Starting to Collaborate

A guide to moving towards collaborative role-play.

Where We Are Starting From

Almost all role-playing games available have the same paradigm, what I will call the gamesmaster paradigm. In these games all players have responsibility for controlling characters in the game world. In addition all other responsibilities in the game are given to a single player called the gamesmaster.

What does 'all other responsibilities' mean. There must be many ways of separating out the different components of a gamesmaster's job, but I will use just one. The gamesmaster has responsibilities I will refer to as chairperson, referee, game engine and director.

The chairperson is responsible for the order and focus of the gaming group. The chairperson asks players what their character is doing, and makes sure that everyone gets equal chance to contribute. This is the same role as a chairperson would play in any meeting; directing the social aspect of the group. Even in the closest group of friends a player may still need to step in gently every now and then to keep the game on track.
A referee might also be called an arbiter. Their job is to mediate and have the final word on disagreements. When players cannot agree as to the course of the game or as to the outcome of some event, the referee makes the final decision and moves the game on. This role can be closely related to a chairperson, although the referee is responsible for directing the social aspect of the game.
Game Engine
Rule systems work by producing results that need to be interpreted by a player in terms of the game. The rule system may require values to be constructed from the game setting, such as modifiers to dice rolls or statistics for particular objects. The results of applying the rules are also abstract, a player is required to turn a numerical result into game terms: a +4 hit roll might be interpreted as a bad cut to the arm. This player is the game engine, they have responsibility for interpreting the rules into the game.
The director is responsible for guiding the story. There are different ares of the story that need guiding, and the responsibility for these components can also be separated to some extent. The director is the most complex responsibility and is traditionally strongly associated with a single gamesmaster.

Together these responsibilities make up the job of the gamesmaster in a role-playing game. This is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1. A gamesmaster paradigm role-playing game. Each player has a sinlge character, the gamesmaster controlls many 'non-player' characters. In addition the gamesmaster takes the remaining responsibilities in the game.

The basic premise of collaborative role-playing is to distribute these responsibilities between all the players. Eventually there comes a point where it doesn't make sense to call one player a gamesmaster any more, this is what gamesmaster-less roleplaying means. All the same jobs are still being done, but they are distributed among all the players.

There are two ways to distribute responsibilities between players. They can be shared or assigned. In principle all of the responsibilities can be shared between two or more players, or assigned to a single player. This means that many different combinations of collaborative-type games can be designed with different ways of distributing each responsibility. The pattern described here is that of Ergo; it is a long way from the gamesmaster paradigm, but still attempts to retain playability and iterest.

Step One. Share Responsibility for the Rules

The first step to collaborative role-playing is to take the game engine responsibility and share it among all players. This comes in two levels.

At the first level everyone shares the task of interpreting the output of the rules. Rather than the gamesmaster interpreting the results of all actions, allow the players to do that when it concerns their character. If one players character rolls to check the success in using a skill, then they should interpret that in game terms. Some information to help them may need to be given by the director, but this is easily accomplished.

The second level is to allow players to generate the inputs to the rules when it affects their character. A character who is using a skill under pressure may need to have a penalty to the player's roll. This penalty can be decided by the player based on their knowledge of the character's personality and experience of the skill and the type of pressure.

Figure 2. After step one, every player shares the responsiblity for using the rules. This means being allowed to interpret the results of their characters actions and being allowed to interpret their characters into inputs for the rules.

This is such a simple step from the gamesmaster paradigm that it is quite possible you already do this when playing. Feedback I have received from many different players suggests it is a common adaptation to make. The situation after step one is shown in the figure above.

Step Two. Share Responsibility for the Story

This is the most challenging and (in my opinion) the most rewarding stage of moving towards collaborative role-playing. The premise is to share responsibility for the development of the story among all the players. This general scheme is shown in the figure below.

Figure 3. Step two distributes the responsibility for directing the game among all the players. This may be accomplished in many different ways, depending on the role-players involved.

Because the directing responsibility is so complex, made up of many different types of job, there are almost unlimited ways to share or assign the responsibility. This stage is where most of the benefits of collaborative role-playing can be found, but also where mistakes can make a game virtually unplayable.

It is beyond the scope of this page to detail all the considerations that should go into distributing this responsibility. The general principle is relatively simple, though.

Directing responsibility that consists of planning a game should be shared among all players. Everyone should participate in planning the game at its most general level, then individual parts of the planning can be assigned to different players when more detail is needed.

In play directing responsibility should be shared between all players but guided by the player or players who planned the relevant sections in the game. So if each player planned a continent, then wherever the characters are based decides who the guide is. In Ergo the guide does not have absolute say, they provide information and guidance so everyone can make decisions. Initially you may choose to make this stronger and give responsibility for the story to the relevant players.

Distributing the story is the hardest and most rewarding part of collaborative play. It does tend to generate more open storylines and can be left out altogether if your group is not suited to such a style of game.

Step Three. Assign Responsibility for the Group

If you have got this far then the final stage is more symbolic than monumental. The gamesmaster typically has the responsibility for having the ultimate say over what happens in the game and for what happens in the gaming session. Both these responsibilities can be assigned, together or separately, to others. This is shown in the figure below.

Figure 4. Finally when the responsibility for chairing the game and refereeing the rules are assigned it makes little sense to call any player a gamesmaster. The game has reached its fully collaborative state.

It is not advisable to try sharing these responsibilities among many players. Such a situation means that social tensions within the group are more likely to arise. Instead assign each responsibility to one player (try to assign the to different players if possible). The responsibilities can be passed between players over many sessions, as long as everyone is clear who has the job at any time.

Some groups are cooperative enough not to need either an explicit chairperson or referee. If this applies to you, then feel free to do without either; the games you play may well be better for it, but take care not to let tensions arise. It is only a game after all.

At this stage it makes very little sense to call any single player a gamesmaster, nor any group of characters 'player characters' or 'non-player characters'. Instead all players have a set of responsibilities, some the same and some different from other players. This is the final destination of Ergo-style collaborative role-playing.

Ian Millington
Last modified: Wed Jan 26 22:31:56 GMT Standard Time 2000