Co-GMing in a Shared World

We all want to play. That has different meanings for all of us, but the joy of settling in and letting the game wash over us as a PC is a different experience than building the session and guiding everyone into the thick of it. Some players end up trapped in the perma-GM role, and they (and let’s be clear, I also mean I) sometimes wish it weren’t that way. To help combat that, and spread the weight of running the game around, a group I played with had a novel solution: we would all run the game.

The game was Shadowrun 3rd Edition (though the system isn’t critical to how we did it) and we shared GM responsibilities for three years of weekly sessions. I think a big part of the longevity of the game was a result of not having one author burn out and the ongoing excitement of exploring a shared world. Even as a GM, there’s a lot to be said about maintaining and pursuing mystery.

The division of labor was straightforward: each of us had control for an entire run (about three weeks of sessions). If your game is normally divided into arcs, or cases, or dungeons, this might work for you, too. From the client contacting the party through the adventure and into the wrap up/getting paid was all one GM. Anything the GM said out loud was true: these NPCs and their capabilities, that location, these big events. The catch is any motive you don’t explicitly spell out is still up in the air, and you can build backwards to justify new revelations moving forward. We had some guidelines that major revelations about someone else’s primary NPCs should get a courtesy check before you derail something significant, but we ended up never using that. At the end of each arc, we passed the game over to the next GM in the rotation, or checked and saw if anyone had a thing they were itching to run.

How it works in practice was I might introduce a faction with mysterious motives who attacked a nightclub the PCs were security for. Jordon might address the fallout of that attack in a later arc and Derek would clarify the motives of that organization when we follow up on other attacks they masterminded. Each of us also built off NPCs who were introduced in each others’ sessions as we explored the underworld, high society, and the media scene. We had a forum thread that let us record plot lines that were still open, all the public info we had on NPCs, and what our characters were up to on their bye weeks. By building the environment around the campaign, we could write up headlines that suggested upcoming developments, built on previous events, and just fleshed out the environment.

By the end of the campaign, we had enough material that the executive decision was made that we couldn’t introduce major new plot elements in the third year of the campaign. Everything from there on out had to be built from existing parts. As a result, that year saw returning NPCs, minor baddies elevated to major player status, massive revelations about how the existing factions were tied together, and significant reveals about how our character backstories tied into the plot we were exploring. It would have been way too much work for one author to have balanced, but since each of us had a slightly different focus story-wise we could just pursue our pet projects and fit them into the ongoing story with some dangling plot threads tied onto them. It was satisfying getting closure and setting the stage for the endgame of the campaign.

Eventually, we shut that campaign down as schedules got in the way. We had picked up some players who weren’t GMing with us but remained as players 100% of the time, and trying to mesh 5 adult schedules across a couple different time zones became prohibitive. That having been said, the shared GMing was never the drawback or a reason to stop the game.

If you are inclined to try this shared GMing scheme, I would suggest the following elements to be mindful of:

  • Have a robust Session Zero where you discuss power scale, major themes, and establish some groundrules. For example, our game was set in and around Seattle for its whole run. Individual adventures might take us away from home, but each adventure had to get us back to base and prevent another GM from having to write new material in, say, Denver. Come to think of it, we never actually said this rule out loud. Huh.
  • Be flexible with control over your NPCs. Once you’ve set them loose into the setting, they will grow and change as other GMs add and remove little bits of their personality. Think of it like villains in a TV series: each writer handles the common elements a little differently, but they should still be reliably Dr. Doom or Scorpius.
  • Be generous (and maybe a little meta) about the spotlight and your character’s involvement. As the GM, avoid the temptation to have your character feature prominently in your week(s)’s endeavors. Some of us had our characters basically go on autopilot and help from a distance, others would write our characters out for the session (and expect the other team members not to make a federal case out of their not being involved!). An early session had my character held as collateral to force the rest of the team’s involvement in a mob scheme. As I was the GM, we accepted this as a fixed plot point and didn’t labor a great deal about freeing me and getting me involved in the session.
  • Honor the work of your fellow GMs. This is a weaponized form of “Yes, And…” of improv fame, where you don’t spend time “correcting” the other authors. If they shut down a potential threat in their sessions, don’t immediately start it back up to finish your thing with it. Don’t force a zig when everyone else has zagged. I’m not saying never surprise anyone, but build off what you already have rather than wresting control from your peers and driving it off a cliff. I introduced an incidental pop star in one session, we served as her bodyguard entourage later on, she may have been romantically involved with one of the PCs a season later, we thwarted an assassination attempt against her, and she turned out to be a member of an occult society we were working with, ultimately sacrificing herself to end a blood ritual against us. None of which would have happened if we didn’t let the other GMs play in our sandbox!

If you have some GM friends (or friends who might want to GM but are nervous about taking on an entire campaign) then co-GMing might be a solution for your group.


One thought on “Co-GMing in a Shared World

  1. […] and remind each other of the highlights of the previous game. The Shadowrun game I described last ti... nerdhausgames.com/2019/02/cut-to-stealing-the-language-of-film-for-tabletop-gaming

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