The GM of Many Parts

Running Campaigns with multiple GMs.

One of the most memorable campaigns I have ever been involved with was also one of the most complicated. The campaign, a Vampire: The Dark Ages Chronicle, was run by 4 GMs, started with 8 players, grew to 13 at its peak, had countless NPCs, and as events took their toll on unlives, dropped finally to 7 players by the conclusion of the tale. It was memorable primarily because it ran smoothly, the story arc ran from start to finish in an aesthetically and systemically pleasing way, and because the characters and their exploits went on to spawn legends and story threads of great impact and enjoyment in later Chronicles.

Why we did it

We had been playing in the World of Darkness regularly by the time the first edition of Werewolf hit the shelves. By the time Mage appeared, WW games were essentially all we were playing. I had an ongoing Chronicle which systematically expanded to incorporate and link the settings of each of the game lines. The two other regular Storytellers had settings of their own incorporating varying amounts of material from the other lines. In a general sense, the overlap between our Chronicles was Vampire with sprinklings of Mage and a dab of Werewolf. As time went on, Chronicles and settings came and went, and the group grew. It became impractical to have multiple Chronicles on the go, so we decided to challenge ourselves with a shared setting.

How we did it

A Tapestry of Time
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February is World-Building Month

We set a schedule for alternating Storytelling duties and defined how stories would and would not flow into or influence subsequent tales. We organized the schedule so that play would occur once per week, and that each Storyteller would run two 6-8 hour sessions for every Story. This meant that each of us could expect to tell 1 story over the course of 2 weeks, and be expected to run a Story once every 2 months. This was set in stone for the first cycle, but as not everyone on the ST list was equally prolific, we instituted a system whereby we could defer our place in the order, or ask for permission from the other 3 Storytellers to run a Story out-of-order. Additionally, should a Story not be resolved within the 2-week time limit, provisions were made to determine if it should be allowed to continue, or if it should move to the background while the threads of another Story took our attention. This allowed us a certain amount of freedom to let the players follow-up on Stories that really grabbed their interest, as well as keeping the momentum of the overall Chronicle going should one of the GMs run dry creatively.

The Binder that Ties

Using input from each Storyteller, we compiled a binder of setting information. This binder was updated during play to reflect current events, contained all characters, NPCs, and locations, along with period and setting information, as well as holding the Chronicle timeline, and notes for the next Storyteller in line to help them work with events which might influence subsequent stories.

The Map!

We found a map of a period city and determined what each major and most of the minor buildings would be. We defined certain areas with a great deal of detail, and left others with minimal or no description so that the setting could grow and respond to developments in each of our Stories. Each Storyteller was given creative control over a small section of the city, as well as over a broad sector of community life. These were broken down as being politics, economics, religion, and crime. Responsibility in these areas was to provide a loose framework of movers and shakers, and plant story seeds and plot hooks for the others to feel free to use in their own tales.

Order in the Court

Long-term plots and ongoing events were encouraged, and given a limited degree of immunity, but we built the background binder from the point of view that each Story would be more or less self-contained in terms of events. Repercussions from those events could be used as creative fodder by subsequent STs, but for the most part each Story was expected to begin and end within the 4 allotted sessions. That said, provisions were also made for limiting the forwarding of the timeline. As each subsequent Story was plotted, the ST would consult with the others as to when it would occur and if a particular event or events would need to come earlier, a request for a re-sequencing of Storyteller order could be made. If, for example, one ST wanted their next Story to occur 1 year after their current one, they would inform the others of this desire, and request that the intervening Stories all take place within that single year. If this was not possible, plausible, or desirable, a rearrangement of the ST order could be orchestrated, or if it were truly problematic, the particular Story could be sent back for a rewrite, or vetoed out of existence if it simply could not be made to fit.

Interaction and Communication

There was also encouragement to work on plots in concert with other Storytellers in order to allow a greater degree of subtlety and foil attempts at meta-deduction by players. This was perhaps the best use of the binder once play really got under way.

With four STs we found ourselves able to build a large cast of NPCs and use the off-duty Storytellers as Aides, greatly increasing the consistency and detail of these important setting characters.

What about the GM PCs?

While always seen as a problem by the gaming community at large in my experience – often with good reason, this type of multiple GM arrangement takes care of most of the common effects of bias and self-interest automatically. With clear guidelines for the use of personal characters when behind the screen, it deals with the other effects as well.

For the most part, we tried to ensure that the character of the ST was not involved in the events of the Story he was telling, simply by giving them something else to do. We did not entirely exclude them from play, as the players would sometimes want to involve those characters for varying amounts of time, but we arranged things so that the types of Stories we told would also be the types of Stories that our personal characters would tend not to want to be involved in, or were prevented, by social or other means from taking part. In Vampire, through its system of boons and generational control, that was easy. When characters were involved in a scene we would have them run by Aides (always amusing to see their interpretation of a given player’s playing style), or by the ST if the scene were limited to simple conversation.

Experience was handled by giving the absent GM PC the base amount, plus 1 point for the GM for the Story. This worked out to be fewer points on average for these characters over the run of the Chronicle, but worked out better than denying any XP or simply giving the average the group had earned. Once the more active STs started telling tales more often than the less active ones, this decision became very important.

Balancing Act

The last step involved choosing how to balance the characters. Initial PC creation was not a problem, but NPC design was an area of potential concern. Also the possibility of character death or retirement and replacement needed to be addressed. Some among us liked all PCs to be built with an equal number of points, while others felt that concept and GM control over Story design were more important. To minimize these differences, we elected to have explicit controls defining balance that offered a little bit of protection for those who worry about being on an even playing field with their fellow players, and a lot of structure for the care and feeding of current and not-yet-introduced NPCs to prevent the overall tone and flow of the Chronicle from being hi-jacked by a poorly thought-out addition.

Would I do it again?

Since that Chronicle, I have done this only once. When I started playing Trinity here in Seoul, I secretly partnered with another GM to tell a generation game. My partner ran Adventure! and Aberrant from ’98 through to the first stirrings of the war. I took things from there through Trinity. We told tales out of sequence, and so used very broad archetypes to facilitate the non-linear development of the tale. This required minimal communication other than discussing the ground rules, establishing the villains and how the Series should flow. This was never intended to be a long campaign, but surprisingly, it is still on our active list, years later.

During that period, I built notes from the stories my partner ran and reinterpreted symbols and events to have them recur in my part of the timeline. When the big reveal came that the Trinity characters were somehow tied up in a new plot spawned by forces related to those being fought by the Adventure! characters, the players were both surprised and pleased, leading to the very long run of stories to which we can still return today.

Currently, I am gearing up to start this sort of arrangement again. When we launch our HEX game, each player will also be a GM. We have yet to lay the ground rules, but I expect they will be similar to those I outlined above, as it is our intent to focus on a single system rather than our previously established pattern of monthly system and setting switching. In order for this sort of set-up to survive, a clear structure is required, as is an understanding and awareness of the forces which conspire to bring about the premature end of otherwise good games.

Quite honestly, this form of campaign design, although challenging and requiring both faith in and trust of one’s partners, is the most satisfying way I have found to enjoy the hobby. Being able to contribute on both sides of the GM screen simply cannot be beat.

7 Responses to “The GM of Many Parts”
  1. Sunglar says:

    Excellent post! I came this way when the Internet gods told me the NPC post I wrote was a related article and found myself engrossed by the idea. Despite having played so LONG I have never tried my hand at this type of game. Maybe because I have never felt the urge to be a player and prefer the role of GM, but I Can definitely see the benefits. Curiously enough this is the second time in 3 days I’ve heard of this idea. Some friends of mine are doing this round robin style game for a supers game. I Feel the urge to try this out, but have so many campaigns running that I wonder how I could fit it in… Again thanks for the post, lots of food for thought.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for dropping by~
      I’m with you in preferring to run games, but that preference does not run so deep that I never want to play (despite the reality of what actually happens… 😉 )

      I enjoyed your NPC article, and when I was ready to post this, I thought it was a good time to include the link.,

  2. sunglar says:

    Thanks you, I am glad you liked it. I really enjoyed your post; I was showing it to some friends yesterday. Best of luck with your future games!

  3. faustusnotes says:

    This is a brilliant idea and an excellent system of managing the multiple GMs. Did you find that the Storyteller system naturally encouraged you to this sort of management expertise, or was it something you guys were independently capable of pulling together? Considering how much managing players is like herding cats, I’m impressed that you could all figure this system out.

    I’ve always thought a multple-GM game would be beyond my skills, but with these tips in hand maybe it could be tried…

  4. Runeslinger says:

    Thanks for the kind words: I’m quite surprised that this post has gotten the attention that it has.

    I think that what lead us to this approach was two-fold, and really had nothing to do with Storyteller or White Wolf… other than by being something we enjoyed to play at that time.

    The first thing was that two of the four GMs were of considerably less experience, and were concerned about their ability to produce enough consistent content for a campaign of that scope, set in that period, and with 3 other people looking over their shoulders. Once that concern was expressed, it naturally lead to other problems being voiced.

    That conversation really saved the whole project from dying on the vine. Then, like now, I was working in HR and that lead me to turn the questions around so that solutions to the problems could be addressed rather than the usual result of endless – “Wouldn’t it be cool… but we can’t,” discussions.

    It was a very creative crew of individuals, and once they turned their attention to the items of concern, it took no time at all before a working schedule of rotation was made, research duties were assigned, the binder was envisioned, and the map quest was put in motion.

    The other factor was motivation. We all wanted to run that system and setting, and we all wanted to play in it. We did not, however, have the time for multiple Chronicles. Dividing the labour decreased the time it took to go from concept to actual play, and kept the momentum high from the start. Once we started filling the binder and populating the map, and so were able to start reading and riffing on each others’ setting material, the excitement and enthusiasm for the project really took off, leading us to a truly great experience.

    In subsequent application, the organizational process that resulted from managing 4 GMs and up to 11 players just naturally made attempts work with little trouble.

    Thanks for visiting~

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] There was a fun and successful multi-GM experiment we did before I moved to Korea for “a year” what feels like a thousand years ago now, wherein we took on an ambitious Chronicle for Vampire: the Dark Ages. The details of how the sessions were run and the overall Chronicle was organized can be read here. […]

  2. […] and I have been running Triple Ace Games’ All for One: Regime Diabolique as a co-operative, co-GM’d campaign. The game, developed for the Ubiquity Roleplaying system and inspiringly written by Paul […]

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