging metaphor) was a G+ request (thanks Eric). Specifically, Eric wanted to know: “How to apply the tips from Never Unprepared & Odyssey to a round-robin style of GMing (ex. Ars Magica).”
For those not familiar, Round-Robin GMing is when members in a gaming group take turns being the GM for a single campaign. Everyone in the game makes up one or more characters and one member of the group begins as the active GM. That GM runs a number of sessions, and then another member of the group takes over the role as the GM, and the former GM takes their character and becomes a player. This cycle continues until all the potential GM’s in the group have a turn, and then it starts again, going on until the campaign ends.
In terms of Campaign Management, a number of areas are going to be impacted by having multiple GM’s running in one campaign, and those same GM’s being players at various times during the campaign. I started to think about the challenges of a multi-GM, shared environment and came up with a list:
- Who GM’s when, and for how long?
- How is the initial setting selected/created?
- How will the world/story accommodate this rotation of characters?
- What are the rules for creating new elements (locations, events, NPC’s?) within the setting?
- Are there protected campaign elements?
- How much collaboration between GM’s is allowed while the game is running?
- How will the campaign end?
The questions above will mostly be addressed in the campaign set up, specifically in the Campaign Framework section. The Campaign Framework is a document which the Group creates that describes what makes up the campaign: Rules and supplements, setting, story, role of characters. You will want to add a new section to the Campaign Framework to capture details about the Round-Robin style of play.
At a minimum, during the Campaign Framework you will need to identify the first GM and a time frame for how long that GM will run the campaign. This duration can be in terms of number of sessions/weeks, it can be based on adventure/arc, but more than likely will be some combination. For example: the GM may run a 6 session single arc, and then the GM role will transition. From there you may wish to define the order of GM’s to follow, or at the very least, identify the next GM. That will give the GM on deck time to start thinking about what they want to run for their rotation.
The creation of the setting and world should be a group effort where all the GM’s can contribute elements to the world. If your game does not have a world building element, consider taking a session before character creation, and as a group of GM’s define the world and create some story ideas.
My preference is to find a setting that has a large narrative area so that each GM has their own space in which to crate. For instance: a Sci-Fi setting where each GM runs their arc in a different sector/system. This way each GM has room to create anything they need without their elements colliding with any GM’s who have previously run.
Discuss how the group of players will be set up so that it makes sense why characters will come in and out of the group, as GM’s rotate in and out. For games that have expectations for certain classes/roles being present (i.e clerics in 3.x D&D), this will need to be accounted for so that all roles are represented or have been compensated for as the party composition changes with each oration.
From a narrative point of view, you may wish to have an explanation for why characters periodically change in and out. For instance in a Sci-Fi game, the group could be the crew of a starship where there is a normal rotation of crew members that participate on the missions.
Creation of New Elements
Define how much authority the active GM has for creating new elements: characters, events, and locations, while they are running the game. For the most part, there should be few restrictions for creating new elements. If there are restrictions, they may be related to which areas of the campaign world new elements can be created in.
Address what guidelines the group wants when it comes to changing any elements which were created by previous GM’s. Is the active GM allowed to kill off an important NPC from a previous GM? Can one GM sack another’s GM’s prize city?
This is likely where the most debate about the campaign setup will occur. It is also the place you want to be as clear as possible and then document it into your Campaign Framework. Some groups may have no protection, allowing the active GM to do as they wish. Other groups may allow for limited protection of select elements, where a GM can declare an element as protected from changes by other GMs, but other elements are wide open for use. Finally, some groups may have full protection for any previously created elements.
Cross GM Collaboration
When the active GM is running their arc, is there room for any input from any of the other GMs/players? You may wish to avoid contamination and not have any collaboration between the GM’s; in effect the active GM is the only GM for that part of the campaign. That kind of setup works best if you have a large game space, and complete autonomy to use all elements the way you want.
In games where there is some protection of elements or the setting is small enough where elements overlap, there can be opportunity for the active GM to collaborate with some of the other GM’s to make sure that certain elements are used as they were designed, or to get background information about an element from its creator.
How Does It End?
At some point the Campaign will reach its end, and has the opportunity to reach one of the three conclusions discussed in Odyssey: Killing, Suspending, and the Managed Ending. How will the end of the campaign be decided? Do all potential GM’s need to have GM’ed once, or can it end before that? Which GM will be the one to bring the campaign to the end?
In terms of Session Prep, there are not too many issues that will come up that have not been addressed in the Campaign Framework. The agreements made in the Campaign Framework will become part of your Selection process determining which ideas you created in Brainstorming that are able to be furthered developed.
There Is No Jealously When Swapping
Round-Robin GMing can be a lot of fun. If the rules are clear about how each GM will operate when they are the active GM, then the players can relax and enjoy the game without their inner GM’s taking umbrage. Taking the time at the onset of the campaign to lay down the rules for how each GM will interact with the world will make the rotation from GM to GM smoother.
Have you ever set up a Round-Robin campaign? If so, did you work out clear rules at the start or did you discover them along the way? What things worked best? What things would you have done different?
This is how we’ve run games over the past 7 years. Basically, I’m the primary GM, have built the setting, created a map, nation states, cultures, races, agendas. So as primary GM, I run games about half the time, but share the GM hat with 3 other members of our group of 7. After 6 months of running the game as exclusive GM, I started to get burnout, so one of the other 3 take over and run sessions over the next month. Since we play weekly, that is at least 4 sessions. These shorter GMs are free to add new monsters, new agendas and subplots that the rest of the party negotiates.
Each GM generally sums up his/her additions to setting and campaign and passes this as a note to the next GM. We keep sort of a journal of each GMs inclusions in the setting to maintain some level consistency between GMs, though each have their own style and tend to pursue their own stories and genre-inclusions – but all visits within the larger campaign.
We’ve done this over 3 different campaigns quite successfully.
I’m part of a round-robin game that’s been meeting weekly in NYC for 9 years. It’s a GURPS 4e Infinite Worlds campaign where the PCs are ISWAT agents gallivanting around the multiverse. We each run different worlds, though there are shared elements. Go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/TeamWeird/ and in the Files section you’ll find our FAQ, Character Creation Guidelines, GM Guidelines, etc.
I have participated in a few of these, both shared fantasy worlds and a multi-GM Shadowrun campaign. As longs as we kept on the same page (and we had several of rules for the fantasy shared world) it worked pretty well. The Shadowrun shared GM-game more sort of happened and there were some rough patches sorting out areas of control and such, but we got it worked out in the end.