Netflyer Oxford University Role Playing Games Society
Netflyer 31


Back to the Main Page Back to Netflyer Back to Contents

The Co-GM is in here!

The right kind of campaign

Rhi:
As far as I can remember the real reason Liz and I co-GMed together was that we wanted there to be more role-playing going on and each of us was nervous about running a campaign on our own. We chose Storm Constantine's Wraeththu series as a background so we'd have some kind of framework, tinkered a bit with the plot and started looking for players.

Liz:
Yes, we wanted there to be more role-playing going on, but we also wanted there to be more of the sort of role-playing we were interested in going on. After yet another dozen people had announced their intentions of running a "Retro AD&D" game, I was determined to stop complaining about it, and actually run an alternative. It was something I had been thinking about for ages, but, as Rhi says, we were both nervous of going it alone.

Rhi:
We turned out to be lucky in our choice. Wraeththu is a fantasy environment with a large world to play with and we had both read a lot of fantasy and knew the kind of things that would be right and wrong for the game. We didn't actually have any arguments about the feel of the world and were able to play off each other in designing the adventure.

Liz:
We had also both read a lot of the same kind of fantasy. We'd spent many a long hour discussing books we'd both read as children; we'd played in quite a few of the same games in the year before we ran Wraeththu, and had similar feelings about them, so we were both interested in running the same sort of thing. We'd discussed what type of game we wanted to run already, when Rhi suggested Wraeththu, which I hadn't read before. We wanted to concentrate more on people than places, so to have a ready designed world sitting there, waiting for us to plunder it, was ideal.

The right co-GM

Rhi:
Liz and I worked as co-GMs and some of that was sheer serendipity. But part of the success of the campaign can be attributed to the fact that we were living together, which made it easier to find time to do the actual writing. Additionally it helped that we have a similar sense of humour and a similar attitude to role-playing. Both of us like to keep control over the players and keep them in character but neither of us minded players dropping out of character for a moment to share a joke.

Liz:
It wasn't just similar ideas that made Wraeththu work as well as (we felt) it did. We balanced each other out in many ways. Rhi would come up with a overall idea of how a scene would work, and I'd fill in the little details that made it feel real.

In theory, I agree with Dawn's point that co-GMing can double the amount of preparation, but in practice, in a game world both you and your co-GM understand, and feel about in similar ways, sometimes very little preparation is necessary. Wraeththu was much less work than I expected it to be: it ran itself a lot of the time. Even when something changed dramatically mid-session (for example Tristian - Jon - suddenly, without warning, deciding that Jael was the place he wanted to be incepted to Wraeththu), it only took a couple of scribbled notes between Rhi and I before we could improvise it.

Too many times to remember, a PC would do something we hadn't anticipated, and one of us would start to write a note, or whisper in the other's ear about what we thought should happen as a result, and the other would say "I know - that's what I thought". It was immensely satisfying to know we weren't going to have to have a whispered argument, or go out of the room and re-write the entire session!

Rhi:
Although there were also some very silly moments when a player would ask a question directed at the GMs and both of us would reply in perfect unison using exactly the same words! One such incident had the party in hysterics for about ten minutes.

Advantages of co-GMing

Rhi:
The really big advantage is the amount of control it gives you when the party tries to split. Dawn wrote in her article 'The Co-GM is Out There' about a number of ways you can use a partner in running a campaign, but she didn't really mention how useful it can be to keep a session going. Players are always apt to try and have discussions with NPCs that go on forever and are either meant to be secret or bore the rest of the party so much they don't want to pay attention. With two GMs it's possible to take one player off to the side of the room while the other GM keeps the rest of the party going as they do something else.

Liz:
It wasn't just the ease of running separate plot strands that made co-GMing an advantage, it also added greatly to the atmosphere of the game. Something as simple as a change of voice between the narrator, and the first character in a scene contributed enormously. After only the first session, Dom claimed to have lain awake thinking about an encounter with a group of Zigane (the Wraeththu world's gypsies), where one character performed a Tarot reading, and another got upset about the implications of the cards. That would have been possible with only one GM, but it wouldn't have worked as well as it did. Sobbing and quiet murmuring, at the same time as the Tarot reader calmly interpreted the cards, heightened the impact, even though the PCs didn't really understand at that point what the cards meant.

Rhi:
And then there are the NPCs. By the end of the game we had forty running at once, often all together in a big room, but from very early on we could interact with the players in a number of different roles. One GM tends to find it difficult to keep up a conversation with the party while playing more than one NPC, with two GMs you can triple the NPC roles. As an example: two NPC can be talking to the party, one wanders off and a third appears without breaking the flow of a conversation. This kind of interaction allows NPCs to relate to each other as well as to the party and gives the party more clues to their characters from the way they behave towards each other. Famous partnerships in the Wraeththu game included: Moranir and Yendi (a pair of lovers who were university students interested in very different subjects), Ashmael and Arahal (a pair of powerful and power-hungry world leaders whose main delight was in thwarting each other), Velaxis and Cedony (Ashmael and Arahal's sidekicks who spent most of the game arguing) and Seel and Swift (the Wraeththu game's cutest couple - even though the party loved Seel and thought Swift deserved a good kicking).

Liz:
The night before the session when we first ran the "forty NPCs in the same room" thing, we were writing it in the living room, and someone - I think it was Alastair - told us we were insane. We were terrified; each of the NPCs (it wasn't quite forty at that stage) had their own agenda, and vastly differing views on the politics they were discussing. It was probably the hardest scene in the whole game to run, but we were amazed at how well it worked. Even though some of the NPCs were relatively new to us then, through talking about them, and throwing ideas off each other, we were able to get a good handle on most of them. We were elated when that session was over with no major hitches, and no huge inconsistencies. Co-GMing did much more than double the amount of NPCs we could run: simply having someone else to discuss each of them with meant we understood each of them much better than we would have done on our own.

Disadvantages

Liz:
I can see that in some co-GMed games, the different ideas of the GMs could end up restricting each other, rather than enriching the world, and that did happen occasionally in Wraeththu.

There were occasions when being so attached to our own NPCs slowed down the running of the session, instead of speeding it up, because a couple of PCs would want to do something off on their own, but each needed the same GM to do it. We were both reluctant to release our pet NPCs to each other, but we had to do it sometimes, and no matter how often we'd heard the other talk about how that NPC felt about things, there were inevitable lapses in continuity.

Rhi:
Co-GMing is a cool and groovy thing to do but you've got to be sure that's the kind of game you want to run or play in. Inevitably a joint game will lack some of the unity of a single person's vision, even though it can benefit from two different points of view. You've also got to be careful that the actual work is equally divided or there's a danger of resenting each other - one person feeling they're doing all the hard stuff and the other person feeling they never get a chance for any input. I think we avoided this most of the time, but even such beings of sweetness and light as me and Liz occasionally argued about this!

Liz:
There were times when we needed to write a session, and I'd just got in from a s**t day at work, and had no thoughts, and a pickled brain, so Rhi would write something, read it at me, and I'd say "Yeah" and have another beer. Fortunately, this didn't happen too much, and I did generally think that what she'd written is what I'd have written if she'd been the one recovering from an awful day.

Surprising developments in the field of co-GMing

Rhi:
The NPC interaction surprised me the most. The game became very heavily characterisation based quite quickly and the amount of time we played the same NPCs made us feel increasingly affectionate towards them, their characters developed by leaps and bounds and they started to have real personalities. Sometimes the personalities were so real we'd fight over what would we true to the character of our pet-NPCs. Both of us had particular pets. I was fond of Wrark Fortuny who made a cameo as master-mage, head of a secret service and all round dodgy bloke. I also developed a huge affection for Ashante Meveny, the tormented homosexual boy who stole Tristian's (Jon's character) virginity, became a Wraeththu and stole it again. And there was Thiede, the most suspiciously dodgy NPC of all who was running the whole grand plot and almost all the known world. At the end of the game I role-played his explanation of himself and it turned out to be one of my all time favourite role-playing experiences.

Liz:
As the game progressed, I felt more and more as if we weren't GMing at all, just PCing a larger number of characters than normal. The world and the characters took on a momentum of their own. More than once, we tried to shoehorn our beloved NPCs into the events that were supposed to happen, only to find that they weren't happy about it, and wanted to do something else entirely. We had the basic Grand Plot (tm) mapped out from the start, and even reasonable ideas about how we wanted to get there, but as we got to know the main movers and shakers better, we realised that some things just weren't going to happen.

On the occasions when we had to play each other's characters (almost without exception, they definitely "belonged" to one or other of us by the end), we'd spend ages checking with each other how that NPC would react in different situations. We got very personally involved, with our own NPCs, with each other's, and with the PCs. I was desparately hurt when Leo (Dom) stubbornly refused to like Swift, who I adored. Ashmael, one of Rhi's favourites, and Vaysh, one of mine, had been lovers a long time ago, but were driven apart by Theide's machinations: a story that we lifted wholesale from the books. We'd always intended to get them back together at the end of the game, but it started to feel really important, and really difficult. I was overjoyed when they finally decided they cared enough to give it another try.

A lot of this sort of interaction went on outside the presence of the party, as arguments during our writing sessions, with only occasional glimpses caught by the party of the private lives of the NPCs, but that level of out-of-session development, the feeling of a world that continued to move, was made possible by co-GMing. The different things happening in the PCs' peripheral vision weren't there because we'd deliberately written them in - they were there because the world existed independently, because all of the NPCs had personalities, and continued to interact with each other, through our discussions in the course of writing the game.

I wish I could say this was deliberate, that we'd always intended the game to develop this way. I can't. I think it's a side effect of successful co-GMing in a game based heavily on character interaction. The world felt very real to us, and the players tell us it felt real to them, too (of course, they could just be scared of confessing they hated it ;-). It was a result of two different perspectives on everything, and it made for a very enjoyable game, for us, and, I hope, for our players. In fact, it worked so well that we intend to do it again, with a different game ("Sanguinus et Ferrus" - don't criticise the pseudo Latin) this year.

Rhi:
Nice advert. If we ever get around to writing the damn thing that is! It think this probably sums up our experience of co-GMing and also concludes our first ever Nightflyer article. Needless to say, if anyone (especially the Wraeththu players!) has anything else to add to the debate we'd like to hear from them.

Rhiannon Lassiter     Liz Smith

Editor's note - This article is a response to "The Co-GM is Out There" by Dawn Camus, published in Nightflyer 30.