GM Emulation

~ 1600 words, ~ 8 min reading time

A question came up on Facebook about GM Emulation in the context of solo RPGs, so I thought it would be worth writing up an entry about this.

Traditional RPGs vs Solo RPGs vs Fiction Writing

To really understand solo RPGs, I think it best to think of what solo RPGs fall “between”.

On the one hand are traditional RPGs. Think: Dungeons and Dragons. The basic format of a traditional RPG is that you have three major roles collaborating. The “players” each control a single major character, while the Gamemaster (GM, or, in D&D, Dungeon Master or “DM”) controls the rest of the world – from the weather to villains, etc. However, there is a third role: the “system” – that is the set of rules & randomness that neither player nor GM controls. When putting this all together, you end up with a balance of logic and surprise, with players, GM, and rules & randomness all playing a part in providing both.

Contrast this with fiction writing. In fiction writing, you have a single author that controls everything about the world – the heroes, villains, weather, and so on. While anyone who has written fiction will tell you that sometimes there is some surprise in the process (characters seem to develop “minds of their own” at times!), it’s certainly not the same as having a different person controlling part of what’s happening, nor is it the same as total randomness introducing surprise elements.

Solo RPGs fall in between these two. There’s a combination of a human author/player with random elements provided by the game system. Because solo RPGs fall between traditional RPGs and fiction writing, there’s a wide spectrum that any soloist could choose. Closer to the fiction writing end, you have the soloist that simply divides their mind between player and GM, and uses the game system to resolve challenges. Experientially, this approach leans toward the “creative writing” side, but with some random elements tossed in, since the dice determine success or failure.

Many soloists, though, want to spend less time in “GM mode”, and more time in “player mode”. Basically, we want to increase the proportion of “surprise” vs. logic. This is where GM emulators come in. That is, we want to be surprised not just by the outcomes of challenges, but also by the kinds of challenges that present themselves. So, we need to have a system outside of our own heads that plays a big role in developing the world.

Enter GM Emulators

GM emulators are designed for those players who want to be surprised by the RPG world itself.

The “heart” of a GM Emulation system is the “Oracle”. Generally, the oracle is a randomized system for answering yes/no questions which players can use to build the world in which their characters are acting. A very simple oracle might be a simple coin flip. Heads means yes, tails means no.

Example: Suppose my character, Jim Stephenson, town marshal, walks into the saloon in downtown Pike Springs. I want to know if the saloon is busy this evening. So, I ask the oracle “Is the saloon busy?” *flips coin* *tails, no*. So, now I know that the saloon isn’t busy – the crowd is pretty sparse, though the place probably isn’t completely empty. I walk up to the barkeeper. I wonder if they’re in a bad mood. Are they in a bad mood? *flips coin* *heads, so yes* Makes sense – they’re probably annoyed at how little business they’re getting… and so on.

In effect, the coin flip is acting as a GM Emulator. As a player, the questions that I ask the oracle are questions that I’d normally ask a GM. Thinking of it this way narrows the kinds of questions I might ask. It would be silly to ask something like “Does this saloon serve alcohol?” (unless I suspect teetotalers are in charge of the town!) since the answer is obviously yes. And, given a Western setting, I probably wouldn’t ask “Is there a wizard riding a dragon flying around inside the saloon?” The answer is obviously no. I also wouldn’t ask either of these questions of a GM because it would be stupid to. Context is enough.

Now, while a coin flip can get us pretty far, it’s probably not quite enough. What if the odds aren’t 50/50? What if the event is “possible but not likely” or “likely but not certain”?

Or what if we need some other kind of inspiration for a more complex random event? Building a true “random event” from “yes” and “no” questions feels a bit clumsy. GM Emulators are often designed to include these other forms of inspiration as well. So, let’s get to a few specific ones.

Examples of GM Emulators

In recent years, there has been a rise in solo RPGs – Scarlet Heroes and Ironsworn leading the way. These games include GM Emulators for their specific contexts, so I’m not going to talk about them except to say that they take very different approaches to game design, though the emulators bear a striking similarity in many ways. Here, though, I’m going to focus on a few “generic” GM Emulators.

Mythic GM Emulator – this is probably one of the oldest and best known. The system can be summed up in 4 tables: the “Fate chart” – which provides Extreme Yes/Yes/No/Extreme No answers based on likelihood + a random roll + the “chaos factor” (a measure of how out of control things are), the “Event Focus Table” which tells you broadly what a random event is about (example: NPC action or PC positive), and two “Event Meaning Tables” – a verb table and a noun table. Add to these tables two lists that you create for your specific game: an NPC list and a “thread” (that is, plotline) list. When using Mythic, you start with your “scene setup” – figure out what your character is *trying* to do and where. Then, you roll to see if the scene sets up like expected or if there’s some kind of interruption (a random event!) or alteration (ex. turns out the villain wasn’t at home like you expected). Then, play it out, asking yes/no questions when needed. Tana Pigeon, author of Mythic, has also put together a few Variations on Mythic as well as a “Crafter” series – Adventure Crafter, Location Crafter, and Creature Crafter. All of these are designed to combine logic with randomness. You can get these for under $10 each from DriveThruRPG.com. There are also decks of cards that can replace the die rolls, and several issues of Mythic Magazine for those who are interested.

CRGE – A system very similar to Mythic in many ways, except that the Yes/No answers can contain surprises within them, as there is a “Yes, but unexpectedly….” option with “unexpectedly” tables. The odds of unexpected events depend on where you are in the story – as you move from heading “To Knowledge” (where lots of unexpected stuff happens) to “To Endings” (where unexpectedlys are rare) – and also how long it’s been since something unexpected has happened. Zach Best, author of CRGE, has also created several other supplements: UNE (for emulating NPCs), BOLD (for creating storylines and backstories). These are pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG.com

MUNE – Another Mythic-like system, but significantly simpler. Roll a d6. Answers are “No, and”/”No”/”No, but”/”Yes, but”/”Yes”/”Yes, and”. If the event is “likely” roll 2d6 and use the higher roll. Unlikely, use the lower roll. There’s also a system designed for providing surprise complications as well. Available for free online.

One page solo engine – This system is pretty cool, and fits on one page (front and back). It uses a combination of standard playing cards and 6-sided dice to answer questions. However, the maker suggests you should only use it if you’re already familiar with the basic concepts of GM Emulation. Free on DriveThruRPG.com.

Now, there are certainly others out there. These are just a few that I have on hand. There are significant similarities and differences between them.

Using a GM Emulator

One thing that takes some getting used to is figuring out *when* to appeal to a GM emulator and when to just let logic dictate what happens. This is very much a matter of taste, and I don’t think there’s any clear guideline I can give. The best guideline is probably this: ask yourself if the game is dragging. If the answer is “yes”, then change what you’re doing. If you’ve asked a bunch of oracular questions and feel like things are dragging, then you should probably just let logic take over for a bit. On the other hand, if you feel like the game has become overly predictable, then ask more questions.

Similarly the *style* of question is something that you can only really figure out by experience and experimentation. In any particular moment, do you want a sweeping “cutting” question that can have big impacts on the entire storyline? Or would a much smaller “chipping” question make more sense? Trial and error is the best way to learn how to balance these elements.

In any case, if you’d like to know more about solo RPGing, I highly recommend two Youtube channels. Geek gamers is one of my favorites, and has lots of material about solo GMing. The other – which is a more recent discovery – is Me, Myself, and Die where Trevor Devall plays through a few solo games.

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