In many roleplaying games, it’s the GM’s job to get the level of conflict just right. They provide the goons with guns kicking down doors, giving the players a common antagonist to unite against. A GM gives a story momentum.
In a GM-less story game, however, players share responsibility for creating the right degree of friendly antagonism. Without careful management, the game could get lost in conflict-free stasis or meaningless shenanigans. Either way, things get dull, people start looking at their phones, and whatever narrative you were telling just fades away. But it’s never too late to bring a game back from the brink of dissolution. When you notice that you or the other players at the table aren’t getting into the action, these tricks can get things moving again.
When Characters Are Too Successful
Success can be a problem – especially in games like Kingdom, which doesn’t have mechanics that determine whether tasks succeed or fail, or Fiasco, where players have enough flexibility to interpret a “failure” result as a minor, temporary setback. In games like these, people want their characters to succeed at what they do, and so… they do. In rules-light games, you can say “And then I steal all the gold,” and suddenly you have it.
The problem is that success is only fun when it’s earned. As the Twilight Zone once pointed out, a string of meaningless successes isn’t just boring; it can literally be Hell.* If everyone, yourself included, is having fun with these nonstop power fantasies, that’s fine. But most players won’t stay engaged unless they feel challenged by what’s going on.
The solution: sabotage. Specifically, sabotage yourself. The same power that allows players to declare that they stole all the gold allows you to declare that you’ve been shot and are going to need a hospital now. Make your own character fail in a big, obvious, and dramatic way. Force everyone to scramble, either to cover for you or keep you alive. Start a fight. Start a fire! Start an affair? Do something dramatic and stupid, and in so doing, cause trouble for everyone. And by all means, have fun doing it.
The purpose is twofold. First, it gives the other players something to do. Since you created this problem, keep flexing your narrative power as the other players deal with it. If someone tries to wipe it away, ask what their plan is. Make folks think and work a little bit to clean up your mess. Second, it’s good to be a reminder that failure can be fun. You’ll remind the other players that they, too, can allow bad fates to befall themselves, and when they do, they aren’t failing at the game – they’re playing it right.
When Players Are Too Cooperative
Players who are familiar with GM’d RPGs are used to the party dynamic, where the PCs are an adventuring group or similar bunch of individuals whose fortunes are intertwined. They work together. They live or die as a group. Sometimes, one of them is a backstabbing jerk, but that’s considered bad form and a ready justification for kicking that player out of the group.
In story games, this mentality is a problem because the players don’t live or die together. They aren’t meant to be a party; they’re meant to be a cast of characters who are interrelated but separate. Their individual machinations should bump up against one another, driving the plot. However, if the players’ goals don’t run contrary to one another, they won’t bump. Instead, you might actually find that the players are helping one another out. People are working together and developing common goals. Cooperation in your cooperative storytelling game? No, that won’t stand at all.
The solution: pick an enemy. Any other player at the table. Just decide, without telling them, that your character hates theirs and that success for you is possible if, and only if, they end up lying in a gutter somewhere. This isn’t to say that you should be a jerk all of a sudden; instead, try not to let them know that they’re your enemy. Get the others to side against them using as much subtlety and guile as you can muster and, when that fails, turn to backstabbing.
Some games actually mandate this. In Polaris, the player opposite you at the table is your antagonist, whose entire purpose in life is to see you fail in your endeavors. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re always fighting or compromising and taking the story in unexpected directions. That’s why the concept is so useful to apply in any game that’s been infected by the Get-Along Gang. Ideally, creating an adversary will disrupt the entire group, with some being more inclined to help you out and others siding with your enemy. But even if that doesn’t work, you’ve still sewn the seeds of discord and given everyone an intractable conflict to work around.
When Characters Are Too Aimless
Failing and in-fighting are all well and good, but they aren’t everything. If your game is nothing but jerks trying and failing to backstab one another, you can still end up with players who aren’t engaged. It’s hard to care about the goings-on if nothing’s going anywhere. One of the great things about conflict is that it can be used to push people, and a good GM knows how to use this to her advantage. The quickest way to get players to walk through a door is to put a couple burly-but-low-level guards in front.
This is a problem when there’s no GM to ensure there’s something to see on the other side of the door. This is the inverse of the above problems. Instead of conflict-free success, there’s conflict for conflict’s sake. Players need a sense of progression, especially in one-shot story games. If the story isn’t building to something, players feel like they’re wasting their time. Phrases like “I guess I’ll do this” are red flags that the players feel aimless.
The solution: empower your antagonists. Fighting with one another might not work for everyone, but fighting with an outside force who wants everyone to fail? That’s something anyone can get behind. If your game doesn’t already have someone who can antagonize all the players, then work a new enemy into your next scene. If there is someone, then spend a scene focusing on them. If possible, don’t bring in any player characters; just spend time on the machinations of the villains. And make sure these villains are specific individuals, because faceless organizations are boring.
Most importantly, when you’re creating an antagonist or spending time with an underdeveloped antagonist, make them awesome. Make them as over-the-top as the setting will allow, so people want to keep bringing them back in, scene after scene after scene. Consider all of the ways to make a villain that people love to hate. Or steal a villain from your favorite show, give them a paper-thin disguise, and bring them into the story. This way, in addition to creating a force that the players can work against, you encourage everyone to keep that force empowered.
When Players Are Too Complacent
So what if the players are too okay with failure, getting in each others’ way, and watching the bad guy dance all over their plans? Maybe you have all overcorrected for one of the above problems. Maybe the same rules-vagueness that lets players always get what they want has, instead, led to players not letting themselves get away with anything. Now, people are failing left and right, to the point that they don’t care about it any more.
This is a problem because failure is not conflict. It’s a potential result of conflicts, but a nonstop stream of failures is about as meaningless as a nonstop stream of successes – and worse in some ways! If players don’t care about the effects of failure, then they have even less incentive to think about what they’re doing.
The solution: die. That is to say, let your character die. While dropping dead dramatically at the table is certainly memorable, Mythcreants does not condone the sort of “if you die in the game, you die in real life” shenanigans. We do, however, condone shaking up the status quo, and fatally wounding your character in some attention-grabbing way will certainly do that. Honestly, this is just self-sabotage taken up to the next level. It’s something to shake up how everything works for everyone. If nothing else, it will force a complacent group to actually think about what just happened and what they want to do next.
Does your game even allow this sort of mischief? Probably. Fiasco does, explicitly, and many story games are loose enough that they don’t forbid such a thing. And if it doesn’t, do it anyway, because whatever keeps the story engaging for everyone is more important than any rule.
Of course, you aren’t responsible for everyone’s enjoyment. You’re not the GM, and the playing field is even. That’s why these are all reactions, for when it’s clear that the table isn’t having as good a time as they could. Maybe you’ll jumpstart a flagging story. Maybe you won’t, and when that happens there’s absolutely no shame in saying “Hey, is everyone else finding the game a little meh today?” Which is why the final option is to just quit. Sometimes things aren’t working. There doesn’t have to be a clear reason. If you can figure that out quickly enough and cut your losses, you may still have time to start a new game.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.