GMing GMless

Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash

It was probably the COVID lockdown that gave solo role-playing such a boost. Or maybe that’s just when I stumbled upon this facet of the tabletop RPG hobby. In any case, I’m enthralled. (I wish it were an option back in the 80s, when our board game group first stumbled upon Dungeons & Dragons, and one night a week just wasn’t enough to meet my need.)

So what is solo roleplay?

Imagine you’re jonesing to role-play a favorite character or two (like I was back then), but there’s no one available to run an adventure as GM. In solo play, often referred to as GMless play, you improvise an adventure by using an oracle—typically a deck of cards, my favorite being GMA—as a prompt.

“What do I hear at the door?” my character asks. I make a skill roll to see if they can manage to listen through its planks. They succeed. I turn up a GMA card, and in the sensory details section there’s the “ping-ping-ping of cooling metal.” Time to put on my GM hat to improvise what that means in terms of the unfolding story. I figure it’s the cooling armor of a knight just roasted by the fire-breathing dragon my character has been hunting. As player, I decide to throw open the door. As GM, I ask the deck, “Is the dragon still here?” If the deck says, “Yes,” it’s time for a fight. If “No,” my character presses onward cautiously, aware that the dragon must be somewhere close.

As you can see, I’m shifting back and forth between player’s seat and GM’s. Which makes the term “GMless” something of a misnomer. Even the word “solo,” given how much fun it can be to do this with friends, each playing a character, and each suggesting what that ping-ping-ping could mean.

But what about published adventures?

Maybe instead of pure improv, I’m dying to play a published adventure about a dragon, in which the book says exactly where the beast is, and what my character encounters along the way? How can I role-play my character’s reaction to that dungeon door, when I already know what’s waiting? How can I decide whether they’d take the time to check for a trap, when each moment risks another roll on a random encounters table, possibly bringing a band of goblins or giant beetle or something?

Let the oracle deck decide. Let’s say the published adventure has a pit trap here. As a GM I ask, “Does my character pause to check for traps? I think the odds are good that they would.” I turn up a card, and if the “Good odds” prompt says, “No,” they move on, triggering the trap. I can only hope their roll to not fall in succeeds.

Can I “Dual Wield” the two?

Once you realize that an oracle deck can serve either purpose, it’s pretty easy to swap hats mid-play. As in this example of my playing a published adventure.

The story opens with the PCs being asked to take on a scouting mission for a refugee camp plagued by undead. Their job is to find the source and destroy it. The book says that the refugee leader tells the PCs, “Unless you have a skill we need here in camp, you must take on this mission to earn your keep.” It’s assumed that the PCs take the mission, but the scene is something that I’d role-play through if running this for friends, so why not for myself?

I’m playing four characters: an archer, two soldiers, and a thief. I’m sure the first three, by nature, will gladly take on the mission. And I know the thief will try to talk his way out of it. But unless he goes, there’s no adventure.

My thief suggests, “I know how to read and write, so I could act as a scribe.” As GM I have to counter this, and I decide the refugee leader responds, “We don’t need a scribe. I can do that myself.” My thief says, “I’m a pretty good cook.” “We have plenty of cooks.” My thief, “Well, I can sing and tell some great stories to keep up morale!” “We don’t need stories of past deeds. We need a present end to this undead menace.”

My thief acquiesces, and the adventure continues.

Later, while the heroes are traveling across an enormous battlefield toward a pair of ruined towers that might hold a clue, a random encounter roll says “There’s a small scouting band of orcs and goblins on the horizon.”

I figure the two soldiers say, “We’re not here to fight orcs and goblins, so unless they attack, we should leave them alone.” But my archer has some elven blood in his lineage and despises the creatures, so he argues passionately, “I’m sworn to slay them on sight! Even if no one else will go with me, I must!” Knowing the thief, I figure he’ll hold his tongue to see which way the wind blows.

I’m ambivalent as to whether the two soldiers are willing to sidetrack to battle the orc and goblin band, knowing it’ll likely weaken the party, when they should be saving their strength for the undead mystery. So I draw a card, and the answer is “No, but…” As GM I think about what that might mean and decide the soldiers argue, “Let’s focus on solving this undead mystery first, and after that, if we’re still alive, we’ll help you track down those orcs and goblins.”

Back in player mode, I settle into the archer’s personality again and figure he’d acquiesce to that. If I weren’t certain, I’d have drawn another card to make his decision.

Onward they ride toward the mysterious towers, the archer seething at having left the orcs and goblins breathing. Right about now, another random encounter has a ghoul pop up from behind a bush. In character as both player and GM, I decide the archer is caught off guard, but allow the other three characters a roll for surprise. Because that’s what seems like the most fun!

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