I am a long time tabletop rpg player and GM. I have run many games in my personal favorite system, Cypher System, and played in many others. But little over a year ago, I became a father. Before that I moved states, where I had no friends or family, a couple months before the pandemic hit. A lot of my tabletop group is scattered aroudn the world now, and many don’t play or can’t. I now fall into the can’t play camp, mostly due to lack of time, energy, and a group to play with. My wife is also in a similar predicament, we usually play in each other’s games, and it is a hobby we both enjoy.
Recently, I have started a investigation on if it is possible to run our favorite sysmtes in a GM-less manner. This would allow us to potentially play in our favorite systems, learn new systems, and scratch an itch long enough to eventually find the time to play normally with a GM.
Firstly, we need to figure out what tools are available for running something without a GM. It is quite difficult to replace a person for running a game. That is why most Solo and Co-op games or systems require you to somewhat be the GM yourself, and use rolling as a way to add that randomness factor. For solo play, many result in journaling, which chronicles your journey like a story. It is even a potentially a great way to build backstory or something for a new game. For Co-op play, its almost like group storytelling, where you build off of each other, and see where it takes you, filling in uncertainity with dice and randomness.
There are a few resources that help with this. One is a GM Emulator. The biggest and most popular one is the Mythic GM Emulator, which just got a massive 2nd edition update. This emulator is a one stop shop for an oracle, tables, and all sorts of ways to answer questions that a GM normally does. I personally havent used it, but I know many have with great success. I will provide links at the end of the article to Youtube channels with solo/co-op play, and resources.
Some systems do have built in rules for such play, the big one is Ironsworn, which has rules to play GM-less with 1-3 people. Others have supplements that add rules, tables, and adjustments to make solo play easier, Solitary Defilement for Mork Borg is a good example. Many systems have third-party attempts at making such emulators and rulebooks, Chaos Cypher System GM Emulator is a good one for Cypher System for example.
For randomness outside these books, you can use a deck of cards, dice, tarot cards, and many other similar resource to help you story build.
Nowadays, instead of just rolling on tables with single words or exact results, a lot of oracles give you prompts, questions, or things to consider based on your character. Allowing for less firm results and more natural resolution to your questions or events.
In the end, all these accomplish the same thing, let you add that missing random ingredient that makes it interesting. In the end these are story building tools, and you still have to make sure to build out your story as you play. And never be too harsh or strict more so than you want, at the end this is for your enjoyment, and it’s ok to bend it how you wish.
As mentioned above, some systems allow for solo and co-op play. Ironsworn is the biggest system where this is a thing, has a large following, and even has extra books to for dungeon delving solo. It has oracle tables and questions to prompt yourself with during play.
Others are less large systems, but many journaling solo games have their own mini systems that they use, many using the more loose prompts/questions setup with some direction to make it more amorphous of a result.
Then finally for non-solo systems or big ones like D&D, Cypher, Pathfinder, etc. You can use third party tools and oracles to make them GM-less.
I encourage using a system you know at first, then move onto either system you want to try or ones designed for solo/co-op play. /r/rpg on reddit has a great wiki with some options, but its not exhaustive.
Another fun thing to try is play some games like Microscope or Kingdom that are GM-less from the start, but let you world build.
I personally have been dabbling in solo stuff because I can then use my summed up learnings to do something with my wife, and adapt it to co-op play. This is a good way for me to experiment and learn different tricks and tools to get me there.
Firstly, I have tried some solo journaling games. Mostly I find them through Zine Month on kickstarter and other similar events. Rune and NOTORIOUS are two that I have found that are super fun. Rune is a lot like a Souls game in a Nordic setting. NOTORIOUS has you playing a bounty hunter-like person called a Nomad, and it has a very Star warsy vibe. Both have unique systems to play the game with and can be played multiple ways, including journaling for more story focused play, or like an adventure mode which is more about action, victory, and numbers.
I have also been experimenting with converting non-solo systems into solo systems, usually with help from existing books to help with this, or using a generic emulator. It is similar to the ones above, but I can use the systems I like the most, or to try systems I haven’t tried yet. It’s been going well so far.
Playing with my wife hasn’t quite happened yet, but I can easily see how it can go if she likes it. Mostly I am experimenting with myself right now so I can find tune some options and figure out the best combination of tools that I think will work for us. I doubt I will get it on my first try, but I would like to have a good idea of how to proceed before I propose stuff. My wife will probably want something a little more figured out so we don’t get lost on rules/patterns that we are figuring out as we go.
But in general, playing with 2 players in a GM-less setup is a lot like solo play, but now you both somewhat build the world together, the events that happen, and npc conversations. You build off of each other, and when there is room for randomness or something you would normally need a GM to help with, you would use the tools you have gathered to help.
There is also an option for like a solo GM run game. One person is a GM and the other is a player. This is a possibility and could work well, just needs maybe adjustment on power levels, or have the
player be more like a team manager of multiple characters, roleplaying them all. The GM can have a GM run NPC also to help out.
Give it a go
In the end, the only thing is to give it a try. Below I will add links to systems, and things to try, along with some options that are free. Some are for specific games or systems, but could be used as a reference for tables, oracles, or just some ideas. Ther is a lot more than what’s listed below too, look around. This is what I have found so far, and I hope those that have a tough time playing a normal game due to life events, can maybe scratch that itch.
- Mythic Gamemaster Emulator
- Chaos Cypher System GM Emulator (Cypher System)
- Solitary Defilement (Mork Borg) (Free)