It’s always a little bit easier to try out new RPGs when you’re able to be the game master. As GM, you can assemble a group of players and do all the rulebook studying and mechanics explaining yourself. If you’re happy to be in charge of making up adventures and playing NPCs and all that jazz, when it comes to convincing a group of people to play something you don’t have to overcome the additional roadblock of hoping someone will GM it for you.
If GMing just isn’t for you it can be a real problem trying new games. You’re basically at the whims of whoever doesn’t mind stepping up to run something, as they’ll more than likely pick what they’re most passionate about or already know how to play. Multiply that problem by a hundred if there’s no-one in your group who wants to GM. Whilst everyone should give GMing a go at some point, it’s a daunting task that’s not for everyone.
Best tabletop RPGs with no GM
- They Came to Play Ball: Play intergalactic sports and make friends in this Space Jam inspired RPG.
- Fiasco: An improv RPG about doomed criminals inspired by the Coen Brothers' films.
- Beak, Feather and Bone: Collectively create your very own world and wrestle for power over it in this GMless RPG.
- English Eerie: A horror RPG that sees players following the story of a victim lost in the English countryside.
Enter the GM-less RPG. There are tabletop RPGs without a GM that allow you to replace the role with some clever mechanics or divvy up the games mastering duties amongst the group. It’s essentially roleplaying socialism.
Every one of these four tabletop RPGs run without anyone having to take the reins, taking the pressure off your shoulders and allowing you to try something new. From lesser-known titles about intergalactic football to classic improv RPGs, there’s bound to be something to tickle your GM-less fancy.
1. They Came to Play Ball
Gain fame and fortune in an outer-space antiball league
They Came to Play Ball is a new intergalactic sports RPG by Adira Slattery. It’s an RPG that’s full of unstable characters in an unstable world playing the most dangerous and popular sport in the universe: antiball. They Came to Play Ball lists Space Jam as one of its inspirations, which should give you a good enough idea of what to expect, but the game’s world is evocative yet pleasantly vague enough for you to shape in your own image. There are enough building blocks to provide inspiration, but not with so much minutiae that your creativity is stifled.
They Came to Play Ball uses a momentum system where you take or give back tokens to do things, meaning that there’s no dice required. Play uses a system from a game called Firebrands, which works almost like a stage play that constructs itself throughout the game. You’ll take turns picking one of the scenes or ‘games’ from the book. It could be something as simple as a press release, something more intricate like an illegal game of antiball on the streets - full of violence and high-energy play - or just chatting over drinks with another player. Once you’ve selected the game you want to play, you’ll choose your actors, set your scene and play. Each scene comes with a set of instructions with questions to ask each other, ways to move the story onwards and, most importantly, ways you can spend or gain tokens.
You’ll keep going around the circle in this way, playing games of antiball, furthering yourself in the tournament, practising, getting drunk, falling in love, forming rivalries and anything else you want. The more you play of each game in the book, the more familiar you’ll become with them and the quicker they’ll play out. The game finishes up when someone selects the Closing Ceremony game and you follow the steps to end your story. At the end of it all, the player holding the most momentum is crowned the winner of the tournament and you’ll all go your separate ways. Winning the tournament isn’t the important thing, though - it’s the stories you made along the way that’ll stay with you.
Buy They Came to Play Ball on Adira Slattery's itch.o
Experience chaos and comeuppances in an RPG about petty criminals
Fiasco is a legendary name when it comes to tabletop RPGs without a GM. Inspired by the botched crime capers of films such as Reservoir Dogs, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Fargo - and basically everything else the Cohen Brothers have ever done - it’s a GM-less roleplaying game that puts players in the boots of a group of ne’er do wells in doomed pursuit of power, fortune and infamy.
Over a couple of hours, the gang stumbles its way through a movie-like structure of two acts and an aftermath. At the heart of Fiasco’s darkly comic tale lies the tilt. After establishing the relationships between the characters and resolving conflicts in a number of scenes during its opening act, a complication arises that throws the group into disarray. It could be a classic case of greed overtaking common sense or an unfortunate coincidence that scuppers a character’s best-laid plans. The players and their characters then react to the tilt in act two, before their fates are revealed during Fiasco’s chaotic aftermath. Unlike many other RPGs, things aren’t likely to end well - your character’s unfortunate demise being among the more positive outcomes.
Its clever structure and clear love of cinematic tropes mean that playing Fiasco really does feel like directing a film with your friends. In some ways, it’s less an RPG without a GM and more an RPG where everyone is a GM. While crime capers are Fiasco’s bloody bread and butter, its flexible storytelling system has been adapted for a number of different genres and settings in its many playsets, from gunslinging westerns to classic fantasy adventure. Even better, many of these are also available for free. Alternatively, you can come up with your own setting.
The original Fiasco used a pool of multi-coloured dice to generate aspects of the story, allowing the players to pick elements from a series of tables. This provides just enough control to make the story unique without creating the pressure of having to come up with every last detail. An updated edition was released earlier this year, swapping the dice for decks of cards, making it even easier for players to jump straight in without slogging their way through a hefty rulebook.
Just as it pulls off its tales of death, failure and self-destruction in a way that’s blackly comic without veering into icky unpleasantness, Fiasco has the storytelling punch of a much bigger RPG - and all without the need for a GM. Your characters may not have too good a time, but you certainly will.
3. Beak, Feather and Bone
Become inspired by cartography and make buildings in a bird kingdom
If you’ve played the excellent map-drawing game Ex Novo - perhaps you even discovered it via Dicebreaker - and thought, “This sounds great but what if I hate drawing”, then Beak, Feather and Bone might be for you. The game comes with a lovely top-down black-and-white map for you to use, full of strange and evocatively-drawn buildings just waiting to be explored by the group. You can also draw your own map before you start, or pick any map you like from reality or fiction as long as it doesn’t already have text already scribbled across it. Once you’ve got your map ready, you just need to grab some colouring implements and a pen, whether they’re felt tips, crayons or even watercolours. All that matters is that you have enough noticeably different colours to accommodate each player. Once that’s sorted, you’re ready to play.
You’ll draw from a deck of standard playing cards and they’ll give you one of four subcategories of building. The value of the card shows how much power the city card gives you, which is important as each player will be controlling an ambitious faction looking to acquire influence. At the beginning of the game you’ll choose one of the buildings on the map to represent your seat of power. At the end of the game, whoever scored the most from their cards will be the top dog of town and gets to decide the details for that building you all picked.
Players take turns choosing a building, with any cards drawn prompting the player to describe it and mark it in their faction colours. You’ll carry on doing this for a set number of turns, figure out who rules the city and then you’re done. It’s a fun little world-building experience which can support up to ten players - but no GM - and is delightfully quick to play.
Buy Beak, Feather and Bone from Tyler Crumrine's itch.io
4. English Eerie
This horror RPG lets a poor victim loose on the windswept moors and dark forests of England
English Eerie by designer Scott Malthouse takes inspiration from a very niche genre of countryside horror that readers of the works of M.R. James and Arthur Machen will be all too familiar with: tales of dark spirits in rural England and confusing woods that leave their victims miles from any other soul. Players will feel like morbidly curious observers of a campfire horror story as the tension slowly mounts over time.
English Eerie comes packed with scenarios, each with their own interpretations of the designer’s English Eerie System, which uses a custom deck of cards that you can either purchase or substitute with some playing cards. The most important of these cards are the grey ladies cards, which causes the narrative to draw ever-closer to its tense conclusion.
There are quite a few RPGs in modern times that have replaced the GM role with what’s called an oracle deck. This can be as simple as a deck of prompt questions that players use to flesh out a story, a place or a concept. These games tend to be more open-ended and light on rules, allowing the players to let their minds run free whilst not providing much support if they find themselves short on ideas.
The English Eerie system feels a little more mechanical than that, as there are defined characters and obstacles to overcome, along with resources to manage and dice to roll that will determine the fate of your character. You’re not locked in for defeat or success - both are possible, but it depends on how your story plays out.
At the end of each adventure you’ll compare your situation to those in the endgame’s table and your fate will become known to you in the moment. It’s an experience recommended for those players that have been intrigued by other prompt-based horror games, but prefer to have a solid win/lose state for their characters like in more traditional RPGs.
Buy English Eerie from DriveThru RPG.